HL Deb 29 April 2002 vol 634 cc531-47

7.47 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they consider that cultural attitudes towards the employment of disabled people in the performing arts are a barrier to their successful employment in this area.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I thank those noble Lords who have put down their names to speak in this debate. I also thank Equity, the London Arts Board and the Arts Council for their helpful briefings.

I tabled this debate to put the spotlight on issues relevant to disabled people who want to work in the performing arts. I want to ask Government what role they believe that they have to play in ensuring that disabled people have an equal opportunity to obtain work and how much action they believe is best left to the world of the performing arts itself and more widely to all of us who go to the theatre, enjoy music, watch films and TV and listen to the radio.

I have planned this short debate for some time, but the catalyst was seeing Eric Sykes perform on stage. His star quality was not dimmed by age or his hearing and sight difficulties. Not a bit of it. His sense of comic timing and delivery enchanted the whole audience.

It is axiomatic that the performing arts should reflect all of society and therefore that they should harness the ability of disabled people to play a full part. It is the right thing to do and it can make good business sense too. Star quality is not confined to performers who have no disability.

Why is it that disabled performers today face a similar situation to that of black and Asian performers 30 years ago—that is, few are given the opportunity to perform at all and are likely to be confined in the main to stereotypical and limiting roles?

I was intrigued to read the Eclipse report published last week by the Arts Council in partnership with the Theatrical Management Association. It plans to combat what it perceives as institutional racism in the theatre sector. It sets a target of March 2003 for every publicly funded theatre organisation in England to have reviewed its equal opportunities policy and ascertained whether its set targets are being achieved and, if not, to draw up a positive action plan to develop opportunities for African, Caribbean and Asian practitioners. And does the Minister endorse that report tonight? Does he believe that that may be a way forward to tackle the barriers faced by disabled people?

Who should take action? What could or should they do to change cultural attitudes which inhibit the employment of disabled people in the performing arts? The Government have a crucial role to play in the way in which they direct employment and social security policy. The last Conservative government put the Disability Discrimination Act on the statute book and that will reach its final stage of implementation in 2004.

Much has been done to improve physical access to arts venues. But there is still a severe lack of access to backstage areas. Particularly for the small arts venues, there are huge financial barriers to the implementation of access policy. Arts venues are often housed in elderly buildings, many of them historic, where the modifications required to improve access facilities require major building works. What resources and support are the Government making available to assist venues to achieve full physical access?

It is also vital that disabled people should have access to the same professional training opportunities as their non-disabled colleagues. Most accessible training opportunities are still provided by under-resourced organisations such as Heart 'n Soul. That is an arts organisation which offers creative opportunities to people with learning disabilities. Though in receipt of some public funding, such organisations are registered charities and rely heavily on support from trusts and foundations.

Can the Minister tell the House whether there are any higher education courses in the performing arts accessible to people with learning disabilities in particular? I am told that the Razor Edge Theatre Company, in association with the Rose Bruford College, is currently trying to set up such a course but that financial support for it has not yet been confirmed. I note of course that the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 extends the scope of the DDA to cover education. By 2005 all bodies responsible for the provision of education and other related services will have a legal duty not to discriminate against disabled students and other disabled people. What measures are the Government taking now to assist educational bodies to adjust their recruitment policies, their courses and their buildings so that they can comply with the new Act?

The Government could also assist by increasing the flexibility of the benefits system still further. The performing arts are staffed to a significant extent by people undertaking short-term, temporary and part-time contracts. After all, that is a way of working that often suits disabled people who cannot always work full-time for indefinite periods. However, people need to be able to return easily and immediately to benefits following a period of work. Due to the inflexibility in the benefits system, many disabled people working in the performing arts draw a salary way below their worth or indeed do not accept any remuneration at all.

While I appreciate that the threshold of therapeutic earnings recently increased to £20 a week, that still gives disabled people little income allowance before their benefits are affected. Does the Minister believe that disabled people should be able to enjoy pay parity with their colleagues without the fear of it leaving them exposed in other areas of their lives? Is the Minister aware that the Access to Work scheme has great potential but in its current form is failing to meet the needs of disabled people who are seeking work in the arts?

