HC Deb 10 June 2004 vol 422 cc418-88

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Maria Eagle.]

1.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

When he stood up in this House on 31 January 1992 to move the Second Reading of his Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, Lord Morris of Manchester—then the MP for Manchester, Wythenshawe, and previously the first ever Minister for Disabled People—posed two questions to the House. As he said, one was moral and the other practical. What sort of society did we want to create? What must we do to create that society?

As the current occupant of the ministerial office that Lord Morris pioneered, I still remind myself of those questions, because I believe that it is important not to lose sight of the main reason for the intensive continuing action in respect of disability civil rights on which this Government embarked from their early days in office.

The main reason for that action is that disabled people in Britain are still not equal. They still have to deal with social exclusion, discrimination and poorer life chances purely because they are disabled.

This is not a minor issue. After all, we are talking about the life chances of almost 10 million of our adult fellow citizens, and of at least 360,000 children. The Government believe that continued inequality and discrimination blight our society as much as the lives of disabled people. Creating a society that values disabled people, enables them to fulfil their potential in life and gives them the right to do so is still a challenge that we, as a society, have not fully met. However, it is one that we, as a Labour Government, are determined to make massive and irreversible progress towards meeting.

Let there be no doubt that that is our aim. The establishment of full civil rights for disabled people is one of the last great causes in the emancipation of people in our time. It is on a par with securing rights for women and ending discrimination on the grounds of race. The emancipation of disabled people is our aim and our vision, and I welcome very much the chance to debate disability civil rights for a full day, on a Government motion, here on the Floor of the House.

I am not the only one who welcomes this opportunity. The Disability Rights Commission, an excellent and effective advocate and champion for the rights of disabled people even though it is only four years old, in its briefing for today's debate said: The DRC is pleased that the Government have tabled time for a disability debate. So the DRC is pleased, but the official Opposition have not welcomed this opportunity. Instead, they have written to me and to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to complain. That is typical. In his letter, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) called the timing of the debate a decision of astounding insensitivity to those whom he calls in his letter "people with disabilities". He suggested that Ministers were effectively telling disabled people that they are at the bottom of the Government's list of priorities.

That is not the case. This debate shows that the Government are interested in the rights of disabled people, and highlights the priority that we attach to establishing and furthering those rights.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

Is not today an appropriate day for this debate, given the elections that are taking place? In the past, disabled people have encountered considerable problems with access to polling stations. The postal ballot arrangement has the advantage that it means that there is no distinction between disabled people and other people. However, polling stations are still used in many areas, so the problem of securing proper and full access for disabled people remains. Does my hon. Friend agree that the right to proper access should be established in legislation?

Maria Eagle

I am glad to see my hon. Friend in his place, as he has a fine record of work in ensuring that disabled people can vote, despite the inaccessibility of polling stations and the difficulties encountered in getting to them. Also, he has a fine record as a Back Bencher who has pushed for disability civil rights more widely. Moreover, he was one of the hon. Members in charge of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, and he fought a very hard and tough battle to get that on to the statute book, at a time in the mid-1990s when the climate was rather colder. I shall say a little more about that later in my speech.

I believe that today is a good day to have this debate, but I acknowledge my hon. Friend's point: many disabled people undoubtedly find postal ballots easier to access, although there are still issues in respect of those who have sensory impairment and who may need further assistance, which is available, in completing ballot forms. Postal balloting and higher awareness among politicians and others in society about the needs of disabled voters mean that we have an opportunity to make voting even easier for those who were excluded in the past.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD)

Further to the remarks of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), will the Minister comment on the number of people who are blind and partially sighted who have complained that the reliance on all-postal ballots makes things more difficult for them? At a polling station, Braille templates are available but are not available at home.

Maria Eagle

There is an issue about accessibility to polling and proper arrangements for disabled people. In the end, the answer is not about whether we have all-postal ballots, but about making arrangements and adjustments to the process that maximise opportunities for disabled people to take part in our democratic process, whatever their impairment. I believe that some of the arrangements made for the elections being held around the country today will assist many disabled people, including those with sensory impairment, because people can get help in their homes, in one-stop shops or in places where people can deliver ballot papers. There are better arrangements now than there have ever been for taking into account the needs of disabled people with all types of impairment when it comes to exercising their democratic rights. The disability discrimination Act will place obligations on people and organisations not to discriminate and it will extend further into public life and the political process.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

The House will want to move on from consideration of elections only, but before we do, will the Minister reflect on the fact that of the mere dozen or so Members in the Chamber for this extremely important debate, no fewer than six, including me, are from the east midlands, which may be related to the fact that we have no proper election campaign and polling day and can therefore be here to debate the matter? Is that not an example of the effective discrimination that the postal arrangements have brought about?

Maria Eagle

Unusually, I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman says I often agree with much of what he says when he is in one of his reasonable modes, but I do not agree that the only determinant of whether a Member of the House can be here today is the type of balloting arrangements made for the elections, or even the fact of there being elections.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab)

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), may I point out that the House will not have failed to notice that no fewer than five of the six east midlands Members present come from Derbyshire? That is because Derbyshire MPs, Derbyshire county council and the Derbyshire community rate disabled issues very highly and have campaigned on those issues for many years.

Maria Eagle

I am happy to pay tribute to my hon. Friend's record as a campaigner on issues affecting disabled people, but I do not think I should be drawn any further into precisely why anybody is here today. I know why I am here; others can speak for themselves.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Wycombe, the Opposition spokesman, chose to write in the terms that he did. That was the latest in a long line of misjudgments and pieces of churlish opportunism, not by the hon. Gentleman personally, but by a Conservative party that seems to be making a habit of opportunism these days. Choosing this subject for debate in fact shows the high priority we attach to it, and we are determined to make yet more progress, in marked contrast to the Conservatives as shown by their record in office.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con)

On the point of making progress, can the Minister guarantee that the draft Disability Discrimination Bill, which has just been considered by the Joint Committee, will be introduced by the Government as a full Bill in this Session?

Maria Eagle

I can guarantee that the Government are considering with the utmost seriousness the 75 recommendations made by the Joint Committee and that we will reply and set out our intentions, arising from those recommendations, as soon as possible, and certainly within the time scale set out by the Committee. Further than that I cannot go: the hon. Gentleman tempts me to turn myself into a Government business manager or the author of the next Queen's Speech, knowing very well that I am not so elevated as to do either of those things. I assure the House that the Government made a manifesto commitment to introduce the measures set out in the draft Bill during this Parliament, and we consider ourselves fully on course to meet it.

Lord Morris's second question was what we would have to do to create the society set out in his vision. To free disabled people to fulfil their potential in life, we need a framework of comprehensive legal rights, outlawing discrimination and promoting equality. We have to couple that with a comprehensive package of practical assistance to enable disabled people to overcome the barriers that they face in all areas of life and society, and we have to take tho rest of society with us, for only by changing attitudes to disabled people in our society among the non-disabled community will we truly meet in full our vision of achieving equality. Civil rights legislation provides an indispensable framework—a first step—to the transformation of the life chances of disabled people, but though necessary, it is not sufficient.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

My hon. Friend has spoken of the Disability Rights Commission and its excellent work, and I fully agree with her. When she turns to the question of driving the culture forward and of public opinion understanding disability and dealing with it properly, does she have high hopes, as I do, of the commission for equality and human rights announced in a recent White Paper, which will have a special configuration for disabled people's representation, which should give them a great deal of optimism? Does she share my view that that will be a huge help in driving the culture forward?

Maria Eagle

Yes, I do, and so does the Disability Rights Commission, which has welcomed the plans in the White Paper for a commission on equality and human rights. Indeed, the DRC has made it clear that that will be an exciting opportunity to put human rights at the centre of Government activity, which we would all welcome. There is much to be gained from having the commission as a single body, but as yet we have only a White Paper, and we will see what reaction it brings from the rest of the country in due course.

We need practical assistance to remove barriers for disabled people and to transform attitudes in the rest of society if we truly wish to meet our objectives. In employment, for example, there are now more disabled people in employment than ever before—three quarters of a million more than in 1998, some 150,000 of whom were helped by the mainstream new deals and others who were helped by various specialist disability employment programmes.

For the first time, there has been a narrowing of the gap between the employment levels of disabled people and non-disabled people of more than 5 per cent., although it must be admitted that the gap is still too wide. We are implementing the first ever widespread, tailor-made programmes to help people on sickness and incapacity benefits back into work, and we have specialist programmes such as the new deal for disabled people. We have trebled the number of people helped by such programmes as access to work and workstep, which provide specific assistance to particular disabled people in work.

We should compare that with the record of the Conservative party, which, during its time in office, trebled the number of people on incapacity benefits and did nothing whatever to help those who were on those benefits, instead simply leaving them to rot, condemning them to a life on benefit. What is the Conservatives' policy now? They would abolish the new deals that have enabled us to cut unemployment to its lowest in 30 years and led to almost 2 million more people being in work. They would slash public spending to 35 per cent. of gross domestic product, or by £35 billion according to the shadow Chancellor—a policy that would undoubtedly hit vulnerable disabled people harder than anyone else. How characteristic all that is of the Conservatives: they wrote disabled people off in the past, and they are set to do it again if they are given the chance.

Recently, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) referred to training as investing in what he called the "empty vessels of these unemployed people" as a waste of public money. That was reported in The Independent on Sunday on 30 May. If that is what he thinks, we can guess where he will be looking for cuts in public spending—disabled people will be the first to feel the effects.

Mr. Goodman

On sensitive language about people with disabilities, did the Minister read the recent article by John Pring in disabilitynow entitled "Anger at Blair bungle"? The Prime Minister was apparently heckled in Downing street by Rachel Hurst, director of Disability Awareness in Action, for repeatedly using the phrase "the disabled." Disabilitynow reports: that Disabled People's Minister Maria Eagle was visibly 'squirming' at the PM's repeated blunder.

Maria Eagle

From somebody who is still referring to disabled people as people with disabilities, that is the pot calling the kettle black. Language is undoubtedly important, but the most important issue is the intention behind it. Those who do not deal daily—the hon. Gentleman does—with disabled people should not be condemned out of hand for misuse of language. It should be pointed out to them and then we should hope that the use of language will improve. In the spirit of that stricture, perhaps he would like to reread the letter that he wrote to me and remember that the current correct term according to the disability lobby and disabled people's organisations is disabled people rather than people with disabilities.

Mr. Goodman

On that point, is the Minister aware that there are differences of view among groups that represent disabled people? Some prefer one term, some prefer another. Some argue that the term "disabled people" implies that disabled people, to use the Minister's preferred phrase, are in some sense incapable of functioning fully and properly.

Maria Eagle

The hon. Gentleman is making the point that I was trying to make: we should not get too hung up about language. Our intentions and how we deal with people should be looked at carefully. That is undoubtedly the case.

I began my remarks with a reference to Lord Morris of Manchester not by accident, but as a way of acknowledging his remarkable record, characteristic as it is of the great championing of disability civil rights by Labour parliamentarians. When the history of the legal, social, political and practical emancipation of disabled people is written, he will surely merit an honourable mention in it along with disabled campaigners themselves, not only because he was the first Minister for Disabled People—a post to which he was appointed by Harold Wilson and in which he served with distinction until 1979—but because of his unrelenting pressure for and advocacy of disability civil rights over an extended period and long before he was a Minister. He was responsible for the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which was passed as a private Member's Bill. Long after he ceased being a Minister, as chief Opposition spokesman for disabled people from 1979 to 1992 and even thereafter as a Back Bencher, he tried repeatedly to get civil rights legislation on to the statute book. I pay tribute today to his parliamentary efforts, which continue in the other place. Along with my noble Friend Lord Ashley, whose efforts have also been of long-standing persistence and ferocity, he represents the true spirit of the Labour party carrying out its historic mission of making our society better for those who live in it and more equal for those who have been marginalised and oppressed.

Other colleagues on the Labour Benches also merit honourable mention in respect of disability civil rights, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who is in his place, my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) and for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), and my hon. Friends the Members for Tooting (Tom Cox) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who have fine records on fighting hard for disability civil rights in what was a cold climate.

Anybody looking back at the parliamentary battle for disability civil rights can only be struck by the fact that it has been led and won by Labour Members with the assistance of Back Benchers of all parties who were enlightened on the issue, but against the opposition—at times, outrageous opposition—of the Conservative party in government. That is not to say that there have not been perfectly decent Conservative Back-Bench Members who have fought alongside Labour Members. Nor is it to say that there have not been decent Ministers for Disabled People from the Opposition Benches. I single out in particular the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). Tory Governments did not want disability civil rights. They spent 16 of their 18 years in office fighting against them, whatever the private views of individual Ministers, until the political damage being done to them was so severe that to stave off further embarrassment they were dragged kicking and screaming to put partial and inadequate legislation on the statute book. That was the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. In doing so, they killed off for the third year in succession the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which some of my hon. Friends had fought for year after year.

It has taken a Labour Government to make the Disability Discrimination Act work. It had gaping holes and omissions. Although the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks improved it a little during its passage, he was clearly operating in a climate of disapproval within Government. His room for manoeuvre was limited. The resulting legislation was certainly inferior to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill being promoted by my hon. Friends, with the support of disabled people and their organisations.

Mr. Goodman

Will the Minister confirm that a Conservative Government at least introduced the Bill which became an Act, and that many people in the world of disability believe that if an anti-discrimination Bill is not brought in this Session there will be no Bill from this Government before the election and they will not have succeeded in bringing in an Act?

Maria Eagle

The hon. Gentleman forgets the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act 2001 and the regulations that become operative on 1 October and massively extend the DDA.

Mr. Goodman

They are part of the 1995 Act.

Maria Eagle

A section of it is, but much of it implements the European directive on anti-discrimination, so it is much wider than just regulation making.

The regulations that implement the anti-discrimination directive on employment go much wider than the provisions of the DDA. The only reason why that could be done by regulation and did not require an Act of Parliament, although the changes are extensive, including bringing 1 million new employers and 7 million new jobs within the scope of the legislation and extending it to excluded occupations, was because the regulation derived from a European directive, and regulation-making powers under the accession treaties are wider. The extent of the measures being implemented by those regulations would normally require an Act of Parliament. The hon. Gentleman should not assume that our 2001 manifesto commitment is not going to be fulfilled. We are on course to fulfil it and I have every intention of ensuring that we do.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab)

I am aware that my hon. Friend was not in Parliament during the 18 long, cold years of the Tory reign, and it is true that one Act went on to the statute book during that time, but has she done any research to find out whether the Tory Government of the day gave any debating time—a whole day debate or an Adjournment debate—to the issue of disability?

Maria Eagle

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I tried to find that out, but discovered that the way in which Hansard can be searched online does not allow it. I looked at many copies of Hansard when researching the previous attempts to legislate on civil rights and I did not find any debate held in Government time in those years. I cannot say for certain that no such debate occurred, but many hon. Friends were here during those 18 long, cold years and took a particular interest in this subject. They might be able to remember any debates on the issue.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) ( Lab)

I shall try to help. Those years were very cold, but Labour Members—including my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes)—tried to keep everybody warm on a Friday by introducing Bills on civil rights, year after year. We used to have a difficult time getting them through. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of how the Tories operated was one Friday when we managed to get the Bill on disability on the agenda, but the then Minister was not present. The Tories filibustered on the other matters to kill the Bill. The Minister arrived and a Tory Back Bencher moved amendments that had been given to her by the Minister. She was brought into disrepute for doing so, but the result was that they talked out the Bill again. We saw the first inklings of a change of heart in my right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth), who was then a Tory Back Bencher. He joined forces with us on that occasion and later became a Labour Member of Parliament. Those were the cold days indeed, and they continued year after year. Let us not have any Tory romantic mythology about their wonderful association with the disabled. They kicked them into the gutter.

Maria Eagle

My hon. Friend makes some interesting points.

Tom Levitt

My hon. Friend the Minister lists the comparisons between the two parties. I understand that the 1995 Act introduced the right to access to goods and services, which was intended to take effect from 2007. It was this Government who brought that date forward to October this year. Why the Tories chose 2007, nobody knows. Nobody asked for it to be delayed that long and even the Federation of Small Businesses has welcomed the new introduction date.

Maria Eagle

I am about to contribute my theory on why the 1995 Act was largely uncommenced when we took office, if my hon. Friend will bear with me. It happened because the Conservative Government had no intention of making the Act effective, but simply wanted to stave off the criticism of their hostility to effective disability civil rights legislation, at a time when their majority was crumbling and the demand for action was growing.

The 1995 Act sat on the statute book doing little. In 1997, when we took office, disabled people only had two effective civil rights after 18 years of Tory government and at least 14 attempts to bring forward legislation. One of those attempts was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. Those two rights were the right not to be directly discriminated against in employment if working for a firm that employed 20 or more people and the right to not be directly discriminated against in the provision of services. The first right excluded 94 per cent. of employers from the obligation not to discriminate, and both rights outlawed only the most direct and blatant acts of outrageous abuse and discrimination.

Mr. Boswell

The Minister has taken a more political tone than I had anticipated. Can she tell the House how many cases have gone before employment tribunals as a result of the 1995 Act in each year since it was implemented?

Maria Eagle

I am afraid that I do not have the figures in my head, but the number of cases has built up year on year, and the resulting case law is tremendously helpful.

Miss Begg

I may be able to help my hon. Friend. One reason why the 1995 Act was so ineffectual was that the Conservative Government refused point blank to set up a disability rights commission, so no body existed to take cases to tribunal. This Government set up the DRC and that is why cases have started to go before the tribunal. If it were not for the DRC, disabled people would still not have the representation that they deserve.

Maria Eagle

My hon. Friend is right, and I hope that it is not too political for the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) to say so.

The Tories' record was a meagre return on 18 years of effort by disabled people and their supporters in this place fighting for the rights that the rest of us take for granted. However, it was fully in line with the ideological view of the Tory government. I exempt some of their Back Benchers from that charge, but the Tories in government consistently opposed legislating for civil rights.

It need not have been that way, because in 1979, as Minister with responsibility for disabled people, Lord Morris established the Committee on Restrictions Against Disabled People, chaired by Peter Large. It reported in 1982 and concluded that civil rights legislation was a necessary part of tackling the discrimination faced by disabled people. The report presented a massive opportunity for the Tory Government, early in their time in office, to lead the world in emancipating disabled people. Unfortunately, they failed. The report was shelved and nothing was done.

In 1982, Lord Ashley, then MP for Stoke-on-Trent, South introduced a ten-minute Bill, the Disablement (Prohibition of Unjustified Discrimination) Bill. It was not supported by the Government. In 1983, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby introduced a similar Bill. The Government killed it, as they repeatedly did every effort to legislate for civil rights for disabled people. They failed to act because of their ideological opposition to such legislation.

By 1990, the rest of the world had forged ahead of us. As President George Bush senior signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law, he said the following to the US business community: You have in your hands the key to the success of this Act, for you can unlock a splendid resource of untapped human potential that, when freed, will enrich us all. Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down. Those are fine sentiments, but what were the Tory Government here saying at the time? I shall remind the House. Their view was expressed in a consultation document published in June 1990, "Employment and Training for People with Disabilities". It was a comprehensive statement of the Tories' position at the time, and it states: An anti-discrimination law would be too complex to draft and uncertain in its application. There is a danger that faced with a law uncertain in its application, employers would become more reluctant to hire people with disabilities. The relationship of people with disabilities with employers may be damaged and the task of persuasion made harder. Some kind of enforcement agency (perhaps like the Commission for Racial Equality) would probably be needed, involving substantial cost. Anti-discrimination legislation, therefore, is unlikely to be effective in achieving policy objectives and might be counter productive by making a constructive approach by employers less likely. In other words, civil rights were seen as inconvenient and costly burdens on business. Who was the author? It was the then Secretary of State for Employment and now Leader of the Conservative Party, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I doubt that his views have changed. Indeed, only yesterday he emphasised the importance of tax cuts above all other Tory priorities.

