HL Deb 17 October 1994 vol 558 cc4-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many responses they have received to their consultation paper on discrimination against disabled people and what proportion of these responses was critical.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, we have received more than 900 responses to the consultation, which closed less than three weeks ago. Analysis will take some time and it is too early to attempt to draw any conclusions.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I hope that it will not take too much time. Is the Minister aware that paragraph 2.9 is the most remarkable in the consultation paper because the Government have performed a U-turn and at last have admitted that the "reasonable aspirations" of disabled people cannot be met by voluntary action alone? Will the Government now admit that these aspirations cannot be met by legislation which fails to include education, transport, indirect discrimination and Britain's 2.75 million small firms? In such a situation millions of disabled people will continue to be discriminated against, and that will be perfectly legal.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the noble Lord invites me to prejudge the results of the consultation and our deliberations upon it. I do not intend to do that. During the next few weeks we shall be looking at all such matters and coming forward with what I hope will be sensible solutions which will help disabled people, as we have helped them vigorously and to a considerable extent during the past 15 years.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does my noble friend expect support for replacing the quota scheme, as it is impossible for all employers to reach the level of 3 per cent. because only 1 per cent. of the population is registering as disabled? Does my noble friend agree that during the past 50 years the 1944 Act has nonetheless served its purpose because it was mainly intended for young war disabled people who had their working lives ahead of them—and I was one—and that those who are still alive are past retirement age?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for making the point that the quota system provided for in the 1944 Act was introduced in a different working and disabled environment. Whether or not we replace the quota system and the way in which we tackle the employment prospects of disabled people are important matters that we are currently considering.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, bearing in mind that fit people are being paid wages as low as £2 per hour, has the consultation paper produced any evidence showing that disabled people are being exploited by being paid even lower wages? If so, will the Government seek to deal with that matter as quickly as possible?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the noble Lord must table a Question before I can respond to him in the detail that he expects. As a result of their disability, desire or other factors, many disabled people want or can only obtain work which is for less than a full working week. That is certainly part and parcel of the pattern, but it is also the pattern of many able-bodied people who do not want to work full time.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one reason why so many people do not register as disabled is that the}/ feel that it will disadvantage them when they apply for a full-time job?

Secondly, will the Minister reconsider the point which he made—I thought rather unfairly—to my noble friend Lord Ashley that my noble friend was wishing him to prejudge the issue? Does the Minister accept that there is now a great deal of strong and considered feeling? It is helpful that the Minister's document points in some way towards a more encouraging way forward. However, I hope that he will not allow this matter to slip. Will he recognise that now is the time to come forward with a really positive proposal which will encourage those who have been campaigning so hard for a proper and effective piece of legislation.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I do not believe that the Government will be able to let this matter slip. In view of the number of noble Lords who are interested and (he extremely vociferous lobbies outside, I believe that the Government will come forward with proposals in the reasonably near future.

As regards the general point, the Government have an excellent record in this sphere. Expenditure last year on disability benefits represented some £17 billion, which is a three-fold increase in real terms over what it was in 1979.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the Government rejected the Berry/Ashley civil rights Bill on the grounds that it was "exorbitantly costly" for employers. Is the Minister aware that the Employers Forum on Disability has now responded to the consultation document saying: Anxiety regarding exorbitant costs would seem to reflect: inadequate understanding and analysis of the benefits generated by bringing disabled people into society as taxpayers and consumers; a lack of understanding", on the part of the Government, of the business case for such reforms; a failure to place expenditure within the appropriate long term scale; and lack of direct experience of disabled people contributing in the workplace"? That is the voice of the employers and they go on to criticise the Government. Will the Government therefore accept that they defeated the civil rights Bill by attributing views to employers which they clearly did not hold?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the noble Baroness has found a quotation which seems to support the model Labour Party's new view that the points of view of business and industry must be taken into account. That is the point that we have made all along. That is a factor that we shall put into the balance when we decide what sort of action we must take to help disabled people. We must balance the advances that we can make with the costs to business, industry and the taxpayer.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, to what extent do the Government intend to respond to the representations made to them about this paper? If the overwhelming majority really want more wide-ranging proposals, will they get them?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, again, I believe that the noble Lord is trying to persuade me to prejudge our decisions as a result of the consultations. We shall take into account all the documents that we have received in response to the paper which we put out. As I said to the noble Baroness, we shall have to balance what comes in from the various pressure groups, which of course will wish us to go a long way, with the problems which that might cause to the economy at large and to the public purse.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, may I please ask the Minister—

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I believe that we should move on to the next Question.

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