HL Deb 04 July 2001 vol 626 cc834-62

4.10 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to call attention to the means now available under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to improve the situation of severely disabled people; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, after what was said in the previous debate, I must make myself audible today. The ballot was held only a week ago, at very short notice, and the first inkling that the debate was about to come on appeared only last Thursday, so I am grateful to all Peers and Peeresses who have put down their names to speak.

My aim in the debate, and after it, is to spread more widely information about the availability and potential applications of the Disability Discrimination Act, which, from now on, I shall allude to as the DDA. Parts of the Act have been coming into effect at different times following its enactment in 1995. I should remind the House of my own situation and declare a financial interest. I have received pensions for being severely wounded and partially disabled in World War II as a regular army officer commissioned at the beginning of the war.

I should remind the House of the origins of the DDA, which was the first legislation of its kind to be introduced by any government since the war. Previously it had been left to Private Member's Bills, most of which never reached the statute book, including two of mine, one introduced in the other place and the other, later, in this House.

A notable exception was the Chronically Ill and Disabled Persons Bill 1970, a Private Member's Bill, which was introduced and piloted through by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester. The Bill was supported by several noble Lords who were in that House at the time. It was a major landmark. We discussed the Bill on its 30th anniversary last year, so I need not describe it now. I shall comment only that at the time it was welcomed everywhere in the field of disablement in this country.

The Private Member's Bills which never completed their passage through Parliament nevertheless served a useful purpose; they indicated to governments what needed to be done. Much discussion was made possible at various stages—for instance, at Second Reading and in Committee—in both Houses. I think I am right in saying that the noble Lord, Lord Morris, became the first Minister for the Disabled. Since then, all governments have continued to designate a member of their administration in this way. I am sure that the noble Baroness will be able to confirm whether I am right in thinking that since the election last month the honourable Maria Eagle MP has been appointed to that position, or whether we are without a Minister.

I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, is to reply to the debate. She has dealt with this subject for several years in this House, both as a Minister and from the Opposition Front Bench. If I may say so, she knows it all.

There was a limit to what could be done in Private Member's Bills. Many of us had been urging governments to embark on anti-discrimination legislation and were pleased when we heard that this was happening in the mid-1990s. The Bill produced by the then government became the DDA. It was a huge advance that only a government Bill could achieve, covering, as it did, many subjects.

There was some criticism at the time that it did not include education; nor was it complete on transport. I knew the reasons for this. At the time, there were serious disagreements among various organisations concerned with education—for example, as to whether mainstream schools or special schools were most appropriate for disabled pupils in various circumstances. And so, rather than allow the DDA to be delayed, education was left out to be dealt with later.

On transport, much was added during the Bill's passage through this House and the other place. It was—if I may so describe them—our "wheelchair squadron" in this House who helped to insert some of the clauses on transport.

The wisdom of the decision on education was confirmed when, to a lesser degree, similar disagreements arose when special education needs were dealt with in the recent SEN Bill. Again, the controversy was based on arguments about mainstream versus special schooling.

There was also some criticism that the DDA produced a national disablement council rather than a full-blown commission. But later it took more than three years to reach agreement and establish the Disability Rights Commission in place of the council under a separate Act of Parliament. Thank heavens that the DDA was not delayed by those events and that disabled people have been benefiting from it since its enactment six years ago.

It is important that disabled people and their carers know about the DDA and, if they have not heard about it before, learn about it, especially as different parts of the Act are still coming into effect al different times. In the past few months, disability organisations have gone out of their way to tell me that disabled people and their carers are availing themselves of relevant sections of the Act. The more widely this is known, the more likely it is that others will do the same and benefit.

By 2004 the providers of services to the public will, subject to reasonable considerations, have to make physical changes to buildings, if that is found to be necessary to permit access for disabled people.

The DDA applies to mental as well as physical disabilities. The main parts of the Act are concerned with employment and the supply of goods and services. The principles of mediation and conciliation apply when complaints and disputes arise, but the law is now there if and when it is needed. That is an important background.

On employment, the Act makes it Illegal to discriminate against a disabled person, taking also into account whether the kind of job is appropriate and what is considered reasonable. A key term is "reasonable arrangements". This is similar to "reasonable accommodation", the key wording in the equivalent American legislation—the Americans With Disabilities Act—which was passed shortly before our Act.

I understand that by the beginning of this year some 5,000 complaints of disability discrimination in employment had gone before employment tribunals. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that figure or provide the latest information. It is clear that the system is working. While I am against frivolous or adventurous claims, I would encourage any severely disabled person who has a serious complaint about employment to avail himself or herself of the provisions of the DDA.

Small firms below a certain size are exempted for the time being from the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act. That exemption should gradually be ended. When the DDA was enacted, it applied to firms with fewer than 20 employees. Now the figure is 15, and is due to be reduced. Will the Minister bring us up to date on the matter? Is the aim still to apply the provisions of the Act to small firms by 2004, so that all employers are covered by its provisions regardless of size?

The explanation for the exemption lies in the quota scheme introduced towards the end of the war. Employers were required to reserve 3 per cent of places within their workforce for those who were registered disabled. In later years, that gave rise to difficulty in many areas because less than 3 per cent of the working population in those areas were registered as disabled. It became mathematically impossible for all employers to comply. Small firms were exempted because of the complications of accounting for a "fraction of a person". For example, if a total workforce was 12, then 3 per cent of those employees was 0.36 per cent of a person. Therefore, businesses employing fewer than 20 people were not obliged by law to employ anyone who was disabled.

The DDA has ended that situation. Both the quota system and the register have been abolished. There is now no reason why small firms should not be treated in the same way as others. I understand that the change is being phased simply to give small firms time to adjust to the situation.

I now turn to goods and services. It is against the provisions of the DDA for a supplier to refuse to serve a disabled person, subject to the test of reasonableness. For example, a restaurant which has a rule not to allow dogs inside must admit a guide dog needed by someone who is blind. Also in relation to dogs, Section 37 of the DDA specifies that taxis must accept guide dogs with passengers. I and other Members of this House have raised this matter at Question Time because the provision is still not being carried out.

At least one useful code of practice has been issued to help all concerned by describing the duties under the Act.Rights of Access, Goods, Facilities, Services and Premises was published in 1996. It is an easily readable brief for those who are involved with public premises and services, as well as for disabled people. I ask the Minister whether other codes of practice have been issued or whether any are in prospect?

Today, we learn that the Government are to announce proposals to place a time limit of three years on incapacity benefit—a proposal that The Times suggests is likely to upset Labour Members of Parliament. For my part, I shall examine the proposal and I shall not comment on it before doing so. There will, however, be concern among disability organisations because of what happened in the previous Parliament when reductions in benefit appeared clumsily to affect adversely some of the most seriously disabled people in the country. After protests and a revolt by Labour MPs, adjustments were made. I hope that we shall not find ourselves in that situation again.

I should mention a scheme which functions well alongside the provisions of the DDA; namely, the Access to Work scheme which began some 12 years ago. The scheme enables the Government to give grants for special equipment to enable disabled people to work. It was retained following the change of government in 1997. Its existence should be made more widely known.

