HC Deb 30 June 1999 vol 334 cc380-400

Amendments made: No. 6, in page 15, line 8, leave out 'which has become final'.

No. 7, in page 16, line 19, leave out sub-paragraph (3).

No. 8, in page 18, line 12, leave out 'day' and insert 'date'.

No. 9, in page 18, line 24, leave out sub-paragraph (4).

No. 10, in page 18, line 30, leave out 'and finalise'.

No. 11, in page 18, line 43, leave out 'and finalise'.

No. 12, in page 18, line 45, leave out 'that requirement' and insert 'the requirement mentioned in section 4(1)(b)'.

No. 13, in page 19, line 6, leave out 'time and insert 'period'.

No. 14, in page 19, line 7, leave out sub-paragraph (3).

No. 15, in page 20, line 3, leave out sub-paragraph (2).

No. 16, in page 20, line 6, leave out 'under paragraph 23' and insert 'to a county court or, in Scotland, to the sheriff'.

No. 17, in page 20, leave out lines 14 to 23.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

Ms Hodge

I beg to move amendment No. 18, in page 20, line 25, leave out 'with immediate effect'.

The amendment relates to new provisions now contained in clause 4 and schedule 3, following Committee consideration, on non-discrimination notices and action plans, to which we have already referred. The Bill as it now stands enables the commission to require a person to submit an action plan to address any unlawful acts that have been committed and which are specified in a non-discrimination notice.

The amendment relates to paragraph 19 of schedule 3, which would enable an action plan which has become final to be varied with the agreement of the commission and the person concerned. The amendment would allow flexibility in terms of when any variations would take effect. The Bill as currently drafted would mean that any changes agreed would take immediate effect. By taking out the words "immediate effect", we would enable the commission, the individual and the organisation to respond to those occasions when the commission and the person concerned wanted to agree a variation in advance.

It may help if I give an example. A person may be making provision for a disabled person in a particular way in accordance with the action plan, but realise that, on moving premises, it would be better to change the way in which that provision had been made. The original action plan may have been that someone would work on the ground floor. In a changed premises, there may be a possibility of installing a lift that would lead to a change. In that case, the person might want to agree a change to the plan, but to provide that the change would take effect only once the move was completed.

Amendment No. 18 would remove the words "with immediate effect" in paragraph 19 and thus leave it to the parties to decide, as part of their agreement, when any variation would take effect.

5.45 pm
Mr. Boswell

The Government are importing a welcome measure of flexibility into the provisions, which are already fairly flexible. We are pleased that they are moving the amendment. It means that we will not be tied to having everything done immediately. I imagine that it would be possible to contrive to overcome that problem by providing that the variation should be agreed and come into effect on the day on which it was necessary, but then one could have a series of rather complicated provisions leading to a series of variation orders or agreements. So it is probably sensible to proceed as the Government are doing.

The only point on which I seek assurance is that there is no scope for monkey business and non-compliance with the action plan. If the instruction is that the thing should take immediate effect, that is fairly easily pursued, judged and, if necessary, proceeded on. If some date in the future is stipulated, especially if it relates to a contingent event that may not be easy to define, such as "the day I finish moving house", which may not even be easy for a court to determine, the situation will be a little vague. I hope that that can be overcome. I do not think that it is an objection to proceeding with the amendment.

Ms Hodge

There is absolutely no intention of using the amendment to weaken the facilities in the Bill to eliminate discrimination. I simply draw it to the hon. Gentleman's attention that it would require the agreement of all parties to vary the timing of implementation of the action plan.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 19, in page 20, line 37, leave out sub-paragraph (4).

No. 20, in page 21, line 6, leave out 'this sub-paragraph' and insert 'sub-paragraph (3)'.

No. 21, in page 21, line 9, leave out sub-paragraph (5).

No. 22, in page 21, line 37, leave out from beginning to 'with' in line 39 and insert— '(1) This paragraph applies to any order made by a county court or the sheriff under section 5(8) or under any provision of this Schedule. (2) Section 55 of the County Courts Act 1984 (penalty for failure to give evidence) shall have effect in relation to a failure to comply with an order made by a county court to which this paragraph applies'.

No. 23, in page 21, line 43, after 'under' insert 'section 5(8) of or'.

No. 24, in page 22, line 6, leave out from 'sheriff' to end of line 7 and insert 'to which this paragraph applies'.

No. 25, in page 22, line 14, at end insert— '(3) If the Commission applies to a county court or, in Scotland, to the sheriff to enforce an order to which this paragraph applies, the court may modify the order.'.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

Order for Third Reading read.

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

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

The debates on this Bill on Second Reading, on Report and in Committee have been good-spirited, as befits a thoroughly good measure. The standing of the commission will be all the stronger and its work all the more effective for the breadth and depth of support now being expressed for its establishment.

The consensus behind the commission is such that I have no need to detain the House with a prolonged speech. I should just like to say that securing this commission is a great tribute to all those who have campaigned long and hard to bring it about. A debt of thanks is owed to the people involved from disability organisations and in the general public, to many Members of this House and another place, to the disability rights task force and to the all-party disablement group. It can be a bit invidious to single out names, but I know that the House would want to join me in voicing particular thanks for the pioneering work of Jack Ashley and Alf Morris, which comes to fruition today in this Bill.

I should also like to thank all hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee, and the Opposition parties for their constructive contribution. This was a very good Bill when it started its passage through the House, and it is an even better Bill now. I should also like to thank the civil servants, the parliamentary officials—and Hansard staff and the police—and all who have worked on the Bill's proceedings. It is all the better for their invaluable input.

May I say a particular thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East Mr. (Howarth), who put a lot of work into getting this Bill under way, and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has thrown herself body and soul into seeing the Bill through so successfully in a good spirit of partnership with disability organisations and others.

