in the first session of the fifty-second parliament of the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland commencing on the seventh day of may in the forty-sixth year of the reign of
HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II
SEVENTH VOLUME OF SESSION 1997--98
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a personal statement about a breach of parliamentary protocol involving the answering of a Written Parliamentary Question from the noble Lord, Lord Chesham. I have already apologised to the noble Lord on my own behalf, as I approved and signed the Answer to the parliamentary Question, and on behalf of the Government. I do so again today. I should also like to add the apology of the department concerned.
I have looked into the matter and can confirm that this unfortunate error arose because of a misunderstanding between the Cabinet Office (OPS Press Office) and the parliamentary branch. At approximately 10.30 a.m. on Thursday 12th February a press officer faxed to a journalist from The Times a copy of the Answer to the noble Lord's Parliamentary Question about government reviews and task forces. That was done in good faith and on the understanding that the Question had already been answered and was in the hands of the noble Lord and the
The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, sought an assurance that that would not happen again. I am happy to assure him and the House that steps have been taken to ensure that this situation will not arise again. The procedure will be that the parliamentary branch will only send copies of Answers to Parliamentary Questions to the Press Office once they have been not only approved by Ministers but also placed on the Peers' Letter Board and given to the House authorities. Once again, I apologise unreservedly to the noble Lord and to the House.
The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, the Disability Rights Task Force has made good progress since its membership was announced on 3rd December 1997. It has met twice, on 16th December and 21st January, and in line with its terms of reference has been considering in detail the role and functions of a disability rights commission. The task force is expected to make recommendations to the Government on the matter by the end of March.
Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, as thousands of employers still refuse even to interview disabled people for jobs, does my noble friend the Minister expect the next Queen's Speech to include legislation to strengthen and enforce the Disability Discrimination Act 1996? In the meantime, can my noble friend say how the task force is consulting people whose disabilities have not been
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his questions. Indeed, we are all very grateful to him for the work that he has done over many years on behalf of disabled people. In answer to my noble friend's question about legislation, I am afraid that I am unable to give him a clear indication. As he will be well aware, the legislative programme for the next Session has not yet been decided and will not be decided for a little while yet.
As regards my noble friend's other question, perhaps I may remind him that about 50 per cent. of the members of the task force are in fact disabled people. Therefore, the task force is able to get direct answers in that respect from its members. As far as concerns the wider operation of the task force, I can tell my noble friend that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Employment with responsibility for equal opportunities, who is the chairman, has said that he wants it to work in an open manner. Therefore, the task force membership will use its existing networks to gather a wide range of views. The task force discussion papers and minutes are available on the Internet. A facility has been provided on the site for comments to be sent directly to the secretariat. Members of your Lordships' House who know how to access Internet sites can send in their views.
Lord Rix: My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that the parallel work of Mencap and the Learning Disability Coalition to that of the DDA task force--undertaken, incidentally, at the request of the Minister's department--will be given full consideration alongside that of the task force itself?
Baroness Blackstone: Yes, my Lords. The department and the task force are grateful for the help that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is giving to this work. Of course the views of Mencap and any associated organisations concerned with those who have particular problems will be taken fully into account.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister fully aware--and, if not, will she take note of the fact--that all parties in this House were very much in favour of the Disability Discrimination Act and that we continue to support the aims of that Act? Does she also agree that no matter how one legislates, it takes much longer to change attitudes and that is achieved only through good example? Is it a fact that the Civil Service is now making an effort to recruit more disabled people?
Baroness Macleod of Borve: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a rumour that petrol prices may increase as a result of the Budget? Is she further aware that petrol prices are very important to disabled people? They will not be able to get to work if petrol prices go sky high. Will she undertake to draw this fact to the attention of the task force, and the particular difficulty for disabled people?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I was not aware of that rumour. The Treasury keeps its cards fairly close to its chest on these matters. Nor can I be absolutely sure that the task force will be able to influence the Treasury on this matter. The noble Baroness is absolutely right; it is enormously important for many disabled people, particularly those who are wheelchair bound, to be able to drive and to have access to reasonably cheap transport. I shall certainly pass on her concerns to my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, we must certainly welcome the progress which is being made, but is it not increasingly apparent that the Prime Minister has decided to tour the country spelling out his views on welfare reform but in many crucial areas such as this the Government are not yet clear what their policy is? In that context, will the Prime Minister hold any meetings which are open to the public rather than to Labour Party supporters?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am a little surprised by the tone of that question as I am absolutely clear that the Prime Minister wishes to consult widely on the programme for welfare reform. Of course he will want to hear the views of those with disabilities as considering benefits which relate to the disabled is part of that wider programme of reform.
Lord Addington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that if one is to make a change as regards the rights of disabled people one must take into account changes to the social security regulations which relate to the way the disabled are supported by the state? A back-to-work programme that does not take that into account is ultimately bound to fail.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, of course that is the case but the task force is not considering benefit reform. That is a matter for the Prime Minister's committee which is considering that matter with the Department of Social Security and others. The task force about which my noble friend has asked a Question today is concerned with civil rights for disabled people rather than with the specific issue of benefit reform, but of course the two have some relationship.
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