§ 4.6 pm
§ The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. William Hague)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about measures to tackle discrimination against disabled people.
Earlier this year, the Government published a wide range of proposals in a consultation document. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott), not only for his work on the proposals, but for his tireless efforts over seven years as Minister for Social Security and Disabled People. We have received a large number of responses to the consultation document and I am grateful to all those who have commented.
As promised, we considered the responses carefully. The result is a package that goes substantially wider and deeper than the proposals that we put forward in the summer. As we develop the detail of our proposals in the coming months, I want to continue to work closely with disabled people and others so that the result is a package that meets the wishes of disabled people, and the legitimate interests of businesses.
Over the past 15 years, the Government have taken a series of measures to help disabled people live with dignity and independence. We have trebled the amount spent on benefits for long-term sick and disabled people and introduced new benefits, such as the disability working allowance; the recent reform of community care has given local authorities additional resources of £1.25 billion in 1994–95; the new access to work programme enables more disabled people to take up employment; the introduction of part M of the building regulations will ensure access for disabled people to public buildings; the new Education Act 1993 improves schools' provision in meeting special educational needs; and there has been action to build on widespread achievements in the field of transport.
Those initiatives, combined with the efforts of local government, the voluntary sector, the private sector and disabled people themselves, have led to major advances in the opportunities open to disabled people and the attitude towards them of the rest of the community.
A process of change has been taking place. It must continue. An aging population will bring an increasing number of people with some form of disability. It is wrong and it is wasteful for many of them to be restricted or excluded from many aspects of life. One way or another, our society must meet the aspirations of disabled people by ensuring that they are included on an equal basis in our work, travel, study and leisure.
Our objective is clear: to eliminate discrimination against disabled people so that they can take a full part in society. But changes cannot happen overnight, as disabled people themselves recognise. It is vital that the action that we take has a realistic timetable, is practical and takes account of the impact on service providers.
I am therefore announcing today a series of measures and legislative proposals that have been conceived in conjunction with my colleagues in the Departments of Health, Transport, Education and Employment, and my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales, and my right hon. and learned Friend the 741 Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Taken together, they will represent the greatest advance for disabled people in the history of this country.
We shall shortly publish a Bill that will deal with employment, rights of access and the establishment of a national disability council. Similar legislation is proposed for Northern Ireland. We shall also take new action on education and transport.
Greater employment opportunities are at the heart of enabling disabled people to be fully active and independent members of society. Some employers have done much in recent years to improve matters, but there is evidence that discrimination persists. It is clear that the current quota system is unworkable and fails to meet the needs of disabled people. We therefore propose to repeal it.
We propose to introduce a statutory right of non-discrimination against disabled people. It will be unlawful for an employer to treat a disabled person less favourably than he would treat others, unless there are justifiable reasons. In combination with that, employers will be required to make a reasonable adjustment where that would help overcome the practical effects of disability.
The new access to work scheme can provide a wide range of practical help to disabled people and to their employers of up to £21,000 over five years. The new employment right will be a major step forward in improving the employment prospects of disabled people. Disabled people who suffer discrimination will be able to complain to industrial tribunals, where the remedies available will be the same as those under other discrimination legislation.
There will be a power to make regulations to ensure that adjustments do not involve excessive costs. The duties will apply to employers with 20 or more employees. Employers will continue to be able to recruit the best person for the job.
A code of practice and guidance will be produced to promote clear understanding and reduce the likelihood of disputes arising. Should recourse to an industrial tribunal be necessary, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service would be able to offer the services of its conciliation officers.
The Government's consultation document was aimed at ensuring that service providers did not deny access to disabled people because of prejudice or ignorance. In the light of responses to the consultation document, the Government believe that that proposal does not go far enough. Where practical, we also need to remove physical and communication barriers that prevent the access to goods and services that most of us are lucky enough to take for granted.
The new right of access will require service providers to make their premises and services accessible to disabled people as long as that is "readily achievable". It is vital that the new right is framed in such a way as to lead to genuine and lasting progress. We shall therefore give businesses the option of providing their services by alternative means, and will require modifications only to the extent that they are readily achievable and subject to a financial limit. We shall also ensure that there is a proper phasing-in period.