We will now at last have a proper independent body to help disabled people to secure their rights. Together with the work of the disability rights task force, the extension of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the new deal for disabled people, the disabled persons tax credit and income guarantee and the hearts and minds campaign, this measure marks decisive progress towards comprehensive civil rights for disabled people.

The establishment of the Disability Rights Commission and the action that will flow from that are achievements of which this Labour Government, the disability rights movement and the whole House can be proud. What really matters is the difference that it will make in the lives of disabled people as we open up opportunity, challenge prejudice and discrimination, and enable people to live lives of dignity and fulfilment. The Disability Rights Commission has an enormous role to play. It is long overdue. Disabled people have waited more than long enough. Let us give the Bill a Third Reading so that they wait no longer.

5.52 pm
Mr. Boswell

The Minister moved Third Reading in a broad and generous spirit. He has expressed thanks to almost all parties, and rightly so. I shall not repeat those thanks, not because I do not share his sentiments but because they have already been expressed. He injected the minimum of partisanship. That is proper because although we may have had our differences in the past on some disability issues, we have now all come together on this measure. It is right that occasionally in this place we find ourselves all on the same side, just as it is entirely right that on other occasions we vigorously debate matters of political tension and hardship. I think that we have found the right balance in this instance, and it respects the circumstances of the case.

I shall not repeat those thanks; I shall merely refer to my diffidence, in that it is almost unprecedented for me to have my first outing on a Bill on Report when others have done all the spadework. However, I believe that even in these short contributions I have reinforced the attitude that we have taken on these matters.

As for how the Bill will work, we have obtained useful assurances and, as the Minister rightly said, the Bill has been improved in response to points made by hon. Members from both sides of the House. The first matter that should concern people is whether the commission will have sufficient resources to do its job. We shall have to see whether there is a sudden flood of cases that have been pent up and not adequately developed. I hope that they can be managed, and that the commission will have the right resources to keep that under review.

The second major concern will be the way in which the commission approaches consultation with the service provider and the business interests that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) mentioned in several interventions. The Under-Secretary referred to the need for maximum discussion to achieve positive results without cracking the legislative whip. I am sure that that is the right general approach, and I am relieved that that view is shared across the House.

It would be unfortunate if this measure were seen not as a matter of civil rights—I do not dissent from that view—but as a fruitful vehicle for contention and litigation whenever possible. The moral should be to improve awareness and consciousness, to move on to good practice and—if necessary—prescription, and to introduce the big stick only when absolutely necessary and when there is recalcitrance. I do not wish to take away the obligations of employers or service providers, but they should have a chance to behave reasonably. My strong hope and belief is that most of them, given that opportunity, will want to manage their affairs in such a way as to be helpful to the interests of persons with disabilities.

My concluding remarks will be addressed to people with disabilities as they look forward to their new rights. It is important that we do not oversell what we have achieved in the Bill. That is in no sense to diminish its importance or the fact that we have reached agreement on it, but it does not, by itself, remove discrimination and deal with entrenched attitudes and insensitivity. Perhaps no one could legislate to deal with those problems effectively. We must do what we can in legislation, but we should realise that litigation is a difficult process, and for persons with disabilities it is even more stressful.

Having just come to this issue, I was struck by the survey carried out by the university of Sussex for the Institute for Employment Studies, which examined the cases brought during the first 19 months under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. It interviewed 180 parties and 40 lawyers in 92 cases, and found that the process was daunting and that the problems for disabled people of being in court were enormous. That is undoubtedly true. The assistance of the commission may help to support some of these cases appropriately.

It is important that if attempts to enforce rights come to litigation, lawyers on all sides should bear in mind the circumstances of the parties. We cannot tolerate a situation in which public authorities, private employers or service providers sit it out in the hope that the problem will go away through what was once memorably and chillingly called the biological solution. The answer is to give people their rights and to understand that there will be differences of interpretation. The commission must be used positively and constructively to articulate and determine the rights of disabled people, and to find a practical way of resolving the problem. If possible, it should not become a battleground between the political parties or employers and service providers and persons with a disability.

This is a sensitive issue. I am encouraged by the way in which all parties have worked together. The Government and other parties have worked to try to produce the best possible outcome. We must cast it into existence on Third Reading, with Lords consideration completed, and on to the tide of history. We hope that it will flow in the direction we all want it to flow. I believe that the spirit in which we are dispatching it may modestly help to bring about that objective.

5.59 pm
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)

I warmly welcome the Bill, personally and on behalf of the all-party disablement group. I am sure that the many disability organisations that this afternoon issued a press release welcoming the Bill would also wish me to say on their behalf how welcome it is.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said that we should not overstate the importance of a Bill to establish a Disability Rights Commission. I tend to think that there is a great danger of underestimating its significance. It is easy to say that this is an historic occasion for 9 million disabled people in Britain. We have said that before, but it remains true. The more I reflect on the Bill, the more I suspect that we are not yet clear about what its effects will be. I believe that they will be extremely far-reaching.

As of today, there is no statutory body to assist in promoting equal rights for disabled people. The Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality deal with discrimination on the grounds of gender and race, but there is no statutory body to assist in tackling discrimination against disabled people. Yet we know that the extent of that discrimination is very great—whether it is in employment, education, housing, transport or in any other area of human life. Therefore, I believe that the Bill is profoundly important. It is a measure for which campaigners outside and inside the House have worked for almost 20 years.

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

My hon. Friend talked about the Bill's campaigners, but no one has worked harder or for longer than he has for this measure. Does he agree that one feature that gives cause for optimism about the implementation of the Bill and the new commission is the wide support that it has received not just from disability organisations but from employers' organisations, including the Employers Forum on Disability, the Confederation of British Industry and even the Institute of Directors, which has welcomed the Bill with reservations?

