HC Deb 22 April 1999 vol 329 cc1060-130

Order for Second Reading read.

1.17 pm
The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Mr. Andrew Smith)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

We can be proud that a Labour Government are introducing this historic and long-overdue measure, which will make a real difference both to disabled people and to the overall welfare of our society. The establishment of the Disability Rights Commission is a tribute to the tireless campaigning of countless members of voluntary organisations, as well as the campaigning of a number of distinguished Members of both Houses. We thank them for their efforts, which have now borne fruit.

Let me stress two important points. First, this is not a partisan measure, as I hope that it will command support in all quarters of the House. It is important to disabled people that it should do so, because if they are to benefit fully from its provisions they will need the widest possible consensus that their rights should be advanced, recognised and enforced.

Secondly, although the Bill and the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission represent an important step forward, they do not represent the whole journey. Not long after we took office, I announced a three-part strategy for disability rights: the implementation of the remaining parts of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the establishment of a disability rights task force and the creation of a Disability Rights Commission. We have made good progress on all three proposals. In addition, we have introduced £195 million of help for disabled people under the new deal, reduced the threshold on employment covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, improved the access-to-work scheme and published a Green Paper on special educational needs, for whose action plan £60 million is earmarked. We are extending part M of the building regulations, and introducing a new disability income guarantee and disabled person's tax credit. All those are practical measures that extend disabled people's rights.

We know that there is still much to do to change attitudes and behaviour so that we can really eliminate discrimination and fully harness the technology that has such wonderful power to transform many disabled people's lives for the better. However, I believe that progress is being made and, moreover, that public opinion has shifted decisively in wanting full and fair opportunities for disabled people as members of our community.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I share the sense of unanimity that is evident in the House, but will the Minister say why the commission proposed in the Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland, even though the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 do?

Mr. Smith

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the Bill, and I acknowledge his long-standing interest

in and commitment to these matters, which is recognised in the House. I can tell him that the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides that equalities in Northern Ireland are safeguarded by other means, as I shall explain later in my speech.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), now Minister for the Arts, on their introduction of the Bill. My right hon. Friend is right to say that this is not a matter for party contention, but is he aware that only one Conservative Back-Bench Member is present—the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins)? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will try to explain why the Conservative party spent the 1995–96 Session opposing the establishment of the commission.

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend makes a telling point. I trust that Conservative Members have learned from that experience and from the public reaction to it. The Conservative party's resistance to the commission was held in particular contempt by disabled people. I believe that the Conservative party intends to support the Bill, and I welcome that. The broader the consensus that can be achieved for the work of the commission, the more inclusive will be the support for it and the better off disabled people will be.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I am happy to tell the Minister that Conservative Members support the creation of the Disability Rights Commission, although that does not mean that we do not think that the Bill cannot be improved in many ways. We support the concept of creating the commission.

Mr. Smith

Fair enough, and I greatly welcome the support from all parties on the Opposition Benches for the measure. After all, the inclusive and better society that we want to achieve cannot include some people and not others—it has to include everybody. There are more than 8.5 million disabled people in this country. It is only right that their rights, and the tackling of discrimination, should be regarded as high priorities.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I share the House's warmth towards the Bill. He has explained the arrangements covering Northern Ireland, but will he say how he expects the provisions to be applied in Scotland and Wales after 1 July?

Mr. Smith

I am pleased to be able to tell my right hon. Friend that I shall say more about the position in Scotland later in my remarks. However, I take this opportunity to place on record our appreciation of my right hon. Friend's long-standing involvement in and commitment to the cause of civil rights for disabled people, which played no small part in the introduction of the Bill.

I said that there are 8.5 million disabled people in the country, and that their rights should be a high priority. The moral and ethical justification is enough in itself, but there are broad and sound economic and social reasons as well. The important thing is that policies and practices that advance disabled people's rights build a better Britain, for them and for us all.

The Disability Rights Commission will have a central role. It will be a source of advice and support for disabled people. It will work with organisations that represent their interests. It will need to work with everyone else who has a stake in its purpose. The links that it forges with employers and service providers will need to be strong and productive. It needs to work with them and to build their confidence, so that it can be constructive in helping them to act in accordance with the spirit, as well as the letter, of the law.

Employers and service providers will need to understand and to embrace change if that change is to be real and effective. Getting that relationship right is key to the fulfilment of the commission's purpose in helping to foster the attitudes and behaviour that will make disabled people's rights a reality.

The needs of a necessarily wide constituency will place a variety of demands on the commission, but we must guard against being too prescriptive in the Bill about how to achieve its aims. If it is to be allowed to do its job properly, it needs to be able to operate flexibly as well with a proper measure of independence from Government. We must empower it to take a wide range of action and trust it to use its resources wisely to achieve its objectives. The Bill strikes a good balance between direction and discretion, and ensures that the commission has the powers that it needs to do the job.

The commission will have the resources. It has been provisionally allocated set-up costs of £3 million and an annual budget of £11 million. That is a fair settlement, taking account of the experience of the other equality commissions. However, I assure the House that the budget is not set in stone. As the Government made clear in another place, we are prepared to review the budget in the light of operational experience. That is a reasonable way in which to proceed.

By way of background to the Bill, let me say that much thought, work and consultation went in to preparing its provisions. As its first job, we asked the disability rights task force to make recommendations on the commission's role and functions. I place on record the thanks of the Government—and, I feel sure, of the whole House—for the work of the task force. Its recommendations formed the basis of a White Paper that we published last July, which received strong support not just from disabled people but from employers and service providers.

The Bill reflects very closely the proposals that we set out in the White Paper. In making its recommendations, the task force sensibly examined existing equality commissions in the areas of sex and race in Britain, as well as bodies with similar roles abroad. A number of the Bill's provisions mirror those on the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. Where consistency makes sense, we have striven to achieve it. Equally, where it is desirable to update the provisions, we have done so.

The Bill was well received in another place, attracting support from all parties. A handful of amendments were adopted, largely to clarify some of the technical or operational details. We are keen to press on with establishing the commission and with getting it up and running. We expect that to happen by spring next year.

The commission's duties, which are set out in clause 2, will be to work towards the elimination of discrimination against disabled people; to promote the equalisation of opportunities for disabled people; to take appropriate steps to encourage good practice and to keep under review the workings of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and of the Bill when it becomes an Act.

I have already mentioned the important role that the commission will have in working with disabled people and the business and voluntary sectors, and the need for it to balance its activities in a way that best meets the aims that have been set. We believe that much can be achieved by promoting good practice and that it is therefore important that the commission should have such a function in the Bill.

Within those duties, the commission will be able to offer advice to Ministers on existing and proposed legislation—whether emanating from this country or from Europe—wh—rever issues arise connected with the elimination of discrimination, or equalisation of opportunities for disabled people. I am pleased to assure the House that this will include the Human Rights Act 1998. The commission will be able to give its views formally to Government on that Act and on the full range of relevant legislation. However, how and when to do that should, rightly, be a matter for the commission itself, and the Bill allows the commission that flexibility.

Clauses 3 to 5 are concerned with the commission's ability to undertake formal investigations to determine whether discrimination has taken or is taking place. They also deal with the action required by those who are the subject of investigations. Of course the Commission will work with employers, service providers and others to try to avoid discrimination initially, and, when it occurs, to tackle it through dialogue. However, when constructive dialogue does not achieve the desired effect, the commission must have the teeth needed to deal with those who persist in discriminating unlawfully.

The arrangements proposed in the Bill are based on those that currently apply to the other equality commissions; but there are also differences. We have sought to modernise and strengthen the provisions, taking account of evolving practice in those other commissions. The Bill provides that the Secretary of State may make regulations supplementing provisions affecting formal investigations, thereby allowing flexibility in responding to change and future needs.

Clause 4 currently allows for regulations to be made to define further the scope of non-discrimination notices, which are served on those who have been subject to a formal investigation when they are found to be discriminating unlawfully. The regulation-making power was intended to allow us to refine the process at a later date, taking account of changes arising from the CRE and EOC reviews. However, we have now made some further progress on that complex matter, and I therefore hope that it will prove possible to table amendments in Committee to include more detail on the matter in the Bill.

The Bill also proposes that the commission may enter into legally binding written agreements with a body that is being formally investigated. The intention is that such an agreement will bring to a halt any formal investigation and avoid the need for a non-discrimination notice. Placing such an arrangement in statute is a good innovation, which will be entirely new to equality commissions in Great Britain.

We should like the commission to work constructively with bodies that are keen to deal with shortcomings that they have identified in their organisation, and realise that that may be achieved best through written agreements. Such agreements could be reached more quickly than going through the formal investigation process, and, in many cases, are more likely to work with good will on both sides. However, if the agreements break down, we have made provision for aspects which might otherwise have been dealt with by the issue of a non-discrimination notice to be enforceable through the courts.

We believe that it is right to make such provision. Written agreements should be seen as a better option for employers or service providers who are acting unlawfully and want to do something about it, but not as a soft option. The commission will also be able to resume an investigation that was previously halted.

Our proposals on written agreements demonstrate very clearly one of the relationships that we want the commission to foster, so that agreed action by organisations is achieved by co-operation rather than grudging compliance.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

I simply seek some clarification. Although non-discrimination notices will be public, and there will be a public database of them, will written agreements be public or private?

Mr. Smith

I expect that they will be public.

Clause 6 allows the commission to assist individuals with a range of support when they seek redress for being discriminated against. It also states the criteria that the commission will use in determining which cases to support.

We want the commission to be able to support test cases, which will help to clarify the law and help disabled people who could not secure their rights without assistance. Within the criteria, the commission will be able to take account of the impact that a person's disability has on his or her ability to pursue the case unaided. The criteria will allow ample scope to those who are likely to need help most; for example, those with mental health problems, those with learning disabilities or those with severe sensory impairments.

I recognise, too, the force of the argument that the commission itself should be able to take cases on behalf of individuals, or a group of individuals with a common complaint. It is a concern that I understand, and one that the Government are addressing. Through the representative actions working group, the Lord Chancellor is looking at the issue of representative actions. It is a complex area that raises some fundamental issues of law, such as defining who can bring representative actions, the scope of relief and the definition of groups.

For those reasons, it is neither necessary nor sensible for us to act unilaterally by changing the Bill. However, let me assure the House that we will seek to ensure—if necessary, through legislation—that any new powers which may be conferred on bodies as a result of these considerations, will apply to the Disability Rights Commission.

Clause 7 allows the commission to recover costs of providing assistance to individuals when a court—or, more rarely, a tribunal—makes an award for costs. That replicates the arrangements which already apply to the EOC and the CRE.

Clause 8 deals with codes of practice relating to employment and access to goods and services. We believe that the commission should be charged with the role of producing codes that will give practical guidance to the public, business, service providers and others on how to avoid discrimination, promote the equalisation of opportunities and encourage good practice.

Courts and tribunals will have to have regard to the codes when considering cases of discrimination. The commission will be required to produce a draft code for consultation before it goes to the Secretary of State for approval. The codes must be laid in draft before this House and another place before they can be brought into force.

Clause 9 allows for the commission to make arrangements for the provision of a conciliation service dealing with disputes under part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—access to goods, services, facilities and premises. Conciliation arrangements are already available in the area of employment—covered by part II of the 1995 Act—where that function is undertaken by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

We want the Disability Rights Commission to arrange for and monitor a conciliation service in the area of part III of the 1995 Act. We want it to be available to disabled people and service providers directly, rather than by first going to a business or voluntary organisation for advice, which is the somewhat cumbersome procedure currently under the Disability Access Rights Advice Service.

Clause 10 replaces the bureaucratic mechanism for reviewing the small employer's threshold below which the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 do not apply. It requires the Secretary of State to consult the Disability Rights Commission—in addition to those whom he is already required to consult—about adjustments to the small employer threshold. The commission will be in a key position to advise the Secretary of State on this important matter.

There are a few other points that I would like to mention. I would like to thank the disability rights task force, all the groups and individuals who contributed ideas and the officials who have worked on the White Paper and the Bill. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East, who have accomplished something of real value in their periods of responsibility for bringing forward the Bill.

I pay tribute also to the good work the members of the National Disability Council have done, and continue to do. That body, which is—to a limited extent—a predecessor of the Disability Rights Commission will be abolished when the commission is established.

On the composition of the commission itself, I would like to underline that the Bill provides for the majority of commissioners and either the chair or deputy chair to be disabled people or people who have had a disability.

Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the composition of the commission. As he will know, we have recently reformed the all-party group on epilepsy. Millions of people have hidden disabilities, and the all-party group is concerned that the needs of such people should be reflected in the general work and in the membership of the commission. I would be grateful if the Government could consider that as the Bill proceeds.

Mr. Smith

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the reformation of the all-party group on epilepsy. Epilepsy is a serious condition that affects very many people. I am pleased to give him the assurance that epilepsy will be one of the disabilities covered by the legislation, so assistance and advice will be available.

The provision that the chair or deputy chair will be disabled or have had a disability will ensure that disabled people will be directly represented in a senior capacity on the commission and that there will be an appropriate balance of interests among the commissioners, allowing the commission to be credible with all stakeholders.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

The Minister made a strong case for the provision that the chair or deputy chair should either be disabled or have a history of disability. May I press him on that point? Does he agree that, especially in the first year of the commission's existence, it would give a very strong signal indeed to the communities outside who are following this debate with great interest, if he could say that his preference would be that the chair should be someone who is disabled or with a history of disability?

Mr. Smith

There is an enormously strong case for the first chair, in particular, to be someone who is disabled or who has had a disability, but I do not think, to be frank, that it would be right to write such a requirement into the Bill. Apart from anything else, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I—and, I believe, the public at large—want the person who chairs the commission to know that he or she was appointed as the best person for the job and not only because of having a disability. That is mainstreaming in practice; to do otherwise smacks of gesturism.

The Commission's remit will extend to England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the arrangements set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 will apply. The experience of existing equality commissions has shown that offices in each of England, Scotland and Wales have been necessary and invaluable. We will expect the Disability Rights Commission to operate in a similar way, but I think that it should determine what other arrangements are necessary in the light of experience. For example, the commissioners might want to consider whether the commission should establish regional offices.

As I said at the outset, the Bill is part of a wider programme to advance rights and opportunities for disabled people, and we are considering more generally how to advance disabled people's rights and counter discrimination. That is an important part of our strategy, but it would have been quite wrong for it to hold up this legislation, which has been so long and so eagerly awaited by disabled people.

The disability rights task force is considering those wider issues, especially in relation to the acknowledged inadequacies of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Recommendations from the task force are expected later this year. We all look forward to them. I can assure the House that we will hold consultations on any administrative or legislative steps that are considered necessary, and that we regard that work, too, as very important as part of our overall strategy for comprehensive civil rights. It is an important task to win public support not just for the principle of fairness for disabled people, but for the practical action that makes it a reality.

That is why we are launching this spring a two or three-year disability hearts and minds campaign. It will counter disability discrimination by raising public awareness of the barriers that disabled people face and how they can be overcome. It will also help businesses and service providers to understand exactly what is required of them in law. The campaign is being drawn up in partnership with disability and business organisations. I am confident that, together with the Bill and all the other steps that we are taking, it will help enable disabled people to take a full part in society.

I am convinced that integration generates its own momentum, for at the bottom of much discrimination lies fear. At the root of that fear is ignorance, so the more chance everyone has to meet disabled people—in the classroom, in the workplace, in the supermarket—the more the corrosive base of prejudice will be eroded.

What matters most is not simply Acts of Parliament, or commissions, codes or regulations. They are not the ends, but simply the means. What matters is the change in attitudes and behaviour, respect for decent human values, opening up opportunity and ending unfair discrimination, so that there is real change in the lives of disabled people, recognising that their opportunity enriches the whole community.

I believe that the Bill and the Disability Rights Commission that it creates will do an enormous amount to advance those opportunities. Today we bring closer full civil rights for disabled people. It therefore gives me particular pleasure to commend the Bill to the House.

1.47 pm
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

This is indeed an important debate for disabled people. It involves the establishment, as the Minister said, of an organisation for which disabled people, disability organisations and those involved in disability issues have argued for some time.

I recognise the disappointment and frustration that were felt when the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was introduced without an enforcement mechanism such as the proposed commission. That was widely felt to have been a significant omission. Despite that, we should not play down the importance of the 1995 Act as the first major piece of anti-discrimination legislation for disabled people in Britain.

I was not in the House during the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I recognise that there was much debate, and many heated arguments about the scope of the Act, the lack of an enforcement mechanism and many other issues. I acknowledge that many Members, and former Members now in another place, have campaigned long and hard for anti-discrimination legislation for disabled people. In particular, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), who is in the Chamber today, tabled a private Member's Bill on the subject. I shall not dwell on that; indeed, standing where I do, perhaps it is better not to.

Whatever the omissions from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, it marked an important milestone for disabled people. I pay tribute to the work done by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in introducing that legislation during his time as Minister for Social Security and Disabled People.

The view that we should not play down the significance of the 1995 Act is supported by a comment that I read in an article published a few months ago by David Grayson, the chairman of the National Disability Council, who stated: The DDA certainly has weaknesses, but we must not under-estimate it. Indeed, we must not fall into the trap of talking the DDA down so much that businesses and others think it is so fundamentally flawed that no one will enforce it hard, so they don't need to worry for a few more years yet. That would be the worst of all possible worlds. The Bill establishes an enforcement mechanism. I reiterate what I said in an intervention in the Minister's speech: the Opposition will support the creation of the Disability Rights Commission. It was indeed one of the first questions that I was asked when I took over my present portfolio. My right hon. Friend the Shadow Leader of the House made our position clear when he responded to the Gracious Speech at the start of this Session. He said: We will support the creation of a disability rights commission, although we shall look closely at the detail. I hope that the commission will ensure that the landmark disability rights legislation, which I took through the House, is properly enforced and leads to a lasting change for disabled people."—[Official Report, 24 November 1998; Vol. 321, c. 16-17.] As my right hon. Friend made clear, support for the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission does not mean that we do not think that the Bill can be improved. We have already demonstrated during the passage of the Bill through the other place that there are improvements that can be made. Indeed, the Government have already accepted a small number of our proposals. I shall refer to some of them later.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

For the historical record, will the hon. Lady remind us why the Disability Rights Commission was not included in the 1995 legislation? What does she think has changed since then?

Mrs. May

As I said earlier, I was not in the House when the legislation went through, so I cannot instantly recall the debates. My understanding is that the then Government made it clear that they would look to see whether an enforcement mechanism would be necessary, having established as part of that Act the National Disability Council to advise them on issues relating to disability discrimination.

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)

For the record, the Government at the time did not say that they were considering introducing a commission. They fought tooth and nail to stop one being introduced. I welcome today's unity, but the hon. Lady should be aware that there was no doubt about why the Government did what they did. They did not want a commission at all.

Mr. Tom Clarke


Mrs. May

I will take two interventions at once.

Mr. Clarke

In the magnanimous spirit in which my hon. Friends have all spoken, I too do not wish to make

the hon. Lady feel uncomfortable. Whereas she was not in the House when Bills were being proposed and talked out, happily those who talked them out are not in the House now.

Mrs. May

I note that second intervention and return to the first. I apologise if I gave a misleading impression in my response to the earlier intervention from the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt). The Government did not include in the Bill a reference to an enforcement mechanism such as the commission. Neither did they guarantee that they would introduce such a commission. My understanding is that they said at the time that they believed that the National Disability Council was a preferable route. That was why the Government chose that route at the time. But they said that they would look at the situation as it developed.

