HL Deb 08 November 2001 vol 628 cc345-58

5.57 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose to introduce a new Disability Bill.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may remind the House that it is only 30 or 40 years since disabled people were treated as objects of pity and charity, denied rights and patronisingly treated as a regretful necessity.

Since then there have been major achievements with an array of benefits, the establishment of many rights and new public attitudes towards them. Above all, there is a strong sense of the developing independence of disabled people themselves, stemming, in large part, from these advances. I regard that as of tremendous importance.

The Government deserve great credit for the many measures they have taken to help disabled people, especially in the benefits field and in the setting up of the Disability Rights Task Force and the Disability Rights Commission. Under the chairmanship of Bert Massie, the commission has been a leading advocate of new legislation. Its parliamentary affairs manager, Agnes Fletcher, has been particularly helpful.

The changes in both provision and attitudes brought about by these achievements are now part of the fabric of our society. But, as we begin the new century, this is the time to stand back and appraise the extent of the advances and assess what more needs to be done. Key questions to be asked are: to what extent have disabled people got genuine independence; to what extent are they free from discrimination; how different are their opportunities compared with those for non-disabled people; have they got equal chances of a job with others; and, can they be confident that they will get fair treatment by society or is it subject to chance and luck?

In my view, the answers leave room for not one iota of doubt that a new disability Bill is necessary. The Labour manifesto's commitment in 1997 to introduce "comprehensive and enforceable" civil rights for disabled people was welcome and crucially important. But we should be clear about what that means. Comprehensive civil rights mean that all elements of living are provided for with no elements of chance. Enforcement means that disabled people get what is intended, and that, if necessary, they will get it by enforcement. To me, that means secure provision with disabled people being respected as equals with non-disabled people and having the same rights.

How far and to what extent are those reasonable interpretations operative today? Let us take the case of employment. Protection from discrimination in jobs depends on luck for many disabled people who want to work. It can depend on the size of the firm for which they work or want to work and on whether they are public sector employees. No less than 80 per cent of all small businesses, and 7 million workers, are excluded from the current employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act. That is astonishing, and there can be no serious excuse for it.

The Government have now decided to include all firms eventually, but not until 2004. Why the wait? This excessive delay means that many disabled people are still vulnerable to discrimination until then. So, there are no comprehensive and enforceable civil rights in that regard.

Employees in the public sector such as fire fighters and police and prison officers also do not benefit from comprehensive and enforceable civil rights. They are simply excluded from the DDA—full stop.

Even when disabled people get jobs, there is no guarantee that they can travel to them. Nondiscrimination provisions of the DDA do not apply to the means of transport. Disabled people can get on to the platform, but not on to the train. That has been called the trainspotters' charter—and with some justification, I think. Transport today is the Achilles' heel of disabled people in jobs. Some transport vehicles are covered under Part V of the DDA, which has not yet been implemented. Transport buildings fall under Part III of the Act, which expressly excludes vehicles. To compound that bizarre concoction, access to aeroplanes and ferries is not covered at all by the Act. It is a Fred Karno situation for many disabled people, in which 7 million people and 80 per cent of small firms are excluded.

If even small links are missing in the transport chain for disabled people, it is obvious that the journey cannot be completed. When elements as major as those that I have outlined are not in place, it is out of the question. This has major implications for jobs and independence.

Another example of the lucky dip principle is discrimination against people with HIV. Regrettably, there is discrimination against people who are diagnosed with HIV, but, incredibly, they are denied legal protection from discrimination under the provisions of the Act. It is designed especially to protect people, but, in respect of HIV sufferers, that protection comes only if and when they develop AIDS.

Some important rights for disabled people are to be found not in the DDA, but in the Human Rights Act. They include provisions ensuring that no one should be deprived of life intentionally and that no one should be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment. The first provision could affect cases in which life support systems are turned off because of very severe impairment and in which disabled people may be denied life-saving treatment because of their disability.

