HL Deb 12 October 1999 vol 605 cc206-9

3.6 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made on the establishment of the disability rights commission and on the appointment of a chairperson.

Lord Bach

My Lords, we are determined that the commission should be up and running in April 2000. I am delighted to be able to inform the House that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is announcing today that Mr Bert Massie has been appointed chair. Currently he is the director of the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, known as RADAR. As the House will know well, Mr Massie is a widely respected figure and I believe he will make an excellent chair. Now that he has been appointed, key decisions about the commission's establishment can be made.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I am delighted to hear of the appointment of Mr Bert Massie? He will do an excellent job, as he always has done with RADAR.

Is my noble friend aware that the establishment of the disability rights commission by this Government is a major step forward for disabled people? While within its remit there is provision for it to try to persuade employers and service providers to comply with the law, does the Minister agree that in any cases where there is wilful and persistent discrimination against disabled people the commission should use all the powers at its disposal, including recourse to the law?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks about the new chair, or chairman.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Bach

My Lords, Mr Massie is a widely respected figure in the business world and with organisations working both for and with disabled people. His personal standing and political skills have achieved much on behalf of disabled people. The post demands a highly committed individual with strong skills in strategic leadership and a good understanding of disability issues. He is an excellent communicator and will work effectively with a wide range of external players, while bringing sound judgment to bear in a sensitive environment.

As to the second part of the Question, of course the commission will look into the matters that he raises. Once the commission is set up and running it will undoubtedly have recourse to law if there is seen to be discrimination.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I start by joining in the approval of the appointment which has just been announced. Does the Minister agree that congratulations are due to the chairman and members of the present National Disability Council? It was established expeditiously under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and has been functioning most effectively in the mean time and continues to do so.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's comments about Mr Massie and I agree with him, of course, about the role that the chairman and vice-chairman of the body to which he refers have played since the passing of the Act in 1995.

The House will recognise that the Bill which became an Act in July, with unanimous support from this House, is probably an improvement on the 1995 Act. The setting up of the commission will, we all hope, help disabled people a great deal.

Lord Rix

My Lords, as the president of Mencap I would also like to welcome the appointment of Bert Massie as the chairman of the commission.

Can the Minister say whether or not a person with a learning disability, with suitable advocacy support, will also become a member of that commission, as has been indicated in the past?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord will recall that the Act itself requires that more than half of the commissioners are disabled people or people who have a disability. Of course we recognise the value of direct personal experience of disability.

Much can be expected of a commission of 10 to 15 people, but they could never between them have personal experience of every type of disability. What is important is that collectively they represent the interests of all disabled people and the commission's other key stakeholders, such as employers and service providers.

Having said that, I am happy to tell the noble Lord, with his, if I may say so, distinguished record in this field, that candidates short-listed for interview for commissioner posts include a number of people with learning disabilities.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, first of all perhaps I may congratulate the noble Lord on the way in which he is answering this Question, welcome him to the Dispatch Box and say how much we look forward to hearing more from him in the future. I also welcome the fact that he quickly corrected himself and did not use the awful, ugly word "chair" but the more acceptable form, "chairman".

Will the noble Lord tell the House when the commission is expected to be fully up and running?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the compliment from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I am told that such compliments do not come frequently, so I will value it for a short period of time.

I will pass over the use of the words "chair" or "chairman" until a future occasion.

The commission will be up and running by April 2000. That is not to say that every service which it will provide will be provided by April 2000. By that month the following will be done by the commission: the provision of advice to those making inquiries; the handling of casework; policy work; and handling the media.

Lord Addington

My Lords, while I congratulate the noble Lord on the appointment of Bert Massie to this post, will the Government assure us that the new commission and its chairman will be fully consulted in the implementation of the Disability Rights Task Force recommendations?

Lord Bach

My Lords, Mr Massie has been a member of that task force, as the noble Lord will know. Now that he is in post it will be much easier to get on with what has to be done. Mr Massie will obviously play an important part in the consideration of the views of the task force which, as I understand it, are to be known by November of this year.

Baroness Uddin

My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that, given the establishment of the disability rights commission, it will take on board the broader implications of the Lawrence report?

Lord Bach

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend, we are aware of the recommendations, which of course apply to the department, and are looking at them very seriously.

I find it hard to believe that the commission, when it is set up, will not look very carefully at the serious recommendations that were made in the Lawrence report.