Mr. Andrew Smith

We greatly welcome the conversion of the hon. Lady and her colleagues, but they should acknowledge that it is a conversion. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said: The assumption that there has to be a commission to tackle the problems we know exist is flawed."—[0fficial Report, Standing Committee E, 23 February 1995; c. 389.] I welcome the recognition of Opposition Members that they no longer regard that assumption as flawed.

Mrs. May

The right hon. Gentleman will find that not all Conservative Members opposed the concept of a commission when the legislation was going through the House.

Mr. Collins

I do not want to detain the House for too long on a history lesson. Did my hon. Friend note that our right hon. and noble Friend Lord Campbell of Croy pointed out in the other place that, when he introduced his private Member's Bill, the Disablement Commission Bill, it was defeated with a three-line whipped vote by a Labour Government? Would we not now all do better to concentrate on the future rather than on the mistakes of the past?

Mrs. May

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding Labour Members that they should look further back in history. There has been some hilarity among them on this, but we have made it clear that we support the Disability Rights Commission as the Government are establishing it, although there are aspects of the Bill that could be changed. I recognise that there was much feeling, both inside and outside the House, about the fact that such a commission was not introduced by the Disability Discrimination Act. That has now been addressed by the Government, and we have said that we support the concept. However, we will examine in detail the issues raised by the way in which the Government propose to establish the commission and its functions.

At the heart of the debate are the main functions of the Disability Rights Commission and the question of what will be the main improvements in the lives of disabled people as a result of its establishment. A key task set out by the Minister is enforcement of the Disability Discrimination Act and providing advice and support for disabled people who want to take action under it. The commission is also charged with the ability to conduct formal investigations initiated by the Secretary of State or by itself. Such investigations may result in the issue of non-discrimination notices against firms or service providers requiring certain action to be taken to address the discriminatory behaviour or problems found to be contrary to regulations under Disability Discrimination Act.

I was interested in the Minister's reply to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). He said that the agreements that the Bill proposes the commission should be able to enter into with employers and others would be made public. We fear that the public register of bodies against whom non-discrimination notices have been issued will not be changed when bodies act to put in place whatever is required by the commission. I understand that their names will remain on the register regardless of whether they cease to contravene the Disability Discrimination Act. We may wish to explore that in Committee in relation to the register of agreements that the Minister said will be kept.

The functions that I have outlined are important and must be exercised judiciously by the commission. They raise an interesting question of timing in respect of how it will operate in its early stages. The Government said again today that assuming a reasonable passage for the Bill and Royal Assent this Session, they expect the commission to be in place in spring 2000. However, the final provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act are not yet in force. Part III starts to come into force in October, but its final provisions will not be in force until 2004. What approach do the Government intend the commission to take to issues arising from the part of the Act that does not kick in for another five years? I assume and hope that the commission will have regard to it and will incorporate it into its thinking on encouraging good practice, education and advice well before it comes into force. It is far better to ensure that goods and service providers know the requirements of the Act and do something about them than to wait for part III to come into force before taking enforcement action.

Awareness is one of the commission's most important aspects. That is why Baroness Blatch moved an amendment to make it a duty of the commission to encourage good practice. The original Bill was rather vague in saying that the commission "may" encourage good practice. I welcome the fact that the Government listened and tabled an amendment to make it a duty. We may argue about the exact words that have been used when we come to the detail in Committee, but the spirit and principle are there, and we certainly welcome that. Not only is that right, but it reflects the recommendation of the disability task force on the issue in its July 1998 report, in which it said: We propose that the main duties of the DRC should be to: work towards the elimination of discrimination against disabled people"— a duty that was in the original draft legislation and remains in the Bill—

"promote the equalisation of opportunities for disabled people with those of non-disabled people;"—

that is also in the Bill—and

"promote good practice".

It is important that that has now been recognised and incorporated into the Bill because it links with the other key task of the commission to work towards the elimination of discrimination and the equalisation of opportunities.

Underlying those duties is what I believe is the fundamental matter at the heart of the Bill. I am sure that we all agree across the House that the biggest battle that we have to fight is the battle of attitudes. Sadly, discrimination is likely to continue until everyone recognises that disabled people should not be treated differently and that they want equal access to employment, goods and services and many other things that we all take for granted, but which are all too often denied to them through unthinking and ignorant attitudes. Disabled people need to be secure in the knowledge that they will not be turned away from the pub or restaurant because some unthinking manager thinks that their presence will put off his other customers. They want to know that they will be given a job because of their ability to do it, not refused because someone thinks that it will be too difficult to accommodate them in the office.

Legislation sets out the requirements for practices, procedures, policies and physical access and the commission provides an enforcement mechanism, but neither of those functions will change hearts and minds. That is why we believe that there needs to be a strong element in the remit of the commission of working with employers and providers of goods and service to raise awareness and educate people. The commission should not be a litigious body or a legalistic body that sees litigation as its first port of call. It should work to ensure that disabled people do not suffer the discrimination that would lead to legal action in the first place. To do that, it needs to work with people, not adopt a confrontational attitude.

I welcome the Minister's comments about the need for the commission to work constructively with employers and others. That approach was certainly suggested when the Government first announced their intention to introduce a commission in a written answer given by the former Minister for disabled people, the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), who is on the Government Front Bench today, to a question tabled by the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) on 21 July last year: We emphasise that we expect that the commission should not work in an adversarial or oppressive way. There need be no tension between the interests of disabled people and the interests of employers and service providers. The commission should be seen as supportive of both disabled people and businesses alike."—[Official Report, 21 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 519.] The hon. Member for Newport, East brought to his former post a particular interest in and experience of disability issues. I trust from the comments that have been made this afternoon that his view of the commission is shared by the current Minister with responsibility for disabled people.

It is worth noting that the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman is shared by the Confederation of British Industry, which has welcomed the Disability Rights Commission. It has said: The CBI believes that the Commission will have a very important role to play to support and progress implementation of the complex social reforms and the positive actions contained in the Disability Discrimination Act. We believe there is a crucial role for the Commission to provide a comprehensive educational and advisory service to all of the business community. We therefore urge the Commission during its first year to build on goodwill, and work in partnership with business to change attitudes and help to recognise inadvertent barriers before using enforcement powers as a means of eliminating discrimination against disabled people. In particular, it is key that businesses are able to: better understand the scope of the DDA and the definition of disability, know how and when to implement reasonable adjustments under the DDA, incorporate disability as integral to equal opportunities goals and good management practice. A key issue, which must be addressed at an early stage, is implied in that comment from the CBI: the current lack of understanding among all too many companies as to their existing and forthcoming responsibilities under the DDA. The issue is important; I fear that many companies do not understand what is being, and will be, required of them. At a very early stage, it will be necessary for the Disability Rights Commission to work to ensure that companies understand those requirements and responsibilities.

Mr. Oaten

Does the hon. Lady agree that the education of those companies is not helped by the fact that about 80 per cent. of companies have less than 15 employees and are exempt from some of the regulations under the DDA? That cannot help the education process that the commission will have to establish.

Mrs. May

I had intended to refer to the employer threshold issue later in my comments. It is important and has already been debated in the Standing Committee. It was raised by several of their lordships when the Bill was debated in another place.

The Minister mentioned the Government's forthcoming hearts and minds campaign, which was intended to work with business to encourage the process of changing hearts and minds. The Government should note that there is some scepticism among disability organisations about that campaign and its likely impact. We all want to ensure that hearts and minds and attitudes are changed in the right way, but, if the campaign is to be effective, the Government will have to be careful about the way in which it is put in place.

That view about the importance of working with organisations is echoed in the article to which I referred earlier, written by the chairman of the National Disability Council, David Grayson. He gave some examples of the way in which the commission could work with people, rather than against them. He referred to certain cases that had been reported in Disability Now, in which disabled people had been refused access to pubs. He continued: "DRC will certainly want to support test cases to establish the law or make formal investigations. But if it is using its brain as well as its brawn it will be creative too. It could go to major brewers like Bass and Whitbread and national representatives of pub landlords and persuade them to develop an industry-wide awareness and education campaign for pub staff. They could also promote disabled customer-friendly practices … British business must be persuaded to respond more energetically to the needs of disabled people in the marketplace and the workplace … if we mobilise our collective power as disabled consumers—plus the purchasing power of our families and friends—we can be a formidable business force too. Certainly, helping companies to recognise the importance of disabled people as consumers or potential employees will be an important task for the commission. However, the issue is broader than that; the commission has a general role in raising awareness, in education and in the promotion of good practice. The body will have the scope to work to increase understanding of disability and of the rights, expectations and needs of disabled people generally, not only among employers and service providers. That is an important function and I trust the commission will see it as a key element of its work. I repeat our belief that the commission should not be a confrontational, legalistic or litigious body, but one that works with all parties genuinely to improve the environment for disabled people.

A number of issues remain uncertain in the Bill and in relation to the commission. The first is not specific to the Bill, although the Minister referred to it in his speech; it is the funding of the commission. The Government have stated that they will fund the commission to the tune of £3 million this financial year for set-up costs and £11 million in 2000-01; a provisional budget of £11 million has been set for the following year.

That is less than the amount given to the Commission for Racial Equality. The Government's argument is that the CRE has to pass on about £4 million to local race equality councils—hence the difference in funding. I tried to ascertain from the Government the basis of their decision to award £11 million, given the functions of the commission. I cannot remember whether it took me three or four questions to the Minister. One of the arts that one has to learn when one becomes a Member of Parliament is that of tabling the right question at the Table Office, and I confess that I do not always get it right the first time—or even the second or third.

During a considerable period of trying, I was first told that the basis for the £11 million figure was estimated costs for the different functions of the commission; then, when I asked what the estimated costs of those different functions were, I was told that it would be up to the commission to estimate the costs of the different functions. Finally, having rephrased the question yet again, I was told: "interim estimates indicate 10 per cent. of that annual budget may be devoted to administrative costs; 40 per cent. to advice and information, conciliation, assistance to individuals and formal investigations; 30 per cent. to promotional work, and 20 per cent. to policy work."£[Official Report, 2 February 1999; Vol.324,c.600.]

However, estimates were not available in respect of the specific functions as set out in the Bill.

I note that the Minister said that the issue was one that the Government would monitor in future and I recognise that the functions of the Commission for Racial Equality and the way in which it undertakes them may differ from those of the Disability Rights Commission; however, the DRC will have specific extra costs, such as those of ensuring that all information is available in forms that are accessible to all disabled people. The Government will have to consider that issue carefully and take advice from the commission in the early stages of its operation.

Mr. Andrew Smith

No one disputes that the commission will face certain costs in connection with meeting the particular needs of disabled people. However, in the spirit of and in line with the requirements of the Bill and of the DDA, we expect the other commissions to make their material available in Braille and other forms that are accessible to disabled people, so they too face those costs.

Mrs. May

I hesitate to suggest that, having made that statement, the Minister might now receive a call from those involved in the CRE and the Equal Opportunities Commission. Of course it is important that information and advice from those other bodies is available to disabled people in forms that they are able to access.

Another issue requiring clarification is raised on the face of the Bill itself: the relationship between the commission's work and the implications of the Human Rights Act 1998. 1 suspect that other hon. Members will question whether it is appropriate for that relationship to be set down on the face of the Bill, or whether it should be in regulations, as the Minister indicated. The Government need to examine closely the impact of the Human Rights Act in respect of disabled people and on Government responsibilities, such as the health service and social services provision.

Having participated in some of the debates on the Human Rights Act as it passed through its stages in the House, I am not convinced that the Government have fully and properly considered the implications that that legislation might have for some of those matters. The case reported into today's newspapers of young David Glass, whose family resuscitated him when the hospital had decided that he should be allowed to die, brings that issue sharply into focus.

One of the functions that the commission should undertake in relation to education is not specified in the Bill: advice and information are referred to, but not training. It is important that the commission should be able to provide training for those with whom it deals and those who are affected by its work. Obviously, it will work with other bodies in pursuing that function, but the Bill should not ignore the issue of training.

In response to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), I said that I would refer to the employer threshold. Many of us were surprised when the Government, who in opposition had said that they would reduce the threshold from 20 to two, reduced it from 20 to 15 on coming into power. That caused considerable consternation among disability organisations, which wondered why the Government had suddenly changed an opinion to which they had held so fast when in opposition. It has been our experience in respect of many issues that the Labour party in government is going back on many of the pledges that it made when in opposition. It is easy to make promises when in opposition, but now that Labour is in Government, it finds it cannot deliver on those pledges.

Because of amendments moved in respect of that issue, it was debated at some length in the other place. I note that the Bill mentions "the procedure for change" and there is some good argument for making sure that that procedure is rather easier than it was previously. However, the question of why the Government have not decreased the threshold further than they have is one to which many disability organisations will continue to want a proper answer.

Mr. Levitt

Is the hon. Lady aware that, following the reduction in the threshold, well in excess of 90 per cent. of employees now work for employers who are covered by the legislation, and that only a small minority of employees continue to be excluded? The role of the DRC will be to advise the Government, not only on the number of employees at which disability organisations want the threshold to be set, but on the number that industry and business will accept. That number will be a first, not a last, step in reducing the threshold, so the issue is how fast and in what way the threshold will be reduced. The time has not yet come to judge the Government on the absolute level of the threshold

Mrs. May

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that about 80 per cent. of companies are not covered by the arrangements—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) says, from a sedentary position, "Peanuts".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)

I said people.

Mrs. May

I do apologise. In that case, I shall not proceed with the rebuke that I was going to issue.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. That is a very good example of how sedentary remarks are unhelpful, even when they provoke a response.

Mrs. May

They are even less helpful when I cannot hear them properly, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Eighty per cent. of companies are not covered and the issue that the Government must answer is why, when Labour Members were so keen for the threshold to be reduced to two when they were in opposition, the Government failed to do that when they had the opportunity to do so.

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

At what level does the hon. Lady believe the threshold should be set?

Mrs. May

We have not set a threshold—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Twenty."] I will say this: during the debate in the other place, we said that, if the threshold was to be reduced to the sort of level that many disability organisations wanted, we would question why it was to be two and not one. I fail to see why, if the level is to be reduced to such a low number, one should disadvantage sole employees of small businesses and not allow them the protection of the Disability Discrimination Act from which other employees benefit. I suspect that we may return to that issue in Committee or the later stages of the Bill.

On the question of the representational nature of the commission, the Government have indicated that half of the members of the commission should be disabled or have had a disability. It is important to consider the issue of representation, and I trust that it is not the Government's intention to say that each member of the commission is representative of a particular disability. Although it is necessary to ensure that the commission covers a wide range of types of disability, it is important that the commissioners are appointed because they are the right people with the right experience, not as individuals wearing some sort of specific representative hat.

It is also important that a cross-section of interests should be represented on the commission. That point was made when the hon. Member for Newport, East, then a Minister at the Department for Education and Employment, initially set out his intention of establishing the commission, and I trust that the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities will confirm that that remains the Government's position. The then Education and Employment Minister said: The Commission must be credible with all stakeholders. The body of Commissioners between them will need to have sufficient diversity of experience to be able to take account of the interests of all disabled people and to reflect the interest of all key stakeholders, including those of small businesses."—[Official Report, 21 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 519-20.] It is important—particularly given what I have said about the way in which the commission should work with rather than confront people—to ensure that the commission represents all interests. External bodies, such as companies and service providers, must be willing and able to work happily with the commission to ensure that disabled people do not suffer the sort of discrimination that they often experienced in the past.

As I said at the outset, we support the creation of a Disability Rights Commission, which we believe builds on the landmark anti-discrimination legislation introduced by the previous Government. It is another significant step down the road to ensuring that disabled people are treated equally in our society and are valued for the contribution that they do and will make.

2.21 pm
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

Although time is short and I know that several of my hon. Friends wish to take part in the debate, I begin by paying tribute to the many people who have made the Bill possible. I feel both humble and proud and, in that spirit, I congratulate warmly the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities and his ministerial team on their remarkable achievement in bringing this measure before the House today.

I shall be gentle with the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). This comment would probably be more appropriate coming from the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), but any sinner who has repented is welcome. However, if the hon. Lady wants to be convincing, the last thing that she should do is refer to the speeches of the Leader of the Opposition—especially when, as Minister, he opposed everything that we have achieved today.

Mrs. May

I am somewhat surprised that the hon. Gentleman should imply sinfulness on the part of someone who was not involved in decisions about the legislation. I hope that he does not adopt that approach to other sins, or we might all be implicated in all sorts of things.

Mr. Clarke

I do not seek to reintroduce the idea of original sin. However, there is a Scottish expression that goes, "If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows." The Leader of the Opposition appointed the hon. Lady to perform an almost impossible task: to make the previous Government's policies appear decent.

In the spirit of this debate, I congratulate those who should take pride in today's achievement. Such people include my hon. Friends the Members for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) and for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), and a wonderful colleague in my disability team, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston—[HON. MEMBERS: "Erdington."] I could not get my hon. Friend's constituency right in Committee, and I cannot change my habits now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) did a wonderful job, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell). My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey), who has disappeared temporarily from the Chamber, offered marvellous support for my Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986 before his election to Parliament. He has continued ever since—now as a Member of Parliament —to fight for the things that he believes in. We look forward to hearing what my hon. Friends have to say if they catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I recognise also the tremendous work of the all-party disablement group which, led by Lord Ashley, has been the real engine room of disability campaigns. It must also be a proud day for my right hon. Friend Lord Morris of Manchester. Nor should we forget the countless numbers of unnamed disabled people and their organisations who fought the good fight when others thought the mountain was too high to climb.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to contribute to the Second Reading of a Bill that has the potential to transform dreams into reality for many millions of disabled people. The Government must be commended for their relatively early introduction of such a comprehensive and important Bill. A pledge has been honoured and a promise implemented speedily.

This is a Bill about people who constitute a substantial minority and yet continue to suffer discrimination in their daily lives that denies them the everyday rights that others take for granted. Much of that is now about to end. Such discrimination is clear to those who know the realities of life for disabled people who are seeking the equal opportunities that lie at the heart of a modern, inclusive Britain and of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The Bill resembles legislation that has long been the norm in many other countries that have benefited from such measures. For example, America offers perhaps the most substantial protection in the world for disabled people. Many aspects of the proposed Disability Rights Commission will resemble measures in the United States, which I have seen for myself in operation. I have witnessed the benefits that such protection brings not only to the lives of disabled people but, importantly, to the United States economy as well. The reasons are obvious. The greater the access for disabled people, the more they, their carers, friends and families spend and contribute to the strength of the United States economy.

We have received many excellent briefings from disability organisations, and Scope deserves congratulations for making that point. It stated: The average figure (the statistical mean figure) for workplace adjustments for disabled employees in the USA (October 1997) was $935, but the benefits of these to business was an average of $30,682—a 3200%% return on investment. The hon. Member for Maidenhead referred to the Confederation of British Industry. We welcome its support, and I am sure that it will take that point on board.

For that reason, groups such as the Employers Forum on Disability in the United Kingdom —which speaks for firms such as Marks and Spencer and Barclays—and the CBI have long realised the beneficial effects that a Disability Rights Commission can have for the British economy as well as for our social fabric. Article 3 of the German legislation outlaws discrimination. It says: Nobody shall be discriminated against because of a disability". Unfortunately, despite many Back-Bench attempts, we were still far behind the legislation of many of our friends abroad—until today. Over the years, the House had seen attempts to introduce legislation to protect the rights of disabled people. All such attempts supported a commission and all, sadly, were in vain. It is tempting—especially in view of earlier exchanges—to dwell upon the fate of former Members of Parliament who talked out those Bills. However, on this happy occasion, I shall be positive about the future and about the anti-discrimination measures that the Bill introduces.

