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Baroness Blackstone: No, I do not think that that is right. Again there is a confusion here with issues which arise under a later clause. I think we can discuss this matter when we reach Amendment No. 14.

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I hope that, in the light of what I have said, my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment. He may, of course, wish to seek further legal advice between now and Report stage.

Lord Swinfen: Before the noble Baroness sits down, so that it is on the official record, will she confirm that the disability rights commission will be able to fund a disabled person in taking an action under the Disability Discrimination Act?

Baroness Blackstone: Yes.

Baroness Darcy De Knayth: Perhaps I may ask a question before the noble Lord decides what to do. I am not an expert in this field, but is it not true that the EOC and the CRE can, in very limited circumstances, initiate proceedings in their own name in the case of discriminatory advertisements and of persistent discriminators? I may be wrong.

Baroness Blackstone: I believe that that is the case, but I do not believe that that matter is covered by this amendment. It raises a different set of issues.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I am sure that the Committee will agree that my noble friend has done justice to the amendment in taking so much trouble to put forward a very sophisticated and, as she called it, arcane legal argument, as she ought to do. It is clear that her advisers and our advisers differ. Our understanding clearly was that the CRE and the EOC had some of these powers and that they had recommended that these powers should be given in the Bill. We shall find out in the course of the next few weeks before Report who is right. We are taking no bets on it.

My noble friend used some rather far-fetched phrases that I have never heard of when she talked about dragging disabled people before the courts and "unwanted redress". I have never in my life heard the phrase "unwanted redress". Every human being that I know who is hurt or damaged in any way naturally wants redress. What is unwanted redress? What kind of story is the Minister telling us? Is she saying that disabled people by the million say: "No, no, no, we do not want the money, we do not want justice; we want to do nothing". I do not believe it. I believe that disabled people, like anyone else, want fairness and justice. They will get that if the commission has the power to initiate proceedings.

My noble friend said that under the provisions of the Bill the commission will be able to initiate proceedings in certain circumstances. I do not dispute that. We are seeking broader power, that is all.

I find it very difficult to accept my noble friend's general thesis. In terms of legal complexity, she is right. We shall consult our lawyers--whom we do not pay, by the way--and she can consult hers and before Report we shall try to get all these issues clarified. Meanwhile, I am grateful to her for the trouble she has taken. However, I reiterate my point that this is a crucially

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important amendment for which we have fought strongly. Nevertheless I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 6:


Page 2, line 7, at end insert--
("( ) The Commission shall have the power to set up regional offices as it deems necessary in pursuance of its duties under this Act.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment seeks to establish regional offices for the commission. A few moments ago my noble friend said that she was not sure where the headquarters would be. That is understandable. However, I think it is wrong to claim--as this Bill does--that it is enough for the commission to be able to decide the matter of regional branches after it is established. I believe that funding is essential here. This issue is so important that it must be decided by Parliament; otherwise, the money will simply not be available.

It is also wrong to assume that everything can be done by letter, fax or telephone. Clearly in some circumstances there is no substitute for personal contact. This is even more the case as regards disabled people than as regards any other group of people. We simply must enable disabled people to obtain the advice, guidance, or any other help they need from the commission in ways that suit them. This measure is also relevant to businesses, especially small businesses.

It is unrealistic to assume that disabled people can go trotting off to London when they need face to face contact with the commission. The mind boggles at the thought of the stress, inconvenience, frustration, annoyance and distress that would be suffered by disabled people struggling to get to London when what they need is to talk directly to a nearby informed person.

I recognise that the commission may not be based in London, the Midlands or the North. However, one location will be inadequate. As my noble friend has said, there will be offices in Scotland and in Wales, but what we really need is a regional and local presence to supplement the national one. That is what this amendment seeks. I hope very much that we shall obtain that provision because disabled people, local employers and service providers need a regional or local point of contact staffed by people who know the characteristics of the local environment. Some severely disabled people may need home visits and face to face contact. I believe they should have that. I hope that my noble friend will be sympathetic to this amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Croy: I believe it has already been announced that it is proposed the commission should have separate offices in Scotland and Wales. I should be grateful if the Minister will confirm that. There may well be a case for regional offices in England, perhaps in Manchester. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, would probably have something to say about that. It may also be found necessary to establish a regional office or two within Scotland because of the great distances involved in Scotland and

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the wide spread of population. Is it possible for that to be done under the Bill, both in England and in Scotland? If so, would the commission take the decisions with regard to those offices?

It is not widely known that health in Scotland is a completely devolved subject and has been for at least 40 years. I can vouch for that because I was a junior Minister in the Scottish Office 36 years ago. When I was Secretary of State for Scotland early in the 1970s I was responsible for health in Scotland. The Department of Health has no functions in Scotland, although of course it is the lead department and leads on international matters for the UK.

There are two other subjects that have great relevance to disabled people. The departments which deal with those subjects are Great Britain departments and therefore they cover both England and Wales. Those subjects are employment and social security. Those departments have local offices spread throughout Scotland as well as throughout England. I should, of course, mention education which is now combined with employment as one department. That department does not have functions in Scotland because again education has been completely devolved to Scotland for many years, as is the case with health. The proposed office of the commission in Scotland will therefore need to establish good communications with the Scottish presences of these other departments. I, too, would be glad to hear what the Government have in mind concerning the setting up of offices in different parts of Great Britain.

Lord Rix: In supporting this amendment, to which my name is added, I remind the Committee that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, touched on the point that providing regional offices for the disability rights commission would offer great benefits to the business community. I stress that the benefit would be mutual both to service providers and to people with disabilities. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, stressed the difficulties that people with disabilities experience when travelling to London and the cost of telephone calls to London etcetera. I cannot stress enough the importance for people with learning disabilities of establishing regional offices.

As is mentioned in one of my amendments to Schedule 1, I believe there must be scope for reviewing the constitution of the commission so that the operation of regional offices, or indeed the option of commissioners overseeing regions, can be formally investigated.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I support this amendment. On Second Reading of the Bill my noble friend the Minister indicated--I hope I have interpreted this correctly--that rather than establishing regional offices at this stage consideration might be given to setting up regional seminars and workshops and to commission staff travelling from one site to another. What worries me about that comment is that such provision might be fine once contact has been made, but it is the initial contact that disabled people need to be

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able to make. They need to know where to go. The place they must go to needs to be accessible. The peripatetic nature of the activities that are proposed will not assist those people who may be unaware that such activity is taking place. I believe that nothing can replace face to face contact and talking through the issues. One cannot do that in the same way in a letter or on the telephone. Even in these days of new technology I do not think one can do that satisfactorily by e-mail. Disabled people need to receive a sympathetic hearing in a sympathetic setting. Therefore I believe it is absolutely essential that regional offices are established.


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