Mr. Berry

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those kind comments. I agree very much with his point. I welcome, with the greatest possible enthusiasm, the extent of support for the Bill. One cannot forget entirely the fact that the previous Government were forced to introduce the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 after years of doing everything imaginable—and even things that I thought were unimaginable—to block that legislation.

One of the most glaring omissions from the Disability Discrimination Act was the lack of any effective enforcement mechanism—the lack of a commission, for which many people had argued at the time. The then Government established the National Disability Council, and it is no criticism of its members—they have done a very good job and I pay tribute to the chair, David Grayson, and his colleagues—that it was never given the power or the terms of reference to do what was necessary. The National Disability Council is the only Government agency that I can recall that campaigned for its own abolition almost from day one. It recognised that we needed a commission, and the Bill will deliver that commission.

Let us be perfectly frank: change has come about first and foremost because we have a Labour Government. Let no one pretend that we would today be debating the Third Reading of the Disability Rights Commission Bill without a Labour victory at the last general election. We are debating the Bill also because the Government have moved with great speed: they found the legislative time to introduce this legislation within a mere two years of taking office. I believe that is a great achievement, not least because of the enormous pressures on parliamentary time.

Every right hon. and hon. Member must be bombarded, day in and day out, with requests for the Government to do this, that and the other—and, in most cases, we agree with all of those requests. That suggests that an enormous amount of legislation is required after 18 years of Conservative Government. The fact that the Government have found the time and given priority to establish a Disability Rights Commission within two years of the general election is a tribute to them and to their commitment to tackling discrimination against disabled people.

I also acknowledge the fact that the disability rights task force, to which my right hon. Friend the Minister referred, has been very effective in advising the Government and in facilitating a dialogue between them and not only disabled people but employers, trade unions and all of those who have a legitimate interest in this field. That reflects an inclusive approach to policy making that should be welcomed warmly. In their press release this afternoon, the disability organisations particularly applauded the fact that they have been involved in the process. They have been consulted and listened to and they feel that they have ownership of the exercise. That is how Government Departments should operate, and I congratulate my colleagues on functioning in that way.

In this month's Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation bulletin, the organisation's director, Bert Massie, says: It is a credit to disability organisations and the Government that this milestone in the rights of disabled people had been reached less than halfway through this Parliament. The disability organisations are correct, and I join them in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), on the way in which they have steered the legislation through Parliament and have consulted and listened to people.

Many improvements were made to the Bill in Committee, and some were made on Report this afternoon. As a result of contributions made on Second Reading and of proposals advanced by disability organisations throughout the whole process, we have a better Bill.

I also place on record my appreciation—and I am sure that of the House—of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), who was the first Under-Secretary of State after the election to have responsibility for disability issues. I worked with him when we were in different political parties—I hope that those on his Front Bench knew about it at the time—and I pay tribute to him now that we are in a better position: namely, members of the same party.

I think that disabled people and the Government have an enormous amount to be proud of today, but there are others for whom this is also an important milestone. I refer first to the Conservatives. I congratulate the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) on his new post. It was a pleasure to share a platform with him at a meeting organised by Sense and Deafblind UK at the end of last week, and I wish him well. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Conservatives are recent converts to the need for comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people—I offer that comment merely as a fact. Therefore, support for the legislation is an important milestone for the Conservative party, and I welcome it most genuinely.

The Bill is also a milestone for many other people—some of whom are perhaps not aware of it. I have in mind employers. Equal opportunities is about much more than equal access to rights and responsibilities. Effective equal opportunities means that employers can be certain that they have employed the best person for the job. Without an effective equal opportunities policy, how can any business know that it has found the most effective employee? Finding ways of overcoming the prejudices and the barriers to employing disabled people allows businesses to employ the best person and to become richer in every sense. Today is a milestone for employers up and down the country because the Bill will help them to ensure that they are employing the best people for the job, irrespective of any disability that they might have.

When the Disability Rights Commission opens its doors on 1 April next year, not only disabled people will seek its assistance to overcome discrimination: I think businesses will also queue up for advice and information about how to open themselves to the wider community. Those will be the businesses that, to paraphrase the slogan from the current campaign, want to see the person, and understand that social inclusion is about social justice and economic efficiency.

Hon. Members will be aware that I do not often quote President George Bush with approval but, on this memorable occasion, I will. When he enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, he said that it would let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down". That is what the Bill will help to achieve in Britain. It deserves the unanimous support of the House, and I am delighted that it will, in all probability, receive it.

6.10 pm
Mr. Oaten

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), who has done an enormous amount of work in this field. He must be very proud today that the Bill is being passed. We can see the obvious pleasure and delight that he takes in that, and he displayed more pleasure than he did when I last heard him speak in the Chamber.

I warmly congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who mentioned earlier that this is the first Bill that she has taken through the House. It has been a pleasure to watch her doing that with incredible openness. Certainly in Committee, she was very open to points made by Opposition parties. As a new Member who has been somewhat disappointed by the yah-boo politics in this place, I find it refreshing to play a small part in a process in which I have seen how politics can work in an extraordinarily constructive way. I congratulate the Minister on her role in that.

Clearly, Liberal Democrat Members welcome this important landmark in disability legislation. I do not want to hold up the House, because many of the points were made on Second Reading and we have debated the Bill at length. The legislation is long overdue, and the process that we have undergone today has strengthened existing legislation. We have passed a Bill for which disabled groups have been arguing for many years, and we can all be proud of having played a part in that.

There are, however, challenges ahead for the Disability Rights Commission, and we should not be so enthusiastic that we do not recognise that it will face difficult hurdles. Sadly, attitudes are still very tough, and that is why we need such an organisation. Although businesses and the public have certainly changed their attitudes towards disabled people, we still badly need the commission, and it will have many obstacles to overcome, not least the limits on its powers in the areas within which it will be able to operate.

