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Lord Addington: My Lords, this amendment is probably one of the most straightforward and reasonable that we have seen on this Billand it has had some competition for that particular title. Basically it states, as the noble Baroness just said, that those who advise the Secretary of State should advise the general public; they should advise the employers and employees towards whom this Bill is primarily directed. There is no real reason why they should not do so. That is the first point that can be made in favour of this proposal.
There is no reason at all why this information could not come from a central body. We are simply talking about disseminating more information and having one or two people answering phones. It also means that we know where the central authority comes from and where people have to apply. Purely on practical grounds there is a huge case to be made for this amendment. Providing a focal point and guidancenamely, a central authority from where information is disseminatedwould lend far more moral weight to the guidance. On both counts there is practicality. There is a central concept that lends authority. All these matters call for central guidance.
Implicit in the amendment is the fact that we do not call for a campaigning body. That argument has been debated in this House. The amendment seeks to control the functions that the Government have stated they want to be taken on by various bodies. Surely, there is no good reason why this amendment, or something very like it, should not appear on the face of the Bill.
The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, the issue is really quite simple. As the Minister said, the purpose of the Bill is to benefit disabled people. Therefore surely the expertise concentrated in the National Disability Council should be available not only to the Government but to the people for whose benefit the Bill is designed.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, as I understand it, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, very clearly indicated the purpose of Amendment No. 49; namely, to add duties to the disability council on advice and assistance. In case there was any doubt (she mentioned my name), in earlier debates I was not in favour of the establishment of a new body, a commission. I was in favour of keeping the council in the Bill. But this debate touches on another issue that will arise on Clause 24, which deals with advice and assistance. My noble friend Lady O'Cathain will no doubt speak to this when she deals with her Amendments Nos. 29 to 31. It seems to me that under Clause 24 the Government plan that advice and assistance should be provided to persons and bodies as specified. Therefore we are touching upon another debate and one that is to come. I should like to draw the attention of the House, and particularly the attention of the right reverend Prelate, to the fact that this subject will arise before very long when we debate Clause 24.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, perhaps I may answer the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. We should not assume that these issues will be debated and voted upon later. These amendments are particularly important. They seek to transform the National Disability Council from being a mere appendage to the Minister, a mere advisory body, into an authoritative body that is able to provide advice and assistance to millions of deprived disabled people. Those people are deprived because in the main they cannot consult a family solicitor simply because they cannot afford to do so. Most disabled people are poor. That means that they must turn to someone else for advice and assistance on what the legislation will mean. They will lack that information and advice if these amendments are rejected.
I am very concerned to see this House beginning to divide on party lines. This is not a party political amendment. These amendments are for disabled people. The right reverend Prelate put it in a nutshell: if the Minister says that the Bill is to help disabled people, this is the way to help them; namely, to give them advice and assistance.
In the deplorable absence of a national disability commissionI regret that fact but I cannot debate the matter nowthe organisation to which disabled people will want to turn is the National Disability Council. The council can say to disabled persons that they have a case to take forward or that they are being over-sensitive and it should be dropped. It can provide reasoned advice which is of enormous value to disabled people. As the Bill stands, the council is shackled. These amendments throw off those shackles and allow the council to give advice and assistance.
I expect the Minister to make great play of the telephone helpline and to say that that is the major response of the Government to these problems. I know that he is marvellous when it comes to public relations. But that is a lot of rubbish for the following reasons. Many disabled people cannot use the telephone, perhaps because they are deaf or are afraid of it or they cannot afford it. There are many reasons why the helpline is inadequate. I hope that noble Lords on all sides of the Chamber will recognise that the helpline is a step forward but not a complete answer. The answer is to enable the council to give informed advice and assistance to disabled people. That is all that these amendments seek to do. I hope that noble Lords on all sides will be able to accept them.
Lord Rix: My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and other noble Lords in the matter of advice and assistance. Perhaps as chairman of MENCAP I may be permitted to trail that organisation's 50th anniversary appeal which goes from 1996 to 1997. It is intended to improve and increase our facilities to provide the advice, assistance, information and support so desperately needed by people who have learning disabilities and by their families and helpers. I trust that in due course we shall receive that support from the Minister and his department.
I should like to spend my pennyworth on the complaints issue. Like other noble Lords, I accept that it is not proposed that the council should investigate and provide support or remedy for individual complaints. However, I would welcome the Minister's assuranceI have discussed it with himthat, notwithstanding Clause 44(4), the council may identify issues of wider importance that are raised in individual complaints, advertise its interest in the issue or issues, invite evidence from individuals or groups and recommend appropriate action on that issue or those issues. I believe that that would be a useful clarification of the council's capacity for being helpful by taking the initiative, and I look forward in due course to the Minister's response.
Lord Hamilton of Dalzell: My Lords, it is my experience that since the publication of the Bill and during the long vacation of this House professional advisers who advise businesses and lawyers have taken a very keen interest in what the Bill implies, particularly concerning employment. Therefore, I do not see them having much recourse to the NDC. They are interested in what is in the Bill and what its implications are. What bothers me slightly is the possibility that the NDC may be invited to give advice that ends up as part of a dispute in which the council's opinion is overruled. Where will it stand then?
