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Lord Rix: My Lords, it is with some frustration that I support the amendments: frustration because I had hoped that by now the Government might have gone some way towards recognising the validity of the case which has been made with eloquence and passion by many noble Lords on all sides of the House on behalf of disabled people and their organisations.
I want to concentrate a few remarks upon Amendments Nos. 86A and 92 which deal with assistance by the council. I can assure the Minister that without some such provision for the NDC few, if any, people with a learning disability will be able to seek redress under the Bill.
In Committee, the Minister told us that it costs nothing to take a case to a tribunal and only a few pounds to go to a small claims court, and that both mechanisms are designed to be used by individuals without legal representation, with the tribunal or judge specifically charged to draw out the facts of the case. The few pounds, the legal representation, the support and the advice on how to present the case are crucial, particularly for people with a learning disability. They are not incidental, as the Minister seemed to suggest.
Organisations such as MENCAP will of course advise people with learning disabilities on how to seek redress under the legislation, as it does of course with all legislation. I for one will be sorely disappointed if the Government do not at last recognise that sometimes we need the bite as well as the bark. Therefore I support all these amendments with great enthusiasm.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, the strength of this House is that noble Lords of all parties, and of none, can combine to persuade the Government to improve legislation. That is the unique capacity of the House, and we are all proud of that. Today we are witnessing an attempt by noble Lords on all sides of the House to make the Bill a genuine vehicle for change. That is what they are trying to do, and they deserve success, because at present the Bill is like a vehicle without an engine.
No amount of hyperbole from Ministers about the Bill being an historic step forward can obscure the central fact that it is simply not enforceable; that the proposed council has no real power; that disabled people have no champion; and that their organisations are almost unanimous in supporting the amendments put forward so eloquently by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness.
It is truly astonishing that the Government should refuse to make this Bill readily and easily enforceable, given the vivid lesson of history which Ministers themselves have been preaching. Time and again Ministers have condemned the quota system of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 as an unworkable failure. Time and again they have been right. It was an unworkable failure because successive governments refused to enforce it.
The quota system held high promise for disabled people. However, the problem was that it was ignored. It fell into disrepute; it let disabled people down. Without the powers spelt out in these amendments, this Bill too will be ignored. It too will fall into disrepute; it too will let disabled people down.
The Government maintain that their legal area of tribunals and small claims courts are means of enforcement. But that argument is fundamentally flawed. It rests on the mistaken ministerial assumption that all disabled people are as vigorous and as actively militant as the few who demonstrate in Whitehall. They are not. Most disabled people find it very difficult to cope. They battle against severe disability and they lack confidence and the experience of the methods of complaining. They simply do not have such experience. It is absurd to expect such people to fight their individual way through tribunals and so forth.
This House loves its lawyersor, at any rate, most of them! But most disabled people would sooner suffer than tangle with lawyers. They simply do not want to fight. I believe that many disabled people would rather go without their rights than become embroiled in legal tangles in tribunals or small claims courts.
If the amendments were accepted the council would be available to support and advise disabled people. It would be available to undertake the actual fighting on key issues of principle. That would be marvellous. And it could happen as a result of your Lordships' votes in a few moments' time.
I know that the Government maintain that hundreds of voluntary organisations are available to offer advice. That is true, but none can replace the functions of a strong central council. There is no doubt whatever that the Government underrate the importance of a simple focal point for all disabled people. They need to go to one authoritative body which can give them guidance and practical assistance.
The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, rightly says that those in business want a body to which they can go for guidance. I am co-chairman of the All-Party Disablement Group. I am glad to see so many distinguished members here today. Employers have attended meetings of the group in order to explain that they need the central focal point of a powerful council. That was outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. My point is that Ministers should be aware that if they want people to take up their offers they should provide one point of contact. Any good marketing man will tell them that. Why else must we dial 999 for police, fire and ambulance? People, in particular disabled people, must know where to turn because they can become lost. The need for that focal point is important in respect of disabled people, more so than in respect of race and gender.
As the Minister said, there are varying disabilitiesindeed, there are multifarious disabilitiesand a need for adjustment. However, I am afraid that the Government interpret those varying disabilities in a perverse and misleading way. They say that a single focal authority would not work simply because of the diversity of disabilities as distinct from the homogeneity of race and sex. They do not use those exact words
The final misconception of the Government is that if the amendments are accepted somehow there will be a backlash, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. Time and again, Ministers have uttered that refrain without justification. It is an example of the Government misunderstanding the effect of their own Bill. The fact is that any provision for disabled people in the Bill must be reasonable in accordance with the terms of the Bill. The Bill lays down the fact that the provisions must be reasonable. Unreasonable provisions cannot be forced because the Bill ensures that they cannot be unreasonable. No undue burdens can be imposed in any business. That is spelt out specifically in the terms of the Bill. Those provisions make a nonsense of the claim that there would be a backlash.
It would be infinitely sad if the plea from all sides of the House was rejected by the Government. It would mean the betrayal of millions of disabled people. They have lived in the hope that Parliament would effectively outlaw unjustified discrimination with proper enforcement measures so that they could have the same human rights to employment and to goods and services as anyone else. It is a reasonable, modest and, indeed, moral demand that is put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. If the Government fail disabled people, I hope that your Lordships will support those people with their votes in the Division Lobby.
The Lord Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich: My Lords, I wish to associate myself strongly with the amendment introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. At an earlier stage in the long debate on this issue I raised two matters of grave anxiety. One related to education and the other to the powers given to the national disability council. I am grateful to the Government for the amendments that have been made as regards education. However, in terms of the powers given to the NDC, we are, effectively, where we were at the beginning of the debate.
I do not know whether the Government are aware as yet of the strength of feeling which is being engendered in this area. The presence of the right reverend Prelates sitting on my left is an expression of that. The pressure applied by the different disability organisations is another example.
My fear is that unless the amendment is accepted by the House, the Bill will fall into the sand. It would be a tragedy if, after all the strength of feeling that has been expressed and the very good intentions which the Government clearly have in that regard, the Bill were to go into the sand because it did not empower any group to bring it into effect and to operate it.
I must confess that I am bemused and puzzled by the fact that we are still where we were. I urge the House and the Government to look very carefully at this issue and I hope that the House will support the amendment on a Division.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I too am happy to support my noble friend Lord Swinfen. I believe that it is essential that the powers of the council are strengthened so that it is able to act as a central, authoritative body which advises business and disabled people and so that it has enforcement powers to ensure that serious cases of discrimination do not go unchallenged. I hope that the Minster will look again at that aspect of the Bill and will agree to strengthen the powers of the National Disability Council.
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