As there is no commission to enforce the Human Rights Act (there should be one) powers should be given to the Disability Rights Commission to represent disabled people under the European Convention on Human Rights. After two and a half years' consideration, the Government have failed to act on that basis. Their feeble excuse that the Joint Policy Committee on Human Rights is also considering the EOC and the CRA is unconvincing. There is absolutely no reason for the excessive delay.

Those issues and others should spur the Government to consolidate and expand anti-discrimination legislation for Britain's disabled people. No doubt some of that could be done through regulation, but rather than tinkering by making a patch here and there, we need the Government to introduce a comprehensive new disability Bill in the next Queen's Speech. They can thus set a pattern and an example that can be a beacon to all other countries.

I repeat that this Government have a fine record on disability and they should be congratulated on all that they have done, but if they introduce this new Bill—I very much hope that it will feature in the next Queen's Speech—it will be not only a beacon for other countries, but will effectively tackle historic discrimination here and enable disabled people to live fuller and happier lives.

6.5 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, it is right for the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, to have tabled this Question, and also very timely. It follows my balloted debate on 4th July, whose subject was the Disability Discrimination Bill, which is now an Act.

In that debate I pointed out that that Bill was the first on disablement ever to have been drafted and introduced by any government. Previously, Private Member's Bills had had to suffice. Different parts of the DDA—I shall use that term to refer to the 1995 Act—have been taking effect at different times. The Act covers many times more subjects than could any Private Members' legislation. However, it did not cover all areas. For example, it did not complete what was required on transport and education. At that time, it would have taken much longer to have prepared legislation for those subjects. I am glad that the Act was not delayed in order to include them, as that would taken about five years. As a result of its introduction, many cases of discrimination in employment have been investigated since the relevant parts have taken effect.

There have been suggestions—the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, repeated them today—that amending legislation or introducing a new Bill could improve the definitions, in particular on HIV, and give increased responsibility to public authorities for promoting equal opportunities for disabled people. That would happen on the principle, which has been accepted, that it is within the bounds of what is reasonable. I remind the House that both British and United States legislation on this subject observes the principle of reasonable accommodations. That has worked well in this country so far.

The DDA made a huge step forward. It should be built upon now. Whether it is another Bill or subordinate legislation—statutory instruments or regulations—that is necessary, it is the Government who should initiate it. It is too difficult and uncertain an operation to be carried out by Private Members' Bills or Private Peers' Bills, even with government support.

One asks whether the time has come for the removal of the exemptions that are written into the DDA. This is the opportunity to consider them. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has already referred to them. First, there is the exemption of small businesses. It is gradually being removed in stages and the process should be complete by 2004. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government intend to hasten that process and to bring it forward?

Then there is the exemption for the Armed Forces. This is a subject on which I can speak from personal experience having been severely wounded and disabled in World War II in April 1945. I spent a year and two months in hospital—St Bartholomew's—which did a marvellous job in putting me together again. On the first anniversary of VE Day in 1946, I was still an inpatient in Bart's, although later that year I was allowed to emerge on crutches.

Partially disabled, I was allotted a task in intelligence in what was then the War Office—now, of course, it is the Ministry of Defence. I was still on crutches. I was employed there for only four months because I had been successful in the Foreign Office examination, and also successful in the Foreign Office medical examination, both of which I passed on crutches. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has heard me recall before, as I left the medical board the chairman said, "Of course, as a diplomat you will not be required to walk or stand"—which, curiously enough, was true at that time because we had only a few embassies and other missions abroad and they were all in salubrious capital cities.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, they were lying on cushions.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that for the first three years I had to work in the Foreign Office, where I worked personally with Mr Ernest Bevin, for whom I had a great admiration. Certainly I do not think that I was expected by him to lie on anything. I got to know him extremely well in the job that I was doing.

I spent 12 years in sedentary appointments arranged by the Foreign Office—mostly in London—and then I had to leave. My surgeons would not permit me to go to distant and insalubrious places.

