HL Deb 17 January 1994 vol 551 cc319-22

2.42 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they intend to take to outlaw unjustifiable discrimination against disabled people.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, while the Government share the aim of ending unjustified discrimination, we do not see comprehensive legislation as the most effective and practical means of achieving it. We believe that the best way forward is a programme of awareness, education and persuasion, backed up where necessary by targeted legislation.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the Minister aware that anti-discrimination legislation is supported by every disability organisation in Britain, by the Law Society and by governments in other countries such as the United States? Is he aware that it is supported by the majority of Members of Parliament and by this House? Above all, it is supported by millions of disabled people. If the Government continue to act like King Canute they must expect the same respect that he had. Does the Minister accept that they are damaging the interests of millions of disabled people by their refusal to enact this very necessary legislation?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we believe that unjustified discrimination against disabled people is unacceptable. The Government are committed to combating it. We believe that the best approach is one that builds on the Government's good record of increasing opportunities for disabled people through programmes of education and persuasion and, where necessary, targeted legislation. We do not believe that all encompassing legislation would be effective in helping to meet the needs of disabled people.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is not the real difficulty that disability takes many different forms? For instance, I walk on two sticks. Other people have defects of eyesight or of hearing. There are almost infinite ways in which discrimination can take place and comprehensive legislation would be almost impossible to draft.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I agree very much with my noble and learned friend. The complex range of disabilities and the varied ways in which they affect everyday life cannot be addressed by a single piece of legislation, unlike, for example, the approach which was adopted to deal with racial or sex discrimination.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, the noble Viscount knows that on two occasions this House has passed a Bill for precisely this purpose. He now says in reply to the Question that he is in favour of targeted legislation. Will he explain to the House what targeted legislation means?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is legislation targeted at those who need it.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I was severely disabled for a short period I received every possible assistance in all parts of these Houses of Parliament from staff and colleagues? That ought to be put on the record. It is a pity that other organisations cannot emulate the Parliament they are all so eager to criticise. There were occasions when outside this building I ran into people who could only be called malevolent. Can something be done to persuade other organisations outside to emulate our behaviour and, in particular, can we examine the possibility of somehow dealing with the evil behaviour of malevolent people who like to hurt the disabled?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has asked the Minister for disabled people to work with the All-Party Disablement Group to identify ways in which discrimination could be eliminated. My right honourable friend has already had two meetings with the group to discuss proposals for taking forward this important initiative. The Prime Minister's personal interest has ensured that the work has received high priority within government and we shall look carefully at any proposals which are made to us.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, will the Minister agree that the right to equal treatment without discrimination on any grounds such as mental or physical disability is a fundamental right guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and that we are obliged to secure that right in our domestic legal system?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we have a very good record compared with other countries in the EC. We are opposed to discrimination against disabled people. As I said, we have taken steps in the past through targeted legislation to prevent it.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the Minister reconsider the remark he made in reply to the first Question from my noble friend Lord Ashley about the need for legislation to deal with discrimination? Is he aware that we have had a 3 per cent. quota for the employment of the disabled since 1944 and that, acting on a voluntary basis, it has never been reached? Some of us have argued the need for legislation in that respect. Does the noble Viscount not consider that there comes a time when legislation may be needed to support a measure which is not receiving on a voluntary basis the support which it ought to have?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the quota is under review. We are looking carefully at the evidence and considering options. There are many arguments to be considered. As the noble Lord said, the Disabled Persons Act requires employers to employ a quota of disabled people. The Employment Department is preparing a memorandum for the Employment Select Committee which will outline the Government's view on the operation of the Act and will help the department to promote employment and training for people with disabilities.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, how far have the Government been able to meet the quota which they themselves have accepted for employing disabled people within the Civil Service?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Civil Service is committed to equality of opportunity for all people, including people with disabilities. Although the Civil Service is not bound by the quota legislation it has undertaken to accept the same responsibilities as other employers. It employs more than 8,300 staff who are registered disabled. That is equivalent to 1.5 per cent. of all civil servants, which is just above the proportion of people registered as disabled in the workforce as a whole and as far as we can judge almost twice the proportion of registered disabled people employed in the private sector. Like other employers, the Civil Service employs many more staff with disabilities who choose not to register as disabled.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, is that not half the target that the Government have set themselves?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, yes, it is half the target. However, as I pointed out, many people who are employed and who have disabilities do not register.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many measures taken by the Government are likely only to increase employment discrimination against disabled people? I refer to such measures as the proposed employers' levy under the access to work scheme and the imposition of full costs of statutory sick pay upon employers. Will the Government consider again the disability working allowance scheme? It has had a low take up. We supported the scheme when it was introduced but we pointed out that it was flawed. However, the take up seems to have been low. Can something be done about that?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we have announced improvements to the disability working allowance. With regard to the noble Baroness's question about access to work, that matter is to be introduced by the Employment Department later this year and will replace or add to the help currently available. It will provide a wider range of help to a greater number of people. This new, more flexible provision has been widely welcomed by various organisations, in particular those organisations which relate to people with disabilities.

On the noble Baroness's point about the Statutory Sick Pay Bill, at present there is no evidence that the changes that we propose will cause employers to treat disabled people differently from others in the workforce.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is not the difficulty about the quota system—which requires employers of more than 20 people to engage 3 per cent. or more employees who are disabled—that throughout the country the registers of disabled people contain figures of less than 3 per cent. That makes the requirement almost impossible. A review of the system is required.

As one who assisted with the passage of one of the Bills referred to through this House, I ask the Government this question. Will they consider setting up a disablement commission—that is what my Bills attempted to do—rather than seeking to create new offences which have to be dealt with in the courts?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. As I said in answer to an earlier question, only about 1.5 per cent. of registered disabled people are in the workforce. That may be one of the reasons why it has been almost impossible to fill the 3 per cent. quota. I am sure that we shall consider my noble friend's other suggestion.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, will the Minister kindly bear in mind that there are people in the United States with a wide variety of disabilities? There are those who use two sticks, those who are deaf, and those who are blind. Yet the comprehensive legislation works perfectly well in America, Australia and many other countries. Therefore, it is no argument to talk about the diversity of disabilities.

Secondly, the Minister refers to education and persuasion. That was the Government's argument on seat belts. It failed and legislation was required. The same principle applies to legislation on discrimination. Persuasion and education simply do not work. Discrimination in Britain today is massive and requires legislation.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the legislative system in America is different from this country. The laws in America are fairly new. We shall, of course, be watching all developments in America to see how those laws work. However, at the moment there is as yet no evidence—those laws are fairly new—that they are any more successful than the legislation of this country.