HL Deb 28 July 1976 vol 373 cc1427-37

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, be now read a second time. There were two episodes at the end of last week that cheered me immensely. One concerned the Headingley cricket match. As the cameras kept moving to and fro one could see a notice saying: "This area is reserved for disabled persons". The other concerned the town of Scarborough. A swimming exhibition had been arranged, the proceeds from which were to go towards helping the local disabled people, and in this exhibition a legless man was to swim around the harbour in close proximity to the castle. What pleased me was that there was such an expression of compassion and generosity that £250 was raised for the local disabled people.

My Lords, this Bill is one from another place which was promoted by Mr. James Callaghan—not the Prime Minister, may I say, but the Member of Parliament for Middleton and Prestwich. It is also pleasing to note that this very important measure was supported by a number of Members of all Parties. My information is that the All-Party Disablement Group within the precincts of Westminster are supporting this Bill and are giving their blessing to it. During its stages in another place, there was no opposition at all, so far as I can gather, to the contents of the Bill and to what it proposes to do; but there was a major concern, as one sees from reading the report of the Committee stage in another place, expressed by the Members of all Parties who took part in those proceedings. Every one of them, without exception, expressed their major concern that this Bill should reach the Statute Book, and it is my hope that they will not be disappointed. I have again read the debate in your Lordships' House on the Private Member's Bill of 1970, and there is no mistaking the fact that in that debate there was ample evidence that your Lordships' interest in the welfare of the disabled is really overwhelming; and, on that occasion, that interest came from all quarters of the House during all the proceedings.

My Lords, in moving this Second Reading—and I want to do it very briefly—I must confess that I have some nostalgic feelings, for in my maiden speech in another place, which is quite a few years ago now, I made mention of an innovation that there had, been in the interests of disabled miners and their welfare. In Mansfield, a spacious hall and grounds had been purchased by the Miners' Welfare Commission. The coal owners—this was before vesting date in 1947—and the unions co-operated, and, under the guidance and supervision of a very eminent orthopaedic surgeon, remedial treatment and occupational therapy was undertaken, as a result of which men whose limbs had been broken by accident in the mines, even paraplegic cases, had their working capacity restored, if not wholly at any rate in some degree, enabling them to resume employment. The centre, which is a residential one and has been all those 40 years, continues its good work, and I know from my own personal know ledge that during that period it had done an extremely good job in the interests of disabled miners. The only change that there has been in recent years is that, whereas at the time of its inception it was exclusively for injured miners, it now caters for others who are in need of such treatment.

Now, my Lords, I come to the Bill. It is a short, simple, understandable, one-clause Bill, but I do not think that, because of its brevity, your Lordships will regard it as unimportant. The purpose of it is to add a new clause to the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. I am sure your Lordships will recall that in Section 4 of that Act it was provided that, in the building of premises to which the public was to be admitted, provision was to be made to meet the needs of the disabled so far as the circumstances were reasonable and practical —and here I should like to make an observation. I hope that at some time in the future, in our drafting of Bills and in our promotion of legislation, we might get away from these particular words. I recall from the passage of the Mines and Quarries Bill 1954 through another place that the number of times these words appeared in that Bill was legion.

Section 4 of the Act, which I have mentioned, was to meet the needs of the disabled as regards means of access, parking facilities and sanitary convenience. Section 8 of what is now the 1970 Act makes a similar provision in respect of educational establishments; that is, schools, colleges and universities. This Bill in Clause 2 requires the same facilities to be made for the disabled where a person is undertaking the provision of premises for employment purposes. This Bill as drafted applies to premises set out in Clause 2.

The Promoter of the Bill during the Committee stage in another place stated that it was his intention to cover as many places of employment as possible. The Under-Secretary undertook during those proceedings to look again at this point. I should like to ask my noble friend Lord Jacques, who I understand is in charge of this Bill, whether he has any further information on that particular point. The Bill provides that at places of employment there shall be access to and within the premises; adequate circulation, both vertical and horizontal; that doors and passages be of adequate width and height; that ramps or lifts be provided for any change of level; that there be adequate parking facilities for disabled employees and sufficient lavatory accommodation for those confined to a wheelchair. That is, substantially, the language that is used in Section 4 and Section 8 of the 1970 Act.