I am advised by the London Arts Board that specific problems are as follows. First, many arts contracts are part-time or short-term. But the ATW application process can be extremely slow and complex and therefore in some cases it is simply not an option. Freelance work is very common in the arts sector, yet it can be very difficult for freelance workers to gain access to ATW.

Secondly, working in the performing arts often means that one is travelling to work in non-office environments. That can generate needs which ATW does not meet. For example, it is very difficult to get personal assistance covered by ATW. Finally, ATW is not available to disabled people in work experience or placements in training. How do the Government plan to address those three problems?

So far in my speech I have concentrated on the responsibility of government, since it is the raison d'être of any Unstarred Question that one asks the Minister to answer questions. Ministers in your Lordships' House are required to give very much a virtuoso performance. They are required to respond to questions concerning all departments and not just on those for which they have primary responsibility. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Davies, tried to say last Thursday that he did not have to answer for the DTI. But I am afraid he does—that department and all the others. However, in sympathy with him because some of my questions require a detailed knowledge of benefits and educational matters, I gave advance notice of those questions to the DCMS.

Beyond the responsibility of the Minister, I am aware that there are responsibilities vested in the world of the performing arts and in all of us, the audiences, which are just as, if not more, important. I hope that other noble Lords will have time to touch upon them. Perhaps I may give brief examples. First, lottery distributors need to ensure that there is a fair distribution of funds. The Arts Council of England has done valuable work. For example, in 1993 it set up the apprenticeship scheme which works with arts organisations to create opportunities for people with disabilities to get access to employment with arts organisations. It is currently working on an arts and benefits guidance booklet to enable disabled people to make informed choices about work and benefits and hopes that that will be published this summer.

In the arts world, producers, writers and casting directors all need to take a positive approach to the employment of disabled people. Does the Minister agree that they should be aiming at inclusive casting? Is the Minister aware of the valuable work done by Equity to highlight the ability of disabled performers in its publication Spotlight?

Perhaps above all else we the audience have the main role to play. We can take a constructive attitude. We can have an open mind and a willingness to engage with the issues and challenge our own perceptions of what constitutes an entertaining and successful performance. So are we stuck with a vicious circle or can we break free? The vicious circle is that the arts can play a vital role in changing attitudes, but the general invisibility of disabled people, particularly in the performing arts, and to a woeful extent in television, will not change until all the issues I have mentioned today are addressed. The problem is that the issues will not be fully addressed until the arts help to change our attitude towards disabled people.

Next year is the European Year of Disabled People. Let us be ambitious. Let us set that as our deadline for breaking free of the vicious circle.

7.58 p.m.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall

My Lords, I am sure noble Lords are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for introducing this debate on this important but, it has to be said, frequently overlooked topic. I agree with much of what the noble Baroness said, which is perhaps not a position in which I would ordinarily find myself.

I start by declaring an interest in that I am the now outgoing executive director of the National Theatre and the principal designate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, both organisations which have a part to play, and indeed are working to play their part, in addressing the issues raised by this Unstarred Question.

The Question seems to address two separate although obviously related matters; first, whether there are in fact impediments to the employment of people with disabilities in the performing arts; secondly, whether those impediments are the result of a cultural bias against such people, whether in society at large or specifically within the performing arts. The probability, based on the available evidence—of which the noble Baroness put a great deal before us—is that the answer to both questions is yes. That could be a very short debate. But that simple answer conceals a complex reality, as the noble Baroness has pointed out. The following are quotations from Promoting Change, which is a handbook produced by the Employers' Forum on Disability. Many people react to disability in ways that are rooted in unfamiliarity coupled with lack of information. People may find it difficult to change their way of looking at disability because the term covers a wide range of very different people and they simply do not know who 'disabled people' really are. Only wheelchair users or perhaps blind or deaf people may come to mind. Many people are deeply uneasy or even frightened by their level of discomfort or lack of experience". We should not forget that that is the context in which issues of this kind are discussed, whether in relation to the arts or any other aspects of employment.

Historically, I am sorry to say, the arts have not always been in the vanguard in ensuring employment opportunities are available for disabled people, although over the past 20 years some important steps have been taken to improve matters. I am not just referring to opportunities for performers. There are many other jobs to be done, from stage management to payroll management, and from lighting technician to press officer. The people who fulfil those functions are as vital to the success of any production as the actors, dancers or musicians who appear on the stage. The Arts Council's apprenticeship scheme which the noble Baroness has already mentioned, in which I am glad to say that the National Theatre participated, has helped to ensure that some disabled practitioners in these areas have been able to gain experience through secondments.