I shall not now describe the special problems of war disabled ex-servicemen—most of whom received their injuries in World War II and are at least 73. That is a subject for a separate debate. I have a Motion on the "No Day Named" list which I hope may be selected in the future. It would be appropriate for the subject to be discussed in this House because, I understand there is no one left in the other place who is old enough to have been in the Armed Forces during the war.

Much remains to be done in this country to improve the quality of life for people with various disabilities. We must not be complacent. Nonetheless, the DDA was a huge step forward. I am pleased that the government initiative and the parliamentary time allotted to it happened during an administration of which I was a supporter, namely, a Conservative government.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

4.27 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, for giving us an opportunity to discuss this important issue. The noble Lord, with his vast experience, is a doughty warrior for disabled people and is an honoured member of the Parliamentary All-Party Disability Group. We treasure his contributions, both within the group and in this House. I agree with many of the points that the noble Lord made. We have been dealing with them for some time. Some have been rewarded by the Government and some still require action.

This Government deserve great credit for their policies on disability. There is a vast range of policies for which we are all grateful. They have vigorously promoted, the interests of disabled people and I congratulate them warmly on so doing.

With the best of intentions, one can slip up and fall from a pedestal. I believe that Alistair Darling's speech today was just such a slip-up. He risks losing the good will of disabled people. This revival of the unjustified slur that disabled people may be scroungers who are trying to "fiddle" is a throwback to a very unfortunate period during the Government's previous term in office. Alistair Darling has changed the atmosphere: instead of disabled people appreciating all that is being done, now many will fear that they may be challenged and have their benefits reduced, which will be disastrous for them.

There is no point in instilling fear into disabled people; they are insecure enough as it is. The matter has been badly handled. There has been no consultation with those of us who are intimately involved in disability issues. We have a very good relationship with Ministers in this House and—I thought—in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, this has been a rather aggressive move. I shall not speak at great length on the matter because it is slightly outside the terms of the remit set by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell.

When we come to consider discrimination against disabled people, we realise that there is, in fact, a continuum of discrimination. Many people have good will towards disabled people and would not discriminate against them. That is both admirable and welcome. Then we have the vast majority of people who, in my view, could not care less: they would discriminate if it suited their purpose. They are indifferent and, if necessary, willing to wound if it is in their interests. If it is not in their interests, they will not discriminate. However, the approach of those people can be quite damaging unless due care is taken. Then there is the minority of vicious people who will discriminate, and who will not be influenced by any kind of pleas and suggestions; or, indeed, by education and persuasion. They will discriminate because they want to do so—again, in their own interests.

To their great credit, this Government have brought in the Disability Rights Commission, remedying a grave weakness in the DDA. Those of us who campaigned earlier for that legislation were disappointed that no commission was established. However, we now have such a commission, with which we are delighted. We have scrutinised its work, and it is most promising. The commission has a splendid chairman in Bert Massey, who is extremely experienced in disability and who is, himself, disabled. He knows a good deal about the subject. It also has Bob Niven, who is very experienced, as its chief executive. He has shown every indication of sympathising with disabled people. He has great knowledge of such matters and is acquiring an even greater knowledge. Those two people have a fine staff to serve them. Indeed, they are very lucky to have the brilliant Agnes Fletcher working with them, as well as other people of a similar calibre. With that kind of man and woman power, the commission can hardly fail.

The commission has been co-operating with government and with employers. I am all for that kind of approach. Unless you have co-operation, you get nowhere. I believe that the work of the commission is most skilful. Members of the commission visited the all-party group and explained what they are seeking to achieve. I found them to be most impressive. However, in any walk of life there is always the danger that, if you become too "cosy" with authority, you can lose your bite. It would be regrettable, deplorable—indeed, disastrous—if the commission became too cosy with employers or my noble friend Lady Hollis, although everyone wants to co-operate with her. It could be a case of, "Let's have lunch old boy; let's have another drink; and then lunch again next week. We'll do what we can". That kind of approach is dangerous.

I repeat: I am all for co-operation and conciliation. However, I remember vividly something that happened when we were fighting for the establishment of such a commission. Certain politicians said, "We don't want a commission: what we want is education and persuasion". But how do you deal with the tough guys; that is to say, those who are recalcitrant and who say, "To hell with disabled people. I don't want them on my payroll. Fm not having them"? Those people seek to discriminate because they do not want disabled people. Admittedly, that may not be in their interests, but that is by the way. It is just too bad. Our job is to ensure that disabled people have a fair crack at the whip. If those people are allowed to get away with it merely because a policy of education and persuasion is adopted, the commission will have failed. So this is just a friendly, flag-waving exercise from me to the commission in the hope that it will buttress education and persuasion with tough court action. Where people are insistent on discrimination, I trust that they will be taken to court with all the legal expertise at the commission's command.

I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister, who has clone a great deal in the field of disability, about the "Access to Work" scheme. She may have heard of it, as, indeed, have a few experts; but many other people have not heard of it. They simply do not know what is going on. Members of the public do not know about it and, similarly, many disabled people are unaware of the scheme. I believe that the Government should initiate a big PR exercise. They should really go to town on this and ensure that everyone is aware of the scheme's existence. We asked my noble friend previously to campaign on benefits as a PR exercise. This would be a second such exercise to publicise the "Access to Work" scheme. If that were to be done, I believe that the take-up would startle the Government. It would be a big step forward for disabled people.

Perhaps I may mention the subject of transport to my noble friend. At present, this is something of a no-man's land. A disabled person can go to a railway station and access is fine; there are no problems in that respect. People are not allowed to discriminate in terms of access. However, if a disabled person tries to get on a train, that is just too bad because you cannot have equality on the trains. The Government have arranged for disabled people to be able to get into a railway station with their wheelchairs, and so on, and that is admirable as far as it goes. But, thereafter, nothing—or virtually nothing—is done when disabled people wish to gain access to a train. How do you get on to the train, how do you get security on the train; indeed, how do you ensure equitable provision on the train? The Government are working on it, but, in my view, they are not working quickly enough. Some of the initiatives that the Government have in mind are admirable, but could not my noble friend the Minister bring them forward? What we really require from her today—if not today, then possibly tomorrow or the day after, but no later—is a few dates as to when the Government intend to implement such proposals.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell—I nearly said "my noble friend", though he is, of course, my friend—mentioned small employers. Again, it is to their great credit that the Government have brought down the number of employers who must come under the Act's provisions. However, I believe that the Government made a serious mistake when they accepted the pleas of small firms to exclude many thousands of them from the discrimination legislation. I say that because the Act specifically says that only reasonable provision should be made, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. Therefore, it is impossible for unreasonable burdens to be imposed on small employers. That plea from small employers was quite bogus, but they managed to persuade the Government to exclude thousands of them from the provisions of the DDA.

However, the Government are seeking to correct that mistake. As far as I can tell, they now intend to bring all employers into that category; but they are not doing so until 2004. That is far too long a time-scale. I recently read that they may do so by the year 2003, but that is still far too long to wait. I should appreciate it if my noble friend could find some way of speeding up the process so that all these firms will no longer be allowed to discriminate in such a way against potential workers.