742 We shall consult on the length of the phasing-in period, the financial limit and the possibility of other exemptions from the right—for example, older or listed buildings. We shall arrange to provide advice and conciliation with respect to the new right, and we are considering measures to ensure that where legal action does take place, redress can be obtained without undue difficulty or expense.
Those provisions will ensure that every business and service provider takes action to meet the needs of disabled people. They will leave no one in any doubt that the fair treatment of disabled people is a responsibility placed on us all.
In addition, within the next few weeks my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will be issuing his own consultation document on making new domestic properties more accessible. The consultation document made clear the Government's intention to exclude financial services from any right of equal access, but as a result of responses received, I propose to include financial services in the new statutory right. We shall look closely, in consultation with the insurance industry, at how legislation could be best framed to prevent discrimination while recognising the legitimate need for insurance companies to distinguish between any customers on the basis of likely costs entailed in meeting their insurance claims.
All those new rights will apply to all persons with a physical or mental impairment that is long term or recurring. The impairment would have to have a substantial effect on the person's ability to carry out normal activities.
The Bill will also establish a national disability council—an independent body to advise the Government on how existing and new measures to help disabled people are working, and to recommend further measures where necessary. It will be a powerful new voice for disabled people in the decision-making process. It will present an annual report on its activities and findings, so that we can continue to make progress, and that report will be laid before Parliament.
The consultation document was limited to the employment right, the right of access and the establishment of the national disability council. But we now propose to go further—by bringing forward proposals on education and transport.
The more that disabled children can be educated with their able-bodied peers, the less we shall see adults avoiding, ignoring or feeling embarrassed by disabled people. We must ensure that that new approach is not frustrated by the physical inaccessibility of mainstream schools.
The Education Act 1993 was a major advance in meeting special educational needs. It re-enacts the requirement for local education authorities to find a suitable place for every child with a disability and enhances parents' rights of school preference and appeals against decisions. Next year, the Department for Education will conduct an audit of accessibility of all schools. Once its results are available, local education authorities and the Funding Agency for Schools will have an up-to-date picture of facilities, helping to inform their work on the supply of suitable places.
Linking with that programme of improvement, we want to take new steps to encourage schools to make themselves more accessible to pupils with disabilities. We 743 shall bring forward proposals under which funds will be made available to providers of education to carry out imaginative and cost-effective projects aimed at improving accessibility. We envisage that the new scheme will encourage voluntary involvement by the local community. We shall consult on the details of the scheme.
In addition, the Department for Education will shortly consult on the revision of its constructional standards to bring them into line with those set out in the current building regulations. That means that all new schools and extensions would be fully accessible to disabled people.
Scotland has its own extensive provisions in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 for pupils with special educational needs. The Scottish Office will consider further ways of encouraging authorities and schools to improve access for pupils with disabilities through the normal capital allocation arrangements. In Scotland, schools are already subject to the relevant requirements of the building regulations.
All those measures will consolidate the improvements for children with special educational needs set out in the 1993 Act. They represent the Government's firm commitment to ensuring that every child with a disability gets full education opportunities and to steadily improving access in schools.
Transport is another crucial area for disabled people. The new right of access will cover transport infrastructure, for example, railway stations and bus terminals, but will not apply to transport vehicles. The sensible way to improve accessibility must be to do it when new vehicles are purchased. Huge progress has already been made in that way, for example, by improving the accessibility of inter-city services, airports and London taxis. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is anxious to ensure that progress continues. In addition, he will strengthen the guidance issued to local authorities in preparing their annual transport policies and programmes to give greater weight to the needs of people with disabilities.
It is vital that we take further steps towards making fully accessible the most commonly used form of public transport—the bus. The Government intend to ensure that all new buses will be of low-floor construction, as far as technically feasible. The effect will be that, over an agreed time frame, an increasing proportion of buses will be fully accessible to wheelchair users as well as more readily accessible to all other passengers with mobility problems. We shall, of course, need to take full account of European legislation. A draft directive on bus construction is already under discussion and we shall make our case vigorously.
The objective of our package is to give disabled people more power over their own lives. So I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will announce today that we intend to take a new power for social services authorities and, in Scotland, social work departments, to make cash payments to disabled people who request them in lieu of community care services. I believe that that new departure will be widely welcomed. It will enable disabled people to control far more actively how and by whom the care that they need is delivered.
Further details of all our proposals will be included in a detailed policy statement to be published, in addition to a Bill, in the near future.