However, the most visible way to improve the profile and status of disabled people in the performing arts is through the wider and more integrated employment of performers. There is some way to go before we can say that that has been achieved. In relation also to what the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said in connection with the employment of performers from ethnic minorities, it has taken a long time for these issues to be pushed up the agenda, both of the performing arts and of the funding organisations. The issue has always been there, but it has taken a long time for us to be able to say with any degree of confidence that we have made progress. I fear that these issues do take a long time.

However, companies such as the Graeae Theatre Company and the CanDoCo dance company have been working for years producing excellent work using disabled performers and performing for large and mixed audiences. These companies have done a huge amount to break down the barriers and to show just how extraordinary can be the impact of seeing performers whose ability to communicate is in no way limited, and indeed is sometimes actually enhanced, by their disabilities, as the noble Baroness said. But the big challenge remains that of getting more mainstream training organisations and mainstream performing companies to see the possibilities, rather than the difficulties, of including performers with disabilities routinely in their plans.

One of Graeae's founding members is the actor Nabil Shaban. Nabil has had a distinguished career in theatre, film and television. He has also been a forceful advocate for the right of disabled performers to be considered on equal terms with their non-disabled colleagues. I am sure that he would not mind my saying that over the years I have spent a few uncomfortable hours listening to him point out the shortcomings of my own, and other, organisations as far as concerns our record of employment. I hope that he will also not mind my saying that in order to employ him, which we were delighted and privileged to do at the National Theatre, we had to make quite a few adaptations to facilities backstage, and to review our health and safety policies and procedures, to ensure that he could work in a dignified and independent way within a building built with absolutely no concession to the possibility that any performer might be less than fully mobile, fully sighted or with full hearing.

These days, theatres, like all other places of public resort and entertainment, generally try to provide a decent service to their disabled paying customers. The DDA has made sure that if they do not, sanctions can be brought to bear. The National Theatre provides a range of services for its disabled patrons, including proper wheelchair access, signed performances and audio description. In 1996 it received a substantial award from the National Lottery, mainly to refurbish the public areas of the theatre. Many of the improvements were directed towards making it easier and more comfortable for disabled audience members to visit. I regret to say that less attention was paid to the rearrangement of the backstage areas. I venture to suggest—indeed, the noble Baroness has already suggested this—that one of the biggest disincentives for arts organisations, particularly smaller, less well-funded ones, to the employment of performers with disabilities is the challenge—mainly financial—of providing appropriate facilities.

Speaking at the launch of the London Arts Disability Action Plan last November, Jenny Sealey, who is the current artistic director of Graeae, asked: Are people not employing disabled actors because of lack of accessible rehearsal spaces? … This is a very real issue in London … Where there is good rehearsal space the owner of the space has to hire it out for commercial gain and small companies get priced out". She certainly has a point.

There is also the question of education and training. I learnt a couple of days ago that the Guildhall School of Music and Drama has selected a severely physically disabled student to join its three-year acting course from next autumn. The fact that this was being reported to me as a matter of some note tells us something about how rare it is. Integrating disabled students into the kind of training that Guildhall and other similar colleges deliver requires thought, imagination, change and a willingness to concede that there is more than one way of being an actor. Body and mind must be trained certainly, but talent comes in many different shapes. As educators we must be open to our responsibility to identify and encourage it, however it presents itself and whatever obstacles may be in the way—although I ask my noble friend the Minister to recognise that there are additional costs involved in such inclusivity, which training organisations find hard to bear from currently available resources.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, as audiences we must learn to set aside our preconceptions. In a world unhealthily preoccupied with narrow models of physical perfection, this can be a challenge.

A couple of years ago, during the National Theatre's Connections Festival of youth theatre, we presented the work of a group of young people from Scotland. All the performers had disabilities—mostly learning, but some physical. It was a very big thing for them to be performing at the National Theatre, but it was also a very big thing for us to be working with them. They were doing a play of their own devising about falling in love and the difficulties that the well-meaning world of caring parents and anxious teachers put in the way of disabled people making relationships. It was a powerful piece.