I should like to conclude by saying that I admire the work of my noble friend on issues of disability; and, indeed, on social security matters. Although we clash on occasions, the thrust of her work is both valuable and admirable. That applies also to the Government, who perform a splendid job. Disabled people are in their debt. All I hope for is that the other elements that I have mentioned today, and which I believe to be errors of judgment, will be corrected soon.

4.39 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, for initiating this debate and for giving us an opportunity to reflect on our shared life in the community. In my diocese in Guildford, we are in the process of working towards full compliance with the 1995 Act. We have appointed an officer and a team of people working closely with those most directly affected to ensure that we have made the necessary journey by 2004.

As we were thinking about making that provision, we were told a story that made us all sit up. Those who are familiar with the churches will recognise the story. It was the custom in a local parish church— many who attend church will be well aware of this—for the priest, at the end of the administration of communion, to take the sacrament to one beloved member who was brought to the service week by week in a wheelchair. One Sunday after the service, in conversation with the person who brought the man in the wheelchair, he was thanked for making the effort to ensure that the sacrament was received. However, the man in the wheelchair burst into tears. When he was able to speak he said that he had always longed to be able to go to the altar and receive communion alongside everyone else. How often, when we are responding to people with particular disabilities, do we fail to understand their feelings and their sense of belonging to a shared human community?

The Peacock Centre in Woking has an important "Shopmobility" facility and has made considerable efforts to ensure ease of access for people with disabilities. It is noticeable how many people with disabilities use that centre. I am told that there is similar provision in other places such as Telford and that people come from miles around to use the facilities there. These developments make visible what the failure to provide has made invisible.

This enabling of participation in the common life by all requires a profound change of attitudes. People with disabilities are discriminated against not just in the failure to take good steps to ensure access, but in the way in which many see them, understand them and speak of them. Two such people who had requested provision in their church for visually impaired people overheard others say after the meeting at which they had raised the issue that they were "pushy". Another who had moved into a community facility for people with learning difficulties arrived for the first time at the parish church to find that the person giving out the books was the one who had led the campaign against the building of the facility in the community. NIMBY attitudes are to be found across the whole community in relation to these needs. I endorse all that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has just said about the spectrum.

The task is not simply to provide ramps, better toilet facilities, loops and books in Braille, excellent though such changes are. The real task is to shift public attitudes. In that, the 1995 Act is rooted in the soundest of doctrines about human life. It challenges the long held assumption about humanity that there are "normal" human beings and the rest who live on the margins. We are at last beginning to recognise that God gave us our humanity in a multitude of sizes and shapes. What we share is not normality but a common humanity—the same flesh and blood.

This past week I came across a wonderful definition of health by one of the Church's great theologians of recent times, Jurgan Moltmann. He states in the book, Liberate Yourselves by Accepting One Another, that health is, The strength to live, the strength to suffer and the strength to die. Health is not a condition of the human body. It is the power of my soul to cope with the various conditions of that body". Because we are all different yet fundamentally sharing in a common humanity, we all need support from one another, and that support must take account of who we are and the character of our living. The largest and most challenging task is to root into the public consciousness this understanding of human life.

We have heard from the media today that the Secretary of State for Health has indicated that he would like all who are registered as disabled and unfit for work to be regularly assessed. But that raises the question of doctrine—how do we see one another? People are not just economic numbers who, if they are not at work, are a drain on the public purse. If we are to get the language right, we must get the doctrine right. How can people make a contribution if they are faced with negative attitudes in the workplace, lack of decent provision for their needs and a constant struggle to gain acceptance for who they are and what their life is all about? There is a huge and growing contribution to be made by people with particular needs, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has clearly indicated. But turning the screw on them as if they are reluctant participants is no way to go about the matter; tackling the issues which prevent people sharing in the common life is.

There is a lot to do. I understand that in my own diocese in Surrey thus far only two boroughs have appointed access officers to ensure compliance with the Act. There are many opportunities for the Government to assist in furthering these matters, and much is being done of which we are immensely appreciative. I understand, for example, that a proposal is before the Government to exempt Braille equipment from VAT. I hope that it will be sympathetically considered, for those small and large steps all convey the right message to the whole community. There are so many things we can all do to make use of the opportunities which the Act gives us.

I hope that noble Lords will not think that I have overstepped the mark in introducing doctrinal themes into our debate, but what we believe matters. It matters in terms of how we think and how we behave. The 1995 Act is rooted in sound doctrine and, as such, challenges us in the Churches as much as in the wider community. Let us pray that by 2004 we shall all have made the journey with courage, joy and success.

4.47 p.m.

Baroness Wilkins

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for introducing this debate on one of the most significant pieces of legislation yet passed for disabled people in the UK. I declare my interests as a wheelchair user and as someone who receives disability living allowance.

In reviewing the impact of the Disability Discrimination Act to date it is difficult to tell how well it is working for severely disabled people; that is, those who face the greatest level of social exclusion. Blind people with guide dogs continue to be banned from restaurants and people with learning difficulties continue to face appalling levels of bullying. To my knowledge there are no readily available tools for measuring the precise impact of the DDA on that, but there are some pretty clear indicators that the law, the way in which it is being enforced and the support available to disabled people seeking redress present huge barriers. This debate offers the opportunity to consider how we can better empower disabled people to exercise their rights under the law.

First, the law is unnecessarily complex and inaccessible. You need to be a lawyer specialising in the field to understand all its intricacies. You need to know about the "triggers" for making reasonable adjustments, the "threshold for justification" and similarly obscure concepts, to have any sense of whether you have a strong case. The DDA seems to be designed to present a series of forbidding hoops to jump through, not as a user friendly tool for building a culture of respect for disabled people's rights. The Government's proposals for future legislative change outlined in the recent consultation paper, Towards Inclusion, would remove many of the unnecessary hoops but there is a wider need for all future legislation to be written in plain English and scrutinised for its accessibility.

Secondly, agencies undertaking case work with disabled people are hugely overstretched. Even with the Disability Rights Commission there is inadequate infrastructure to ensure that anyone who needs it can get advice and representation from a lawyer who specialises in DDA cases. Someone presenting themselves as a test case that may set a precedent or clarify a particularly obscure aspect of the law is more likely to get support and resources, assuming they know where to look for them in the first place. That is a major barrier in itself. Research shows that people who have to represent themselves have much less chance of success. Those problems were anticipated at the time of the passing of the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, when higher funding for the DRC and local DDA resource bases were called for. Will the Minister assure us that the Government are prepared to revisit that?

Thirdly, we know little of the impact of the DDA in areas such as access to goods, services and facilities, because there is virtually no case law. Discrimination against disabled people in everyday situations can be pretty relentless, so one would expect a large number of cases to come forward under Part III, but that has not been so. By the autumn of last year, only 25 cases had been brought to the county or sheriff courts under Part III of the DDA, as against more than 5,000 to employment tribunals. Perhaps the following example will show why.