The ideologically driven dismissal of the value of civil rights legislation was not merely characteristic of the Thatcher Governments and illustrative of the current Leader of the Opposition's antipathy to legislation, but it was unfortunately the view of the Major Government. There began in 1991–92 what can only be described as a four-year battle for civil rights that redoubled the ferocity of previous fights and during which hand-to-hand fighting on private Member's Bill Fridays—mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover—led to heavy Tory casualties. Some hon. Members—two in particular who are in their places—will recall precisely what happened. I watched it fascinated, as an interested member of the public, because it was before I was elected. It was both dramatic and illustrative of the length to which the Conservative party was prepared to go to stop disabled people having civil rights.

The sequence of events was, characteristically, set in motion by Lord Morris who had the good fortune to come high in the ballot in that Session. He introduced the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. After widespread cross-party support, although not from the then Minister, Nick Scott, it was talked out on Second Reading by Robert Hayward, the then Tory Member for Kingswood, after he had give the House an undertaking not to talk it out. That sequence of events led to his making a personal statement to apologise for misleading the House about his intentions. At the subsequent general election, he was punished severely and, on a good night for the Tories, was defeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, who has become a great champion for disability civil rights—not surprisingly.

Mr. Hayward was not the only Tory Member who had to apologise for misleading the House during those battles. In the 1993–94 session, both the Minister, Nick Scott, and Olga Maitland, then Tory MP for Sutton and Cheam, famously had to do so when caught misleading the House about the authorship of 80 or so beautifully written amendments to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill that had been tabled at the last minute for Report. They had in fact been drafted by the Government to wreck the civil rights legislation, despite assurances on the Floor of the House that they were all the work of Olga Maitland. That fact was ferreted out after tenacious parliamentary detective work by some of my hon. Friends. Eventually, following a complaint to Madam Speaker, she was strongly rebuked for her conduct. The Minister himself had to make a personal statement and apologise for misleading the House.

That blatant Tory sabotage originating in the heart of Government, but not encompassing all Back Benchers, did not amount to the "benevolent neutrality" with which the Minister claimed in 1992 to view the Bill. In fact, it represented active, hostile Tory Government determination to scupper any progress towards disability civil rights.

A careful examination of the record makes revealing and fascinating reading and would be great source material for a good thriller or perhaps, more accurately, a whodunnit. But the point that I seek to illustrate is that Tory Governments consistently opposed civil rights legislation for ideological reasons and those who were prominent in doing so still run the Tory party today, not least the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe. In stark contrast, Labour parliamentarians, starting with Lord Morris have led the parliamentary part of this fight from the start, and in conjunction with disability campaigners and supportive Back Benchers from all parties, have made huge breakthroughs. But it could have been done years before it was if it had not been for the hostility of those Governments.

On coming to office, we decided to turn the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 into something more like the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, and we have done so by strengthening, widening and deepening it and by setting about actually implementing its provisions instead of leaving them sitting uncommenced on the statute book. As a result, disability rights have been transformed from their parlous condition in 1997 and by the end of this Parliament will be comprehensive, fulfilling a major Labour manifesto commitment.

Indeed by 1 October, 70 per cent. of the measures recommended by the disability rights taskforce, which was established in 1997 to advise us on how best to establish civil rights will be fully implemented. The draft Disability Discrimination Bill secures the rest, going beyond our commitments in some spheres. That builds on the achievements of our first term, when we set about plugging the gaps in the DDA—turning it into a more comprehensive piece of legislation and fully commencing its operation in the large areas where that had not happened.

Mr. Barnes

I accept everything that my hon. Friend is saying, and I thank her for her comments about my involvement in some of the earlier developments. Is there not still an overlapping problem with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, in that it is based on a medical definition, whereas the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was based on a social definition and was directed towards the discriminator? Although we have gone along with it and are going further with the measures that she has described, a further breakthrough might be needed to bring fully to fruition the measures in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bills?

Maria Eagle

I accept my hon. Friend's point about the definition. For legislation throughout the world, definitions have been one of the most difficult things to get right. A distinction has often been made between a medical model, which defines disabled people in terms of their impairments, and a social model, which looks at what barriers society puts up, the removal of which would give disabled people their rights.

It is absolutely the case that the DDA relies on a more medical model. Aspects of it might be seen as taking a social approach, but it depends on a largely medical model. The Joint Committee report makes some suggestions about further improving the definitions, but nobody across the world has come up with a perfect definition that is workable in legislation. It is hard to do. That is not to say that we cannot make progress towards it, but at a time when we are extending the coverage of the legislation to more than 1 million new employers, for example, now perhaps is not the best time to set about making significant changes to the definition. It is important that those on whom obligations are placed have a pretty certain view of who might be covered by them.

Mr. Goodman

The phrase "civil rights", which the Minister has used several times in the course of her speech, is usually associated with the social model. Will she confirm that the Government's Bill is indeed based on the 1995 Act, which, as she says, is largely founded on the medical model?

Maria Eagle

It is not useful in this field to tear everything up and start from scratch.

Mr. Goodman

So it is not civil rights.

Maria Eagle

Well, it is civil rights. I do not know what kind of dictionary the hon. Gentleman has, but it is clearly not the same as mine. We are talking about making real differences to people's lives and the way to do that is not to get too hung up on precisely how one describes the differences between a social and a medical model but to get on with giving people real rights that they can enforce.

Thanks to this Government, we now have an admirably functioning Disability Rights Commission, which not only acts as a champion for disabled people and supports court cases to end discrimination, but is also trusted by business to provide good-quality advice about how they can improve as employers and service providers and meet the needs of their disabled customers and employees. Indeed, some 40 per cent. of the calls that it takes on its helpline are from business organisations, which underlines how important it is that those with obligations under the legislation see the sense of the legal requirement that it imposes and have confidence in the DRC to give advice about what they need to do to improve.

We have also extended the DDA to education, which was surely one of the most disgraceful omissions from the original Act. How can we hope to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people if we do not remove the barriers that they face in getting a good education? From the nursery to the university, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 is creating more opportunities for disabled children and adults and I believe that in the long term its provisions will be among the most influential in transforming the life chances of our disabled fellow citizens. By next year, it too, will be fully operational.

The DDA is being extended in October to cover 7 million more jobs, with the final abolition of the small firms exemption from its employment provisions and its extension to previously excluded occupations. It will help 600,000 disabled people who already work in those jobs directly by giving them rights not to be discriminated against on the ground of their disability that they do not currently enjoy. It also brings 1 million smaller employers into full coverage—a fact that has been welcomed by employers' organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry, the Employers Forum on Disability and generally supported by small business organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses.

The draft Disability Discrimination Bill published this year has been widely welcomed, not only by the DRC but by organisations of and for disabled people. The DRC calls it "an exciting Bill," and also says that current activity is vast in the field of Disability Rights". What a contrast to the record of the Conservative party. The draft Bill will widen coverage of the DDA and its anti-discrimination obligations to include councillors, larger private clubs, including political parties, and more people with HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis. It will deepen coverage by extending the anti-discrimination obligations to all the functions of public authorities that are currently excluded and it will also extend to some aspects of landlord and tenant law. It will restrict the transport exemption from part III obligations and specify end dates for full accessibility of existing public transport vehicles and thus effectively end the transport exemption.

It will strengthen coverage by introducing a duty on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people, something particularly welcomed by the DRC, which calls it A major shift of emphasis"— to tackling systematic barriers rather than relying on a post-hoc system of redress. In future, that will provide excellent opportunities for removing some of the current problems before they can even arise—at least, I hope so. Once enacted, which I hope will be soon, the new measure will be a landmark piece of legislation, further consolidating the progress of disability civil rights as well as completing in full our manifesto commitment.

All that is a means to an end: more life chances for disabled people, equality in practice not just in theory. While we have been getting on with improving civil rights legislation, there has been steady progress across Government. There have been major improvements in part M of the building regulations, for example, and the incorporation of lifetime home standards to require an even better standard from registered social landlords under the guidance of the Housing Corporation. The next few years should see real improvements in the accessibility of homes.

In transport, we have already done much, although it has to be admitted that, in some instances, our existing transport infrastructure presents significant challenges. We have improved accessibility to public transport vehicles. All new buses and trains have to be accessible and the draft Bill will make provisions to end transport exclusion and set dates by which existing vehicles will have to be accessible. The obligation to make reasonable adjustment to the physical features of the infrastructure, such as stations, will come in on 1 October. Again, we have to deal with a historical legacy of inaccessibility, but that is being tackled consistently across the sector. Awareness is much higher among operators and those responsible for running our public transport services.

Access to education is improving. The schools access initiative and programmes such as the disabled students allowance are giving money to disabled people to enable them to access education. As the legislation places obligations on education providers to meet the needs of disabled people, we shall see even more improvements over time. As well as the disabled students allowance, the learner support funds are helping in the further education sector. Disabled people are a priority group for support. We are seeing real improvements that matter to disabled people and their lives.

All those important initiatives are taking place across Government in all spheres and will have practical effects. As the DRC said in its briefing, current activity is vast in the field of disability rights. By the end of this Parliament, the Government will have brought about the biggest ever improvement in civil rights for disabled people in this country, as a foundation on which to build real improvements in life chances for more than 10 million of our fellow citizens who are disabled. It is a record that I am proud to commend to the House.

2.3 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con)

It is a privilege to be speaking from the Dispatch Box for the first time in a debate on disability. I pay tribute to the many organisations in my constituency that do so much for and, more important, with people with disabilities, and to all the organisations that do similar work nationally. Their advice, experience and wisdom are invaluable to me.

According to the Library, the last opportunity we had to participate in a general debate on disability-related matters was on the Third Reading of the Disability Rights Commission Bill on 30 June 1999—almost five years ago. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that a similar opportunity will not arise for some time—I will not say "for another five years", although of course I could—and perhaps not until after the next general election.

Talking of elections, I wonder whether anything strikes you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as significant about the timing of today's debate—it certainly struck the Minister, who was extraordinarily defensive. I suspect that she is somewhat embarrassed. I am sure that it will not have escaped your attention, Madam Deputy Speaker, that European elections, the London mayoral election and many local elections are being held today. If the Government's business managers had deliberately chosen the one day in this Parliament on which Members were most likely to have inescapable commitments that would necessitate their absence from Westminster, it would be today. So this is the day that the Government have set aside for what may be the only major debate on disability in Government time in this Parliament. The Minister knows that many Members on both sides of the House—including, doubtless, many Labour Members—wanted to be here today but cannot be.

Today is almost certainly the worst possible day of this Parliament on which to hold a debate on disabled people.

Tom Levitt

The hon. Gentleman paid tribute to organisations working for and with disabled people, but not of disabled people. I am sure that he would want to correct that omission, but it is an interesting omission none the less. The House would take a little more seriously his concerns about timing and the arrangements for the debate if he did not have one of the worst attendance records at meetings of the Joint Committee over recent months. As he was unable to attend those meetings, perhaps it would have been better for the Conservatives to be properly represented by someone who could have spared the time to attend.

Mr. Goodman

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the meetings of the Joint Committee and I am sorry that he felt he had to make that remark. Representations have been made to me from senior organisations in the world of disability expressing serious reservations about the timing of the debate. I believe that they have also written to the Minister.

There are elections today—the day the Government have set aside for what may be the only major debate on disability in Government time in this Parliament. Many Labour Members who wanted to be in the Chamber are absent. It would be easy for me to say that that represents the Department's view of where people with disabilities stand in the Government's list of priorities, but I will resist that temptation. I believe that the intentions of the Department are admirable, and I believe that, despite a speech of astonishing negativity and backward-lookingness, the Minister is dedicated. I suspect that the blame for the crass timing of this debate lies, fair and square, with the Government's business managers.

Maria Eagle

The hon. Gentleman says that he is not making the point that the Department's view is that disabled people are at the bottom of its list of priorities, but in his letter to me complaining about the timing of the debate he says: Ministers are effectively telling disabled people that they are bottom of the Government's list of priorities.

Mr. Goodman

Now the hon. Lady is claiming that she is the only Minister in the Government. It is perfectly clear that I was referring to the Government's business managers who are—in case she has missed the point—Ministers, unless she would care to correct me. I believe that the blame lies fair and square with them and judging from the fact that the Minister held up my letter at the beginning of the debate—for which I am extremely grateful—I suspect that she is severely embarrassed by the timing.

Of course, ultimately it is not my judgment that matters, nor is it the Minister's; it is not even that of the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt). The view that ultimately matters is that of people with disabilities themselves, and they will make their own judgment.

I want to consider three policy pillars in relation to disability: first, the duties contained in part 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which come into effect this autumn; secondly, the draft Disability Discrimination Bill, about which the Minister was remarkably unforthcoming—I shall come to that in a moment—and the recent report of the Joint Committee on that Bill; and, lastly, the possible impact of the Government's proposed commission for equality and human rights on disabled people.

First, however, as would surely be right in the kind of wide-ranging debate I had hoped we would have—it has not happened so far—I want to consider not only the dry legislative dimension, but to look more fully and, I hope, warmly at the human dimension: at people with disabilities themselves, and at their lives.

The challenges are daunting. If someone is born a member of an ethnic minority, they will always be a member of that ethnic minority, whatever other choices they make. If someone is born a man or a woman, they will usually remain, under law, a man or a woman. I will leave aside the debate about sexuality and orientation because it is complex. But what is certain is that disability is even more complex.

People can be born with a disability, such as cerebral palsy, that will remain a disability through life. People can be born with a disability, such as some forms of sight impairment, and lose it. People can be born without a disability and acquire one, such as blindness. People can be born without a disability, acquire one and lose it again. For example, I had cancer earlier in this Parliament, and the doctors tell me that I am now free of it. I have been fortunate—I had it in a mild form—and millions of people, and their families and friends, have endured far worse. I mention the experience only as an illustration of the complexity of the debate about disability.

Mr. Barnes

The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point. Is not disability discrimination very odd? Other forms of discrimination should not take place, but we may perhaps understand how they may emerge: men may be biased against women, or racial discrimination may occur because people belong to different groups. However, given that people can move in and out of disability or acquire disabilities later in life, disability discrimination is like exercising a form of discrimination that is against oneself or the group to which one belongs. That is quite an odd form of discrimination. If those factors were spelt out, perhaps people would be much more sensitive to them and not discriminate against disabled people.

Mr. Goodman

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is a great expert in these matters. He made a sound point earlier about civil rights that perhaps the Minister did not fully appreciate. What he says is right: disability discrimination is peculiarly complex, if only because it is so often invisible, which is one of the points that he has just made.

Mr. Boswell

Does my hon. Friend agree that the remediation or criticism of, for example, an employer's or service provider's attitude to disability is also a complex matter? It is a matter not simply of whether discrimination takes place, but of whether the adjustments made to meet that situation are reasonable or appropriate.

Mr. Goodman

My hon. Friend, who has a very fine track record in these matters, is of course right.

Bert Massie, the chairman of the DRC, recently made a point to the largely non-disabled members of the Joint Committee on the draft Disability Discrimination Bill. He told them, brutally but cheerfully—I roughly paraphrase—that it is a case of join us, or die young. That is a sobering thought. If there is a third way between those two choices, Bert certainly did not mention it. So at one end of the life cycle, more and more people are living longer and acquiring disabilities as they do so. Between 2005 and 2020, 13,000 more people each year are expected to require residential care than currently receive it—a 25 per cent. increase. At the other end of the life cycle, more and more children who would not have survived for long after birth 20 years ago, perhaps even 10 years ago, now survive and have, in consequence, special educational, health and employment needs. Between the very old and the very young, there is a more health-conscious and disability-conscious work force, and as the population ages that work force will age too.

All that has over-arching implications for the Government, families and the private and voluntary sectors—for society itself. Older people need specialist equipment and care. I have just received a letter from the Bucks Association for Blind and Partially Sighted People, urging me to urge the Government today to ensure that the keypads provided in post offices follow Royal National Institute of the Blind guidelines. Children need teachers who are trained to assess and deal with special needs. Workers need help with rehabilitation, transport and retraining.

Above all, perhaps, people with disabilities will no longer be content, if they ever were, to be the passive recipients of help: to be, in short, dependent on the state or other people. Increasingly, they want to be active shapers of their own destinies—to be independent and, as we say in these enlightened times, empowered. They often want to be viewed not just as people with disabilities, but as people with unique skills and talents. I suspect that that has always been true. The focus on rights that are to be claimed assertively, even aggressively, is more modern.

Rights are, of course, a good thing. Some of us, however, will have been struck when observing the recent D-day coverage by the contrast between, on the one hand, the reticent, modest, dutiful, responsibility-focused bearing of the now-old soldiers, sailors and airmen who risked their lives and were often gravely injured—and thus disabled—in the fight for freedom and, on the other, the more rights-focused modern generation. That comparison is not necessarily in all senses to our advantage.

I was present, as I expect the Minister was also—I am slightly surprised that she did not mention this in her journey through times past—at the recent launch of Scope's thought-provoking "Time to Get Equal" campaign, which the leaders of all the main parties support. I was struck, as others will have been, by its assertive central message: "disablism"—as Tony Manwaring, Scope's chief executive and others put it—should be, and eventually will be, as unacceptable as racism or sexism. My first reaction on hearing that was to wonder, given the number of "isms" that are already in circulation, whether another is strictly necessary, but that response should surely be questioned.

It is true—indeed, it is a truism—that public opinion will not move any faster than it is prepared to move. This is why, for example, I am cautious about the overenthusiastic promotion of the social model of disability. I gather from the Minister's remarks today that she is cautious about that, too.

Miss Begg

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although public opinion will not be changed only by legislation, by introducing civil rights legislation, the Government have been successful in changing public opinion for the better much faster than would have been the case if the legislation had not existed?

Mr. Goodman

I am not sure whether, as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) pointed out earlier, legislation that is partly based on the medical model is exactly the same as civil rights legislation. However, the hon. Lady—I thought she would intervene at some point and she has not disappointed me—is right in the sense that the 1995 Act and the draft Bill contain elements of the social model, as she would concede, given that they acknowledge the need to break down barriers.

I am wary—I believe that the DRC and Ministers are, too—of a possible backlash from business in particular and voters in general against definitions that might seem to fly in the face of common sense or of the casual assumption that all the 9.8 million people with disabilities in Britain believe that their identity is defined by their particular disability and will speak, lobby and vote accordingly. None the less, the argument that there is discrimination worldwide and in Britain against people with disabilities is incontestable.

I am grateful to Rachel Hurst of Disability Awareness in Action for sending me what that organisation accurately describes as a "catalogue of horror", largely based on incidents abroad. I quote one stark example from, as the report terms it, Palestine: A disabled woman was raped by a gang of youths. She was subsequently murdered by her brother to alleviate the 'shame on her family'. In general, of course, we do better in Britain. There has been some progress under Governments of all parties, and it would be churlish not to recognise the commitment of Ministers—I am determined not to follow the somewhat negative tone set by the Minister—or to dismiss the work of the Government, but the challenges identified by Rachel Hurst and others remain.