744 In presenting this package, the Government are building on an already impressive record of helping disabled people. The steps that I have announced today will involve millions of people in taking positive action to tackle the frustration that disabled people encounter in attempting to do the things that many of us take for granted.
We are guided by one overriding belief: that it is the duty of society as a whole to enable disabled people to play a full part in national life, and to help them and us to make the best use of their talents. Recognition of that makes good sense for disabled people, good sense for our economy and good sense for the nation.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)
I thank the Minister for his statement, long awaited as it was. After such a road-to-Damascus conversion, was not it ungenerous of the Prime Minister on Wednesday last week, and the Secretary of State for Social Security on Tuesday, to say not a word about the hugely important role played first by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and most recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry)?
Will the Minister take this opportunity to thank the many individuals, groups and organisations that took part in the consultation? Given the distance moved by the Government since the shameful episode during the previous Session, which the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) will no doubt recall, does the Minister agree that those who took part in the public campaign can rightly be proud of all their achievements?
So, where is the Bill and what does it contain? The Minister has just confirmed that it will be published in the not too distant future, and that it will tackle the gross unfairness of the discrimination endured by disabled people in Britain today; indeed, he keeps reminding us that it will be the greatest-ever piece of legislation of its kind. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) views the Minister's position with some envy: his own private views were probably much more progressive than any that we shall hear from the Government today or later.
I do not know about the Minister, but I have seen the sort of Bill that I believe the House and the country want; indeed, I have it in my hand. It is entitled the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Hon. Members may remember it. I am willing to hand it over: I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe would not mind. I hope that the Minister intends something along those lines. Every clause of that Bill was supported by a majority of right hon. and hon. Members; it had wide cross-party support. Comprehensive civil rights for all members of society represent the only solution. That is the only legislation that disabled people will want.
Does the Minister appreciate that the House is entitled to be cynical, given that the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986—with which I had something to do—has not yet been fully implemented? At least Lady Thatcher went some way towards that by implementing half the Bill. The present Prime Minister, himself a former Minister for the disabled, has not so much as lifted a finger to introduce one line of that 1986 Act.
745 Can we trust the Government to deliver now, regardless of the fine words that we have just heard? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] I think that the nation will require something much more credible than the response that I have just received. They may wonder whether the Government will even be in office after Monday, let alone give positive replies today.
What is not good enough, and is not wanted, is a half-hearted approach—recognising the problems, sympathising with those who are discriminated against, but lacking the vision to do anything about it. What we are asking for—and we know that we have the support of organisations of and for disabled people—is a comprehensive civil rights Bill, enforceable with legal remedies. Will the Minister tell us today whether he agrees with that objective?
The Minister mentioned employment. Does he agree that disabled people need the full protection that can be provided only by a commission with enforceable legal powers to investigate cases of discrimination? Does the Minister appreciate that we will not support the scrapping of the quota system against the wishes of disabled people unless there are adequate safeguards in place such as legal aid on this and other matters, so that disabled people can pursue their rights through the courts? Can the Minister give us the Government's view on access to the courts? Can he expand on what he said about education, transport and health? Those are vital issues to people with disabilities and their carers.
Since the Government are now, belatedly, addressing themselves to community care, does the Minister accept that the chaos that Sir Roy Griffiths identified is now all the greater? Can he tell us how the Government are planning to respond to that growing problem, which is rooted in poverty and in the absence of resources?
Does the Minister accept that there must be a commission—not a well-intentioned talking shop with no legal powers of enforcement—to endorse the rights of people with disabilities? Disabled people deserve nothing less than a full disabled rights commission with the same powers as the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission. Anything less would merely sustain the present second-class treatment. Does he agree that such a commission is crucial if legislation is not to be ignored in the same way as the 1986 Act was ignored, although it was so crucial to advocacy, representation and consultation? Does he further agree that that is necessary in any reasonable approach to community care?
A climbdown on this and a U-turn on that is no way to forge progressive and substantive policy in this area. Surely the Minister appreciates that, above all, disabled people can desire only to have the statutory right to be treated as full members of the community and to be given the opportunity to participate in and, most importantly, to contribute to national life. Therefore, does he agree that only comprehensive civil rights legislation can achieve that aim? Is he encouraged by the simple fact, which was shown in Scope's excellent report—the Minister was at its presentation the other day—that the objectives are shared fully by an overwhelming majority in the House?
