§ 11.34 a.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
At the heart of this Government's agenda is the wish to have an inclusive society. That means a society that embraces all its citizens. Disabled people form a substantial minority of the population of this country and yet they continue to suffer discrimination in their daily lives; discrimination brought about by ignorance or by thoughtlessness; discrimination which denies disabled people everyday rights which others take for granted. I am sure noble Lords will agree with me that this is disgraceful, particularly in this day and age.
We are determined to make progress to achieve that inclusive society. Establishing a disability rights commission, which this Bill will do, is a vital part of that progress. This is an historic decision. The creation of a commission will respond to a long-standing demand from disabled people—and indeed many noble Lords—for an organisation that can effectively promote their civil rights. It will enable disabled people to have equality of opportunity, access and self-determination, and it will help employers and service providers to understand the law.
Some effort has been made in recent years to tackle discrimination. The Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995. That Act provides some significant rights for disabled people, but it is flawed in a number of important respects—in particular, the fact that it left out the establishment of a disability rights commission. This Government came into office determined to rectify that and to put into place new approaches designed to provide practical help for people with disabilities: for example, £195 million for the New Deal for Disabled People and the publication of a wide-ranging Green Paper on Special Educational Needs last year followed by an action plan in response to that consultation last month. In June this year, we announced the timetable for implementing further provisions under Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act year. On 9th March we announced that the building regulations would be extended so that the needs of disabled people could be taken into account in the construction of non-domestic buildings. To set this Bill into context, I will need to refer to some of these achievements.
Before I do, I invite noble Lords to join with me in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester for his tireless efforts on behalf of disabled people. Many noble Lords will recall that he was the first Minister for Disabled People (or Minister for the Disabled, to be historically correct) from 1974 to 1979. They will also be aware of the work he did as principal Opposition Front Bench Spokesperson on disability issues between 1979 and 1992. Both he and my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke, who has also worked tirelessly on behalf of disabled people, have played a critical role in the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Disablement Group.
1462 Let me return now to more recent history. In our 1997 manifesto, we pledged to support comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people developed in partnership with all interested parties. A few months after coming into power, we announced a three-point plan to take forward our commitment to establish a ministerial task force to undertake a wide consultation on how to implement comprehensive and enforceable civil rights; to go ahead with implementing the later rights of access to goods and services in the Disability Discrimination Act; and to move to establish a disability rights commission.
In December last year, we established the disability rights task force. It draws its membership from business, organisations of or for disabled people, the public sector, trade unions and others, and is led by my honourable friend the Minister for Disabled People. It has embarked on an ambitious programme, looking at how comprehensive and enforceable rights may be secured for disabled people. The task force will provide its recommendations to Government by July 1999.
The first item on its agenda was to look at the role and functions of a disability rights commission. It did that and provided recommendations to the Government by Easter 1998. Those recommendations formed the basis of a White Paper, Promoting Disabled People's Rights - Creating a Disability Rights Commission fit for the 21st Century, which was launched in July 1998. Responses to that White Paper indicate that nearly 95 per cent. of respondents supported proposals on the role of the commission. There was also strong support for the commission's functions. It is encouraging that support was so widespread. It came not only from organisations representing the interests of disabled people—like the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and Scope—but also business and employer organisations, like the Confederation of British Industry, Barclays Bank and British Telecom. We expect to publish a report on the responses to the White Paper early in the new year.
Before I turn to the content of the Bill, I want to refer briefly to parallels with other areas of equal opportunities. Noble Lords will be aware that commissions to tackle discrimination in the areas of sex and race have been in existence for many years. The Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality have done a great deal to change attitudes and to reduce discrimination in their respective areas during the 20-plus areas of their existence. In establishing a disability rights commission, which in our view is long overdue, we are bringing disability into line with those other areas. There are many similarities between the proposed structure and functions of the disability rights commission and those of the other commissions.
I turn now to the detail of the Bill. Clauses 1 and 2 are concerned with establishing the disability rights commission and defining its role. The commission's duties will be to work towards the elimination of discrimination against disabled people; to promote the equalisation of opportunities for disabled people; and to 1463 keep under review the workings of the Disability Discrimination Act and this Bill when it becomes an Act.
Perhaps I may draw noble Lords' attention to two important related matters. The Bill provides for the commission to encourage good practice and to provide advice and information. It is our intention that the disability rights commission will provide a central point of information and advice for business and public sector employers, service providers and disabled people. They will be able to go to the commission for information about the law, their rights and responsibilities under it and advice about how best to comply with it. They may also seek help on good practice. Given the range and different types of disabilities and the rate of change created by new technologies, the commission has an important part to play in ensuring that we continue to bring down the barriers that disabled people face. The commission will also have an important promotional role in spreading the message that discrimination is unacceptable and helping people to understand how it can be avoided. The importance of such a role cannot be overstated, and I am confident that in fulfilling it the commission will do a great deal to change attitudes.
The commission will be able to advise Government Ministers on existing and proposed legislation emanating from this country and from the European Union where issues arise connected with the elimination of discrimination or equalisation of opportunities for disabled people. I believe it is crucial that the expertise of the commission can be drawn upon in this respect. It will have much to say on such matters.
Clauses 3 to 5 are concerned with the commission's ability to undertake formal investigations to determine whether discrimination has taken or is taking place. They also deal with the action required by those who are the subject of investigations. Of course, we want the commission to work to influence and persuade employers, service providers and others to take action to avoid discrimination. But where influence does not work and discrimination persists, it is right that the commission should have the necessary teeth to deal with it.
I am confident that noble Lords will understand the need for robust and effective investigation processes to be in place. This must be so if the commission is to be able to do its job effectively—to stamp out discrimination and to take to task employers, service providers and others who discriminate unlawfully. The investigations need to examine the structure of organisations so that they discover not only what discrimination is occurring, but why it happens. They need to deal with systemic as well as individual cases of discrimination.
The arrangements proposed are broadly similar to those which apply to the other equality commissions. But there are differences. The provisions in this Bill will modernise and strengthen the arrangements currently in place. In doing so, we have taken account of evolving practice in the other equality commissions. We also have been sensitive to proposals put forward by these commissions which are relevant to the operation of the 1464 disability rights commission. My ministerial colleagues are currently considering those proposals. Noble Lords will acknowledge the logic of adopting for the disability rights commission an approach which is consistent with the other commissions, where that can be achieved.
There are a number of matters in this context which are important. The Bill provides that the Secretary of State may make regulations supplementing provisions as far as they affect formal investigations. That makes good sense. The Equal Opportunities Commission has indicated concerns about the length of time taken to conclude formal investigations. We can learn much from examining the experience of that commission. The process clearly needs some detailed scrutiny and we will need to consider carefully whether regulations should, and how they could, streamline the process, while taking full account of the needs of natural justice. Such a process needs to be sufficiently flexible to allow for changes if experience shows a need for it. I am confident that noble Lords will see the sense of this.
Regulations may also be made to define further the scope of non-discrimination notices. These notices are served on those who have been subject to a formal investigation where they are found to be discriminating. The other commissions have submitted proposals seeking to extend the scope of notices and we would be foolish to ignore their experience. This is an area where consistency makes sense. Therefore, we wish to reach decisions on the detail of how the scope of the notices should be extended, taking account of conclusions yet to be reached on the proposals that the other commissions have put to government. I would seek here to reassure noble Lords that our purpose is not to add on a series of draconian measures; rather, to make the process more effective.
The Bill also proposes that the commission can enter into legally binding written agreements with a body which is subject to a formal investigation. The intention is that such an agreement will bring to a halt any formal investigation and avoid the need for a non-discrimination notice. Embodying such an arrangement in statute is wholly new to equality commissions in Great Britain.
We want the disability rights commission to be able to work constructively with bodies that are keen to address deficiencies identified within their organisations. We recognise that that may be best achieved through agreements. These could be reached more speedily than going through the formal investigation process and are more likely to work, with good will on both sides. However, if those agreements break down, we have made provision for aspects of them which might otherwise have been dealt with by the issue of a non-discrimination notice to be enforceable through the courts. We believe this is right. Entering into written agreements should be seen as a better option for employers or service providers who are discriminating, not a soft option.
In many ways, written agreements demonstrate very clearly one of the relationships that the commission will seek to foster. Noble Lords will not, I hope, need to be persuaded of the merits of an approach which seeks, 1465 where that can be achieved, to engender co-operation rather than grudging compliance, and discussion rather than diktats.
Clause 6 of the Bill allows the commission to assist individuals with legal support where they seek redress for being discriminated against, and defines the criteria the commission will use in determining which cases to support. We want the commission to be able to support test cases which will help to clarify the law and to help disabled people who could not secure their rights unaided. Within the criteria, the commission will be able to take account of the impact that a person's disability has on his or her ability to pursue the case unaided. The criteria will allow the commission ample scope to support those who might need its help most; for example, those with mental health problems, those with learning difficulties and those who are deaf-blind.
Clause 7 allows the commission to recover costs of representation when a court, or more rarely a tribunal, makes an award for costs. Such is the practice with the other commissions.
Clause 8 deals with codes of practice relating to employment and access to goods and services. We believe that the commission should be charged with the role of producing codes which courts and tribunals will have regard to when considering cases of discrimination. These codes will also have the function of giving practical guidance to the public, business, service providers and others on how to avoid discrimination, promote the equalisation of opportunities and encourage good practice. The commission will be required to produce a draft code for consultation before it is submitted to the Secretary of State for approval. The codes must be laid in draft before this House and another place before they can be brought into force.