Recently, a disabled man was in court challenging a train operating company's failure to provide him with assistance at a station. No specialist lawyer was available to represent him, so he represented himself and asked for an adjournment so that lie could have another go at seeking legal representation. The judge granted the adjournment, but ordered him to pay £600. That was eventually reduced to £175 plus VAT. The train company then attempted to have the case moved to the multi-track system, which meant that if he lost he would be liable to pay the company's costs as well. That does not happen in an employment tribunal. The respondent does not get to manipulate the system to their advantage and the issue of paying their costs does not arise.

Undoubtedly, the court system provides a powerful deterrent to disabled people seeking redress. The DRC will be addressing that key issue as part of its current review, but the sooner change can happen, the better.

Compliance with the DDA is too dependent on the willingness and ability of already disadvantaged people to take the case to court or tribunal. Enabling the DRC to undertake representative actions in its own name might overcome some of those obstacles, as will the Government's proposal to place public bodies under a statutory duty to promote equality for disabled people. Such a positive, proactive duty will encourage the spread of good practice and oblige policy makers to assess the impact of their policies and decisions on disability equality.

Lastly, and most importantly for severely disabled people, they will not be able to challenge some of the more blatant abuses of their rights unless and until the DRC is empowered to bring cases involving alleged breaches of the Human Rights Act 1998. Most urgent of these are the issues concerning lack of essential local authority support services for people who need them to carry out their daily lives. The Government have said that that cannot be done immediately because of the need to secure consistency with the other equality commissions and because the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights is consulting on the establishment of a human rights commission. That may be a long way off. Will the Minister reconsider that and allow protection for severely disabled people under the Human Rights Act to be covered by the Disability Rights Commission as a matter of urgency?

One group who urgently require the effective protection of the Human Rights Act are those with profound and multiple disabilities and complex needs, who may find it difficult or impossible to advocate for themselves, or even communicate with their own family. That includes many who live in the last of the long-stay mental hospitals or in other forms of residential care. They may be denied the most basic rights, such as the rights to receive treatment for serious illness or to form relationships or marry. They would find it almost impossible to challenge such abuses without the support of the Disability Rights Commission. The DDA offers no protection against those abuses. Only assistance under the Human Rights Act offers that protection.

Furthermore, the complexity and multiplicity of human rights issues facing that group makes a strategic intervention by the Disability Rights Commission doubly essential, because it is uniquely placed to conceive and execute a legal strategy to tackle the most serious abuses, establish key precedents and help ensure that case law in that area develops in a positive and orderly way.

The swift introduction of regulations enabling the DRC to support disabled people in such cases would send a powerful message of much-needed hope and support to disabled people and their families. It would enhance the authority and effectiveness of the DRC and would be one of the Government's most positive and lasting achievements for severely disabled people. I hope that the Minister will be able to oblige.

4.55 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to make a brief intervention before the wind-up speeches. My mother was in a wheelchair for much of her life. As a teenage boy wheeling her out, I was often deeply embarrassed and very angry about the discrimination shown in the 1950s to severely disabled people like her. Thankfully, we have come a long way since then, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, have said, much remains to be done.

My particular concern in this intervention—this concern was mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley—is with Section 7 of the DDA, which has introduced discrimination of the sort that the Act is meant to oppose. A firm with fewer than 20 employees that discriminates against a person with a disability who is also female and/or black would not be guilty in law of discrimination if that discrimination was shown to be on the grounds of disability alone. The Section 7 exemption applies a numerical formula to an Act that is supposed to be about rights. Thus 34 per cent of the workforce and 96 per cent of firms are excluded from the measures. I am concerned about the delay in putting right that wrong. If, as my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford has rightly said, freeing people with disabilities from discrimination is a moral quest, I cannot see why the law still allows some firms to be less moral than others.

4.57 p.m.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for this timely opportunity to review and evaluate the implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which is widely recognised as landmark legislation. It is an ambitious and large-scale Act that places diverse duties on public and private sector bodies. It is right that it should be reviewed regularly so that checks can be made on progress. This debate is a welcome opportunity to do that.

In preparing for the debate, I looked at the report of the Disability Rights Task Force, From Exclusion to Inclusion, and the Government's response, Towards Inclusion. Both are wide-ranging documents, as this afternoon's debate has reflected. I shall focus on one or two particular areas and one theme.

Today's debate is timely because, despite the best efforts of some of us, during the recent election campaign the needs and rights of disabled people went without mention. Although disabled people are citizens who share common concerns with the rest of us, they have additional needs and additional qualities to bring to communal life. At the start of a new Parliament it is right to pay attention to issues that directly affect between 8 million and 10 million people in the United Kingdom. In doing so, I shall revive a theme from the last Parliament that seems to have been forgotten but should not be, particularly in relation to this subject. I refer to the phrase "joined-up government".

I have two interests to declare. As noble Lords may know, I work for Age Concern England. Secondly, and more relevantly, my mum is profoundly deaf and has been dependent on NHS hearing aids since the 1940s. She is post-lingually deaf and does not use BSL, although we all learnt to finger spell the alphabet as children in case of emergencies. Her life has been largely spent in the hearing world. We did not have adaptations in our home; we just had the television turned up very loud. People of my generation are wont to say that they used to watch "Dr Who" from behind the sofa because they were so frightened. In our house our experience of "Dr Who" was two bars of thumping, pulsating music and a voice saying, "Turn that noise off now".

It has been interesting to experience at first and second hand the effects of the policy of successive governments on the lives of individuals. When I was small my mother had an old box hearing aid with a cord. It was not until the 1980s when we moved house and she happened to come under the audiology department of a general hospital that she came to use a hearing aid which fitted behind the ear.

I can vouch for the veracity of the Audit Commission report, Fully Equipped. Obtaining the right equipment and having it properly fitted is still a matter of chance for disabled people. The consequences of not finding it are severely debilitating for some disabled people. As the RNID report, Still Waiting to Hear, demonstrates, most NHS hearing aid models are over 30 years old. There are only 20 First Wave of Modernising NHS Hearing Aid services. If a deaf person does not live in one of those areas, not only does he not benefit but, as many of the means of communication become digital, he is left more and more in isolation and exclusion.

In addition, waiting times for hearing tests are becoming longer and investment in equipment and skilled staff is failing to keep pace with need. As devolution of decision making in the health service moves towards primary care, what assurances will there be that specialist services and equipment will keep pace with change and that disabled people will be able to seek the help of appropriately skilled professionals? Although the debate on reform of public services is beginning to happen, the reliance placed by severely disabled people on the NHS should not be subject to the vagaries of the market place.

On digital matters, it seems appropriate to mention one of the obvious omissions of the DDA. While terrestrial broadcasters are under an obligation to provide captioning and subtitling, digital and satellite broadcasters are not. Recent reports in newspapers suggest that some digital broadcasters are in financial difficulty and that the range of digital suppliers may decrease. It is therefore of even greater importance that those who remain have an obligation to make their broadcasts accessible. What plans do the Government have to bring digital broadcasting within the scope of the DDA?