I do not know whether this is generally known, but there is a serious problem of unemployment among the disabled. My information is that in April this year 13.6 per cent. of disabled people signed the register as unemployed. If my mathematics are correct, that is a global total of 76,000. In making that statement, I am not saying or even suggesting that it is the lack of facilities in places of employment that is responsible for this state of affairs: but it may well be. It is not outside the bounds of possibility that a number of these disabled people find it more difficult to get work because of lack of facilities. I have heard suggested in some places the fear that chances of promotion of disabled people in employment are missed for the reason that there are no adequate facilities to accommodate them.

In moving this Second Reading I recognise that it might be some time before the provisions of this small, modest Bill can have an influence on places of work. But I now take an opportunity of welcoming—and this may be a great help—the scheme announced last December by the Manpower Services Commission to make capital grants for employers to modify their premises or to instal special or modified equipment in the interests of the disabled. I think that the only question, in addition to the one I have already posed to the Minister, is this. Has he any further information on this proposal that was made by the Manpower Services Commission?

My Lords, in conclusion may I say that many of us may feel that this Bill is too modest. Your Lordships may feel that it is not fully adequate to meet the situation with which the disabled are confronted. Nevertheless, I suggest that even if this be so—and I believe that it is—it is a step in the right direction. I ask your Lordships to support this modest, small Bill for two main reasons. First, because it will lend support to the campaign to create an environment in which disabled people are no longer second-class citizens; and secondly, because it will enable them to play their full part in society along with their able-bodied colleagues. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Taylor of Mansfield.)

6.56 p.m.


My Lords, I must start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Mansfield, for introducing this Bill so ably and to congratulate him for having the good sense to be content with a modest forward step. This is the ideal prescription for any successful Private Member's Bill. Many have failed through not attending to that principle. I should like to wish him every success with this particular measure.

It is true that there is widespread all-Party support in Parliament, as in the country at large, for the disabled. But that cannot, and does not, override all other considerations. I well recall speaking from this Box in 1970, dealing with the main Bill at the end of that Parliament and coming to an understanding with the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, then Minister of State to the Department of Health and Social Security, that we would set aside our political differences and do our best to get the main Bill on the Statute Book before the Dissolution. To achieve this, the main need was to persuade the "mobile" Benches and their supporters, if I may so describe them, to restrain themselves from trying to pack any more into what was already a somewhat overloaded and ill-digested Bill. As it was, I am afraid that they very nearly lost the Bill altogether; but it did, in fact, scrape through.

I am quite ready to admit that this small amending Bill makes good one of the matters that were omitted in 1970 and which we might have got first time if we had had time to consider it properly. Therefore, I am glad to welcome the Bill as making good an omission of six years ago. But I must go on to say that I am enabled to do that because it has in it what are, for me, the blessed saving words, "reasonable and practicable". I know that the mobile Benches and their supporters do not like that phrase. They regard it as the let-out and the loophole which everyone who is disposed so to do will use as an excuse to neglect their duties towards the disabled. I do not share that view. I regard it as an essential feature to allow authorities, employers, industrialists and everybody else concerned with this measure to exercise their discretion to allow some degree of flexibility in coming to a proper balanced judgment in the light of local conditions, particular cases, other priorities and so on.

I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Mansfield (I think that he and not the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, is in charge of the Bill), that if he successfully resists any attempts to modify—at any rate for the time being—that doctrine of reasonable and practicable, he will certainly be able to count on my support in this useful amending Bill. I hope that we shall be successful in getting this Bill on to the Statute Book before the end of this Session.

7.1 p.m.