In the distant past—and after a world war—the Armed Forces were able to find appropriate jobs for disabled people. I accept that it may be difficult now. The Army is much smaller and most soldiers have to be able to perform front-line duties. This has been confirmed by Field Marshals and others whom I have consulted.

Disabled soldiers may be a liability to their comrades beside them, certainly in World War II situations of the kind that I took part in—that is to say, major offensives, usually those of Field Marshal Montgomery. It would certainly have been difficult for the advancing troops if one or some of them had been a liability to their comrades.

I turn now to the RAF and the Navy, in which there are one or two areas where it is possible for someone who is disabled to do a job—for example, to fly an aeroplane. Of course, usually in such cases they will have trained and obtained experience before they became disabled. A very good example, of course, is Douglas Bader, whom I knew quite well. He set an extremely good example to others, but, of course, he had earned his wings and learnt to fly before he became disabled.

I would encourage the placing of disabled people in suitable jobs—which I understand may be limited—in the Army. It is not possible for every soldier to be transferable to a front-line combat unit, and we should concentrate on those areas in the Army where someone who is not able bodied can do an office or other job.

I have spoken about the Armed Forces because they are an important exemption at present in the DDA. This is an area with which I am familiar. Very careful consideration would have to be given along the lines that I have outlined before the Armed Forces could be removed from the Act and no longer exempted. I look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has to say about the Government's intentions. In general I support the noble Lord, Lord Ashley.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, talking about the DDA brings back memories. When we discussed it in this Chamber, I felt that we were taking the first step towards giving people real rights. It was a rather faltering step; it took a great deal of pushing to get it going. It faltered because the rights that it introduced were given out in a rather piecemeal way. They had to be fought for; we stumbled left and right; we left things out; we did not bound into the field.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said, quite justifiably, that this Government have probably the best record on disability of any government. That is true. It is also true that the government before them were also the best in their turn, and probably the government before that. There has been a great deal of progress in the field of disability discrimination because of the pressure that has been applied for many years. We have become more educated.

The last time I spoke to the noble Baroness in her position on the Front Bench, I pointed out the number of areas in which I had spoken about disability. Her department is not the only one which is favoured by my dulcet tones. The noble Baroness's department has to carry the can for many of these issues, but disability affects everything. As has been mentioned, transport is one of the glaring omissions from the original Bill.

Rights have been introduced in a piecemeal way. Regulations have been brought in so slowly that people have forgotten about them and are now panicking. We started with the National Disability Council; then we went to the Disability Rights Commission; now the commission has just about got going and suddenly finds it has huge amounts of work. Indeed, the work it is undertaking is generating more work.

Perhaps I may do something I rarely do and quote from a document I have received from the commission. It states: The Commission believes that a Disability Bill represents the best way of ensuring proper parliamentary consideration of complex but crucial issues—spanning the definition of disability, various exemptions contained with the Disability Discrimination Act…a public sector duty to promote equality parallel to that contained in the Race Relations Amendment Act and rights to protection from discrimination in transport". That is what the commission is calling for.

Basically, we are in a mess. Even if cannot have a new Bill, we could certainly have a consolidation Bill. That would be a challenge both for the draftsmen and for joined-up government within Whitehall. Education meets transport meets works and pensions. Those departments could come together and talk.

The Bill itself was a good initial step but it was a product of its time. Time is now moving very fast. The Government did not really want to bring the Bill forward; they were frightened of its consequences.

There were scare stories everywhere—indeed, there still are—that it would cost millions, billions, for the alterations to various buildings; business would not be able to handle it. This meant, of course, that business had such a time-scale that it has not handled it. A little bit of pain up front is often worth it in the long run.