Clause 9 allows for the commission to make arrangements for the provision of a conciliation service dealing with disputes under Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act—access to goods, services, facilities and premises. Conciliation arrangements are already available in the area of employment, where the function is undertaken by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). I am sure that noble Lords will not need to be persuaded of the value of conciliation.
At present, through Section 28 of the Disability Discrimination Act, the Secretary of State provides an advice service called the Disability Access Rights Advice Service, or DARAS. DARAS provides advice to organisations which advise business and disabled people on their rights and responsibilities under Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act. A conciliation service is also available via this route where disputes cannot be resolved with the aid of the advice given.
In future we want the Disability Rights Commission to arrange for and monitor a conciliation service and we want it to be available to disabled people and service providers directly, rather than having to gain access to it by first going to a business or voluntary organisation which provides advice.
1466 The Bill provides a number of safeguards to ensure that the information disclosed during the process is not inappropriately disclosed or used.
Clause 10 replaces the bureaucratic mechanism for reviewing the small employers's threshold below which the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act do not apply. It requires the Secretary of State to consult the Disability Rights Commission—in addition to those he is already required to consult—about adjustments to the small employer threshold. At present, employers with fewer than 15 employees are exempt from the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act. The commission will clearly be in a key position to advise the Secretary of State on this matter and it is important that we make use of such expertise. The Secretary of State will be required to publish summary details of any views expressed during that consultation before any changes are made.
There are a number of final matters with which I would like to deal briefly. The National Disability Council, which is—to a limited extent—a predecessor body of the disability rights commission will be abolished when the commission is established. It has been very ably chaired by David Grayson, with strong support from his deputy chair Bert Massie. Perhaps I may pay tribute now to the good work that the members of that council have done, and continue to do. Perhaps I may express my gratitude to Chris Brocksom who has steered the council's working group which recently produced a widely-welcomed and much praised draft code of practice on provisions to be brought into force under Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act.
The Bill provides for the majority of commissioners to be disabled people. This must be right for such a commission; and, indeed, such practice has been reflected in the membership of the National Disability Council. The commission must be credible with all stakeholders, and we believe that such a provision will achieve this aim. The commission will extend to England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, arrangements set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 will apply, which noble Lords may recall were recently debated in this House. The experience of the existing equality commissions has shown that offices in each of England, Scotland and Wales have been necessary and invaluable. We will expect the disability rights commission to operate in a similar way, but think it best that it should determine what other arrangements are necessary in the light of experience.
I look forward to debate on this Bill. The decision to establish a disability rights commission is an historic one, which I am confident will be welcomed not only by disabled people but also by everyone who is committed to fairness and social inclusion. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Blackstone.)
§ 11.54 a.m.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her very clear and comprehensive 1467 explanation of the purposes of the Bill. I feel a personal connection with the introduction of this Bill and its first parliamentary discussion today. The noble Baroness said that the Bill was long overdue. It was 30 years ago, almost to the day, when I introduced a Private Member's Bill in the other place, having been successful in the annual ballot. It was the Disablement Commission Bill and I have a copy with me. It is 30 years old and, in the usual way, beside the title is printed "AD 1968".
It was a year before the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, was successful in the next annual ballot in 1969. He introduced what eventually became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, has publicly recalled that the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, the late Mr. Richard Crossman (who held that office from 1968 to 1970), did not view that Bill with favour and tried to strangle it at birth. But the noble Lord, Lord Morris, to his lasting credit, persevered and steered his private measure successfully to the statute book. I am very glad to see that he is speaking today.
I was less fortunate a year earlier. I was able to have a full Second Reading debate early in 1969, but sensed that the government were not well disposed towards my harmless, short Bill. Supporters of my Bill in all parts of the Commons co-operated with my plan for the day: short speeches to bring the debate to an end well before closing time—and I use that expression in its parliamentary sense. As a result, the Government did not talk it out and they could not block it at closing time, as sometimes happens with Private Members' Bills. The course that the government did take, hardly believable of a Labour government now, was to force a Division with their Whip applied. Even with their large majority at that time, I only lost the Bill in that Division by about four votes. I was a member of the shadow Cabinet at the time, but was also a private Member and could enter the ballot. Noble Lords may imagine my disappointment then and my nostalgia today.
As I explained in that debate and outside Parliament, in my view the commission would have been the beginning, virtually costing nothing. My object, with my supporters, was to induce the government of the day to take action themselves, as they were in a much better position to do so than a private Member. It was a long time after that before any government initiated legislation; indeed, that was in 1994 and it led to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. It is the first and, so far, the only government measure in this field of disablement. Although it is criticised as not going far enough, it is a landmark and the very first attempt by any British government to bring in laws to prevent discrimination against disabled people. It is now core legislation on the subject which can be built upon.
I declare, again, certain interests at this first stage of the Bill's passage. I am a war disability pensioner from World War II; and the parent of a disabled person.
The shape and functions of the proposed commission were to be considered and suggested by the Disability Rights Task Force. The Government issued a consultation document in July, just before the Summer Recess, which is still collecting views. That was only 1468 five months ago. I read it carefully and noted that the task force is due to report to the Government by July 1999. The Bill is before us now. What will happen if that report has further recommendations or proposals different to the provisions in the Bill? The Bill should almost have completed its passage through Parliament when that report arrives.
The functions proposed in the Bill include those now carried out by the present National Disability Council, to which the noble Baroness referred. The council was established under the DDA of 1955. I applaud the work carried out so far by the council which has been described in its annual reports, and in particular its work in preparing codes of practice. I echo what the noble Baroness said about it. The Bill would add functions for the commission to those which are now carried out by the council—initiating litigation, supporting individuals in seeking to enforce rights—and it would have powers of investigation.
I note that the Bill will use the same definition of a disabled person as is in the DDA. I regard that as sensible and convenient, but I do foresee that there will be dissent in some quarters which did not particularly like the previous definition. Also, questions and concerns are arising as to whether there will be enough finance made available to enable the commission to carry out these new functions effectively.
The Bill uses the emotive word "rights". I inform Ministers, if they are not aware already, that there are widely differing views on the meaning of that word. In more than 50 years of moving among disabled people I have met extremes. There are some disabled people who are reticent and reluctant even to claim the help and benefits due to them; others, at the other extreme, are likely to claim rights that will strain the future commissioners' imagination and budget.
The new commission will have very different situations to face from those encountered by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. There is a very wide variety of disabilities—physical and mental—and many different kinds of disability. More than two-thirds of those falling within the proposed definition are over retiring age. Most of them were not disabled when they were of working age but are experiencing the usual disabling conditions brought on by advancing age.
The type of decision that I foresee the commission will be required to make is whether a right of access to polling booths should be enforced. Here, of course, there are alternatives—postal and proxy voting—but for that carers in particular have to ensure that disabled people are registered in good time. Personally, I would not think that that supposed right needed enforcement, for the reason that I have just mentioned. I have always voted by post, including when I was a Member of Parliament, and my home is in what was my constituency. I must explain that I was over voting age when I was wounded—I was 23—and I was 25 when I left hospital. My service vote in the election of 1945 did not catch up with my being a casualty, and ever since then I have used a postal vote and advised disabled people to do the same. If access to polling stations were 1469 to be enforced, it would mean extra expenditure for local authorities and taxpayers in order to adapt premises for about two days a year, on average, for general and local elections. I give that as an example of the sort of difficult case which I am sure will arise for the proposed commission.
As to finance, there is concern whether there will be enough made available for the range of activities and the new functions to be undertaken by the commission.
I turn now to regulations and Clause 11. All statutory instruments under the Bill are to be subject to the negative procedure. No report has yet been received, I am told, from the Select Committee on Delegated Powers. Of course, it has not had time to get round to Bills like this in the new Session, having only recently been set up again. When a report appears we should pay particular attention to it. Some of us may well think that the affirmative procedure should be required for some regulations.
The Bill will need careful examination at the later stages. I wish the commission well, while I can foresee many problems ahead for it.
§ 12.6 p.m.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. I would like to pay tribute to the admirable work that he has done for disabled people over many years, especially in the parliamentary All-Party Disablement Group. I have been chairman of that group for some 26 years, and joint chairman for the past five years since entering this House. I have watched, with great admiration, the contributions made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. Today, dotted around the Chamber, are other members of that group, notably my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester, the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen and Lord Rix, and a number of others, all of whom have also made significant contributions to the issue of disability. I must also include the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for his great legal expertise and contributions. These are the people who, in my view, have contributed in a vital way. The All-Party Disablement Group is the engine-room of campaigns on disability—it is where the hard, laborious work is done—and I am very proud of the work of that group of people. Today is the culmination of their efforts, the efforts of the disability organisations and the efforts of disabled people themselves. It really is a great day for disabled people.
We are debating an historic development for Britain's 6.5 million disabled people. I believe that this commission will transform their lives and will transform their dream of full civil rights into a reality. That will be a very considerable achievement. From time immemorial disabled people have had little voice, few rights and absolutely no role. They have been excluded from society because of the deep-rooted discrimination so eloquently mentioned by my noble friend when she opened the debate. The new commission will mount a head-on challenge to that discrimination. That is why it is so very important.
1470 Blind people get help across the road, but there is no rush to employ them. In the main, employers do not want to know. Deaf people face irritation and resentment. We know from the research of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People that the handicap of deafness is a greater obstacle to obtaining employment than a criminal record or a history of drug abuse. Those with uncontrollable limbs face embarrassment and exclusion rather than practical assistance. Anyone who is severely disabled encounters discrimination in one form or another practically every day of their lives—in shops, offices, factories hotels, trains and even at football matches, where there may be only half a dozen spaces for wheelchairs. Deliberate or inadvertent, disability not only hurts but damages, and over the years, persuasion has failed to end it.
The Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 outlawed discrimination but, as my noble friend said, it was badly flawed because it failed to provide a commission, like those for race and gender, which could represent and fight for disabled people. To be quite frank, many ministerial hearts of the Tory Government were not in the legislation because, after denying the need for it, they were propelled into it by public outcry. It was an Act without an engine. Although progress was made by the Act, it was rather limited because there was no commission. I have been critical of the Labour Government on disability on many occasions but to their eternal credit, which deserves the warmest congratulations, this Government are now establishing a powerful commission, something which for years disabled people feared they would never see because so many pleas for a commission were rejected. So to the Prime Minister and his Ministers, I say "Hallelujah", and I know I speak for millions of disabled people in expressing those thanks.
I turn now to my reservations. For the commission to be successful, Ministers will need to tread a minefield with care when setting it up. Worthy and well meaning people should have no place on the commission. We want people who are understanding and have backbone. The majority need to be disabled themselves, as is proposed in the Bill. That is a welcome starting point. But we need to discuss whether a simple majority is enough. Would not the commission be more effective with two-thirds or three-quarters of its members being, or having been, disabled?
Above all we need people schooled by personal experience to the harsh reality of discrimination in all its subtle, and not so subtle, manifestations. We need to remember that disability can take many forms. Some are familiar such as wheelchair conditions, blindness and deafness, while others are less well known. The sufferers are less vocal but their needs are just as great.
However, it would be a mistake if Ministers accepted the proposal that all members should be disabled. I do not accept that. Non-disabled people from many walks of life should be on the commission because one of its essential duties will be to harmonise diverse views and be sensitive to a broad spectrum of attitudes. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Blackstone made that a clear and emphatic point in her splendid speech.
1471 Yet it will not be all harmony. The effectiveness of the Disability Discrimination Act will be mainly determined by court rulings, where there are disputes. The commission, therefore, should be active in court cases. It needs to be staffed by high quality legal experts, capable of meeting and matching the most expensive and sophisticated opposition in tribunals and courts.
Unlike the commissions on race and gender, the disability rights commission will be breaking entirely new ground. Whereas the other bodies are dealing solely with prejudice, it will have to cope with prejudice and what is "reasonable" in relation to one of the myriad disabilities being considered. The Disability Discrimination Act provides that "reasonable" adjustments should be made by employers and service providers. Disability is not a simple male or female, black or white issue. There are countless disabilities at all kinds of stages. They affect people differently and relate to jobs differently. Considering, for example, a case of alleged discrimination concerning someone with multiple sclerosis, the commission would have to take account of how serious it was, how it fluctuates, whether the job was physical or intellectual, whether the person was needed every day or periodically, how they coped and what help they required. It is by no means a simple issue.
But once a case is concluded, the Bill provides that when a disabled person has been assisted by the commission, the commission shall, under certain circumstances, be able to recover some of its expenses. I say to my noble friend that I am not too happy with that. I do not go along with that all the way because it should apply only to additional awards for costs and not to any compensation award. It would be totally wrong in principle for any compensation award to be clawed back by the commission.
A very important task of the commission will be to tackle public understanding of disability and the ignorance of the Disability Discrimination Act. This contributes significantly to discrimination and a prime task should be to raise public awareness so that people understand the problems. My noble friend emphasised that in introducing the Bill and I am delighted that she did so. The commission will have to give top quality advice to firms and service providers so that they can avoid falling foul of the law. Sensitivity, awareness and understanding are essential for all the duties of the commission, but they are particularly so for the task of promoting the equalisation of opportunities. In the long term, this positive work could be the most important and rewarding of the commission's duties.
I welcome the provision in the Bill giving power to the Secretary of State to extend the scope of the commission to other legislation. The Explanatory Notes provided by my noble friend suggest that Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 could be among those to be considered. As that Act will have an important bearing on the rights of the disabled, because it regulates the behaviour of public bodies towards individuals, it would be helpful if it was specifically included in the remit of the commission rather than be ambiguous or subject to rarefied debate.
1472 In introducing the Bill, my noble friend mentioned Clause 10 which permits the commission to consult on the exclusion of disabled people from the Disability Discrimination Act. I feel very deeply on this point. I do not believe Ministers should wait for the recommendations of the commission. Why should they? The commission has not yet been set up. We do not know when it will be set up. We do not know how it will progress. It was a scandalous decision of the previous government to exclude 92.5 per cent. of employers from the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act. The Government should have a quick review of the situation and then decide that all firms except those with fewer than two workers should be included. There is no need to wait for the deliberations of the commission. Although I cannot now speak on amendments, I propose to move an amendment at the proper time to provide that Clause 10 should be deferred until the year 2000 so that the Government's hands are not tied. They can then get on with bringing in all the employers apart from those with fewer than two workers.
The funding of the commission is crucial. The Equal Opportunities Commission has an allocation of nearly £15 million a year but, despite the phenomenal complexity of disability, the amount proposed for the new commission is less. The Government have allocated £3 million to set it up and then £11 million for each of the following two years. Some disability organisations have suggested that the annual figure should be £20 million. I agree with them.
Too many hopes of disabled people rest on the future of this commission for it to be crippled by inadequate finance. If it is successful, the decades of patronage and pity, of indifference and inferiority, can be consigned to history by this potentially mighty champion of a new deal. But it will need all the help and support that we and the Government can give. I warmly commend the Bill.
§ 12.20 p.m.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, disabled people in the UK are fortunate to have so many campaigners on their behalf. Many of the leaders are speaking today and their loyalty goes on year after year. They are from all parts of the House. I am happy to say that the All-Party Disablement Group, chaired so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is a cross-party group.
I thank the Minister for her clear explanation of the Bill. I welcome the setting up of the disability rights commission as a further step towards creating comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people in the United Kingdom. I hope that there will be spin-offs from it in Europe and other parts of the world.
There is no doubt that legislation in support of disabled people needs clout. I have not heard of an organisation for disabled people which does not welcome in general the setting up of the commission. In particular, organisations for disabled people welcome the fact that the DRC will have a similar remit to those of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission. It is important that the DRC will provide support and backing for any disabled 1473 individual wishing to take out an action against discrimination by any person or body, give advice to the Government on any aspect of law or propose changes to the law to further the end of discrimination. Such specific powers will give the DRC the ability to achieve its principal objective of eliminating disability discrimination. However, such powers will be pointless without government enforcement and backing.
As there are so many different disabilities and organisations representing the special needs of their members, I hope the commission will learn about all the different aspects and complexities of disabilities and take evidence from those concerned. What one person with a specific disability needs may be totally different from what a person with another type of disability needs. That is why education and flexibility are needed.
Clause 1 sets out the general duties of the DRC. Clause 2 enables the DRC to encourage good practice in the treatment of disabled people in any field or activity. Will this include hospitals? The Spinal Injuries Association has some horror stories of people who have been treated as emergencies in general hospitals and not special spinal units and have been denied basic human rights. If people cannot do some basic things for themselves—for example, a person paralysed from the neck down who cannot evacuate his own bowels—they need positive help to do this. They have been denied this as it was considered an invasive procedure. Patients are put in danger if they cannot get the basic help that they need.
Many taxis have been adapted to take wheelchairs. Yet so many people with a disability experience taxi drivers who are free but drive past them. Some people trying to get a taxi for a disabled person hide the disabled person so the taxi driver cannot see him until he has stopped. Will that be the kind of matter that the commission can look into?
Many organisations are interested in the disability rights legislation. The Confederation of British Industry is particularly pleased to support the conciliation proposals to assist settlement of claims on access to goods and other services. The separation of the conciliation responsibilities of the DRC should ensure that impartiality and confidentiality are maintained during the process. The CBI has two key concerns at this stage of the Bill on which I hope the Minister will be able to comment. First, it is concerned that the remit and additional powers of the DRC should be clearly defined on the face of the Bill as relating to disability discrimination and disabled persons. In particular, it seeks clarification on the proposals for the DRC's interface with the Human Rights Act. Secondly, it is concerned about the extent and potential of the DRC's investigatory role and powers.
It is good that the DRC will be offering information, advice and support and will be taking cases forward for disabled people. It will provide information and advice to employers and service providers. Are hotels service providers? Recently I was attending a fund-raising function at the Dorchester Hotel. There were no ramps at the main entrance. In the past few years the hotel has been fully refurbished with millions of pounds being 1474 spent on it. As I was humped up and down the steps, I thought what a benefit it would be for the porters who have to hump luggage up and down every day to have a ramp. What helps disabled people helps other people too. Some hotels have made excellent ramps, which make such a difference, while others, such as the Dorchester, just do not bother.
I hope that this legislation will make people sit up and think and help to change attitudes. With people living longer and with there being more elderly people with disabilities in society, access is becoming even more vital. I hope that the chairperson of the DRC will have wide knowledge of disability and be dynamic and a diplomat as one needs good relationships between all groups. Disabled people need a level playing field, but to get that one needs positive discrimination and good will.
I should like to thank the Government for bringing forward this legislation and to wish the Minister and all noble Lords taking part in this debate a happy Christmas.
§ 12.28 p.m.
§ Lord Morris of Manchester
My Lords, I am naturally delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. She among others on both sides of your Lordships' House is familiar with my work over many years as honorary parliamentary adviser to The Royal British Legion. I have come to this debate from a meeting earlier today—attended also by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham—of the Legion's Gulf War Group. The group was formed to help the ex-servicemen and women who returned seven years ago from the Gulf conflict with undiagnosed illnesses which have left them chronically sick and disabled. Thus it may be timely and appropriate to remind ourselves today of their plight as the conflict with Iraq is renewed—with what outcome it is too soon to predict—and of how deeply important this Bill, which I most warmly welcome, is to them as it is to tens of thousands of other needful people, like the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Holderness, whose heavy physical disabilities were sustained in service to this country.
