HC Deb 20 June 1996 vol 279 cc985-7
3. Ms Hodge

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps he has taken to implement the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in the agricultural industry. [32363]

7. Mr. Gerrard

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps are being taken to implement the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in the forestry industry in England. [32368]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Mr. Tim Boswell)

The employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—with one exception relating to trade organisations—which apply to all employers with more than 20 employees, will be commenced by 2 December 1996. Codes of practice will be available. Drafts were laid before Parliament last week.

Ms Hodge

Why has the agricultural industry, which is renowned for low wages, been singled out under the 1995 Act as the only one in which discriminatory wages have been specifically endorsed by the wages boards?

Mr. Boswell

I do not for a moment accept that the agricultural industry is unique or has been singled out. In fact, I bracketed that and the forestry industry in answering. I understand the point that the hon. Lady is seeking to address. It is precisely because my predecessors, after consultation, decided to retain the Agricultural Wages Board with its provision for a statutory minimum wage that there is any element of distinction between the treatment of agricultural employees and those in other industries.

Mr. Gerrard

Will the Minister confirm that public rights of way and public footpaths in forest areas will be covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and that, when Forestry Commission estates are sold, in particular, it will be illegal for purchasers to narrow footpaths or to do anything else to restrict access? Will he tell us precisely what he is doing to ensure that employers in the forestry industry are aware of their responsibilities under the Act?

Mr. Boswell

Those are somewhat different and disparate points. After the anticipated announcements on implementation and further advice to employers by my noble Friend, we shall be ready to give advice to employers in forestry and in agriculture on their obligations under the Act. Clearly, access provisions will be bound by the general law. On forestry disposals—which I think the hon. Gentleman has in mind—wherever possible the approach will seek to safeguard access to woods that are used extensively by securing an access agreement through the local authority. I am sure that local authorities will wish to have the specific interests of people with disabilities in mind when implementing the provisions.

Mr. Riddick

Is not the best thing we can do for disabled people to ensure that there are jobs in the British farming industry for them and for other people to take up? Towards that end, does the Minister agree that it is extremely important that we boost consumer confidence in British beef? Is it not important that we tell the British people that the incidence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease here is no higher than in any other European country, and that the precautionary measures taken in this country probably make British beef the safest in the world to eat? Is it not the case that there is real anger among the farming industry at the way in which some food lobbyists and Labour Members—not least the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman)—have—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going quite wide of the question. I know that he was very keen to be called during a question relating directly to BSE, but the question does not relate directly to BSE. His question must relate to the Order Paper.

Mr. Riddick

It is about saving jobs.

Madam Speaker

I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants to save jobs, but he is going the wrong way about it.

Mr. Boswell

I can assure the House that the Government are as interested in securing economic and effective jobs as they are in the proper provision of facilities for people with disabilities. We shall certainly proclaim loud and clear the interests of the British beef industry on every possible and conceivable occasion.

Mr. John Marshall

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the disabled should look at the Government's record rather than listen to the rhetoric from those on the Opposition Benches? Will he confirm that spending on the disabled has more than trebled in real terms under this Government?

Mr. Boswell

I shall have to be a little careful in answering outside my departmental responsibilities, but the Government have an excellent record on disability. I remember being modestly engaged—in my previous job at the Department for Education—in securing some of the provisions for future and higher education, in which I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment is also engaged.

Mr. Tom Clarke

Does the Minister accept that agriculture, horticulture and forestry are very important employers of disabled people, and especially of disabled people with learning difficulties? Has the Minister of Agriculture read the programme of action from the Forestry Commission on dealing with disabled people? Does the Minister accept that there is a responsibility on the Minister of Agriculture and on all Cabinet members to promote employment for disabled people—if only because of its outstanding importance and our refusal to accept complacency on such matters?

Mr. Boswell

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no complacency whatever among Ministers. We seek the right balance. Among other things, we very much wish to emphasise to employers in forestry, agriculture and elsewhere their direct responsibilities under the Act and under the codes set out under the Act and the need to have regard to the interests of disabled people. It is a difficult balance to find, but we are determined to offer advice and encouragement for them to fulfil those responsibilities.