§ Mr. Hague
I accept the hon. Gentleman's words of welcome, where there were words of welcome, for what 746 we have done. When the Opposition begin by trying to share out the credit and talk about the distance that the Government have moved, we know that there is not a lot to criticise in what the Government have announced. The hon. Gentleman then went on as if the statement had not been delivered. He called for anti-discrimination legislation on a wide scale. This is anti-discrimination legislation. What I have announced is the Government's intention to produce anti-discrimination legislation, which will range across employment in all sectors of our economy and which will bring rights of access to goods and services in most areas of our national life, with the one or two exceptions that I have outlined.
This is comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, because in the areas that are missed out we are taking alternative action, often through legislation or other regulations as in education and transport. The hon. Gentleman asked whether we would deliver. Yes, we certainly shall. There will be a Bill within the next few weeks, as well as a further detailed, written policy statement that will clarify any remaining issues.
I was concerned about the one point in our proposals that the hon. Gentleman found to criticise; it arose when he called for the establishment of a commission. Of course, the Government want legislation to be observed and redress to be easily available. We intend to achieve that without creating an expensive bureaucracy. That is why we intend to have conciliation services and readily available means of redress without setting up another bureaucracy to preside over the whole operation.
The hon. Gentleman talked about community care and the resources that are devoted to it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has presided over a vast increase in resources devoted to community care, which puts local authorities in a good position to introduce the provisions on direct payment that I outlined. He ended his remarks by quoting the Scope report, in which, I must remind him, 75 per cent. of Members of Parliament said that they backed an approach that combined education, persuasion and legislation. That is the Government's approach.
§ Sir John Hannam (Exeter)
Does my hon. Friend accept our ungrudging congratulations on introducing a set of measures that are far wider than the original proposals published earlier this year in the consultation document? Will he reassure disabled people that the Government will ensure that the legislation will reach the statute book and become law during this parliamentary Session?
§ Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)
I welcome a number of points in the statement, particularly the assurance that the Secretary of State for Health will bring in direct payments for disabled people so that they can purchase their own care. Is the Minister seriously suggesting, however, that he will receive wholehearted support from disabled people across the country, because the Bill does not outlaw discrimination in all its aspects? In particular, the body that will be set up to monitor the new legislation will be toothless. It will not have the same teeth as the 747 Commission for Racial Equality. Will the Minister guarantee that the transport and education Bills that will be introduced will contain guaranteed rights of access? Will he give an assurance that the statement is not a cynical attempt to prevent true legislation on civil rights for disabled persons being introduced in a private Member's Bill?
§ Mr. Hague
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her words of welcome. The package of measures deserves the wholehearted support of disabled people throughout the country as well as of the House, because it tackles discrimination problems across the board with a mixture of legislation and other measures. I believe that those measures should have an extremely wide welcome.
Again, on the point about a commission, the Government believe that it should be possible to enforce legislation without setting up an expensive bureaucracy to police it. In the coming years, however, we shall want to ensure that that legislation is properly enforced and that people have an adequate means of redress. I take the hon. Lady's words of welcome. More specific details about right of access will be available in our detailed policy document. As I explained in my statement, the right of access that we propose will be just that, provided the physical alterations required are readily achievable and do not create undue hardship to bring them about.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. As with the earlier statement, I make a plea for hon. Members to ask one brisk question and for answers to be equally brisk.
§ Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)
May I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on his statement? Will he confirm that the proposals that he has announced go considerably further than those contained in the Government's consultation document, especially those on transport and education and the statutory right against discrimination in the workplace?
§ Mr. Hague
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. These proposals go significantly further than anything that we have had before. In putting together the proposals, we responded to many of the responses to our consultation document. We listened carefully to everyone with an interest in the needs of disabled people and that led us to announce this package today.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) for recalling the origins of this change of Government policy in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill that I drafted three years ago. Is the Minister aware that if he is right in claiming that this is the biggest ever advance for disabled people, it could have been made in 1991 when I first promoted that Bill? Is he further aware that disabled people and their organisations have today already condemned the scrapping of the employment 3 per cent. quota and that they will resist any proposals that offer them less than the provisions of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill? He must have made an estimate of the cost of his proposals—what is it?