As parliamentarians, all of us know, more than most people, not only that success has many fathers but just how many fathers it can attract: the greater the success, the more numerous its fathers.
We are met today, as my good and noble friend Lord Ashley said, to celebrate a success of historic importance for Britain's 8 million disabled people, for which incredibly even William Hague almost claimed fatherhood when speaking about this Bill in another place on 24th November. Yet in advance of any DNA test, I think most of us who know the Bill's origins can agree about its true paternity.
It was Peter, now Sir Peter, Large, to whom I am sure historians will attribute this Bill's paternity, who chaired the committee of inquiry appointed in 1979 to investigate acts of unjustified discrimination which still, even today, pile handicap on handicap for people with disabilities. The Committee of Inquiry into Restrictions Against Disabled People (CORAD), as his committee 1475 was called, and of which Colin Low was also a distinguished member, had power to investigate all aspects of discrimination and published its report in 1982. It was my good fortune, as Minister for Disabled People from 1974–79, that, notwithstanding the severity of his disability, Peter Large had accepted my invitation to chair the inquiry.
CORAD' s report stressed and documented the urgent need to make unjustified discrimination unlawful by means of a commission with powers and duties to conciliate and, where necessary, to take enforcement action. But the Minister to whom the report was submitted in 1982 decided that legislation was unnecessary. He was satisfied that education and persuasion and the voluntary application of goodwill would end unequal treatment and eventually transform the lives of disabled people.
Following that decision, one Minister after another blocked every parliamentary attempt to give effect to the CORAD report during 13 years of systematic obstruction in another place. My noble friend Lord Ashley, then, as now, chairman of the All-Party Disablement Group, and for whom my abiding regard and profound respect is known to everyone taking part in this debate, gave the Government an early opportunity to reconsider their position by introducing a Ten Minute Rule Bill endorsing the report. Three such Bills were put forward by Members of another place in 1983, all of which went no further than First Reading.
My Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, with detailed provision for a commission to make the rights that it conferred enforceable, which I introduced after winning parliamentary time in the Private Members' ballot in November 1991, was blocked in three successive parliamentary Sessions in another place by manoeuvres as crude as any I have seen in 34 years at Westminster. It was blocked for the first time in January 1992, and it was not until 1993—by which time my Bill had twice been approved at all stages by this House, due to initiatives taken by my noble friends Lady Lockwood and Lord Ashley, with strong support from the noble Earl, Lord Snowdon, and the noble Lord, Lord Rix—that I was able to seek a further Second Reading debate for the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill in another place. But the Bill was again obstructed.
Then came the good news. My friend Roger Berry, who had worked with me to enact my Bill from the moment he first won his parliamentary seat in April 1992, secured a high place in the ballot for Private Members' Bills for the parliamentary Session 1993–94. Without hesitation, he agreed to reintroduce my Bill and I pay tribute again today to his dedication in promoting it in the face not only of further obstruction but also of prevarication and parliamentary behaviour by the Bill's few opponents that was censured on three occasions from the Speaker's Chair.
It was further good news that Harry Barnes, another active supporter of the Bill, succeeded in the ballot for Private Members' Bills in the parliamentary Session 1994–95 and achieved a virtually unopposed Second Reading. But by then another Bill had appeared. The Government had been shamed into introducing their 1476 own Bill. But it made no provision for a disability rights commission without which it was bound to be defective. The Government's Bill provided only for an advisory council, which was described by Peter Large as,a wheyfaced ghost of what is required".The Government's tactics then were to talk out the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill yet again before enacting their own measure. We succeeded in Committee and on Report in extending the scope of the Government's Disability Discrimination Bill but, without the commission for which the Bill now before the House provides, it was a car without an engine—as defective as equal opportunities legislation for women would be without the Equal Opportunities Commission.
It was nevertheless an important breakthrough that the Major Government had at last conceded that education and persuasion were not enough to end discrimination against disabled people. Peter Large's judgment was now totally vindicated in having written to me 13 years earlier stating,The Committee on Restrictions against Disabled People, which you set up as the then Minister in 1979 and I had the honour to chair, strongly believes that campaigns to educate and persuade are too costly and ineffective in the absence of a legislative framework of acceptable behaviour".He was echoing the view of Martin Luther King when he said:Morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless".Had the Government recognised the wisdom of Peter Large's judgment in 1982, Britain would have led the world in making unjustified discrimination against disabled people unlawful, as we did in 1970 by legislating on access to the built environment for disabled people. Instead, we shall still lag behind many countries—not least the United States—until this Disability Rights Commission Bill is enacted. While other countries across the world read and quickly acted upon the CORAD report, it will then have taken the United Kingdom 17 years to implement the most important of its recommendations.
Much credit is due to present Ministers, including the Prime Minister, for their humanity in honouring as soon as they could their election pledge to enact this Bill. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Blackstone and to Margaret Hodge for the priority that they—with David Blunkett and Andrew Smith—have given at the DfEE to the heavy departmental work it involves. I want especially also to thank the Minister for the Arts, my friend Alan Howarth, who, as Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, set up the task force and produced the White Paper published in July. His principled and tireless support for the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, from both sides of the House of Commons since it was first introduced in 1991, is worthy not only of praise but of admiration.
Nor should anyone forget that this Bill is also the achievement of countless numbers of unnamed disabled people and their organisations who fought the good fight when others wearied. Naturally, they are concerned now to ensure that the disability rights commission is hampered neither by resource constraints nor limitations 1477 on its power to vouchsafe fully enforceable civil rights. They want, in particular, our civil rights legislation to extend to all employees and to see transport and education included within its framework.
Like the Law Society, they want the disability rights commission to undertake formal investigations and to be able to impose strict time limits to ensure that the process is completed within a reasonable timescale. They are anxious to see the perverse effects of the outcome of the R. v. Gloucestershire County Council, ex parte Michael Barry case addressed with more urgency and to end the reversion to a "pot luck" system of basing rights to adequate services not on the extent of need, but on where the disabled person lives.
They want to see guidance from the Department of Health, working in partnership with the DfEE, insisting that independence is not about survival but full participation in society and the support necessary for independent living made available to disabled people as of right. After all, accessible places of employment are of no use if you do not have the independent living services to reach them.
Of course, one of the problems of spending departments like the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health is that they are often unfairly attacked for decisions that are dictated by the Treasury. In this policy area, their difficulties are compounded by a fundamental error in Whitehall's approach to costings. The costs of public provision for able-bodied people are treated differently from those of providing for disabled people. It is seen as quite "normal" to provide services to help the able-bodied by installing escalators in public places. But provision for disabled people, like lifts at stations, is treated differently as a "special" and abnormal expense. From now on, "normal" provision must include the needs of disabled people if civil rights are to become a reality. Otherwise, disabled people will still find themselves apart from and not a part of society.
The issue of civil rights for disabled people is one of social decency. As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has said, it was wrong and not very creditable that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was obstructed for so long in another place. Fully assured civil rights have become the defining principle of all enlightened policy-making on disability. For without civil rights, disabled people are doubly disabled. The handicapping effects of their disabilities are made harder to bear by the gratuitous social handicaps for which there is no moral justification. And the overriding justification for giving the Bill an enthusiastic Second Reading today is that what is morally unjustified ought no longer to be legally permissible in Britain.
§ 12.43 p.m.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I feel honoured to follow such a distinguished list of those who have campaigned for disabled people. I do not like the word "rights", but in some instances it is correct to use the word. It is a right for disabled people to be treated properly and as though they were ordinary people and not something rather peculiar.
1478 In particular, my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy has over 30 years of campaigning, the noble Lords, Lord Ashley of Stoke and Lord Morris of Manchester, 25 years each, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, whose length of service is probably far longer than I realise, is joined with them. The four of them together have probably been campaigning for a total of at least 100 years.
I welcome the Bill. In many ways it is totally unnecessary as it should have been part of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I am delighted that the Government have brought it forward now, because when that Act was a Bill going through this House I was one of those who wanted a disability rights commission in it.
I particularly welcome the duty of the commission to keep the working of that Act under review and to publish a summary of views of those who are consulted on the small employer exceptions. I understand that most of those who gave views when the small employer exception was recently reconsidered wanted the size of the employer reduced not just to 15 employees but to two. If those views had been published, that is where we might well be today, instead of wasting time.
I also welcome the fact that the commission is to advise the Government generally on the effects of the legislation that they are bringing forward. So often in the past I and others have talked about disability on Bills that have nothing to do with disability at all. I remember in particular the road and streetworks legislation where no provision was made to ensure that holes in the roads were properly protected, that roads were properly lit, had proper ramps, and such matters.
Clause 2(5) allows the commission to charge for any facility or service. What does that cover? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us. For example, may it charge for formal investigations on behalf of an individual covered under Clause 3? Where the commission assists an individual in relation to proceedings, as provided for under Clause 6, does it prevent that individual from obtaining legal aid? How is that affected by the Access to Justice Bill now going through your Lordship's House?
The noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, mentioned the recovery of expenses from an individual. Where the commission recovers expenses from an individual whom it has assisted (recovery provided for under Clause 7) can the recovery be from damages awarded to the individual or from the repayment ordered to that individual for expenses incurred by that person, apart from expenses incurred by the DRC on that person's behalf?