Within the group was a young man with severe cerebral palsy. He was confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak or control his movements. As far as possible he was completely integrated into the action of the play. He was wheeled about the stage either by a carer or by one of his fellow performers. At a key point in the action there was a silence. Out of it slowly emerged a series of strange and unfamiliar sounds. We looked for the source and gradually realised that he was. Someone was holding a microphone in front of him and he was speaking. The sounds he made had astonishing, unexpected and almost shocking beauty. It was an extraordinary contribution to the whole event.

Of course it was intensely moving. It could not fail to be. But more than that it was revelatory. I learnt something about my own prejudices that evening; as I have on so many other occasions when I have seen performers harness and overcome their disabilities to show me something that I could not have learnt in any other way. The reason it is important that all performing arts should be inclusive is not just that performers with disabilities deserve opportunities to practise their art—they certainly do—but because we the audience can learn so much from seeing them do so.

The Government have, I recognise, a firm ongoing commitment to improve employment prospects for all disabled people. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister, when he comes to reply, will refer to the initiatives which the Arts Council and other bodies are currently progressing to address issues specific to the arts. These include the apprenticeship scheme, which I have already mentioned, and a handbook of good practice on employing disabled people which the Arts Council is also preparing.

I wonder whether my noble friend would also look with his colleagues in other departments at the issue which the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has mentioned, of whether the current benefit system could helpfully be reviewed to minimise the likelihood of barriers to employment being created in this area.

I should like to end by quoting again from the words of Jenny Sealey of Graeae Theatre. At the conclusion of her speech at the launch of the London Arts Disability Action Plan, she said: I believe that attitudes as well as physical barriers are stopping disabled representation on the stage. Surely there are only two possible reasons for this state of affairs: either disabled actors are no good or there is institutional discrimination at work. I believe that Graeae and others have proved that the talent is there, albeit somewhat raw, of course, as training opportunities have been scarce … And in many ways some of the … advances in access for audiences—signed performances (never the night you want to go), captions, wheelchair access, audio description and the rest compound the crime as disabled people are finally given the privilege to spectate as the able-bodied world parades itself for their entertainment". These are powerful, angry words. We have a lot of work to do before they will cease to resonate.

8.10 p.m.

Baroness Wilkins

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, who has once again introduced a most interesting debate of concern to disabled people. I thank her for raising the issue so thoroughly and for probing the Government on what action they may take. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, for her excellent speech. I hope not to be too repetitive.

We have all laughed at the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore "Tarzan" sketch. Peter Cook, playing the casting agent, tells a one-legged Dudley Moore, "You are applying for a role more usually associated with a two-legged artiste. I have nothing against your left leg. The trouble is, neither have you". That is classic comedy but it also raises some fundamental questions about the employment of disabled people in the performing arts. Can people with a discernible impairment be cast in roles where that is not specified in the script? The joke rests on the perception that the answer to that is, "No, they cannot". The result is that there is a major reluctance to employ disabled people in the performing arts.

As other noble Lords have said, the other main barrier to disabled people being employed is the paucity of training for disabled would-be actors. Drama colleges traditionally refuse places to disabled people on the grounds of the self-fulfilling prophecy that they could not possibly get work.

The obvious barriers faced by disabled people in the arts led to a reaction that has come to be known as the disability arts movement. One of its main spokespeople is Sian Vasey, to whom I am grateful for her advice on the subject of this debate. From its beginnings in the 1980s, the disability arts movement wanted to combat more than the purely physical and attitudinal barriers to disabled people's participation in the arts. It also aimed to deal with the cultural barrier of absence—disabled people did not exist. Rarely in mainstream art is the experience of disability depicted and disabled people are seldom to be seen in cultural output of any type. The prime objective of the disability arts movement is to achieve visibility for disabled people. It is committed to creating a world where disability genuinely has a place and to ensuring that the issues that disability raises are given a cultural platform.

Performance was one of the first sectors of the movement to flourish. Other speakers have mentioned the Graeae Theatre Company of disabled actors, which was formed in 1981 and now runs a continuous programme of challenging and exciting work under its outstanding director, Jenny Sealey. I declare an interest as a former trustee. There is also the Strathcona Theatre Company and the Heart 'n Soul musical theatre company, both of which focus on the talents of people with learning difficulties. Those groups all perform work of the highest standard and are now well established.