We have to get a coherent over-view. There are many ways of piggy-backing on other legislation. Indeed, many people consider that bringing all forms of discrimination together may be a way forward. But some people will say, "Possibly we have the same goal but we have different aims and objectives and a different client base". That is a valid argument, certainly at this time. But we have to try to bring these things together. The confusion and diversity of approach in terms of solutions holds back any consistent progress.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, cited the example of the Armed Forces. Again, in this area we must attempt to move with the times. A great many disabled people have served in the Armed Forces at times of national emergency. Over a long period dyslexic people have served quite happily in a variety of roles. That, for instance, would be covered. I apologise for referring again to dyslexia. I merely cite it as an example of how definitions will change over time. In a more technological age—during which time there has been a conviction that war can be fought like a game of "Space Invaders"—it may be possible for various branches of Her Majesty's Armed Forces to find an ongoing, continuous role.

Certain other exemptions—for example, the police force, the Fire Service and other emergency services—should be treated in the same way. If we have a better definition of "reasonable adjustment", or something along those lines, that will make sure that we do not have absurd exemptions, as happens at present. If we have a good definition that works across the board, against which people can argue clearly, then we shall go forward.

We should remove some of the onus on individuals to bring cases and prove them in case law. We should try to move ahead. The noble Lord's suggestion is timely. Much can be done in this area. The first point is to attempt to bring the current legislation together into a coherent whole.

6.21 p.m.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by making a point about the title of the department. For a Government who regard inclusivity as a major priority, it is rather strange that when the former departments of social security and employment were amalgamated the Government did not simply opt to call it the "Department of Social Security and Employment" rather than the Department for Work and Pensions. Clearly, the expression "work and pensions" excludes quite a number of interests. It excludes, for example, both the disabled—many of whom, alas, are not in work despite all our efforts—and pensioners. The change that arose in the title is strange.

We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, for raising this issue. It is in many ways an extension of the debate that took place in July, initiated by my noble friend Lord Campbell. In replying to that debate, the Minister was still under the impression that the matters that we discussed earlier today would be dealt with in a welfare Bill rather than by regulations. As the two debates are linked, perhaps I may ask the Minister which provisions mentioned in the Queen's Speech are contained in the welfare Bill. Given the priority that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, would like the Government to give to these matters concerning the disabled, if a welfare Bill is still to be presented to Parliament, is there now something of a cap for these matters to be covered?

In her final remarks, the noble Baroness said that the proposals made in the orders that we discussed earlier could be taken up by people when they were ready. She used the words "right and ready" or some such expression. My understanding is that people will not have that opportunity. They will not go for an interview or take up a job when they are ready; they will go when the department asks them to go.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, suggested that the existing legislation on this subject might be included in a consolidation Bill. I am not quite clear what that would achieve. I know full well, having tried in another place to make a speech on a consolidation Bill that it is the most difficult thing in the world.

Lord Addington

My Lords, merely the exercise might show us what a mess we are in.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I have a nasty feeling it would continue to show the mess that we are in. Anyone who has dealt with a consolidation Bill will realise that it is only a technical exercise.

However, the noble Lord made a good point in stressing the importance of co-ordination between different government departments. As he rightly says, a number of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, in his opening remarks go across government departments. Clearly, the question of transport is relevant not only in the context of the disabled and the Department for Work and Pensions but also in the context of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. That is important.

I come to this debate as a comparatively new boy. Other than on welfare Bills involving largely financial matters, I do not think that I have spoken on disability matters of the kind raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, this evening. On previous occasions they have been dealt with by my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever, who has a great deal of expertise and interest in this area. I am sure that he will wish to speak on these matters on future occasions. I, however, come to this set of issues comparatively fresh.

To speak more personally, I looked today at the Disability Alliance's annual review for the year 2000–2001. The alliance stresses the extraordinary success—I think that is the right description—of the UK team in the Paralympic Games in Sydney. It points out that it is engaged in dealing with these matters in relation to UK sport, formerly with Sport England. It is a long time since I was an active athlete—something like half a century—but I well remember at that time organising athletic events for the disabled. Such events have remarkable importance so far as concerns their personal outlook on life. We should do everything possible to encourage disabled people in these endeavours, whether in the Paralympics or in small local events—or, for example, in the London Marathon, where I am usually astonished at the efforts of people in wheelchairs.