§ Mr. Hague
When the Bill is published, we shall of course publish with it a compliance cost assessment setting out the estimated costs of the provisions. However, many matters that will affect the cost are open to further 748 consultation, especially things to which I have already referred such as the financial limit on the cost of physical alterations to premises and the length of time over which the proposals will be phased in. There will, therefore, be quite a range of possible costings and they will be published with the Bill as soon as it is available.
§ Mr. Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on this package of measures, especially those involving education and employment, which will ensure a much greater part in our national life for disabled people. Will he ensure that when he comes to set up the disability council and to decide the pattern of cash payments, which is an immensely important step in the right direction, he will involve the organisations of and for disabled people, because even those who may have been critical of the Government in recent years have a great deal to contribute to his plans in the future?
§ Mr. Hague
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support. I certainly propose to involve organisations of and for disabled people in consultation on every aspect of the proposals that I have listed where further consultation is necessary. Those organisations have played an important part in shaping the Government's thinking and I hope that they will continue to do so.
§ Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)
I note the significant change in the Government's position since they blocked the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and I cannot wait to read the compliance cost assessment. Does the Minister recognise that his proposals are still significantly different from those made by disabled people themselves? Why is it that we have an Equal Opportunities Commission and a Commission for Racial Equality to deal with discrimination on grounds of gender and race and that those organisations have investigative and enforcement powers that the Government are not prepared to provide for disabled people? Why should not disabled people receive the same treatment as women and black people in respect of discrimination?
§ Mr. Hague
The hon. Gentleman could have managed a bit more of a welcome for many of the things for which he has campaigned for a long time. On his specific question, I have already said that we want legislation to be observed and redress to be easily available, and we believe that that can be achieved without an expensive bureaucracy. Legislation in this sphere is far more complex than it was in matters of sex and race. Many people and businesses will be involved in positive action and expenditure in a way that they are not when dealing with discrimination on the grounds of sex and race. It is a complex comparison; we cannot simply draw an analogy between those issues. We believe that we can make the proposals work as I have outlined, and we are determined that they shall work.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I congratulate my hon. Friend most warmly on producing a real landmark, which goes much further than many people thought possible in providing real opportunities for the disabled. Does he agree that, by scrapping the old quota system, he will encourage much more enlightened 749 employment practices and more job opportunities? Will he do all in his power to ensure that the public sector plays its full part?
§ Mr. Hague
My hon. Friend is right. The public sector already has a better record of employing disabled people than the private sector, and the civil service is adopting a programme of action to bolster that record further. He is right about the quota—it is unworkable. It has not worked at all well. History shows that attempts to enforce it have tended to lead to more disabled people in work registering, so that employers can get nearer to meeting the quota, rather than to more disabled people being brought into work. This will be a new approach, which will be much more effective in securing employment for disabled people.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
It would be churlish not to welcome the proposed legislation as a significant step forward. The fact that the Government have changed their policy is a tribute to all those, on both sides of the House, who campaigned. We shall doubtless have to campaign a lot more to finish the job.
The Minister stated that astatutory right to non-discrimination will be applied in the context of employment.The phrase was used only in that context. Does that imply that there is no statutory right to non-discrimination anywhere outside employment? What would be the position in a place of leisure, such as a cinema, where access was possible but there was discrimination against the disabled on the pretext of, for example, fire controls? Will that be covered in the legislation?
§ Mr. Hague
I think that I can put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest. I did not use the phrase about rights of access, but we intend to make it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people when providing goods and services. That would be subject to the various provisions that I outlined, such as the changes being readily achievable, not causing undue hardship and being subject to a financial limit and a phasing-in period. The legislation is certainly anti-discriminatory in the way that the hon. Gentleman seeks.
§ Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)
I thank the Minister for his personal determination to end the injustice, indignity and waste that discrimination causes and congratulate him on the important progress that he has announced, which builds on the work of his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott). Will he confirm that it is the Government's policy to ensure that disabled people do not experience unjustified discrimination in any sector?
Does he accept that disabled people—even more than other people—may find it difficult to sustain their legal rights without a powerful organisation to champion them? May I add my request for him to consider further the case for a disability rights commission, with powers not only to advise, but to investigate, conciliate and, from time to time where necessary, to enforce?