The work of Candoco, a dance company formed by spinally injured ballet dancer Celeste Daneker, is outstanding, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, mentioned. Anyone who sees the beauty of David Toole's dance using solely his arms—he has no legs—becomes aware of the limitations that we have traditionally imposed on that art form by our insistence on physical perfection.

A handful of individual performers who gained their experience from those companies are now staging their own work and achieving recognition. For example, Nabil Shaban, Caroline Parker and Mat Fraser have all recently put on shows in Edinburgh that have transferred to fringe venues in London. Among other individual performers are a number of successful stand-up comedians who have created powerful routines entirely from disability related material.

Turning to the issue of the lack of training for disabled performers, disability theatre companies have to date been almost the sole source of training, but that is clearly a huge role to take on and one that would be better done by training establishments. A small number of drama colleges are now dealing with the chicken-and-egg situation of no training, therefore no job; no job, therefore no training, and are taking disability seriously. The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts runs a course called Solid Foundations, which awards a certificate of higher education in the performing arts specifically for disabled people. Others taking specific initiatives are the Arden in Manchester and the New Vic in Newham.

The Royal Academy of Dance has given time and thought to the issues and developed a policy that is careful not to exclude disabled people from its programme of classical ballet exams. Its policy document states: The RAD will make every effort to accommodate applicants and students with special needs. All applicants must meet the programme entry requirements and must demonstrate their ability to an acceptable level within the programme specific Selection Criteria … Over and above this, the needs of each applicant with disabilities will be investigated and negotiated with the individual on a case by case basis to ensure that s/he will not be disadvantaged. If, after every effort has been made, it is not possible to accommodate an applicant's needy then it may be that the applicant cannot be offered a place". As Candoco has shown, certain kinds of impairment would not be a barrier to a career in classical dance and a positive approach will enable a start on this career path.

Little statistical information is available in the field. The Arts Council of England ran an initiative to increase the employment of disabled people in the arts back in 1997. According to its chair, Paddy Masefield, at that time 650,000 people were employed in the arts and cultural industries, of whom one in 1,000 was a disabled person. More recently, the Arts Council of England annual survey of the whole arts workforce in the year 2000 reports that only 2 per cent are disabled people.

Equity compiles a directory of disabled performers that it publishes jointly with Spotlight. That is available free of charge and offers a free listing for performers. Equity, too, has no statistics but gets regular calls from people looking to cast characters who are disabled. It therefore feels that there is progress in such casting. However, according to Equity, there is far less interest in employing disabled actors to play characters who are not specifically disabled.

That brings us right back to the problems faced by the one-legged artiste who wants to play Tarzan—or perhaps not Tarzan, but plenty of roles need not be played by able-bodied actors. There is massive unexplored potential that would benefit not only disabled actors but the whole world of drama, allowing it to break barriers and find fresh talent. Some examples of successful integrated casting include Nabil Shaban playing Hamlet and the Tottering Bipeds theatre company production of Waiting for Godot with two Graeae-trained disabled actors playing Vladimir and Estragon. Graeae itself has staged imaginative productions of Ubu, The Changeling and other standard texts written with an able-bodied cast in mind.

The issues involved in such integrated casting are perhaps more complicated than those involved in the integrated casting of black people and others from ethnic minorities, but inroads are being made. I therefore suggest that the time is right for a concerted employment and training initiative, hosted by a range of relevant bodies, to build on the foundations that have largely been laid by disabled people's own efforts. We need to cut through the negative assumptions and the lack of imaginative casting.

Disabled people have cause to be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for raising the issue in such a timely and constructive way.

8.18 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, has once again scored a hit from a nice sideways angle. The three noble Baronesses who have spoken have used virtually every point that I had thought of—I had thought that I would be able to cite the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch myself.

The main thing that occurs to me about government action on this matter is that they now—but only recently—have most of the necessary legislation in place. When the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 comes into force—I believe that that will be next autumn—the artificial cut-off for organisations employing fewer than 15 people will end. That will probably serve as a wake-up call to the entire arts industry with rather far more force than it at present imagines.