In 1995, at long last, legislation was introduced that turned its back on the suggestion that there was no discrimination against the disabled. That legislation, however much it achieved or did not achieve, was entitled the Disability Discrimination Act. Reality had surfaced, even if many problems were not addressed. We did not get a Disability Rights Commission, but I warned then that its time would come. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I point out to hon. Members, particularly those on the Front Benches, that Madam Speaker takes the strong view that bleepers should not brought into the Chamber while they are switched on.

Mr. Clarke

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

If discrimination does not exist, as was argued in the early days of the previous Government, why is the average income of disabled workers only 80 per cent. of the national average income? I am glad that, in the past couple of weeks, hundreds of thousands of disabled people, among others, have started to receive the benefits of the Government's minimum wage legislation. Similarly, it cannot be right that a disabled person is three times more likely to be unemployed and six times more likely to be turned down for a job than anyone else.

The concern of disabled people, disability organisations and, I am sure, the Government is that the long-awaited Disability Rights Commission should be an effective body. We know that disability has trailed behind gender and race in getting anti-discrimination legislation and a commission, but those who benefited from the commissions combating race and gender discrimination have been as strong in their support of a Disability Rights Commission as I believe the House to be today.

The Bill states that the commission will have substantial duties. It will be encouraged to be proactive, not just a talking shop, and it will have teeth. Remarkably, we are now close to realising the aim for which many of us have fought for many years. I am pleased that the Government have accepted disabled people's demands for comprehensive and enforceable civil rights and have honoured their manifesto commitment to the letter.

I want to ask a few questions of the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who will wind up the debate, to clarify issues that have been raised by disability organisations and some of my disabled constituents. Will there be an advocate on the commission, as Mencap has argued there should be, for those whose disabilities are so profound as to preclude them from membership of the commission?

The issue of funding of the commission has been raised, and I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister's clarification on that point. I understand that the Government have allocated £3 million to set up the commission and then £11 million for each of the two following years. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary clarify the Government's position on the crucial role—I heard it dismissed earlier—of the commission's views in that matter? Certainly, my Front-Bench colleagues should be congratulated on reaching an agreement with the Treasury because I know that such agreements are not easily achieved.

The exemption for small firms has been mentioned, and I seek more clarification about that in the winding-up of the debate. I do not want to provoke Opposition Front-Bench Members too much, particularly as they appear to have been left sitting on their own, but the plain fact is that, when the previous Government introduced the Disability Discrimination Bill, the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) could not be moved—he wanted to exclude 96 per cent. of firms from that Bill. Pressure in the House, in Committee and from disability organisations means that only 15 per cent. of firms are now exempt, which is 16 per cent. better than the situation that we inherited a couple of years ago.

That said, I do not want to get too cosy with my right hon. and hon. Friends. This is a serious matter, and I want to push the boat out a little further. I shall not be happy, especially when I consider the working relationship that will exist between the commission, employers, employees and disabled people, if, when this Parliament ends, 15 per cent. of firms are still exempt. In its advice, Scope restated the view of many, including myself, when it said: The moral and business case for staging a phased reduction of the small employer's exemption is overwhelming. I know that we have a listening Government, and I am sure that they will take that point on board.

Disabled people are not just the stuff of political lobbying or special interest pleading; their rights constitute the vital, legitimate interests, as the Minister reminded us, of more than 8.5 million of our fellow citizens. They include the blind boy, about to leave school, who was rejected at a job interview the moment that the personnel manager saw his white stick, although he could have done the job as well as anybody else. They include the woman who was refused admission to a cinema because she was in a wheelchair, and the one space for a wheelchair had been set aside for somebody else. She was right to say, "I am not a wheelchair; I am a person."

I am glad that the Bill acknowledges the demands of the One-In-Eight Group, which has campaigned vigorously to ensure that disabled professional actors, entertainers, producers and others have the right to have their talents recognised and not be discriminated against.

Today is the realisation of a dream for many people, some of whom, sadly, are no longer with us. I can never forget heading through the snow north of New York, in the cold winter of 1995, with my then deputy, the late Gordon McMaster. Gordon, who had done so much on disability rights and who was so proud of his "Growing Concern" project, was with me when we had the privilege of being in the home of Christopher Reeve. We could only marvel at Reeve's courage—a quality shared by so many who today feel that their efforts were not in vain.

Improving the rights of disabled people, as the Bill will do, will ensure that we enrich the lives of all. A Disability Rights Commission will help to set a new agenda for disabled people of skills, knowledge and opportunity—a new agenda for a new century and a beacon for the rest of the world. In that spirit, I congratulate the Government most warmly and wish them well.

2.39 pm
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

This is a good day not only, as the Minister rightly said in his opening speech, for people with disabilities, but for the whole country, because our society is stronger if it takes steps towards incorporating disabled people in every practical way. In establishing a Disability Rights Commission explicitly on the model of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, the House is making it clear that we regard discrimination against people with disabilities as every bit as evil and unjustified as discrimination against people on the basis of their sex or the colour of their skin.

This is a good day. Many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House and many on both sides of the other place have waited a long time for such a Bill. I congratulate the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities on being the Minister who brought the Bill forward. 1 commend him for the tone in which he did so, as I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for the tone in which she responded to the Minister from the Opposition Front Bench. This is a genuinely non-partisan occasion.

We have had debates about the history of these matters and it is clear that both Labour and Conservative Governments voted down proposals of very much the sort that are contained in the Bill. That was a mistake. I am glad that both parties have changed their mind and can come together to support the principle of the Bill. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said, there are bound to be individual points of detail that need to be considered further. It may be necessary to consider amendments in this place as others were in another place, but a loud and clear signal should go out from the House to all those throughout the country who have an interest in these issues that they transcend party politics, and that the commission will be put in place for the future and will long remain an important part of it, whatever the outcome of future general elections. This is a landmark occasion in that respect.

I have one or two points to make in respect of those general comments. I welcome the Minister's hope that the commission will be an engine for conciliation and a forum for the provision of information. It must be clear that it would be far better if the work of the commission went forward wherever possible without confrontation and without necessarily always seeking headlines, sparks, clashes and legal actions, through working together with employers, disability organisations and individuals concerned to reach agreement.

An agreement that is voluntarily entered into will always work better and have a better chance of long-standing success than a court decision, where one party feels rather unhappy or disgruntled, or feels that it

has not received exactly what it wanted and that its interests have not been wholly and fairly presented. The Minister was right to say that he wants the commission to move forward in a co-operative way. I welcome that.

Mr.Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

I agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. Does he agree that it is a good marketing point, for want of a better phrase, for firms to be seen to be friendly and user-friendly towards the disabled, just as, increasingly, it is good for firms to be seen to be environmentally friendly? To promote that does not require regulation and confrontation. I hope that the commission will be able to encourage better employment practices for disabled people in the best interests both of firms and of disabled people.

Mr. Collins

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a very good point. To build on that point, let me say that I very much hope that the commission will not merely identify best practice in the abstract in the sense of, "Here is a list of good things that some companies are doing in various parts of the country," but will publicise specific case studies. I hope that it will give good publicity to companies large and small that are operating in compliance with the law, and, I hope, in many instances going beyond the requirements of the law.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, while perhaps in 99 per cent. of cases it will be possible to reach an agreement about discrimination that has been faced, there will always be a small minority—I speak as one of those who have faced discrimination—of employers who have blind, naked prejudice, and will not employ a disabled person irrespective of whatever persuasion is used? In those cases, it is absolutely right that the commission is able to take decisive action.

Mr. Collins

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. I was going to make that point. In fairness to the Minister, that is what he said. He said that he would prefer it to be possible for there to be conciliation, but added that it was important that the commission should have teeth in dealing with the minority. I hope that the hon. Lady is right and that the minority is as small as 1 per cent. I do not propose to put a figure on it because I simply do not know what it is. However, it is clear that there are problems outside the House and that the commission needs to deal with them. I hope that it will be able to do so with the minimum of fuss, but it needs to have teeth.

A dramatic illustration was given in the other place by Lord Ashley of Stoke, who, in that place as in this, has been a long-standing campaigner on these issues, and the spearhead of many campaigns. He rightly referred to the research of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, which stated that

the handicap of deafness is a greater obstacle to obtaining employment than a criminal record or a history of drug abuse."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 December 1998; Vol. 595, c. 1470.1 If that is what independent research is establishing, there is a real problem.

The hon. Lady is right to say that such discrimination will often stem from ill-informed prejudice. Such long-standing social attitudes need to be challenged and changed, as is reflected in the welcome progress that has been made generally over the past 20 or 25 years in tackling prejudice on the basis of sex or race. I would not pretend that, as a country, we have eliminated all forms of prejudice in those areas, but we have moved dramatically forward in that time.

I would not say that the only reason for progress in those areas has been the existence of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, but undoubtedly they have played their part. I hope that, in 10 or 15 years' time, the existence, the visibility and the practical effect of prejudice against disabled people will have declined at least as sharply as has discrimination on the basis of sex or race over the past 15 or 20 years.

I said that I would make one or two detailed points, and I shall do so. We have already briefly touched on funding. I entirely understand the Minister's reluctance to go beyond what has already been said on the matter. I understand also the reasons that he has set out for arriving at the figure of £11 million for the commission. However, I am intrigued to note that the Government are proposing, at least in the interim, to roll the £11 million forward for the second full operational year.

We all know—I am sure that the Government would be delighted to trumpet the fact —that inflation is at a relatively low level, but it is not non-existent. It is a fact that £11 million in three years' time will not buy as much as £11 million in two years' time. I hope that, at the minimum, the Government will be prepared to consider rolling over the funding in line with inflation, or at least in line with the increases that are provided for the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality.

A central feature of the debate should be to establish that the early years of the commission will be critical. We all hope that the commission will be around for a long time, but the early years will be especially important. That is why it needs to have a flying start.

That brings me to my next point, on which the Minister was kind enough to take an intervention from me. It relates to the identity of the chair of the new commission. The Minister made the perfectly fair point that he feels that, if he were to commit himself in the Bill to employing a person with a disability, or with a history of disability, that might be seen as a gesture of tokenism. Of course, there is already in the Bill a requirement that the chair or the deputy chair should be in that category, and that a majority of members should be in it.

I put it gently to the Minister that, given that one of the primary information roles of the commission will be to try to persuade as many people as possible as quickly as possible that people with disabilities, or a history of disabilities, often are the best men or women for a job, it might seem curious that, when looking for the first chair of the commission, it is not possible to find someone in that category. I know that the Minister probably will not want to go any further. I think that I have probably chivvied him enough. I see from the nods that I am receiving from some Labour Members that there is a degree of support for my proposition. 1 will leave it at that with the Minister, with the strong hope that he will be able to find, as I believe he will, someone eminently qualified who happens to be disabled, or has a history of disability.

Another matter that was discussed in the other place in relation to the composition of the commission was taken up by Lord Rix, who has a strong record of work on behalf of Mencap and other charities that deal with people with mental illnesses. He made the point that physical and mental disabilities are not the same. However, they can often result in similar forms of prejudice. They need to be tackled with the same vigour but they do not raise the same issues. Lord Rix expressed a strong hope that, on the commission, there will be someone who has knowledge, and possibly personal experience, of dealing with a mental handicap or disability.

Again, I appreciate that the Minister will not want to commit himself to turning the commission into a body that represents each and every separate form of disability, and that is reasonable. However, I hope that he will reflect on what Lord Rix had to say and recognise that there is an important distinction between physical and mental disability.

The commission will represent the 8.5 million people in this country who, according to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), have a disability. It will be considered to be immensely important to them, and its 10 or 15 members will rightly receive a huge amount of publicity. They will be seen as spearheads—the vanguard—for the whole of the disabled community. There is a distinction between physical and mental disability, but both groups should be represented on the commission.

We need to look at the informative role of the commission in a little more detail. Earlier today, I consulted the rather good website put up by the National Disability Council at www.disability.org.gov.uk, which contains a lot of good material. The Minister would be the first to acknowledge that the internet is becoming a hugely significant source of information, particularly for people with disabilities, and plays a great role in the developing world of commerce. The commission will clearly be at the nexus of commerce and those with disabilities, so its internet commitment will be crucial.

I return to my point about the commission having a flying start. I hope that resources adequate for achieving a strong internet presence, from day one, have been identified in the set-up costs—we all know how websites can grow. It is difficult to update them, although that is the absolute priority. Those of us with parliamentary websites may think that they are terrific, but we may forget about them and, a few weeks later, people say, "Your website is a bit out of date." We must get the internet presence right at the start, and I hope that the Minister has something to say about that.

The commission must be seen to be concerned with the way for the future: although it is most definitely about tackling the prejudices and removing the oversights of the past, and improving the present, it has to be at the leading edge, making an exciting statement about the way that Britain sees itself on the threshold of the new millennium—and, I hope, a long way into it.

In that context, the Government—perhaps understandably, because, at this stage, they want to maintain a degree of flexibility for themselves—have been a little vague on the timing of the establishment of the commission. I understand that they hope that it will get going in 2000, but they have not yet committed themselves to a precise month or date. If the Minister wishes to correct me, I am more than happy to give way.

Ms Hodge

I have said on a number of occasions that I hope that the commission will open its doors for business in April 2000.

Mr. Collins

I am most grateful for that helpful intervention; with luck, we may be within 12 months of the start date.

The commission is to start up in the millennium year—in which we will all be very excited, for all sorts of reasons—so it is important that it gets a flying start and that its work, and the role of the disabled community, should be appropriately tied into the nation's millennium celebrations. I know that the Minister is not responsible for those matters, but we should think about using the dome to symbolise the fact that the Disability Rights Commission will be immensely significant for a large number of our fellow citizens. I hope that the Government will give some thought to that.

I want to enter a small caveat, but I hope that the Minister understands that it in no way diminishes my excitement about, and genuine commitment to, the principle behind the commission. Businesses, and small businesses in particular, could be a little concerned about the work of the commission, but I hope that she will be able to reassure me on that point.

On Second Reading in the other place, Baroness Blackstone explained that, to do its job effectively, the commission must stamp out discrimination and make sure that employers who act unlawfully are brought to book. She talked about the role of investigations. The commission will have teeth because it will be able to undertake investigations, and I welcome that. Baroness Blackstone said: The investigations need to examine the structure of organisations so that they discover not only what discrimination is occurring, but why it happens. They need to deal with systemic as well as individual cases of discrimination.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 December 1998; Vol. 595, c. 1463.] On one reading of Baroness Blackstone's remarks, I had no difficulty with them whatever. It is clearly likely that a prejudiced employer, or business, who discriminates against a person with a disability has done so in the past and would, unless stopped, do the same to others in future. If there is a pattern of discrimination, it needs to be tackled head on. However, I am a little concerned—I suspect that the business community might be as well—about exactly what scope the commission will have to investigate the structure of an organisation and what, in practice, that might mean.

For example, will the commission have the right to go into a factory employing 500 people to study a whole range of papers? What access will it have to information and what will happen in respect of findings of systemic discrimination? The Prime Minister yesterday expressed his wish, as Head of Government, to make sure that unnecessary regulatory burdens are not placed on business. We all feel—in principle, at least—that these regulations are not unnecessary, but, none the less, they must be considered in the overall context of businesses whose primary function is to make a living for themselves and for their employees.

We must ensure that regulation is conducted sensibly and flexibly and I welcome the fact that the Government have laid great emphasis in the drafting of the Bill on their wish to preserve flexibility for the commission. I also welcome their suggestion that they expect the commission to consult widely on its work and feed in its views as the Government consult on other issues.

It is important to get right the crossover between the world of commerce and the world of people with disabilities. I would not want the commission, as it starts up, to find itself opposed in any respect by any of the small business organisations, should they take against it because they think that it will impose regulations resulting in yet more inspections and all the rest of it, which they would oppose. If the Minister is able to give some assurance on that point, I would very much welcome it.

I enter only that small caveat and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead has said from the Front Bench, the Bill has been recognised as being significant. It builds on the landmark Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was passed in the previous Parliament, and goes further. I hope and believe that it will not be the last word, either under this Government or under future Governments. This is a step-by-step process, and so it should be.

What is regarded as acceptable in the last year of the 20th century is a long way ahead of what would have been regarded as acceptable in the middle of this century, but perhaps a long way behind what will be regarded as acceptable in the middle of the next century. We need to move forward all the time and I welcome the Bill, which represents a large step forward.

I congratulate Ministers on being in office when the magic wheels stopped and, finally, both major parties recognised their mistakes and realised that they should be supporting such legislation. I hope that the Government will take it forward, work with all parties, make the commission a success and make us all proud of a society in which people with disabilities feel that they are entitled—and, as the norm, expect—to play their full part in that society, alongside all their fellow citizens.

2.59 pm
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)

I warmly and enthusiastically welcome the Bill. I could not imagine such a debate being held five years ago, and I am absolutely delighted that it is taking place in such a spirit. Many of the debates in the Chamber seem to involve hon. Members on one side of the House believing that every single word of a Government Bill must be gospel truth, and hon. Members on the other side of the House believing that every word must be totally false.

I welcome the spirit in which the debate is being conducted. It represents a third way whereby we can all support the Bill enthusiastically, and for very good reasons, but recognise that reasonable people may raise issues for Ministers to consider in Committee or on Report. That, surely, is the way in which this issue, and many others, should be dealt with.

I congratulate both my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment on an admirable Bill. I also commend the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), now Minister for the Arts, who has been a passionate, committed and reasoned advocate of equal rights for disabled people for more years than I can recall. As the first Under-Secretary of State responsible for the issue, he set up a disability rights task force, produced a White Paper last summer and gained the well-deserved respect and admiration not only of hon. Members, but of disabled people throughout the country for ensuring that the Government's commitment to comprehensive and enforceable civil rights was put firmly on the agenda soon after the general election. Indeed, discussions with disability organisations commenced immediately after the election, and the task force was set up within months. The Ministers whom I have mentioned deserve our thanks for all they have done: I am very impressed by the way in which the Government have handled the issue so far.

There is no doubt that the 8 or 9 million disabled people in the country will warmly welcome the Government's commitment to the establishment of a Disability Rights Commission. That is much more important than my personal view. For the first time, disabled people will be able to fight their corner with the help of a statutory body. That is long overdue.

Although the fundamental purpose of the Bill is to provide a statutory body to enforce the rights of disabled people, it has another purpose. At present, employers who want to know what is required of them under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, or any other legislation that may be passed, have nowhere to go. Service providers—those who run superstores and supermarkets, and retailers of all kinds—want to know what the House expects of them, so that they can ensure that disabled people have equal rights. Those employers and service providers will be as enthusiastic as I am about the establishment of an authoritative body to which they can turn for advice.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, it is no exaggeration to say that this is an historic day. The absence of a commission of this kind was undoubtedly one of the most significant flaws in the 1995 Act. I again congratulate the Government on acting so quickly to remedy the omission—and, indeed, on doing so with a degree of openness and transparency that could be emulated more widely. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) mentioned the "disability on the agenda" website, which I believe belongs to the Department for Education and Employment. The website, which I use regularly, is a source of much useful information, including minutes of meetings of the disability rights task force. Not only have the Government established a task force to advise them—most of its members being disabled people—but they publish minutes of its meetings on the website. Such openness and transparency deserves congratulations, and I hope that it will be widely emulated.