§ Mr. Hague
I am glad to have my hon. Friend's words of welcome. I can confirm that it is our objective to eliminate discrimination across the board and to do so sensibly and practically. I ask him not to underrate the 750 role that we envisage for the national disability council, which ought to be a powerful voice on such issues and will be able to report to the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People about discrimination and to recommend further courses of action. It will be the powerful voice that he is seeking.
§ Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)
Following the Minister's answer to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), will he clarify exactly whether the Government have really had a change of heart? Do the Government now believe that disabled people have a basic and fundamental right to be full and equal citizens? If so, why was his statement peppered with so many conditions and qualifications?
§ Mr. Hague
It is extremely clear from my statement that the Government want to eliminate discrimination against disabled people and want disabled people to be able to play a full part in every aspect of our national life—whether in work, study, travel or leisure. We have to secure that objective in a practical and sensible way—a way that takes other people along with it rather than causing a backlash and a way that is affordable for everyone else in our national economy. That is why I stipulated some of the provisions that I outlined.
The Americans with Disabilities Act 1990, which is often held up as an example of successful legislation on these matters, also uses the terms "readily achievable", "reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship". Those terms are no strangers to anti-discrimination legislation throughout the world.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
While the Bill has yet to be published, it certainly appears that my hon. Friend has made a detailed and comprehensive statement on Government policy for the disabled and on disabled person's rights. I congratulate the Government on that. The lifts at Macclesfield station have broken down and been out of order for more than two years. Will the legislation set out in his statement enable me to approach Railtrack and demand that it repair or replace those lifts without delay?
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I welcome the decided improvement in the Government's position, but as the legislation deals with discrimination and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was consulted, why is a Bill being introduced for the rest of the nation, but legislation is only being proposed for Northern Ireland? Time and again, such legislation has come to Northern Ireland years afterwards. Is it the luddite minority in the Northern Ireland civil service, or the Maryfield mafia, which is preventing the House from granting full rights to the people of Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Hague
Again, I readily accept the hon. Gentleman's welcome. He may be reading more into the distinction that I made about Northern Ireland than he should. There is no wish to delay similar legislation for Northern Ireland. The Bill will include a clause to provide for such legislation there and I will communicate to my 751 right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what the hon. Gentleman said about urgency.
§ Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)
On behalf of disabled people in Norwich, and all those organisations in Norwich and the surrounding area that help and support them, may I join the general welcome for the announcement? May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the Remploy factories and their successes? I hope that, after conversations with his colleagues at the Department of Employment, he will soon be able to explain the implications of his new policies, set out in the announcement, for those factories and the excellent support that they give disabled people in Norwich and elsewhere.
§ Mr. Hague
My package does not specifically affect Remploy factories, where excellent work is done, as my hon. Friend said. The Government hope that that excellent work will continue. My right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Employment have worked hard in recent months to ensure that opportunities are available to Remploy. In the near future, they will produce proposals for a replacement for the priority suppliers scheme as well.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
Like other hon. Members, I welcome the progress that the proposed legislation represents, but the campaign will continue until we are all satisfied that no disabled person is discriminated against in any way. Does the Minister envisage a phasing-in period that will cover all aspects of the legislation, or will it vary according to the aspects that he delineated?
§ Mr. Hague
I agree with the hon. Lady that we must all work hard until discrimination against disabled people is completely eliminated. That is the intention of the Government as well as the intention of the Opposition.
The phasing-in periods will be set out as a range of options for consultation when we produce our more detailed written policy statement. That will refer especially to the rights of access to goods and services. Some of the other things that I have mentioned may have a different phasing-in period—for example, we envisage the introduction of low-floor buses which will be accessible to wheelchair users being done on a replacement basis. When a new bus is purchased, it will meet the new specifications. That phasing-in period may be determined by the purchasing patterns of bus service providers rather than by any legislative cut-off.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)
I welcome what the Minister has said today. Let me take him back to his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). Will this legislation proceed in Northern Ireland by means of a Bill or will there simply be an Order in Council? If the latter is the way in which legislation on such an important subject will be treated in Northern Ireland, I trust that the Minister and the Government will have second thoughts.
§ Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)
I welcome the right of redress in employment cases, but does the 752 Minister accept that the best way to combat discrimination in employment is by the development of equal opportunity practices and procedures? Is he aware that, under the privatisation process, it would be unlawful for central Government and local government, under the Local Government Act 1988 and European directives, to place those requirements in the contracting procedures? Will the Minister now consider a clause, similar to that in section 71 of the Race Relations Act 1976, which would place on central Government and local government a statutory duty in carrying out those procedures?
§ Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East)
I welcome my hon. Friend's determination—indeed, enthusiasm—to tackle the difficult issue of discrimination against disabled people and I especially welcome the fact that we are to have a Government Bill rather than a private Member's Bill in this Session. Can my hon. Friend assure me that, if there is a conflict with other laws passed in this House, the rights of disabled people will be paramount? In terms of access to cinemas, for example, disabled people are often turned away simply because there are already two other people in wheelchairs present. Such a situation is particularly offensive. Does my hon. Friend believe that the proposed legislation will deal with that situation effectively?
§ Mr. Hague
I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for the proposals. It certainly is not the Government's intention that the proposals I have set out today should be frustrated by other provisions. When we come to the Bill, we shall obviously have to resolve what happens when there is a conflict between the need to comply with it and the need to comply with existing statutory provisions. We shall certainly seek to ensure that the provisions that I have set out today come into effect and are effective across the board.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Is the Minister aware that it has not gone unnoticed by disabled people and others that in his statement today, he said that the legislation would include phraseology such as "readily achievable" and "technically feasible"—God knows how many "ifs" and "buts"—which well-paid lawyers representing big business will use to drive a coach and horses through the legislation? Why does not the Minister do the decent thing? If he wants to do an about-face, he should pick up the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and carry that into law.
§ Mr. Hague
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that phrases such as "readily achievable" and "undue hardship" have been included in legislation in the United States. I utter phrases such as "where it is technically feasible" because one of the disturbing aspects of the legislation in the United States was that, where it had been imposed as blanket legislation on bus transport, without regard to it being technically feasible, it had resulted in the loss of services altogether in rural areas. That was of no use to anyone. It is obvious that, in sectors such as public transport, one has to do things as they are 753 technically feasible otherwise one gets into a terrible mess. That is the position in which the hon. Gentleman would normally leave us.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillian (Chesham and Amersham)
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on this detailed and complex proposed legislation. On the education front, I welcome the proposal to give education providers an incentive to improve accessibility. Can my hon. Friend help the House by confirming that the proposed accessibility audit for schools will start shortly?
§ Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)
The Minister set out his plans to introduce what he described as comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation under which disabled people who face discrimination would have the same remedies that other groups have under existing legislation. Does he accept that the bulk of the criticism that has come from those who have tried to work the existing anti-discrimination legislation has been about the derisory level of legal redress and compensation and of the punitive penalties—the things that are supposed to deter those who conduct acts of wilful discrimination? Will he go back and look at those three issues to ensure that disabled people can expect something that breaks free from the derisory and in many ways still discriminatory elements built into the present legislation?
§ Mr. Hague
My intention is to frame the legislation and its accompanying arrangements in such a way that litigation will not become necessary, in so far as that is possible. We shall create conciliation services, which will avoid litigation in the majority of disputes, and we shall ensure that the means of redress, when it comes to litigation, are available without recourse, in the majority of cases, to expensive litigation or to the use of legal advice. That will be our objective. We are determined to ensure that the legislation works in practice.
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)
Does my hon. Friend agree that not the least important part of the proposed legislation, which I also warmly welcome, is that it can help to change public attitudes towards disabled people so that they can play their full part in society and make a contribution to the community? I and many others believe that, in due course, that will outweigh the costs entailed by the legislation.
§ Mr. Hague
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact that all service providers will have to think about disabled people and will have to address the question of a right of access to goods and services will, in itself, do a great deal to change attitudes towards disabled people. We must remember that legislation is not the whole answer to the question. We must change attitudes quite apart from legislation. Therefore, in the coming weeks, the 754 Government will launch a national awareness campaign on the particular problems and needs of disabled people, and on the obstacles that they can face in their daily lives.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
I have been lucky enough to finish fifth in the private Members' ballot. I am minded to introduce the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill back into the House. One thing that would prevent that would be someone who came before me in the ballot choosing that Bill. Otherwise, it is really up to the Minister to tell me now why the legislation that he is propounding is adequate to meet the proposals in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Are not his proposals limited and qualified, welcome though they are? Does not the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill go far beyond them? That Bill should be introduced again, not least to continue to push the Government a bit further along the track they have entered.
