HL Deb 16 June 1994 vol 555 cc1811-4

3.13 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they continue to take an attitude of "benevolent neutrality" towards the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.

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

My Lords, the Government are committed to the elimination of discrimination against disabled people. However, we do not see comprehensive legislation as the most effective and practical means of achieving that aim. The Government have made clear their concerns about the potential costs and burdens of this Bill. We intend to consult on a range of measures to combat unjustifiable discrimination. The five areas for consultation are employment, access to goof's and services, financial services, the impact of building regulations on disabled people and the creation of an advisory body on disability.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is Helpful for the House to know the Government's attitude to the Bill before we debate it next Wednesday? The Government's objections have now been met by changes to the Bill. Is the Minister also aware that the Government's £17 billion cost assessment is wildly inaccurate because the costs of several departments were duplicated? No account was taken of the economic benefits that would be derived from countless numbers of disabled people returning to work and, above all, the Government assumed that the entire Bill would be implemented within five years. However, under the Bill as it now stands, implementation is completely open-ended; it is entirely at the discretion of the Government. Undue hardship on business or on any other organisation is specifically banned by the Bill—specifically banned—and any provisions for disabled people must be reasonable. Does the Minister agree that in view of those factors it would be entirely wrong for the Government to oppose the Bill?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, while the Government support the aims of the Bill, we do not support it as drafted. The drafting is defective in a number of areas and insufficient account has been taken of the potential huge costs of implementation. We still believe that to be the case. No doubt, when the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, introduces his Bill in this House next week, we shall be able to discuss the cost and how the figure of £17 billion cornea about.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that for nearly 20 years many Members of all parties have wanted a Bill on these lines and that the Bill presented by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, is a great improvement on its predecessors? As the Government are still worried about the alleged cost, is my noble friend further aware that two simple amendments will deal quite simply with that problem, if they have an open mind on the matter?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, of course we have an open mind. I am well aware of the level of support for anti-discrimination legislation and the Government have listened carefully to the arguments of those supporting it. While acknowledging the conviction of those views, we have not yet been persuaded that comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation represents the most practical way of promoting opportunities for disabled people.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this is the first opportunity that many of us have had to express our absolute disgust at the way in which a similar Bill was dealt with in the House of Commons? Secondly, does the Minister accept that the new Bill, which is being presented on Wednesday by my noble friend, will give the Government, if they have an open mind, an opportunity of getting this issue back on track in a way that we know your Lordships wish? We have twice passed similar Bills which conformed with the wishes of the organisations for disabled people.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Bill was debated in another place on 20th May and fell to return at a later date this Session. If and when it returns, I am sure that my right honourable friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People will take the opportunity once again to set out the Government's proposals for combating discrimination. We have announced the Government's proposals and we intend within six months to consult on them. The consultations will take account of the views of everyone with an interest in disability. After consultation, we will be prepared to consider assisting in drafting workable and practical legislation, which will be identified by the process of consultation.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Renton mentioned 20 years. Is my noble friend Lord Astor aware that I introduced the first of these Bills in another place 26 years ago? It was defeated on Second Reading by the Government, with Government Whips as Tellers. Therefore, governments of all kinds have had difficulties with such Bills, even though mine would have cost almost no money at all. However, would it not be best for this matter to be discussed next Wednesday?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. This is a complicated area. We believe, for example, that the Bill was not specific enough to give a clear indication of timing or impact and it made it impossible to identify some of the costs over the unspecified period. Therefore, that could not be taken into account. The compliance cost assessment was prepared on the best information available. We looked carefully at that Bill and the Government decided that it was not practical nor the right way to go forward in helping disabled people in that way.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I believe that the noble, Lord Renton, spoke for the entire House when he said that this House has a proud record of supporting the rights of disabled people.

In response to an earlier question, the Minister said that he supported the aims but not the drafting of that Bill. In that case, will he not take the Bill sufficiently seriously to amend it in this House, if that is what is necessary for its success, rather than see the Bill return to the Commons and risk a repeat of the fiasco which so shamed the parliamentary process?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness that it shamed the parliamentary process. The Bill was dealt with in another place, and a Bill must stand or fall on its merits. I can tell the noble Baroness what was the Government's view. We judged that it was not possible to turn the Bill into a viable statute and that is why we did not support it. I have announced the Government's proposals for future consultation. Consideration will be given to specific legislation which it may be possible to introduce in the future.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that if the alleged implementation costs of £17 billion are correct the Government have absolutely no business sitting on the fence and saying that returning to the matter is no concern of theirs? Would it be possible to make available a detailed breakdown of the £17 billion before next Wednesday's debate?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, as I said earlier, our views on the Bill were made very clear in another place. I believe that the figures for which the noble Lord asked are best dealt with when we debate the Second Reading of the Bill next week in this House.

Lord Richard

My Lords, the Minister twice said that the Government approach this subject with an open mind. By that, does he mean that the Government are sympathetic towards the principles and objectives of the Bill and that appropriate drafting will enable the Government to accept something along those lines or does open-mindedness on the part of the Government mean something rather more restrictive?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I had hoped that I had made the Government's position entirely clear but I am happy to repeat it in order to do so. The Government support the aims of the Bill. They do not support the Bill as drafted. The drafting is defective in a number of areas and insufficient account has been taken of the potentially huge costs of implementation. When the Bill went through another place the Government judged that it was not possible to turn the Bill into a viable statute.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, the noble Viscount said to the House that those figures would become available next Wednesday. If the Government have the figures, surely it must be possible for them to be presented before next Wednesday to the people who are interested in the Bill. They should not be produced like a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the difficulty can be seen by looking at the Bill itself. It does not give phased-in times for commencement but provides that the Secretary of State has power to specify in regulations the exemptions for various periods. Amendments which could be readily quantified were taken into account when preparing the compliance cost assessment; for example, on phased-in times. That assessment was prepared on the best information available based on the assumption that compliance with the Bill's requirements would be immediate or deferred for a five-year period. The compliance cost assessment showed that it would cost more than £17 billion and that there would be a year-on cost of £1 billion.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, the Minister is entitled to correct any defects in the drafting, but the Bill has been checked by eminent lawyers like the noble Lord, Lord Renton, the Law Society and all who support it. The Minister complained about the timing. The sponsors of the Bill have leaned so far back that they have left that to the Secretary of State. If he wants to wait for 10 years, he can do so; if he wants to wait 20 years, he can do so. Some people believe that we have leaned back too far to oblige the Government. That is why the Government are quite wrong not to make a specific commitment to accept the principle of the Bill. Its implementation can then be fitted in to suit the Government.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Government have always made it clear that they do not believe that comprehensive legislation like the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is the best way forward. We believe that we should consult on specific legislation which can take into account the very real needs of people with disabilities.