§ 8.14 p.m.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the order will introduce provisions broadly in line with those that will apply in Great Britain under the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999. I believe that it will be helpful to the House if I comment briefly on the order and then say a few words about the detailed provisions.
The main purpose of the order is to give the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland power to enforce 1494 disability rights in Northern Ireland similar to those that will be available to the Disability Rights Commission in Great Britain under the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999. The establishment of a Disability Rights Commission in Great Britain is a major advance for people with disabilities and is the result of many years of hard work and campaigning by the disability movement in general. It fulfils a major part of our manifesto commitment to secure comprehensive and enforceable civil rights. We accept, however, that more still needs to be done. The Disability Rights Task Force's report from Exclusion to Inclusion makes recommendations on the wider issues. Northern Ireland departments are considering how these can be taken forward.
Unlike the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the Disability Rights Commission Act does not extend to Northern Ireland. We had hoped that the new Northern Ireland Assembly would have been able to progress the necessary legislation. Unfortunately, that has not happened and we have therefore moved quickly to produce this order to ensure that people with disabilities in Northern Ireland have the same rights as people with disabilities in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The provisions of the order, apart from some miscellaneous amendments in Part III, are basically the same as comparable provisions in the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999. Briefly, therefore, the order makes provision for the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to work towards the elimination of discrimination against people with disabilities; promote the equalisation of opportunities for people with disabilities; take steps to encourage good practice in the treatment of people with disabilities; keep the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 under review; assist by offering advice and support in taking cases forward; provide information and advice to employers and service providers; undertake formal investigations; prepare statutory codes of practice providing practical guidance on how to comply with the law; and arrange independent conciliation between service providers and people with disabilities in the area of access to goods and services.
The other minor miscellaneous amendments relate to the functions and procedures of the equality commission. These provisions do not create any new powers or duties but either clarify existing arrangements or carry forward powers which were inadvertently removed by recent legislation.
The Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 was a significant step towards full civil rights for people with disabilities in England, Scotland and Wales. Similarly this order is no less significant for people with disabilities in Northern Ireland. I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)
§ Baroness Seccombe
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for introducing the order and for doing so in such a sensitive manner. We on these Benches welcome the legislation as it ensures that disabled people in Northern Ireland will have similar rights to those of us in the rest of the United Kingdom. Here I pay tribute to my right honourable friend William Hague for taking the Disability Discrimination Bill through another place during his time as Minister for Social Security and Disabled People. The Acts of 1995 and 1999 were important milestones and we are anxious to see this order on the statute book so that the people of Northern Ireland may share similar benefits.
However, there are three questions that I should like to ask. First, Article 1(2) states:Part II shall come into operation on such day or days as the Office of the First Minister … may … appoint".At the present time, as we accept with sadness, there is no Executive. If there has not been a restoration at the time the order comes into effect, will the authority rest with the Secretary of State? And if that is the case, should the order not say so?
Secondly, on 29th October last year, the Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, said that he would be listening to representations made by the members of the commission concerning the level of resources and staff. He offered them all encouragement, which is very important. However, will the Minister assure the House that she is satisfied that the commission has adequate funding for its needs? That is of particular importance in the Province, as it appears that a higher proportion—I understand that it is 17 per cent—of people in Northern Ireland suffer from some form of disability.
Finally, what steps will the Government take to ensure that the commission will not be over-stretched in its efforts to work against racial, sex, employment and disability discrimination, given that the first three tasks were formerly carried out by separate bodies in Northern Ireland? In the rest of the United Kingdom there are distinct organisations to monitor racial, disability and sex discrimination.
The order will assist both disabled people and businesses in Northern Ireland and we wish it well as it marks yet another milestone.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, we, too, welcome the order. Its effect will be to ensure that disabled people in Northern Ireland have access to a disability rights enforcement body in the same way as people living in Great Britain. That is very much to be welcomed. We regret that circumstances mean that the measure comes before this House as an order instead of continuing, as it began, as a Bill before the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I have just two queries on the contents of the order. Both relate to Article 4(2). Under that provision,The Commissior may … make proposals or give other advice to any government department".1496 Does "government department" include a department of the United Kingdom Government operating in Northern Ireland as well as a department of the Northern Ireland government? Secondly, in Article 2(b),The Commission may … make proposals or give other advice to any public authority as to the practical application of any law"."Public authority" is defined as having the same meaning as in Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. As I understand it, that excludes from classification as a public authority the police and institutes of further and higher education. Therefore, will the Minister explain why that definition of "public authority" has been chosen rather than one of the wider definitions that are available in other statutes, which would have enabled the commission to give advice, for example, to the police?
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, I begin by thanking both speakers for their involvement, their comments and their welcome for the order. We are grateful for that. I am pleased to bring forward this legislation, fulfilling the commitment given to people with disabilities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, referred to Article 1(2) of the order. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is a Northern Ireland department. It has responsibility for equality policies, including disability discrimination legislation. The function of making a Northern Ireland statutory rule—a commencement order is a statutory rule—is normally carried out by a senior civil servant. The commencement order for the Equality (Disability, etc.) (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 will, therefore, be made by a civil servant acting on behalf of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and subject to the direction and control of the Secretary of State. I hope that that answers the noble Baroness's query.
The noble Baroness also raised the issue of staffing and the related issue of staff training. The commission is presently arranging for disability awareness training for all staff and detailed disability training for front line staff. The commission has agreed a starting structure to deal with disability issues. Job descriptions of the responsibilities of the team and individual members of staff are being prepared for consultation with the trade union side. It is proposed to recruit 20 additional staff. A director of disability will take up post on 1st May. The commission will advertise for staff as soon as possible. It is its intention to ensure that initial services are provided; namely, advice, the handling of casework, policy work and work with the media.
The noble Baroness also raised the issue of funding. We estimate that the commission's running costs budget in relation to its disability remit will be around £1 million per year. We have looked at the estimated 1497 costs for the Disability Rights Commission in Great Britain, together with the costs for the former Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland and the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland, and we have taken into account factors such as that raised by the noble Baroness of the higher levels of people with disability in Northern Ireland in arriving at that figure. We are content that necessary resources will be made available to enable the commission to undertake its disability functions effectively. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be keeping the matter under review to ensure that the single organisation will prove fully effective.
The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, raised the definition of "public authority". The forthcoming Patten legislation is expected to apply Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to the police in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord asked also whether the government department includes a UK department operating in Northern Ireland. The order does include all government departments operating in Northern Ireland.
1498 This is an extremely important piece of legislation. We believe that it will make a real difference to the lives of people with disability in Northern Ireland by ensuring that they are able to contribute to our economy and society. It builds on the work referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, with regard to her right honourable friend William Hague and the work of this Government in building further on that. I commend the order to the House.
§ Lord Burnham
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, how can there be an Office of the First Minister when there is no First Minister?
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, I am advised that this is the terminology that applies in defining the department within the existing legislation, and that within that legislation the point raised by the noble Baroness is covered. If, however, the noble Lord has any further concerns, I shall be delighted to write to him. It is a complex legal question to do with the use of language.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House adjourned at half past eight o'clock.