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12.38 pm

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): At the conclusion of our proceedings, I want to add my welcome for this measure, which I know will be extremely welcome to my constituents. I spoke once again this morning to the Merton Voluntary Association for the Blind and the Guardian centre for the blind, which are delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) has introduced the Bill. It is excellent that it has enjoyed so much cross-party support. Sometimes that does not bode well for a Bill, but I think that this Bill is an exception. It is clear that we are bringing common sense into law.

The Bill is important because, as we have heard, the present lacuna in legislation causes great inconvenience to people who use guide dogs. Many measures discriminate against people with a particular disability, but this lacuna adds insult to injury. We have heard the suggestion that people are unable to look after their guide dogs, for example. That causes further offence. I know from my contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow and having followed his career over many years, that he is inspired by his longstanding commitment to extend the rights of disabled people. I congratulate him on this measure. When disabled people are discriminated against, it is an injury and an insult to those people and to us all.

I am also delighted that the Bill is progressing because it is an important development in relation to the licensing of minicabs generally, which has been much debated in recent years. When I spoke in the debate in this House in 1998 on the licensing of minicabs, I said that I was not able to come to the House by minicab and I wished that I could say that it was because I was unable to find one that was licensed. Any humour in that remark would be removed by the fact that if I had been blind and the owner of a guide dog, even had I been able to find a licensed minicab I might not have been able to avail myself of it because it would not have accepted me with the dog.

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In my discussions this morning with the Merton Voluntary Association for the Blind, I was told that it is very difficult for their clients to find minicab firms that take guide dogs. Indeed, only one company in Merton—Olympic Cars—does so, when estate cars are available. Eighteen months ago, the centre wrote to all the minicab firms in the local area asking them if they would carry people who had assistance dogs with them, and not a single one replied.

That brings me to my final point about why I welcome the Bill. It is often said in the House that we have too many regulations, but we need them if people's rights are to be properly respected. The Bill is a good instance of that. It builds on earlier measures on the licensing of minicab operators, drivers and vehicles. That is especially important in London, where many abuses take place. We cannot simply rely on the goodwill of the operators to comply with the perfectly reasonable requirement that they should accord the same service to people with assistance dogs as to everybody else.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the Bill, which will be very much welcomed in my constituency. I am pleased that it has received all-party support and wish it well on its further passage through the House.

Mr. Jamieson: It is considerable pleasure for me to be able to wind up the debate. Many thousands of disabled people rely on private hire vehicles or minicabs for their day-to-day mobility. In a recent MORI poll produced for the Department for Transport's disabled persons transport advisory committee, 40 per cent. of respondents reported that they had used taxis or minicabs at least once a month, and the figure was even higher for visually impaired people, 53 per cent. of whom had made similar use of those modes of travel. It is therefore clear that minicabs are a vital part of the transport mix for many disabled

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people, so it is intolerable that people who use assistance dogs often face a barrier to travel not because the vehicle is inaccessible, but because the attitude of the driver or operator of the service is at best indifferent to their needs or at worst downright discriminatory towards them. By introducing the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) has ensured that such attitudes will no longer be tolerated in the trade and that the way will be clear for disabled people to go about their daily business in the confidence that they will not be refused a minicab because they are travelling with a well-trained assistance dog.

I pay tribute to Guide Dogs for the Blind and the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which have made continuing representations on the matter not only to us but to those in local government with responsibility for private hire vehicles. I pay a warm tribute to the officials in my Department, who have worked extremely hard with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow to get the Bill securely on to the statute book, or at least to assist it in its progress through the House.

I should also like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke). Like many hon. Members, he has a long and distinguished record on disability issues. However, today we must offer the warmest congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow not just on introducing the Bill, but on the way in which he has steered it through Parliament. As one of the few hon. Members who has managed to get a private Member's Bill through all its stages, I know what a difficult and arduous task that is.

My hon. Friend has placed his name on a piece of legislation that in some small way will improve people's lives for years to come. There is nothing better that a Member of Parliament could do.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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19 Jul 2002 : Column 603

Commonwealth Bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

12.46 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am delighted to speak in support of the Bill, whose purpose is twofold: to sever the Government's statutory link with the Commonwealth Institute and to make provision for recognition in the United Kingdom of the admission to the Commonwealth of Cameroon and Mozambique, which happened in 1995. Conservative Members fully support this small but important Bill. In doing so, we join the Leader of the House who said at col. 427 of Hansard yesterday that the Government fully support the measures.

In 2000 the Commonwealth Institute was established as an independent charitable company and links to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were severed. The management of the Commonwealth Institute is no longer under the direct control of the FCO. We have always supported severing the links with the Foreign Office and giving the institute greater independence to promote learning across the Commonwealth. The Bill repeals the statutes that provide for the management of the Commonwealth Institute as a Government-supported body. More importantly, it will ensure the transfer of the institute's trust fund, which is approximately £50,000, from the trustees to the institute.

The second part of the Bill enables us fully to recognise Cameroon and Mozambique. They were admitted to the Commonwealth in 1995 when my good Friend Baroness Chalker was Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth. The Bill tidies up parts of the law covering the Commonwealth. For example, it amends the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 to include Cameroon and Mozambique in the definitions of "Commonwealth force" and "Commonwealth country". Other legislation is amended to ensure that the forces of Mozambique and Cameroon can be treated as visiting forces from a Commonwealth country under those statutes.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan: No, I am drawing my remarks to a close.

There is nothing more to add to my comments. I hope that the Bill has a safe passage.

12.49 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I do not want to speak at length because overall I welcome the Bill. It is interesting that we are debating it when the Commonwealth games are about to commence. In addition, The Guardian today has an interesting section on the future role of the Commonwealth which raises some questions. However, I am sure we all agree that the Commonwealth is an important institution to support.

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The membership criteria for the Commonwealth were set out in the Harare declaration and reinforced in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh communiqué states:

On Second Reading, I raised the human rights record of Cameroon. I also said that a new electoral commission had been appointed and that elections would be held this year. In view of the criteria for Commonwealth membership, I remain worried about Cameroon's human rights record. There are serious tensions between Cameroon and Nigeria over the border area, which contains oil. A case is before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and we hope that it will make a ruling soon. Nigerian communities have repeatedly reported alleged attacks by Cameroon gendarmes, despite the fact that there is a case before the International Court of Justice.

The election campaign has been marred by violence. Indeed, elections were postponed because of irregularities, intimidation and election fraud. It is interesting to note that the election, which was postponed for a week, has been challenged and that the court in Cameroon has ordered a rerun of the election in nine constituencies because of fraud. However, the Opposition parties are worried that many of their objections and allegations of fraud have not been properly investigated, although many were accepted as valid. It was argued that petitions were filed too late or that there was a lack of sufficient evidence. The latter is a serious problem.

The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture states that torture is commonplace in Cameroon. Its report refers to serious abuses. Amnesty International's 2002 report, which covers January to December 2001, relates some horrific examples of human rights abuses and the lack of the rule of law. They include intimidation and attacks on the defenders of human rights and journalists. I shall not go into that in detail, but the report is available in the Library.

I remain worried that Cameroon's record does not fulfil the high standards that we should expect from a member of the Commonwealth.

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