With regard to the commission, I welcome the fact that the majority of commissioners will themselves be disabled. However, will at least one of them represent families with a disabled child? There is no mention of that in the Bill. Will there be an advocate on the commission for those whose disabilities are so profound as to preclude them from membership of the commission? Is not the commission to act in a quasi-judicial capacity under Clauses 3 and 4? Will it therefore have members with the appropriate legal qualifications and experience?
1479 Finally, as to codes of practice, I welcome the fact that the commission is to prepare codes of practice which should be approved by the Secretary of State. However, should they not be issued by the Secretary of State himself? The Bill gives the impression that they are to be issued by the Disability Rights Commission, which, of course, has no access to Parliament. Are not all codes of practice and regulations issued under other legislation all the responsibility of, and issued by, the relevant Secretary of State?
I welcome the Bill, but I hope that we shall be able to improve it on its passage through the House.
§ 12.49 p.m.
§ Lord Rix
My Lords, having been duly transformed from chairman of Mencap to being president of Mencap in the past couple of days, I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in the main debate on what must be considered a landmark piece of legislation in the advancement of civil rights for disabled people.
Like the Minister I wish to begin by acknowledging our debt to those in your Lordships' House who have from the outset campaigned relentlessly for civil rights for disabled people, notably the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, who sustains political momentum on this issue through his role as co-Chairman of the All-Party Disablement Group, and members of the All Party-Disablement Group themselves, many of whom have already spoken in this debate. I wish to mention also the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who is due to speak in this debate and whose name has not yet been mentioned in regard to this Bill, and of course the indomitable noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, whose Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill set out the principles which we now hope will come to fruition.
I express my relief that the expertise of this House can be marshalled at the early stages of this legislation. The significance of this Bill cannot be overestimated, but the best of Bills benefit from close and informed scrutiny. The National Disability Council has done its best, as we have heard, and has done more perhaps than might have been anticipated. However, it has been constrained by the modesty of its remit. Now we have the opportunity for a more significant leap forward, and where better to leap than in your Lordships' House eight days before Christmas!
The proper establishment of the disability rights commission will confer a right of redress for individuals who have experienced discrimination. These are men, women and children who have hitherto been awarded protection from discrimination in theory, but left without a supporting mechanism for redress of grievances in practice. The creation of the disability rights commission will mean that the law on disability discrimination will be properly enforceable, helping people with learning disabilities to participate and to contribute fully to society. The disability rights commission will have an important role in raising awareness and educating the wider public in order to promote a better understanding of disability issues, 1480 including awareness of the needs of people with learning disabilities, which have in the past sometimes been overlooked.
There is a common misconception that disability is physical and that the provision of physical access through portable ramps and wider doors will resolve most of the difficulties or barriers to access facing disabled people. However, the problems facing people with learning disabilities stem not just from physical barriers or the absence of "reasonable adjustments" such as auxiliary aids, but an unwillingness on behalf of providers of goods or services to serve disabled people or to provide a service on equal terms. Access for people with learning disabilities depends much more on people than on ramps, and the barriers are people rather than stairs. Opening minds, heads and imaginations has the edge on widening doorways, necessary as that sometimes is.
One example is the recent case—I am sure many of your Lordships may have read of this—of 10 adults with learning disabilities who were refused permission to enter a pre-booked party at a pub when the landlady considered that this would constitute—that hoary old excuse!—a breach of the fire regulations and her patrons' comfort! Quite often people with learning disabilities need no more specialised help than a positive and enlightened attitude on behalf of employers, service providers and of course the general public.
The commission's ability to monitor the implementation of the DDA is also important. The climate of opinion among businesses, service providers, the wider public, and even the Government is still in need of radical change. The Government's own surveys demonstrate the extent to which service providers are unaware of their duties to make reasonable adjustments under Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act. There is a lack of awareness of the reality that more helpful personal services as well as physical changes will make their services more accessible and attractive to everyone—such as older people and those with young children—not just those traditionally called disabled.
Thinking specifically about the structure and composition of the disability rights commission, I would like to say a few words on the issue of representation. It is Mencap's experience of mixed disability fora and seminars, that it is those with a physical disability who are well represented and are able to voice their opinions, while those with a learning disability are not represented or adequately supported to take full part in discussions.
For those reasons, Mencap was extremely disappointed that no organisation is currently represented on the Disability Rights Task Force, although Mencap and other learning disability organisations are contributing to this work at a distance through correspondence and telephone calls. The proposal that 50 per cent. or more of the new commissioners will be disabled people, is indeed right and proper. Nevertheless I would like to take this opportunity to emphasise the importance of a wide representation of impairment specific interests among the commissioners, including people with learning disabilities.
1481 Given the enormity of the tasks ahead, a realistic level of funding is imperative. The figure proposed in this Bill falls, as we have heard, between the budgets for the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Racial Equality Commission. I hope that the Government will give a commitment to review the resources available once the commission is fully operational.
In addressing the House this afternoon I would like to focus on some of the practicalities involved in enabling people with learning disabilities to exercise their rights under the law, and then say a word about the importance of keeping anti-discrimination legislation under review so that real progress can be made in improving the day-to-day lives of disabled people.
I warmly welcome the fact that the White Paper upon which this Bill is based recognises that extra support will be required by people with learning disabilities in asserting their rights. There are several matters of importance in this connection.
First, it is important to remember that while recourse to the courts is a necessary safeguard, principles can also be protected by pressure outside the court system. Going to court is not easy for people who may be expected to relive painful experiences. In view of this, coercion into litigation, no matter how well meaning, should be avoided wherever possible.
If the commission is successful in bringing cases before the courts, it is vital that judges and magistrates have the training so that people with learning disabilities are awarded the same protection through the justice system as others enjoy. Indeed I spoke about this matter in your Lordships' House only two days ago when we were discussing vulnerable witnesses. Help should also be on hand from the commission for parents and carers involved in championing the rights of the person with learning disabilities.
In terms of the commission's remuneration following litigation, I should be grateful if the Government would clarify two matters. Similar questions have already been asked by the noble Lords, Lord Ashley and Lord Swinfen. First, what arrangements are in place to cover costs incurred in unsuccessful cases? Secondly, will costs recovered from individuals be ring-fenced by the commission to fund further costs of representation?
My final point in terms of the commission's support for individuals is that it seems to be an oversight that this piece of legislation does not incorporate a right of appeal for people whose cases are refused help from the commission. It is vital that all those who approach the commission, and in particular vulnerable people, have confidence in the fairness and transparency of its judgments.
I turn now to the wider functions of the commission. Let us not harbour any illusions over what this commission can in practice achieve. The commission is new, the legislation with which it deals is not. The Government admit that the DDA is flawed. It is failing to deliver comprehensive rights to disabled people. Areas in which the rights of disabled people need protection cannot be neatly compartmentalised in the way in which DDA definitions operate. It is nonsense 1482 that the Act offers protection from unreasonable discrimination by large employers, but not small ones. I welcome the advance warning by the noble Lord, Lord Stoke of Ashley, of his intention to table an amendment to remove this absurdity at an early stage. There is only limited value in widening access to employment if health and social services care is not provided in order to make the daily routine of employment feasible. The scandal of shrinking domiciliary care and related services which enable disabled people to live independent lives has to be brought into the civil rights frame.
There are other issues, for example, access to education and transport. Can we really believe that when disabled people have to struggle in order to get education and training, and it may be another decade before some forms of transport are accessible, welfare-to-work strategies will be a resounding success?
Without wishing to digress into the realms of philosophy, there are several critical questions which need to be addressed. Perhaps some of my esteemed colleagues will pursue these ideas. How far do civil rights take us in the absence of service rights? It is a little like respecting people's citizenship but not facilitating their survival. How can we secure in legislation a right to independent living and equality which means that basic domiciliary care, accessible transport, and equality of access to education and employment are delivered as of right? The inaccessibility of services such as health, education and justice to those with learning disabilities forms the basis of Mencap's concerns and has an impact on an individual's ability to play a full and healthy part in society.
Disability organisations are examining problems that cross over the boundaries of government departments. I sense a willingness to work across the boundaries and to promote greater co-ordination of government policy in relation to disability. I can only hope that rhetoric about joined-up government will be taken seriously across all departments who plan disability policy. The commission has an extraordinary task ahead in going beyond the letter of the law and looking to identify and remedy other forms of discrimination and social exclusion. Only then can the establishment of a disability rights commission be truly celebrated. The good news is that in establishing this commission the Government are signalling their readiness for reform. Joshua walked several times around Jericho before the wall fell. We have visited this issue so many times over so many years that I hope the walls of prejudice and discrimination are near to cracking. Just a few more trumpet blasts will do the trick.
§ 1.3 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Ely
My Lords, I thank your Lordships for this opportunity to speak in the gap and promise to observe the convention of brevity. I can scarcely add a trumpet blast to what has already been said. What I say is no more than a feeble peep. From these Benches I should like to extend a very warm welcome to the aims and principles of the Bill and the setting up of a disability rights commission.
1483 I am delighted that in the course of her introduction the Minister referred to the disabilities of those who suffer from mental illness. So far this matter has not been raised by noble Lords in the debate. I should like to draw brief attention to the disabilities endured by such people. I take as an example schizophrenia. It is a fact that for approximately one-third of people who suffer an episode of schizophrenia it is the first and last episode because complete recovery follows. But in cases where people endure further, even repeated, acute episodes frequently there is a serious diminution in social and intellectual skills. Such diminution amounts to genuine disability. The medication that keeps them well also adds further disabilities, especially when it comes to public life and their representation in social life.
Sometimes the obstacles that people who suffer, or have suffered, from mental illness include difficulty in doing a full day's work because of accumulated reaction to stress within the workplace. It may include a fluctuation in the illness and the degree of wellness which the individual experiences. One day may be good and the next day less good. Sometimes, sadly, such people suffer a partial relapse. Despite these disabilities it is vital that these people have employment opportunities.