I have referred briefly to the crucial role played by Ministers here in producing the Bill. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge also the work of my noble Friend Lord Ashley, who saw as long ago as 1983, when he introduced his first Bill, that without a commission of this kind civil rights for disabled people could not be secured. The need for such a commission was also recognised by my noble Friend Lord Morris and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) when they introduced Bills, and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) when he was a spokesman for the then Opposition. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all that he did at that time.

I am delighted that the Opposition support the Bill, and I shall not undermine my genuine enthusiasm for the transformation that has clearly occurred by referring to past events. We should note that, over the years, the most important campaigners for civil rights have been disabled people themselves. I suspect that the present unanimity in the Chamber is due largely to the fact that disability organisations have pressed their case so effectively, especially through the umbrella organisation Rights Now!. We are where we are today because of that, and also because Members in all parts of the House have been prepared to listen to the campaign. It is especially important that Ministers have been so keen to listen, notably those in the Department for Education and Employment. I hope that the Government will be equally willing to listen when disabled people raise other issues with other Departments.

Let me say something about the details of the Bill. A powerful case for the establishment of a commission has always been that, as we already have an Equal Opportunities Commission and a Commission for Racial Equality, we should also have a commission to ensure that disabled people are not given second-class treatment. The National Disability Council recognised that case after its first year in operation. I suspect that hon. Members knew that before, but I congratulate the NDC, and in particular its chair, David Grayson. Its first annual report said to the Government, "We have a really good idea. Will you abolish us, and set up a commission in our place?". Notwithstanding the council's important work, it is impressive that it had the courage to make such a suggestion in its first annual report.

We can now contemplate the establishment of a state-of-the-art commission. We are able to draw on the experience of the EOC and the CRE, and we all agree that we want to do our best in setting up the new commission. The Government should, I think, consider strengthening a number of the measures in the Bill. I doubt that any of my suggestions will greatly surprise Ministers, as they have been well rehearsed in another place. Fortunately, however, the Government now have another opportunity to respond.

My overriding concern is to avoid litigation wherever possible. I say that as one who, like all other hon. Members who are present, is committed to the establishment of a Disability Rights Commission. That will necessitate a legal framework to ensure the guaranteeing of legal rights, but none of us wants cases to be dragged through the courts if that can be avoided. I think that we should facilitate early intervention when discrimination is imminent.

Written agreements provide an effective way of stopping unlawful practices in lieu of enforcement action. The Government have taken up recommendations from the CRE and the EOC that the commission should have the power to make written agreements with organisations that it suspects of breaching the law, rather than carrying out a formal investigation.

However, although clause 5 provides for such written agreements, it does not do so in the way recommended by the other commissions. I contend that, under the Bill, written agreements do not apply soon enough. According to the CRE, the key time for a written agreement is following the preliminary written inquiry before the start of the formal investigation. It is then that organisations suspected of being discriminatory start getting a little nervous and want to avoid bad publicity. It would help if a formal agreement could be entered into at that point rather than after a formal investigation, which may prove not to be necessary.

Clause 4 deals with non-discrimination notices. The power to include detailed provisions requiring a discriminator to change his practices in a particular way would be a useful addition to the Bill. The EOC and CRE have both made that point. Non-discrimination notices could specify the nature of the changes required and the time frame for their implementation.

During the debate in the other place, my noble Friend Lord Morris said that issuing a non-discrimination notice without a time limit is like having a car without an engine: it may look good, but it will not get us very far. I accept that the Government acknowledge the problem, and I do not claim that my point is original. The Bill provides for regulations, but why does it not grant these powers? What is the problem? Surely this matter is hardly controversial.

Mr. Oaten

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the lack of a time scale is a weakness in the Bill. Further penalties would have to be imposed if the time scales were not adhered to, otherwise they would be constantly ignored and repeat notices would have to be issued. An additional penalty for not adhering to the time scale should be included in the Bill.

Mr. Berry

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment. We should take as light an approach to this matter as is practicable, but we cannot have time limits without penalties for breaching them.

The Government have said that the Disability Rights Commission will be a state-of-the-art body. However, the Bill does not give it powers strictly equivalent to those of the EOC or CRE. Those bodies can take proceedings against discriminatory advertising, discriminatory practices, persistent discriminators and those who instruct others to discriminate. Apart from a power to initiate proceedings against discriminatory advertisements, none of those other powers are in the Bill, even though they have all proved useful to the other commissions.

The EOC and CRE review their relevant legislation from time to time. Hon. Members know that, because those bodies kindly write to us and tell us how they would like the legislation to be improved. In their reviews they have often called for additional powers to initiate proceedings. In the other place, the noble Lords did not attempt to include in the Bill all the powers that the other commissions have. They tried to achieve a more modest objective: to make available to the Disability Rights Commission a narrow but useful right to initiate proceedings if it would best assist disabled people.

Why should the Disability Rights Commission not be able to take up cases on behalf of disabled people, to relieve them of the stress of having to instruct a solicitor or of being seen to be taking action against an employer? The EOC wants to have that additional power in employment cases precisely because of workplace harassment. Disabled people are also likely to face those problems. Both the existing commissions want the power to take class actions on behalf of others. My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to that, so I encourage him to consider this matter further. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission—the hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) may confirm this—can initiate proceedings in its own name. Why cannot the Disability Rights Commission do that?

On the Human Rights Act 1998, I welcome the Minister's recognition that this is an important issue. The Act is mentioned explicitly in the explanatory notes, which I have read with great care, but it is not referred to in the Bill. There is no good reason why it should not be in the Bill. Some disabled people are among the least able to assert their rights. People with mental health problems, in residential care or in prison may experience human rights abuses. Such abuses are covered by article 2 on inhuman and degrading treatment and by article 8 on the right to family life.

The Disability Rights Commission will only be as effective as the legislation it is empowered to enforce. You will be pleased to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I do not want to detain the House by going through many of my concerns about the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 —suffice it to say that urgent changes are required. Let us not forget that it was produced on the hoof. The then Government brought more pages of Government amendments from the other place than there were pages in the original Bill. They had difficulty with the notion of civil rights. Happily, we are beyond that now, and I celebrate that. The genesis of the 1995 Act shows to anyone who is prepared to consider the matter that it should be radically changed.

Reference has been made to the small employers exemption. The costs of domiciliary care and related services that enable disabled people to live independent lives should also be viewed from a civil rights perspective, and that should be taken on board. There are also issues relating to education, transport and the police. I am aware that, following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Government have expressed their intention to bring all aspects of the police's work under the Race Relations Act 1976, to enable the CRE to investigate possible discriminatory practices. I warmly welcome the Government's view on that, and I believe that the Disability Rights Commission should have similar powers. The police should not be subject to exemptions under any anti-discrimination legislation.

There is much yet to do. The commission will be the key to further progress. The chair of the commission will be a leader and a figurehead. By appointing a disabled person, the Government would be sending out a strong message, and it is extremely important that they do so.

Given the scale of discrimination faced by disabled people, a realistic level of funding is imperative. The £11 million figure is the figure for the CRE minus £4 million. Ministers at the Department for Education and Employment will be pleased that I can do mental arithmetic—I can certainly do that simple calculation, although multiplication is much more difficult. I suspect that the Government have taken the figure for the CRE and subtracted £4 million—the fund for local race equality centres—to arrive at the final figure of £11 million. I could be wrong; those figures could be entirely coincidental. I am not arguing for the equivalent of local race equality centres, which do a marvellous job, but there will be a need for local, accessible, technical advice for disabled people, and the cost implications of that must be addressed.

The Government have taken a major and significant step to implement their election pledge of comprehensive and enforceable rights for disabled people. It should be welcomed with enthusiasm. Obviously, some areas of the Bill could be strengthened to make it state-of-the-art. I urge the Government to use the Committee and Report stages to do just that.

3.20 pm
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

May I say what a privilege it is to have a chance to speak in what is an important debate about rights for disabled people, and what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), who has played such an important role in raising many of the issues and who made a thoughtful speech, which probably every Opposition Member can support.

The Liberal Democrats warmly welcome the Bill. The party has long felt that it was needed. It is an important step in establishing proper civil rights for disabled people. I believe that it is something that the Liberal Democrats have backed for many years, but I do not want to fall into the same trap as the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)—I am sure that someone can find a quote in Hansard from way back to contradict me. The Bill goes a long way to meeting the new Labour Government's manifesto pledge, in which they said that the legislation was needed. It is nice to see politicians keeping their word.

I join in the tributes to Members, in this and the other place, for their years of work. That started long before I was elected to the House. They have done a massive amount of work and made many contributions. I also agree with the hon. Member for Kingswood: the work of the disability organisations is the reason why we have the Bill. In the two years that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have been enormously impressed by the quality of briefing and material from those organisations; it is second to none. Today we mark their efforts, as well as those of Members who have been mentioned.

It has been a good-natured debate. There is much harmony throughout the House. I was tempted to point out what is almost an anomaly—a Government who are strong on pushing forward such rights issues, but who may not be as robust as some of us would like on the benefits regime. The Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill is in Committee, where several of the concerns of disability groups have been raised about the impact of changes to the contributions mechanism for incapacity benefits, means-testing of incapacity benefits and individuals' pensions. However, given that this has been such a good-natured debate, I will not be tempted to go into those contradictions. I will just say that rights are important, but that the right to have enough money to live on is important as well. I hope that the Government will reflect on that point.

As we have heard, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 represents a missed opportunity fully to advance the rights of disabled people. That is why I am pleased that the Disability Rights Commission is coming into force. It will help to address many of the concerns that the Act fails to address.

I am encouraged that, over recent years, prejudice and discrimination against disabled people have decreased. Without wishing to re-open the Glenn Hoddle argument, the way in which the public and the national media responded showed how certain attitudes towards disabled people had changed in recent years.

Sadly, however, there is still a problem in that the majority of people, particularly employers, have many misconceptions about disabled people. The minute they think of disabled people, they assume that they are all wheelchair bound. They do not consider the problems that disabled people have with learning, or the difficulties of those with mental health problems. Throughout their life, one in four people may at times have a mental health problem. That is not understood by the public and employers. As the Minister said, many of those problems stem from ignorance. The commission will have a critical role in starting to educate those people. I was encouraged to hear the Minister say that there would be a hearts and minds campaign. I hope that that is not just another new Labour gimmick, but a positive move to improve information for employers and to build on the changing attitudes among the public.

I welcome the fact that the commission will have substantial powers to work towards eliminating discrimination, promoting equality, providing good-quality advice to employers and encouraging good practice. However, the commission will be effective only if it has the necessary powers of enforcement, good geographical access through regional offices and sufficient funding. If the commission does not have all those things, it will raise expectations that it will not be able to deliver. Above all, the commission will be as good only as the legislation that it is working with and its ability to enforce that. I shall touch on some of the failings of the Disability Discrimination Act and push the Minister to find out whether the Government will be able to move quickly on those issues even before the commission is established.

One concern that has already been touched on by hon. Members is in relation to the regulations under the Act and the exemption for small companies. It is of concern that the vast majority of companies are exempt. We could, as the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) tried to do, debate how many individual employees work for them. I am not sure whether his figures were accurate, but the vast number of companies are excluded under the Act.

The commission may embark on a hearts and minds campaign of its own, going around the country to educate people and encourage employers to realise that employing disabled people is a positive step for their company, and saying that the provisions of the Act are not that difficult for organisations to put into place. Its whole education programme will be undermined by the fact that the Government, by setting the threshold at 15 employees, have excluded many companies from the process. The clear signal that is sent is that the Act is complex and difficult, that we need time for it to bed in, and that the Government do not want to include all those companies because it might be difficult to enforce. It is counter to the signal that the commission will try to put across at all times.

It is time for the Government to move fast on the matter. Rather than waiting for the commission to take a decision on the issue—I hope that it is an early decision — the Government should move speedily, as they have already suggested they are minded to do, to reduce the threshold to two. That would give a positive boost to the commission before it starts and would reinforce many of the measures that the commission will put in place.

Clearly, some aspects of the Disability Discrimination Act need work. They include access to education, to transport, health and social services and, as the hon. Member for Kingswood said, the police. All those matters will require Government action if the commission is to be effective across the board.

I turn now to the mechanics of how the commission will operate. We have heard a fair amount from other hon. Members about funding. I have two concerns about funding. It is wrong to enter the debate by trying to play off one commission against another and saying, "If that commission receives X amount, the other should receive that amount." That is not the way things should be done.

I am concerned that the start-up costs for the Disability Rights Commission will be considerable. Much money will be needed for the organisation. That will be sapped quickly by all the regulations that will be required, producing information in a variety of formats, and getting fully accessible premises. Considerable investment will be needed to train staff in awareness and communications abilities, which will be needed to help the blind, the deaf, the deaf-blind and people with mental health problems.

The start-up costs will be considerable. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the £3 million figure that has been arrived at is based on considerable consultation with disability groups and has been thought through, taking into account the type of work and costs that will be involved. I hope that if, during the start-up process, it is discovered that additional money is required to make the commission effective, the commission will be able to go back to Government to get that money, rather than taking it from the £11 million that has been allocated for running the organisation in its first couple of years.

Although we have had some reassurance from the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities that the Government are prepared to review the budgeting process, I hope that we shall hear a little more from the Minister who is to reply to the debate about how they plan to consider the issues. As hon. Members, we should be able to consider the budget implications two or three years down the line. We should also be assured by Ministers that if a proper allocation of resources is not made, the Government will have the will to increase budgets, and that—even in a financially difficult period for the Government, either just before or after a general election—the Government will not find themselves unable to make those resources available.

There is a strong argument for saying that there should be the ability and systems in place to review not only funding and the other issues that we have debated today, but the mechanisms of the commission itself. Many of the concerns that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House have been about the effectiveness of some of the mechanisms provided in the Bill. We should be reassured that although the mechanisms would not necessarily be pilots, there will be the ability to change some of them if they are failing. I am thinking specifically of some of the inspection provisions.

In two years' time, if it turns out that inspections are simply not resulting in attitude changes, we will have to be able to reconsider the relevant provisions and decide

how to close some of the loopholes that undoubtedly will emerge. I shall welcome the Minister's views on the matter.

In the other place, there was much debate on the proportion of disabled people who should sit on the commission. I am grateful to note that the Minister, in opening the debate, gave some reassurances on that issue, and that there has been a change in the Government's attitude to it. Although the Bill will not include a firm commitment that the chairman should be a disabled person, I think that all hon. Members will have taken comfort from the very strong reassurances that the Minister gave.

I should say that I have probably changed my mind on the matter, and agree with the Minister that there are some problems with including such a requirement in the Bill. It might, for example, send conflicting signals on issues of equality and of jobs obtained on merit. Moreover, in different circumstances, the issues could be thrown back in our face by disabled groups. I am therefore minded to agree with the Minister on that point.

I should also add that although we have received good reassurances from Ministers, and there has been some talk about the importance of a disabled person being the first chairman, I hope that future Ministers—when current Ministers are promoted to greater things—will take a similar attitude when considering the appointment of new chairmen. I should welcome the Minister's view on how that could be achieved, although I do not know how it could be if it is not included in the Bill.

I should like to focus on the commission's investigation powers, which will require much more clarification. If the powers are to work effectively, they will have to be absolutely rigid; otherwise, the exercise will be abused by those wanting to bypass the regulations.

The commission will be able to initiate proceedings only on behalf of individuals, and not in its own name. I therefore share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Kingswood and other hon. Members that the process could exclude some very important investigations that the commission may wish to make—simply because no organisation has clearly identified a specific individual, or, in other circumstances, because a specific individual feels very uneasy about demonstrating the courage to come forward and to be used as the focus of an investigation. In the next two or three years, there will undoubtedly be cases in which the commission is absolutely convinced that there is discrimination, but is unable to obtain an individual's agreement to deal with it. I should therefore be very grateful if the Minister would tell us how such circumstances will be tackled, so that the commission may act.

I also have some concerns about clause 4, which deals with non-discrimination notices. I should like there to be some protection for organisations that may be on the receiving end of non-discrimination notices, and should be grateful if the Minister would clarify the process by which notices are issued. If a notice is about to be issued to an organisation, there certainly should be some warning to the organisation that that is about to happen. The Audit Commission perhaps provides a model. Before it serves various notices within its power, it may provide a 14–day period in which it informs an organisation that action will be taken, thereby allowing any factual errors or misunderstandings to be dealt with immediately, rather than suddenly discovering that a non-discrimination notice containing errors has been publicly served. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify that point, too. It is an important point of trust that organisations should have a quiet, private period in which to ensure that a discrimination notice is accurate, and such provision should be included in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead made a very good point on the time period in which non-discrimination notices against a specific company should remain public. She was right to say that, if a company has put its house in order, there should be a time at which the non-discrimination order is either withdrawn or removed from the public database. I can certainly envisage situations in which a company changes management or ownership and subsequently becomes extremely positive on disability issues, although it has on its record a black mark that no longer has anything to do with that organisation, in which everything has since been put in order. I should certainly be grateful if the Minister would deal with that point.

Perhaps I have missed something in the Bill, but I wonder whether any organisations will be exempt from the process? I should welcome reassurances that everyone—Government bodies, other public bodies and church groups—will be subject to the process. I have not seen whether the Bill provides for any exemptions, but perhaps the Minister will put my mind at ease on the matter. I think that it would be wrong if there were exemptions, and cannot envisage any circumstances in which it would be right to allow them.

Rev. Martin Smyth

The hon. Gentleman has been dealing with clause 4. Paragraph 8(4) of schedule 3 states: The Commission may refuse to receive oral representations made on behalf of the person concerned by a person (not being counsel or a solicitor) to whom the Commission reasonably objects as being unsuitable. How would the hon. Gentleman interpret "reasonably objects" and "unsuitable" in the case of someone who wants to give evidence on behalf of a person who has been accused?

Mr. Oaten

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which reinforces my belief that there should be a cooling-off period before a discrimination notice is issued, so that there may be a private dialogue to establish the facts. I should be concerned if, as has already been said, the commission had the power to refuse to enter into a dialogue. Perhaps the Minister will deal also with that specific point.

I should like to deal with another matter that concerns me, and to be clear about the commission's powers to act in a specific example that I shall give. I hope that the House will bear with me as I try to stumble through an explanation of the circumstances of a case in my own constituency.

About six months ago, Winchester city council received a sudden surge in planning applications —we received about 15,000 of them—for homes, and no one could quite understand why they were all being made. I shall not name the builder involved, but, once we made some initial contact, it became clear that the applications were being made because the builder thought that, although he had no intention of building the homes for many years, lodging the applications was a way of avoiding observing the Government's changes to the building regulations, which have not yet been implemented. The builder therefore thought that, in four or five years' time, once the legislation had been implemented, he would not have to meet the new building regulations requiring full disabled access.

What powers will the commission have to step in in such circumstances? Will it have the power, for example, to take out an injunction against an organisation that is not committing a form of discrimination, but is engaged in the physical act of making an application or building a home that would fall foul of the commission's future objectives? Such acts would certainly seem to fall foul of some aspects of the legislation. I am not clear on how the commission's powers would operate in that example, in which a physical act or planning application is imminent which no number of non-discrimination notices will stop. Has any thought been given to whether additional powers are needed to take out injunctions to stop such activities?