I know that the Government have made it clear that they hope to extend the Bill's provisions to education, policing and transport. Those are fundamental areas, and although the commission will be able to make good progress in the areas included in the Bill, it will find it hard to make progress where there is no legislation for it to enforce. If we are to take a holistic—I hate that word—approach to disabled people, having two such fundamental areas as education and transport outside the Bill's provisions will restrain progress. I hope that the commission will work with the Government to ensure that those areas are brought within the scope of its powers.

y Similarly, I have concerns about the commission working with business. It is a shame that not all businesses are included in the Bill. Those with fewer than 15 employees are exempt, which means that about 80 per cent. of companies are excluded from the Bill's provisions. It must be an urgent priority for the Disability Rights Commission to bring that to the attention of politicians and to put pressure on and work with the Government to change that threshold. It will be difficult for the commission to send out a positive message and to educate businesses if many are not legally required to comply.

We have spoken in previous debates about the Disability Rights Commission's requirement for resources. I have taken comfort from the Government's comments about that. That position needs to be monitored; otherwise, we may find that in two or three years the commission's education work expands, as we hope it will, and its resources are too stretched to allow it to help individuals who are trying to be positive and making constant demands for help. If the commission had to refuse help to those people, and it was unable to begin charging them for help, that would be a missed opportunity, and the funding would have to be reconsidered.

I referred earlier to the three-tier process of education, written agreements and the final resort of nondiscrimination notices. I am assured that it is sensible, and I think that it will work well. I am slightly concerned about the written agreements, and when the Minister winds up the debate, I should welcome a little more clarification about whether those agreements will be public.

I understand the need to have a positive dialogue with businesses, so that they feel that they can be open about their difficulties. It would not be helpful if that was all made public. Nevertheless, if those written agreements deal with serious cases in which the commission believes that a company has failed in its duties, and an agreement is the last stop before issuing a non-discrimination notice, the public, the company's work force and people who may want to apply to the company have a right to know about the concerns expressed in the agreement. Private written agreements could prevent businesses from being accountable.

A concern that has not been allayed by the amendments relates to the commission's ability to try to tackle organisations that may be about to act in a way that is anti disabled people. It will be difficult for the commission to deal with such problems. It will need to work on events that have already happened, where it believes that the company's actions are discriminatory.

We can all think of examples in which companies may be preparing to act in a discriminatory manner. I am thinking particularly of the building trade, which I mentioned in Committee. Builders may be about to take action that is discriminatory because they have not built a building in the right way or they have not complied with the Government's new legislation on building requirements, but the commission will not have the power to step in at that point. That is a disappointment, because it must be better to try to tackle discrimination before, for example, a disabled person turns up at a house and cannot get inside. Clearly, at that point, the building company will have committed an offence. When the commission is up and running, it will come across such difficulties week in and week out, and those will have to be reconsidered in the future.

y This is a super Bill, and we should all be proud of taking part in its consideration. I envisage having to call the commission in a year or so to check that I am myself complying with the provisions and to get help and advice. In a city such as Winchester it is difficult to get offices and buildings converted. As an MP, I have found it extremely difficult to find out how I can follow good practice. The commission will face many demands to do the part of its work that we all want it to do—persuading, educating and taking a positive approach. I am reassured, however, that when things go wrong and that education does not work, the commission will be able to take a firm hand. By putting that provision in place, the House sends those organisations who want to ignore the disabled a strong message that they can no longer do so. We have created a body that will be on their case, and I warmly welcome that and the Bill.

6.19 pm
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

I am delighted to be able to speak in support of Third Reading. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 made an important start in providing disabled people with rights of access to employment, goods, services and premises. Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), acknowledged to the Select Committee on Education and Employment, of which I am a member, that the first two or three years of that Act's operation had provoked cases and a momentum similar to those created by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the setting up of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Bearing in mind the positive contribution that they made to transforming our society, the Disability Discrimination Act was a good start.

However, the 1995 Act did not provide a platform from which individuals could make a progression. It was a blunt instrument. I believe that the Disability Rights Commission, which I hope that the House is about to bring into being, will give an edge and a temper to everything for which disability campaigners have fought for so long.

y I share the delight of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) that a Labour Government are introducing the Bill, but it is only fair to say that it builds on the efforts of members of all parties. I add my tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, but I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning)—and to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who presented the Opposition's position very constructively this afternoon.

The Bill ties in with the overall thrust of Government policy to aid and empower disabled people—the new deal for disabled people, the special educational needs Green Paper, the new role for personal advisers in the single gateway, and other measures that the Government are bringing forward, which are giving teeth to the Tomlinson report proposals.

I am delighted that the Bill is being taken through the House by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who, as others have said, has displayed great energy and commitment in doing so. In one of her first engagements in her position, she visited my constituency to meet the Blackpool Bears, a disabled sports group that has done admirable work in the Blackpool area.

As an example of joined-up government, I also pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), for the thought-provoking way in which he has dealt sensitively with the issues surrounding disability that hon. Members have brought to his attention.

The Disability Rights Commission embodies four essential ingredients. It is a spur to cultural change; it is a source of central advice and information; it is a practical source of redress; and it is an empowering device. I believe that it will have a key role to play in a range of areas.

I believe that the extension of the 1995 Act in October of this year for service providers will give a major new impetus and an added edge to the type of work that the commission takes on board. I believe and hope that it will provide a major boost and support system to the many voluntary sector organisations that, together with the pressure groups, have been a lifeline to disabled people. Despite the new and welcome emphasis by the Government on working with them, we tend too often to take for granted the contribution of the voluntary sector in this respect. However, the voluntary sector, its volunteers and its organisations are often the backbone of civil society.