My Lords, I should like briefly to give a welcome to this Bill because I have nothing to add to what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Mansfield, said in introducing it and what the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has said. I hope it receives support from all Parties. I join the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Mansfield, in inquiring from where the proposed grant is likely to come, otherwise the words "reasonable" and "practicable", which must be there at present, will remain there for a very long time and do a good deal of damage to people's intentions to try to improve things for their employees, not because they do not want to do it but because they cannot afford to do it. It is a costly exercise to change the interior of ancient buildings, particularly when offices, et cetera, may be on the third, fourth or fifth floor.

I was encouraged by the reply of the Government to an Amendment proposed the other day to another Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. There it seemed that the Government were taking an interest in saying that when new houses are built in new towns some provision is made for the wheelchair patient. In the past there has been a good deal of difficulty in some of the new and modern hotels where doors appear to have been built upon a standard pattern which does not admit a wheelchair into a bedroom. That is something which we hope will be changed. It is important that all hotels should have some rooms where a wheelchair can enter. There should be some accommodation in the new towns for people in wheelchairs. My Lords, I do not propose to say any more except to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Mansfield, on introducing this Bill. I trust it will reach the Statute Book in record time.

7.4 p.m.

Viscount INGLEBY

My Lords, also should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Mansfield, for introducing this Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said, I had some small part in the access clauses on the original Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill. As with the access provisions in the original Bill, there are no provisions for the enforcement of this new Bill, and I should like to ask the Minister who is to reply what are the reasons which prevent planning permission being made conditional, where reasonable and practicable, on suitable access for the disabled.

I should like to commend my own North Yorkshire County —Council for providing two nice parking spaces with a little sign indicating that they are for disabled people. There is a ramp and a lift, but there is still an awkward flight of stairs with no handrail up to the Council Chamber. The steps are made of marble and are a little slippery. Perhaps the most helpful course that the disabled, and those who want to help the disabled, can take is to identify the places where there seems to be a special need. My information might be a little out of date, but the last time I asked at Kings Cross Station, there was no lavatory in the main platform area to which somebody in a wheelchair could get access. Being rather keen on natural history, I visit from time to time the Natural History Musuem at South Kensington. A year ago there was no lift there that a wheelchair could get into and therefore upstairs floors were pretty well out of bounds for the disabled.

Although I class myself as a railway enthusiast I have not yet visited the new railway musuem at York, though I have received some unfavourable comment from the point of view of access for the disabled. This is a fairly new building which has been opened to the public. If this unfavourable comment is true then it is disappointing. I should like to share in welcoming this Bill.

7.6 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to welcome this Bill and to congratulate my noble friend Lord Taylor of Mansfield, who introduced it in his usual compassionate and understanding way. I declare an interest as chairman of a sub-committee of Lord Snowden's Working Party on the integration of the disabled. My particular sub-committee has been concerned with buildings and housing. The report of the Working Party, we hope, is almost complete, and I am afraid that my sub-committee will be recommending far tougher legislation for the provision of access than is included in this Bill. I am sure your Lordships will forgive me if my welcome includes my reservations.

This Bill is a No. 2 Bill because the Government objected to the original one presented by Mr. Jim Callaghan. Mr. Callaghan was in consultation with members of my sub-committee. The original Bill reflected the advice they had given him. The evidence we received indicates—this has been emphasised by the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby—that since Section 4 and Section 8 of the principal Act are non-mandatory and non-enforceable, they have little effect on public buildings and negligible effect on private developments.

All the experts to whom I have spoken agree that if adequate facilities are included at the planning stage, they need not incur as much expense, and certainly conversion costs will be far less. It therefore seems logical that any enforcement should occur at this stage. Therefore the sub-committee will recommend that a local authority should withhold planning consent if adequate facilities for disabled people are not included in the plans.

I believe this recommendation formed part of Mr. Callaghan's original Bill, but the Department of the Environment seemed opposed to it and forced him to withdraw it. I will not go now into their reasons, which seemed unconvincing on paper. Your Lordships will appreciate that in supporting this present Bill I must place the strongest possible obligation on the Government to ensure that this is not just another homily on the Statute Book. Government Ministers have said that the right way to seek enforcement of adequate provision for disabled people in buildings is through building regulations. Thanks to Section 61 of the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974—when it is brought into effect—the Department now has the necessary power.