From broadcasting I turn to advertising and information. In 1999 the Government launched the campaign, See the Person, designed to raise awareness of disability among employers and service providers by challenging misconceptions about disability. Those of us who were aware of that campaign were encouraged by the engaging and often amusing way in which the campaign challenged stereotypes of disabled people. Have the Government any evidence about the effectiveness of that campaign and similar campaigns? I am not convinced that such blanket advertising gets through effectively to those who need to change although I am willing to be persuaded otherwise. I very much welcome any evidence.

I return to the theme of joined-up government. Other noble Lords have mentioned the Government's intention to introduce the new medical check for incapacity benefit. The announcement, and the manner in which it was made without any consultation with disability groups, runs counter to the Government's stated intention of enhancing inclusion. On the one hand, the Government have accepted that conditions such as HIV serostatus and cancer should be included in the DDA. However, at the same time they propose to make disabled people prove every three years that they cannot undertake tasks which make therm suitable for work. That has a ring of discordance about it.

When the national minimum wage was introduced, there was a great deal of apprehension from disabled people and employers alike about the effect it could have upon disabled people who were working but whose package of benefits and support would be jeopardised by their increased earnings. Good employers, notably B&Q, did a considerable amount of work to ensure that their disabled employees could be retained. What progress has been made on that front? I echo the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. This Government have done a great deal of positive work for disabled people.

Part of my work with Age Concern involves advising small voluntary organisations about employment matters. From my experience it is clear that there is a huge amount of ignorance particularly in small businesses and organisations about the provisions of the DDA but, most importantly, about the various sources of support for employers who wish to hire and retain staff with disabilities. The availability of money for adaptations and capital equipment is extremely valuable, as is the provision of support workers. I know of a number of instances where experienced staff have been able to carry on working following strokes which have left them with a disability. However, I wish to draw to the Minister's attention to a shortcoming in the system. While the costs of travel to work can be met, the costs of travel incurred during work cannot be recovered. For example, the cost of a taxi to enable a member of staff to carry out a home visit to someone who is housebound cannot be recovered. For small employers such matters can be a significant barrier to the retention of extremely valued and experienced staff who are disabled.

An additional limitation of the DDA is that it does not cover volunteers. Volunteering is an important and rewarding experience for many people. It is also an important opportunity to gain experience and confidence. For many it is a route to finding paid work. The fact that organisations, many quite small, cannot access resources to facilitate volunteering by disabled people in a way that can encourage employment is a barrier. I hope that the Government may reconsider the matter.

As many noble Lords have said, transport remains the most significant omission from the DDA and blunts the effectiveness of the Act in almost every respect. Although regulations have been introduced to make new trains and buses accessible, there is still no date by which all trains have to be accessible. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, spoke of equality of rail travel. He will agree with me that standards are an important issue. At present, travel can be equally miserable for disabled and able-bodied. The lack of accessible transport is a fundamental flaw not only in this Act but in many others. For example, the Health and Social Care Act places on health bodies a duty to consult with users. Many of those users are disabled people. If they cannot travel to consultation meetings, they will not be able to take part in that partnership. Many areas of government policy which espouse inclusion will fail to meet their targets as a result. At a time when transport is a key issue for disabled and able-bodied people alike, joined-up thinking is of the essence. The anomaly that airlines, rail companies and car hire providers will have obligations to make their modes of transport accessible for employees but not for passengers is strange.

In passing, I make a plea for all rail companies to stop referring to their users as clients and start treating them as passengers with varying needs, all of whom would benefit from greater access.

The Disability Rights Task Force identifies a number of areas in which further work should be undertaken to strengthen the DDA. Sitting as we are today in the Victorian splendour of the Palace of Westminster, it would be remiss not to mention Part M of the building regulations and guidance on access from English Partnerships. New and old buildings alike are inaccessible and often there is much which can be done to rectify that without great expense. On these Benches, we believe that timetables for reviewing both measures should be set as soon as possible.

Finally, I refer to one factor which is not but should be in the Act: that is, disability awareness training for architects, designers and planners. Much of what the Act sets out to rectify and address are the effect of bad or ill-considered design. Much could be done through disability awareness training. To experience the world, as disabled people do every day, is a powerful means of making able-bodied people think about the world as it is for us all. I believe that it should be a compulsory part of training for anyone who is involved in design and building.

Much has changed since the 1940s when eugenicists tried to persuade politicians that there should be laws to prevent deaf people from marrying and having children with hearing people. That disabled people increasingly have the right to equal treatment, rather than having to depend upon the chance of fair consideration and charity from the rest of society, is only just. But good as the DDA is—it is widely recognised as a good law—rights without access for disabled people are pretty meaningless.

Full implementation of the Act could be the best response this Government make. As the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said, they have made far more significant strides than have most other governments, and they have built upon the work which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, identified as being so important on the part of the previous administration.

I hope that today the Minister will give an encouraging response to suggestions that have been made not only for improving the Act but, in very direct ways, for improving the lives of disabled people.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, this is the first opportunity that I have had to welcome the noble Baroness the Minister back to the Dispatch Box. In the previous Parliament she earned a great deal of respect from all sides of the House. I very much look forward to helping, critically but constructively, to improve her department's Bills in this Parliament.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy on initiating this important debate. I always listen to his speeches with very great interest. The noble Lord has first-hand experience of severe disability which, since the war, he has bravely borne. That gives him a real insight into the problems of, and opportunities for, disabled people. But, beyond that, he brings to these debates imagination, energy and extensive knowledge of the parliamentary system, particularly as a former Cabinet Minister, for which I know that disability groups are very grateful.

My noble friend is right to point out the importance of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—a landmark Conservative Bill introduced in the other place by William Hague. The DDA, which built on the foundation of the 1970 Act introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, was described by the Equal Opportunities Review as, the most important legislation in a generation". The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, asked me to say how much he regrets being unable to speak in this debate. The DDA opened up new markets for business, new job opportunities for people who had envisaged life on benefits, and new designs for all principles built into the latest technology.

I much enjoyed the speeches of the two right reverend Prelates. As a trustee of the two Kent cathedrals, I can assure them that we work very hard to make both cathedrals as user-friendly as possible for all disabled people.

One in every four customers either has a disability or a close relative or friend who is disabled. The estimated annual purchasing power of people with disabilities is £40 billion to £50 billion. Many providers of goods and services are showing themselves willing to make their services accessible to disabled people. Increasingly, they are approaching disability organisations and consultancies proactively to ask for advice on good practice. But that is only the beginning, and my noble friend is right to call attention to the means now available under the 1995 Act to improve the situation of severely disabled people.

What else needs to be done? There is still an Everest of ignorance that needs to be climbed. Many employers are unaware of the DDA and the Access to Work scheme, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. Like my noble friend, he is also a doughty warrior for the disabled. An example of such ignorance is a recent case of 10 adults with learning disabilities who were refused permission to enter a pre-booked party at a pub. The landlady considered that they would constitute a breach of the fire regulations and affect her regulars' comfort. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, brought to our attention the bullying that takes place.