The Liberal Democrats warmly welcome the Bill, which is long overdue and will be a major step forward in establishing civil rights. The point of my questions is not to be critical, but to make sure that the commission is successful. We do not want to have a debate in two or three years' time about how it has failed, how there have been no orders against individuals, how practice has not changed and how homes have been built without disabled access. That would set back so much of the progress that hon. Members have been trying to make for many years.

I hope that the Minister can deal with these issues and, above all, give the House a commitment that there will be a proper review of the effectiveness of the commission in two years' time so that we can iron out the problems and, we hope, come back and congratulate ourselves on the success of the commission.

3.41 pm
Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South)

I join many of my right hon. and hon. Friends— and the one or two Opposition Members who are here—in welcoming the Bill. We have waited many years for legislation to give comprehensive and enforceable civil rights to disabled people.

I am a new Member of the House, and I have come here as a member of the Government party. Before that, I spent 18 years in community voluntary organisations, working with people with a disability. We attempted to undertake normal activities, and I want to describe the sheer frustration for people with a disability of making arrangements to live a normal life in what we would expect to be a normal society at the end of the 20th century.

Having decided to go somewhere, I have telephoned to check that the building is physically accessible because someone coming with us is a wheelchair user. I have been assured that it is, but arrived to find a series of steps to the room that we are to use; or to find that we cannot use necessary facilities, such as toilets, because of steps.

I have tried to make arrangements for transport, and found that there is no public transport that can be used because of the disabilities of some people. I have found how extremely difficult and expensive it is to make arrangements to hire transport that is accessible. A person with disabilities needs sheer bloody-minded determination not to be left out of our society.

I have been turned away from places because I have been with people with learning disabilities, people who have mental illness or people who have a physical disability. That was not necessarily because people wanted to turn us away, but because they were not aware of the arrangements that were necessary to make their service accessible, or because they had not made the investments that were necessary to make their service accessible.

As I said, I worked for 18 years in community and disability organisations. A tremendous number of community organisations are making sincere efforts to remove barriers for people with disabilities from pubs, offices, houses, railway stations and bus stations, and to allow people who want to go to town to buy things to do so.

People in communities are working extremely hard to raise awareness, and to work with and to facilitate disabled people in playing a full part in our society. There is not a disabled community out there. There are brothers and sisters, parents and children, and relatives and friends. We all want to be part of normal life. We want to make our towns, cities, schools and leisure facilities open to everyone and equally accessible. We want to go out and do things together.

Charities, good employers and businesses, individuals and groups have not been supported by the legislative framework, which has not worked. There has been good will in many places, but no infrastructure. There has been no inducement to change.

One of the clearest pictures that I had when listening to the debate was of a young man who is a wheelchair user explaining several years ago to a senior politician the experience of exclusion from employment. He was told that that could not be, because there was a Disability Discrimination Act; there was incomprehension from the politician. The young man knew that discrimination existed. He was an able young man, who was unable to find employment—and was desperate to find it.

Prior to the Government taking office, a deaf person in my constituency found that his employers sold the business, when the new employers did not allow him an interpreter during the contract negotiations in which his hours and conditions of employment were reduced.

There have been heroes in Westminster, such as Lord Morris of Manchester, Lord Ashley of Stoke, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and the many other hon. Members that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) named. They were heroes to us out there, and they still are. They made slow, but determined progress.

When the previous Government—acting under duress—at last, and reluctantly, passed the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to outlaw discrimination, they did not create a commission to enforce the law. The Act was a vehicle without an engine. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) did not gain much from sticking to his party rather than what he now says were his principles. He now has the double misfortune of being the Leader of the Opposition.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth)—as Under- Secretary —set up the disability rights task force, it was exceptionally welcome, not only in this House, but outside. It demonstrated the involvement of people with disabilities, and operated on the principles of inclusion and transparency. It involved people with different disabilities from different parts of the country.

I welcome the fact that the task force has brought a new attitude to the legislative framework of this country; a positive attitude that is promoting the rights of disabled people. That is a significant change. It is a gentle touch that will allow people to work effectively to try to achieve the society that we want—but it is able to take effective action against those who do not share that aim.

The Bill, which is receiving Government time, will be a vehicle by which many of the parts of the Government strategy can move forward. The new deal for disabled people will be supported by the Bill going through the House at the same time. It will open up fair opportunities to people with disabilities to gain and retain employment. It will be underpinned by guidance, good practice for employers and the ability to take enforcing action. We are not leaving disabled people to fight their own fights any more. They will have support from legislation.

I welcome the decision by Ministers that training in disabled awareness for benefits advisers will take place. I welcome also the openness of the Departments to learning and good practice as part of the process.

Ministers will know that I have met local organisations which work with disabled people in my constituency to discuss the issues. They asked me to raise the issue of education and gaining skills. In the past, too many people have not been able to achieve their potential because they have been excluded from educational opportunities. I hope that the commission will consider how to take that forward.

Others issues are important, such as the development of an integrated transport strategy that is accessible for everyone. Consumer rights and labelling are also important, as many people with disabilities—and hidden disabilities—find it crucial to know the ingredients in what they are to eat. I welcome the way in which the Government have taken those things into account across different Departments.

The commission will drive change. It has a style of inclusion and will involve people with a disability and those who have had a disability. They will have major representation. That is so important because, frequently, people with disabilities have been marginalised to such an extent that everyone knows what is best for them, and they are left to know how much they are excluded.

Some things can and must change rapidly although we all accept that others will take time. The commission will play a key role working with people who misunderstand, are embarrassed by, or have not had the opportunity to learn at first hand about, disability. They do not know what the barriers are or how to take them away.

The commission will work in a new way, solving problems through dialogue wherever possible, which is sensible and welcome. It will be very supportive of change. Many people want to make our communities inclusive and to address their own shortcomings but do not know how. It is about time that we gave them support.

The commission will have to tackle difficult issues and it must be fully empowered to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood spoke about policing. I want to add my voice to his. We must ensure that all aspects of policing, including the operation of statutory functions such as arrest and surveillance, are applied fairly and without prejudice. That is crucial to our civil society.

Some people with disabilities from time to time display symptoms that can make them look as though they are likely to cause difficulties and people can become disturbed by them. People with diabetes can sometimes appear to exhibit aggression when they are suffering from rapid blood sugar changes, and that can easily be misinterpreted. We must also give serious consideration to people with communication difficulties. They have not received all the support that they deserve from our police services.

I have noted that the task force is to consider the extension of the legislation to cover statutory police functions. That is very welcome and many of us look forward to hearing its proposals. It is also welcome that the powers of the commission will include human rights issues relating to disability.

The establishment of the commission must be effected so as to face the challenge of ensuring involvement and access for disabled people in all parts of the country. I know that Ministers will consider that seriously. I am confident that they will find a way of delivering, but they must ensure that people from every part of Warrington, as well as every part of Westminster, get access to the commission and to the opportunities that it will afford.

The commission will be a radical engine for change. It will open up a lot of challenges and many of us will have to face questions with which we might not be comfortable, but it has to work effectively to fulfil the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities and the hundreds of thousands more who are perhaps only temporarily not disabled. I warmly welcome the Bill and I look forward to its taking effect.

3.53 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The hon. Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) referred to personal experience and the human aspects as well as to the whole concept of the environment. We have not developed that sufficiently over the years, as our legislation for the built environment has often not been complied with when new buildings have been put up. There is no excuse for that, although I can understand some delays in modernising old buildings, some of which may not be as amenable as others to the work.

I welcome the Bill as a further advance. I know that there have been criticisms of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. At the time, some hon. Members wanted to vote against it because it did not give us everything that we wanted. Even today, it has been acknowledged that this Bill is merely one more step. We must go step by step and make progress towards further legislation.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has come in for some criticism, but I must at least pay tribute to him for introducing the Bill that became the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. He had not won the battle either with the Treasury or—dare I say it?—with the Northern Ireland Office. Northern Ireland was again excluded. In fairness, when we pressed the issue, he ensured that there was legislation for Northern Ireland.

Fascinatingly, the only reference to Northern Ireland in the Bill concerns eligibility for membership of the House or of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It says that membership of the Disability Rights Commission is a bar to membership of either of those bodies. I am aware of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to which the Minister and the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), my friend of long standing in this campaign, referred. I am not convinced that the same thrust of legislation is contained in that Act, bearing in mind that there is already a debate about whether one commission can deal with all the various aspects that are dealt with here by several commissions.

When will Northern Ireland have a commission with the same powers as the commission in Great Britain? The right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) will remember that in 1986 he promoted a private Member's Bill, of which I was one of the sponsors, but the legislation was not allowed to be extended to Northern Ireland. In 1989 I was fortunate enough to draw the 11th place in the ballot and we managed to pilot through legislation for Northern Ireland on that occasion.

I remind the House that part of the declaration of human rights is that every citizen should have the same rights, so those in Northern Ireland should have all the rights that the citizens of England, Scotland and Wales have. People involved in disability needs in Northern Ireland have been consistent in campaigning for the Bill and in working to improve the lot of people with either overt or covert disabilities and seeking to give everyone the same standing.

I trust that, if the legislation has to be effected by the Northern Ireland Assembly, which, unlike the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies, does not start until the middle of 2000 at the earliest, we will not again be disadvantaging people in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Bill as a further step towards freedom for people with disabilities. From boyhood, I have been aware of disability. My mother's cousin—we called her Aunt Nancy—was blind. She worked in a workshop for the blind. She never liked living in the hostel for the blind. She was a beautiful musician, a singer and a pianist. My brother and I would meet her every Friday night to take her to our home. With the mischievous approach of boys, we could not understand how a person who could not see could get around. We regularly tried tricks on her. Sometimes we stopped short and sometimes we went past the house. Never once did she miss a beat. She was able to correct us and say, "A little bit further," or "You've gone past it."

I have been aware of disability at other levels. Sometimes people do not realise that none of us is perfect and that we all have some measure of disability. It may not be noticeable now, but it might be before we get much older. That is the sense in which we must continue getting across to people the concept of disability. Original sin was mentioned earlier. It was not invented in the House, but it is sometimes still evident in the House, in the way in which we treat people who are different from us.

We have spoken about the effect on employment and businesses of disability discrimination legislation. We in Northern Ireland do not consider it right that small businesses are excluded. When the matter was discussed previously, the employers forum was adamant that the legislation should apply across the entire sector, especially because in Northern Ireland, unlike other parts of the Kingdom, small businesses employ a much greater percentage of labour than large businesses. I hope, therefore, that if legislation is needed to cover those who should be employed in small businesses, it will be forthcoming.

We recognise that there are certain jobs that certain people cannot do. Whether or not we have physical or mental abilities, some of us are not equipped to do certain jobs. We are not arguing that people should get a job because of a specific disability. We have acknowledged that we want the chair and the vice-chair of the commission to be appointed on merit. Some people with particular disabilities might outshine some of us who think that we are not disabled.

I wonder to what extent the Bill will apply to Government Departments. I was glad to hear that Ministers had at last won the battle with the Treasury. That has been the problem all along. Step by step, money is to be released from various Departments. However, it is not right that we should wait another four years to deal with the supply of goods and services. That is where discrimination is often most severe, and I shall give two simple examples to illustrate the point.

I recognise that the public purse, like all our purses, is not bottomless. Judgments must be made. I am thinking of a home that I visited last Saturday, for which we have been trying to get alternative heating for at least two years. One of the residents is 93 years of age and blind. The other, her sister, is 84 and suffers from severe osteoporosis.

We finally won the argument that there should be alternative heating. The best would have been oil. We were told that that was not possible, but we have not discovered why. Only last week, the women were told that an application had been made for gas, but as there was no connection at the front of the house, they could not have gas. The women had never asked for gas, because the nearest gas supply point is more than two miles away. Those in the Housing Executive and the occupational therapy department are using such reasons for not supplying the alternative fuel that is needed to care for two folk who, in my judgment, deserve it.

I think of another case in which an application had been made for the provision of downstairs accommodation, including a toilet, for a woman who had been healthy until about 10 years ago. For the past 10 years, owing to debilitation and loss of limbs, she has been confined to an upstairs room. I was utterly amazed to discover that the occupational therapist who was sent to examine the room tried to find ways of avoiding the provision of such accommodation —that is the kindest way that I can put it. It was only when my constituents argued the case that officials began to speak of criteria, which had not been mentioned previously.

It seems to me that in both cases, the criteria were financial. If we continue to discriminate against our citizens because we claim that we cannot afford to meet their needs, the ablest in society will be allowing the weakest to bear the greatest pain. I am glad to welcome the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission, so that it might get on with its work.

I make one proviso, to which I alluded in my question to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). We all know that legal proceedings and appeals cost money. If a tribunal is set up, it must be paid for. For benefit appeals, no money will be available. If a person employs a solicitor, that must be at his own expense. People rely on the few solicitors who work for the public good, on trade union officials and sometimes on Members of Parliament, who try to help as a service to their constituents. We must be careful not to impose more costs on the system than the commission considers reasonable. The same clause allows for the assistance of a solicitor or counsel, and I cannot imagine many of them practising without pay.

4.7 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

It was in 1988, at my first Labour party conference in Blackpool, that I first spoke to a large audience about the need for civil rights for disabled people. I believed then, as I do now, that disabled people would never be able to play their full part in society, never be fully accepted and never have equality of opportunity until we had equal rights with everyone else in society.

In those days I had no idea that I would ever reach these heady heights. I had no ambition to seek election to this place. That was for other people, not for people like me. I saw my role in persuading others of the strong case for civil rights legislation, but it would be up to others to enact that legislation.

Hon. Members can therefore imagine my pride in being in the Chamber today, speaking on the Second Reading of the Disability Rights Commission Bill, which will lay the foundation that will underpin the changes necessary to stop disabled people being treated as second-class citizens.

I have left it to others this afternoon to discuss the need for such legislation—the flaws in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the powerlessness of the National Disability Council set up by the DDA, the need for a body that can take through the courts cases of discrimination against disabled people, and the need for good information for service providers and employers. Those are the academic arguments. There is an injustice in this country, and the Bill is the beginning of our efforts to right that injustice.

What I can add to the debate is not based on intellectual argument or high-flown ideals. I can describe my experiences in day-to-day life that illustrate the extent of discrimination faced by disabled people, day in and day out. Let me give hon. Members some examples of how it feels to be at the receiving end of the ignorance and prejudice that exist. It is all very well to talk about things in the abstract, as we have been doing this afternoon. I hope that I can evoke for hon. Members some of our feelings.

People who use a wheelchair become obsessed with toilets. On a number of occasions it has been difficult to find one, so I choose where I go carefully. Although I am blessed with a fairly strong bladder, thank goodness, on occasion it is important that there is a toilet. I remember some years ago when I went to a Chinese restaurant in my constituency. It was chosen because it had a disabled person's toilet. After a nice meal we went to the toilet, as one does after a few drinks or so. Imagine my surprise when I opened the door of the disabled toilet to find it full of furniture. Feeling a bit puzzled, I went off to complain. I found the manager whose reply was, "We're very busy. It's a Saturday night and you didn't tell us you were coming." Next time hon. Members book a table in a restaurant, imagine not only booking a table but having to say, "By the way, I might want to use your toilet." The farcical nature of that helps to illustrate the difficulty. I have found all sorts of things in disabled toilets. I think it was at the BBC Aberdeen that we had to shift out a barbecue and wellingtons a few minutes before I was to go on air so that I could go to the toilet. That is what can happen with accessible toilets, but imagine what it is like not to be able to get to the toilet at all.

Then there was the time when I was standing for election to the council. I was standing in one ward in Brechin, where I lived at the time, and I had to vote in another ward. I arrived at the appropriate polling station wearing my big red rosette for the Labour party to find no other people wearing big red rosettes. All I could see were people wearing blue rosettes. There were three steps into the polling station. I was on my own. Consternation ensued. I realised that I had to swallow my pride and ask the Tories to carry me in. Luckily, they did this with a degree of good will. Brechin is a small town and I knew them well. Just to be on the safe side, I thought to ask the SNP to carry me out again. If hon. Members can imagine the indignity that disabled people have to face in being carried in and out of a polling station, they will get some sense of how awkward life can be.

I have many such stories of what has happened to me. I wish also to show that such things happen constantly, so I shall give just two examples from this week. At the beginning of the week I arrived on the plane from Aberdeen and waited at Heathrow for the taxi driver to pick me up and bring me here. He had my name and knew that I was in a wheelchair. I was sitting waiting when a driver from the company that I use walked past me. Hon. Members can imagine the consternation of the complete stranger standing beside me when she was asked if I was Anne Begg. She was completely puzzled until I put the driver right. That happens all the time. For disabled people outside, it may be worth remembering that no matter how famous or well-known one thinks one is, all disabled people suffer from the "Does she take sugar?" syndrome. Constantly, complete strangers who just happen to be near me are asked by other complete strangers whether I can manage or not. These are small examples of how ridiculous the attitudes are that lead to discrimination against disabled people.

My second illustration from this week concerns the census form that I received as part of the pilot census. I assume that all hon. Members know that there is to be a full-scale census in the year 2001. In some parts, a number of households have been chosen to receive the pilot census form. One duly arrived through my door and, being a good citizen, I filled it out. I came across a question that is obviously geared to judging how many people in Britain have a disability. The question is: Do you have any long term illness, health problem or disability which limits your daily activities or the work you can do?". There is a yes and a no box. I did not think much about it, but got on and ticked the no box.

My disability does not interfere with my job. I hope that I am as successful a Member of Parliament as anyone else in this House. I hope that I was as successful a teacher as any other. I am fairly sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment would also tick the no box indicating that he did not have a disability that limits his daily activities or the work that he can do. He is a successful Secretary of State and member of this Government, enacting worthwhile legislation. Who on earth, then, is meant to tick the yes box? Perhaps my mum should. She does not actually have an illness, a health problem or a disability, but she has never learned to drive. She relies on my father to drive her around. That limits her daily activities considerably. Perhaps she might tick the yes box, but she would not class herself as being disabled, ill or having a health problem.

Several hon. Members in the House this afternoon, including me, wear specs. If we had a burning ambition to be a pilot or to do some other job that required Al sight, I am sure that we would all be discriminated against because we wear specs. In other words, that would be classed as a disability. Yet I do not suppose that hon. Members believe that they have a disability. Someone with specs might possibly tick the yes box.

It is not the disability that is the problem. It is not my disability that stops me playing an equal part in society. It is the fact that some people have put steps in buildings, so that I cannot get into them. If there are two buildings side by side, one with steps and the other fully accessible, there are no limitations to what I can do in the fully accessible one, but I am disadvantaged and discriminated against if I want to get into the building with steps.

We should never blame disabled people for problems that society has created. It is society that has created physical barriers and it is attitudes within society that cause the problem, not the disability. I hope that when the Home Office gets my letter of complaint, it will consider changing that particular question on the census. I am not sure how, but I hope that it will, in time for the census in 2001.

The discrimination faced by many disabled people can have a far more serious impact on their life than the minor daily irritations that I have just described. While I face inconvenience, annoyance and frustration, I have been lucky to be able to overcome the barriers that could have seriously impeded my life. Eventually I became a teacher, although there was a doctor at the college of education who seemed hellbent on preventing me. I hope that I was a successful teacher, despite having a disability far more profound than it was when I first went to see the doctor as a 17-year-old.

I have managed to lead an independent life. I have a car with a great machine that stores the wheelchair on the roof. In that way the barrier of a lack of transport and of motability has been overcome for me. Ultimately, I have been lucky to have been elected to this House, and that the attitudinal problems that exist in political parties and society as a whole did not count against me when I stood to be selected for Aberdeen, South. For the majority of people with disabilities, the barriers, both physical and attitudinal, are far too high to overcome. They are not in work although they could quite easily work. They do not lead a fulfilling life although there should be nothing to stop them doing so. We can only guess what talent goes to waste because of discrimination against, and lack of opportunity for, people with disabilities. Society would be richer if all citizens could play their full part in our society.

