HC Deb 30 June 1999 vol 334 cc371-5

Amendment made: No. 3, in page 3, line 45, after 'the' insert 'unlawful'.—[Ms Hodge.]

Ms Hodge

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 4, line 43, leave out subsection (10).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 7, 9, 14 to 17, 19 and 21 to 25.

Ms Hodge

I begin by reassuring the hon. Member for Daventry that I, too, find it profoundly irritating that the House must consider these drafting amendments at this late stage. However, this is the first Bill that I have steered through the House, and I hope that next time there will be less need for such last-minute amendments.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Do not hold your breath.

Ms Hodge

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I am afraid that the comments of the hon. Member for Daventry in relation to the previous group of amendments are also relevant to these drafting amendments.

This group of amendments relates to the enforcement of orders made under clause 5 and schedule 3 of the Bill. These sections cover written agreements, nondiscrimination notices and action plans.

Amendment No. 16 is technical and simply puts right an incorrect reference to the fact that an order made under paragraph 18(3) of schedule 3 of the Bill would be enforceable under paragraph 23. In fact, the draftsmen have found that the order would be enforceable under section 55 of the County Courts Act 1984 in England and Wales and the Contempt of Court Act 1981 in Scotland, to which paragraph 23 refers.

Amendments Nos. 22 to 25 have also been recommended by parliamentary counsel, to improve the drafting of the Bill by bringing all the provisions relating to the enforcement of orders under clause 5(8) and schedule 3 together in one place—that is, under paragraph 23 of schedule 3. Amendments Nos. 4, 7, 9, 14, 15, 17, 19 and 21 are consequential on amendments Nos. 22 to 25 and would delete what would become unnecessary cross-references to enforcement.

Amendment No. 25 has been drafted to have one further effect, which I would like to cover briefly. This amendment would add a new sub-paragraph to paragraph 23 to replace paragraphs 18(5) and 18(6), which have been drafted in more general terms. Paragraphs 18(5) and 18(6) as drafted enable orders relating to action plans to be modified to alter any time limit so that in the order it is clear that the commission can return to the court for repeated fines in the case of persistent offenders. The new sub-paragraph has been drafted in more general terms so that it covers all orders—for example, those relating to written agreements—not merely those listed under paragraph 18.

The effects of the amendment are limited, as most orders have continuing effect and would not need modification in any event. However, it does mean that, where an order requires something to be done by a particular time and it is not, it is clear that the commission would be able to return to the court for repeated fines until the person complies with the order. In that respect, I hope that hon. Members will agree that the amendment improves the provisions as well as the drafting of the Bill.

I therefore ask hon. Members to accept amendment No. 25 and the other amendments in this group.

Mr. Boswell

Very briefly, I thank the hon. Lady for correcting my confusion—perhaps it was a good indication that these are complex matters. If she has, as I suspect and hope, the opportunity and privilege of bringing further legislation to the House, she will find that it is just as difficult the second time around because these things always seem to happen. It has even occasionally been known for Opposition Members to spot the errors ahead of the parliamentary draftsperson, but I claim no credit for that. It is a complicated area to get right and it is important that the provisions for sanctions and penalties should be appropriate. The hon. Lady explained well how penalties and sanctions should work.

I draw a slight moral from all this—not in any contentious sense—in that it will be important for the commission to understand how the process works. It will need good operational rules, bearing in mind that the nature of the operation means that we do not want a series—perish the thought—of parliamentary draftspersons advising people on their disability concerns. We want people who are able to get a clear understanding of how the law operates and to explain it. That is also very important to service providers. If there is to be a cumulative penalty, as the hon. Lady explained, it is extremely important that people do not fail to comply because they cannot understand the notice that they receive.

May I alert the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities to the fact that I found this an interesting point? I do not dispute its legality, but it reawakened my interest in the matter even before the transfer of responsibilities when I received a letter from him stating that Members of Parliament would be required to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in their capacity as service providers. My only reason for eyebrow lifting at that is that we are not normally paid for the services that we provide, although we are paid to be service providers.

As an example, it is commendable and perhaps exemplary that the Government have told us that we had better do our thing, and I am in no sense seeking to renege on my responsibilities to do so. Indeed, I have had to make adjustments to, and will have to make at least one further change in, the arrangements for my constituency advice bureau to facilitate the provisions; I am sure that other hon. Members will be thinking that they must do the same.

5.15 pm

Within the spirit in which this legislation has been pursued and the way in which we are debating it today, it is important that people should appreciate that the way in which it works needs to be clear. No service provider—acting as a reasonable person, we hope—should be in any doubt as to his or her obligations or as to the way in which they will be enforced if people decide or fail to fulfil them.

I have no difficulty with the provisions. The hon. Lady has explained them well and corrected my misunderstanding, in a letter that was designed to be helpful. I too would give the amendments a fair wind.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Listening to the debate one might think that we were discussing highly technical drafting matters, which in a sense we are, but the section of the Bill to which the amendments apply is the section that could cause the most problems. I therefore want an assurance from the Minister that she wants to work very much with the grain of good business practice.

In particular, I want to ask her about the agreement in lieu of enforcement action. I want a commitment from her that when those agreements are drawn up, business, in particular small business, will be able to understand exactly what is happening; and that the procedure will not be unduly bureaucratic. Will those matters be dealt with through forms or letters? How protracted will the process be? Will the commission be working on the assumption that we should normally proceed in that way rather than through more onerous action against anyone who may be in breach of their undertakings?

I very much hope that the Minister can give me that reassurance, which will be welcomed by the business community in general.

Ms Hodge

First, on information to service providers, which the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) mentioned, yesterday we laid before the House the code of practice that has been developed by the National Disability Council on the implementation of the first part of part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which changes policies and procedures. I hope that when hon. Members have had a chance to look at the code, they will realise that it is laid out simply, with many examples to assist service providers to meet their obligations under the disability discrimination legislation.

I am also very conscious that if the legislation is to work, the Disability Rights Commission and others will have to work closely with employers and service providers to ensure that they meet their obligations. We have taken a range of initiatives to assist service providers and employers to do just that.

I hope that hon. Members have seen the start of the "See the person" campaign, which was launched by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to raise awareness on disability issues a few weeks ago. That was an attempt on our part to put all disability issues more centrally on the agenda, but specifically the obligations that providers and employers have under disability discrimination legislation.

We are producing a range of new leaflets to assist employers and suppliers of goods and services; they will be available in the coming weeks. We have enhanced the DDA helpline so that organisations can use the services to assist them to comply with the new legislation.

A key duty of the new Disability Rights Commission will be not merely to support individuals to ensure that they get their civil rights in law, but to work with employers and businesses that supply goods and services to help them ensure that there is proper access and equality of opportunity for disabled people as regards employment, goods and services.

In relation to the legislative issues raised by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), we have seized the opportunity to learn some lessons from the operation both of race relations and sex discrimination legislation, of which we have now had more than 20 years' experience. That is why we have tried to ensure that the body will work co-operatively with businesses and suppliers of goods and services, rather than in a confrontational way. We also want to make sure that action is effective; that is why the Bill provides for written agreements to be reached without having to make formal investigations. That is a better way for businesses and individual disabled people to get proper access to goods and services, and for people to have the opportunity to work, without having to undertake court procedures. This is the first time the concept of written agreements has been included in discrimination legislation.

The Bill includes regulatory powers to tighten up formal investigations, so that they do not go on for ever with no resolution. That has been the experience in some of the formal investigations under the race relations and sex discrimination legislation; it has met the interests neither of organisations nor of the individuals subject to discrimination.

With those assurances, I hope that hon. Members will accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Back to
Forward to