What usually happens in sectors that have to deal with disability legislation is panic. They say, "Oh my God, we can't do anything. What will happen? It will be the end of us". Then there is a period of calm reflection, followed by some action. That will probably go on throughout the arts movement. Much subsidised theatre will have to do some deal with government to tackle the problems. There is always the excuse of the ancient building that has something or other backstage that cannot be moved. Usually something is done on such occasions, and I suspect that, with a little will—inspired by the knowledge that it will be illegal not to do something—much will be done. The same process is about to affect the training and education institutions that provide our performers.

The removal of the exceptions made under the DDA by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 will ensure that anyone who receives public money for training and education will be drawn into the matter. If I started to draw on examples I would, I am sure, mix them up, but that is the situation as I understand it. Thus, the Government are in a situation to make sure that there is training. If we accept that education is a good thing in itself—we are talking here about education and training, and I do not know where the cut-off point is between the two—it should not be the case that someone may find it less or more difficult to get work in a certain field. That argument should carry only limited weight. The Government will fund many such courses directly or indirectly, and they must apply pressure. That is how I see the Government's role. It is a rather narrow channel, but they can ultimately cause things to happen; they will be the catalyst for change.

As has been said, there are many examples of disabled theatre companies which have said, "We can perform and entertain. We can create something meaningful". That should not come as a surprise. The arts world has embraced one large group of disabled people for a long time—dyslexics. There are few occasions on which one would refer to the late Oliver Reed and Susan Hampshire in the same breath—both successful actors, both dyslexic. Dyslexic people find theatre a convenient art form. They are not restricted to using bits of paper in front of them; they can express themselves in other ways that suit very well. It is such flexibility that has created the tradition that theatre is—small "1"—liberal. The theatre has generally been slightly ahead of most parts of society in bringing people in. It is worth remembering that Shakespeare did not write for women, for instance. Ethnic minorities and people of different sexual orientation have also found a home in the theatre before other places.

We are asking people to do no more than take a slightly sideways look at what has been done. Often, we talk about disabilities that are visible and can he perceived. We will have achieved full integration when it is perfectly normal to find someone in a wheelchair playing a part normally taken by someone who can walk. That is the real test, as it would be with any form of discrimination. Someone said to me that we would be able to tell when women had reached the same status in society as men when a woman did not need to be slightly better than the men to get to a certain level but only as bad as they were. The same would be true of any form of disability integration. When it becomes normal to see parts being filled by disabled people, we will have achieved it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, spoke of a chicken-and-egg situation. If people are trained, they will eventually be used; if they are not trained, nothing will happen. If the Government are prepared to make sure that the organisations that they fund do train people, something will happen.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, raised a practical point about the benefits system and the idea that the benefit might be used to cover costs additional to basic living costs. The Government must tackle that issue, which does not apply only to those in the performing arts sector. The benefit trap for people with disabilities is well recognised. Pressure from here may help, although the Department for Culture, Media and Sport versus the Department for Work and Pensions might be a David-and-Goliath situation. However, every little helps. We must apply more pressure to make the transition from benefits to work—or work with benefits, as it must be in certain situations. If that does not happen, there will be no continuous throughput of people.

The theatre should open itself up to a new way of looking at a large number of people. It will have to do that, and it is capable of doing it, provided we point it in the right direction. The Government are in a position to apply considerable leverage by making sure that anything that is dependent on government help for its workforce or to keep itself running starts to address such issues.

We are asking for equal rights for the disabled; we are not asking for tokenism. We are not asking on behalf of people who cannot bring anything to their field. They must have an equal opportunity. That is what is required. All that we can expect the Government to do is to make sure that the door is open; it will be up to society as a whole to see that people go through that door.

8.27 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, like all noble Lords who have spoken, I express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for raising this important issue and the way in which she did so. She struck a positive chord when she quoted Eric Sykes as an exemplar. She recognised that that most famous of Oldhamers would be of particular interest to me, as I represented the town in the other place for many years and met Eric when the town celebrated its 150th anniversary. He is one of our outstanding examples of achievement and talent. As the noble Baroness said, he is a wonderful example of someone who triumphed over an interesting and difficult disability to reach the high regard in which he is held by the nation.

The noble Baroness will forgive me for saying that I understand the emphasis that she put on the Eclipse report. There is no doubt that the report is of great importance, but it is only a week or so old, so it is difficult for me to give a definitive government response. Suffice it to say that we recognise that the report emphasises how important it is that there should be an end, in so far as it exists, to any form of institutional racism in the theatre. We know that there have been one or two cases of late in which it has been contended that the theatre has not always lived up to the highest standards.