My reason for raising the point in this context—and it may possibly require legislation—is that the Disability Alliance points out that it gives advice to individual disabled athletes on the impact that lottery funding may have on their social security benefits. I have not given the Minister notice of this question. We need to consider carefully whether, if they are in receipt of lottery funding, it ought to have any impact on their social security benefits. I see that the noble Baroness is not sure. It is a point that we need to examine carefully. In the context of whether another disability Bill is necessary it is worth looking at.

The history of these matters goes back to the Private Member's Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, in 1970 in another place. The noble Lord has made a big contribution in this area. It continues through the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 put forward by my right honourable friend Mr William Hague. Since then, there has been some disappointment regarding government progress in these matters—not least at the withdrawal of 12 charities from the Disability Benefits Forum, which I understand no longer exists. On the other hand, I pay tribute to the progress made by the Government with regard to the establishment of the Disability Rights Task Force and the Disability Rights Commission. I hope that the Minister will be able to reply on the point that he raised with regard to representation by the commission. It is clearly doing a great deal of work in representing individuals at tribunals but not in relation to the Human Rights Act. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that point.

Outside organisations have raised a number of issues. There was disappointment that the response to points on transport has been that the Government are consulting. The Minister mentioned that they were consulting on the issue in July. Perhaps she could bring us up-to-date on progress and, more particularly, whether definitions of disability—for example, as regards cancer, or whatever it may be—are required.

The Minister suggested that blind people were automatically passported through the system. That seems in conflict with representations that I have received from the Royal National Institute for the Blind which believes that those individuals originally recognised as being blind need to go through a review every so often. Definition is important. On extensions to small firms, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, pointed out that 2004 seems a fairly lengthy period of adjustment for companies to provide for those who have disabilities at work.

It would be helpful if the noble Baroness could summarise the further steps which could be taken without legislation; those which could be taken through secondary legislation; and, finally, what plans the Government have for those areas which can be provided for only by primary legislation.

6.32 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I shall do my best. As usual, the whole House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Ashley for providing the opportunity to debate this matter. Legislating to strengthen and improve the rights of disabled people is of prime importance. As noble Lords have acknowledged today, and without wishing to sound complacent, we have a record which is second to none of any country of which I am aware, with the possible exception of American civil rights legislation which has developed to some extent along a slightly different path.

We have already established a Disability Rights Commission. That is a significant step and one which was omitted from the Disability Discrimination Act. And we have started to put right other major omissions from the Disability Discrimination Act such as legislating in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 to bring within the scope of the DDA discrimination in the provision of education.

When talking about such steps, it may be appropriate to respond as far as I can to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, about consolidation. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. Since the DDA was introduced in 1995 it has been amended significantly by only one other Act—the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. Therefore it is too early to think about consolidating those two Bills.

We need, for example, to take forward our obligations under Article 13 relating to the employment directive. The noble Lord perhaps was suggesting that we seek to consolidate the interface with other departments—the Department of Health, and so on. Other legislation deals with a variety of issues which do not turn on whether discrimination has occurred. For example, the primary matter for the health service may be the extent of disability rather than discrimination and, therefore, the support which may need to be given as of right by local authorities. I do not think that it is appropriate to try to consolidate to that extent. However, I am sure the noble Lord is right that over the years consolidation will be needed. But at the end of the day employers and disabled people want helpful advice and guidance from the local offices—the CAB and such organisations—rather than legislation, which most of them will not read.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 deals with education. In addition, from October 2004 the final phase of Part III of the DDA—it will require reasonable adjustments to physical features of premises where access is impossible or unreasonably difficult—will come into force. That will be supported by a revised code of practice which will be issued early next year.