We are never going to be happy; we will always look for more. I look forward to the time when I can visit all my constituents because all private dwellings are wheelchair accessible. That is a long way off, but we have made a start in changing part M of the building regulations in England and Wales—part T in Scotland. I look forward to being able to travel by train on my own without having to book ahead and a guarantee that the toilets will work— toilets again. I look forward to the time when I can take it for granted that if I go to a restaurant or pub, there will be a disabled toilet that I can enter without falling over furniture. I look forward to the time when every shop in Union street in Aberdeen is wheelchair accessible so that I get in and do my shopping like everyone else.

I look forward to a time when I will not be called a wheelchair. The last time that it happened was in the embassy in Washington. A young chap said, "We'll get the wheelchair into the lift and the others can follow." I am afraid that I get very facetious in such circumstances, and say, "Why? Am I not going up too?" I could go on and on.

Of course, it will take time. The Disability Rights Commission will take time to work through the discrimination that has always existed. This is the first step, the underpinning. Some Opposition Members probably did not realise that they were using the Scottish Labour slogan for the Scottish election campaign when they talked about going step by step. In my case, it should perhaps be move by move. We will eventually have full equality of opportunity and comprehensive, enforceable civil rights for disabled people. The Bill is the basis on which we will build. Waiting for attitudes to change through gentle persuasion has not worked. The Bill will force the pace and help disabled people who wish to challenge the discrimination that they face daily. Disabled people like me welcome this Bill, which I urge the House to support wholeheartedly.

4.23 pm
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East)

I do not know what I have done to incur your displeasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I must have done something to deserve punishment. How can I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg)?

I welcome the Bill for several reasons. While the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is not worthless without such legislation, it is much devalued. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) said, that Act has many failings, but the biggest failing was that it did not introduce a Disability Rights Commission. That view is now shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It certainly was not before.

The Disability Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, but there was no real mechanism for doing anything about it. If a council, multinational company or Department discriminated against someone, that person could do nothing. Individuals cannot take on big organisations. People had rights but could not exercise them. Rights that cannot be exercised are not rights. People had rights in theory only. I hope that the Bill will mean that people have rights in practice.

The Bill will not end discrimination against people with disabilities or change people's attitudes at a stroke. It will not be the final legislation on discrimination against

people with disabilities, but it is a step in the right direction. It is important to recognise that. We struggled so long to achieve the Disability Rights Commission that we have almost started to regard it as an end in itself. People think that once we have it, everything will be rosy. That is not the case. Anyone who believes that we can forget about disability, relax and sit on our laurels because a Labour Government have introduced a commission is wrong.

The commission is only the beginning. The Disability Discrimination Act was a step in the right direction, partly because it was much amended by the then Opposition, with the help of many disabled organisations. The Bill, too, is such a step. That is why I am not so concerned about some of the details. I see no compelling reason why employers should be outside the Act because they employ fewer than 15 people, any more than I could see a compelling reason for the figure to be 20. Legislation could be framed to include all employers. I am not too worried that that is not in this Bill.

Similarly, I am not sure about the funding. I want to be persuaded that there is enough money to ensure that we do things properly. Introducing written agreements earlier seems sensible, but I am not worried if it is not in the Bill. Once the commission is established, it will be able to consider such things itself. It will help shape future changes by advising the Government on how to amend the Disability Discrimination Act and on what else needs to change. I fear that we could fall into the trap of trying to do the commission's job for it by putting everything in the Bill when such matters should be considered by it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood rightly said that the Disability Discrimination Act was designed on the hoof. I fear that we might end up designing the commission on the hoof. That would be a bad example to follow—although I can think of even worse ones. Hon. Members will remember how everyone thought that all the ideas for the Child Support Agency were great. There was not much debate, but it seemed sensible, so away we went. I may be thought over-cautious, but considered views from the commission before we move forward might be a good thing.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) quoted a part of the Confederation of British Industry brief that showed it to favour the Bill strongly. A few paragraphs on, the CBI expressed real concerns and seemed suspicious of the direction in which the commission was heading. We must do our best to dispel such mistrust. The legislation must work for people with disabilities, but it must also work for the rest of the community, including the business community. I am not apologising for the CBI, but if we can get consensus, it is well worth doing.

I am particularly pleased that the commission will have a majority of disabled people on it. When I read that, it made me think of a few years back when, in another life, I was a county councillor. I was chair of the equal opportunities committee. I got involved in. a controversial problem. People will be amazed to learn that a deaf school would not allow the children to sign, even at playtime. The people who served the meals were told that the children had to keep their hands at their side. They were not allowed to sign to each other. I may be getting a little long in the tooth, but we are not talking about Dickensian times. It was just a few years ago. I went to a meeting called at the local Deaf Society by the parents of the deaf children, many of whom were deaf themselves. I heard them putting their views forcefully. They wanted their children to be able to communicate not just at school but back at home, with them. I also listened to the professionals saying why they did not allow the children to sign at the school.

I came to one conclusion. If you want to know anything about deafness, ask deaf people. If you want to know anything about disability, ask people with a disability. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South has demonstrated that today with her speech. We cannot do better than listen to the people who know what it is like to live with the problems day by day.

I am proud that a Labour Government have introduced a Disability Rights Commission with an enormous and powerful role. It will work towards the elimination of discrimination against disabled people and promote equality of opportunity for them. It will assist people in taking cases forward. I agree with what the hon. Member for Maidenhead said about consensus. If we can work by consensus and conciliation, great, but the truth is that it is difficult to reason with prejudice. Prejudice defies logic. There will be times when we have to resort to the legislation. Individuals cannot do that on their own, without the help of the commission. The Bill is an enormous step forward. It will make it more likely that conciliation and voluntary agreements will work. People will know that there is a stopping point at the end.

The commission will prepare codes of practice and guidance. It will arrange for independent conciliation. It will also provide information and support to employers and others. That has been a problem in the past. Some people discriminate just through ignorance. If there is better understanding of the problems, there will not be so much discrimination. I am pleased and proud that I am part of a Government who are making that possible.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead annoyed me a little when she said that before the election the Labour party's view had been that there should be no small employer threshold. She implied that disabled people were disillusioned; that they felt that now the Labour party was in government its views had changed and that they felt let down. I do not believe that that is the case. In our 1997 manifesto, we said: We will seek to end unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists. We support comprehensive, enforceable civil rights for disabled people against discrimination in society or at work, developed in partnership with all interested parties. Just before the election, I attended a disabled people's group, as a poor substitute for my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke). I told them what the Labour party's policy was, and that we would introduce a commission. The members of the group were sceptical. It was a case of, "Oh, yes, we have heard this before. This is before the election. Wait until after the election." After the election, I still faced a fair amount of scepticism, because we could not legislate for everything in the first few months. There was a feeling in many disabled organisations that the legislation was never going to materialise.

In the Labour party we used to have a real problem with what was called the militant tendency. That has well and truly gone now, but we sometimes have a problem with what I like to term the Monty Python tendency. Members of my party say, "What are you going to do about pensioners?" I say that we are trying to introduce half-fare bus passes, that we have cut VAT on fuel and that we have given them £100 towards their fuel bills. So they say, "Yeah, yeah, but what about nursery education?" I say that we are guaranteeing a nursery place for every four-year-old. They say, "Yeah, yeah, but what about schools?" I say that we are trying to cut class sizes. So it goes on. I am sure that the Monty Python tendency does not exist among disabled groups because they can see that since May 1997, the Government have set up the disability rights task force, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth). In some respects, my hon. Friend demonstrated his principles more than anyone under the previous Government by the tremendous decision that he made in reaction to what the Tory Government were doing to disabled people. We are making progress now with the Disability Rights Commission Bill. We are implementing new rights of access. We have extended the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to employers with 15 rather than 20 employees. We have announced £195 million for the new deal for disabled people.

Mrs. May

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's points in response to my comments about disappointment among disabled organisations about certain aspects of the Government's policies. I suggest that he looks at the disability audit conducted by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation. In its general comment on its overall finding, it said: Disabled people feel broadly pleased with the Labour Government's policy on civil rights, but are worried by welfare reform and by other issues which have less of a public profile. I did not see the hon. Gentleman at the disability organisations' lobby of Parliament in Westminster Hall before Easter. I apologise to him if he was there, but if he had attended he would have heard some real concerns expressed by disabled people about certain aspects of his Government's policy.

Mr. Heppell

I was not at the lobby. Things may have been said there.

Mr. Levitt

My hon. Friend will be aware that the RADAR' s audit was carried out almost a year ago.

Mrs. May


Mr. Levitt

It was September. It highlighted issues of major concern to disabled people, many of which related to welfare reform. That was at a time when there were misleading press stories about welfare reform going round and before the Bill was published. If my hon. Friend was at the briefing meeting organised by the disability organisations yesterday, he would have found 99 per cent. satisfaction with the proposals as stated—and the 1 per cent. of concerns were dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Minister in his opening speech.

Mr. Heppell

I accept that many of the disabled organisations were concerned about what they perceived to be Government policy when we first came to power, but they have realised that the perception was not the reality. Disabled people are becoming better-off under a Labour Government.

We have set up a £30 million fund to help disabled people who want to work and provided £375 million for social services to meet the needs of disabled children. We have introduced the disabled persons tax credit guarantees, with a minimum income of £150 a week, and the incapacity benefit safety net. The special educational action plan is supported by £55 million and we have abolished the means test for allowances for disabled students in higher education. I honestly do not think that anyone is going to say, "What did the Romans ever do for us?"

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Maidenhead and her colleagues now welcome the Bill, but I will not allow them to rewrite history. That is what they are trying to do today. The reality is that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was brought in under protest. The Tories effectively crumbled because public opinion was so strongly against them—disability groups were fighting against them on a common front and the Labour Opposition gave them a fair amount of trouble almost every day. However, even when the Bill was finally introduced, every concession made by the Conservative Government had to be torn from them in Committee. The Bill that was originally published by the Tories was radically changed during the Committee stage as a result of the hard work of the Labour Opposition and, to be fair, that of Liberal Democrat colleagues.

No one will forget the former Member for Sutton and Cheam and her machinations to try to destroy civil rights for disabled people. No one will forget the Ministers who effectively fell because of the blatant, political way in which they were prepared to use the issue of the civil rights of people with disabilities. Nor will anyone forget people such as my hon. Friends the Members for Kingswood, for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston, Lord Morris or Lord Ashley, who struggled for all those years.

I conclude by returning to the point with which 1 started. The Bill is a step forward, but it is not the end. The DDA was a step forward and the Bill is a much greater step, but there is still a long way to go. Let us hope that the Government will take us along that road.

4.42 pm
Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

Several of the speakers who preceded me have paid tribute to hon. Members who have campaigned on behalf of disabled people for many years. It was a delight to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg); she is a powerful example of the importance of disabled people being included in all aspects of life and society, and of the crying need to change attitudes. We listened with humility to her account of her experiences of discrimination; we are extremely fortunate to have her among us.

I am pleased to give a warm welcome to the Bill, as other hon. Members have done. Its provisions will also please the many excellent organisations that work on behalf of people with disabilities in my constituency and in the London borough of Redbridge. My connection with disability groups goes back to my days of service as a member of Redbridge community health council in the mid-1980s. Since then, as a local councillor, especially as mayor of the borough in 1994–95, and now as a Member

of Parliament, I have continually been reminded—as, I am sure, are all hon. Members —of the consistent and continuing commitment of everyone involved in campaigning for disabled people's rights, by contacts with, and visits to, many of the groups run by dedicated volunteers.

I want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the work in my own borough of the Redbridge Disability Association, the Redbridge Multiple Sclerosis Society, Redbridge Mencap, the East London handicapped adventure playground and the Redbridge Crossroads respite care scheme. There are many other examples of such groups and I am sure that there are similar groups in the constituencies of other hon. Members.

Support for a Disability Rights Commission has come from many national disability organisations, a number of which have provided help and information to Members of both Houses of Parliament during the Bill's passage so far. That point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). There have been briefings from Scope, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Leonard Cheshire—which has an inspired head of policy in John Knight, with whom I have had the pleasure of working during several years—and the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

My local area is especially fortunate in that some very active organisations for the visually impaired are based there; for example, the Ilford Blind Welfare Association, Focus for the Visually Handicapped, the Essex Voluntary Association for the Blind and the Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has its national headquarters in my constituency at Woodford Bridge.

If not disabled ourselves by birth, accident or illness, at some time in our lives all of us have contact with someone who has a disability. My grandfather was blind in one eye from the age of 21 and completely lost his sight at the age of 64, shortly before he retired. My father and my mother-in-law have hearing difficulties, and my best friend died at the age of 34 from the effects of multiple sclerosis.

The Disability Rights Commission will be a powerful champion to combat centuries-old discrimination against disabled people and the disgraceful denial of equal opportunities. As detailed in clause 2, the commission will encourage good practice, give advice to Ministers and to Government agencies, provide information and support, carry out research—that is most important—keep the DDA under review and, as has been mentioned, under clause 3, it will be able to conduct formal investigations.

I want to touch on three matters of concern that may limit the potential benefits of the Bill to promote justice and fairness for people with disabilities. First, in relation to clause 2(4), although I accept the necessity for the commission to limit its claim on the public purse and to place a tangible value on the services and facilities that it provides, I am anxious that some disabled people might not be able to pay such charges. For that group, access to the full range of services and protections of the commission could be denied. That would run counter to the spirit of the Bill.

Many disabled people are not in waged employment, although obviously I welcome the measures outlined by my right hon. Friend the Minister in his opening remarks to remedy that. However, many disabled people on a limited or reduced income, with extra costs arising from their disability, might find it extremely difficult to pay for facilities and services. I ask that a requirement be placed on the commission to consider those issues when its members develop a charging policy for the provision of services and facilities.

The second issue relates to the recovery of expenses, covered in clause 7(2) and (3). Following the acceptance of principles supporting financial prudence and accountability, I support the need for the commission to recover the costs it incurs by providing assistance to individuals under clause 6. However, I am concerned that any financial benefit awarded to a complainant could well be lost under the powers proposed in clause 7(2) to recover A sum equal to any expenses incurred by the Commission as a first charge. For example, if a disabled person were to be awarded a sum of £1,000 for injured feelings, following a humiliating refusal of service in a restaurant, but there was a complicated defence by the proprietor resulting in costs to the commission of £ 950, the net benefit to the complainant would be £50. Again, that seems to run counter to the spirit of the Bill. I urge the Government to set a maximum limit on the level of costs that can be recovered, so that the benefits of any award to the complainant are preserved.

The third issue relates to membership of the commission. I welcome the proposal that more than half the commissioners will be disabled persons or persons who have had a disability, as that will allow the commission and its activities to benefit from personal experience of disability. I am keen that that vital tranche of the commission's membership should be made up of people who have, or have had, personal experience of disability, as opposed to persons who are the parent or guardian of a disabled person, something that can be seen in the membership of both the National Disability Council and the disability rights task force. That will allow the personal testimony and experience of disabled people to guide, through their majority, the work and future direction of the commission. I support the bridges contained in the proposals for membership of the commission between those with and those without personal, individual experience of disability. Those provisions will bring together a broad force of joint experience and endeavour to make the commission work.

As one who campaigns against age discrimination, as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows well, I hope that, in the not-too-distant future, an equalities commission will be established to cover all aspects of discrimination. After all, a disabled person may also face discrimination on the grounds of gender, race or age. However, for now, it is my pleasure to support the creation of the Disability Rights Commission. It is yet another manifesto promise delivered by this Labour Government, who are determined to give disabled people the dignity that they deserve with comprehensive and enforceable civil rights.

4.50 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I do not usually display euphoria about legislation —not even when a Labour Government introduce it—and I often find something I can carp or be grumpy about, or areas where changes can be made. However, I am enthusiastic about this Bill. I feel like a Manchester United supporter will feel after last night's result; or like a supporter of Sunderland, which I am, whose team has just won promotion, which it has. I feel like that because, now that this Bill has been introduced, 1 believe that we are— at last—getting there, just as Manchester United will feel that it is getting there because it has reached the final, even though it has not yet played it.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, the Bill is a crucial staging post on the way to wider ends. The end legislative goal must be full civil rights for disabled people, but, even when we have full civil rights for disabled people and a commission that works to enforce those rights, we will not have solved all the problems of discrimination. The legislative tools we use only enable us to begin the work. Nevertheless, the Bill represents a crucial step in the right direction; it is a measure for which I, and other hon. Members— especially Labour Members—have been arguing for a long time, and it is perceived as a key part of the development of fuller rights.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has been mentioned repeatedly. That was an inadequate, restricting and grudging piece of legislation, although I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) said about that Act's being changed fantastically as it went through the House. It turned out to be a far better piece of legislation when it left the House than it was when it was introduced, and a great deal has been done since to make the most of its provisions. Labour Front Benchers deserve credit for having acted on the existing measures so as to achieve the most that they could.

Let us remember that the amendments proposed as that legislation passed through the House —especially the key amendment, which we knew would achieve the most, to set up the Disability Rights Commission—were opposed all down the line. Those amendments were opposed in Committee, on the Floor of the House on Report and in the House of Lords. It should not be forgotten that the person who was involved in running the campaign to block those radical changes to what became the Disability Discrimination Act was the current Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). At that time, he was the junior Minister piloting the Bill, and his promotion through the ranks of the Conservative party depended on his ability to deliver.

The legislation had been introduced only reluctantly, because of trouble the previous year with the private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), which had been blocked repeatedly as it passed through it stages in the House. The following year, I was lucky enough to be able to introduce my own version of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. That Bill was eventually allowed into Committee, after all sorts of devices had been used to prevent its getting there. Although that Committee had a Conservative majority, I was able to suggest the appointment of certain Conservative Members who I knew would be willing to support the legislation. In fact, in Committee, more Conservatives sat on my side than sat with the current Leader of the Opposition. Most of the time, the right hon. Gentleman was joined in Committee by Tim Smith and Charles Hendry, who were Conservative Members of Parliament at that time.

The Leader of the Opposition controlled the situation and ensured, almost single-handedly, that the measure did not return to the Floor of the House until it was too late. The right hon. Gentleman was then promoted and, when the legislation returned to the House on Report, we had 32 minutes in which to deal with about 108 amendments. Alistair Burt, who then had charge of the legislation, ensured that it was blocked. The Bill sought to establish a Disability Rights Commission. We always said that the power to establish that commission could be removed from the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and inserted in the Disability Discrimination Act, but that did not happen.

I welcome the Opposition's new attitude and the contributions from the other side of the House that illustrate that considerable change of heart. However, we must deal with the Disability Discrimination Act because the measure before us is attached to it and shadows many of its terms and conditions. The commission will flower only when a Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill runs alongside it.

Let us explore some of the shortcomings of the Disability Discrimination Act. It has a restricted definition of a "disabled" person which classifies disability in purely clinical and medical rather than social terms. Definitions should always work against the discriminator: we should seek to stop discrimination rather than excluding people who do not fit into certain clinical categories. The commission will be able to tackle that definition problem as clause 2 allows it to present us with measures on which we can legislate further at a later stage. It is a dynamic for change, and the commission can play an important role when it comes to definitions.

