HL Deb 06 October 1998 vol 593 cc251-3

2.47 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why most employers are granted exemption from the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, our review of the effects of the small employer exemption threshold led us to conclude that the threshold should be lowered from 20 to 15, thus bringing more employers into coverage. That means that over three-quarters both of all employees and all disabled employees will be covered by the employment provisions of the Act.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. However, is my noble friend aware that there is no valid reason why any firm should be exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act? The Act specifically provides that only reasonable adjustments need to be made, so there is absolutely no question of any unreasonable demands being imposed on any firm. Does it not follow that any claim by a firm for exemption on the grounds that it fears unreasonable burdens is totally without justification according to the law and that such firms should therefore be included under the terms of the Act that forbids discrimination against disabled people at work?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend is right in that when the tribunals, if necessary, come to consider the application of the Act and how to interpret the phrase, "reasonable adjustment", they will take into account the size of the firm. They will therefore undoubtably be more understanding of the problems of small firms. But the Act is concerned with responsibilities as well as rights. There are compliance costs. The Government took the view that to bring, as we have done, a substantially increased number of employees—750,000 employees and 60,000 disabled employees—within the purview of the Act was a worthwhile change.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, why is it necessary to exempt some firms from that part of the legislation when they are not exempt from health and safety or tax legislation or, more significantly, the service provisions of the Act, which will probably prove far more onerous than the employment provisions?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord could have gone further: smaller firms are not exempt from provisions relating to sex and race discrimination. The analogies are not perfect in either case. I sought to emphasise that responsibilities and costs on employers are involved. That is why we took the view that the lower threshold was appropriate.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that I warmly welcomed the Government's decision to create the disability rights commission for which my Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill provided. But is he aware of the recent research finding that a high proportion of employers now refuse even to interview disabled job applicants? Might not that mindless prejudice against disabled people be encouraged if those who are doing so much damage to their aspirations are unaffected by the new legislation?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right that the legislation to create a disability rights commission, which he has championed so powerfully for so many years, is the Department for Education and Employment's highest priority for legislation. We must hope that it will find a very early slot in the Government's programme.

As to whether employers are excluding disabled persons from interview, that would be in contravention of the Disability Discrimination Act and any cases should be reported to the authorities.

Lord Rix

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the removal of the employer's contribution to Access to Work for disabled persons would go some way to encourage them to employ such persons, particularly those with a learning disability?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government have gone a considerable way to removing the employee's contribution to Access to Work. We are prepared in most circumstances to shoulder 100 per cent. of the costs of Access to Work. I hope the noble Lord will agree that that is progress.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the Labour Party was strongly opposed to any exemption when the Bill was going through both Houses of Parliament and was also opposed to it at the party conference? In and out of Parliament, strong opposition was expressed to any exemption. The sooner the Government go back to that realistic policy, the better it will be for disabled people.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, of course, I recall the history to which my noble friend refers. I have already referred to the department's hope that there will be early legislation. Once the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 has been amended, as we hope it will be, there will be an opportunity to have a phased lowering of the threshold for inclusion under Section 7 of Part II of the Act, and that, I believe, will be in the direction in which my noble friend wishes to go, though not at the speed at which he wishes to go.