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Baroness O'Cathain: I should like to support the remarks just made by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. It seems to me that if we put such a provision into the Bill we would have a situation where, again, we would be loading additional costs on the employer. After all, an employer who runs a business and is used to employing staff must take a reasonable view of employment in every operation, unless he is a real cowboy employer. If he does so, surely, based on his experience and expertise, and his judgment, he is credited with being able to make such a decision. If the matter goes to an industrial tribunal, I am quite convinced that a reasonable employer would obtain expert advice at that stage to ascertain whether or not he had made the wrong decision. However, to say to an employer that he must take expert advice at every stage in such situations would be to put much onus on him as regards extra costs because expert advice does not come cheap.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I am less concerned with the poor employer, as the noble Baroness put it, than I am with the poor disabled person who may suffer such discrimination. I see that the noble Baroness wishes to respond. I give way.

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Baroness O'Cathain: The last thing that I would like the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, to think is that I do not consider disabled people. I am involved in the proceedings solely because I believe that the Bill will enable disabled people to have an able-bodied existence in every way throughout life—for example, in employment, in access to goods and services, and so on.

I sincerely hope that what I said will not be taken to mean that I do not take such matters into account. That is my starting point. However, I am also aware that if employers are overloaded with costs at every turn, their competitiveness will be so eroded that they will not have the ability to employ anyone, let alone disabled people, because that business will not be a success.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: If I may say so, it is a very old story to say that the provision would overload employers with excessive costs and interfere with competition. Indeed, we have been through it many times in both this and the other place. But, in point of fact, that is not possible under the Bill because it specifically says that there must be no unreasonable burdens placed on the employer. Therefore, the noble Baroness can rest a while and not worry about the poor employers because the legislation will prevent any excessive burdens being imposed upon them.

It puzzled me to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, arguing against expert advice for employers. To me, that is a very strange kind of thesis. I do not see how the proposal can be classified as discrimination because employers need expert advice; indeed, it is certainly something which would be wholly beneficial for them. All we are asking is that employers do take "appropriate expert advice". What is wrong with that?

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: I believe that it would be excellent for advice to be available to employers, as the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, suggested. However, as I see it, the amendment would place an obligation upon the employer to get such advice. That is the difference.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: The amendment seeks to place an obligation on employers because some employers need such advice. I have in mind those who are prepared to discriminate and who will not take such advice. That is why we want to impose an obligation upon them. They are the kind of people who will say, "No one will tell me how to run my business. If I want to discriminate, I will do so". It is because there are such employers that we seek, as reasonable people, to put the reasonable obligation upon all of them to obtain such advice. That is all.

Lord Vinson: Will the noble Lord be kind enough to tell me how many people he has employed in his life and how many problems regarding the difficulty of trying to come to a fair judgment he personally has had experience of?

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I can tell the noble Lord that I was a shop steward for many years—

Lord Vinson: That is not the same!

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I will answer the question in a moment. I learnt that there are some employers one has to talk to with a strong voice. I do not apologise for not having been an employer but I can tell the noble Lord that

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I have had eight years of experience in industry working closely with workers of all kinds and negotiating closely with employers as a shop steward, so I think I know what I am talking about.

Lord Vinson: Thank you very much for making that point and thank you for making it clear that you have not actually employed anybody nor gone through the difficulties that that involves. Thank you.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I am glad to respond to the point because it does not in any way vitiate the points I am making simply because I am not an employer. I think that was one of the cheapest debating points I ever heard in either Chamber. It is of no relevance. I should like to ask the noble Lord—

Lord Lucas: May we return to the Bill please?

Baroness Seear: I would have thought that it was not at all unreasonable that the Government should pay for this expert advice. In the old days one used to get any advice from the factory inspectors. Sometimes it was good and sometimes it was not, but at least one got it for nothing. If the Government want to implement this measure, I see no reason why they should not lay on the available expert advice, if they can find it. I must say I am a bit bothered as to where all these experts are going to come from. To picture the small employer with about five employees—these are the people you will get trouble from—finding the right expert advice and paying for it seems to me to be living in cloud cuckoo land. We want something of this kind to be done, but I am bound to say that I do not think the measure in the form in which it appears here will work. But I do think that at least the Government might take responsibility for the cost of providing advice and should tell us where these experts are to be found. We are inclined in this Chamber to speak as if there were a whole lot of independent experts floating around.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: There will be!

Baroness Seear: Yes, and three-quarters of them will not be worth the money one pays for them. That is one of the big difficulties. I think the objective behind this issue is right, but we need to think it through a great deal more carefully than it has been thought through up till now.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I speak as someone who has made many appointments and been an employer since 1977; and I speak as someone who has been taken before an industrial tribunal and cross-questioned on two cases of alleged discrimination. I was found guilty in one of them, although I was not present when either of the appointments was made. Those appointments involved staff who were already in our employment and they concerned promotion, which is a matter which has not been raised so far in our debate. I would say that the matter of what constitutes appropriate advice must be a matter of judgment.

Drawing on that experience, what concerns me is that there was a period of time when a bald assertion used to be made by people appointing head teachers, for example, that a woman head teacher was unable to exert the disciplinary control necessary for a school which contained boys, either a co-educational school or a boys' school. That assertion was made. However, it was

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possible to obtain expert advice that that assertion was nonsense. It was also asserted that it would be impossible for teachers with a fairly severe physical handicap to be able to teach children in a classroom. Expert advice demonstrates that it is possible, all other things being equal, for teachers with quite serious physical handicaps to be good and satisfactory teachers. I am not arguing for automatic appointment in those circumstances.

What worries me about the debate to which I have just listened is that most people who discriminate—in my experience which stretches over many years—do so through ignorance rather than through prejudice. The problem with discrimination through ignorance is, by its nature, that those who are ignorant do not know they are ignorant.

Therefore, the issue is to require people to check what is possible. There are many voluntary organisations which can offer evidence that it is possible for somebody who is blind to be a hotel receptionist, for example. People should also be required to check whether it is possible and reasonable to make minor adaptations to equipment.

It may be that the amendment will not be pushed to a vote tonight. However, I feel that those who believe that there is an army of people who are knowledgeable, well read and up to date in what is possible, or that there is a mass of people out there just waiting to be prejudiced are both wrong. The problem is that we have grown up in a society—and I have spent 55 years in such a society—where the "do they take sugar?" approach permeates our whole attitude. Therefore, we have to require employers who are minded to say that a particular person could not do a particular job because they cannot see, are not physically mobile, cannot hear, or for whatever reason, to check those bald prejudices at the beginning. It is in their interests, but not only in their interests. It is also in the interests of people who are trying to break out of the vicious trap that they have been pushed into.


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