§ Mr. Hague
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his good fortune. The objective of the proposals that I have outlined today is exactly the same as the objective of those who have campaigned for legislation on the matter in the past. That objective is to eliminate discrimination against disabled people throughout our society. The legislation that I have proposed is broad. I hope that hon. Gentlemen will look carefully at the legislation when it is produced, because it will assure them—
§ Mr. Hague
And hon. Ladies. It will assure them of the breadth of what is intended. The Government believe that, in some sectors, it is more sensible and practical to proceed in a different way, but those sectors are quite limited in scope. The measures in this package, taken together, will bring an end to discrimination against disabled people. The House should make no mistake about the purpose of this package.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on a truly comprehensive package. I know that it will be very much appreciated—certainly by the Sutton Alliance of Disabled People, and indeed, by the vast majority of those who supported the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. In particular, they will appreciate his proposals to bring in the low-level platforms on buses. However, does he agree that some issues can be tackled by using plain common sense rather than blanket legislation?
§ Mr. Hague
My hon. Friend is right. Plain common sense is exactly what is called for in this case and plain common sense characterises the proposals that I have put before the House today. We need legislation to tackle discrimination against disabled people, but we need to bring it into force in a sensible and practical way. In other sectors, such as public transport, which I have already mentioned, it is plain common sense that the best way in which to tackle the problems is on a replacement basis as new rolling stock or new vehicles are purchased. Common sense is exactly what is called for, and it runs throughout these proposals.
§ Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)
Will the Minister join me in congratulating disabled people and their organisations on the political pressure that they have exerted since I introduced the first comprehensive anti-discrimination Bill in this House 755 exactly 11 years ago this month? The Leader of the House—who is present—told us while in a previous post that education and persuasion were all that was required.I am pleased to see at least a partial result of the campaign by those disabled people, which shows that political pressure sometimes works, even with a very slow-moving Government. Will the Minister confirm that the Bill will cover places of entertainment and public resort and that it will give a service to blind people with guide dogs?
§ Mr. Hague
The hon. Gentleman asked about the role of education and persuasion. A mixture of education, persuasion and legislation has always been, and remains, the Government's approach. We are, of course, proposing more legislation today than we have proposed in the past. I have no wish to hog the credit for that. Conservative Members would be happy to share it with Opposition Members and with many people outside the House who have raised the issue of disabled people. I can confirm that the right of access for goods and services will be intended to apply to places of public entertainment and the other places that he mentioned. Of course, within the definition of disabled people, the Bill will also apply to people with guide dogs.
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
Will the Minister explain why he has chosen to exclude firms which employ fewer than 20 people, given that they account for 96 out of every 100 firms in the country and that they employee 37 in every 100 people? As for the enforcement of anti-discrimination rights, will he extend legal aid to disabled people on low incomes? Otherwise, those rights will remain illusory. Will he ensure that, in the proposed Bill, the onus of industrial tribunals will be on an employer or service provider showing that discrimination did not take place, rather than on the disabled applicant showing that it did? Will he ensure that the Bill also tackles indirect discrimination, such as employers asking job applicants for driving licences when no such skill is needed in the job for which they are applying?
§ Mr. Hague
I can confirm that it is our intention to tackle instances of indirect discrimination, although we may need to structure the Bill in such a way as to include a power to regulate for specific instances of indirect discrimination so that there is no doubt what we are talking about. The hon. Gentleman asked about the provision for fewer than 20 employees. More than 80 per cent. of the employees in the country work for firms with more than 20 employees. Other legislation in the rest of the world includes provisions for minimum numbers of people. Employment provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 do not apply to firms with fewer than 15 employees. The reason is that many small firms do not have the personnel functions or specialist advice to enable them to cope easily with such provisions. We do not wish to add to the burdens on small businesses, while still providing for the vast majority in employment.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about means of redress. We have no plans to change the general rules on provision of legal aid, but I reiterate that we intend to provide conciliation services and effective means of redress for all the rights that I have outlined today. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman could not have given a better welcome to the proposals. I know that he is enthusiastic for 756 anti-discrimination lesislation. That is what the Government are now bringing forward and it deserves the whole-hearted support of the House.