Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, the answer my noble friend gave was much as I expected. However, I feel that manufacturers should take advantage of what will become a growing market over the years as we have more and more disabled people in the country with one form of disability or another. Much can be done in the way of instructions by the use of cartoons, which to a great extent would overcome the problems pointed out by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain of translations from strange languages into English. One can get some funny answers on that. I agree that they may make absolute nonsense. I have tried to make sense of some myself.

While I appreciate the difficulties that have been pointed out, I am sure that manufacturers could do a great deal more than they do at present. It could be done at the manufacturing stage. After all, on many products we now have instructions given in half a dozen or more languages. It would not be difficult to do it in cartoon form or possibly even in braille, which is not expensive to produce, provided it is not long. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

11.30 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell moved Amendment No. 59:

Page 10, line 39, at end insert:
("( ) legal services, including the services of any court or tribunal and of agencies of the criminal justice system.").
The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, someone once said, "All things come to those who wait". In the Marshalled List this amendment is linked with Amendment No. 60, to be moved by my noble friend Lord Ashley. He and I are agreed that, although any common theme linking them is somewhat tenuous, we

18 Jul 1995 : Column 253

are content that in the interests of expedition they should be discussed together. However, I propose to confine my contribution to Amendment No. 59.
The amendment was set down at the suggestion of the Law Society, whose Mental Health and Disability Sub-Committee has been responsible for much valuable work on behalf of those with disabilities but whose anxieties have not so far been ventilated in the course of your Lordships' debates.
My noble friend Lady Hollis and I set down an amendment in these terms at Committee stage. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, was kind enough to add his name to it. In the event, it was not moved. One reason for that was that I proposed to ventilate a number of specific problems confronting people with disabilities. This amendment is not a theoretical exercise, and I would not wish the noble Lord to accept it unless he can assure us that the Government are addressing the specific instances where the shoe pinches. It did not seem fair to expect him to do that in the absence of some notice of the issues which I proposed to raise, so accordingly I deferred moving the amendment in order to write to the noble Lord setting out the issues. That I duly did. He was kind enough to reply, indicating a view on one of the issues—and this is a summary of his reply—and undertaking to offer his reflections on the others in the course of the debate.
Before I indicate the specific concerns, may I invite the Government's views as to the impact of the Bill upon the provision of legal services generally. Of course, the list of services in Clause 13(3) is said to be simply a list of examples of the services to which that clause and the subsequent three clauses are intended to apply. It would follow that the fact that legal services are not specifically included in the list does not entail that they are intended to be excluded. But I am sure that the noble Lord would accept that it is better to set the matter beyond doubt by saying clearly in the Bill what is intended.
What is perhaps in greater need of clarification is what activities of the Government and their agencies we intend to be subject to the Bill. Clause 35 says that the Bill applies to the Crown; but presumably these clauses apply only when the Crown is providing services. Are Ministers providing services when they make regulations about the provision of legal aid; or is the Courts Agency providing services when it builds a courthouse? I understand that the noble Lord's answer to the former question is: no, there is nothing in the Bill which precludes a Minister from discriminating when he issues regulations. I think that he is probably right, if it will comfort him, and I do not suggest that the Bill should be amended to impose an obligation on him not to discriminate when he is exercising that function. I shall return in a moment to the problems arising from that situation. However, I hope that the noble Lord can give us an assurance that those who provide court premises are intended to be subject to the provisions of the Bill.
These are general concerns, but I should not wish to turn this amendment into a lawyer's debate about draftsmanship. The Law Society has three practical concerns—or more accurately, three groups of practical