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I believe that advice and information are vital if people are to understand the needs of the disabled. All noble Lords will know how varied and obscure some disabilities are. The needs of disabled people are as different as chalk and cheese. Unless correct information is forthcoming there will be fragmentation and different answers to similar questions. If useful advice is forthcoming, problems will be solved and money saved. It is remarkably unwise not to have this service in place when the legislation becomes operational.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Dalzell makes a suggestion that is likely to be rather rare. I believe that the additional powers given to the National Disability Council by this amendment will be extremely useful. I suspect that it will reduce the amount of litigation that is likely to take place and therefore the costs to disabled people and others. My noble friend should take cognisance of the amendment. I hope that he will agree it, even if it requires further amendment in another place.
Lord Clifford of Chudleigh: My Lords, I agree entirely with the previous speaker and with two or three speakers before. A number of points have been made about how we who are able believe things should be run. The noble Baroness before me said that the disabled were not understood by the majority. I should like to give a few examples. A member of a club in South Devon, where I come from, who is in a wheelchair as a result of cerebral palsy, has found a job in an office. He has been asked not to use his wheelchair up and down the corridor because it scratches the doors. One would have thought that the people concerned would have heard of kicking plates. That may be the sort of small incident where one would not go to a solicitor but to the council.
We know very welland I think it has to be emphasised again and againthat people with disabilities are six times less likely to be granted a job than able-bodied persons with the same kind of skills and qualifications. Employers as a whole discriminate against disabled people by not providing accessible premises. Many jobs are inaccessible to the disabled in terms of equipment. It may be that only slight modification is required to make them more suitable.
Another matter brought up at Second Reading was that the work routine could preclude a person in a wheelchair from performing easily, if at all. There are definite barriers raised to prevent people with disabilities from reaching senior positions. Only 12 per cent. of disabled people in employment are in professional positions compared with 21 per cent. of able-bodied people. It should be repeated that on average disabled employees earn 25 per cent. less than their able-bodied peers. Promotion prospects are also limited.
The present system operated by jobcentres through their disability employment advisers fails to encourage a disabled person to maximise his or her employment potential. Instead, it tends to guide the applicant towards a job in a sheltered workshop or to low-paid, low-status, menial, repetitive and uninteresting types of work.
I give another example. A civil engineer in the south west whose speciality is bridge design has been told that if he were to apply today for a job with his present employers he would not be considered if there was an able-bodied applicant on the basis that an able-bodied person could do more than someone in a wheelchair. But that has been disproved on a daily basis in that office. That person has never asked anybody else to take a task from him because he can cope. That is where the council could help and give advice to the Secretary of State.
Disabled people are discriminated against in terms of public transport. That point will come up again later. Take British Rail, for example. The able-bodied traveller just goes to the station, purchases a ticket and gets on the next train, whereas the disabled passenger has to give notice of his intended journey at least several hours before he wishes to travel. I remember that at Second Reading I spoke about how disabled people, as well as well as elderly people, were discriminated against by the car hire companies when they travelled from, let us say, Paddington to Scotland. Again, such issues can be put forward to the council.
Disabled people suffer further discrimination because of poor access to buildings. In many buildings they have to go around the back and use the goods entrance or similar entry. Many buildings do not have means of disabled access to any other than the ground floor.
Perhaps I may tell your Lordships of an interesting situation that arose at a wedding which took place in Torquay. One of the guests happened to be in a wheelchair and was, to put it colloquially, caught short. The guest happened to be female. She could not get into the ladies loo and had to go into the gents. Before she did so, she had to return to the gathering, and speak to someone who was involved with disabled people, saying, "Please can you take me to the gents and stand
We are all aware that at some stage or another we shall die. Crematoria throughout the country suffer abysmally from inefficient access for wheelchairs. They are, so to speak, not wheelchair-friendly. Very often disabled people who go to the crematoria are left outside. Many undertakers simply do not know how to deal with that sort of thing. There may be, by the way, a lighter side. A lot of people go to weddings and many churches have steps. If the mother of the bride-to-be happens to be in a wheelchair, how will she get up the steps?
It is important to recognise that the Bill is a very sound one on the whole. It has been applauded by many people, including myself. One can lead a horse to water but one cannot make it drink. We are trying now to make things easier and more attractive to do. It is important to understand that, if we do not have a reasonable programme for implementing this Bill, smaller businesses involved with leisure or other matters will close the door to it. They simply cannot afford to implement it. That is where the Government might consider giving a little more support. The same goes for slightly larger businesses too.
In one way or another we are all to a degree disabled. Those who are classified as disabled recognise it and accept their disability. Those who are without physical or mental impairment are prone to overreact or avoid the disabled. Society is geared to the majority and the majority do not have a disability. It is to be hoped that this Bill will enlighten, make aware and broaden the minds of those who have not been traumatised by disability, who are the majority.
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