The scope of the Disability Discrimination Act, limited by definition, was further restricted more specifically by the exclusion of certain areas. The commission must address that problem. The legislation as it first appeared before the House contained an incredible number of exceptions: almost every educational institution one could think of was excluded. The Bill was ultimately modified thanks to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), but it had similar shortcomings in the transport area—for example, it was possible for disabled people to access railway and bus stations but not trains and buses.

The Disability Discrimination Bill was not intended to apply to Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland Members of Parliament signed up to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and four Northern Ireland Members from different political parties—including the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), who spoke earlier—sponsored the Bill. As a consequence, the present Leader of the Opposition promised, upon its introduction in the House, that the measure would apply to Northern Ireland. That was the first change made to the Bill.

The measure before us does not apply to Northern Ireland owing to particular circumstances in that Province at present. However, some of the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Belfast, South should be examined closely.

Another major defect of the Disability Discrimination Act, which is directly remedied in the Bill, is that it did not make provision for enforcement agencies. The National Disability Council was an advisory body mainly stimulated into activity by Ministers. Luckily, this Government have put the council into action. As hon. Members have pointed out, the council did more than we imagined it would when it came out in favour of establishing a commission—the exact measure that we are debating today.

Clauses 2 to 9 contain the practical measures on how the commission will operate. They may need to be topped and tailed in Committee in view of the many points that have been made in the debate. Those measures tackle the difficulties of enforcing existing legislation, so the Bill enables us to enforce inadequate legislation, but we must look to the future and seek to introduce adequate legislation.

I have a great interest in Northern Ireland affairs, and it was appropriate that the improved Disability Discrimination Act was eventually enacted in the Province, where there has always been considerable commitment, across the political spectrum, to disability rights. The Bill will not apply to Northern Ireland because it will have an Equality Commission with a much wider scope. There is a problem in that there will be a delay in setting up that commission, but I know that the Assembly will not ignore disability rights.

The records reveal that the former Northern Ireland forum had an important debate on disability and supported fully the establishment of rights for disabled people across the board. There will always be pressure within the Northern Ireland system to deliver those rights in the Province. We need to apply our minds to find out the quickest way to achieve that delivery.

The Bill is widely welcomed by organisations of disabled people and their parliamentary allies. I like to view myself as one of those allies, which is why I am so enthusiastic about the Bill. Four hon. Members have attended the debate who took part in the Committee stage on my Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. It is strange not to have Lord Morris here for this debate. He, too, was a member of that Committee. People have recognised those hon. Members who have been active on this issue.

As I pointed out earlier, some Conservative Members also supported that Bill. However, other Conservatives Members opposed the adoption even of the Disability Discrimination Act, and thought that there should be no regulation. Some of them did not lose their seats at the last election. It is nice to see that they have been outweighed and outvoted within the Conservative ranks.

I turn to the point raised by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the Opposition spokesperson. We should not spoil the celebrations. There are objections to certain actions by organisations of disabled people, who are protesting about the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. They are concerned that disabled people will experience losses as a result of that legislation.

The Disability Benefits Consortium, which comprises more than 250 groups, has already presented a mass lobby. To some extent, it has already pocketed the Bill. I think that it expected the Bill to be delivered at some stage, as things were moving in that direction. Statements were made at Labour party conferences and other forums which suggested that a Bill would be delivered. We are thankful that it is now before us. However, the consortium has moved on to other concerns and does not want to see itself being pushed back.

It would be a disaster if we lost the good will of the disability movement, especially when it is clear that this Bill—and the hoped-for Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill— will not be the property of the Government or of Members and peers who are sympathetic to such measures. The Bill is the property of those in the disability movement who shaped it, campaigned for it and deserve it. When legislation passes through the House, including the Bill, certain people are only carrying the baton. Some of us have been proud to do it for short periods. So let us not have counter-productive measures running alongside the Bill.

The principles of this fine Bill should be fully established. On minor details, we might need to amend the Bill in Committee. Let the important principles that influence the Bill influence also our attitude to disability benefits.

5.6 pm

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

In the run-up to the 1997 general election, I was asked which of Labour's policies I was most looking forward to seeing implemented. I took a few minutes to think about my answer; the first matter to come to mind was capital for the replacement of Chapel-on-le-Frith infants school. However, that has been provided and it is in the bag. I am delighted to say that the new school will be open in September.

Secondly, as a councillor who had served at all levels of local government, I wanted to see an end to the garrotting of local government. However, I took it for granted that we would do that as well. Accordingly, I thought again.

Thirdly, as a parent, I wanted to see investment in health and a strong economy to see my family—my daughter—through the next generation. Was that to be my answer?

I thought of all these things and weighed them. Having done so, I said, "No, the real touchstone of a decent, civilised Government would be putting into place comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people." That was what being in government and our purpose in being in this place meant to me.

For several years before the election, I worked as a consultant to the Local Government Management Board, advising it on various matters. First, I advised it on how to make its services, information and local government premises accessible to people with sensory disabilities. Secondly, I trained its staff and others in deafness awareness in particular, and disability awareness in general. Thirdly, I was invited to address national conferences and seminars on the impact of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I must take some responsibility for slightly misleading councils because I had the idea that if I led them to believe that they would have to do more than what was required by the Act, I would be performing a much better service to disabled people in the long run. If councils have inadvertently done more than they have to under the Act, I make no apology for that.

Over those years, I and others were fighting outside the House on these issues, as colleagues now present were doing in the House, along with Members of the other place. It was a wide and broad-based campaign. The history of the past few years has been dealt with fully. However, there were one or two milestones in my commitment to the cause which I want to relate to the House.

First, it was 12 or 13 years ago when I first had a one-and-a-half-hour conversation with a person whose first language was sign language. I learned so much during that conversation. I discovered a new world—a new culture—that I did not know existed. In years to come, I learned not only sign language, but to work in the world of deaf people, which brought me great enrichment, and great knowledge and experience that I have wanted to use ever since.

I particularly want to tell the House about a meeting in Manchester, at which 200 people came together as an American lawyer described the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it worked. That may appear to have been a normal occasion, but I was one of only six hearing people at the meeting. The American lawyer was profoundly deaf, as were almost all the people in the room.

The lawyer gave his presentation in American sign language. An interpreter interpreted from American sign language into British sign language, and another interpreter interpreted from British sign language into spoken English, for the benefit of the small minority of us who could not cope with the demands of the language of that particular culture.

That man—who was without hearing and without speech, and whose name I have unfortunately forgotten—was a highly successful advocate. He appeared in top courts and, every day of the week, represented hearing people before hearing judges and hearing juries. His deafness had been no barrier to his education, his profession or his success. Why, oh why, oh why—it has taken me two years to come up with that expression in the House —is not that same experience available for deaf people in this country? It would enable them to become top lawyers operating in the same environment as hearing and non-disabled people.

On another occasion, I spent probably not more than half an hour mastering the finger-spelling alphabet used by deaf-blind people. A code, representing the letters of the alphabet, is spelled out on someone's hand and I learned it because I had been invited to dinner with a friend of a friend—a deaf-blind woman who, 10 years previously, had added profound deafness to the total blindness with which she was born. She had communicated in that way to barely a dozen people over the previous 10 years.

That woman was strong, engaging, humorous, mentally agile and very able—even her dog was an expert on real ale—but, because she has neither hearing nor sight, some people would regard her as a freak. People such as her attract ignorance, disregard and disdain from the able-bodied majority in this country, who do not have the experience of disability to enable them to have the proper understanding that is required.

Those are profound examples, but there are many less profound—perhaps more trivial —examples as well. The hearing aid of a deaf person who turned up at the theatre only to find that the induction loop was not working—although there was no sign outside to tell him that—would be effectively useless. He would miss out on the benefit of the performance and would not try again—he would stop going to the theatre on the basis of one experience.

Someone who turned up to a council meeting, having said three weeks in advance that he required notes in Braille, only to be told on the day, "We have not got round to it yet. That facility is not available," would have his confidence taken away. "Why should I bother?" he would think to himself.

I met a young man called Thomas last year, when he came to the House to speak to a Royal National Institute for Deaf People event. He had committed himself to education and to bettering himself through achieving qualifications. Thomas went to catering college and excelled, qualifying as a junior chef. He worked as a chef in a café, but people called him names, rejected him and did not include him in what was going on. This qualified chef moved to a burger joint to sweep the toilets. He had spent years getting qualifications, but ended up sweeping toilets because that was his only way into the catering industry—in a capacity in which people would accept him.

All the examples I have given are real, but the situation is made worse, in some cases, when people try to help but get it wrong. I know of a council chamber in which, when the induction loop system was switched on, deaf people who used the T-switch on their hearing aids heard not only what was going on in the chamber, but what was going on in every committee room in the building. It was like Babel, and they had to turn their hearing aids off. The same council chamber featured not only fixed microphones for the induction loop system, which were very welcome, but low-energy light bulbs, because the council was committed to the environment. Unfortunately, the two systems were immediately next to each other on the ceiling, and when the induction loop system was switched on, all the hearing aids in the room would scream, making them completely unusable. The council decided not to change the light bulbs, because it was green to have them, so it had to abandon the induction loop system, on which it had spent thousands of pounds.

There are people who cannot obtain jobs for no other reason than that they have a facial disfigurement. Others are not considered for promotion because they have difficulty speaking, although they may be the best qualified for the job involved. Some employers refuse to provide "reasonable accommodation": they refuse to lower a desk, or to provide a powerful magnifying glass or a flashing fire alarm. Such simple, inexpensive changes are not made because of ignorance.

Ignorance of that kind was demonstrated a few months ago, when—as hon. Members probably read in the newspapers—a group of deaf people were evicted from a holiday camp because they were making too much noise. Deaf people experience that time after time. They are evicted from pubs because, apparently, people are frightened by the noises that they make, their gestures and the attitudes that they strike. But that simply is not true, as the managers of such places would know if they sat down and thought about it.

We can understand why, in such circumstances, disabled people want to give up. They have been banging their heads against a brick wall; it is so much easier to curl up in a corner, and just wish that all the examples of discrimination that so many disabled people take for granted—because they experience them every day—would go away. The 6 million people who have disabilities are tempted to put aside any ambition, and to reject any opportunity that might arise to seek a well-paid job or, in some cases, any job at all. The same applies to the 8 million with hearing impairments, the 2 million with visual impairments and the hundreds of thousands with learning difficulties.

Last year, Leonard Cheshire produced a book entitled "Access Denied: Disabled People's Experience of Social Exclusion". In the light of the figures that I just gave, is it not astonishing that, according to an NOP poll conducted for the book, 53 per cent. of people —including 61 per cent. of those under 35—say that they have no regular contact with disabled people? They do not work with them, live with them or meet them on a daily basis. A quarter of the population say that they feel awkward in the presence of someone with a disability.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) will control her temper when I reveal that one person in three believes that someone in a wheelchair is likely to be less intelligent than other people. Four out of 10 say that it is accepted that it must be pretty difficult, or even impossible, for someone with a disability to obtain a job, and three quarters say that, if they became disabled, they would expect their living standards to fall. The good side is that 55 per cent. agree that society does not allow disabled people to be useful members of the community, and only one person in five thinks that disabled people are already adequately protected against discrimination.

Only this week, I read a report published by the Down's Syndrome Association entitled "You'll Never Join The Army". It provides the frightening revelation that one in four families with a Down's syndrome member has expressed great dissatisfaction about the attitude of medical staff. That publication contains some horrific stories. The report says that too many doctors regard people with Down's syndrome as sub-human and worthless. If one in four doctors give families that impression, what hope is there for the rest of us? How do we tackle that prejudice? How do we communicate the view that disabled people are people first and disabled second?

Hon. Members may be aware that the Government recently employed a young man with Down's syndrome for an advertising campaign with the theme, "See the person, not the disability". In the advertisement, the young boy is called on as a substitute in a school football match, much to the consternation of his team's supporters. He scores the winning goal and becomes their hero.

The Sun took that young boy to join Kevin Keegan and the England soccer team for a training session, and it devoted a double-page spread to the story. What I am about to tell the House will come as no surprise to those who know people with Down's syndrome. That story told of the happiness that the young man generated within himself and within others. It referred to the heights of his aspirations and his potential, and to the fact that there is no limit to what people like him can achieve.

It is just as well that this is a Second Reading debate, because I have come this far through my speech without mentioning the Disability Rights Commission, but I shall now put that right. The commission is the teeth that were missing from the 1995 legislation. It was born in the Labour party manifesto, and it was then handed over to the disability rights task force, which produced a unanimous report last summer about what it thought should be in the White Paper. The White Paper was published in July and accepted everything in the report, and that is reflected in the Bill. That is a classic example of consultation working.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell), who is not present at the moment. He said that the Bill is a good Bill, and that we should study it by all means, but that we should not clutter it with provisions that take away the freedom of the Disability Rights Commission to establish good practice, to decide for itself how it wants to change and to open itself up for review at a later date, so that we can see whether we are getting it right and make changes accordingly.

The commission is to be a wise, approachable, reliable, loyal and powerful friend. It is to be a friend to disabled people, and it is to be a friend to employers, providers of goods and services and even—dare I say it—to Departments and Government agencies. Let us ensure that our own house is in order, so that we do not have the embarrassment of Departments or Government agencies having their hands slapped by the Disability Rights Commission. Perish the thought, but we must ensure that that does not happen.

The commission is the centrepiece in a campaign to open hearts and minds to the possibilities that disabled people can offer to a free and open society. It is a symbol of the Government's commitment to end discrimination in employment, in access to information and in the provision of goods and services. It is the embodiment of our commitment to giving comprehensive and enforceable civil rights to a group of our fellow citizens who have been deprived of them for far too long, and who have suffered injustice as a result time after time. In my view, that is what we are here for.

5.24 pm
Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

I strongly support the Bill and welcome its arrival from the other place. As hon. Members have noted, it has had widespread support from disabled people and their organisations, because they had such a strong say in shaping the Bill through the disability rights task force. The work of the task force has given great strength to the plans for the commission in the Bill.

I should like to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the present Minister for the Arts and former Minister with responsibility for disabled people. He oversaw the setting up of the task force, chaired it in its early days and led the unanimous, inclusive and innovative way in which it did its work. I also pay tribute to his successor, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who took up and continued that work.

I am proud to be a Member of Parliament on the Government Benches when the Government are introducing legislation to set up the Disability Rights Commission. It delivers the commitment in our manifesto as part of introducing enforceable and comprehensive civil rights for disabled people. The commission largely gives us enforceability. However, disabled people will still not have comprehensive rights, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities mentioned.

It is difficult to overstate how important this development is for disabled people and disability organisations; it is historic. It is a landmark in civil rights legislation for the 8.5 million disabled people in Britain.

When I first became involved in disability campaigning, more than 15 years ago, we had barely conceived of a Disability Rights Commission and had hardly dared hope for one. At that time, I had the opportunity to work with MIND, the privilege to work for the all-party disablement group in its Ashley-Hannam heyday, and the great pleasure to work with my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), who pulled together and fought so hard for his Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986.

In the early days, the all-party group was of inestimable importance in giving a voice to disabled people and their concerns. It was crucial to encourage growing political awareness and skill among disabled people and their organisations. Leading members of that group are in the Chamber and have contributed to the debate. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) and for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), my hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts, the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), who is not here, but who I know will wish that he were.

The work of the group over more than 25 years has laid part of the political ground for today's debate and, in particular, for the all-party consensus that now exists behind the Bill. I simply regret that the recognition that the commission is such an essential part of implementing disability legislation has eluded the Conservative party for so long.

There is no doubt that the lack of a commission has imposed a serious limit on redress for disabled people who suffer discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Act. There is no doubt that the lack of a commission has been a serious gap for those individuals, employers and service providers who have been looking for advice on how to implement legislation properly.

Equally, there is no doubt that the advent of the commission will enable disabled people to gain greater equality of opportunity, greater access and greater self-determination. It will enable employers and service providers to gain advice, information and practical support to help them to understand and to implement anti-discrimination legislation.

Having said that, the challenge remains immense. Discrimination against disabled people is long-standing, comprehensive and institutionalised. As my right hon. Friend the Minister reminded the House, our ultimate aims must be to remove discrimination, to challenge attitudes and to realise full civil rights for disabled people. The commission is not an end in itself, but a powerful means towards those greater ends.

I should like to deal with two issues that will be central to the success of the commission's work, although they are not addressed directly in the Bill. The first is funding.

Much has been made of comparisons between the budgets of the Disability Rights Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. Disability organisations, in their various briefings and discussions with hon. Members, have stressed their concerns about the potential shortfall in the funding that has so far been budgeted; and I should expect no less. It is the duty and in the nature of interest lobbies to pocket what they are offered, and then to ask for more. The disability lobby is no different from any other lobby. It may be more effective, but it is no different.

Ultimately, it may prove that the budget for the Disability Rights Commission is not sufficient. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister's statement that the budget is not set in stone, and his commitment that he and his colleagues will review it in the light of operational experience. I should tell him that that ministerial promise will be closely watched by hon. Members and by the disability movement. Nevertheless, while perhaps gently cautioning Ministers, we should also congratulate them. I know—and, in private, the disability lobby will acknowledge—that the budget allocated to the commission has been hard fought for and hard won.

As I am laying down markers for the future, I should mention my second concern, which is the availability of technical support from the commission. The commission will have to ensure that such support and its other activities are available—not only regionally, but locally —to disabled people. For someone living in Wath, Rawmarsh or Dalton in my constituency, communication with or travel to a regional office based in Leeds or Newcastle, for example, can be just as difficult as dealing with a centre in London or Birmingham.

The Government have said that the commission will be able to call on the support and expertise of local voluntary bodies, but, in areas such as Rotherham, voluntary sector activity remains underdeveloped, and we simply do not have local groups with the necessary experience or expertise. Therefore, we need the commission—directly, and in partnership with local authorities, training and enterprise councils and voluntary sector umbrella bodies—to invest in building that capacity to make the commission's work effective and available locally. I believe that this can be done, but it will take time and a determination to do so.

In conclusion, I should like simply to underline the Bill's crucial importance, and the very widespread support that it has received. I should perhaps leave the final word to the all-party disablement group, which describes the Bill as "a crucial element of the Government's strategy to ensure `comprehensive and enforceable civil rights legislation at work and in society' for disabled people".

5.33 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

We have had a very constructive debate, which started with the Minister making his speech in a spirit of good will. Although there has been just a tad of sniper fire from Labour Back Benchers, hon. Members who have been in the Chamber for the entire debate, as many have been, will have no doubt that there is a will in the House to ensure not only that the Disability Rights Commission is established in legislation, but that it is effective.

An extremely important aspect of the debate, which has been dealt with by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, has been that the commission will have to work to meet the quite justified expectations of those who will depend on it, sometimes in circumstances that are critical in their lives.

People with disabilities will need support if they have, in whatever way, to challenge the establishment. If they are to rely on the commission, as they should be able to do, it is incumbent on hon. Members on both sides of the House to ensure that, as the Bill is passed, we examine its detail and get that as right as we can make it. We should ensure that we do that for people with disabilities, who are the ones who will have to use the Bill's provisions.

In opening the debate, the Minister said that the Government were about to start a three-year campaign of winning hearts and minds. I welcome that. However, Ministers will know that, very often, particularly when resources are scarce, it is difficult to know how to target a campaign that is rather broadly phrased. The Minister will be aware that sheer prejudice against people with disabilities—some of which is not based on ignorance—is the hardest thing to overcome. We must recognise that another generation will be coming along shortly on whom we must target our campaign, and we must make sure that the message is renewed.