18 Jul 1995 : Column 254

concerns. So I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I take a little longer than I would normally presume to do at this hour. This amendment really incorporates four amendments into one, so I hope your Lordships will think that it represents a saving of time.
The first group of concerns relates to the provision of legal aid and the ways in which disabled people encounter discrimination. It is here that I return to what I was saying a moment ago about discrimination in the regulations. That may not be the subject in this Bill, but it may compel others unwittingly to discriminate.
For most people who seek advice and assistance on legal aid, the process begins with the green form scheme. That is to enable the solicitor to have preliminary discussions with the client, to hear about the problem, to offer initial advice and to discuss how to proceed. It is the very beginning of the quest for redress.
The regulations require that before anything happens at all, the applicant must sign the green form in the presence of the solicitor. So the applicant must be present in person; it cannot be done by post or on the telephone. Therefore if the applicant has difficulties in travelling to the solicitor's office, there is a problem. It can, of course, be overcome if the solicitor is prepared to travel to the applicant's home or to the hospital where he or she is an in-patient. But he will not be able to recover the cost of travelling there, or any recompense for the time spent, because when he incurred the costs the form was not signed. If the applicant is in some remote psychiatric hospital, the costs may be considerable. It may be possible to circumvent the difficulty if the solicitor's firm has a franchise under the franchise scheme, since it can then authorise its own travel costs.
That, however, gives rise to at least two further difficulties. First, the applicant may not be immediately aware of a firm in the area with the appropriate franchise. Disabled people do not always find it easy to visit the town hall or the post office, or to read notice-boards, even if the information is available there. Secondly, the franchise scheme does not apply to a number of areas of law which are of particular concern to disabled people: eligibility for community care services or the law relating to children with special educational needs. Those are subjects that are not within the franchise scheme. The consequence is that the people who provide legal services, the solicitors, do discriminate against disabled people. They may have to begin by imposing a charge on them on a private basis. That is not what they want. They do not want to be able discriminate with impunity. They want not to have to discriminate at all. So, although they are protected presumably under Clause 13(1) (d) of the Bill, that does not solve their difficulty.
Whether or not this amendment would directly address the problem, the disturbing truth is that that law is not open to all alike. There is not that equality before the law of which this country has always boasted. What is needed is for the regulations either to provide for postal applications for green form assistance or to enable non-franchised solicitors to claim the cost of travelling to visit the disabled applicant before the form is signed.

18 Jul 1995 : Column 255

There is one other problem in relation to eligibility for legal aid. People who are in receipt of incapacity benefit are allowed it because that is what they need to cope with the additional cost of living imposed on them by their disablement. It is not to make them rich or to give them some spare cash. Yet, if they are awarded legal aid, when their liability for contributions is calculated, their benefit is taken into account. So the Government give it to them with one hand and then proceed to take it back with the other. I am sure that was not the intention of the Lord Chancellor.
In April 1993, changes were introduced into the regulations to ensure that normally people who were in receipt of income support would qualify for legal aid without a contribution. Those receiving either of the lower tiers of incapacity benefit will normally need to be topped up by income support, so that they will not be required to pay contributions. But those who receive the highest level of benefit—presumably because they need that money to cope with the highest level of difficulties—find that, if they apply for legal aid, much of their benefit is taken away again. It has been calculated that normally it will be a loss of something around £8 a week. The problem is that the legal aid means test takes no account of disability costs.
I am aware that the Lord Chancellor's Department has assured the Law Society that it is considering the matter. But it has been considering it for something like three years. Again, we have a situation in which disabled people encounter discrimination when they seek legal aid and advice and the solicitors who provide it have no choice but to discriminate.
Let me mention briefly two further instances of discrimination. When a child complains of abuse, physical or sexual, a number of practices come into play which have been developed over the past few years as we have learnt more about such matters. The child may be interviewed by skilled social workers. They may make use of facilities for describing what happened, such as pictures and dolls. The police have squads trained in investigating such complaints. The Crown Prosecution Service considers the difficulty of presenting the case and how it might be overcome. The Judicial Studies Board addresses these difficulties and helps judges see how the courts can help. That is if the complainant is a child.
But at present there are no corresponding facilities if the complaint is made not by a child but by a mentally vulnerable adult. I heard the noble Lord at Committee stage explaining that in dealing with mental disorders it is necessary to confine ourselves to identifiable clinical conditions, and I do not seek to go beyond that. But what is important is that the police, the CPS and the courts should not assume too readily that people with mental disability are unable to understand what they are being asked or give a reliable account of what happened to them.
On 5th May this year, there was a seminar held at the Law Society's Hall on mentally vulnerable complainants and witnesses. It was attended by delegates from a wide range of bodies with a great deal of expertise. From their deliberations there emerged a