Earlier this year, the Disability Rights Commission carried out a survey in which they asked people about attitudes towards disabled people and awareness of the DDA. Worryingly, fewer than half—only 46 per cent—had heard of the DDA. Clearly, the Government's "See the Person" campaign, launched in June 1999, has been a hopeless flop. It was designed to raise awareness of disability and the requirements of the DDA among employers, service providers and disabled people. Many disabled people are unaware of their rights under the DDA. That can act as a deterrent to many who believe that they may have been discriminated against.

Future progress for disabled people depends on effective publicity of the DDA and its benefits. Can the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have to widen the exposure and understanding of the DDA and the work of the RDA?

Disabled people make up a large and growing proportion of the working-age population. Employers, in particular, must be made more aware of the DDA and the Access to Work scheme. Many service providers or their advice agencies and solicitors do not understand either their obligations or the huge potential opportunities that enhancing their service with disabled people could bring to their business. I know employers who tell me enthusiastically about the loyalty, abilities and hard work that disabled people have brought to their jobs and the new perspectives that they have brought to the work. Sadly, that is not the norm.

Mencap, for example, points out that a recent public opinion survey suggested that nearly 90 per cent of the general public believe that people with a learning disability are employable. However, only 10 per cent of people with learning disabilities have paid employment. Most people said that they would be happy to live next door to someone with a learning disability. Yet a high proportion experience unfair discrimination in their daily lives, and the housing of such people in the community faces regular objections from neighbours.

Access for disabled people remains a high priority. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, mentioned transport problems. We on these Benches urge the Government to set end dates by which all passenger rail vehicles must be accessible. Without a more accessible transport network, greater access to the workplace for disabled people will not follow.

We supported recent legislation establishing the Disability Rights Commission. We also welcomed the extension of the DDA to cover education. However, my noble friend Lady Blatch has expressed our concerns in relation to other aspects of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act. We are concerned that the Government require local authorities to place children with special needs—many are severely disabled—in mainstream schools, regardless of the child's interests. That push for inclusion at all costs has put pressure on special schools and has resulted in the closure of many of them.

Maria Eagle has been brought in with considerable fanfare as the Minister for Disabled People. She is responsible for the issues that are classified as work and pensions; namely, disability policy, the Disability Rights Commission, disability benefits and long-term care. However, it would seem that she is not the only Minister with responsibility for disability issues. In the Department for Education and Skills the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, is responsible for pupils with individual needs, such as SEN. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, is responsible for matters relating to disabled people and training in the workplace; or does that fall within the remit of Maria Eagle or Nick Brown? Which Minister within the DfES is responsible for access for disabled people to further education and higher education institutions, as provided for in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act; or does that fall under the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions?

The Cabinet Office is responsible for social exclusion, which cuts across many different government departments. Disability is a major ca use of poverty and, as Leonard Cheshire and Scope point out, many disabled people are excluded. Do the Government have any plans for the Social Exclusion Unit to pick up on disability as a special area of work?

In the Department of Health, Jacqui Smith is listed as responsible for disability services. Indeed, during health Oral Questions last Tuesday she answered a Question on the national strategy for learning disabilities, now a Department of Health issue. Clearly, there is an overlap between these four departments, with no one person responsible for issues relating to disabled people. How wide is the remit of Maria Eagle, as Minister for Disabled People, throughout Whitehall? If it is wide-ranging, does she have the resources to make this possible?

The apparent lack of arrangements for cross-departmental consultation on issues affecting disabled people is causing alarm bells to ring among the disability groups. So important is this point to the chair of one disability charity that she has taken the decision, reluctantly, to listen to our debate rather than watch Wimbledon and Tim Henman on television! Disability organisations are already concerned at the Government's welfare reform plans to toughen up conditions for the 2.3 million disabled people who currently rely on incapacity benefits. I have been fielding calls all day from different disability organisations on the MoT tests for people with disabilities.

We all want disabled people to find work, but the disability groups, with whom there has apparently been absolutely no consultation, tell me that these measures will do little to help achieve that. The measures were leaked first to the press and then announced this morning by the Secretary of State to the IPPR. Why was no Statement on such an important matter made, before anywhere else, to both Houses of Parliament?

5.23 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, on his success in the ballot on this occasion. We have had a short, thoughtful and, as I would expect in your Lordships' House, expert debate. I also very much welcome his choice of subject. Helping severely disabled people within society is an issue which this Government have taken seriously and on which, as noble Lords around the House have acknowledged, we have made great progress. We have helped to empower, support and protect them.

Although I should like to focus, as did the noble Lord, on the Disability Discrimination Act, I shall also mention some of the other areas which noble Lords have raised, including the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, about the comments made this morning. The DDA was brought in by the previous government only after much pressure over the years from colleagues in this House and another place to provide civil rights for disabled people. I know that the involvement of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, in promoting statutory help for disabled people has been very significant. I should like to pay a special tribute to my noble friend Lord Ashley—although given his concerns about "cosying up", I suspect that I can no longer take a drink from him in future—and to my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester for their efforts over the years to introduce and strengthen civil rights legislation for disabled people.

Although the DDA was a very welcome Act, we said from the Opposition Benches at the time that as and when we came to power it needed to be strengthened. We recognised that it provided helpful protection for around 8.5 million disabled people, but that we needed to build on it. In October we announced that we would continue to implement the access to goods and services provisions in the DDA, set up a Disability Rights Task Force and, above all—in our view this was the main omission from the 1997 Act—establish a Disability Rights Commission to "powerhouse" the Act and make actions accountable in law.

In 1997, the DDA already meant that businesses and public bodies had to treat disabled people fairly. In 1999, we made sure that service providers would also have to change the way they delivered their services to make them accessible. We also announced in 1997 that in 2004 service providers may have to make adjustments to their premises for disabled people. That might mean a ramp or a wider doorway, for instance, but only things that are reasonable for a particular provider. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, was right to emphasise the word "reasonable" in that context.

We also moved quickly to set up the Disability Rights Task Force. Its first job was to make recommendations on setting up a Disability Rights Commission. In setting it up a year ago a major flaw in the DDA has been put right.

The next job we gave the task force was to look at comprehensive civil rights for disabled people. Its second and final report, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, was called From Exclusion to Inclusion and contained more than 150 recommendations across all areas of life. We immediately announced that we would legislate to introduce rights for disabled pupils and students. We have now done that in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, which corrects another major flaw in the DDA.

In a thoughtful and well informed speech, the noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked about mainstreaming in this respect. The SEN provisions will make a drive towards the greater inclusion of children with statements into mainstream schools where parents want it and where it is compatible with the efficient education of other children. That means that we must give greater support to those parents by creating a duty to establish parent partnership services and a new duty to establish conciliation arrangements and working codes. It can be a balancing act, not so much, if I may speak personally now, where a child has a physical disability but where his or her behaviour may be severely challenging and therefore very demanding in terms of the teacher's time vis-à-vis other children. Clearly, judgments have to be made, but the push of the Act is that teachers with proper support may be able to take more such children into mainstream schools. I am sure that that will be welcomed on all sides.