In 2003, 13 per cent. of non-disabled people aged between 16 and 24 had no qualifications; the figure for disabled people was 24 per cent. Some 81 per cent. of non-disabled people of working age are employed; the figure for disabled people is 49 per cent. Some 22 per cent. of non-disabled people are fearful of using public transport; the figure for disabled people is 40 per cent. "Mind the Gap", a Leonard Cheshire social exclusion report, explores the issue in some detail. A recent Health Committee report found that up to 500,000 elderly people have been abused, often by their relatives. The NSPCC's report, "It doesn't happen to disabled people" suggested that children with disabilities are more vulnerable to abuse than non-disabled children". I have a final figure People with learning disabilities are 58 times more likely to die before the age of 50 than other citizens.

It is in the light of these stark contrasts that I turn to the first of the two anti-discrimination measures that I want to consider this afternoon, namely the duties contained in part Ill of the 1995 Act, which will come into effect this October. As the Minister reminded us, it was a Conservative Government and a Conservative Minister—my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), whom she at least credited by name—who introduced that Act, the first ever Government-hacked anti-discrimination measure in Britain relating to disability. We naturally take pride in it.

Vera Baird

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Goodman

I will be very happy to give way, but perhaps the hon. an I learned Lady will express her hope that the Bill that will succeed the Act that I have just mentioned will be introduced this Session.

Vera Baird

I shall make my own intervention if it is all the same to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman has made a great point of saying how complex and difficult it is to understand disability discrimination. It is not obviously blatant and straightforward. Can he therefore explain why the 1995 Act, which he has trumpeted so much, did not outlaw indirect discrimination at all?

Mr. Goodman

I will accept lectures from Government Members about the Act when they introduce their own Bill in such a way that it is likely to come into force in this Parliament. May I make it clear that I believe that the 1995 Act was right for the time? Events move on and one has to consider them in the light of time. However, I shall not say anything at the Dispatch Box today that indicates any shame at the 1995 Act. It is a great shame that the hon. and learned Lady has nothing to say in praise of it.

From 1 October, service providers will have to make changes to the physical features of their premises. Firms employing fewer than 15 people will no longer be exempt from the employment provisions of that Act, and disability in relation to occupational pension schemes will become unlawful. The Minister will be aware that, according to a survey carried out by her Department, only 3 per cent. of employers whose businesses are currently exempt from the provisions of the 1995 Act know that their exemption is due to be lifted. Furthermore, very few of these employers were aware of legislation giving rights to employees or knew that they were currently exempt.

Less than half the service providers who were aware of the 1995 Act were also aware of the forthcoming change. Furthermore, a survey carried out late last year by the Federation of Small Businesses, which asked FSB members whether they had made reasonable adjustments to their premises to fulfil the legal requirement that all businesses make reasonable adjustments to their premises to enable disabled access, found that more than 50 per cent. of those polled at that time were non-compliant.

According to new research by Unum Provident, the important disability insurer: One million small businesses will have to make adjustments to their workplaces or else face possible law suits costing tens of thousands of pounds from customers or industrial tribunals from staff. Joanna Hindle, the corporate services director from Unum Provident, has said: Overall, the lack of awareness by small business owners on the potential impact of changes to the DDA is a cause for concern.

Last month, I wrote to the Minister—she has evidently received many letters from me—asking what proportion of business and service providers the Department expected to be aware of and compliant with the part III provisions of the 1995 Act by 1 October, and asking what level of awareness and compliance the Department believed to be acceptable. The Minister duly replied, stating: There is a need further to raise awareness of DDA duties among businesses, especially small businesses". Indeed there is, but—surprise, surprise—the Minister would not be drawn on what levels of awareness and compliance the Department believes to be acceptable, let alone expects. The reason for this, I suspect, is simple. The Department cannot decide what levels of awareness and compliance it should accept and does not have a clue what levels of awareness and compliance it should expect.

Tom Levitt

Has the hon. Gentleman seen the considerable amount of advertising from the Department for Work and Pensions on this subject that has appeared in local newspapers across the country? With 113 days to go, what efforts is he making to help the businesses in his constituency to ensure that they comply with the Act?

Mr. Goodman

I am telling every one that I can about it. Although the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Department is making efforts, the figures that I have just quoted show that it is being singularly unsuccessful. I wish him as much luck in his constituency when he tells businesses about the forthcoming provisions of the Act as I hope that I will have in mine.

Vera Baird

The hon. Gentleman is rather out of step with the main disability organisation on this point. The briefing for this debate from the Disability Rights Commission starts off loudly and in large letters, saying that it congratulates the Government on the publicity campaign that it has launched to raise awareness". Although the Government have not yet been able to achieve 100 per cent. awareness, I would be very pleased to hear what the hon. Gentleman thinks is a measurable acceptable level of awareness and whether he thinks such a thing can conceivably exist. He is missing the boat; everybody is pleased with the effort that the Department for Work and Pensions has put in. It certainly trumps introducing legislation but not putting it into effect. That is all the Tories did.

Mr. Goodman

Everyone is not pleased. I have just expressed the serious concerns of one important organisation. I am puzzled that Labour Members still seem to be living in a world—perhaps they cannot escape from it—in which we are still in government. We are always being asked what we would do and what position we would be in now. The Labour party has been in power for seven years and it cannot happily continue this journey down memory lane without taking some responsibility for its own actions and responsibilities.

The present position is deeply worrying. I spoke earlier about some of the dangers of a backlash from business and voters against anti-discrimination legislation. Here is another example. There is a danger—I will put it no higher than that—that, come October, complaints, justified or, as I suspect, probably unjustified, from small businesses and service providers about unreasonable and sudden demands being made on them by the 1995 Act will start rolling in, and not to the Department but to the media. I have, for my sins, worked in the media, and I know that this is precisely the way in which backlashes begin. So if all this happens—which I devoutly hope it will not—do not let the Minister say that we did not warn her.

I now want to move from the 1995 Act to the present draft Disability Discrimination Bill and to the report issued by the Joint Committee. The official Opposition support the Bill in principle, and we believe that the Committee has issued an excellent report. It would indeed be hard for me to say anything else since I was, of course, a member of the Joint Committee, and I will be checking the claim made by the hon. Member for High Peak very carefully after the debate. I do not commend the report simply out of good manners; I strongly believe that the Committee was able to reach, under the chairmanship of Lord Carter, a consensus on several thorny and potentially divisive issues.

Perhaps the most eye-catching recommendations were in relation to the definition of disability, to mental health and to trains. On the definition, the Committee recommended that all progressive conditions currently covered by the 1995 Act, when they begin to have an effect, should be included from the point of diagnosis. On mental health, it recommended the removal of the requirement that mental illnesses must be clinically well recognised, and recommended that the requirement should instead be that medical evidence must establish the effect of the condition on that person. On transport, it recommended that 2017, with limited exemptions, should be the end date by which trains should be accessible. The report said: There is no justification for further delay".

The official Opposition support the Bill, they commend the report and they believe that the Bill should be introduced as soon as possible. This view is shared, as far as we know, by the Liberal Democrats, and the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) is nodding. I believe that the view is shared by the other minor parties. It is also widely held outside the House by organisations that work with and for—for the convenience of the hon. Member for High Peak—people with disabilities, and of course disabled people themselves. So we know where nearly everyone stands, with one significant exception. We still do not know, despite the Minister's trip down memory lane today, where the Government stand.

Maria Eagle

I thought that I had made it clear—the hon. Gentleman may not have heard—that we have a manifesto commitment to introduce legislation that represents the remaining 30 per cent. of our manifesto commitments during this Parliament, and we are on course to do so.

Mr. Goodman

I heard that. The point is that many organisations that work with and for all disabled people believe that the next election is likely to be next summer. Any Bill that is introduced in the Queen's Speech this autumn, therefore, is likely to fall before it can pass through both Houses and gain Royal Assent. The Minister said last October, and she made the point again just now, that the final step towards meeting the Labour party's manifesto commitment will be when a disability Bill is passed in this Parliament. We assume that that is a pledge, and I think that the Minister has confirmed that it was. However, only if the Bill is introduced in this Session can the fulfilment of the pledge be guaranteed.

The Minister will know that disabled people and organisations that represent them want such a Bill to be introduced in this Session. I was going to ask the hon. Lady again if she would guarantee that a Bill would be brought before the House during the Session. It seems clear from what she has said, however, that it will not be. Bearing in mind the timing of the debate and the nature of part of it, perhaps I should not be surprised.

I move on to the last of my three pieces of legal architecture that especially affect disabled people, which is the Government's proposed commission for equality and human rights. People with disabilities have special needs and requirements. It can be argued that other groups such as ethnic minorities also have special needs and requirements. However, the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating on equal terms in modern Britain—this was the point bounced round the Chamber by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire and me—are formidable. We regard the proposed abolition of the Disability Rights Commission and its incorporation into the new commission with concern and believe that at the least any new commission must have a special place and role for disabled people.

Before touching on some principles for reform, I shall refer to poverty, prosperity, work and disabled people. Since 1997, the number of people claiming incapacity benefit and severe disablement allowance has risen by about 39,000. With incapacity benefit, we are more or less where we were in 1997. The number came down, which was good. It then increased, which was not so good. Since 1999, the number has risen by 133,000. Where has the increase come from?

In January, in answer to a written question that I tabled, the Minister said that in recent years, people with mental health disorders are the only broad category of diagnosis not to see a reduction in the numbers claiming. I tabled further questions about mental health disorders, asking broadly what the trend is in claims for depression, stress and anxiety. The results were startling. The Min ster's statement was that in such instances there had not been a reduction in the numbers claiming."—[Official Report, 27 January 2004; Vol. 417 c. 346W.] That turned out to be somewhat economical with the truth. There has not been a reduction in the numbers claiming, but a whacking great increase in those numbers, with people claiming for longer. The total number of mental health claimants has risen by 718,000 since 1997. That is a 39 per cent. increase. That number represents a quarter of all claims.

The average length of claims for men has risen from four to five years for mood disorders, and from five and a half to six years for neurotic stress-related disorders. The number of women claimants has risen in every year, reminding us that with disability, as with pensions, women—particularly elderly women—are especially menaced by poverty

The Government have recently introduced their incapacity benefit pilots, to which the Minister referred. We believe that they offer the prospect of the sort of tailor-made help for disabled people that we advanced in our incapacity fundholder proposal at the last election, although the pilots have not yet been evaluated. The Department described the results in February as encouraging, but more information about results would be welcome. I shall be happy to give way to the Minister if she is able to tell us whether more information is available or when that information will be available, or both.

Maria Eagle

Evaluation is not yet available because effectively the pilots started their work-focused interviews only during January. We are expecting some better information during the course of the pilots. The first available information should be coming through sometime in the summer or early autumn. We have undertaken to publish information when it becomes available.

Mr. Goodman

I am grateful to the Minister for that information. I think that we would all be a little happier if we could be guaranteed that the information will be available by the time that the House rises for the summer recess. We will not have full information or a full assessment until 2007.

We have been calling for some time for the Government to give extra help to people with disabilities who want to work. Five years ago, the Government launched the new deal for disabled people and began to means-test incapacity benefit. Four years ago, they launched the ONE programme. Three years ago, they announced Jobcentre Plus. Two years ago, they promised a new welfare reform Bill to reduce the number of out-of-work disabled people. As we know, their numbers have risen, yet about 1.6 million people who currently draw incapacity benefit apparently say that they want to work. We all know that once someone has been on IB for a year, he or she is likely to be on it for eight years. This is a shaming waste of potential, talent and human capital.

Maria Eagle

I agree that people being unemployed when they can be in work with a bit of help is a waste of their talent and potential. Will the hon. Gentleman explain the record of the Conservative Government, who trebled the number of people on IB during their time in office from 700,000 to more than 2.6 million, and did nothing to help them?

Mr. Goodman

It is a travesty of what happened in our time in government to claim that we tried to do nothing to help people with disabilities. I am sorry that the Minister has chosen yet again to intervene on events that happened more than six years ago when she is responsible for the numbers of people on IB, which are rising. In relation to stress, anxiety and depression, they are completely out of control.

It is not only important to enable people with disabilities to find work and keep it. It is vital also to ensure that people without disabilities do not acquire disabilities that will make it impossible for them to find work or to keep work. More older workers are enduring problems with cognitive skills at work, for example, as they move towards retirement. Many younger workers are enduring problems with obesity, for example, as they move towards middle age. I shall set out some broad principles on a positive note that should, we believe, inform policy making in relation to disability in work.

First, it is clear that prevention is better than cure. A worker who changes his habits and becomes healthier as a result is less likely to acquire illness and disability. An employer who cares for his employees and offers them assessment, retraining and transport, especially as they grow older, is less likely to lose them to illness and disability. Needless to say, I am not an enthusiast for what is sometimes labelled the nanny state. However, the Government have a legitimate role in rewarding good employers and educating future workers.

Secondly, the tax, benefit and employment system must be made more simple and comprehensible. It could not possibly be less simple and comprehensible than it is now. It is curious that incapacity benefit works roughly as follows: the doctor and patient meet; the doctor confirms that the patient cannot do the work that he or she currently does; and the doctor does not have a dialogue with the patient in which both might seek to discover what work the patient might be able to do. That is partly because doctors are trained to diagnose patients, not to help them seek and find work, but consequences follow. The IB claimant may not find Jobcentre Plus advisers who can help him or her get back into work when they receive benefit. The claimant may be discouraged from leaving the benefit for fear of falling back into it at a lower rate, or he may not take up the 52-week rule option.

We acknowledge that bureaucracies in the assessment of eligibility for benefit want hard-and-fast rules. We recognise that public funds are not limitless and that short-term demand on the Treasury must be contained. None the less, there must be some way of transforming incapacity benefit, which is triggered by what people cannot do, into—I use a phrase that I think Joanna Hindle used in her evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee—a "capacity payment" that responds to what people can do and is less hedged about by difficulties involving eligibility, take-up, perverse incentives and complexity. That leads me to the third principle of a more active role for the voluntary and private sectors.

The concept of the incapacity fundholder, which we advanced at the last election and which the Government are now following in their own pilot model, was a way of seeking to create a capacity payment. It envisaged voluntary and private sector organisations working for people with disabilities to exercise a more active role in the administration and use of the benefit. I know from my constituency experience of the extra dimension that organisations like the Shaw Trust bring to helping people with disabilities to find and keep work. We want to draw on recommendations in the report by the Work and Pensions Committee on Jobcentre Plus on a more direct role for the voluntary and private sector and the marrying up of the administration and use of benefits to employment advice and help.

At the outset, I said that disabled people pose legislators and politicians with daunting challenges. While we are doubtless impressed by the scale of those challenges, we must not be deterred from facing up to them, including the main challenge of reforming a system that is increasingly hard to explore, prone to complexity and means-testing, and lacks joined-up thinking in its attempts to support and empower people with disabilities. The next Conservative Government will not be deterred from that task.

2.40 pm
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab)

I am delighted to be called to speak in our debate, although I am disappointed by the churlishness of the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and his disquiet at its timing. Perhaps because he was elected only in 2001—although that cannot really be the excuse—he has forgotten the number of debates held on disability since 1997, when I was elected.

When I was elected to Parliament as the first Member permanently to use a wheelchair I was determined not to be a spokesperson for disabled people. I was determined not to be the disabled MP to whom everyone turned as the fount of all knowledge on disability matters; I hoped to make my mark on the House, and would do so as an MP who happened to have a disability. I have tried hard to follow that path, but inevitably I have been sucked into debates on disability because I have personal expertise on the issue. The hon. Gentleman said that we should listen to disabled people, so I hope he will listen to me. I did not want to be the fount of all knowledge on issues affecting disabled people because they are not a homogenous mass—they have different views, aspirations and expectations, and no single voice can represent them all—but, despite that view, I have participated in rather a lot of debates on disability in Parliament. I served on the Committee considering the legislation that set up the Disability Rights Commission. I also served on the Committee that considered the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001.

More recently, I served on the Committee considering the draft Disability Discrimination Bill. I hope that the Minister will accept our suggestion, originally made by me, that we change its title to the draft disability anti-discrimination Bill. I have participated in a range of debates on disability in the Work and Pensions Committee and in the Chamber itself, so I do not know where on earth the hon. Gentleman has been. He is a fellow member of the Work and Pensions Committee, which he applauded and, indeed, he praised its research on getting disabled people into work.

It is therefore not unusual to discuss disability in the House, and quite a lot has been achieved since the Government came to power. Had I been an MP in previous years, I suspect that I would have spoken about disability but, instead of praising the Government of the time and encouraging them to go a little further, most of my contributions would have criticised the Tories in their failure to act at all. Like the Minister and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), I was struck by the briefing from the Disability Rights Commission, which says: Current activity is vast in the field of disabled rights. That could not have been said before 1997 of the Conservative party, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member.

The hon. Gentleman was not sure that the Government were advocating true civil rights. When I was elected, I had campaigned on two issues for about 20 years—the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and the need for full, enforceable civil rights for disabled people, the subject of my first speech to the national Labour party conference. The Government have delivered on the first issue, and are about to deliver on the second. The Scottish Parliament is up and running, and has been through two elections. Once the Disability Discrimination Bill is on the statute book, we can probably say that we have achieved full, enforceable civil rights for disabled people.

Thanks to the establishment of the DRC, we have enforceable civil rights. If it had not been set up, any power under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 would have counted for nothing, because we needed a body to take disabled people's cases to tribunal and court. The DRC has done so, and has performed a valuable function by pushing the Government into legislating to fill the gaps in the 1995 Act, including bringing education and transport under the auspices of that measure and introducing regulations to ensure that silly restrictions such as the exemption for all small employers are removed. As my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said, the Government will also enforce obligations under part 3 of the Act in October this year, and will not postpone doing so for another three years.

Disabled people know when they have suffered discrimination, which is overt and happens daily. It is not an ethereal issue discussed by people in debating chambers—it is real, and happens to all disabled people, who feel it very deeply, which is why they often react angrily in such situations. Every time that someone talks not to me but to the person who is with me, I feel that discrimination. Every time that I turn up at a restaurant or meeting place at which there is no wheelchair access, I feel it. Every time I try to get into a place of public entertainment and am told—not recently, luckily—that I am a fire hazard, I face it. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that while that discrimination still takes place, I can now do something about much of it.

In 1973, when I applied to Aberdeen college to take a three-year diploma course so that I could become a primary teacher, I was told that I could not, but I had no legal recourse. I was discriminated against because of my disability, but I could do nothing about it. Three years later, in 1976, having gained a university degree, I returned to the college wanting to take a course to become a secondary teacher. I was refused, but there was nothing that I could do and I had no recourse to the law. Thanks to the Government, that could not happen to a young person trying to get into college today. In fact, the difficulties that I experienced getting into teaching are no longer experienced, and disabled people now have the right to challenge unfair decisions by faceless bureaucrats or, in my case, a college doctor. Powers are now in place giving us the right to challenge such decisions. However, they do not stop discrimination happening. This morning. for example, a taxi was hailed for me, but took off again when asked to wait as I was in a wheelchair. If I had been quick enough to get his number, however, I could have done something about it. That is the difference. As more and more case law is built up, and more and more people realise that it is unacceptable as well as unfair and discriminatory to make such judgments or take such actions against disabled people, the less it will happen.

It is important not just that we get the legislative framework correct, but that we use legislation to change attitudes. In my intervention on the hon. Gentleman I asked whether the changes in attitude would have happened without the legislation. Unfortunately, he did not answer the point that I raised, but the answer is that the changes in attitude would not have come about. Years before I was elected, I remember having a discussion with someone who believed it was a matter of education. If we had left it to education, we would not be where we are today. Legislation sets the framework and the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Because most people want to obey the law and not to fall foul of the law, it has acted as a driver to change attitudes and to make sure that incidents such as the one that I described that happened to me this morning become fewer and fewer.

