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Lord Ackner: My Lords, after the protestation of affectionalthough, perhaps, not undying affectionof the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, I feel that I owe him a short intervention. Unless the amendment or something of its kind is accepted, it seems to me that there is a serious risk of the Short Title of the Bill, the Disability Discrimination Bill, becoming even shorter and ending up merely as the Disability Bill. I say that because it will contain within its own pages an essential disability; namely, the lack of any authoritative body with appropriate powers. Without such powers, I cannot see how one can expect the law to function effectively. Therefore, I support the amendment.
Lord Addington: My Lords, I shall not detain the House for long on the matter. I have very seldom participated in a debate on an amendment which received such tremendous support from so many parts of the House. We are now talking about something which is effectively the engine which will drive the legislation on and make it successful. If we do not have something which will give real teeth to what is put into the legislation, it will fail and fail miserably.
At present, disabled peoplethat is, people who have difficulty with reading, writing or mobilityare being asked to take on cases by themselves. We need the proposed amendment or something very like it. If the Government have had a change of heart at this point I should be very glad to hear it; but I do not believe that they have. The legislation will provide a body which has the legal powers and, it is to be hoped, the financial power, to ensure that we give effect to the regulations within it. Without such powers, much of the rest of the Bill is pointless because it will not have any effect. Historically an Act which has had no mechanism to support it has not been effective. I refer, for example, to the Factory Acts of the 19th century. Those Acts had no effect until inspectors were appointed to inspect factories. An Act that is not backed up in this way might as well not exist. I ask the House in all sincerity whether there is any real point in having this Act unless we have strong enforcement powers.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referred towards the end of his speech to his confusion in this matter. I, too, am somewhat perplexed. Even though I have not uttered upon it until this moment it was many weeks ago that my noble friend the Minister first aroused my interest in this Bill. I have listened to the debates in the Chamber and I attended meetings outside it. Even if my noble friend had not aroused my interest, as chairman of the Stroke Association sooner or later I would have sparked on certain aspects of this Bill. Stroke, which affects an extra 100,000 people every year, can occur at any age. The youngest person we have recorded with stroke-like symptoms had not even been born. Those symptoms occurred in the womb. The next youngest was only two years old. Although one usually thinks of stroke as an impairment of people's later years, that is not the case. One only has to look around this Chamber to know that there is life after stroke. Therefore it behoves us to
That rapid introduction brings me straight to the meat of these amendments. It seems to me that the protagonists are like two dinosaurs locking horns. On the one hand, we have a concordat, not only of all the disability charities, but also of the Employers Forum on Disability. They believe that the Government have produced a good, even a very good Bill, on the rights of disabled people, but that it has one fatal flaw to which the noble Lord, Lord Addington, has just referred. The disability commission proposed in this Bill seems to do nothing for anyone except the Secretary of State. He certainly needs up-to-date advice on the state of the law and practice affecting disabled people. Butit is a very big butso do disabled people and their possible employers.
The Government, of course, are my other horned dinosaur. They know full well what is needed: an organisation to protect disabled people from the possible sins of employersACAS, we are told, can do thatand an organisation to advise on access for disabled people. The advice centres proposed by my noble friend in Committee are an obvious route. But what we simply do not have is a one-stop shop, and it is that that all the workers in the field desperately believe is needed.
I can readily understand the Government's reluctance to set up a national proselytising body: the equivalent perhaps of the Equal Opportunities Commission. I am sure that body does a lot of good work but that is marredand I am afraid, badly marredby the occasional howler. I recently came across one such in my capacity as a governor of a large comprehensive school in Taunton. An opinion was sought from that body on the law and practice of schoolgirls wearing skirts at school. I shall not weary the House with all the details but I shall be happy to place a copy of the document in your Lordships' Library for information. A short extract will suffice on this occasion. Paragraph 5 is headed "Stereotype". It states,
This is in a school which has recently been the subject of an Ofsted report in which it was praised for having produced boys' results of the same high educational standard as the girls' results. Paragraph 5 continues,
No one, certainly not I, will wish for a proselytising body. I therefore believe that these amendments fall at the last fence; namely, in Amendment No. 86A the proposed new subsection (2A) (d) states that the new council is,
The Government's other main worry, as I understand it, is costs. I believe that that is a real and sensible concern. If I am right about employers wanting the new commission or council, call it what you will, they have the obvious remedy. They can either be charged by the advisory council, or disband their existing forum on disability and put the money towards a more general council such as these amendments provide for.
I am in a quandary. I want a broader council but, equally, I believe that the Government have won some, even most, of the arguments. I hope that my noble friend Lord Mackay will produce further arguments for my voting with the Government today. If not, I am afraid that I still cannot support any of these amendments for the reasons I have given. I shall therefore abstain.
Lord Renton: My Lords, everyone who has spoken in favour of these amendments seems to have overlooked a vital fundamental factor: that we are to have one disability council. Its work is to cover the whole of the United Kingdom, including even Northern Ireland. In the amendment it is suggested that it should be given power to consider individual cases of various kinds and in various circumstances. I am surprised that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, did not notice this. It seems that it is even, as stated in the proposed new subsection (2A) (b) of Amendment No. 86A,
that is, going to court. The body is to have a jurisdiction with regard to legal aid. How can it consider individual cases and deal with all these particular matters which will arise locally all over the United Kingdom from one central body? I should have thought that regional offices would not be enough. One would have to have at least one in every district. That would add tremendously to the cost of administering the Bill. I do not think it is necessary because I personally have sufficient faith in the system of enforcement that is already in the Bill which provides industrial tribunals for employment cases and the courts in other cases. I greatly respect all those who have spoken and all the outside pressure groups who have advised them but I really do not feel that in practice it would be wise to accept my noble friend's amendment.
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