In March, we published our response to the task force's recommendations. We reported on the progress we had made in education, the provision of services, travel, the environment and housing, participation in public life, local government, health, social services and social security. We made clear that we will be ending the exemption of small firms from the DDA's provisions—the 20, then the 15 limit—in 2004. I am happy to confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield that as from 2004 all firms will be brought within the coverage of the DDA. More than that, we are bringing in more occupations such as police officers, fire fighters, prison officers, barristers in chambers, partners in partnerships and employees on ships and planes. That will bring nearly 7 million more jobs, including over 600,000 currently filled by disabled people, within the scope of the Act's employment provisions. That will be a huge achievement.

We are also committed to extending the DDA to cover most functions of public services—not just, as now, services to the public—and to introducing a new duty on public services to promote equalisation of opportunities for disabled people. Noble Lords asked a number of specific questions on that point. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked to what extent digital broadcasting would be included. In so far as it is a service or facility for members of the public, it comes within the remit of Part III of the Act. We are looking to see how we can improve co-ordination between various agencies. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, asked about the codes of practice. We have three codes of practice: one on employment, one on goods and services, and one on trade organisation. There will also be another later this year on education.

My noble friend Lord Ashley picked up the role of the Disability Rights Commission. He was warm in his praise of Bert Massie, its chairman. I am sure that my noble friend agrees with Bert Massie, who said that this is the most significant programme of reforms since disability rights legislation was first introduced 30 years ago.

My noble friend understandably asked—or perhaps I should say that he worried about—whether the fact that the Disability Rights Commission sought to work through conciliation and negotiation at least as much as through consultation meant that it would, in his words, "cosy up" too easily to the establishment in its various forms. Knowing Bert Massie as I have done over many years—my noble friend has also known him for a long time—and knowing that he has suffered from discrimination that I personally would find deeply offensive, I cannot easily believe that he could be bought off by the old boy network in the way in which my noble friend might fear.

Just for the record, the Disability Rights Commission has already taken on 2,000 cases, although the predicted number for this first year was 200. That sounds pretty tough.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I hope that there was no misunderstanding about my statement about being too cosy. No allegation was made against Bert Massie or Bob Niven; I praise them lavishly. I was referring to a trend that is normal and natural. I was giving the warning, "Just be careful".

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend will be the first to keep Bert Massie up to the mark in his task as chair of the Disability Rights Commission and in relation to its efforts to combat discrimination, should he need any scrutiny.

The DRC brought to the courts 40 cases last year and 70 cases this year. Again, that is a strong record. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, suggested that 5,000 cases had been brought to employment tribunals. My understanding is that as of last September there were 9,000 cases. Most of them were settled or withdrawn but, of the 1,165 cases that were heard, about one-quarter were successful. I say to my noble friend Lady Wilkins that the funding of the DRC must and will be kept under review.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, indicated that the Acts were being used. It may reaffirm what he said to point out that the DRC and the Government had expected that during the DRC's first year of operation there would be about 45,000 calls or inquiries to it; in fact, there were more than 62,000 calls. Interestingly, 20 per cent of them were from employers or providers. Again, that shows that the DRC is undertaking a helpful role.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, asked who was responsible for the employment and training of disabled people. My right honourable friend Nick Brown, who is in the other place, is responsible for the New Deal for Disabled People. Colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills are responsible for training. Maria Eagle is the Minister responsible for disabled people; specifically, she is responsible for civil rights, disability benefits and access to work in Remploy, and she co-ordinates work across government. I hope that that meets my noble friend's point.

I was asked about transport. The Government will be consulting separately on the task force's transport recommendations. My noble friend Lord Ashley will know that we have already improved accessibility for new rail vehicles from 1st January 1999 and for new buses from 31st December 2000. There are currently proposals in the pipeline for further improvements, such as those relating to small vehicles—that is, those that seat fewer than 22 people.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about building regulations. The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has surveyed the matter and it is considering its response. The DRC is taking on board issues such as ensuring that architects and so on are well briefed. My experience of local government is that many authorities have superb records in that field.

I was pressed by my noble friend Lady Wilkins on human rights. Last year we signed up to the European Union employment directive, which will ensure that all member states protect disabled people against discrimination in employment and training. That would make it easier for disabled people from the UK to work in other member states. I hope that it does not sound boastful but, with the possible exception of Ireland and Sweden, the UK has more widely drawn, comprehensive and enforceable rights for disabled people than anywhere else in the EU. My noble friend, who raised a point about human rights, was right: we need to ensure that there are coherent arrangements. The new parliamentary Joint Committee will consider that and we do not want to pre-empt it. We shall obviously take seriously its recommendations.

Legislation is only one issue. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford said in his moving speech, we also need to change attitudes about disability and about raising awareness. The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, gave some interesting figures about learning difficulties; his statistics were compelling and his point was absolutely right. They convey the mountain that many disabled people still have to climb. There is a need to confront, in the best possible way, people's stereotypes. People too often see the disability first. We have to change attitudes—we have to "read" people for their ability and contribution, not for their disability, which may be the most minor part of their lives. The Government recently launched a publicity campaign that was aimed largely at showing smaller businesses how easy it can be to help their disabled customers. The DRC is also working in that field.

A third area in which we have needed to focus our attention has been in providing practical help for disabled people who want to work or to stay in work. Most disabled people can and do use the same employment services as non-disabled people. However, some need additional or separate help, especially those with more severe disabilities. We have about 600 specialist disability employment advisers working at job centres. Our work preparation programme delivers employment rehabilitation for those who need it to become ready for work. Access to work—the comments of my noble friend Lord Ashley on this matter were absolutely right—provides important help for about 25,000 disabled people who face employment barriers. Our expenditure has doubled over the past few years and twice as many are being helped compared with the figures for four years ago. We spend £300,000 publicising its services, but we should do so to a greater extent. I shall draw that to the attention of my honourable friend Maria Eagle. Having facilities that are not fully utilised is such a waste of potential and talent.

Workstep is our newly developed programme of supported employment. We are investing an additional £40 million to give it a good start. Under our New Deal for Disabled People we have been testing ways of supporting disabled people to get or to keep jobs. Our disabled person's tax credit, together with the national minimum wage, ensures that for disabled people, work pays. We are also giving greater support to those who are most severely disabled, who need help and for whom income from work is not the whole answer. The disability income guarantee has ensured that the poorest, most severely disabled people who are below pension age will receive an income of at least £142 a week for a single person and £186 for a couple. About 130,000 families and 30,000 families with severely disabled children have benefited from that.

Those noble Lords who have taken a particular interest in this area, including above all my noble friend Lord Ashley, will know that we have moved to help severely disabled people who are victims of vaccine damage. That has not been mentioned so far today but it is very much on the Government's agenda. Nothing can make up for what happened to the affected people but we have a duty to support them. Last year we increased vaccine damage payments to £100,000, including back-dated top-ups for people who had received earlier settlements. I am delighted that we shall also be legislating to reduce the disability threshold for a payment from 80 per cent to 60 per cent and to extend the limit on claiming for children to the age of 21. We shall shortly be issuing a consultation document on those changes. Noble Lords have pressed me on such matters in this House on many occasions and I am delighted that we have been able to respond in this way.