Without in any way prejudicing our response to the report, I can make it clear that the Government believe that there is no place in society for institutional racism in any quarter. The Macpherson report made that clear. Noble Lords know that in due course we shall be producing our own response to the report. I recognise the salience and immediacy of that report to the issue we are debating this evening.

Several noble Lords have mentioned that new legislation, the Disability Rights Commission and new benefits have already gone some considerable way towards improving the position of disabled people in society. However, noble Lords have also indicated that there is absolutely no room for complacency. I am grateful to all those who identified areas in which much still needs to be done. It is important that the Government play their proper role in ensuring that effective improvements are made.

There is no doubt that disabled people are under-represented in audiences, on the boards and in the publicity materials of arts organisations. We are working in close partnership with arts sectors to build a clearer picture of the employment of disabled people at all levels in the arts. That vital knowledge will enable us to build appropriate and meaningful pathways to take the sectors forward. All areas of the arts must be supported and encouraged actively to recognise that everyone has the right not only to act, sing and dance, but also to manage, innovate and direct.

Too often when one considers the performing arts, one thinks only of that which takes place on stage and, to a certain extent, at the front of house. We consider less the crucial roles which can and ought to be taken on by all sectors of our society in support of a performance. A successful approach must be holistic, built on specific expertise and sustainable in the long term.

The noble Baroness also mentioned the problems which obtain with regard to physical access for disabled people to theatres and other venues. We recognise the nature of this problem. On occasion even our more modern theatres can give rise to difficulties so far as concerns audiences, and even more so for those who wish to play their part in working to support and contribute to artistic productions. But our Victorian theatres obviously present particular difficulties in this respect. Suffice it to say that we welcome initiatives such as the Civic Trust Access Award sponsored by English Heritage. It celebrates the provision of successful access to historic buildings and sites. The winner this year—an entirely appropriate choice as regards our debate this evening—was the Royal Court Theatre. It has achieved a successful reconciliation of meeting the access needs of disabled people within the conservation requirements of a very historic building.

It can be done, although a great deal still needs to be done to ensure access for those who wish to attend our great and exciting productions. However, the noble Baroness also pointed out that access must also be provided for those who wish to earn their living in support of theatres. At the present time, the restrictions and limitations of the backstage, to say nothing of the problems for audiences, all serve to inhibit the proper participation of certain categories of disabled people. They cannot play their full part in, our performing arts.

In his contribution, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, pointed out that the development of legislation is conducive to our making signal improvements over the forthcoming months and years. The full implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 will support our approach in the arts. The legislation will establish comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people which would necessarily include access to the arts. We support a requirement of the interpretation of the law that it should not be seen as the bare minimum, but rather a provision that is generous and made in the best spirit. Contributions to the debate from all sides have indicated how important it is to establish "best spirit" in terms of the will to achieve improvements in this area.

Noble Lords also made it clear that disabled people participating in the arts should achieve full equality in pay. That ought to go without saying. We all know that it is possible for people to discriminate unfairly and that challenges have to he made through tribunals of all kinds and even in the courts. However, let us make no bones about the fact that the whole thrust of the Government's position with regard to employment law seeks to ensure that pay inequalities which are unjustified in terms of people's competence to fulfil their role must be rooted out.

I very much appreciated the references made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, to those theatre companies which have made special contributions to the advance of the cause of the disabled in the arts. I refer to the CandoCo theatre company, the Graeae Company and the Heart'n Soul company. All are immensely talented and innovative companies being led by disabled people. They clearly demonstrate that excellence need not be compromised. As the noble Baroness pointed out, they are not concerned with the issue of condescension; indeed, they show how past expectations are now being dismantled, thus helping to ensure that disabled people can play their full part.

However, the performing arts are notoriously competitive and provide a precarious profession. That does not alter our aim to equalise opportunity for all, but education and professional training are key factors in achieving that. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 significantly amends the Disability Discrimination Act—a point identified by the noble Lord, Lord Addington—and places new duties on providers of post-16 education. Some £172 million has been allocated for the years 2002–04 to support the implementation of new post-16 educational duties, although no doubt it will take some time for the funding to work its way through.