These are important changes to the current framework but, on their own, they are not sufficient to meet our 1997 manifesto commitment to support comprehensive civil rights for disabled people. The language used today about the need to keep building on it is right. That is why we established an independent Disability Rights Task Force to advise us on how best to take forward our overall commitment to civil rights. In its 1999 report, From Exclusion to Inclusion, the task force made 156 wide-ranging recommendations. Some required the Government and other public bodies to make changes to the way in which administrative or other procedures are operated. Others required legislative action such as bringing education within the scope of the DDA; and, as I have mentioned, we have done that.

Towards Inclusion was our response to the task force. It was published on 5th March of this year and reports the progress we have made in a number of areas such as the provision of services, transport, the environment and housing, participation in public life, local government, health and social services.

Towards Inclusion—our response—also made specific proposals to legislate to help tackle social exclusion and address inequality in employment and access to goods and services which many disabled people still face. Some of the major proposals have been highlighted today. They included the ending of the exemption of small firms from the DDA's employment provisions in 2004; bringing within the scope of the DDA more occupations such as police officers, fire fighters, prison officers and barristers in chambers; introducing a new duty on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people; and extending the scope of the DDA's access provisions to functions carried out by public bodies that are currently excluded because they are not "services" within the terms of the DDA—for example, custodial matters undertaken by the police.

These proposals will bring within the scope of the DDA a further 600,000 disabled workers and around 7 million employees. They will require public bodies to look proactively at promoting equality of opportunity in their employment policies and services to the public. And they will ensure that a wider range of functions carried out by public bodies are subject to antidiscrimination legislation.

My noble friend pressed me on one specific point and was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. He asked our views about discrimination against people diagnosed with HIV who are, therefore, denied legal protection. My noble friend will know that people with symptomatic HIV are also covered by the DDA. He also raised the question of exemption from Part III for transport operators—that is, the right of access to goods, facilities, services and premises. I was shocked when a friend in a wheelchair, known to my noble friend and myself, was refused a meal on a train. He was told by the person involved that he was not obliged to serve him. I thought that that was quite shocking.

I repeat that we are committed to ending this exemption. We are consulting in the new year on how best this can be done. I hope that that will be good news for my noble friend and that we can bring forward our proposals as expeditiously as we can given the consultation in which we must clearly engage.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, does that involve primary legislation?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am assured that it probably does. I should like to write to the noble Lord and to my noble friend. I have been struck by the degree to which quite significant improvements can be made by changes in regulation as opposed to legislation. I need to follow up in greater detail the interaction with that and the Article 13 directive. I am told that it will require primary legislation but I should like to see how much could still be done within our existing regulatory powers. If that would be helpful to the noble Lord, I should be happy to share that information with him.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, indeed, that would be most helpful and I should be most grateful if that could be done. If it requires primary legislation, will we still have a welfare Bill and could it be included in that?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I stand to be corrected but my understanding is that an Employment Bill has been introduced in the Commons today and some of our welfare reform proposals will be included in that. But I cannot at this stage help the noble Lord further. I do not think, given the timetable of consultation whereby we are committed to consulting in the New Year, that any legislative proposals could possibly be ready until next autumn. I am sure the noble Lord will agree that the timing he suggested is not appropriate.

As regards the Article 13 directive which the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for reasons I may understand, pressed me on, we have signed up to the European Employment Directive made under Article 13 of the EC Treaty. This will ensure that all member states protect disabled people against discrimination in employment and training. In the UK we already have such legislation though it needs some further changes, as I have said.

It is a unique and commendable achievement that the Disability Rights Task Force was able to pre-empt a great many of the directive's provisions. This helped us during negotiations and ensured that those aspects of the UK's approach which work so well—such as reasonable adjustments—could be retained.

I confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and to my noble friend that the Government intend to consult on the requirements of the directive within the next three months. Of course, this debate is concerned about whether or nor there will be a disability Bill to implement the Government's proposals. Clearly, it would be advantageous—I do not challenge that for a moment—to take forward our disability commitments, both those arising from Towards inclusion—our response to the task force—and anything further from the Article 13 directive, in a disability Bill. This would allow us to deal with everything we want to do in a single piece of legislation.

However, your Lordships will absolutely understand all of the caveats I am now going to make as some of your Lordships have been in a similar position of being under pressure of legislative time. The legislative timetable is always heavy. It is particularly so at the moment. I say that in all sincerity given the number of anti-terrorism Bills that we shall now have to introduce into the legislative programme. That makes the legislative programme even heavier than is normally the case. We cannot guarantee a legislative slot either now or in the near future for those reasons. Noble Lords will appreciate that that is not within my gift, nor that of my honourable friend the Minister for Disabled People or even, I dare say, of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, even for measures to which we attach a high priority. The issue is not policy but parliamentary time. Your Lordships will understand that I cannot pre-empt that decision which will be taken considerably later, however sympathetic I may personally be to many of the proposals put forward today. However, noble Lords will be aware—

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, my noble friend has been helpful in the debate but is she now saying that disability will have a low priority, or is she saying that the Government will find other means of pursuing these issues? Her comments are a little disturbing. I acknowledge the point about terrorism. Obviously, the anti-terrorism Bills take priority.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am not saying either of those two things. I shall talk about the second matter in just a moment; that is, what can be achieved without legislation. I say simply that no one—apart possibly from the Prime Minister who is never "off message"—can predict or state at this stage what may be in the Queen's Speech. I am absolutely not saying what is or is not high priority, medium priority or low priority. I am absolutely not saying that disability is a low priority and, say, housing or health are high priority by comparison. What I am saying is that my noble friend will understand that security measures will always take a fast track. But that aside, I say nothing beyond the fact that no one can predict or make commitments about what will be in the legislative programme or the Queen's Speech any more than they can predict or guarantee what will be in the Budget. I say nothing more nor less. I hope that my noble friend will not seek to read anything beyond absolutely that in my comments today.

However, I may be able to take the House a little further forward as regards what we can do even in the mean time and even without a disability Bill. This is what we are considering. This Government are alert to the needs of disabled people and respect their desire to lead independent lives as equal members of society. It is a Government who support their right to be protected.

Under EC legislation we are able to introduce changes required by an instrument of the European Union by regulations. So, even if a Bill were not forthcoming—I am absolutely not saying that it will or will not be forthcoming—we could meet our commitment to legislate to end the small employer exemption in 2004. We could also ensure that the occupations and employment currently exempted from the scope of the DDA, such as the police and firefighters, are ended. I cannot, and will not, make such a commitment as regards the Armed Forces. The Government's position on that is that it is for the MoD to determine what is in the best interests of national security. Your Lordships will understand that there is a debate about that. One of our difficulties is that many of the jobs which were traditionally available to disabled members of the Armed Forces have now gone out to civilian staff, which limits the capacity to make reasonable adjustments for members of staff. However, I am sure that my noble friend Lord Ashley will understand that, as will the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. However, I believe that the ending of the exemptions for the police and fire-fighters—which, after all, involve considerable numbers of the civilian population—will be a welcome and rewarding change. As I say, we can achieve that change without primary legislation.

The DDA is significant legislation which provides significant protections but it is neither comprehensive at the moment nor fully enforceable. We have addressed, and continue to address, the Act's omissions. We are moving forward both domestically and in Europe to ensure that disabled people have in place the protection that has been afforded to other people in our society for the past 30 years. It is right that we press ahead with urgency but we also need to create lasting and effective legislation. And to make that legislation deliver we have to take people with us which is why the consultation process is an educative process as well as everything else. We shall do what is needed as soon as we can. I hope that with those assurances my noble friend will feel that the debate tonight has been worthwhile.

House adjourned at thirteen minutes before seven o'clock.