In Committee in another place it appeared that Mr. Jim Callaghan quoted extensively from a letter from the Minister of State for Housing and Construction to Mr. George Wilson, the chairman of the Central Council for the Disabled. I will not at this late stage repeat the letter. Its burden was that they were willing to use building regulations to prevent our efforts over this Bill being totally wasted, but only when they could get around to it. I should like to ask the Minister a question which arises from the letter. Can he say when Section 61 of the Health and Safety at Work Act will be put into effect?

The Minister of State also asserted that the preparation and enforcement of building regulations would be a burden on existing staff, and therefore could not be given very high priority. So far as the preparation of regulations goes, I hope your Lordships will agree that this is not a very good excuse. I am absolutely certain, from my work with the Central Council for the Disabled and other groups, that the Minister would receive eager assistance from the voluntary organisations in order to bring this about. I am absolutely convinced that the enforcement of the regulations would not be an impossible burden on the backs of local authorities.

Having said that, I am in full support of this Bill. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, that one must go slowly; but I could not miss the opportunity to enter this caveat, of which the Government are well apprised, when the report of the sub-committee comes out.

7.12 p.m.


My Lords, first of all, I should like to congratulate the right honourable Member of another place, Mr. Callaghan, on having got his Bill through the other place without amendment. I would also congratulate my noble friend Lord Taylor on his most appropriate Second Reading speech. I believe he will get the Bill through this House equally expeditiously.

We are very sympathetic to the aims of the Bill, and hope that it will pass through all its stages very quickly. We want to see it on the Statute Book. Nevertheless, we are not convinced that access and other facilities are a major stumbling block in the employment of the disabled. They are a stumbling block in some cases, but we have found by experience that we can often overcome that difficulty by way of persuasion. However, we feel the Bill can do only good. It will encourage employers to provide facilities, and we believe it will have public opinion behind it. We hope also it will be a moral force.

There are a number of questions to which I feel I ought to reply. First, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Taylor for having given me notice of the questions he was going to ask. He referred to the definition of "premises". I should first point out that the Bill as it stands will cover premises which are covered by the Factories Act and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act. The total number of premises that will be covered is approximately a million. The Government undertook to give the sponsors of the Bill further advice about the coverage of the Bill: they have done so. It is possible that some places of employment are excluded through the use in the Bill of the definitions in the Factories Act and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act. But at this stage it seems more practicable not to amend the Bill, but to get it through the House as quickly as possible so that it need not be reconsidered by the Commons.

So far as grants are concerned, the Manpower Services Commission has been asked to introduce a scheme of grants for employers who modify or instal special equipment or facilities in order to employ disabled people. The scheme is still under discussion with the Manpower Services Commission. I come to the question of enforcement, and would point out that this amending Bill is in keeping with the parent Act. In the parent Act there is no provision for enforcement, and I think it is appropriate that this Bill should be in keeping with the parent Act. Planning is concerned with land use. It would be quite wrong in principle, and outside the scope of the present legislation, to attempt to use the development control system to implement the provisions of other legislation. We are, therefore, entirely opposed to trying to use the land-use legislation for this particular purpose. It is a form of tacking.

There are other possibilities, however. There will be powers under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to make regulations when Part III comes into force. The Government are considering whether or not these powers could be used for the purposes, if need be, but they do not want to act hastily. They want to have time to consider whether it is appropriate for those powers to be used for that purpose. If they conclude that such a procedure would be appropriate, they believe that powers could be used, if need be, to enforce this legislation. I am unable to say at this moment when Part III of the 1974 Act will come into operation, but I would expect it to be comparatively soon.

With those few words, my Lords, I think I have covered the points which have been raised. I hope that this House will pass the Bill quickly and without amendment. Only in that way shall we ensure that it in fact gets a place on the Statute Book.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the whole House.