Perhaps I may make the obvious point that access to higher education requires people to meet certain standards for all courses. People must prove themselves competent before they engage upon a course. However, the thrust on all sides during our debate suggested that there should be no arbitrary and unfair discrimination against the disabled; far from it. It should be recognised how much disabled people can benefit from courses which perhaps may need to be tailored to their specific needs, but which still meet the requirements of the HE institution. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, for identifying those courses which are at the forefront of increasing opportunities for disabled people to be trained in areas in which their capacity for playing their part in the performing arts will be enhanced.

In their broader objectives, the Government are seeking to place 50 per cent of young people on higher educational courses beyond the age of 18. It would ill fit that objective if we failed to ensure that those who suffer from disabilities were not given the structures and proper consideration that enabled them to participate as much as possible. So we look forward to educational opportunities expanding in those terms.

I turn to the issue alluded to by my noble friend Lady McIntosh and also by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins; that is, the way in which disabled people are portrayed in the media. It is another factor in improving the involvement of disabled people at all levels across the arts, but it is not a question of gestures and tokenism. What is required is the sustainable and meaningful involvement of professional disabled people. That needs to be encouraged and we ought to take advantage of those who triumph over considerable difficulties and go on to establish themselves as role models, serving as an enormous encouragement to the next generation coming along.

A fine example of creative and innovative means of raising issues of disability awareness and representation is the disability rights campaign, Actions Speak Louder Than Words. It has at its centre the film "Talk", which portrays a society where non-disabled people are a pitied minority and disabled people live full and active lives. The film moves away from the traditional approach to disability awareness with excellent results. It won the best short film award at the Third Rushes Soho Shorts Film Festival and will be used as part of the national curriculum as of 2002. It is already being used as part of the disability awareness programme of companies such as British Airways, the BBC, the Halifax and many others.

It is important that we get through the performing arts positive role models and a representation of disablement and the way in which difficulties can be overcome, a point alluded to by my noble friend Lady McIntosh.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred to the European Year of Disabled People. While the picture in the United Kingdom is not perfect—as has been amply identified in the debate—we do have a lot of good news. It is important that we share these achievements both within this country and beyond—for instance, the Royal Court's achievements in reconciling access to historic buildings; the Graeae Theatre Company's successful collaboration with the English National Opera Baylis on educational outreach projects. The significant initiatives we have taken show that this country intends to be at the forefront of achievement in the European Year of Disabled People in 2003. We want to be in a position to indicate how much progress has been made in the United Kingdom so far as concerns disabled people and their employment in the performing arts.

Proper concerns have been raised about the way in which disabled people are treated in our society at the present time. On previous occasions the noble Baroness has chided me for my inability to appear as a renaissance man covering a wide range of departments and I am going to let her down today. I am not sure that I can deliberate with her in great detail in regard to benefits and the disabled. She will recognise the Government's commitment to providing to our disabled fellow citizens sufficient resources to enable them to play as full a part in society as possible. This is against a background of public will for recording an increase in achievements in this area.

I do not underestimate the breadth of the problem or the complexity of the issues which confront us. We have talked today about a very important but very limited area of employment. We all recognise that the performing arts can play a symbolic and significant role in communicating to the wider nation the need for improvement and change—and how that change could be effected to the benefit of disabled people—but, nevertheless, we as a society have a very long road to tread. We may congratulate ourselves—as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Addington, was prepared to concede—on having certain crucial aspects of the legislative programme in place, but that is still some way from the effective discharge of the functions required under the law and the improvements flowing from it.

Lord Addington

My Lords. I tried to indicate that the easy part will be the passing of legislation. The difficult part will be chasing it up and making sure that it is used.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord is right—although most of us do not find passing legislation particularly easy, certainly not from the Dispatch Box on this side of the House. But the noble Lord is right, implementation of the legislation will present extra challenges.

Barriers to the employment of disabled people are not acceptable to the Government, in this field or in any other field. We are working to break down barriers and to promote opportunities for everyone in society, including in the arts. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in the debate on this issue, which was so successfully introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. The Government acknowledge the part that they have to play in advancing the issues we have discussed today.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn for three minutes until 8.48 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.45 to 8.48 p.m.]