My experience of people who suffer mental illness is that they desperately want to escape from the company and society of those who are mentally ill, which is very often thought to be all that they are capable of. Discrimination is genuinely encountered by such people. There is discrimination where a past record of mental ill health is disclosed to an employer or, for example, where there is absolutely no opportunity for part-time work. That is not to mention the serious situation caused by the continuing poverty trap for those who attempt to work but who are then penalised when it comes to the support that may be available from public funds.
I draw attention to the importance of Clause 8 which the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, has already mentioned. It is my experience of those who suffer from mental illness and their reception in the community that enforcement is, generally speaking, counter-productive. The formation of codes of practice which suggest changes in attitudes and atmosphere is absolutely vital if the stigma of mental illness, which frequently hangs around for years and years after an episode, is to be challenged. I acknowledge the existence of the very good work that is being done in the area of employment by the Richmond Fellowship and other organisations; including, notably, Clubhouse International which has a technique for developing contracts with employers that give them confidence in the performance of certain tasks.
In conclusion, I underline the importance of acceptance in the community of those who courageously, and often very successfully, cope with mental illness. I look forward to the work of the disability rights commission and perhaps—who knows?—membership of that commission by those who have experience of this enormously difficult and disabling condition.
§ 1.8 p.m.
§ Lord Brightman
My Lords, perhaps I may seek your Lordships' indulgence to intervene very briefly in the gap in order to raise a short question to which I do not expect a substantive answer at this stage. The matter arises on the codes of practice referred to in Clause 8(4) of the Bill, page 6, line 14:The Commission may not issue a code of practice unless … a draft of it has been submitted to and approved by the Secretary of State and laid by him before both Houses of Parliament".My short question is whether either House will be able, when a draft code of practice is laid before it, to suggest for consideration by the commission amendments to that draft before it comes into effect under subsection (6). If not, might the Government feel that it was worth considering the inclusion of such a power?
§ 1.10 p.m.
§ Lord Addington
My Lords, at this stage in the debate we have got to the point where everything has been said but probably not everybody has said it. Virtually all the speakers have spent varying degrees of time trying to get something like this Bill before the House, discussed and passed into law. One or two speeches have perhaps had a hint of triumph around them. Certainly, some people have had an extremely long battle to fight in order to gain their moment of glory. I have been engaged in it for only a few years, and that certainly feels long enough for me. When we were discussing the precursor to this Bill, I think I described it as being rather like a nouvelle cuisine meal in front of a hungry man because it did not have its main course, which was a commission. Indeed I believe I beat the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, to it by comparing it to a car without an engine on Third Reading. It was one of my purple passages on the subject.
The need for the commission is undoubted. But one fact has to be addressed straightaway. It may not have sufficient funding. For reasons already mentioned, people with different degrees of experience of disability groups have spoken about the diverse needs. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, put his finger on it exactly when he said that certain groups are seen to be the major group—the disability group of someone in a wheelchair. The person in a wheelchair has needs and those needs have to be met. However, I have spent I do not know how many hours trying to convince people that not all disabled people have wheelchairs.
Legislation on this whole subject needs to be addressed in incredibly diverse ways to cover a number of different public attitudes. The educational package alone, to make the proposals effective, could swallow up the £11 million provision overnight virtually. I hope that the Government will keep the issue under review. I ask them for some reassurance that they will do so. There is a grave danger that everything will be spread so thin that nothing is achieved. That would be the worst outcome imaginable. Having fought so hard for a commission, we must all guard against it being denied the wherewithal to become effective. If it does not have 1485 sufficient funding we might even have been better off with something with fewer powers but able to concentrate on doing one job: that is a fact.
As to the commission itself, I see that people will be appointed for between two and five years. I wonder why that divergence exists. Is it possible that the commission will have a rolling membership? I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that and perhaps give some idea of the process of appointment. It is worth remembering that the commission is going to make effective something which will become a rod for everybody's back, including any government. The appointment procedure should take that into account. Future governments, as well as the current Government, may well find themselves locked in conflict with the commission. Powers should be built in to allow the commission to work effectively. Unless that is done we are in danger of creating another poodle. As we are discussing the future of our own House and must create something with a degree of independence built into it, I would have thought that we had the expertise available in this House to ensure that similar consideration was given to this Bill.
One of the issues which has recurred throughout our debate has been that of charging for the recovery of costs. There was a certain prickle down the back of my neck when I heard that subject mentioned. I believe that the Equal Opportunities Commission had that power proposed to it and turned it down. Why are we bringing it in again? It is absolutely essential that we have ringfencing around where that funding goes, so that the money is seen to be used in a manner which will further the commission's investigative powers and its powers of prosecution. The commission has to be seen to be using the powers properly. The probity of the body will be equally as, if not more, important than any power it actually wields.
The Minister referred to accessibility on a geographical basis to the commission. I hope that the commission will have a good regional basis. I caught a reference to Scotland and Wales, but I believe it must also be regionally well based. Other commissions operate on that basis. The Equal Opportunities Commission has offices all over the place, so there may well be a case for incorporating the two, at least in the initial phase. Since there is perhaps an argument for bringing all the commissions together to give them more "bite" perhaps there could be some experimentation along those lines. I shall be interested in due course to hear the Government's thinking on that point. It seems to me that civil rights and equal rights causes have a great similarity, at least in approach.
I turn to the subject of disability discrimination exemptions. The fact that a small firm can behave unreasonably whereas a large one cannot is patently absurd. Indeed, when the Disability Discrimination Act came forward, I tried to have that removed from the Bill but I was, unfortunately, unsuccessful. I give the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, my full assurance that if he tries again to have it removed he will have my support and that of the Benches I represent—fuller, one hopes, than they are at present.
1486 The powers of investigation of the Act require clarity. There is a provision regarding the Equal Opportunities Commission which allows someone, when a judgment or submission about discrimination has been made, to stall for time. I hope that the Government will put a fixed time limit upon any referral back of any judgment which has been made.
I should like to draw a halt to my comments here on the grounds that, basically, we are all on the same side so far. As the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said, this is the opportunity for us to stop having a disability discrimination section during debates on every major Bill that goes through your Lordships' House. There is the opportunity here for many of us to develop new parliamentary interests and the Minister will not need to waste so much time dealing with this kind of measure. I hope the Minister can give an assurance that the commission will be allowed to act quickly so that matters are dealt with. We may, in the end, be talking about the most efficient cross-party pressure group in this Chamber. That will be a tribute to its success, power and expertise, and not to its ineffectiveness.
§ 1.19 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, as I rise your Lordships may be wondering what this has to do with the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. Your Lordships will be relieved to hear: not much, if anything. I suspect that my noble friend the Chief Whip decided that I should come before you and try to speak on something other than the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. Someone has intervened to say that this is an open list!
My noble friend may also have had in mind the fact that I piloted through your Lordships' House the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and listened to some of the same players making the same arguments—and resisted them, I have to say. Some of your Lordships have been very patient and reasonable in forbearing to tease me too much about the events of 1995. But I believe that that Act was a major step forward for disabled people.
From this side of the Chamber we subscribe to the spirit of the Bill before us today, as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy indicated. My noble friend has had a long interest in these matters. He has shown us that physical disability does not inhibit one getting pretty close to the top of one's chosen career. My noble friend did extremely well in a number of fields including being Secretary of State for Scotland. I believe that he is an example for people with physical disability that one can achieve a huge amount in one's chosen career.
My noble friend made a reasonable point which I wish to underline on the question of affirmative and negative resolutions for secondary legislation. We shall look forward to seeing what the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee says before we tax the Minister with difficult decisions on affirmative and negative resolutions.
I always enjoyed those debates because they allowed me to share the boards with the noble Lord, Lord Rix—something I never thought that I would do. Again today 1487 I had the pleasure of listening to him. I agreed with much that he said although not all. Philosophically one should avoid adding too many things to the column headed "fundamental human rights". If one is not very careful one begins to diminish the few rights which I believe are fundamental human rights. One has to be cautious. Some of the rights of disabled people can sometimes not be fully achieved because of the disability and the nature of what those people wish to do. I believe that that is well recognised.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Rix, rightly drew to our attention, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely, that there is more to disability than physical disability. It is a subject of special interest to the noble Lord, Lord Rix. The right reverend Prelate drew our attention to mental illness, and, learning disability is a particular interest of the noble Lord, Lord Rix. I found it interesting when he said—I think I have it right—that when it comes to lowering barriers it is perhaps more important to work on people rather than on ranks. As I said on a number of occasions during the passage of the Disability Discrimination Bill, that is really the most important aspect. One can do a certain amount in the physical world; the important factor is to make people realise the range of disabilities and the potential of disabled people. That is important.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, made an important point: that among the membership of the commission there should be people who are interested in learning disability, and there should not be concentration on physical disability. Sometimes both problems are contained in the same person but often they are not, and people with learning disability can look perfectly normal physically but have real problems which should be dealt with.
We give the Bill a reasonable welcome. My right honourable friend William Hague said in the debate in another place on the Queen's Speech that the commission will ensure that the disability rights legislation is properly enforced and that it leads to a lasting change for disabled people. Your Lordships will realise that when we were both at the Department of Social Security we had some responsibility for these matters. My responsibility merely extended to answering the issues in your Lordships' House.
