HL Deb 05 November 1986 vol 481 cc1107-8

3 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many magistrates at the present time are physically disabled.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, I am sorry to have to tell the noble Earl that the information for which he has asked is not available.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, without being astounded by that Answer, may I ask the noble and learned Lord whether he agrees that in view of the wonderful contribution that the disabled make to this House, facilities should be provided for them so that they can perform a similar service on the Bench?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, speaking generally, disability is not a bar to service on the Bench, but certain types of disability are; for instance, total deafness would be. I speak as someone who is disabled. I notice that at least one other person who has asked a question is disabled. Neither of us by virtue of either of those disabilities would be debarred. We do not ask magistrates whether they are disabled. We ask them whether they are in good health, whether their sight and hearing, with spectacles or hearing aids as required, are adequate to perform their duties and whether they will be able to do their duty on the bench 26 times a year. That would not yield the information that the noble Earl wants.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, are not many physically disabled magistrates already making a valuable contribution to the work of the courts? May I ask a further question? I know that it is not allowed, but I shall take the risk. In the building of new courts is care being taken to provide access to the courts and to the Bench for the physically disabled?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, those were two well formulated and short questions. So far as I know, a large number of disabled magistrates are in service and perform their duties to general satisfaction. As regards the building of new courts, as the noble and learned Lord is well aware, I am not departmentally responsible for them, but I am assured that the local authorities, which are, take into account the needs to which he has referred.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has reassured us as to the blind, the deaf and the lame. What about the daft?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I fear that that is more a question of opinion than of fact.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord agrees that the Question relates to the physically disabled and not to the mentally disabled. That perhaps is the answer to the last question. Does he also agree that many disabled people, whether justifiably or not, believe that they are discriminated against? They may have gained comfort from the answers that the noble and learned Lord has given today. Will he seek to obtain from those who advise him on the appointment of magistrates some indication, if possible, as to whether those whom they are putting forward are disabled so that he may appoint and be seen to appoint those who are disabled? That may give comfort at least to those who feel that they are being discriminated against and who would like to know that on publicly appointed bodies such as the magistracy there is a representative number of disabled people.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, disability takes many forms and is of many degrees. The difficulty with the physically disabled is that magistrates' courts have rather elderly and archaic buildings which are not well suited to disabled people. That is a matter which can be remedied only by a good deal of effort in individual cases over a period of time. I am assured that in those cases the needs of the disabled are remembered and that where one can—one makes alterations wherever one can—the needs of disabled people are considered. Even where the courts are unsuitable, one can, with special arrangements for individual magistrates, often get over the difficulty. I have a case in mind, which I shall not go into in detail, where arrangements can be made despite the court not being physically suited to disabled people.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that representations from the various bodies involved with the disabled should be sympathetically considered by advisory committees?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am sure that they would be, but the important factor in the long run in every appointment is not this question as much as temperamental suitability for the Bench. I am sure that advisory committees would be only too glad to receive representations, particularly if they were locally based.