I have just returned from a visit to Russia, where the health of that nascent democracy is much debated locally. One of the most impellent gaps in Russian society today is the lack of that voluntarist tradition and that voluntary principle. We should never take them for granted. We should always be extremely pleased and proud of the voluntary work that is done in our country.

In my constituency, the Disability Services Organisation for Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde, of which I have the honour to be president, will welcome the umbrella opportunity that the Disability Rights Commission offers. It has several different initiatives, offering free independent advice and a volunteer service for disabled people with sensory and physical disabilities, jointly financed by Blackpool council, Blackpool social services and North West Lancashire health authority. It has achieved a great deal in buying and leasing scooters and wheelchairs, shop mobility, a dial-a-ride scheme and a disability information service. It has now obtained a £30,000 grant from the Millennium Commission to make and produce a disability awareness video for people in the north-west. All such organisations will benefit from the support and encouragement and the umbrella function of the Disability Rights Commission.

All those aspects tie in with the need to strengthen disabled people's rights, not by condescension or toleration, but by giving them their proper rights in society. If I may be forgiven a historical reference, that has so often been the route that minorities have had to tread in our society—beginning with condescension, moving on to toleration and finally achieving full civil rights.

The new commission will need to be aware of, and especially sensitive to, the increasing involvement of disabled people in voluntary and statutory bodies—in school boards of governors, in health trust boards and in tribunals. However, along with that goes a responsibility on those bodies that welcome disabled people to give them the proper support and encouragement, and to anticipate the need for time off and the need for appliances with which to do their job properly. Disabled people should not have to go to them cap in hand. I hope that the new Disability Rights Commission will strengthen their voice in that respect. I believe that, with increased participation by disabled people in public bodies, in ministerial Departments and in local councils, the DRC will have a very important role to play in using its powers to be proactive.

I add my voice to those who have spoken about the excellent new publicity campaign—the "See the Person" campaign—because that is all about inclusion. I too, welcome the fact that businesses—especially small businesses, of which there are many in my constituency—will be involved in that process. It is important that businesses recognise that disabled people are about "what I can do, not what I can't do".

Often, unwitting and unthinking discrimination is a major element in the barriers to disabled people. It is the so-called "Does he"—or, for that matter, does she—"take sugar?" syndrome, of which I have some personal experience in my family through my mother, who is disabled.

The Disability Rights Commission has a very important role to play in encouraging and developing codes of practice. It has a particular opportunity at this time to encourage new administrative organisations—the regional development agencies, the new unitary authorities, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, all of which start with a clean slate.

The DRC has a very important encouraging role. Tonight, I especially want to highlight the issue of tourism. I am very pleased that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport document "Tomorrow's Tourism", published earlier in the year, acknowledged the needs and concerns of disabled people. It recognised that an estimated 4 million disabled people in the United Kingdom want to take a holiday break but do not do so. Holidays and leisure breaks, to an extent which people who have no experience of disabled people and their carers often underestimate, can be a lifeline to those people, but often it is very difficult for them to take holidays.

I believe that the Disability Rights Commission will provide a welcoming context for initiatives that are already under way, such as the Holiday Care Service and Tourism for All. I hope that the commission will be able to encourage the industry and the providers to take on more disabled people in the tourism business and to welcome more holidaymakers into their establishments. I am delighted to say that many hoteliers in Blackpool—incidentally, in some of the smallest establishments—have already made good progress in that respect.

In the final analysis, the commission's power to help individuals with complaints under the 1995 Act is terribly important. There is an old Quaker adage that he who would do good must begin with doing it in minute particulars. In that respect, we must always remember that, although disabled people are individuals, whose struggle and sense of self-worth is very important to them as individuals, they also act as beacons—as champions—for others in that area.

I see the Disability Rights Commission as a milestone on that path, which was so nobly inaugurated by Alf Morris and Jack Ashley, who have rightly been paid tribute to today. There was once the saying, "Give us the tools and we will finish the job." Today, with the DRC, effective tools have been provided. I commend the priority that the Government have given to it. I commend also the enthusiasm with which it has been received by those on both sides of the House. I am delighted to support Third Reading.

6.30 pm
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

In his introduction to the White Paper concerning the Bill—"Promoting disabled people's rights—Creating A Disability Rights Commission fit for the 21st Century"—the then responsible Minister, who is now the Minister for the Arts said: We do not believe there should be any tension between the interests of disabled people and the interests of employers or of providers of goods and services; rather the contrary. He added: A Disability Rights Commission … will be an agency of benign change. Let us hope that the hon. Gentleman is right. I sincerely hope that the Bill will be an instrument of benign change. In the right hands, it can be. In the wrong ones, it could be an instrument of intrusive over-regulation that could work against the interests of disabled people.

I was thinking about the Minister for the Arts only yesterday when I was clearing out an old wardrobe that I had inherited. In it was a newspaper of 28 May 1979, from the early, heady days of the previous Conservative Government. There was a long article in it about the new head of the Conservative research department, one Mr. Alan Howarth. Let us hope that what is created today does not end up in the same way as a fading newspaper article in a dusty old wardrobe. I do not think that it will.

What we are about to pass into law is important. I do not want to be churlish. I accept that the Bill is a great victory for those who campaigned for it over many years. I took part in those debates in the middle part of the previous Parliament when the disability legislation of the Conservative Government was before us. I have no worries with what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said on 24 November 1994, when he was the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People. He said that the then Conservative Government believed that it should be possible to enforce legislation without setting up an expensive bureaucracy to police it. That is my view.

We should be able to live in a society where disabled people feel that they have rights and that those rights can be enforced. Equally, I hope that we understand that creating an expensive bureaucracy and, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, enforcing it can be extremely dangerous.