Mr. Goodman

I am sorry to have upset the hon. Lady, which I try never to do. I make it clear that I believe legislation is essential, but it would be less churlish—to use the word that she has propelled into circulation—if she acknowledged that the 1995 Act introduced by a Conservative Government was one of the pieces of legislation that has made a difference.

Miss Begg

The 1995 Act was an opportunity missed. Much of what the Labour Government have put in place could have beer put in place at the time of the 1995 Act. The fact that that did not happen was due to the actions of the Tory Government at the time. I remember meeting Lady Olga Maitland a few months before I was elected. I was on a programme called "The Midnight Hour" that used to go out very late—funnily enough, considering its title—on BBC 2. I was a candidate for the election at the time and I was invited down from Scotland. I found myself sitting next to Lady Olga, and I came out of the programme with steam coming out of my ears. She was unrepentant, she was unapologetic for what she had done, and I found her the most patronising person I have ever met in my life.

I know the hon. Members sitting on the Opposition Benches today, and I know the hon. Gentleman very well. I know that they are honourable men and would not have taken the same attitude as Lady Olga Maitland did at the time. I am sure they were just as embarrassed by her actions as others would be. However, she was representative of the tone of the Government at the time. My hon. Friend the Minister was right to say that the 1995 Act came about because the Government were drawn kicking and screaming into passing some kind of legislation to try to dampen down the negative publicity that they were getting from the disabled lobby.

The disabled lobby at the time was angry about the 1995 Act, but it acknowledged, sometimes a little reluctantly, that at least it was a step. It could have been so much better, and we could have been so much further ahead in the delivery of civil rights had the Act had some teeth to it. For instance, had it provided for a DRC it would have been a much better Act and we could have been much further on in introducing the civil rights that we all want.

Mr. Barnes

One of the things that a number of us argued for during the discussions on the Disability Discrimination Bill in 1995 was the establishment of a disability rights commission. We always said that that would be the most important amendment to the measure. Despite the imperfections of the measure, the commission would begin to take action and help to transform it, as it has been doing since its establishment. There were odd little gains here and there as the amending procedure went through, but the big gain that we were after, which would not have given us a civil rights (disabled persons) Bill, would have been a measure with its own dynamic if the commission had been established.

Miss Begg

I thank my hon. Friend for that. He was there at the time; I was not. I was outside, but it was always my impression that that one body would have been a major advance in advising the Government on how they could have improved the 1995 Act.

A debate such as this is so wide and varied that it is difficult to know which parts of the topic of disability one should select for discussion. I have mentioned the fact that education is now covered by the DDA. I do not have time to go into that in more detail. The health service has been reformed to allow access for people with disabilities. There have been great advances in genetics as regards people with disabilities. Many issues are addressed by the draft Disability Discrimination Bill, such as access to housing and duties on local authorities.

I do not have time to go into as much detail as I would like on all those matters, so I shall concentrate on two areas that are not mutually exclusive—in fact, one is predicated on the other. The first is physical access, and the second is the inclusion of disabled people in society. As I said, one is predicated on the other, because without physical access to goods and services, disabled people cannot exercise their civil rights by being involved in society.

I am pleased to see that in the draft Disability Discrimination Bill aspects of transport that were missing from the DDA 1995 are covered. I hope the Minister will give serious consideration to the recommendation by the Joint Committee that the end date, particularly for rail transport, should be 2017. Rail travel still poses enormous problems, particularly for people with mobility problems. I shall not give any more examples from my own experience—I have given them over the years and they are legion. There are still problems with regard to unmanned stations and inaccessible stations.

There are also difficulties if, for some reason, a rail operator cannot operate trains on a particular section of the track and so puts on replacement buses, possibly while essential repairs are taking place. Inevitably, those buses are not wheelchair-accessible. The Government are legislating to make sure that buses are wheelchair-accessible, and come 2017, hopefully, that problem will not arise and any bus provided to replace a train will be wheelchair-accessible. That is why we need a properly integrated transport policy.

Some operators still do not accept responsibility for getting disabled people on to trains. I was disappointed to hear on Thursday 6 May that in a case taken by the Disability Rights Commission on behalf of Keith Roads to Norwich county court, the judge found it unreasonable that Central Trains should be expected to pay the cost of an accessible taxi to enable Keith Roads to get to the platform to reach the train that he needed. I hope that such a judgment, which was a disappointment to the DRC a month ago, will be covered when the part of the legislation dealing with access to goods and services comes into force in October this year, and that it will be the responsibility of train operators to make sure that, if they offer a service, someone in a wheelchair is not prevented from accessing that service because the station is inaccessible or because of rail works around the station or on part of the rail line. From personal experience, I know how difficult it can be to negotiate payment for a taxi when an operator replaces its trains with an inaccessible replacement service.

On physical access, the obligations that will be implemented in October 2004 are the other issue and in this respect I agree with many of the comments of the hon. Member for Wycombe. Those obligations are a major step forward and disabled people believe that the rights that they will gain in October will make a huge difference. As he said, many employers and providers are still ignorant about their obligations, but it is unfair to criticise the DRC and the Government, because they have made the strongest possible efforts to let people know exactly what will happen.

Unfortunately, the issue has been marred by scare stories put out by employers and small businesses about their obligations. I say, "'unfortunately", but those stories are some of the few occasions on which we have been able to obtain publicity. I have been able to comment on the issue in my local evening newspaper in Aberdeen only when I have been trundled out to reply to scare stories. If scare stories obtain the publicity that we need, they may perform a proper function. Unfortunately, misunderstanding exists about exactly what is involved and the costs. I am particularly concerned that the obligations will be used as an excuse for some shops either to close or to claim that they will close.

I pay tribute to the work of the Scottish Federation of Small Businesses, which could easily have taken a negative stance, by saying that its members were terrified of the implications of the legislation. Instead, it has gone out to try to educate its members about their responsibilities and obligations and to allay their fears by explaining that the obligations do not involve major structural changes, which some small businesses are worried about.

Physical access to goods and services is important if disabled people are to play their full part in society. There is no point in saying that disabled people should join political parties or become involved in civic society if they cannot get into buildings to access the meetings and, indeed, the demonstrations that are part and parcel of that work.

I have spoken a great deal in the House about the world of work, which is important if disabled people are to be truly included. Disabled people, and particularly those who are under retirement age, need access to employment. The Government have done sterling work in trying to ensure that those on incapacity benefit are given the chance to get into work. The new deal for disabled people has been implemented in some areas and the new pilots and the pathways to work have certainly turned around disabled people's attitudes on whether the opportunities are out there.

Younger disabled people expect to work. The difficult group is those who have been in work, and who have fallen out of it, perhaps through unemployment. On that issue, I blame the previous Government, under whom individuals were switched on to incapacity benefit after a couple of years or even a year of unemployment, not because they were any more disabled than they were when they left work, but because it was convenient and got them off the unemployment statistics. After 10 years of unemployment, people often suffer from mental illnesses such as stress or depression. It is harder to be without work when everyone else is in work. When employment is high and unemployment is low, those without work are subject to a personal and social cost. Those who were encouraged to go on to incapacity benefit in the years of high unemployment are not fiddling the system, because they are ill and genuinely believe that they cannot work.

It is hard to persuade the stock of people on incapacity benefit that opportunities and chances exist. Government initiatives such as the new deal for disabled people and the alterations to the rules on therapeutic earnings and permitted work have given people who believed that they would never work again the chance to try it out, which builds confidence in getting back into the work force. Mental health problems are the main reason for increased numbers on incapacity benefit, and I shall return to that challenge in a moment.

The Government have risen to the challenge. Allowing disabled people the chance to work gives people dignity and involves them in society, which is difficult to achieve by other means. People often base their social lives and develop their social awareness in the world of work. If the Government are serious when they discuss social inclusion, they must consider work.

In conclusion, I shall look to the future. The Minister described where we are today and how we got here, but the Government face future challenges on disability. We may need to legislate to end genetic discrimination, which will increase. Genetic discrimination is beginning to happen, and it is a difficult area but if we seek full civil rights for disabled people, that gap must be plugged. The Government must also examine unfair insurance premiums, because some insurance companies still feel it perfectly legitimate to bump up premiums for disabled people.

Mental health problems are a big challenge and a growth area for the future. We have been successful at getting people with physical disabilities into work. Young people with physical disabilities or even learning disabilities who leave school and go to college expect to work in supported or open employment.

I am not convinced that we have the answer on the increasing numbers who will drop out of work because of mental health problems. A great deal remains to be done on occupational health and rehabilitation to ensure that people do not drop out of the workplace when they are first diagnosed with stress or mental health problems, and more should be done either to redeploy those people within their companies or to find them other work. As the hon. Member for Wycombe says, when someone is on incapacity benefit for more than a year, it is much harder to get them back into work.

In the Joint Committee considering the draft Disability Discrimination Bill, we had quite a discussion about whether we should push the Government further on the social model. We agreed with what the Minister has said today—that the definition of discrimination in the model is not as robust or well defined as it needs to be if the rest of our legislation is to hook on to it. There is much more to be done, but I think the definition would be easier if we had a single equality Act. I hope that that will be on the Government's agenda in the next Parliament. I also hope that one of the first jobs for the human rights and equal opportunities commission will be considering how such an Act might be drafted. Under a single equality Act it would not matter whether people were discriminated against because they were black, because they were gay, because they were old, because they were disabled or because they were women; all that would need to be proved would be the fact of discrimination, and it would become much easier to prove that in court.

The Government have already done a great deal. The Minister listed the things that they have done. Nevertheless, there will always be more to do, and expectations will always rise. I am sorry to say—I say it to the Minister, but I would say it to any Government of any colour—that no matter how much is done in the context of disability, we shall always be coming back for more. The more civil rights we secure, the more we realise that further rights could be obtained.

Disability will not come to an end. If anything, many more disabled people will become much more active because of advances in medical science. More people will survive with more profound disabilities and more chronic conditions than has ever been the case in the past. I think Beveridge believed that with a national health service disability and ill health would disappear, but in fact those medical advances mean that people can operate despite being seriously ill. We have seen that in the House. Members suffering from cancer have managed to retain ministerial positions throughout their treatment, holding down demanding jobs that impose a good deal of pressure. More people can now be kept alive, doing more jobs more vigorously, than ever before. We are a growing part of society, and that will not go away. We will not go away either and we will go on reminding the Government of their obligations to us.

The Government have given us a voice. They have given us civil rights, and a mechanism through which we can express our dissatisfaction and challenge what we believe to be wrong. Now that we have that voice, unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—we are going to use it.

3.13 pm
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD)

As others have said, this is an important debate on an important subject. The criteria introduced by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 are used by 9.8 million disabled people, and one family in four has a member with a disability. Moreover, in an ageing population, disability visits more and more of us: it is not just something that happens to other people.

I do not say this often, but I agree with the opening remarks of the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). It is a shame that the debate is taking place on the day of the largest electoral event since the last general election and before the next. Inevitably, many Members, including some who are assiduous in campaigning and attending debates on disability issues, cannot therefore be here today. I remember speaking in a debate on valuing people, which also took place at the end of the week, to an almost empty Chamber. It is unfortunate that such important debates are sometimes sidelined.

The attitude to disability has changed considerably in the past 30, 40 or 50 years. It used to be thought that disabled people should stay at home, out of sight out of mind, or—even worse—that they should be confined to institutions where they could not get in other people's way. The attitude has changed for the better because of the improving legal framework. All credit for that should go to this Government in particular. The framework has improved as a result of education and training, cash investment and the adoption of more open social attitudes in general. I am very glad that I was born and grew up in the second half of the 20th century, and that my children were born, grew up and will live as citizens in the 21st century.

The myriad disability groups deserve huge praise for the advances of the last 30 or 40 years. Before I became the Liberal Democrat spokesman on disability in 2001, I thought I knew quite a lot about disability. For some years, as a teacher in a very good comprehensive school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), I taught a range of disabled children in a mainstream 11-to-18 setting. I taught children with Down's syndrome, fragile X syndrome, hearing and sight impairment, cerebral palsy and spina bifida.

Having been a political campaigner in Chesterfield for many years and having lived in the town for a quarter of a century, I have encountered many examples of disability arising from industrial histories and legacies—in particular, those of a coalfield community. Much of my case load, since I have been an MP and when I was a councillor, has related to people suffering from vibration white finger, pneumoconiosis, asbestosis and numerous other industrial diseases. I have worked with quite a few disability groups in Chesterfield that deal with such conditions. For some years my mother-in-law, who lives two streets away from me in Chesterfield, has been a regular user of the excellent services provided by another voluntary group, Shopmobility, which enable her to visit the town centre.

I thought, therefore, that I was fairly knowledgeable about such groups, but since 2001 I have discovered a vast array of others—far more than I knew existed. They provide two superb services. They give support, care and help to specific groups of disabled people; but more important in the long run, I think, are their expert campaigning and lobbying of Ministers, Members of both Houses and the press on the changes that are needed in society to improve the overall lot of people with disabilities, and social and legal provision for them. They certainly deserve a great deal of credit, and I shall mention a number of them in due course.

The Government also deserve credit. I do not want to intrude on the private historical squabbling—we have heard quite a bit of that today—between the Labour and Conservative parties about the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which has been covered in some detail. To be charitable, the DDA was an important step forward, as were the subsequent extensions of it. The establishment of the Disability Rights Commission was very important, and the draft Disability Discrimination Bill—when it eventually becomes law—will be a significant step in filling the gaps in the DDA. The recognition of British sign language, the "Valuing People: Moving Forward Together" report and its initial implementation, the mental capacity Bill and even this week's announcement on the framework for partnership action by the Secretary of State for Health and the DRC are examples of major improvements for which the Government should be praised.

I very much support what the Government are doing in this regard, but we would not be doing our job today if we simply indulged in mutual praise and back-slapping—not that the previous speakers have done so—and talked about the good progress that is being made. In the light of previous debates, I am sure that the Minister would be very disappointed if I did not say that although much has been achieved, a great deal more remains to be done.

As I have said, attitudes and awareness have improved enormously compared with just 20 years ago, and certainly compared with 30 or 40 years ago. However, there are still huge black holes in terms of training and of the approach of various people. Reference was made earlier to small and medium-sized enterprises' lack of awareness of what will be required of them this autumn, when the next extension of the DDA takes place. There was some argument about whether the Government should be blamed for not publicising these imminent changes sufficiently. According to a UnumProvident survey, 90,000 SMEs—69 per cent. of the total—are more or less totally unaware of what will be expected of them in a relatively few weeks' time. As some Members have pointed out, there has been a great deal of publicity in the past year or so, but perhaps it should have begun considerably earlier. Many of the changes that small businesses will have to make to meet the DDA's requirements would be quite simple to incorporate if made over a number of years. I am thinking, for example, of the routine refitting of a shop or office, which happens every so often anyway. Had the changes not appeared to be last-minute changes, they would not seem such an obstacle to small businesses once they finally do learn what is expected of them; most still do not really know what is expected of them.

Tom Levitt

Is it not true that regardless of such legislation being due to take effect in October, some £50 billion of disabled people's spending power is not being tapped into? It would be very wise for shops and other small businesses to take such measures anyway; indeed, they should have taken them a long time ago in their own interests.

Paul Holmes

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that point applies to what I shall say later about what the Government need to do in certain areas. It is not "just" a question of the equal rights of disabled people; it is also a question of the self-interest of many shopkeepers, restaurant owners and other businesses. If they are not accessible, friendly and welcoming to disabled people, they are excluding themselves from a huge potential income. I imagine that Ryanair, for example, will not get too much custom from disabled people, following the recent case that showed it in quite a bad light.

There are lots of other examples that show that awareness and education are still lacking. A recent DRC report on website access showed that the vast majority of business and service industry websites are not accessible. There are historical problems in the railway industry, such as those associated with London's Victorian underground system. The industry has argued that making its rolling stock accessible to disabled people by 2035 is acceptable, but the Government have said that doing so by 2025 would be better. However, Leonard Cheshire, which is campaigning hard on this issue, has said that 2017 would be a far more reasonable date. Of course, even that is 13 years away.

We have heard about the progress that has been made with the introduction of accessible buses, but simply introducing them is not the end of the story. A constituent of mine—from his wheelchair, he is a very active campaigner—has contacted me several times about the problems that he has encountered. Stagecoach, which provides most of the local services, is rightly very proud of the "kneeling" buses that they have introduced on a number of routes. However, the buses often will not kneel to let my constituent on. On one occasion, the excuse was given that because the bus was running late, the driver had to make up time and did not want to spend time operating the hydraulics to let on someone in a wheelchair. On another occasion, the excuse offered was that the driver in question had not been trained in how to use a kneeling bus. On a further occasion, the excuse was that the optics were grimy and would not operate the equipment. On three separate occasions, this one constituent was unable to access these wonderful kneeling buses, for reasons connected with training, operational practice and awareness among staff of the company.

I recently spoke at the Royal College of Nursing conference at Harrogate and talked to a group of nurses who worked on improving the access of the learning disabled to the health service. One of the nurses from Scotland provided an example of what happened two or three years ago in the NHS in Scotland. His brother-in-law, who had learning disabilities, was rushed into hospital. The nurse drove some miles to get to the hospital, and when he went in he saw his brother-in-law sat there white faced, with clenched teeth, sweating and obviously in pain, but unable to express what was wrong with him on account of his learning disabilities. The brother-in-law took the nurse to one side and told her that he was really in pain. Apparently, the nurse patted him on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry, they do not feel pain like we do." That took place in the health service only two or three years ago.

I also spoke recently at a care conference in Leicester, where one of the delegates talked about his experience within the last year of working in a residential care home in the south-west. He got into trouble because, while he was working there he took people with learning disabilities and people in wheelchairs down to the local pub in the evening for a couple of pints. That was viewed as unacceptable. We can congratulate ourselves on how much progress has been made, but there is an awful lot more to be done in respect of people's attitudes and awareness.

To conclude that subject, I should like to make a few comments about Ofcom. In respect of how access to telecommunications should be interpreted, Ofcom started out by saying that it would not insist on television companies subtitling live programmes because it could not technically be done. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People took me and other Members from here and the other place to visit a company in London that subtitles programmes. There we saw people sat at their computer screens subtitling live sports and news programmes and live debates with no problem at all. It is perfectly possible to do so, yet Ofcom had said that it was not prepared to press that requirement because it could not be done. Subsequently, Ofcom admitted that it could be done and that it had been wrong.

In that light, I would like the Minister to tell us whether she is aware of the basic technical errors that Ofcom made in its consultation on access to telecom services. Does she share the view of Lord McIntosh, who expressed his hope in the other place that Ofcom would accept the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Older and Disabled People? Does she accept that access to television is a basic right and that the growing choice of channels and programmes offered by digital television should be equally available to all? Answers will be needed quickly, because Ofcom will soon report its requirements for the telecommunications industry on subtitling, access and so on.

Then there is the question of Government delay. I have already said that I support and praise the vast majority of what they have done, but in certain respects they are delaying and not moving fast enough. We have already mentioned the draft Disability Discrimination Bill. It was promised in the 2001 manifesto and disability groups were very disappointed that it did not appear in the Queen's Speech that year, or the subsequent year. It finally appeared in the Queen's Speech in 2003. Responses from the draft scrutiny are now being considered. Will it be timetabled to get through Parliament before the next general election destroys it? Had the Government given more priority to this issue and introduced the draft Bill last year or the year before, as they promised in the manifesto, the Bill would already be on the statute book. Clearly, the Government could have moved faster in some areas.

