HL Deb 16 February 1998 vol 586 cc2-5

2.38 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made by the task force on disabled people's rights.

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

My Lords, the Disability Rights Task Force has made good progress since its membership was announced on 3rd December 1997. It has met twice, on 16th December and 21st January, and in line with its terms of reference has been considering in detail the role and functions of a disability rights commission. The task force is expected to make recommendations to the Government. on the matter by the end of March.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, as thousands of employers still refuse even to interview disabled people for jobs, does my noble friend the Minister expect the next Queen's Speech to include legislation to strengthen and enforce the Disability Discrimination Act 1996? In the meantime, can my noble friend say how the task force is consulting people whose disabilities have not been experienced by any of its members? Finally, is my noble friend aware how very much many of us appreciate her department's support for the core principles of my all-party. but long-obstructed, Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill: namely, that unjustified discrimination against disabled people is morally wrong and that—what is morally wrong should no longer be legally permissible in Britain?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his questions. Indeed, we are all very grateful to him for the work that he has done over many years on behalf of disabled people. In answer to my noble friend's question about legislation, I am afraid that I am unable to give him a clear indication. As he will be well aware, the legislative programme for the next Session has not yet been decided and will not be decided for a little while yet.

As regards my noble friend's other question. perhaps I may remind him that about 50 per cent. of the members of the task force are in fact disabled people. Therefore, the task force is able to get direct answers in that respect from its members. As far as concerns the wider operation of the task force, I can tell my noble friend that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Employment with responsibility for equal opportunities, who is the chairman, has said that he wants it to work in an open manner. Therefore, the task force membership will use its existing networks to gather a wide range of views. The task force discussion papers and minutes are available on the Internet. A facility has been provided on the site for comments to be sent directly to the secretariat. Members of your Lordships' House who know how to access Internet sites can send in their views.

Lord Rix

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that the parallel work of Mencap and the Learning Disability Coalition to that of the DDA task force—undertaken, incidentally, at the request of the Minister's department—will be given full consideration alongside that of the task force itself?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords. The department and the task force are grateful for the help that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is giving to this work. Of course the views of Mencap and any associated organisations concerned with those who have particular problems will be taken fully into account.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister fully aware—and, if not, will she take note of the fact—that all parties in this House were very much in favour of the Disability Discrimination Act and that we continue to support the aims of that Act? Does she also agree that no matter how one legislates, it takes much longer to change attitudes and that is achieved only through good example? Is it a fact that the Civil Service is now making an effort to recruit more disabled people?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, of course it is terribly important that public sector employers, including the Civil Service, should set a good example in this respect. I know that the new Government are making every effort to try to ensure that government departments play a full part in employing people with disabilities to set just the example that the noble Baroness would like to see.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a rumour that petrol prices may increase as a result of the Budget? Is she further aware that petrol prices are very important to disabled people? They will not be able to get to work if petrol prices go sky high. Will she undertake to draw this fact to the attention of the task force, and the particular difficulty for disabled people?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I was not aware of that rumour. The Treasury keeps its cards fairly close to its chest on these matters. Nor can I be absolutely sure that the task force will be able to influence the Treasury on this matter. The noble Baroness is absolutely right: it is enormously important for many disabled people, particularly those who are wheelchair bound, to be able to drive and to have access to reasonably cheap transport. I shall certainly pass on her concerns to my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, we must certainly welcome the progress which is being made, but is it not increasingly apparent that the Prime Minister has decided to tour the country spelling out his views on welfare reform but in many crucial areas such as this the Government are not yet clear what their policy is? In that context, will the Prime Minister hold any meetings which are open to the public rather than to Labour Party supporters?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am a little surprised by the tone of that question as I am absolutely clear that the Prime Minister wishes to consult widely on the programme for welfare reform. Of course he will want to hear the views of those with disabilities as considering benefits which relate to the disabled is part of that wider programme of reform.

Lord Addington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if one is to make a change as regards the rights of disabled people one must take into account changes to the social security regulations which relate to the way the disabled are supported by the state? A back-to-work programme that does not take that into account is ultimately bound to fail.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, of course that is the case but the task force is not considering benefit reform. That is a matter for the Prime Minister's committee which is considering that matter with the Department of Social Security and others. The task force about which my noble friend has asked a Question today is concerned with civil rights for disabled people rather than with the specific issue of benefit reform, but of course the two have some relationship.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is no better Minister to lead the task force than Alan Howarth with his distinguished record? Is she also aware that some people have so-called unfashionable disabilities such as leprosy, mental illness or epilepsy, who are able but are not perceived to be so? Will she make sure that the task force pays special attention to the problems arising from these wrong perceptions?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, yes, that is exactly the kind of issue the task force will address. It is important that the views of all people with disabilities, whatever those may be, including the kind described by my noble friend, are taken into account and that their particular needs should be addressed.