I thought that MENCAP put the matter very well in its contribution to the all-party disablement group's Second Reading briefing, when it said: There are men, women and children who have hitherto been awarded protection from discrimination in theory but who have been left without a supporting mechanism for redress of grievances in practice.y I agree with that statement. It is perhaps wrong for society to try to make itself feel comfortable by introducing legislation that it is impossible to enforce in practice. However, following the long debates that we have had over many years, I think that there is always a right time for doing things. Perhaps this is the right time for the Bill. However, as we pass it into law, I believe that we should consider carefully the representations that have been made to us by employer organisations, particularly by the CBI and particularly in relation to what it has to say about non-discrimination notices, as referred to in clause 4.

We have only to read clause 4 to realise that we are talking about a commission that potentially will be very powerful. The clause reads: If in the course of a formal investigation the Commission is satisfied that a person has committed or is committing an unlawful act, it may serve on him a notice (referred to in this Act as a non-discrimination notice) which … gives details of the unlawful act … and … requires him not to commit any further unlawful acts". That is a great power.

I realise that those who speak in the debate have fought for many years for rights for the disabled. Why should they be primarily concerned about burdens on business? My only plea is that we ensure that we have a balanced debate, and that what the CBI has said about the potentially huge powers contained in the Bill is taken to heart by the Government. I hope that they are prepared, willing and undertaking to act in the benign way that the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth) was talking about when he introduced the White Paper.

I agree that we must move from an era where disabled people had no rights. Indeed, they were heavily discriminated against. We must move from an era in which there is perhaps an element of condescension. We must then move on to an era where we do not talk constantly, as we often do in the social security world, of benefits for disabled people. Instead, we must move them into the world of work.

y The Bill, if it is used in the right way, can be a benign measure for moving disabled people out of a ghetto, or the ghetto, into the world of work. However, if the commission is placed in the wrong hands, it could do a great deal of harm. I note that the majority of the commissioners will be disabled people. They will have to take a broad-minded attitude. They will have powers that they have not been enjoyed before. They are no longer a lobby outside knocking on the door. They are now inside the establishment, and they will be wielding great powers. I very much hope that, as we pass the Bill into law, they will feel that it is their duty to act in a balanced way in the interests of society as a whole, including the interests of disabled people and those who wish to provide jobs for them.

6.37 pm
Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

I think that I am the only Back-Bench Member who has sat through, and spoken on, every stage of the Bill's passage through the House. I am delighted that we have reached where we are today.

On various occasions, I have said to Conservative Members, "Remind me, why was it that you voted against similar measures time after time years ago?" Until the past few minutes, they could not remember. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) obviously has stronger memories than other Conservative Members. I do not mean this unkindly, but the warmth that has emanated from repenting sinners has given great joy to Labour Members. I thank them for the contributions that they have made to our debates during the various stages of the Bill.

I say in response to the remarks of the hon. Member for Gainsborough that the Bill is a milestone and not a millstone. It is a step forwards, not a step backwards.

I shall make only two points, and the first concerns the awareness—for example, of employers and service providers—of the needs of disabled people. The present campaign is a stimulating one. It produces smiles and, perhaps, controversy but it gets people thinking, which is important. That is a role that the Disability Rights Commission will have to take on in future. In terms of awareness raising, it will be looking to good practice and disseminating it.

At the launch of the campaign—it is a good example to put on record—there was a contribution from B and Q. It spoke of its employment practices, which encourage disabled people to apply for and to be accepted as employees. It told of the disability awareness training that it gives to its non-disabled and disabled staff within its stores. It told of the expectation that its suppliers would have an equally positive attitude to disabled people. Tellingly, it told of the Norwich store which has specialised in making kitchen fittings for people in wheelchairs. It has discovered a gold mine, because disabled people have commercial needs. They go out and buy things, and a service provider who meets their needs will reap the benefits from that. There is a commercial argument for organisations including those 8 million people in their marketing plans, which will be a relief to the hon. Member for Gainsborough, who expressed doubts.

I shall tell the story of a receptionist in a local authority office close to where I live. He is blind, but he welcomes people to that office, functions very well as a receptionist and telephonist and is not disabled because the facilities are present to give him all the abilities that he needs to carry out that vital job and exceed the reasonable expectations that could be demanded of him.

I have told that story to make the point that the barriers that prevent disabled people from playing a full, positive and constructive role in society have been erected by us—not only the politicians, but able-bodied people, service providers, employers and anyone else who does not think about the consequences of their words, deeds and actions for disabled people. We can take those barriers down. We can give disabled people the emancipation that they deserve and that it is their right to have.

The Disability Rights Commission and the awareness-raising activities associated with it are steps along the way but, however good today is—it is a wonderful occasion—it is only another step along a long road, the end of which we still have to reach.

6.42 pm
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

The eerie light of consensus has illuminated the debate, although that did not characterise the debates in the previous Parliament, during which I frequently expressed exactly the same objectives as the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), but sought rather different mechanisms to secure them. We could never have foreseen that those loud and noisy discussions would end in such a way as they did today—not with a bang, but with a whimper, which is good. Disability issues should not be the subject of the fierce partisan battles that took place in the previous Parliament.

I congratulate the Minister on his opening remarks; he struck the right note, although there were hints of a return to partisan comments from other hon. Members. It is no doubt true that the Bill would probably not have been introduced by the previous Conservative Government—we can say that with a reasonable degree of certainty—but I am not so sure that that could be said of a Government led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition. He is committed to the measure. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Kingswood ever has the good fortune to serve in a Government, he will sometimes find himself at the Dispatch Box saying things with which he does not entirely agree. Such is the nature of collective responsibility.