In her closing comments, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) referred to the need for a single equality Bill and asked the Government to look into how it could be drafted. The experiment has already been done. In the other place, Lord Lester, a leading civil rights lawyer, and others, produced a draft single equality Bill in order to clarify the complex mess of equality legislation across six different strands. At the moment, disabled people do not have the same equality rights as people in other discriminatory strands. That was taken through the other place and 247 Members of this House supported an early-day motion stating that a similar measure should be introduced here—but the Government ignored it completely. A draft Bill has been produced, debated and thoroughly gone through. About 40 per cent. of hon. Members supported it straight away, but there has been no sign of any action from the Government. Sarah Spencer, the chair of the equality and diversity forum, told the inaugural meeting of the all-party group on equalities on 20 April that there was a clear and urgent need for such a Bill.

I turn now to the possible establishment of a single commission. The DRC was originally critical of the proposal, although it has accepted some of the Government's reassurances. However, despite the Government's concessions, it remains concerned that a single commission could mean that disabled people will have no organisation to speak for them. It has said that, without a single equality Act, it will be difficult for disabled people to argue for the equal rights that they lack in the law as it stands.

A recent Age Concern campaign estimated that about 2 million people do not claim attendance allowance, even though they are entitled to it and need it. In answer to parliamentary questions, most recently last autumn, the Government said that the size of the problem was not known, and that it would be too difficult and expensive to determine it. They said that they would not mount a mass publicity campaign to encourage people to take up the allowance because it was better to work through local authorities and welfare rights organisations.

Maria Eagle

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is not at all obvious who is eligible for extra-cost benefits such as attendance allowance, for which certain criteria must be met? The only way to find out is if people claim. It is much more difficult to estimate what take-up of attendance allowance ought to be than is the case with other benefits.

Paul Holmes

I accept that it can be difficult to produce reliable estimates of take-up. Attempts were made in 1996–97, but such estimates can be open to all sorts of interpretations.

The Government have said that they do not want to mount a mass awareness campaign but prefer to go through specialist groups. I spent a day with a Chesterfield borough council staff member whose job is to respond to information from bodies such as neighbourhood watch that an elderly person needs a door chain or window locks, for example. He is trained to ask that elderly person whether he or she has claimed pension credit, attendance allowance or some other benefit. He secures benefits worth hundreds of pounds in allowances for those elderly people, or even gets central heating installed for them. That is all well and good, yet cash resources are needed to pay the staff required even though local authorities are told that they must keep council tax down. I hope that the Government will make available resources to make that option work.

A campaign to secure a winter fuel allowance for disabled people was running for a long time before I entered Parliament. The Government refuse even to consider making that allowance available for disabled people, saying that people who are not of retirement age do not need it. However, I received an e-mail this week from a person aged 41 who is suffering from cancer and is confined to the house. That person suffered enormously from the cold as a result, a fact that many disability groups have been aware of for a long time. I cannot understand why the winter fuel allowance is not extended to people with medium and higher levels of disability.

The Government deserve praise for recognising British Sign Language, but what happens next? Finland's population is one-tenth the size of ours, but the country has 600 sign language interpreters. The UK has 400. There are not enough such interpreters available to profit from the recognition of BSL. With the roll-out of the new disability discrimination legislation, employers should make available access to such interpreters, when that is appropriate or necessary. What do the Government plan to do to ensure that more interpreters are trained and made available? They displayed good intentions when they recognised BSL, but they must put those good intentions into practice over the next two or three years.

In business questions earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon ( Malcolm Bruce) said that he had heard that the Government are to host an EU conference on how to support and introduce the use of sign language. Will the Minister give the House some details about that to clarify what is happening?

There are contradictions in Government policy. A Department may make a statement on a matter that is undermined by another Department. I used to be a teacher, and one example that comes to mind has to do with education. The Department for Education and Skills has said, on the one hand, that it is in favour of social inclusion, and that disabled children should have access to mainstream schools, and all types of school; but on the other hand there is the policy of testing. Our children are the most tested in the western world, from when they enter infant school to when they leave secondary school. League tables reflect their results, and schools live or die by the tables when it comes to the children they attract, the money they get and the performance-related pay of teachers, which depends on how successful teachers are in getting children through exams. I know all about that because in the first year of performance-related pay I filled in my own application to cross the professional threshold, and one of the main criteria is how the teacher's classes are doing in terms of academic performance.

All the statistics, including the Government figures every February and annual Ofsted reports, show that the schools that do best in the league tables of which the Government are so fond as they try to drive up standards are generally those with the lowest number of children with special educational needs. I could provide many anecdotal examples of schools in Derbyshire that are high in the league table but where the head will tell people their child would be better off at the school up the road because it is better suited to their needs.

On the one hand, then, the Government say they want social inclusion; on the other, they follow educational policies that work absolutely against it.

The Select Committee on Education and Skills, on which I serve, is nearing the end of its scrutiny of the draft School Transport Bill. Almost every witness before the Committee has said that most of it is pointless. Almost all the experiments in it to get children to walk to school or use buses and so on are already being done by various local authorities around the country, so there is no need for a Bill to set them out. The only thing that the Bill does that cannot be done now is that it would let local authorities ignore the ruling in the Education Act 1944 about free school transport, which is that children attending junior schools more than two miles from their home and children going to secondary schools more than three miles from home can get free transport. The largest part of local education authorities' transport budgets is that for SEN children.

I visited an excellent deaf unit at New Whittington primary school in my constituency three or four weeks ago, and one of the children comes from 15 to 20 miles away from somewhere in Derbyshire and gets in a taxi each morning to be taken there. A lot of people who have children with SEN who have to travel some distance to an appropriate setting are afraid that they will be charged under the experiments contained in the draft Bill. Again, on the one hand the Government have excellent policies on SEN children's inclusion in schools and the provision of specialist units like the deaf unit in Chesterfield, while on the other they are considering an experiment that people fear will lead to children and parents being charged for access to the special provision that they need.

Then there is overall Government policy and its intentions. I am thinking of the new deal for the disabled and associated programmes. One problem of the new deal, often aired in the Chamber, is its emphasis on the quick fix, partly so that targets are hit as people are got into work and off long-term unemployment by recycling them through the new deal, but partly because of the philosophy, which has some degree of truth to it, that the longer someone is unemployed, the less likely they are to get back to work. In terms of people with disabilities, many of whom have never worked but want to get into work, and many of whom have not worked for many years, none of that is as applicable. Is it best to deal with such people by calling them for compulsory interviews with the threat of sanctions if they do not do as they are told? Or will that frighten people with learning disabilities? I attended a recent meeting in Chesterfield involving Phoenix, a good not-for-profit company that delivers part of the Government's programme in this area, and community psychiatric nurses who were there to learn about the condition management programme being piloted in Derbyshire. The nurses were worried that the people they work with would receive demands out of the blue, telling them that they had to attend interviews and would lose their benefits if they did not. Is that really the best way to deal with people with mental health problems and learning disabilities?

There are many good examples of how those people should be dealt with, but they are being handicapped, to some degree, by the strictures of the new deal approach. For example, the empower project being run by Chesterfield chamber of commerce works with disabled people, though not exclusively, and has found that even to get some people to a level at which they could think about applying for a job might take some weeks or months of basic life skills training before they could consider being placed in a job or a workplace. It is difficult but not impossible to match up such projects to the demands of the new deal. Phoenix, a not-for-profit company, has done innovative work in this area in order to deliver some Government programmes. The Government must respect the Shaw Trust because it is now the largest job broker for disabled people for the Government across the United Kingdom. In the next year it will work with 30,000 of the 1 million disabled adults who say that they would love to get back to work if they could be helped to overcome the obstacles in their way.

All those bodies and Unum, a private insurance company that works in this area, say that whatever the disability, more resources, more quality input and more time is needed to achieve a positive outcome than the new deal, in its initial stages, allows. The Government need to rethink their approach there.

Let me give one specific example. Recently I was talking to some advisers at the Chesterfield Jobcentre Plus who find that the return-to-work benefit is useful in some cases. They cited the example of a lady who had had a pressurised job as a personnel manager and had a nervous breakdown, but who wanted to get back to work. She could return partially without worrying too much about the loss of money because for one year she got the return-to-work benefit. At the end of the year she would probably regain enough confidence to return full-time—she had gained some confidence in two or three month—and would not need further benefits. That would be a win-win situation for everyone; no problem.

Many disabled people would not be in that category. Some will never be able to work full time. Some will have disabilities that come and go, such as multiple sclerosis and ME, and may be able to work all this week but not next week. They express the fear that having struggled hard to gain access to disability benefits, if they return to work they will lose the benefits and face the problem of getting back on them. Would it not be a good idea to introduce a partial disability benefit, whereby some disabled people can sign up to work, say, 20 hours a week, but will get the relevant percentage of benefit for the rest of the week because they will never be able to work full time? That would offer such reassurance to people in those categories that it would be worth the risk, as they see it at the moment, of trying to get back into work.

Finally, there is the question of financial resources. There are resource issues in everything that we have talked about this afternoon. There are many examples and there is much research evidence from the various disability groups to back this up. The John Grooms report said that 300,000 wheelchair-accessible homes are needed now. Who is building them? Where is the money? What is happening? The Joseph Rowntree report recently said that care homes are short of £1 billion. The Shaw Trust points out that if we spend five times more on employment programmes for disabled people, we will reach the European average for the first time. That is a 500 per cent. increase.

The National Autistic Society says that 90 per cent. of short-break schemes for carers have waiting lists. Carers cannot get the breaks they need. Yet, if they reach breaking point, as outlined in the earlier Mencap report on the same theme last June, the state, taxpayers and everyone lose out. If the disabled person who is being cared for has to go into residential care, it is far more expensive and far less satisfactory for everyone. Last year's Mencap report pointed out that six out of the 10 families that the authors talked to had never had a carer's assessment, let alone got on a waiting list for a weekend break or a weekday break for carers.

This May, the Down's Syndrome Association pointed out that the Government's stated policy for more inclusion in education is failing in practice because of local education authority reluctance to provide sufficient resources. That brings us to arguments about whether the Government are giving LEAs enough money but they are spending it elsewhere, or whether the Government are not giving them enough in the first place. Those arguments were raised last year in the education funding debate, for example.

Money can be spent more efficiently. A couple of years ago I went to Leicester and looked at the organisation run by the Red Cross there. On behalf of Leicester city, Leicester county council and Rutland council, it operates the distribution, collection, cleaning and redistribution of the whole range of mobility aids. Because it operates on that scale with computerised inventories and so on, it has saved a lot of money. It gets the equipment back because it knows where the equipment has gone. Often hospitals and social services do not know that. Because of the scale on which it works, it can also return equipment to a state in which it is fit to issue to someone else, rather than having to buy brand new equipment and losing it to somebody's outhouse. Money can be handled in better ways and some efficiency savings can be made, but I am dubious about the idea that all the funding can be provided from such savings.

As the population ages, we will have more disability. The older people are, the more they suffer from disabilities of various kinds. The more that we talk, legislate and create a framework of equal rights for disabled people, the more money will be required to make the rhetoric a reality. I hope that the Minister will accept my more critical comments in the helpful spirit in which I intend them. I support much of what the Government have done in the past few years, but much more remains to be done.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. It might be helpful if I point out to the House that no speech has yet been made in less than 32 minutes. Six hon. Members seek to catch my eye and I hope that everyone will bear that in mind, given the time available.

3.46 pm
Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab)

I feel sure that I will be able to comply with your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to speak in this afternoon's debate on disability. It is such a broad subject that I have decided to focus my remarks on the disability of autism. I am chair of the all-party group on the issue.

Autism is a communication disability. It affects not only communication, but social interaction and the ability to imagine. People who have autism often find it difficult to pick up social cues. They can also behave in extremely rigid and obsessive ways. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that any of those characteristics can be displayed to a greater or lesser extent. At the high functioning end, including Asperger's syndrome, it is often, rightly, called the hidden disability. Therein lie many of the problems. It is estimated to affect some 500,000 people in the UK, and there is disagreement on whether the number is increasing or we have become better at diagnosis. The cause of autism is unknown, but it is a lifelong disability.

It is fair to say that in the past few years our understanding and awareness of autism has increased significantly. Policymakers in government and parliamentarians certainly have a greater understanding, and that is the result of much work by the National Autistic Society and many other groups that campaign to raise awareness and improve services for people with autism. The media have also played their role in highlighting the disability.

Recently, and laudably, Vodafone has put £6 million into a partnership with the NAS to raise awareness. Hon. Members may have seen some of the advertisements in the press over the past few weeks, which cleverly portray—in a visual and striking way—what autism means to the individuals who have it, their families and the wider community.

The all-party group was formed in 2000 by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Health. My hon. Friend knows much about autism, and I praise the Government for putting him in the Department of Health and giving him responsibility for autism, among his many other responsibilities. Under my hon. Friend's chairmanship of the group, a manifesto was launched last year. It has a 10-year time scale, although we will probably be able to move much more quickly than we had expected. This year, during autism awareness week, we celebrated the first anniversary of the manifesto. The week had a theme of planning for life. That was deliberate because, although it is fair to say that services and policy have moved forward, especially children's services, a whole raft of policy initiatives needs to be taken on adult services.

We still have a long way to go on children's services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) said, the job is never finished, as our expectations become higher and higher. However, many recent policy initiatives have been taken. They are encouraging, and they will make a difference. Services for children with autism are being used as an example in the disabled children's module of the children's national service framework, which aims to set national standards for what children and their families can expect. Early support pilot programmes funded by the DFES aim to improve the delivery of services to disabled children under three and their families, including children with autism. The special educational needs strategy that has recently been announced singles out autism as an exemplar, and there will be pilot work.

Children's trusts will be enormously important when they come on stream. They will create a statutory framework whereby different agencies can pool their budgets. We will then get a real improvement in multi-agency work not just for children with autism but children with other disabilities and all children. Those are extremely positive steps forward. We will reap the rewards of laying those foundations as they come to fruition. There is no doubt about that.

The picture is not quite so rosy when it comes to the point of transition for children with autistic spectrum disorders. There is a lot of confusion not only around the law but in practice. The transition planning framework for England and Wales is set out in the Education Act 1996, as amended by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. The SENDA code of practice makes it clear that there is a statutory obligation to prepare a multi-agency transition plan for year 9 pupils with a statement, but evidence collected from the National Autistic Society support programme for parents suggests that more than half of parents were not aware of the 14-plus transition review and what it should mean for their child. Too often, professionals have not turned up when the review has taken place.

Many children are not entitled to such a review because they do not have a statement, but there is a parallel transition process under the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986. Education departments are required to notify social services of all 13 to 14-year-olds whom they consider disabled. Social services are then required to co-ordinate multi-agency assessments to be linked to the transition and care planning for adults under the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990. Understandably, the experience is poor for many families who find, first, that the processes are not integrated and, secondly, that the organisational structures prevent transfer of information.

Certainly, the Children Act 1989 will help. However, there has been some progress. Connexions has accepted responsibility for preparing a needs and provision assessment under section 40 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 for all children with special educational needs. That puts more pressure on training, and there is no legislative framework to insist that the different agencies—especially adult social services—co-operate.

The need for mult -agency co-ordination in transition planning is recognised in the Green Paper "Every Child Matters", the SEN strategy "Removing barriers to achievement" and the forthcoming NSF. They all have transition themes. The Department for Education and Skills is committed to producing national transition standards and to working more closely with Connexions and learning and skills councils.

I want to focus on services for adults, where there is such a long way to go. Fifty per cent. of people with ASD live at home and only 12 per cent. are in some kind of paid employment, so the picture is much bleaker. The statutory framework falls away. Many young people and older adults fall between mental health teams and social services learning disability teams, coming into contact with one or the other only when they are in crisis. Despite the fact that the valuing people strategy signals access to those services, that does not yet happen as it should.

The Department of Health has published guidance on eligibility criteria for social care services that instructs local authorities to base such criteria on individuals presenting needs rather than on diagnosis. The guidance states that some councils declare that they do not help particular groups of individuals, such as those with higher functioning autism/Asperger syndrome, and make no attempt to assess needs as they should. This is unacceptable.

At the reception we held for autism awareness week, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet announced a new vision for adult social care. That is an opportunity to improve not only the statutory framework but the operation of the various services involved. The integration of health and social care records under the national care records service is not due to occur until 2010, but I hope that it can be speeded up with the onset of children's trusts.

Points have already been made about access to benefits, which is problematic for people with autism and their families. However, I praise the DWP for widely publicising information about benefits in different ways, including the free-phone benefit inquiry line. However, although it is easy to provide information, people with a communication or understanding disorder find it hard to process the information, so access is a real issue. Can the Minister tell us whether operators on the free phone benefit inquiry line can pick up a communication disorder? Do they have relevant training?

Disability living allowance is a key benefit for access to other benefits, yet it is hard to describe autism within the bounds of the current application form. I know that pilot work is under way on the redesign of the form, so can the Minister tell us how that is progressing? There is also a commitment to update the disability handbook. Can she tell us how that exercise is getting on?

As I said earlier, 12 per cent. of people with autism are in paid employment, but only 6 per cent. work full time. There are 332,000 people with ASD, of working age and 260,000 of them have an average or above-average IQ. The Government have a phenomenal record on employment, and my constituency bears testimony to that. However, there are specific groups of disabled people that are difficult to support and get into work. I am sure that the Minister will agree that more needs to be done to ensure that more than 6 per cent. of people with ASD are in full-time employment.

The National Autistic Society survey of adults with ASD found that the biggest barriers to work were worries about the social aspects of an employment environment and lack of support, and employers' negative perceptions, lack of understanding and unwillingness to make reasonable adjustments. However, there are brilliant examples of supported employment projects in the UK, not least of which is run by the NAS's employment service, Prospects, which the Department for Work and Pensions supported between 2000 and 2003 as an initial step toward gathering qualitative evidence on how best to support people with autism into employment. Several key features of the Prospects-supported employment programme are not surprising. Young people need help with job searching, interview preparation, finding out how to stay in a job and getting support in the job as and when that is necessary. The other key feature of a successful placement for people with ASD is the education and support of their employers. If we can get the two parts of the equation right, it will make a big difference.

I recently visited a fantastic scheme in Sheffield in which a charity has an arrangement with Meadowhall, which is a huge shopping outlet—anyone who lives anywhere near it will have visited or at least have driven past it. The same ingredients are present in the scheme. Some of the young people involved in the project gave a presentation because it was a year old, and both they and their employers spoke positively about their work experience. The employers made the point of saying how much progress they had made on understanding autism and the way in which they managed and got the best out of all their employees.

Where do we go from here to improve the figures and make the prospect of work for autistic people a reality? As I said, there are two sides to the equation. We must get both the support and supply sides right. I draw hon. Members' attention to a couple of innovative projects on which the NAS is currently embarking. In July, it will set up the Prospects provider training programme, which will be piloted in Glasgow. The service is aimed at disability employment services. Participants will make a payment for which they will gain Prospects' expertise. In time, the specialist service will become self-funding, so it will be possible to deliver it in more regions. When sufficient income has been generated, a co-ordinator for England and Wales will be recruited to roll out the scheme throughout the country.