18 Jul 1995 : Column 256

report containing 25 recommendations. I have them with me. I hope that the noble Lord has seen the document. If not, I commend it to him and would be happy to supply it to him.
I hope that the noble Lord will not reply that the courts do not provide services for witnesses, so that Clause 12 is not applicable. They are users of the courts. Certainly the Government, in the National Survey of Court Users, designate as users a whole range of people, including journalists, members of the public, jurors and, specifically, witnesses.
I apologise for the length of this contribution but, as I said, this proposal is probably four amendments in one. I come to the last subject of concern. It relates simply to access for disabled people to the courts and tribunals and the facilities which may be found there. Here, I declare an interest. The Council on Tribunals, which I am privileged to chair, produced in 1993 a checklist and code of practice on access for disabled people using tribunals. It deals with provisions such as have been mentioned by some of your Lordships tonight in other contexts: car parking; barriers to access; signposting where it can clearly be seen by those who are partially sighted; impediment-free entries and corridors; doors which can be opened by people on crutches; entry phones accessible to people with wheelchairs. They are examples which are known to most noble Lords here but which are not always present in the mind of busy officials building courthouses. I commend the document to the noble Lord and, if he does not have a copy, I shall be delighted to supply him with one.
The noble Lord may recollect that in the course of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, as it then was, my noble friend Lord Ashley moved an amendment relating to the right of deaf people to participate in the public duty of jury service. He spoke of a judge discharging a deaf juror because he could not hear the evidence. Of course, if he cannot hear the evidence, justice requires that he be discharged. But my noble friend wanted to ensure that judges were aware of the technological provisions available to enable deaf people to hear. Since then the Lord Chancellor's department has sent a circular to courts on those matters, for which I am grateful. But these are topics where judges would benefit from information and guidance.
When questions of discrimination arose against people from minority ethnic groups, the Judicial Studies Board provided seminars which were immensely helpful to judges and recorders. I hope that the JSB will consider whether it is possible to provide similar guidance in relation to disabled people. The Human Awareness Working Party of the JSB discussed at least some of these matters and I hope that, when he replies, the noble Lord will be able to share with the House what the Government are doing.
Those are some of our anxieties. No one believes that they will be addressed simply by incorporating this amendment into the Bill. But whether the Bill can assist in addressing them is a different question. I apologise

18 Jul 1995 : Column 257

again for the length of this contribution, but I hope the noble Lord is able to tell us something of the Government's thinking on these matters. I beg to move.

11.45 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, my noble and learned friend treated the House to a fine mixture of lawyer's analytical logic and a politician's powers of persuasion. He is an old ally from another place and I hope the Minister took on board the legitimate concerns that he expressed. I warmly welcome his amendment and strongly support it, because it will ensure that all criminal justice agencies will have to ensure equal access and justice for all.

The concept of justice for all is a British birthright, at least in theory. Though it is the subject of many erudite speeches, in practice it is a mirage; justice for all in Britain simply does not exist. Let me take one example; that is, the lack of signing interpreters for deaf people in our courts of law. Some discretionary funds are available, but by definition they are discretionary and so can be withheld. I do not see much of a guarantee of justice with that arrangement. We do not have discretionary prosecutions and we do not have discretionary English language in the courts, so we should not have discretionary funds for interpreters. Without an interpreter some profoundly deaf people can neither follow court proceedings nor contribute to them.

Perhaps I may briefly explain to the House that people speak of "deaf" people, but they range from the slightly hard of hearing to the profoundly or totally deaf. Those people who are born profoundly or totally deaf need a sign-language interpreter, because that is their first language. They are the very people who are denied interpreters in a court of law.

There would be a great howl of outrage if a British citizen was tried in a foreign country in that country's language without an interpreter; but that is precisely what happens in Britain when profoundly deaf people go to a court of law without an interpreter. There is absolutely no point in our claiming justice for all in Britain; it simply does not exist.

Funds for interpreters, if required, should always be available because that is a necessary cost of justice. An interpreter should also be provided for deaf parents if their child, although hearing, is involved in a court case. Otherwise deaf parents are unable to understand what is going on. They have not only a right to know but a responsibility. Failure to provide properly trained interpreters can result in wasted time and money. I am sure that all of us, especially Ministers, do not want that. That happened at the Old Bailey in June of this year. The interpreter made an error and the trial, which cost £1 million, collapsed. Everyone lost in that case. The £1 million could have paid for a good many interpreters. We really must have fully qualified interpreters.

