Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Addington: I too support this group of amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, has brought forward the reality of the situation; that is, that support staff will be involved with any action under the Bill. That must be recognised and brought within the scope of the Bill.

There will always be pressure groups helping the vulnerable in the field of disability. They may not always have been legally recognised, but we all knew that they were there. Indeed, many such organisations will have helped to draw up these amendments. That is the reality and I suggest that by squaring up to that reality and accepting these amendments we will be doing ourselves a great favour.

Baroness Pitkeathley: I wish to speak briefly, though strongly in support of Amendment No. 14. The disability rights commission represents a huge step forward for people with disabilities, their support organisations and families. It is vital that we make it work as well as we can. That means making it as relevant and accessible as possible to as many people as possible. For many people access to the functions of the commission will be dependent on whether or not support can be provided to their relatives, carers or an organisation in the form of expenses, access to papers and extra time. I hope that the Government will be able to accept these amendments.

Earl Russell: As my noble friend said, Amendment No. 14 recognises the reality of the situation. When we were discussing the Human Rights Bill we came to exactly the same point of issue. The Minister may remember--if not, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, certainly will--that my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill raised exactly the same point about the definition of "victim" in the Human Rights Bill. So we are faced here with the same failure to make a good design, which we welcome, effective and fully complete on exactly the same point in both Bills.

People outside, even if not people here, are bound to ask whether that is a coincidence. If the Government do not accept the amendment, they may risk giving the impression which I am sure they do not intend that their

4 Feb 1999 : Column 1660

sympathy with campaigning organisations is a little less than total. I am sure that they do not want to do that so perhaps they will accept the amendment.

Baroness Blatch: I rise simply to reiterate my question raised on an earlier amendment which was deferred till now: that is, my understanding is that the Lord Chancellor is working on this issue. If class actions were to be agreed and the law modified, would it be intended to extend the power to the commission just as it would presumably apply to other organisations such as the EOC and CRE?

The Lord Bishop of Ely: I want to support the noble Lord, Lord Rix, in his amendment and add to the point he has already made on behalf of those who suffer from learning disabilities. These amendments are extremely important, especially Amendment No. 16, for those who suffer from problems of mental ill health. Everything that the noble Lord said in relation to those with learning difficulties applies a fortiori to this other group and therefore I support Amendment No. 14.

Lord Swinfen: My name is to this group of amendments and obviously I want to support them. Civil rights can only be individual rights, but sometimes it needs groups of people to support individuals in their effort to gain and keep those rights. These amendments will help that. It may be an advance in the law towards class actions. It is possible that some would consider that premature but sometimes we have to take the first step. This is possibly that necessary first step. We should put something of this kind into the Bill, even if the wording is slightly different.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: Everyone agrees that the Disability Rights Commission will have a key role to play in assisting individuals to secure their rights. The effect of Amendment No. 14 would be to allow the commission to back legal proceedings in which the applicant was a pressure group, not a particular disabled person or a group of particular disabled persons.

The only proceedings that a pressure group can presently institute on behalf of disabled people is an application for judicial review. Under the general law, the commission could perfectly well decide to take any part it sees fit in such proceedings where it considers that to do so helps it to fulfill its general duties. It could join with another pressure group to institute such proceedings, give evidence in such proceedings or agree to fund such proceedings in which it is taking no other part.

As the law stands, a pressure group cannot bring a representative, or class action on behalf of a group of disabled people because such proceedings are, as yet, unknown to our law. Like the noble Lords, Lord Rix, Lord Swinfen, and Lord Addington and the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, I see some merit in representative actions--to be able to resolve, through one action, a matter involving a number of disabled people against, perhaps, a single employer or service provider. However, while I have some concerns about

4 Feb 1999 : Column 1661

eroding the principle that the commission should be there to assist individuals who have experienced discrimination rather than groups who represent them, that is not my main concern about the amendment.

My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor is presently considering the issue of representative actions in a much wider context. This is a fundamental issue of law and one which therefore raises some significant and complex issues. I understand that a consultation paper is expected to be published later this year.

As regards the ability of the disability rights commission to take representative actions, we have already made clear our intentions on this matter in our White Paper, which set out proposals for the establishment of the commission. That made clear that, subject to the outcome of the Lord Chancellor's consultation, the commission should be able to bring representative actions in the same way as other bodies to which a new right to bring such actions may extend. That reflects also the recommendations of the Disability Rights Task Force, who considered the matter carefully. Responses to the White Paper also indicated that this proposal attracted considerable support.

To sum up, the amendment relates to an issue that is part of a wider legal review and it is important not to pre-empt that review. We must allow proper, detailed consideration of what is a complex matter, and one that goes well beyond the confines of the Bill. In view of that, I hope that those who put their names to the amendment will withdraw it.

Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 relate to the range of assistance that the commission might provide. Amendment No. 16 seeks to allow the commission to provide or arrange support for relatives and carers of disabled people whom it is assisting in relation to proceedings. I recognise that there may be instances where it is appropriate to provide or arrange support for relatives or carers of disabled people--for example, when the disabled person needs their help to make his or her case. The Bill makes provision for the commission to

    "provide any other assistance which it thinks appropriate".
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will not press his amendment.

Amendment No. 17 seeks to make provision for the commission to be able to arrange for any other assistance that it thinks appropriate in relation to assisting individuals as well as providing it itself. I recognise that there will be cases where the method adopted by the commission in the course of providing assistance will be by way of arranging that the particular assistance needed is given by others. The Bill contains a general provision for the DRC to provide any other assistance that it thinks appropriate, but I agree that the wording suggested by the amendment may be clearer. I am happy to concede that point.

4 Feb 1999 : Column 1662

This has been an interesting debate and I hope that I have provided sufficient reassurance as to our intentions in relation to assisting individuals and the class action issues raised earlier.

Lord Rix rose--

Lord Renton: Before the noble Lord, Lord Rix, replies, I feel obliged to mention to the Minister that Amendment No. 14 offers a short, simple solution to a practical problem that is bound to arise as soon as the Bill comes into force. Of course there can be a wider inquiry into all kinds of legal and judicial matters by the Lord Chancellor but that does not dispel the need for an amendment on these lines. Would there be a solution in time for it to be implemented in the Bill by Report stage in your Lordships' House? Failing that, when the Bill goes to another place, could the solution be implemented there? Or would that happen some months after Royal Assent? If that is the position, it is unacceptable.

Earl Russell: In thanking the Minister for her reply, I ask her to go a little further. I ask her for a small undertaking that I hope will not be too much to give. Could she draw this debate--and in particular the remarks made just now by the noble Lord, Lord Renton--to the attention of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor?

Lord Hamilton of Dalzell: The noble Baroness may already have answered this question but I would like her to make something clear. We are all totally persuaded by the arguments of my noble friend Lord Renton and of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that there will be people who require the support of organisations. I thought that I caught an inkling of a suggestion that the Minister would not be so enthusiastic about a lobby that chose somebody who happened in a predicament to pursue a cause in the interests of that particular lobby. While one cannot help being totally in favour of the one, at the same time one is introducing the possibility of the other.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page