On the employers' side, the employers with Prospects initiative will be set up. It will partner companies, with the aim of widening access. Companies that join the scheme will pay a contribution, actively try to find opportunities for paid employment and work experience, and encourage and support staff who wish to train as ASD supporters. However, the companies will get something back in return. They will benefit from access to an eager, reliable and accurate work force with a high level of availability., and many members of the work force will possess exceptional skills and abilities. The companies will receive good PR as socially responsible corporate organisations, and they will support a substantial yet ignored group, the needs of which are rapidly reaching public notice. Employees will have the opportunity to align with a cause of which many may have personal experience from their family and close friends. I hope that not only the DWP but the Department of Trade and Industry and other Departments will take a close interest as those two projects unfold and do what they can to support them. That is a way forward.

Finally, the 1995 definition does not adequately cover the difficulties faced by people with ASD. The draft Disability Discrimination Bill will not remedy that, but it is encouraging that the Joint Committee recommends that the definition in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 should be updated to address the social and communication impairments experienced by those with ASD. That is absolutely crucial to ensure that people with a communication and social interaction disorder are not discriminated against, whether in work or elsewhere. With that, as other hon. Members wish to speak, I will complete my speech.

4.6 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

To put it neutrally, it may be a consequence of the timing of this debate on the day of major elections, but the Minister started with a rebarbative speech. I do not intend to follow her in that. Perhaps I can give an alternative take from my own experience as a Minister, although not in the Minister's Department, at the time of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and, subsequently, as someone who has had—I choose these words advisedly—the pleasure of shadowing her in her current responsibilities for a number of years.

My take on the House's attitude to disability is that is it not one of Ministers against the rest. I understand that the Minister is subject to constraints: first, the parliamentary timetable and the business managers, a point to which allusion has been made already; and, secondly, the wider issues of resources and the impact of costs falling on the economy, which are entirely proper for Ministers to consider.

My concern is not that there is a lack of will among individual Ministers or the Government, let alone my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who spoke with such eloquence from the Conservative Front Bench. We all understand that there is a job to be done and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have made fascinating contributions about how that should be discharged. No doubt, there will be further such contributions.

My biggest worry is that, even when it is not election day, the hon. Members who engage in disability issues are relatively small in number. Of course, every hon. Member has them in his or her constituency postbag, but it is difficult to achieve the national profile, and that, in turn, reflects itself in the way in which the Government treat the issue.

Over the years, we could make a perfectly plausible case for saying that, as in many areas of social advance, different Governments have made their own contributions at the appropriate time. In addition to those that have been mentioned, I am very pleased and, to some extent, proud to have been associated with the disability manifesto—the first of its kind—that the Conservative party produced for the last election, although we did not do as well as other parties in that election.

So the business moves on, and rightly so because, as has been said, if we round up the figures—certainly if we allow for more than one disability per person in many cases—more than 10 million of our citizens are directly involved as disabled people. We cannot touch on every issue of concern to them, so I shall endeavour to be selective.

I shall deal with the rights issue first. Although I did not agree with everything said by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), I did agree with her that rights are important because they help not only to make safeguards for the individual, but to change attitudes and culture. I hope that, in turn, she acknowledges that those changes in attitude and culture now have to drive the agenda forward for very good reasons, as the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said.

I shall comment on the specific issues in an area in which initial concerns about a single commission for equality and human rights have been dispelled. We are getting there, but I wish to touch on one or two outstanding issues. The first is that I hope that the disability strand will continue to be adequately resourced. It is very complex—discrimination and remediation for discrimination are difficult issues. Expertise must not be lost.

Secondly, there are important interactions with the wider human rights agenda. For example, I understand that there is no proposal at the moment to enable the Disability Rights Commission or its successor to assist individuals in taking suits on human rights grounds. There is also a degree of uncertainty, and indeed anomaly, between the entitlements to avoid discrimination between the different strands, as the Minister will know.

One issue that I have mentioned in debates in the past has not been touched upon, but I feel strongly about it. It is what might be termed the functional unevenness in the enforcement of the agenda already mentioned. In the exchange in which I implied criticism of the Minister, I made the point that there was already a substantial employment tribunal load in relation to article 2 duties. That arose straight from the Conservative legislation. As matter of fact, that has not happened to anything like the same extent in relation to access to goods and services, because such cases would have to go through the courts rather than the tribunal system. There is also an anomaly in education. Tribunals cover the period up to the end of compulsory education, but access is through the courts in relation to discrimination post-16. Ministers must keep that issue under active review.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe that there is still a problem with the implications of the enforcement in October 2004 of provisions of the DDA. Equally, there was a dilemma for the Disability Rights Commission, with which, as I shall say now but have not said in the past, I have had very constructive relations. I regard it is as doing a balanced job. As I understand it, up until last year, it very much put forward the new education agenda to which I did not object. However, that meant that it had comparatively little time to go into what will happen in October. We all know that, in the real world, we probably need legislation in place before people focus on it. It is a question of how sensibly it is handled in the initial stage. Above all, small and medium-sized enterprises should not be put off from trying to do anything when the reasonable adjustments that they may be required to make are entirely modest and appropriate to the turnover of their business.

Miss Begg

I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it will not be until October 2004 that some companies and businesses will take the legislation seriously. Once there is one prosecution under the new legislation, minds will be focused and we shall see quite a lot of action. Things will improve at that stage.

Mr. Boswell

I understand that point. Any regulatory body that has any sense is well advised to look to draw attention to one or. two notorious cases "pour encourager les autres" At the same time, such a body will not want, in practice, to seek to intervene in every single case of technical. infringement or a reputation for doing so. We have to lift the game of the whole sector and, as already has been made clear in the debate, many employers and service providers are involved.

I hope that I am being constructive when I say that the DRC, the Department and others working in conjunction with the Employers Forum on Disability should work closely with specialist trade associations to make sure that they push the new agenda forward.

Because of my new Front-Bench duties, I have been working with the Cinema Exhibitors Association recently. I have seen the third edition of the guidance on access to cinemas that it has circulated over a number of years to its members. Incidentally, the cinema is the No. 1 leisure activity of people with learning disabilities and a detailed, precise and thoroughly constructed code has been made available. It even prescribes things such as the optimal height of coat hooks for disabled people. Such practice is exemplary. I hope that other trade associations will follow suit.

I shall briefly consider the educational issues. I begin with the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), with her interest in autism. She made her points clearly and revealed one of the areas that concerns me most—the transitional phases between the different sectors. It is one thing for us to legislate, as we have done through the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, the Disability Rights Commission and the law that will take effect in October, but things must happen in practice. There lies a real weakness.

We should start early in the process with diagnosis. We have the opportunity of doing that, with, for example, neonatal hearing impairments, but there are other conditions, such as the autistic spectrum, which has become much more apparent as an issue.

Apart from those specific areas of concern, we need to move the debate on from what, as a parent, one can understand is important for the family which is the enshrinement of legal rights in a statement. That is important and the issue will not go away. We should begin to move more towards considering active and holistic ways of implementing the programme that is appropriate for the individual chitd.

Liz Blackman

We had an intresting presentation from a local education authority whose name is Welsh and which I find difficult to pronounce—Rhondda Cynon Taff. It has co-located services round autism to the degree that, as I think the presenter said, there was practically no child within the authority who had a statement. That was not necessary because the provision was there.

Mr. Boswell

I am saying that we need an integrated approach for the child. The deficiencies are not always necessarily educational ones. It can be some other component that is missing. For example, I have encouraged or supported the obtaining of a statement for a visually impaired child. Suddenly it has been found that the school to which the child has been referred is out of the immediate area and that transport is not available, or there is a practical problem with transport. Every Member will be familiar with the endemic national shortage of speech therapists, for example. We need to try to bring things together and we may need one financing package to do it. However, it is certain that we need a common approach between the different agencies as they work together.

I move on to mental capacity, We clearly need to draw a distinction between mental health problems and learning difficulties. Much of what I have said in relation to special educational needs is applicable in that context. It is fair to say that many people with learning difficulties and disabilities subsequently get into difficulties with mental health problems because of the frustration and the other difficulties that they experience, but the two are entirely distinct.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe was right to point out the many cases of stress and breakdown that feed into the incapacity benefit figures. With both learning disabilities and mental health problems, there is a need for adequate support services. I strongly endorse the remark of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) about the importance of housing. The people concerned need a safe environment in which to live and recover, but they also need advocacy. It is important that people should make their own choices if they are in a position to do so. Certainly their opinions should be canvassed, but at the same time it is important that they are not left friendless and exposed to an unfriendly bureaucracy, particularly when the implicit agenda of the various parts of that bureaucracy is to try to shift the budgetary burdens, with the result that nothing is done.

I want to make two points on mental health. First, a characteristic of mental health is that it is intermittent. Somebody can try and fail to return to work, with all the concerns that have been expressed about possible disqualification from the benefits system. Secondly, it is obviously a sensitive and susceptible matter—for example, in relation to any harsh treatment in a personal capacity assessment, or even being called up for one. I am currently dealing with a constituency case in which that is under discussion.

Turning to the benefits system, the single biggest problem, to which the Prime Minister and others have referred, is the sheer number of people—2.7 million—on incapacity benefit. That is a high figure, but it is not unparalleled in other western countries. In the Netherlands, it is estimated that 10 per cent. of the adult population are on disability benefit. The benefits system still suffers from the remnants of the belief that someone is either on benefit or in work, making the position difficult for people who are recovering from an accident, mental illness or other condition. The Minister will tell me that the linking rules are much more relaxed, which I welcome, so I need only flag up the need to keep looking at other options, including the part-benefit, part-work solution mentioned by the hon. Member for Chesterfield, a tapered arrangement and an agreed contract on return to work including supporting benefit while it is being worked out.

In that area, even more than in special educational needs, the need to produce a single pot of money may be driven by the choice of the individual or their advocate. That should not be distorted by the need for insurance, and the mutual system should allow for a single budgetary pot, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, we examined at the last election and would draw on the direct payment of social benefits that has been successful for many people. At the moment, there is no congruence between benefit and the objective of return to work. They are more linked than they were, but they are still not perfectly aligned. The option of preferring to stay off work and on benefit is still a moral hazard, although I agree with Members who say that that is not how most people treat the system.

Turning briefly to active case management, agencies want to know who is not paying for such a service. The collective test should be what they should be doing for individuals to secure their position. I have an interest in the various concepts of case management that have been developed. First, case management should be professional and comprehensive; otherwise it would offer a wonderful opportunity for charlatans and well-intentioned people without the necessary portfolio of skills to manage cases and a pot of money for individuals. Secondly, case management does not necessarily mean advocacy or job brokerage, although they are related functions. We need a collective and flexible approach to achieve suitable solutions for individuals. Inevitably, the Government's notorious obsession with targets has encouraged disability employment advisers, for whom I have a considerable regard, to concentrate on shifting their case load to meet those targets. Challenging work tends to be left with the private sector and not-for-profit providers such as the Shaw Trust, which do a tremendous job. I agree with the Work and Pensions Committee, which recommended that the private sector should increasingly discharge those delicate, difficult and complex tasks.

Finally, I am pleased that a number of Members have mentioned employment, but little has been said about assistive technology. To some extent, technology has created problems for employment and continuing employability. People who might have been able to continue successfully in employment now find themselves challenged by new technology. At the same time, technology has created huge opportunities for people to continue and sustain their employment, which they might not have been able to do without, for example, the use of information technology solutions.

There are two challenges. The first is getting people into employment in the first place, particularly when that has not been on the cards and they may even have been advised at school or elsewhere to anticipate that. The second is to defend the position of people in employment as their faculties decline with age or new technical challenges arise. For example, they may find it less easy to see or to operate in a noisy environment, and we must find ways of tackling that. Many employers, including typically the larger employers, are good at that. If anyone has not had a chance to visit Ford's MAGIC—mobility and general information centre—I recommend that they do. The centre advises on disability issues and is located in an exemplary building with a huge amount of investment in it.

Let us make no bones about it. Across employment generally, whatever rights we have passed in this place and whatever we may claim to have done, functional discrimination by outcome continues. It is not unique to this area. It is true of a number of other equality issues about which I also feel strongly. We may have talked the talk, we may have passed the law, but we have not achieved the outcomes that we sought to achieve. In some cases in the context of disability, as has been said, that relates to non-employment outcomes such as health.

There is still a strong loading against the survival of children with learning disabilities. Their mortality rates are much higher and their chances of surviving into a full adult life are lower than they would otherwise be. It is interesting that the greater survival rate that is coming through, which is thoroughly welcome, feeds into some of the problems that they have as adults, which would not have arisen had their survival rates been lower, as they were in the past.

Returning to employment, of the 2.7 million people with disabilities who are on benefit, a million or more want to work. The presumption is that we should be helping them into work. That is not just a matter of economics. It is a matter of human dignity, their position in society, their health because of motivation, their inclinations and their choice. There are enlightened employers who are prepared to contribute and there is good practice in the field. On the other hand, the public provision, including access to work, which incidentally was introduced by a Conservative Government, is still too bureaucratic and the whole system is not seen as friendly towards small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the most likely to create employment.

We need to tell employers, large or small, organised, aware or not aware of the issue, that it is good business for them to employ people with disabilities, who are an extremely reliable part of the labour force. It is sensible and will not cause large or unreasonable expense to make reasonable adjustments for them. The adjustments made to enhance access to work usually cost hundreds rather than thousands of pounds. It is also extremely good business, particularly for firms whose work is customer-facing—retailers or providers of services—to be sensitive to the needs of disabled customers and their families, who might represent up to 40 per cent. of the adult population. They have real spending power, as has been mentioned. It is not good business for a supermarket chain to say that it does not want to do business with 10 million citizens because it cannot make the necessary adjustments. The track record suggests that, where businesses are sensitive to disabled employees and customers who may have a disability, the necessary adjustments usually benefit all employees and customers. Such changes are not a simple matter of cost or loss.

I have appeared on various platforms with organisations such as the Institute of Directors to make the excellent business case for employers to take disability issues seriously and sensitively. That business case happens to lie alongside an extremely strong social case, which has been eloquently expressed this afternoon. We should all do our utmost in this place to see that the whole world knows about the happy coincidence between the business case and the social case and is not put off by scare stories or exaggerated claims about expense. If we can encourage that view with incentives and inducements within the framework of rights and law, let us hope that something positive will be done, which is the outcome that we all want. The 10 million disabled people, and all those connected with them, will not ask us to do any less than that.

Mr. Goodman

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier in the debate, the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) claimed that I had one of the worst attendance records among the members of the Joint Committee on the draft Disability Discrimination Bill. I have checked the facts: I attended 10 out of 14 sittings, whereas, for example, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) attended nine out of 14 sittings. Is it in order for the hon. Member for High Peak to concede that neither nine sittings out of 14 nor 10 sittings out of 14 is not a shameful record, and that he was mistaken to introduce a personal observation for party political gain?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point on which the Chair can rule. The matter is for debate and, perhaps, for courtesies between the two hon. Members concerned.

4.32 pm
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab)

I have also checked the record, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I examined only the public sittings contained in volume two of the Joint Committee's report, and the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) attended six of the nine sittings. It is true that some members of the Committee attended only five of the nine sittings, and I did not say that he had the worst attendance record. However, if one counts the contributions made by members of the Committee, it tells a story.

I have never known what it is like to be disabled. At one point in my life,I had my leg in plaster for a few months, but as a child I had no disabled friends or relatives, so, in a sense, disability never crossed my path. As I grew up, my sister and I used to play with a brother and sister from the family across the road. We were good friends with the family, but it was only after I had left home that I realised that that family contained a third child. That child was from the same generation as the four of us who had played happily together, but the child was autistic, which relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman). In all the years in which I lived across the road from that family, I never met that child. I hope that such shame about disability—the desire to hide away one's own child and not to make them count as a member of society—is long past, but unfortunately I am pretty sure that similar examples still occur, despite those events taking place some 30 or 40 years ago.

Many years later, I woke up to disability politics. At the Labour party conference in 1986 I was sitting at a table in a coffee bar when a young man came and sat opposite me with his sign language interpreter. In the course of the next hour and a half, he told me through his interpreter what his life was like.

He told me about the school where his hands were taped to the desk to stop him signing. He said his parents were told that signing was just a phase that he was going through, and that he would grow out of it.

That young man was fluent in sign language. Indeed, today he is one of its top exponents in the country. In those days, however, he was deprived of a common language even with his parents, who had sent him away to school to be looked after and educated believing, no doubt, that there were doing the right thing, although in fact they were adding to the apartheid that disabled people faced at the time.

The other startling thing about that young man is that there are 50,000 people like him in the country—50,000 people for whom British sign language is the first or only functioning language. That is one in every 1,000 people, yet it took me 32 years to meet one of them. That does not reveal how sheltered my life was; it reveals how sheltered theirs were.

I remember, many years later, having a conversation with a deaf friend on a train, partly in sign language. A number of people, including the guard, joined in, because they were deaf—in two cases—or because they had friends or family who were deaf. That was quite an eye-opener, which would not be noticed except by someone confronted with it. It taught me that describing someone as deaf tells people nothing about him or her. Does "deaf" mean "slightly hard of hearing"? Does it mean "hearing all right because of a hearing aid"? Or does it mean "having a completely different first language, living in a different culture"—and all that goes with being part of the sign language community?

We could go further, and ask what "disabled" means. Many places are "disabled accessible": we know that they are, because there is a little badge showing a wheelchair. As many speakers have pointed out today, however, use of a wheelchair does not denote a typical disability. Only a small proportion of those who are physically disabled employ wheelchairs. If we add the numbers with communication disabilities, sensory disabilities, mental impairment and learning disabilities, it becomes clear that the word "disabled" actually means nothing. What we are talking about are people—people with individual needs. They cannot even be thought of as being members of a few groups of disabled people, for there are many different groups. It is very difficult for any Government to legislate for all their needs in one go, with the single exception of their right not to suffer discrimination at work, in terms of access to goods and services or in any other context.

My experiences prompted me to learn sign language, and to work for a while advising local authorities on how their services could be made more accessible to people with hearing impairments. I want to describe an incident involving a council, but I will not name it. In any case, the evidence is 10 years old and things may have changed. A deaf person showed me round the council offices. He took me into the council chamber, switched on his hearing aid and said "The loop system is working perfectly: I can hear exactly what is going on." I said, "But the room is empty." He said, "Yes. What I am listening to is the housing department reception desk 100 metres away." The loop system was so powerful at the housing benefit desk that it blotted out whatever was happening in the rest of the building.

We then went into a committee room, a rather grand room in which a whole wall consisted of windows facing the afternoon sun. The chairman's seat had its back to the windows, which meant that when the sun was shining in the afternoon no one in the room could lip-read what the chairman was saying. Many people who perhaps did not realise that they were lip-reading, although they knew that they were a little hard of hearing, were deprived of that extra tool to help them understand what was being said. So through thoughtlessness—through not asking hearing-impaired people how they should arrange the furniture in the room—they were being deprived of communication.

In the same committee room, the same man said, "And listen to this." He switched on the council chamber loop system, and when he then switched on the chamber lights both his hearing aids screamed. I could hear them screaming. The reason was that on the ceiling, right next to the microphones serving the loop system, were low-energy light bulbs. He said, "We're a green council, so we have low-energy light bulbs in this room. We have asked if they can be moved, but we have been told that doing so would be too expensive. Obviously, we have to have the lights on, so while they are on the loop system cannot operate in the council chamber."

That council had spent thousands of pounds thinking that it was doing the right thing: that it was enabling deaf people of various sorts to access its services, and enabling the functioning of the council. It was wrong. It wasted money, and through what can only be seen in retrospect as tokenism, it did what it thought was right without thinking it through or asking the right people. As a result, it got it horribly wrong. We have all seen such examples—the ramp that leads to the door that is too narrow—and these things have to be thought through and got right.