My noble and learned friend mentioned deaf jurors. That became a scandalous situation not simply because a deaf person was denied the right to be a juror but because that woman had computer aided transcription. Like myself, with the wonderful Palantype display I have in front of me, she could follow every word without difficulty. But the judge was biased and

18 Jul 1995 : Column 258

prejudiced and discriminated against that deaf woman. He said, "No, we are not having you in this court". That is the kind of thing which we simply cannot tolerate. That is why I hope that my noble and learned friend's amendment will be accepted.

I, too, apologise for the length of my contribution but perhaps I may speak briefly to Amendment No. 60 and make two basic points. First, disabled people should not be prevented by their disability from consulting Members of Parliament or councillors, from lobbying them or watching them at work, or having access to the political process. Secondly, they should not be prevented by their disability from becoming elected or appointed. Yet both of those things happen in Britain today.

On the first aspect, when deaf people go to see Members of Parliament—I should know and my noble and learned friend will know as well—there are very rarely loop systems in the MPs' surgeries. There are never interpreters and there are very few minicoms. Therefore, in that sense people are denied the right to talk to their Member of Parliament, which is a ridiculous situation in a democracy. The position is similar for people in wheelchairs. Very few MPs consider access to their surgeries. I was one of the guilty ones. Even while I was chairman of the Parliamentary All-Party Disablement Group I was holding my surgeries in a place with steps. Admittedly, I could not get another place, but I should have fought harder to demand an easily accessible surgery. Very few MPs consider access to their surgeries or provide Braille or large print for the leaflets for their constituents.

There was a recent lobby on the Bill. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and all his colleagues were there. I think that we saw them there, or certainly they know about it. Thousands of disabled people came to press for the passage of a strengthened Bill. No microphone was allowed in Westminster Hall. The Serjeant at Arms and his colleagues were very helpful. They were almost as good as Black Rod and his colleagues are in this place. They were very helpful indeed. But they had to accept what Parliament lays down, and Parliament laid down that no microphones could be used in Westminster Hall. That is a fine situation! Westminster Hall is accessible to wheelchairs but we could not use microphones. Even my rather loud voice could not be heard shouting, so it was a fairly bad situation. Microphones can be used in Westminster's Grand Committee Room, but that is inaccessible to large numbers of wheelchair-bound people. So one cannot win either way. That is the kind of situation that could be dealt with if this amendment were accepted. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, will view it with great sympathy. In this House, or anywhere else where elected representatives meet disabled people, it is not appropriate that rigid rules should be enforced.

I believe that disabled people, especially those who are deaf and blind, have enormous difficulty. Yet, in Britain today, there are no sign language broadcasts on political programmes; there are no election addresses in large print; and there is nothing either on tape or on

18 Jul 1995 : Column 259

video. There are some sign interpreters at party conferences for a handful of deaf people, but not on television where they could be viewed by thousands.

A few weeks ago I interviewed a Canadian Member of Parliament for a television programme. That man was totally deaf and without speech. However, he had been elected a Member of Parliament. The Canadian Parliament provided four full-time sign interpreters for that man, not only in the House of Commons in Canada, but also in his constituency. That is really remarkable provision. He had Palantype and all the necessary provisions for sub-titling of the proceedings all the time. It makes us look really shabby by comparison. I am not saying that we want the moon. What we really want is a big change in attitude as regards the people in our Parliament and in our councils.

Finally, I have one further question for the Minister. I have read in some learned books about the law—although I have not found this in the law—that people who are "deaf and dumb" are debarred from standing for Parliament. Can the Minister comment on that? Is it the case that deaf and dumb people are debarred from standing for Parliament by statute? My noble friend Lady Hollis shakes her head, and she is a person with whom I do not readily disagree. However, I am not asking for her opinion; I am asking for the Minister's opinion so that the answer is official. We want to know the Government's policy on the issue. Can the Minister kindly tell us whether or not such people can stand for Parliament. In other words, are such highly-related legal textbooks written by distinguished lawyers right or wrong? I apologise for having taken so long. I hope that the Minister will consider my amendment sympathetically.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page