HL Deb 18 December 1997 vol 584 cc719-20

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking, under subsections (2) to (10) of Section 7 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to start the reduction of the exemption, from Part II of the Act, for employers with fewer than 20 employees.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, the Government announced on 3rd December a review of the exemption threshold, including a wide-ranging consultation exercise ending on 2nd March 1998.

We shall consider the responses carefully before deciding whether the Act's employment provisions should be extended to more employers and therefore their disabled employees and job applicants. Any change to the threshold has to be made within a year of the review beginning, that is, by 2nd December 1998.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. I welcome the fact that since I tabled this Question the Government have announced the first stage: conducting the review with a time limit of nine months. Does she recall that during the passage of the Bill there was general agreement in Parliament that once the quota system had ended, there should be examination of the reduction of the figure of 20 in consultation with representatives of smaller firms?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is absolutely right in all that he said. The law states that we must hold a review before we make any changes to the threshold and that is what we are doing. The consultation document does not defend an exemption threshold. At this stage we are seeking views on the effects of the current threshold and various options, and we genuinely wish to hear the views of both employers—especially small employers—and those who represent disabled people.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, can the Minister tell us exactly how people are defined as disabled? I ask the question because under the present national health rules if you apply to be a non-executive director and you tick the box to indicate that you are disabled you are guaranteed an interview. In my experience, when these people are interviewed and one asks them what their disability is, one finds it can be very minor, but if they perceive themselves as disabled they are entitled to tick the box and qualify as disabled. However, when the Act went through this House we had considerable debate on the perception of disability. I wonder what the position is. It seems to me that there is a conflict between the perception of disability and some more objective test.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it is difficult to produce objective tests. It could lead to many problems. The general view is that it is right that people should be involved in defining themselves as disabled, rather than leaving it to other people. Of course there need to be checks on whether people are trying to defraud the benefit systems. But I believe the right approach is by self-definition.

Baroness Blotch

My Lords, first, if the extension is to be made to employers of 20 or fewer employees, it is important that there should be an attempt to have a definition. It is important that employers know to whom they are obligated. Secondly, is the noble Baroness able to tell the House what is the cost to employers of the extension to 20 or fewer employees?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the task force that has recently been set up under the chairmanship of my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Employment is looking at these questions, including definition.

Costs are also being examined, and in the process of consultation we are asking employers whether they can indicate what they perceive as the cost. The evidence from the United States is that the cost of employing disabled people is not very high.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, while I agree with the noble Baroness that the consultation round is of prime importance, have the Government followed the course of the equivalent legislation in the United States where the figure has already been moved down to 15 employees?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords. The Government are aware that in the United States of America there is a lower exemption level. I am sure that that ought to be taken into account when the consultation process has been completed.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, following the supplementary question put by my noble friend, can the noble Baroness say what checks, if any, are made on those who have disability motoring badges? Once they have the badges, are there further checks to find out whether the owner is still disabled?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that question but I shall write to the noble Lord.

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