Such incidents have taught me that most of the barriers that disabled people face are created by people such as me: people who are temporarily non-disabled. The physical barriers that disabled people face are much less potent than the barriers of attitude and ignorance that they face every day of every week. That is why the concept of reasonable adjustment, which I acknowledge was introduced in the 1995 Act, is so important. It allows disabled people to access employment and it will allow access to goods and services of all kinds. But what reasonable adjustment often requires is imagination rather than cash.

I acknowledge that the 1995 Act was a milestone—the first milestone on a very long journey. The hon. Member for Wycombe took great credit on behalf of the 1995 Act, but it took the then Conservative Government 16 years to get round to introducing it. Previous Labour Governments had already put into effect civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation in respect of gender and race, which we have built on since. We should not compare what we have done in seven years in government with the first 16 years of the previous Conservative Government. Rather, let us wait until we have been in power for 16 years—it is only nine years away—and then compare the Conservative and Labour records on access and rights for disabled people.

However, as others have pointed out, the 1995 Act had some huge gaps. There was no Disability Rights Commission, its time scales were too long and there were huge holes in terms of education and transport in particular. Through the disability rights task force and the other measures that were taken as soon as we entered office, we set about a legislative programme that in my view has been second to none. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), I served on the Committees that considered the Disability Rights Commission Bill and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill. Indeed, I also worked on the 1998 Bill on welfare reform, which was very important in terms of opening the door to many of the measures that we are now talking about, such as helping people on incapacity benefit to get back into work.

In 2001, the "Towards Inclusion" report was published, and in January of that year we published our election manifesto. Now, we have the draft Disability Discrimination Bill and the Joint Committee's report on it. I had the great pleasure of serving on that Committee as well, and I attended all but one of its meetings. The Bill is very good, has various functions and plugs many holes. It is very popular among disabled people and their organisations. In particular, it addresses the huge hole of transport. While it cites the Leonard Cheshire recommendation of 2017 as the end date for the accessibility of trains, I hope that disabled carriages will be available on every train long before that. There is no reason why everything has to be end-loaded; every carriage of every train has to be accessible. I also welcome the Government's intention to speed up the reviews relating to disabled access to aviation and shipping.

As someone who has served in local government, I greatly welcome and endorse the recommendations to bring councillors within the remit of anti-discrimination legislation in respect of disability. Until now, a councillor who is not appointed to a committee because of perceived problems connected with disability has had no redress. When the Bill becomes law—I am sure that it will be before the next general election—that will no longer apply.

Mr. Goodman

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the full Bill should be introduced in this Session to ensure that it does become law before the next general election?

Tom Levitt

I can say that it was part of the manifesto for this Session. Unless the business managers of the Opposition are going to seek huge periods of time in Committee, which they have been known to do, I see absolutely no reason why the Bill should not be passed before the next general election.

I was saying that the extension of the provisions to councillors—as it is to other office holders and public appointees—is welcome. It is also important that landlords—private, public and social—will be deprived of the right unreasonably to refuse the request of a tenant to have a property adapted for purposes of making it more accessible for their disability.

I hope that the Minister will also adopt the recommendations on volunteers. I acknowledge that it probably would not be practicable to have a blanket rule saying that every volunteer for every voluntary organisation should be covered by the legislation that applies to employees. Equally, however, there are circumstances in which a voluntary organisation may not use voluntary employees because of fears about liability if anything were to happen to them. Those are unreasonable fears, which should be addressed by a code of practice for the use of volunteers, who should be allowed in comparable employment circumstances to take their cases to some form of tribunal if they are discriminated against.

An issue that has not been mentioned is access to examinations. If schools and education more widely should be accessible, there is absolutely no reason why examination boards should be able to put a barrier at the end of people's educational careers. Change in that respect is welcome, and so are the measures on mental health. The Committee suggested that the time for mental health conditions to be assessed as qualifying under the 1995 Act be reduced from 12 to six months.

The Government were right to say that people suffering from MS, cancer and HIV should be protected against discrimination even before the symptoms are shown—namely, from the point of diagnosis. I hope that they will go one stage further and say that protection against discrimination should apply from the point of diagnosis to any condition covered by the 1995 Act. The reason for that is clear. Someone with MS, for example, could be deprived of promotion or employment because of the fact that certain symptoms might develop in the future, which is not a reasonable purpose for discriminating against a person. I hope that the Committee's report will be taken into account.

I turn now to the social model, which gave rise to many hours of enjoyable debate in Committee. The 1995 Act's concept of a reasonable adjustment was a move towards the social model. It acknowledges that often it is the environment that has to be adjusted so that disabled people can have access to employment or services.

The problem with the medical model is that it casts the disabled person as the problem. It regards disabled people as disabled first and people second. The solution to the problem of how people relate to their social, physical and attitudinal environments is often achieved by addressing the relevant environment, regardless of whether the diagnosis is a social or medical one.

I gave an example of that to the Committee, which I want to put on record now. The social model of disability holds that impairment becomes a disability only when the environment makes it so. My example in support of that involves a one-legged person in the environment of an automatic car. If the person lacks a left leg, he or she is not considered disabled, as one needs only a right leg to drive an automatic car. However, if the person lacks a right leg, he or she is disabled, as the pedals of an automatic car are designed for right-foot use. Therefore, an equivalent impairment can be a disability, depending on the environment.

I hope that the Bill goes forward speedily. I see no reason why it should not.

Progress has been made in other areas, as other speakers have described, but one or two other matters remain to be addressed. At present, legislation only touches on the question of mental health. In constituencies such as my own, where unemployment levels are very low, the proportion of unemployed people who are unemployed because of—or for reasons associated with—a mental health problem is accordingly that much higher.

Another problem, to which the Minister referred earlier, has to do with building design. The part M regulations of 2003 are a help, as are the lifetime home regulations. In addition, local authorities administer the disability facilities grants. I hope that the Minister will assure me that all the different definitions involved will be governed by common criteria in the future. There must be no conflict in the intended purpose of the various regulatory schemes.

There is a problem with the toilet doors in Portcullis House to which I want to draw attention. Any hon. Member with arthritis will know that they are dreadfully difficult to open. I hope that, by 1 October, disabled-accessible doors will be attached to all the toilets in that building. Such doors will not need a person to be able to apply a strong grip to a handle that resembles a drinks can, but will be much more easy to use.

As other hon. Members have said, many disabled people would like to work but still lack the opportunity to do so. One way to address that is to tackle the problem of people who are forced to leave work through disability at a later stage in life. Cleary, more money is going into ensuring access to work, but such people must also be able to step down—that is, to move out of the work force gradually at the end of a career. Problems to do with pension and benefit rights would have to be worked out, but people who face early retirement through disability would be able to leave work with more dignity if they were able to phase their withdrawal.

The hon. Member for Wycombe mentioned the recent Scope "Absolutely Equal" campaign and the reception held last week. He expressed some concerns about the social model, but the Scope report said: The attitudes of non-disabled people to disabled people are often irrational. Attitudes can be based on feelings of embarrassment, pity, guilt, being patronising, and even revulsion that are difficult to get to the bottom of. Such attitudes are inherently irrational; legislation must be inherently rational. There cannot be a one-to-one fit between those things, so I hope that the Government will consider the Joint Committee's recommendation to give public bodies an obligation to promote the rights of disabled people and awareness of disabled issues in exactly the way that they have acted on racial issues.

One last issue falls more within the field of the Department for International Development than that of the Department for Work and Pensions. Twice recently I have met disabled people in Africa—a group of children in Zambia and a group of families of disabled children in Tanzania. It is bad enough seeing what extreme and absolute poverty does to people, but disability further excludes people in those societies completely from any form of support—there are no benefits or social care and no support mechanisms whatever—and isolates them, condemning them to live in the worst of absolute poverty in an environment of absolute poverty. That really tears one's heart-strings.

Some good things are going on, however. I give a quick plug to the Leonard Cheshire organisation, which, in Tanzania, has set up a micro-finance bureau that gives grants of about £50 a time to families of disabled children so that they can set up in business. Such a business might sell eggs or firewood. People repay over a period, but those small amounts of money are sufficient to break down the barriers. If the business is eggs, the disabled child can sit in the compound with the chickens and alert someone if an animal comes along for the chickens or someone tries to steal them. That can produce systems that involve the families, getting them back into the economy. That gives them dignity, allowing them to have some pride in societies in which there is no support for them.

Let us not forget the plight of disabled people in developing countries. As a civilised society, we acknowledge the needs of others. Today's debate and the Bill to come relate to the needs of disabled people in this country, but we will be judged as a nation and community in the wider world by what we do for those least able to help themselves. We are giving people opportunities to help themselves, and they deserve that as a right.

4.58 pm
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt). Perhaps I should apologise in advance of my remarks because I am sure, having heard the earlier exchanges about language and vocabulary, that I am bound to put my foot in it somewhere or other. I would not do so out of any desire to, but just out of sheer inadequacy.

As I listened to the Minister, I realised that, as someone sitting on the Conservative Benches, I am the spawn of Beelzebub. I thought that she was about to mention the "Slaughter of the First Born" Bill that some previous Conservative Government had brought in. But disability is far too important for party politics. We have had a good debate full of good speeches, and I always find when I attend these debates that I learn from them. As others wish to speak, I shall try to make my comments as brief as possible.

We have seen from the different speeches from different angles that the subject encompasses a broad area. First, I want to talk about people with disabilities taking part in sport. The Olympic bid by London is already having a good effect because part of that bid is to hold the Paralympics here. Anything that can raise the profile of the good that sport brings to people with disabilities is to be welcomed. The hon. Member for High Peak reminisced and I should like briefly to remember a time when I was a rather slim, fresh-faced young boy. I remember at school listening to a former rugby international who had been involved in a crunching tackle, I think with an All Black, and had broken his neck. Suddenly from being at the height of his sporting prowess, he had ended up in a wheelchair. He told us boys about a charity called Physically Handicapped and Able Bodied. It made me realise how suddenly something could happen and that from being at the height of one's physical ability, one could be cut down. From then on my school had summer courses and I am pleased to say that many years later they still do.

As I was sitting here listening, another memory came to me. At school there was an option to join the cadet force, namely community service. To show the House how things have moved on—I recognise that this language is inappropriate—it was called the pansy brigade. In the course of that I visited an old mental asylum called Leavesden, which thankfully is gone. One of the saddest things that stays with me to this day was visiting the cemetery there and asking whose graves they were. I was told by the matron, as I think she was designated, that they were the graves of children with Down's syndrome who had been abandoned there, without family visiting. I thought that that was no way for any civilised country to exist and I sincerely hope that those days have long gone.

On the subject of sport, I should like to put in a plug for two organisations of which I have become aware. I do not play much part in them, but I pay my subs. One is the Wooden Spoon, a rugby charity that helps disabled and disadvantaged children. It tries to have a positive effect on disability in all its forms, whether caused by cancer, cystic fibrosis or autism. We are in the cricket season and a test match started today. Anybody who has the opportunity in the next few days to listen to that quintessential part of the English summer—"Test Match Special"—will undoubtedly hear talk of the Primary Club. It is a fundraising organisation that is open to all who have been out first ball in any form of cricket, ranging from in the garden and on the beach through to a test match. It is a particularly odd, rather English institution that happened by accident. In 1955 four slightly inebriated young bachelors, depressed by their performance with a bat, vowed to support a fund for blind cricketers. That same "Test Match Special", and particularly the late lamented Brian Johnston, gave it wide publicity, so that now it is a well-known, well-supported charity raising a great deal of money, particularly for blind sports children and young people. Those are just a few examples of the many charities that do so much good work in all our constituencies, and it is appropriate to pay tribute to them for that.

Hobbies are important to people, and my own passion has always been bird-watching. It is remarkable how many opportunities are now open to people with disabilities of all kinds to indulge in that hobby.

Members of Parliament are fortunate in having opportunities to find out about disability. We are lobbied by many different organisations and we also have the chance to hear good speakers in this place. In Uxbridge tomorrow, the three Hillingdon MPs will have one of our regular meetings with Hillingdon DASH, an organisation that promotes disability issues in the area. As usual, Simon Harris and Angela Wegener will forcefully ensure that all three of us are aware of the exact concerns of people with disabilities in the area.

Sometimes such meetings reveal problems. I remember attending a meeting of wheelchair users in the Hillingdon civic centre when the fire alarm went. It was discovered that the only way out for wheelchair users was the lift, and of course the lifts are not supposed to be used if there is a fire. Fortunately, it was a false alarm on that occasion. As the hon. Gentleman said, we often do not realise the implications of certain situations for people with disabilities.

I can give another example. One of my constituents, Katrina Bijowski, has been very forceful in pointing out that the local authority does not seem to make much provision for children a with disabilities—not only those in wheelchairs, but those with a range of disabilities—when providing new, play areas. A few months ago, I attended the opening, of a new play area for which the local residents had raised the funding. They suddenly realised that they had not considered it properly, through a lack of awareness, and we must all work to make people more aware. To the credit of the Violet avenue residents association, it went back to the council to ensure that the appropriate facilities would be provided.

I have also discovered problems that people with disabilities can have with banking. Older people with disabilities cannot get out much and, because of the new legislation to combat money laundering, they find it more and more difficult to get a cheque cashed. That causes many problems. Barclays bank, to its credit, has looked into the problem and come up with a remedy. I am sure that all the other banks will want to look at that because—as has already been mentioned—it is not only ethically right but good business sense to cater for people with all sorts of disabilities. On Saturday, I was talking to someone from Barclays and was impressed by the efforts that it is putting into the issue—I am sure that it is the same with other banks. The bigger companies have taken those issues on board. It is more difficult for small and medium enterprises, but that does not mean that they should not take those issues just as seriously.

I had intended to talk about transport, as a member of the Transport Committee, and about our report, which has been tagged on to this debate. However, I am keen to listen to the other hon. Members who wish to contribute, if they catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have already heard mention of Ryanair, so that is one company we have upset. Another is Brittany Ferries, which will not allow guide dogs on its boats. We raised that in the meeting with the Minister, but I have not heard what happened. If those issues have not been dealt with and those companies are listening, let me say to them, "For goodness sake, get your act together or the Government will have to take action."

When a member of one's family or oneself has a disability, one becomes aware of the problems. In my case, I have faced difficulties in taking my mother around. Actually, we have done very well. Two years ago I managed to take her around Istanbul in a wheelchair. I have to confess that I was not expecting great facilities for the disabled in Turkey, but it had got its act together in lots of ways, and the amount of help that we received was phenomenal.

One of the problems is that the airlines cannot tell disabled passengers what the facilities will be like at the other end of the flight. It is fine at Heathrow, where there tend to be walkways for passengers to get on the aeroplane, but one has no idea what will be at the other end. The idea of possibly having to wait for a fork-lift truck at the other end begins to take the edge off the journey.

Again from personal experience, I know that disabled parking can be a problem. There is a lot of provision, and that is wonderful, but how can we get it through to people that they should not abuse it? There is nothing more annoying than to see an able-bodied person coming out of a supermarket, admittedly heavily laden, and going to a car in a disabled person's spot. However, I sound a cautionary note from my days in retail. A sales representative called on us and parked his car outside on a single yellow line. I saw a traffic warden so I said, "You had better watch out, there's a traffic warden coming." He said, "It's all right, I have got a disabled badge." I looked at him and said, "Are you sure? You do not look disabled." I was showing my ignorance. He lifted up his trouser leg and showed me where he had had half his leg shot away during the war. That is where I learned that disability is not always visible and we should not jump to conclusions.

When I first came into the House I promised myself that I would try to keep to the diktat that it is much better to listen than lecture, so I will conclude my remarks.

5.12 pm
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

I hope that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) will forgive me if I lecture him for a minute. I did not regard it as appropriate for him to criticise my hon. Friend the Minister for her right and proper criticism of the Tories' lamentable failure to look after disability by ridiculing it and pretending it was funny. Truly, it was a fully deserved criticism.

If the hon. Gentleman dropped a clanger, as he feared he might in using the right language about disability, it was not, as he modestly suggested, due to his inadequacy because he is not inadequate. It was because he had insufficient respect for the disabled to be bothered to find out what language ought to be used to avoid causing offence.

I congratulate, au contraire, my hon. Friend the Minister on her role as an able prosecutor of the Conservatives for their lamentable failure to support the disabled. She has another career elsewhere, if she wants, at the Old Bailey. She prepared the indictment of their neglect perfectly. She marshalled the evidence with such skill and in such detail that it defied dispute when it was all set out. She argued her case perfectly and no jury would have had the slightest doubt that the Tories were guilty of an abysmal record on disability.

I listened to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), whose party's Work and Pensions spokesperson regards some of the unemployed—many of whom are disabled—as empty vessels into which it is a waste of time to pour training money. The only time that the hon. Member for Wycombe came near to setting out a Tory policy approach on disability was when he counselled caution that too assertive an approach to disability rights would provoke a backlash. I begin to understand how the Tories justified to themselves the iniquitous failure to act on the disabled for 18 long years.

I think that, secretly, the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have some respect from my, albeit brief, knowledge of him on the Work and Pensions Committee, is truly ashamed of that record. The way in which he complained about anyone on the Labour Benches who chose to look back—as well we might—led me to that conclusion. He should understand that people look at a party's history in office in order to foresee what it would do if it ever got into office again. His approach today, when he said that an assertive approach to disability rights was bound to provoke a backlash, will do nothing to dispel the concerns of disabled people that, if the Tory party ever came into office again, the past would simply repeat itself; unless they provoke a backlash a new Tory Government will do nothing for them.

I praised my hon. Friend the Minister for her forensic skills. I also join in the DRC's praise of her. It has issued a briefing that is almost embarrassing in its praise of the Government for the many things that they have done for disability, including the draft Disability Discrimination Bill, published at the end of last year, which will in due course fulfil the manifesto commitment to deliver basic rights for disabled people. The DRC speaks of an "exciting" Bill and congratulates my hon. Friend who has, as we all know, worked very hard to ensure that the Bill emerged. I echo that personal praise and I acknowledge, as I know she will, that she has experienced a supportive atmosphere in government within which to produce that excellent Bill.

The multitude of steps that the Government have taken to promote disability rights is good civil liberties policy for sure, and it is also good legal progress and excellent ideology. It is part of our inclusiveness approach. It is enabling disabled people to have a fuller life, with the civil liberties that we all enjoy and which, in the past, they have in truth been denied. Disabled people have been denied rights that we have enjoyed for many, many years without even considering them.

Supporting disabled people has another purpose. It is not about charity or benevolence at all but about bringing out of the shadows to which they have been confined many hugely talented people for whose active input society will be the better. Let us take a quick look around. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) is not in the Chamber, but she makes the point, does she not? Look at my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the leadership of the DRC. Look at Tanni Grey-Thompson, who is one of my Redcar constituents. Look on a more local scale, as I do, at the fine woman who has led the campaign to set up shopmobility in Redcar. Those are disabled people with multiple talents. They have often suffered hardship, so they are very determined.

Additionally, the experience of disability is itself a component of personality that the able bodied among us lack, but it needs to be present in society's thinking. Such people are exactly those who need to be brought out to become leaders in society. I very much regret the fact that they did not come forward because of the Tories' lack of interest in anyone who is not white, male, able bodied and already in business. It is clear that they still do not understand that principle at all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South pointed out that the Disability Rights Commission has facilitated access to tribunals in a way that was not possible before so that civil rights for the disabled can be furthered. Of course it has also had another purpose, which is to drive forward the culture to change public attitudes to disability and to speak with a very loud voice on behalf of complexly disabled people.

