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Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I have not given the Minister advance notice of the points I intend to make. However, I should like to support the amendments and say that it is right that the Government should be required to provide conciliation on goods and services. The courts are far too costly and they are intimidating to disabled people. They tend to deter them, which is a very bad thing. The Government should also provide advice and assistance. We know now that the Government will not allow the National Disability Council to do that so the Government should take on that responsibility.
The Bill should establish a continuous processa continuum between disabled people and the conciliation and advice. The disabled person should get advice in order to establish whether he has a case. Then there could be conciliation, which would remove the grievance quickly and easily. Each of those stages hinges upon the other. If there is no advice, the disabled person will not know whether he has a legitimate grievance and the conciliation will be unused. If there is no conciliation the grievance will remain because people will be fearful of the courts. One will not work without the other. We must have bothconciliation, and assistance and advice. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House on those basic points.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I support these amendments. As the Minister knows, I have said at previous stages of the Bill that advice should be available to all. One should avoid litigation at all costs. There is nothing more costly than going to court and many disabled people are among the poorest in the country.
Lord Zouche of Haryngworth: My Lords, I support the amendment. The Confederation of British Industry has taken a very positive and healthy attitude towards the implementation of the Bill. It wants to make the Bill work. The CBI amendment seeks to ensure that any proposed mechanism for mediation is accessible to both disabled people and business. That will have many advantages. It will reduce the necessity for recourse to the courts. That is a terrible experience which no one needs, especially if one is disabled. It tends to polarise positions rather than help in working towards some sensible solution. I support the amendment.
Lord Addington: My Lords, the aim of the amendments is to ensure that the widest possible amount of information is available in the most easily accessible manner. As has already been stated, the most consistent winners in a court case are the lawyers. We are trying to avoid that situation. An amendment along these lines
Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): My Lords, I support these very helpful amendments. I look forward to hearing the Minister's replies to the various questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. I support the amendments entirely.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady O'Cathain for outlining her concerns and I am also grateful to other noble Lords who have spoken on the amendment. Those concerns centre around how the Bill will provide for the resolution of disputes which arise from the new right of access to goods and services. We touched on this area during our earlier consideration of Amendments Nos. 2 and 49. I shall try not to repeat some of the points I made then but I should like to take just a few minutes of your Lordships' time to explain how we envisage Clause 24 working. I hope that will reassure my noble friend.
I imagine that some of your Lordships who were in the House at Report stage will remember that I said that it is disabled people who will generally be the more vulnerable party to a dispute arising out of the right of access and that our proposals for advice and assistance had been framed so that, where appropriate, they could receive a greater share of the amount of support on offer. I think my actual words were that it would be,
By that I meant that, while staying strictly within the confines of the law, the service would seek a resolution which ensured that the disabled person's rights were met. In my view, it is extremely important that Clause 24 retains the flexibility to allow us to do that. We would like a service which operates to serve the spirit in which the legislation was conceived: a desire to up the pace of the move to a more accessible environment for disabled people.
I am not sure that my noble friend's amendment incorporates sufficient latitude to allow us to set up a scheme which might need to differ from existing dispute resolution mechanisms to take account of the very special and varied aspects of disability discrimination. However, we recognise that the primary source of advice and advocacy for disabled people will continue to be the multiplicity of advice agencies which already exist: whether generalist, like the citizens advice bureau service, or disability specific, like the disability information and advice line service or DIAL. We could not, and would not wish to, supersede or compete with those existing structures. Rather, it is more sensible to set up a complementary service which will help the existing disability advisers to do their jobs better. In other words, what is required is a secondary tier of advice to give help and assistance to those who have the day-to-day contact with disabled people: in essence a team of full-time disability advisers who, whether situated centrally or regionally, will together form a pool
We feel that a scheme along those lines is the best way to make use of the existing networks of advice and assistance. The agencieslocal agencies, specialist agencies and the generalist agencies, such as the citizens advice bureaux, which provide services locallywill screen out the majority of cases of alleged discrimination. Some of those will be misconceived while others could be dealt with simply. Where the case is more complicated, or the parties in question cannot agree on what the solution should be, the guidance of the advisers could be sought. In very difficult cases, the case could be referred on to the advice service, which will in this way build up expertise in the more difficult types of case which it can then apply more generally.
At each point in this process, it is likely that there will be some contact with the service provider in order to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution short of a court summons. To answer my noble friend Lord Swinfen, there will be nothing to stop a service provider using the system in exactly the same way. Many small shopkeepers, for example, will be quite happy to avail themselves of the services of local advice agencies. I can, however, appreciate that such a scheme will not always satisfy the requirements of larger business, and I understand why many feel that a more formal dispute resolution mechanism along the lines of ACAS is required for Part III of the Bill.
I should emphasise that we have deliberately not set out to duplicate ACAS's role in the goods and services field. As your Lordships know, ACAS becomes involved in a dispute only when an application has been made to a tribunal. I note that the amendment also envisages that the Clause 24 arrangements will primarily be triggered once a complaint has been made to a court. Our intention is to set up a system which can resolve disputes before people even apply to the courts. That will be best for both business and disabled people.
Further, there is no doubt in my mind that the disability advisers would be able to perform the mediation role which my noble friend seeks, if there existed some way of filtering out inquiries on more straightforward issues. There must be a number of bodies which, when it is a businessman who has a problem, could perform the same operation for the advisers as will be performed by the CAB and other groups when disabled people have a grievance. One could perhaps imagine a role for trades associations or chambers of commerce. Further, most large service sector companies will have an existing mechanism for dealing with complaints from members of the public who feel that their statutory rights have been infringed. Customer relations staff could work together with the disability advisers to resolve problems before they began to escalate. We could reinforce such mechanisms through the use of a code of practice which directed disabled people down a particular route as an initial step. This is clearly an area where we need to talk in more
Finally, I should like to emphasise that we recognise that business needs a lead-in period so it has time to equip itself to cope with the more stringent provisions of Part III of the Bill. That is why the various rights of access are to be phased in over a period of maybe as many as 10 years, starting with the simple duty on service providers not to refuse service to a disabled person unreasonably and ending with the duty to remove physical barriers if there is no other means of providing access. This phasing period will also give us time to assess whether our proposals for advice and assistance are going to prove sufficient. If it transpires that a more formal structure is necessary, the power remains within Clause 24 to provide one. This is almost certainly an issue on which we shall be asking the National Disability Council to review the existing arrangements and to make recommendations. We would then consider the arguments for change and weigh the perceived benefits against the potential costs, taking account of such possibilities as incorporating funding from the private sector. Here again, the amendment is probably too prescriptive to allow us to adapt whatever service is set up under Clause 24 to meet the needs which may arise over time.
My noble friend Lord Swinfen asked me about the telephone helpline. I dealt with that point when we considered Amendment No. 2 and I do not think that I can usefully add anything to what I said then. I do not want to repeat myself, but I believe that I said then that we shall start to consult shortly after Royal Assent. We shall also do that in relation to the advice and assistance service. Officials from my department will be seeking to discuss those matters with organisations of and for disabled people as well as those representing service providers, to ascertain the best way forward.
I am sorry that I have gone on at some length, but this is an important issue and I wanted to spell out how our thinking has developed since I spoke on Report. I hope that I have sufficiently reassured by noble friend to enable her to withdraw her amendment.
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