It is worth putting on record the fact that the previous Government did a considerable amount on disability issues. When Baroness Thatcher was Prime Minister, she attached great importance to the welfare spending issues related to disability. Contrary to the myth the she constantly slashed expenditure, she trebled spending on benefits for the long-term sick and disabled; and her successor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), continued the process.

We also introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which the chairman of the National Disability Council has described as a good Act, although I agree that David Grayson, who is a good friend of mine, wants that Act to be toughened. Indeed, the Bill does just that, but those were real and substantial achievements for disabled people which I hope the whole House would welcome. I rather resent the note that has been struck by some Labour Members, who have said that nothing happened for disabled people in the previous Parliament. A considerable amount happened.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

Disability living allowance.

Mr. Luff

From a sedentary position on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend reminds me about DLA. He is absolutely right to do so.

How do I approach this Third Reading debate? With mixed feelings—all my doubts remain about establishing a body with the powers that the commission could have, but the disability rights lobby still wants a commission to be established. The mood in the House is clearly in favour of a commission, so this is the time to lie back and accept the inevitable. I can do so with a clear conscience because I am encouraged by what Ministers have said about how they expect the commission to use the powers being given to it.

It is right to emphasise our hope that the commission will use those powers in the way that Ministers hope it will use them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said, clause 4—and, indeed, clause 5—contains considerable powers and they could harm the cause that the commission has been set up to help if they are used insensitively.

The Liberal spokesman talked about the omissions from the Bill, and I hope that the commission will consider not only employment matters, but issues of democracy. The House is still inaccessible to disabled people and that is one of the things that we should put right as a matter of the utmost urgency. In my previous incarnation in the House, my constituency contained New college, which is run by the Royal National Institute for the Blind in Worcester. Issues relating to blind and visually impaired people are at the forefront of my thinking and I hope that the commission will do what it can to improve voting forms.

I will put pressure on the Government to make it easier for disabled people to exercise their most fundamental right of all—the right to vote—and for people who are disabled but do not have visual disabilities to gain access to polling stations, which is often scandalously difficult to achieve. There are many issues for the commission to address that relate, directly or indirectly, to the way we carry out our business. I hope that it will do so with enthusiasm.

On a slightly partisan note, I hope that the commission will not be frightened of taking on the Government over their allowance for county social service departments. Despite all the good words that we have heard today about the great achievements of the Government, disabled people and their carers—in Worcestershire in particular—face serious problems because of the scandalously low funding increase offered by the Government. I hope that the commission will speak out on that, too.

Although I can give the establishment of the commission a rather less guarded welcome that might otherwise have been the case, I want to strike a note of dissent from everything that has been said about the Government's hearts and minds campaign. Ultimately, the fundamental point is that no Act of Parliament can ever change the way people behave. The real discrimination lies in people's hearts, and that is what must be tackled.

I have no objection to a hearts and minds campaign, but this is a bad one. When I first saw the poster about Kathy, outside Worcester Shrub Hill station, I thought that it was either advertising a sequel to a programme on homelessness or trying to attract people to a teacher training campaign. I could not work out what the poster was about and realised what it was advertising only today, when hon. Members referred to its subtext. I hope that the commission will do a much better job of winning the hearts and minds of the British people than the Department for Education and Employment is managing at present.

None the less, this is a momentous occasion. We have put to rest one of the great, contentious issues that has divided the House over the years, and done so in a constructive way. The Minister rightly paid tribute to a number of individuals and, although I have crossed swords with him on a number of occasions, I emphasise my personal congratulations to the hon. Member for Kingswood, who has played an extraordinary part and driven this issue through the House. He, together with all the other people to whom we have paid tribute today, deserves a share of credit for what he has done. I hope that his best hopes are achieved and my worst fears are never realised.

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

I hope that it goes without saying that the House would expect me to support this measure and to believe that this is an important day to celebrate. It is a stage on the road to the objective of full civil rights for disabled people and it is, therefore, strongly to be welcomed.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), attacked the yah-boo approach to this subject that has prevailed in the past. Although I accept that a lot of yah-boo politics and trivial point scoring take place in the Commons, I am in favour of a strong debate taking place, particularly on this subject. Had we not had as much outside campaigning and as many arguments from the previous Government about this issue, as well as a distinction between the principles involved, we would not have reached this point. Had the measure been sorted out by men and women of good will sitting around a table, we would not have achieved this sort of legislation and would not have tested out each others' ideas in quite the same way.

The strength of the ideas expressed by Labour Members, with the support of the Liberal Democrats, prevailed after the tussle with those who had other ideas. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) spoke, because I remember some of the tussles with him. The views that he expressed today showed that, fundamentally, he still has the same attitude. It is important to have that honourable dispute in developing different positions.

When I introduced my version of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which was a private Member's Bill, the hon. Member for Gainsborough spoke against it because he was worried about intrusive regulation. He now hopes that the operation of the changes will be benign, but in the past he expressed great fears that legislation of this type would not be benign. I remember pointing out that his arguments were against the Disability Discrimination Bill, which was going through the House at the same time. To judge by the look that he gave and his response on that occasion, and despite the fact that he was using the Disability Discrimination Bill to argue against the measure that I was proposing, he recognised that that was what motivated him.

We all benefit from such argument. John Stuart Mill once said, perhaps in a slightly sexist way, that he who knows only his own side of the argument knows little. Our argument was certainly developed considerably as a result of coming into conflict with the views of people with differing attitudes. One person who had a strongly differing attitude on this matter was the Leader of the Opposition. In the period to which I refer, two Bills were in competition with each other: the Disability Discrimination Bill and the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. I am convinced that we would not have secured the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 if, the preceding year, the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) had not been scuppered with a great deal of blood and heated yah-boo on the Floor of the House.