1 welcome the Minister's statement, but I hope that he will ensure that, however succesful he feels the three-year campaign has been, that will not be the end of it. I hope that there will be continuity and that whatever lessons are learned are used for future campaigns.

There are many reasons for discrimination; sometimes it is just pure ignorance. In many cases, it is quite deliberate. It is important to try to understand and second-guess what motivates that prejudice if it is ever to be tackled to benefit people with disabilities.

I do not know whether I shall be fortunate in being asked to serve on the Committee; I would like to do so. Many who have spoken from both sides of the House have raised issues about individual clauses of the Bill, which many of us would like to see examined in more detail. Therefore, it is not my intention to pre-empt the Committee's discussions. I take it from the body language of Ministers that they welcome that. I hope that they will listen not just to hon. Members, but to those important representatives of the various groups representing the disability organisations which have played a key part in this and previous Bills.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) was the first to pay tribute to the work of the many organisations with whom hon. Members have regular contact. I hope that there will be continuing dialogue involving Government Front Benchers while the Bill is in Committee. I will refer to some general points, in the hope that we can get down to the nitty-gritty in Committee.

It is important that the funding meets the reality of expectations. As has been said, if there is insufficient money for the commission—particularly in the early years—there will be a problem. Welcome as it is that the Government have made a commitment of £3 million for the first year and £11 million for the following two years, the latter figure will be a reduction unless it is linked to inflation or unless the reality of the costs in the first year are examined in some detail.

Will the Government propose a business plan for this commission in particular, rather than basing a plan on the work of other commissions? There may be lessons to be learned, but a proper business plan would be helpful, if only as a benchmark for years two and three in terms of the financial structure.

The Minister for the Arts, the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), has been mentioned several times in connection with the setting up of the task force, which has done a lot of preparation—which we commend. He and I had an exchange of correspondence at the beginning of the process, as I was particularly concerned that people with learning disabilities should be represented on the task force.

Ministers must look carefully at the definition of disability as it will be applied by the commission. It is my understanding that the definition in the 1995 Act will be used. That Act defines disability as

"a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities".

That is perfectly reasonable, but I seek some clarification.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) mentioned epilepsy and the Minister said that the definition would encompass it. That is welcome, but I wonder whether it is the Government's intention to produce a list of conditions, such as epilepsy, that are to be considered as disabilities under that definition. If so, what are the criteria under which organisations would have to make representations for conditions that are not on the list to be considered for inclusion?

I have a special interest in learning disabilities and developmental disorders. I know that it is a grey area. The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) mentioned Down's syndrome. That, along with cerebral palsy and autistic spectrum disorders, is a condition regarding which people in the medical profession might sometimes be at odds with one another as to whether it could medically be regarded as a learning disability. The benchmark that they tend to use is an IQ test; if the individual concerned has an IQ of more than 70, it is not necessarily defined as a learning disability.

We can all think of many people who could be medically diagnosed as having an autistic spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy or Down's syndrome who have very high IQs. Some have good university degrees. That does not mean that their ability to carry out normal day-to-day tasks, as per the 1995 definition, is not impaired. They have real needs that must be met.

People with such conditions who have good qualifications or are articulate in many ways might find real difficulties in applying for or holding down jobs. If the Minister is to produce a definitive list, we must not have people on the commission who do not understand the areas of disability that do not fit neatly into compartments. Such areas would be involved in some of the most difficult cases that I would certainly want to be referred to the commission.

How is the list to be drawn up and how can it be changed from time to time as different diagnoses and conditions are recognised? Will the individual doctor with care of the disabled person have to give consent? Many of the people to whom I have referred have a real battle with their own GPs or hospital consultants and are not properly diagnosed until a specialist with lifelong experience in dealing with their conditions becomes involved. Only then does someone in the medical profession understand the read-across of the diagnosis and the way in which it is likely to impact on someone's day-to-day life. I hope the Minister accepts that definition is important.

Equally important are the people who will work for the commission and deal with such cases. We discussed whether the chair or the vice-chair of the commission should be a person with a disability. I agree with what has been said on both sides of the House. I am sure that there will be no difficulty in finding people to fill those posts on merit. That should not preclude the possibility that both may be people with a disability. We still speak in terms of one or other having a disability, but if we are serious about equality, we should recognise that the two best candidates interviewed for the posts of chairman and vice-chairman may both be people with a disability. I hope that we will eliminate tokenism. Like other hon. Members, I know from experience that many of the principals who represent the charitable sector are extremely able people who, I am sure, will be lining up for the jobs. There will be no shortage of candidates.

On the day-to-day administration of the commission and the technical support required, can the Minister give me an assurance that there will be on-going training for people working for the commission across a range of disabilities? I know that the Minister received many representations about the task force. He struggled to persuade everyone who had an interest in the composition of the task force that every conceivable disability would be represented. I understand that that was an impossible task, but it did not stop me or others making representations to him.

Although a high percentage of its members will be people with disabilities, the task force will not necessarily be able to make a judgment on every case that comes before it. There must be a proper on-going training programme. Has the Minister considered who the commission will be able to call on, when necessary, for professional information about a particular disability? Some disabilities are quite rare. A constituent of mine is one of only 28 people in the country with a rare condition. However good the training, it would be impossible for the commission to make a clear judgment on such a case. Moreover, there are only a few people in the country who specialise in that condition. I hope that the Minister will consider such practical aspects of the commission's work.

There has been much discussion today about the difficulties of people who have been the subject of prejudice and discrimination. We heard first-hand accounts of such experience from the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and others.

The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) was anxious that the commission should comprise people with disabilities and professionals. She warned against filling the commission with parents, for example. However, some of the strongest advocates of people with disabilities are parents. That does not mean that they know better than the person with the disability, but the discrimination is not always directed against the person with the disability. Service providers sometimes direct such discrimination against those who have responsibility, but the person with the disability suffers just the same.

Although I do not want the commission to be packed with advocates and parents, rather than people who have disabilities and can offer valuable first-hand experience, I hope that the experience of the advocate and the parent will be welcomed and used by the commission. Those people have considerable experience. Over the years they have stood up to the establishment—social services, doctors, hospitals, the Benefits Agency and so on. They have already gone a long way down the road of championing the rights of people with disabilities. I hope that we will not feel that they are tiresome, interfering busybodies, but that the commission can call upon their expertise and will welcome them in a measure proportionate to the contribution that they can make.

Ms Perham

I do not want to give the impression that the experience of parents is to be denigrated. More than half of the commission is to be made up of people with disabilities and I wanted to highlight their experience. With the best will in the world, the parents are not suffering from the disability, however great their experience of looking after the person with the disability. I meant no disrespect to parents and I pay tribute to them for the work that they do on behalf of their children.

Mrs. Browning

I do not want to get this out of proportion. I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that sometimes it suits the establishment, if I may use the expression, to sideline the parent or advocate in order not to provide what the person with the disability needs. Unless the parent or advocate is prepared to stand their ground to get an issue sorted for the person with the disability, it does not happen. That is why I am making a case on their behalf. When they fight a battle on behalf of that person they suffer the pain, too, when the discrimination is obviously in front of them. I am sure that we can deal with that in more detail in Committee.

A further important part of the Bill concerns the conciliation of disputes and I welcome it. Many people have, rightly, welcomed the tone of the legislation, which seeks to facilitate disputes being sorted out on a conciliatory basis. That is important, not least because the individual who is discriminated against does not always want to go to the wire. It can add to their stress and subtract from their quality of life to be involved in litigation that may run on for months and sometimes even years. Litigation is not pleasant for anybody to go through and it is even less so for somebody who is trying to get fairness and equality in their life and who contends with pain and distress in other ways.

At the end of the day, it is right that the Bill gives the commission the statutory powers that it may have to use in the few cases—we hope it will be only a very few— where it needs the support of the legislation if the other measures do not work. That is welcome.

I wish to press the Minister on the provision to claw back the commission's expenses when a settlement is made, including an out-of-court settlement. As I understand it, the costs of the commission in championing the cause of an individual would be clawed back if there was a settlement. I know that the matter was mentioned in the other place during the Bill's passage. Bearing in mind the representations of the other place, what are the Minister's thoughts not just about the itemised account of genuine costs when costs have been awarded, but when costs come from a sum that has been clearly identified as compensation? The Minister shakes her head. I hope that I can interpret that to mean that there would be no attempt to recoup those costs. That is welcome. For those who may find themselves in a position where those costs must be met, what plans are there for the commission to produce in advance a tariff of reasonable charges? Will there be any guidance to the commission on what is chargeable on an hourly or a daily basis? That is necessary to ensure that there is no further dispute about the costs awarded or what the commission may claim as legitimate expenses in such cases. There could be many horrible disputes over that unless what the commission can charge is clearly defined. Other professionals such as solicitors can outline what charges may be expected in their work. It is important to deal with that up front rather than when cases start to appear, to avoid further challenges about how much of the money should be used and whether expenses are legitimate. It is important for the commission, in terms of auditing procedures, that a tariff of reasonable charges is considered and made known in advance.

We had some sniping from the Back Benches, which I take in good spirit. I want to share with the House a few words from Hansard:: We are trying to give disabled people civil rights and opportunities consistent with those of other citizens and to establish a mechanism, through a commission, to deal with discrimination."—[Official Report, 26 February 1993; Vol. 219, c. 1160.] That may not come immediately to hon. Members' minds because I said it the year after I was elected. The year after that, I was pleased to support the hon. Member for Kingswood in his private Member's Bill. It might be useful for new Members to know that when I voted for it, I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State for Employment. I fully expected to receive my notice to quit next morning. It did not come.

Mr. Andrew Smith


Mrs. Browning

Unfortunately, I was still in a job and went on to become a Minister. I hope that that story will give heart to new Members who think that always doing what the Whips want is the way to get on in the House. The Whips look furious with me. I hope that I have confounded that myth, because I was passionate about this issue when I came into the House. I hope that I have demonstrated that today. I wish the Bill godspeed and every success.

5.58 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)

This has been a thoughtful, high-quality and sometimes moving debate. The Government's proposals have been warmly welcomed outside the House by disabled people, businesses and the wider community. Of those who responded to our White Paper consultation, 94 per cent. supported our proposals on the role of the commission.

I am delighted that our proposals have received such strong support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. In opposition, we argued for such a commission to give force to civil rights legislation. In government, we can now legislate to fulfil our manifesto promise. In so doing, we shall not only be able to support disabled people in exercising their basic rights but help business to benefit from the contribution that disabled people can make as employers and customers. Several Government and Opposition Members raised significant issues. In the upper House, the Government listened carefully to some persuasive arguments. When persuaded, we adopted proposals to improve the Bill. That will be our approach as the Bill moves through this House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) painted a compelling picture of her personal experience and the day-to-day discrimination that she faces. I share her longing for the day when she can get into the toilet without having to negotiate a barbecue. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) also welcomed the Bill and said that he felt like a Man United supporter; as an Arsenal fan, I cannot say that, but I am, as he is, euphoric about the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) paid tribute to the all-party disablement group, and I join him in those tributes. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) made a moving speech. I congratulate him on the work that he has done within the House and outside, especially on behalf of deaf people and those with hearing impairment.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) said, this is but the first step in developing comprehensive rights for disabled people. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) talked about her worry about recovery of costs. I assure her and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) that there is no proposal to take costs from awards. It is where costs are awarded against someone else that that matters.

A number of hon. Members asked about the chair of the Disability Rights Commission. It is inconceivable that the first chair will not be a disabled person, but as hon. Members on both sides of the House have argued, it would be wrong to put that in the Bill. I hope that the members of the commission will represent a broad range of interests, but even if not, 150 people or so will work for the commission, and they will be able to work on behalf of disabled people.

Of course we want to work with business, as the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said we should. We will work best in co-operation rather than by using compulsion to implement civil rights. It is for that reason that we have taken steps such as introducing written agreements to create an easier flow towards civil rights in employment or the supply of goods and services, and introducing non-discrimination notices. I hope that, during proceedings on the Bill, we can deal with many of the detailed issues that hon. Members have raised today.

I have to say to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) that we did not set the threshold for the small firms exemption. We inherited it. That was one of the problems. It was the legacy from which we had to start. We have grasped the opportunity to change the process for reviewing the threshold so that it can be reduced more swiftly. There is general acceptance among Labour Members that over time we want to see an end to discrimination against disabled people, whatever the size of the business in which they work.

The subject of funding has been raised by many hon. Members today, including the hon. Member for Maidenhead, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), the hon. Member for Winchester and my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth, who said that the disability lobby would of course always argue for more.

The estimates that we have presented are provisional estimates within the three-year settlement from the Treasury. We will review them as we proceed with the Bill, but they are a fair settlement and I think that we have got it about right.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale raised the issue of funding for information technology. As other hon. Members have said, we are the first Department to put papers such as those from the disability rights task force on the internet. That has excited a lot of discussion and debate on the proposals, and that is a way in which we wish to proceed in the future.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) raised some issues relating to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has its own Equality Commission, but that does not mean reduced rights for disabled people there compared with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. We intend that they should have the same rights. In response to concerns raised by disability organisations, we made significant amendments to the legislation. As a result of that, the Equality Commission may establish consultative councils to provide advice on aspects of equality.

Several hon. Members raised the flaws that we know exist in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, including the hon. Member for Winchester, my hon. Friends the Members for Kingswood, for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) and for North-East Derbyshire. We are currently addressing many of those issues of principle in the disability rights task force, and we will report towards the end of the year, but rights of access to education and transport and whether the police should be subject to disability discrimination legislation are live issues on which we will return to the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South made a moving speech, in which she described the Disability Rights Commission as the engine to the vehicle that was established by the Disability Discrimination Act. I was pleased that she welcomed the new deal for disabled people, which I consider an extremely important component of our legislation.

This is a momentous day for disabled people. For far too many years, they have campaigned within their communities, through the media and in both Houses of Parliament for their own commission to defend and promote their civil rights. They have not been asking for a lot —simply for the opportunity to enjoy those basic rights that every able-bodied person takes for granted. Like other Labour Members, I feel shame that this House has not seen fit to support the many Bills that were debated in Parliament and which could have created a disability rights commission. We should never have delayed so long.

At the same time, I feel privileged and proud to be a member of the Government who have acted with both speed and thoroughness, and who are seizing this early opportunity in government to create the Disability Rights Commission. In our manifesto, we said that we would support comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people. By introducing the Bill, we are doing just that. We are creating a body whose prime duty will be to work towards the elimination of discrimination against disabled people. That body will be independent and well-resourced, and will have tough duties and strong powers. It will be able to take action on behalf of individuals who have been at the sharp end of experiencing discrimination. It will work with employers and suppliers of goods and services to help them develop policies and practices so that disabled people are treated fairly and justly.

However, it will be a body that can insist, through the judicial processes, that those employers and suppliers of goods and services who are resistant to change cease to discriminate against disabled people. It will promote good practice, disseminate effective guidance and information, and prepare statutory codes of practice. It will advise the Government on the workings of disability discrimination legislation and recommend changes. It will be powerful and will be a crucial element in the wide range of levers that we have developed to promote civil rights.

The Government are driven by the principle that economic prosperity and social inclusion are not competing aims, but are inextricably linked objectives. We can never sustain a successful competitive economy if we allow large sections of our community to be excluded by discrimination. Our proposals in the Bill are guided by that underpinning principle. We need the Disability Rights Commission to ensure that civil rights for disabled people are protected by powers of enforcement.

We are not arguing that a commission is enough in itself. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities said in his opening remarks, the proposed commission is not the whole journey. Here again, I am proud of how much we have achieved after less than two years in government. We are implementing the remaining provisions in part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, because we know that they will bring important advances in terms of disabled people's access to goods and services.

We have reduced the small employer threshold, which has given protection from employment discrimination to a further 70,000 disabled people. I am working hard with colleagues representing disability organisations and with other interested parties—from business, the trade unions, local government and the regions—on the task force to introduce proposals across the whole range of relevant activities to promote further civil rights.

However, unlike the previous Government, the Labour Government are not waiting for legislation before we act. Throughout Government, we are acting now to enhance the opportunities and rights of disabled people. As some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, we have introduced new building regulations for the construction of new dwellings; that will benefit 10 million people. We have successfully negotiated with transport operators so that from January this year all new trains will be accessible, from January next year all new single-decker buses will be accessible and from January 2002 all new double-decker buses will be accessible. Consultations on proposals for taxis are currently under way.

The Lord Chancellor's Department has initiated a pilot study and has appointed some visually impaired magistrates. In the Department for Education and Employment, we have been strongly promoting rights for disabled people in both education and employment.

We have thoroughly reviewed special educational needs and we are investing £60 million for children with SEN. That will bring greater equality of opportunity at school in an inclusive environment, where that is appropriate. We are hugely expanding further education and higher education, with an emphasis on widening participation, improving the accessibility of our education buildings and enhancing access and support. Our benefit reforms, the £ 195 million made available to a new deal for disabled people and the extra £30 million we have secured to expand the services which support disabled people in work are all vital steps in providing those disabled people who can work with the opportunity to do so.

The Government are taking comprehensive action in pursuit of comprehensive rights and we are achieving creditable and important progress, but we know that there is much left to do. If we are to embed justice and fairness, we need to challenge the many preconceptions, the ignorance and the sheer prejudice that still prevail. That cannot be achieved through legislation alone, nor can we achieve it through Government action alone. We need to work with others in business, in the disabled organisations, in the trade unions and in the community. We need to employ every lever available to transform attitudes and eliminate discrimination.

That is why we are working in partnership with others to launch an extensive campaign that aims to reach people's hearts and their minds. We hope that the Disability Rights Commission will take over that campaign. We want to confront prejudice, so that disabled people are recognised for their abilities—for what they can do and for the contribution that they can make; so that we understand that they have the same hopes and fears, loves and hates, ambitions and talents and qualities and faults as the rest of us; so that we see the person and his or her abilities and enable disabled people to play a full and equal part in our society.

Today's debate represents the fruit of many years of hard work by many people. I would like to pay particular tribute to Alf Morris and Jack Ashley, both of whom are now Members of the House of Lords, to my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Derbyshire and for Kingswood, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston and to my predecessor, now Minister for the Arts, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth). They have all campaigned tirelessly on behalf of disabled people. I also thank the members of the National Disability Council and the disability rights task force for their work and support in developing the Bill's proposals.

The Bill has wide support from disabled people and from business leaders. It is our job to ensure that, if it passes through the House, we bring its provisions promptly into effect. For my part, I want the Commission to open its doors for business in April 2000. When they were in government, the Conservatives argued that creating a Disability Rights Commission would provoke a backlash by providing "well meaning, but inappropriate advice". I am glad that they are now on the road to Damascus —1 only hope that there will be accessible lavatories on that road.

How can the Opposition say that we do not need a commission to enforce civil rights? Tell that to the blind customer who went to a well-known hi-fi shop and wanted to pay for the goods by credit card; he was asked for confirmation of identity and the manager suggested that he produce a driving licence. How can they tell the man with mental health problems who prefers to explain the gap in his employment history by saying that he was in prison rather than admit to an episode of illness that we do not need a commission to enforce his rights? How can they tell the group of learning-disabled people who were thrown out of a pub because the landlord thought their presence would damage his trade that we do not need a commission to enforce their rights? We do, and the Labour Government will enact one.

The Bill is at the heart of our wider agenda to achieve an inclusive and fair society. Disabled people have waited a long time, and they should wait no longer. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).