Before I conclude I turn to a point that was raised by many noble Lords; namely, the comments in the press on the speech this morning by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to the Institute for Public Policy Research. There may be some misunderstanding of what the situation is now for people on incapacity benefit and perhaps I can help to set it in context. I hope that noble Lords will distance themselves from comments like "MOTs" and so forth, which I find offensive, inappropriate and deeply degrading. The use of such language helps no one.

At the moment the Benefits Agency carries out 1 million personal capability assessments every year. Half of those tests are repeat assessments, the other half are first-time applications. So all new claims for incapacity benefit are now subject to review at some point between the timespan of six months and five years. There is nothing new about checking ongoing claims for incapacity benefit.

An obvious example is somebody who may be receiving IB because they had been on kidney dialysis, which had implications for their health, but subsequently went on to receive a kidney transplant. Their situation, their capacity for work and their dependence on incapacity benefit would have been transformed almost within a matter of weeks. It would be absurd then to regard TB as a benefit for life when the disability from which that person suffered had been overcome.

In a Bill later this year we are proposing that new claimants of incapacity benefits be normally subject to a review after three years. It is not about forcing people off benefit if they are still unable to work. The review will look at people's condition after they have been on benefit for three years, rather than the more random six months, five years and now three years. It is about helping people back into work, where possible, by offering the necessary help and support through the personal advisory service at job centres. It has been a huge success for other groups of people, including lone parents. We may be talking about rehabilitation, the new developments that have emerged; we may be talking about re-skilling, and someone who was previously a manual worker may be happy to take on computer skills which open up new fields of employment; we may be reminding people on IB that they can test the water for work, but that with the benefit of linking rules they have nothing to lose.

There is a range of issues which are worth exploring which will support disabled people in making the same choices that all of us take for granted. Such new claimants will normally attend a work-focused interview, though of course if somebody is terminally ill the requirement can be waived. We will be listening to all views on this proposal, both before and during the passage of the Bill. We are still considering the detail of the proposals and how they will work in practice. A version of them will come forward in the forthcoming Welfare Reform Bill. But I emphasise that I regard this as an opportunity, not a threat. We already carry out fairly regular repeat interviews for a vast number of people on incapacity benefit, and certainly all new claimants. What we have not done in the past is offer them the personal adviser service, focusing on work and opportunities, that so many disabled people tell us they would welcome.

One million disabled people say that they can work; a further 400,000 believe that they could work if given the right support. Our proposals will deliver that increased support. I hope that they will he welcomed by disabled people.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, before the noble Baroness moves off that subject, clearly this morning's announcement was very important. Why was it made to the IPPR rather than in the form of a Statement to both Houses of Parliament?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, first, it is not a major new initiative, as the noble Lord opposite seems to think. We already repeatedly check eligibility for all benefits, whether it is disability living allowance, housing benefit, JSA—the noble Lord will know because he took part in those debates—and of course with IB. We are now proposing the three-year repeat interviews in the job centre plus environment with the help of a personal adviser. Those interviews will be work-focused to go over the range of opportunities.

It seemed to me important that this matter, which will be included in a Bill later this autumn, should be in the public domain so that disabled people can comment and consult on it, particularly when our proposals are worked through in greater detail. Given that this Bill was announced in the Queen's Speech and it was made clear then that it would include broad proposals addressing incapacity benefit, there could not be any question of impropriety in the speech made by my right honourable friend this morning.

In conclusion. we want a society where there is opportunity for everyone and not just a few. We want it free of discrimination and prejudice. We want everyone to play a full part. But some people, particularly those with more severe disabilities, need extra help and support. We have, as noble Lords today acknowledged, made important changes, specifically for severely disabled people. We need to do more. Employers and service providers will have to consider making reasonable adjustments for any disabled person. It is intolerable that physical barriers, for example, or out-of-date stereotypes which at reasonable expense can be adjusted to bring disabled people into the full life of our society, including the life of work, should stand in their way. Our job is to help them move those hurdles and barriers.

Our record over the past four years in supporting civil rights for disabled people shows we mean business. Your Lordships have always been expert, supportive, helpful and, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor, said, well-judged; constructively critical. I expect nothing less from your Lordships as we go into the new Parliament ahead.

5.46 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank all who have spoken in this debate. Perhaps I may deal briefly with some of the points raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, spoke about "Access to Work" and, I am glad to say, supported the words in my opening speech urging wider publicity for that scheme. I would add that it is not expensive. The provision of a small piece of special equipment, with the cost shared by the Government and the employer, could make all the difference as to whether or not an individual could be employed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, spoke about the difficulties of representation when cases are brought before tribunals and courts. I am sure we were interested to hear those experiences and her comments will no doubt be read elsewhere.

I felt very much complimented by the fact that two right reverend Prelates decided to take part in this debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield referred to Section 7. But I believe his concerns have been answered. I tried to answer them in my opening speech and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said more. Section 7 originally laid down that small firms employing fewer than 20 employees would be excluded from the legislation. But subsections (2) and the following subsections laid down the way in which those numbers can be reduced. That has already happened once. The figure of 20 is now 15. In answer to me the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that that will continue and will come to nought in 2004. So the right reverend Prelate need not worry. It is not a discrimination in favour of small firms that will continue for long.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, spoke of the need to spread public awareness. She is absolutely right. I speak having had the experience of being appointed to take a prominent part in the United Kingdom, in 1981, in the International Year of Disabled People. We decided then to make promoting public awareness one of our primary aims. It was estimated after wards that we managed to do more in that one year than in 10 normal years. But that is 20 years ago and a great deal still needs to be done.

I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, who replied to all the points raised in the debate. Perhaps I can just say that she spoke of the number of cases with which the DRC is presently dealing. But what will really matter are the results of those cases; how they go and whether or not at the end of it the disabled people concerned actually benefit or feel that they have been well treated or badly treated.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving the figure of 9,000 cases where tribunals were concerned. My figure of 5,000, which I think the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, also quoted, was for the end of last year. We did not have any later information. I am glad to hear that the figure is now 9,000.

My only quibble with the remarks of the noble Baroness is that she described the omission of education in the 1995 Act as a flaw. I would regard it as an omission which was to be dealt with later. It is a pity if the DDA was to be described as "flawed" which is the next stage, given current parlance.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, perhaps I may take back the word "flawed" and say "incomplete".

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. I hope that the departmental briefs will be altered in future. Within the past year I have heard another Minister—I shall not mention her name—describe the DDA as "flawed" on the same count. I am sure that the government of the day would like to have included education. However, as I indicated, there were so many arguments going on within the educational world that rather than hold up all the other subjects and delay the Bill so that it would not have been passed in 1995, it was best to wait on education until there was some agreement on the important subject of which kinds of school disabled pupils should attend. That was dealt with in a later Act.

I am grateful to everybody who has taken part in this debate. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at seven minutes before six o'clock.