I then picked up the baton and ran my hon. Friend's measure. The techniques that were used against my Bill were different from those that had been used against his. It was a rival measure, while the blocking of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill took place essentially in Committee with attempts to stop it getting back to the Floor of the House. The person who carried out those opposition techniques almost single handedly in Committee was the Leader of the Opposition.

Having talked to a Conservative Member who is now a Labour Member, the Minister for the Arts, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), I found out which Conservative Members to ask to join us. Most Conservatives and others sat on my side of the Committee and the Leader of the Opposition was often almost alone in battling for his position. He had to engage in all the filibustering on the amendments and would agree to the Bill's coming out of Committee only when nothing could be done with it. We had only 32 minutes on the Floor of the House in which to take about 108 amendments. The Leader of the Opposition gained promotion partly as a result of the role that he played in scuppering civil rights for disabled people.

I was pleased to hear the Minister say on Second Reading that civil rights for disabled people are on the agenda in the future and that we are moving in that direction. I welcome the fact that in the debate on the Queen's Speech the Leader of the Opposition immediately expressed support for the measure before us today. That, however, is a significant change and it comes about as a result of the nature of politics in this country. Those politics sometimes take place on the Floor of the House in the form of strong debate and dialectic argument, which help to produce the situation in which we find ourselves today. I am therefore keen that that sort of yah-boo should continue to take place. There was a sign of it in coded language in the speech of the hon. Member for Gainsborough.

Although we have had an interesting discussion on this Bill, it has been a little too cosy. One often needs arguments to be propounded that challenge one's own ideas, so that those can be improved. The ideas in the Bill have been challenged so much in the past that they are sufficiently well shaped and we did not need the disputes that we have had in the past. I welcome the fact that we have reached this stage and, like all good campaigners, I look forward to the next one.

6.57 pm
Mr. Andrew Smith

By leave of the House, I shall respond as briefly as possible to some of the points made in the debate.

First, may I welcome again the positive and generally constructive spirit that has prevailed? The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) asked about resources. We are satisfied that the commission will be adequately resourced. We have looked at the experience of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) said that we needed to monitor the resourcing. It will be monitored and kept under review. It is generally accepted, however, that the £3 million start-up cost and the £11 million annual budget that we have provided for should be adequate.

The hon. Member for Daventry also said that we should be careful to ensure that the big stick was used only where necessary, and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) made comments in a similar vein. Although the statutory enforcement powers in the Bill are a last resort, it is necessary to have them to ensure that the law is complied with. The Bill is about ensuring that disabled people have rights not only in theory but in practice.

Obviously, we expect this legislation and the proceedings of the commission to work in a business-friendly way. Equally, we expect business to work in a disabled-friendly way. That is part of the general shift in culture to which a number of hon. Members referred.

I echo what the hon. Member for Daventry said about the importance, when it comes to litigation, of bearing in mind the circumstances of the parties likely to be involved. In terms of proceedings on investigations by the Disability Rights Commission, there will be a requirement, where appropriate, to have timetabling of those proceedings, which will offer a safeguard against the delays which the hon. Gentleman rightly said would be unacceptable.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) very much for his kind remarks and for those of the all-party disablement group. As others have said, if my hon. Friend had not promoted his Bill in the previous Parliament, followed in similar vein by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), we would not be here today establishing the Disability Rights Commission. They deserve tributes, together with Alf Morris, Jack Ashley and others.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked whether written agreements would be made public. As is evident from my answer on Second Reading, I share his instinct for openness, but we have seen how that could be counter-productive. There is no statutory requirement for a public register of agreements or for written agreements to be kept private. It will be for the DRC and the organisation concerned to discuss when reaching the agreement whether it should be made public and under what circumstances. That is only common sense, because we do not want an organisation to refuse to enter into an agreement that would be in the interests of disabled people because it would be made public.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to anticipated discrimination. It will be open to the commission to make recommendations for further legislative enhancements of the rights of disabled people or their enforcement. That covers the circumstances that he referred to.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) hoped that we would not think him churlish in expressing caution and an incomplete conversion to the Bill. I hope that I do not sound churlish when I say that he sounded churlish, but as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire pointed out, it does no harm for such matters to be tested in debate. Out of the fire of the debate in the previous Parliament we have tempered a sensible proposal for the commission. The hon. Gentleman may have been unhelpful to his present leader by reminding the House of his previous position on the issue. However, we welcome all converts to the Bill, whatever their attitude before.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) made a good point about awareness, which answered some of the reservations of the hon. Members for Gainsborough and for Mid-Worcestershire. The B and Q example shows that with a thoroughgoing approach to disabled people's rights an employer can not only recruit the best employee for the job, but offer the best service to the whole range of customers. There is a commercial imperative as well as a moral one behind rights for disabled people. By working with employers, the commission will be helping the business case for equality as well as the ethical and moral case.

I hope that the Bill will gain a Third Reading with the unanimous support of the House. We should remember that the commission is not the end, but a very important means to the end. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) said, it will be a spur to cultural change and an empowering device as well as a source of advice and a means of redress. The practical benefits in the lives of disabled people and all of us that will result from the establishment of the commission will be its real achievement. We shall all benefit from the cultural change and empowerment of which the commission is an instrument.

The unanimity and enthusiasm in the House for the establishment of the commission is great to see. As well as all that it will be able to achieve through consensus and discussion, we should bear in mind the fact that the commission will sometimes have to take tough and perhaps controversial decisions. I hope that it enjoys the same consensus and enthusiasm when it has to do that, because that will be the test of making a reality of disabled people's rights.

Given the extent of support in Parliament and among the public as the Bill moves to a Third Reading, the commission will get off to a good start. It is a milestone in advancing disabled people's rights. It is time to move past that milestone towards a better future in the lives of disabled people and us all.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

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