While we give the Bill general support, it does not mean that we shall not study it in detail in Committee and at Report stage, as a number of noble Lords have said that we should. I am happy to say that most of the detailed work will be done by my noble friends Lady Blatch and Lady Seccombe. I suspect that I shall be involved in the weightier matters of constitutional change. However, I wish to raise a few points. My first point concerns Schedule 1 which sets out the provisions relating to the constitution of the commission. Paragraph 2(2) of Schedule 1 stipulates that,after the appointment more than half of the commissioners will be disabled persons or persons who have had a disability".I have already raised the point, and come to the support of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, on defining disabilities. It is right that the commission should have people who have first-hand experience of disability, but it must also contain people who come from the business and service 1488 world on which the disability commission may well impinge. I hope that the Minister will assure us that some members will be drawn from those backgrounds and that the concerns of business and commerce and the service world will always be given a fair hearing. The best way to do that is to make sure that there is some representation on the commission.
My other point on representation on the commission is how the Bill takes into account the changed constitutional position of our country. After next May many of the matters which will affect disabled people, and which may be drawn to the attention of Government by the commission, will be the responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. I think more particularly of the Scottish Parliament: it is to have legislative power and to be in many ways a more powerful body than the Welsh Assembly. Perhaps I may frame my questions more on the basis of the Scottish Parliament than the Welsh Assembly although there is a read across to Wales as well.
I believe that I read somewhere that the Government would appoint someone from Scotland and Wales to the Commission. I wish to know the basis on which that will be done. I hope that the Secretary of State for the British Government will not be the person who appoints someone from Scotland. I hope that the appointments will be on the advice of the First Minister (or the Prime Minister) of the Government of Scotland and the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly. He should not be asked just to send a list of three or four persons' names. He should be able to say, "Joe Bloggs is the person I want", and Joe Bloggs ends up on the commission. That is important.
It is important that on matters which are within the remit of the Scottish Parliament the commission will have to report to the Scottish Parliament. Will the Scottish Parliament be able to ask the commission's advice in exactly the same way as the Bill envisages that the Government here will?
Let us say that the commission gives the Scottish Parliament some advice on issues which are within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. For whatever reason—perhaps because Scotland is rather hillier and different from England—the Scottish Parliament decides that it cannot go along with the advice, yet the Government here decide that they can go along with the advice for England and possibly Wales. Can I be assured that the Government here will not attempt to override or overrule the decisions made by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament?
Those are questions which will be asked about every Bill that passes before your Lordships' House from now on. The Government have changed the constitutional arrangements of this country out of all recognition and the consequences are still not being properly considered by Government, as we know from at least one document which was leaked from a Whitehall department.
I move on from questions on composition and the interaction between the commission, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, to another point.
1489 Recently, there was some very negative publicity for the Commission for Racial Equality which highlighted the dangers of setting up a commission such as this one. A recently retired commissioner from the Commission for Racial Equality pointed out that it had chosen to,introduce a litigious and aggressive attitude towards race relations rather than a conciliatory one".I seek an assurance from the Minister that the commission which we are setting up in this Bill will avoid those mistakes; that it will work and co-operate with and persuade people rather than taking them to court.
Apart from settling the composition of the commission, the Bill's true importance lies in its determination of the remit of the commission. The main point of the Bill is to replace the old National Disability Council with this new, more powerful commission. Like the NDC, it will provide advice to the Secretary of State concerning matters of expertise within its field and will be involved with the preparation of codes of conduct. However, the commission will have new powers with regard to investigation and the initiation of litigation and the provision of support for individuals seeking to support rights.
The Bill confers on that new body functions which give it significant scope for judicial action. That puts the new commission on an equal footing with the racial equality and equal opportunities commissions. It is an important step for disabled people. But I am concerned about the balance between the various powers of the commission. Nobody wants to see the commission as merely a legalistic body. I underline the point I made previously: if it is to be effective, it must have an educational, advisory and cajoling role, especially in relation to employers and service providers. On this side of the House, we should prefer to see a commission heavily into education rather than litigation.
The final point I wish to make is on the financial aspect of the matter. A number of your Lordships have already dealt with that. The transition from government side to opposition side allows one to say that the Government are not putting nearly enough money into this. I can almost guess the answer that I shall be given. The money involved here will be £3 million for the start-up year and £11 million for each of the following two years. RADAR has said:Given that the CRE has Government funding of almost £15 million, this is a severe disappointment for disabled people and indeed for business who need good quality advice to ensure that they do not fall foul of what is a complex piece of legislation".I accept that it will be difficult for the Government to judge the budgets which are appropriate for those various bodies. However, comparisons will be made, whether the Government like it or not. The comparison made here—and it has already been made—is that it will be asked whether the Government attach less importance to the rights of disabled people than they do to the issue of racial equality. The Government must watch that they do not fall into traps in relation to funding.
1490 Finally, should we not await the passage of the Bill and decisions about the size of the remit of the commission before financial decisions are finally made?
We have had an interesting debate. I have no doubt that the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, will arrange for someone to send her words to the Dorchester which will probably not like the publicity it has been given.
There was one matter with which I did not agree and which was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Ashley and Lord Rix, and my noble friend Lord Swinfen, whom I am used to having behind me, if not with me, on these matters; that is, the matter of bringing small employers into the net. As your Lordships know, I batted fairly vigorously on that. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, used a statistic about the number of employers involved. But that is a fairly false statistic because the reality is that the large firms, which are involved, are where the great bulk of people actually work. Therefore, it is not a very accurate reflection just to use the number of small companies—
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I believe that my noble friend will find that 95 per cent. of people who are employed are not covered even under the revised regulations. It is the people who matter, not the number of firms.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, having debated this previously, my recollection was that the Act covers the great bulk of people in the workplace. But my noble friend has a great interest in these matters and I must certainly check before I use those figures again.
My noble friend said that lots of people had said that there should be a reduction. Your Lordships should be careful before imposing burdens of regulation and cost on small businesses, often businesses revolving around one person with his employees. If your Lordships know anyone who is involved in such a company, it will be possible to confirm by talking to them that they have plenty to do at the moment in obeying the various rules and regulations which already exist without adding yet more to them.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
My Lords, the noble Lord has talked about burdens on industry. Does he not agree that the Act provides that only "reasonable" adaptation needs to be made. The word "reasonable" is a quote from the Act.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I know that. I did not wish to become involved in an argument about this. I just wanted to put down a marker. For many small businessmen, it is extremely difficult to define what is "reasonable". It may involve them seeking advice from a lawyer for which they must pay. That is another problem for them. I urge caution. It is much more important that small businesses should be encouraged in these matters rather than have legislation imposed upon them.
Having said that, I look forward to my noble friends, the two noble Baronesses, dealing with the Committee stage and I wish the Bill well.
§ 1.37 p.m.
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, I very much welcome the full debate that we have had on this important Bill. As I said, the establishment of the commission is an historic decision and it is one which I believe will be welcomed by disabled people and many others right across the country.
We have heard a great deal of interesting history today, notably from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and my noble friends Lord Morris and Lord Ashley of Stoke. The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said that there is at least 100 years of campaigning, if we add up the number of years that noble Lords, both inside and outside the House, have worked hard to promote the interests of disabled people.
I recognise also, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, suggested the efficiency of the cross-party group on disability. I know that we shall be hearing more about them during the course of the later stages of the Bill.
We have a responsibility to ensure that we provide the most effective commission possible which will be able to perform all the necessary functions that lead progressively towards the elimination of discrimination. To that end, I welcome the many constructive comments that I have heard. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, that we should like to see a commission which is not just a legislative body. We want it to provide advice and information and to educate people about the rights of disabled people. It will have a very important role, working with a whole variety of organisations in pursuit of those aims. Of course, it will also have a key role in providing employers and service providers with such advice. I am sure that raising awareness will be a central part of its work.
I was delighted to see that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, was speaking for the Opposition on this Bill. As he said, he has considerable experience, having taken the DDA through this House. I am delighted to have his support for a disability rights commission, even though it is just a little belated. I am only sorry that I shall not be seeing him across the Dispatch Box when we reach the later stages of the Bill.
I turn now to some of the comments raised in the course of the debate. A number of noble Lords raised the matter of funding for the commission. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, referred to that matter, although he admitted that when in government those matters look rather different from when one is in opposition. The noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy, Lord Rix and Lord Addington, also referred to funding. We estimate that the commission's running costs budget will be around £11 million per annum. We have also put aside £3 million for setting-up costs. That estimate was arrived at by looking at what functions we expect the commission to carry out and costing them using the best available information that we have. We believe that this estimate is realistic and that it will enable the commission to carry out its functions effectively.
The commission will need to provide an effective advice and information service in the way that I have already set out, and the funding reflects that. I believe I am right in saying that the funding we propose for the 1492 commission compares favourably with that of the existing commissions where the functions are similar. However, because the commission will be a new organisation working in a more complex area, we have allocated it almost double the resources of its sister organisation, the Equal Opportunities Commission. I hope Members of your Lordships' House will welcome that. There is no reason to think that those funds will not be adequate both to undertake its enforcement work and its promotional activities. However, that is something that the Government will want to review.
A number of speakers in this debate—my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke and the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen, Lord Rix and Lord Addington—referred to the issue of recovery of costs. The provision in the Bill allows the disability rights commission to recover the costs associated with assisting an individual when an award for costs is made by a court or tribunal or agreement is reached in respect of costs as part of the settlement. That again mirrors the arrangements in place for other commissions.
I should make it absolutely clear that the Bill does not provide for the commission to recover costs from compensation, settlements reached out of court or in a tribunal in respect of compensation. The question of whether the commission should be able to recover the costs from compensation awards to an individual was raised in the White Paper. It is clearly a sensitive issue and one that gave rise to debate. There are arguments in support of such a provision which have force and we shall need to weigh them carefully against any arguments to the contrary.