I welcome hugely the commission for equality and human rights, which will also have as one of its primary functions driving a culture of rights, with responsibilities, across all strands of equality. Once the legislation is passed, the commission will have the advantage of placing a positive duty on public authorities to promote the equality of disabled people, by tackling systemic barriers, rather than relying just on the post hoc system of redress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South is right: tribunals and rights are important, but they are a phenomenally clumsy way to go about establishing a change in culture. Taking a case to a court or tribunal in the hope that an individual victory will receive sufficient publicity to make a difference is a slow and very expensive way to make progress. It will be a major shift of emphasis to give a duty to public authorities to promote disability rights. I am pleased that the commission will also place a duty on them to promote gender equality.

It is clear that an individual who may be a woman and disabled or perhaps black and disabled, or who may come from any of the strands of disability, often cannot truly point to exactly what is the root of the discrimination. The responsibility ought not to lie on that person to say, "I think it is because I am disabled", or "I think it is because I am a woman." Truly, the public responsibility is to ensure equal rights across all strands of equalities.

Such a public duty will be a major tool for the new commission to use. I look forward to the public sector, with the encouragement of the commission, using the duty to promote equality in all its arrangements, not only internal but external ones. I look forward to its vigorous use in the commissioning role, so that the public sector can use contractual liability to impose on the private sector, where appropriate, a duty in contract after contract for public commission work also to guarantee disability equality as well as the other equalities.

There have been concerns that the DRC, as the newest of the three commissions, is likely to be the weakest and might be disadvantaged by the new unified commission. There seems to have been movement on those original concerns and the DRC has been reassured by the provisions that disability has been given in the new commission.

There will be a guaranteed place on the new commission board for a disabled person. There will be a dedicated disability committee, with decision-making powers in the key areas of work for disability rights covered by the DDA. Some 50 per cent. of the committee must be disabled and they will have a secure lifetime of five years on the committee. There will be transition commissioners to nurse the changeover and oversee the transition. There is also a commitment to maintain the legal powers and functions of the existing commissions and a recognition that cases should be supported on a strategic basis, prioritising in favour of cases that raise big points of principle.

The commission also has a commitment to promote a human rights culture as well as an equality culture in Britain, and that was mentioned tangentially by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). That promotional remit, which is explicitly configured to include the conduct of inquiries and third-party interventions into human rights cases, is very important. General inquiries into cases in which there is evidence before the commission of systemic abuse of disabled people's rights, women's rights or black people's rights are key to rooting out such abuse,finding its causes and promoting its unacceptability. Third-party interventions can also be key.

The DRC has proposed since its early days in 2000 that its case funding go beyond disability issues to include stand-alone human rights issues, so it is regrettable that there is no commitment on that. The new commission will also be able to pursue human rights cases in its own right, as opposed to those that are linked to a strand of inequality. It will add, in a number of ways, to the help that the DRC gives to disabled people and the moves that it has made to change the culture.

I had intended to talk briefly about direct payments, but I shall not do so because I know that others still wish to speak. I therefore conclude by reflecting that, after 18 years in the cold desert of Toryism, as it has already been described, disabled people have seen in the past seven years an absolute transformation of their rights. They have seen the deliberate and Government-driven opening of doors hitherto closed to them. They have sensed what I hope must continue—a warming of our culture towards them. When I look at the record over the past seven years and look one final time at the record of the Tories on disabled people, I know plainly why the Opposition are so upset that this debate about disability is being broadcast on the Parliament Channel on election day.

5.27 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

I follow my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) in being worried about that element of the speech of the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) in which he talked about the fear of a backlash. The problem with the backlash argument is that it indicates that someone is saying that they are not biased, but that other people are biased and that we must therefore be careful about acting. I know that the views of others are important and that pressures need to be responded to, but the argument is sometimes used to do nothing.

The other thing I realise about the Conservatives is that if they ever get back into government, they are likely to revert type. In their reverting to type, we would face all the problems that my hon. and learned Friend described. However, I accept that the Conservatives have moved somewhat since those bitter days in the early and mid-1990s. They were driven to change by the time we considered the Bill that established the Disability Rights Commission. They changed partly because half of them had gone from this place, but politics also changes responses and attitudes. The fact that society was moving meant that there was change. The other sign of change is the fact that the hon. Member for Wycombe gave general support to the report published by the Joint Committee on the draft Disability Discrimination Bill. He suggested that the Bill would not be blocked at a later stage.

Things may alter and circumstances may change, but I want to say something about the period in which there was serious dispute.

The role of Lord Morris of Manchester was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. He pushed for civil rights for disabled people in the form of a Bill that came before us as a private Member's Bill in 1991–92. He was leading the way, but he was not alone. There were others such as Lord Ashley of Stoke and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), who, in a ten-minute Bill and various amendments, developed the notion of civil rights for disabled people. The Bill was talked out, but a couple of years later my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) reintroduced it. It went through the House, initially without any great opposition from the Government. It was fine-tuned in Committee. It was not until it returned to the House for its remaining stages that there was what might be described as blood on the Floor of the House, when there were incidents involving Lady Olga Maitland and Nicholas Scott. It was that experience, and support outside the House for civil rights for disabled persons, that led the Government in the following year to introduce the Disability Discrimination Bill, as it was at that stage.

I picked up the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill at the same time and ran it in conflict with the Disability Discrimination Bill. I took it over in the form that it had reached with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, and added to it access to polling stations for disabled people. I included that in an earlier Bill on electoral registration, which did not get beyond Second Reading. I realised that it was not enough to have electoral registration rights for disabled people—they had to get into polling stations to exercise their right.

An illustration that there was some support from Conservative Members for the principle of civil rights for disabled persons—it came in little bits and pieces—was when the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill went into Committee. It was my moment of glory because it was my Bill. I could sit in the seat that a Minister usually occupies. The Opposition were, as it were, over the road. The Opposition were led by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). There was support from the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who then represented High Peak. There was also Tim Smith, whom we should not say much more about. Another Opposition Member attended one sitting of the Committee. When he failed to vote with the Conservatives and had trouble with, the Whips, he said, "I'm not coming again." I said that that was all right. All the other Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats sat with me and prominent Labour Members such as Lord Morris.

The Bill was blocked in Committee. When it returned to the Floor of the House, we had 32 minutes for its remaining stages and Third Reading. The Government had tabled 180 amendments. At that stage the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who was then representing a Bury constituency, led for the Government. All we could do was to have an argument about the situation during consideration of the first batch of amendments. I made sure that I resumed my place so that the hon. Gentleman was the one who talked out the Bill. I was not going to talk out my own Bill.

That process helped to shift and improve the Disability Discrimination Bill. Sponsors of my Bill included the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), the late James Kilfedder from Northern Ireland, and the hon. Members for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). I could claim that I had wider support for my Bill than the Belfast agreement was eventually to have.

The principles in my Bill are dear to me and to others who fought for them, and centre on the distinction between the social model and the medical model, which was espoused by Lord Morris in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. However, that measure was passed a long time ago, and Lord Morris was moving the game on by anticipating a social definition dealing with the discriminator and the prevention of discrimination. I was taken with the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) that a single but wide-ranging equality measure was needed to prevent discrimination and tackle the refusal to make available to some people facilities and opportunities that were available to others.

Mr. Goodman

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, despite some of the more extravagant claims of a great gulf between the parties, the 1995 Act was based partly on the medical model and partly on the social model, as are the draft Disability Discrimination Bill and the Committee's recommendations?

Mr. Barnes

I accept that the more progress we make using the medical model, the better and more reasonable the legislation will be. However, there is still a gap, so I look forward to legislation that allows us to close it. The Joint Committee shares that view, and in conclusion I wish to refer to its overview of the current agenda on pages 16 to 18 of its report. It discusses the potential of pre-legislative scrutiny, as the draft Bill is one of the first measures to undergo such a procedure. It is to the Committee's credit that it has produced a report, in which it says that there are still things that need to be done. For example, a clause outlawing discrimination against local councillors was not published in time, and the full text of various measures was not available. There was also a problem with delegated powers. There are therefore lessons to be learned, but the Committee has done some valuable work.

The Committee suggested that publications that particularly affect disabled people should be made available in appropriate alternative formats. When I introduced the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill in 1994, People First, a body of people with learning difficulties who run things for themselves, produced it in an accessible form for its members. I was proud that it was the first parliamentary measure to be produced in such a format. In its overview, the Committee also made a point that has been pressed home repeatedly by the hon. Member for Wycombe—the draft Disability Discrimination Bill should be introduced in the current Session. As a Back Bencher, I always want things to be done immediately. It is easy for Back Benchers to demand that the Government do things immediately, and it can make us popular with people outside. The Government, however, have a timetable and face the problem of adding things to it. Even if the Bill's introduction is knocked back to the next parliamentary Session, the fact that it has received pre-legislative scrutiny and has general support in the House should mean that it should not be difficult to enact. Heaven knows what today's election results will be and whether we will have a general election next year or whether that will take longer. I have a personal interest in that, as I am packing up at the next election, and do not know whether I have one year or two to go. Also, there are arguments for co-ordinating various measures, such as the draft Mental Incapacity Bill, to draw together all the details of the disability measures. That would provide the opportunity to return to the question of definition, so that by definition we get things right beyond peradventure.

5.40 pm
Maria Eagle

May I say what a fantastically varied, robust but—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Lady needs the leave of the House.

Maria Eagle

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given that I moved the motion, I did not think I needed the leave of the House, but if I do, I shall seek it. [Interruption.] We will all check that later—not that I doubt your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in any way, shape or form.

With the leave of the House, may I say what a varied, at times robust but always fascinating debate we have had today? Putting aside issues of timing, which we discussed earlier, there is no doubt that today's debate has been valuable. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) said that he always learns something from such debates. They inform and educate Members and anyone outside who bothers to read our proceedings when they are published in the Official Report.

I congratulate all the hon. Members who spoke in the debate on their contributions. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who speaks for the Opposition, suggested that letters of complaint about the timing of the debate may be coming my way. I assure him that the only letter so far received in my office was from him, but I shall watch out for any other complaints in the pipeline.

The hon. Gentleman raised three points, which I shall try to deal with. The first was the awareness of organisations such as service providers and smaller employers, upon which the October duties are placed. He quoted from research by my Department about the general awareness of the obligations that are coming into force in October. He has written to me in that regard and I replied to him, but I shall give the House a little more information about the efforts of the Department and the DRC to raise awareness.

Since 1999 my Department, and its predecessors before the changes to the machinery of government, spent almost £13 million on awareness-raising measures, which included national advertising campaigns, some aimed specifically at small and medium-sized enterprises, and the "What have you got to offer?" and "Open to Change" campaigns aimed at those on whom the obligations are to be placed. The DRC has spent a further £3 million on awareness-raising leaflets and publications, in addition to its general work through its helpline and other advice-giving services to provide guidance when questions are asked.

We are doing a great deal. I appreciate that those who have not had any connection with similar legislation before—small employers and small businesses—have the lowest levels of awareness. My Department recently sent out a mailshot with further help and advice to 1 million small businesses and small service providers on whom the obligations will fall. Experience has shown that it is not until the law is about to change that hard-pressed small business people get round to thinking about what it means I hope that they will do so as soon as possible, and that advice will be readily available to them from the Government and the DRC, to help them avoid making some of the mistakes related to the House today by my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and others in all parts of the House, who reported from their own experience how easy it is to get things wrong if brains are not engaged and if advice is not taken first. When I talk to organisations representing the businesses on which those obligations will be placed, I always advise them to put on their thinking-cap before they get their cheque book out, which is the best way to ensure that money is properly spent on adjustments that assist not only disabled people to access services, but businesses to secure part of the £50 billion that disabled people currently carry in their back pockets—inaccessible services often prevent disabled people from spending their money as they might wish. I hope that I have given the House more detail on increasing awareness, which the hon. Member for Wycombe and others advocated.

The hon. Member for Wycombe also discussed the specific recommendations on mental health and transport end dates made by the Joint Committee on the draft Disability Discrimination Bill; unsurprisingly, other hon. Members also expressed an interest in particular provisions. I am sure that hon. Members will not be particularly surprised that I shall limit my response to saying that the Government are currently considering all the Joint Committee's 75 recommendations.

My Department and I are considering some of those recommendations, while others are being considered across Government because they go wider than DWP responsibilities. All I can say is that we intend to reply within the time scale indicated by the Joint Committee. My personal view is that the Joint Committee produced an excellent report that contains some interesting recommendations, and the House must hang on a little bit longer to see the Government response.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird)—whose contribution was even more robust than mine—is particularly concerned about, where the DRC fits into the commission for equality and human rights. The hon. Member for Wycombe said that he viewed the "abolition of the DRC" with concern, which is an interesting, but none the less welcome, advance on thinking that the DRC should not exist. Other hon. Members also mentioned the proposed commission.

I remind the House that the DRC' itself has something to say: The DRC welcomes the White Paper on a commission for equality and human rights and the broad aspiration to promote equality and human rights in Britain. The proposals on disability are an encouraging step in the right direction … The DRC very much welcomes the specific proposals on disability, which recognise through a number of concrete proposals on governance the distinctive arrangements that will be necessary on disability to secure the future legislative and policy agenda". I hope that that reassures those who are concerned about the DRC.

Mr. Boswell

In the same breath, will the Minister acknowledge that the DRC has expressed some continuing concerns? Although I do not expect her to respond to them tonight, will she at least undertake to take them seriously?

Maria Eagle

I always take the DRC's concerns seriously and, as its sponsor Minister, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not. Although the DRC's welcome is not unequivocal, we would all have been suspicious if it had been.

Tom Levitt

My hon. Friend will remember that I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister who previously held the brief on the single equality body. Is she aware that comments and criticisms were taken on board as the idea was floated and matured? The final outcome is perhaps different from that anticipated at the beginning, and it is considerably better because of the relevant bodies' acclaim.

Maria Eagle

I certainly think it is important for a body that combines three existing commissions, while also dealing with strands not currently dealt with by commissions, to note the experience of those who are out there doing the job now. I believe that that has been done. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar has already listed the arrangements that have reassured the DRC, I shall not say more about them now.

The hon. Member for Wycombe mentioned the increasing number of people suffering from what he described as stress who are receiving incapacity benefit. There has undoubtedly been an increase in the number of claimants whose primary condition is a mental or behavioural disorder, which is a broader category than what we commonly think of as stress. The increase is attributable to a number of factors, including a wider acceptance in society of the impact of mental health conditions and a greater willingness on the part of clinicians and doctors to certify a mental incapacity.

The hon. Gentleman referred to an increase in the number of women claiming incapacity benefit. One reason for that is the fact that it is a contributory benefit, and for many years women did not have the work records that would enable them to claim it. It is not easy to work out what precisely is going on, but what is certain is that the Government are committed, through the new deal for disabled people and pathways into work—I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he liked the idea of those—to tailoring assistance to people whom all Governments have, in the past, left on benefit until they retired or died.

Mr. Goodman

I think that when the Minister reads the record she will find that I referred to stress, anxiety, depression and—I think this is what I said—similar conditions. I know that the information that she gave me, which is in the Library, lists the categories differently, but they overlap to a degree.

Maria Eagle

I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman distorted information that he was given in parliamentary answers.

It should be noted that 90 per cent. of the increase in the number of incapacity benefit claimants took place before the mid-1990s. We currently have the highest ever percentage of working-age people in jobs. The flow on to incapacity benefit has fallen by a third. There are 2 million more jobs in the economy, unemployment is at its lowest for 30 years and the number of claims for jobseeker's allowance has fallen by 700,000. The overall increase in incapacity benefit claims is 150,000. We are not, as is sometimes suggested by Opposition Members—I am not looking at the hon. Gentleman now, because I have not heard him say it in quite this way—trying to shift unemployed people on to incapacity benefit in order to hide the level of unemployment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South told us of her personal experience of discrimination in education. That happened over some years; it was not an isolated example. I was struck by my hon. Friend's point that legislation sets the framework—that it sets boundaries beyond which behaviour is not considered acceptable in society, and is therefore an important driver for change. I strongly agree with that.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) delivered what was, for him, fairly full-blown praise of the Government. I welcomed it, because we do not always hear it; he is obviously in a good mood today. I was particularly pleased to hear him give credit to the Government for changed attitudes, which he rightly ascribed partly to the change in the legal framework. He also said that much remains to be done; I agree entirely. That observation chimed in a small way with what my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South said about disabled people coming back with more demands. The day that any politician or Minister expects the demands to stop is the day that they have completely lost sight of the reality of what goes on in the world. So I was neither surprised nor upset to hear what they had to say about more needing to be done, because that is undoubtedly the case.

The hon. Gentleman made some very specific points, including some about British sign language, in which I have a particular interest. He asked what happens next after recognition, and rightly pointed out that not enough interpreters are available. The Government recently announced £1.5 million of new money to support our statement recognising British sign language, and the intention is to increase the number of interpreters available. We consulted the deaf community, and their strongly held view was that more needs to be done to train tutors. With more tutors and greater support for tutors in reaching higher qualification levels, there will be many more opportunities down the line for interpreters to learn the craft and the language.

The deaf community also identified the importance of increasing awareness of the use of British sign language, and the £1.5 million to which I referred has been split about evenly in an effort to achieve the two objectives. The precise way in which that will be done was announced during deaf awareness week, and if the hon. Gentleman has not seen the details I can send them to him.

I was particularly interested in the example that the hon. Gentleman gave of the Red Cross. He rightly talked about the importance of spending money more effectively, rather than simply throwing ever-increasing sums at particular problems when organisational issues arise. He is absolutely right to say that we need to find better ways of getting results for disabled people. Experience in my current post has made it obvious that various Government Departments, local government authorities and other public authorities operate far too much in silos. They do not join up what they do nearly enough, and we must look to providing services for disabled people that are based much more on their particular needs, rather than on whether they fit into a particular local authority budget or Government scheme. Anybody who can come up with a good way of doing that is welcome to come to my office at any time to tell me about it, because it is the holy grail as far as providing better services is concerned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), who chairs the all-party group on autism, made an excellent speech on the particular issues that impinge on those who have conditions on the autistic spectrum. She talked about the fact that communication impairment and social interaction impairment do not fit very well with some of our benefit systems, and about the disability living allowance and forms. In fact, the form is not the only problem with DLA. The care components and the way in which care and mobility are used as a proxy for disability do not necessarily work tremendously well for people with autistic spectrum disorder. Indeed, it is not just disabilities such as those that do not quite fit with DLA. At the moment, however, we have no plans to change the way in which DLA is assessed, and it would be wrong of me to say that we do, so such problems are not easily solved.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the disability handbook, and I can confirm that after consultation with the disability organisations that deal with autism, including the National Autistic Society, we are about to change the handbock's wording. I hope that that will assist my departmental officials in assessing benefit claims from people on the autistic spectrum.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) made his usual thoughtful contribution, but unfortunately I do not have time to say much about it; and my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak told the House about his own experience, particularly that relating to deafness.

We have had an excellent debate, which is worthy of re-reading some time tomorrow—perhaps next week is more likely—and I congratulate all who have taken part in it. There is no doubt about the fact that the Government are committed to improving, strengthening and deepening the rights of disabled people. It is only right that we do so, because 10 million of our fellow citizens rely on our doing so in order to take a proper part in life.

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.