The Government have not reached a definitive view on that matter. However, no provision has been made in the Bill to do so. But I hope your Lordships will see the wisdom of not ruling out now for all time the possibility that the commission may be allowed to recover costs from compensation or from settlements reached. The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, asked a more specific question in relation to the recovery of costs. It is only when the DRC assists a disabled person with expenses, such as solicitors' or barristers' fees, and the court or tribunal orders the other party to pay those expenses that the DRC will be able to recover them. If a court or tribunal awards to a disabled person expenses with which he had no help from the DRC, the disabled person will retain those expenses.
Many speakers in the debate raised the issue of the appointment of commissioners. A number of different speakers pointed to the importance of ensuring that specific groups of disabled people are not left out in the work of the commission, and perhaps at this point I can assure them that the Government's intention is that all forms of disability should be covered. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, referred particularly to the fact that disability is sometimes seen as physical disability. The right reverend Prelate rightly raised the issue of those who suffer from serious mental illness. It is important that we do not forget such groups and the Government want to be absolutely clear today in saying that they will not be forgotten.
1493 The commission must establish credibility with its key stakeholders from the start if it is to be effective. It must understand the needs of disabled people and those of employers and service providers to be able to do its job effectively. In that regard I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, was saying. The Secretary of State will seek to appoint commissioners so that collectively they have a wide range of experience. As I mentioned earlier, we expect to have a commission of around 10 to 15 strong.
Noble Lords will surely understand that all the commissioners cannot have direct experience of every kind of business or every type of disability—that would be quite unrealistic. Again, as my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke and the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, said, we cannot and should not aim for all or nearly all of the commissioners to be disabled people; we also need representatives of business and the service world. The provisions in the Bill reflect the Disability Rights Task Force recommendations. The recruitment process will be an open and accessible one and appointments will be based on merit. People who are not disabled will be free to apply and, other than taking account of the requirement to appoint a majority of disabled commissioners—that is the absolute requirement; it can go somewhat higher, as my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke suggested—there will be no barrier to the recruitment of a wide range of people if they are good candidates for the post.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, asked what would happen if a future Disability Rights Task Force were to come up with different recommendations than those embodied in the Bill before us today. I believe that the task force considered in great detail the role and functions of the disability rights commission. We have already received its advice. The July 1999 recommendations will concern other issues and not the specific question of the role and function of the commission.
The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, referred to codes of practice. The DRC will issue codes of practice but the Secretary of State must first approve them, place them before Parliament and bring them into force. That is similar to the arrangements that exist for the other equality commissions—they are almost the same as for the EAC.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, asked about assistance in relation to the health service. Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act provides rights to disabled people in the area of access to goods and services. It covers the health service, and so far as problems faced by disabled people relate to discrimination, the disability rights commission will be able to assist them.
The noble Baroness asked whether hotels are service providers. I can confirm that that is the case and we intend to bring in the rights of access provision relating to the removal of physical barriers somewhat later. It is important in the meantime that service providers, as a matter of good practice, move forward in that kind of area.
1494 The noble Baroness asked also about the whole issue of conciliation. She was concerned about the relationship of the commission to conciliation arrangements. We recognise that the commission should not be directly involved in such arrangements. That is why the Bill provides for the commission to engage another organisation to take on the function of conciliation in the area of access to goods, facilities, services, premises and so forth. To do otherwise might lead parties in conciliation to feel that arrangements were not impartial. Every effort will be made to ensure that confidentiality is maintained for both parties to conciliation. The Government also accept that the value of conciliation is very high. It can mean avoiding what could be long, expensive and distressing experiences for all parties.
The noble Baroness also referred to concerns raised by the CBI with regard to regulation powers and our intentions in respect to Section 6 of the Human Rights Act. That section of the Human Rights Act makes it unlawful for a public body to act in a way that is incompatible with the rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
When we consulted on the White Paper on the disability rights commission, we proposed that the commission should have the ability to assist individuals bringing cases under the Human Rights Act in cases where discrimination on the grounds of disability was an issue. We have included regulation-making powers in the Bill to allow us to do that. We believe that regulations will provide us with flexibility. In particular, we want to consider whether, and to what extent, the commission should be able to support cases brought under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act where they involve issues of discrimination. The relevant provisions of the Human Rights Act are not expected to be brought into force before 2000. That issue involves complex questions of law and practice and we will want to consider the detail carefully in consultation with others before coming to final decisions.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, made reference to polling booths. I believe he was using that as an example where one does not necessarily need to intervene because there are other provisions. The Government accept that there are perfectly good provisions in existence and unnecessary intervention would be unfortunate. It would be a matter for a DRC to focus its efforts effectively where they are needed. That is why the Government wish to appoint very strong commissioners who are able to do that.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for replying on this matter. I was not expecting a reply. I simply gave that as an example of the kind of thing that the commission will have to tackle. It is bound to be raised, but nobody would regard it as a right when there is the perfectly good alternative of postal voting.
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, the Government entirely accept that that is a perfectly good alternative. The Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord 1495 Campbell of Croy and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. I believe they are both aware that we have not yet had a response from the committee as it has not yet had time to consider the matter. Of course, we shall look carefully at any recommendations it makes and we shall want to respond positively to them.
A number of speakers in the debate, including my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke and the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen and Lord Addington, mentioned the small employers' threshold. The Bill provides for an amendment to the DDA so that the Secretary of State must consult the commission before making any proposals to alter the small employers' threshold—the threshold in terms of the number of employees below which the employer provisions of the DDA do not apply.
As I think noble Lords are aware, after our recent review that limit has been lowered from 20 to 15. It has included an extra 45,000 employers and brings another 70,000 disabled people under the protection of the provisions. I am sure that many noble Lords will welcome that as a step in the right direction, although I accept that some noble Lords who have taken part in the debate would like it to go further.
However, I must correct the figure given by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. It is completely wrong to suggest that 95 per cent. of employees are not covered. On the contrary, around 80 per cent. of employees are now covered as a result of the latest change. The provision in the Bill is concerned with the method of consultation on further changes to the threshold and it is not itself a mechanism to make further alterations to the threshold.
My noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke indicated the complexity of employment issues in some instances for people who have disabilities. The commission should be well placed to give advice on when small businesses—
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
My Lords, I would like to clarify that point if my noble friend will permit me. Is it not the case that the Government can hold a review, can lower the number of firms and can bring in all firms, except those with fewer than two workers, without the need for a commission? That makes this quite unnecessary. The Government can act, and act decisively, to include nearly all firms in the DDA.
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, the Government believe it is right to involve the commission in advice on an important matter of this sort. For that reason there is a clause in the Bill to make sure that can happen.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, asked about the right of appeal for those who are not given help by the commission. The task force considered whether there should be a right of appeal where the commission does not support an individual, and it concluded that instead the commission should write to an individual explaining why it had decided not to support that person, setting out the reasons clearly. Those arrangements apply to the other commissions and seem to work perfectly well.
The noble Lord also asked about access to education, training and transport as a right. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, the task force will 1496 consider and report on the composition of comprehensive rights. We shall be hearing from the task force later and considering the report carefully.
The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, also asked about the ability of the DRC to charge for any services that it makes available. It is intended that this provision should cover, for example, charging for attendance at a conference or charging for copies of reports that it has published. It will not be able to charge for support in formal investigations. The ability to make charges is consistent with those powers of the EOC and the CRE under the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, who spoke in the gap, asked about the role of both Houses of Parliament on the issue of codes of practice. The commission will ensure that all codes are subject to wide-ranging and comprehensive consultation in draft form. Noble Lords will have a full opportunity to comment at that stage. Once it is laid before the House, it will not be susceptible to amendment unless the process of consultation is started again. I hope that is clear.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked about regional offices. That is an issue that the disability rights task force considered. It recommended that the DRC's services would need to be available to disabled people and to employers throughout Great Britain. However, it was not convinced that regional offices were the best way to achieve that or that they would offer best value for money. Alternative methods—for example, through regional seminars, workshops and commission staff travelling round the country—will make the DRC accessible and be an efficient way of targeting services where they are most needed.
We agree with the disability rights task force that the commission should consider whether it needs more officers around the country in the light of its experience. It is not something that is ruled out, but I do not think that that should be on the face of the Bill.
The noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, asked about devolution issues. I can assure them that arrangements will be in place to ensure that there will be at least one office in each of both Scotland and Wales. In addition, one commissioner will be appointed with the agreement of Scottish Ministers and one with the agreement of the First Secretary in Wales. The commission's annual reports will be provided to Scottish Ministers and to the First Secretary in Wales. They will submit them to the Scottish Parliament and to the Welsh Assembly respectively. However, the matter of equal opportunities is reserved to the Westminster Parliament. That reflects what has been agreed. That is why we have established a commission which will have a remit to include the whole of Great Britain.
I hope that I have managed to answer almost all of the questions asked. If I have failed, I shall write to those noble Lords whose questions were not answered.
Perhaps I may return to two points raised by my noble friends Lord Ashley of Stoke and Lord Morris of Manchester. My noble friend Lord Ashley said that 1497 deafness can be a greater obstacle to getting a job than is a criminal record. We must try to resolve that and to ensure that that is not the case in the future. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for the appreciation that he has expressed for the introduction of this Bill and, indeed, for his "Hallelujah".
As my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester said—I think that he was quoting—morality cannot be legislated but behaviour can be regulated. I am grateful to my noble friend for what he said about those Members of your Lordships' House who have fought for greater fairness and equality for disabled people, and I join him in saying that the greatest tribute must be given to those many disabled people who have fought for so long for their rights. We support them. I commend the Bill to the House.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.