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Lord Rix: In withdrawing my amendment which was specifically about learning disability in order to support the more general amendment, Amendment No. 22, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, and moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, I still wish to press the point regarding the importance of a person with a learning disability, with appropriate support, serving as a commissioner. I have already expressed this view to the Minister and I received a most courteous but, alas, fairly negative reply.

I agree that to capture the range of impairments in five or six categories may seem artificial and that it would tend towards the medical rather than the social model of disability--I am referring to her letter. Nevertheless, I believe that people with a learning disability are in a very definite category of their own. To begin with, the greatest cause of disability at birth is a learning disability. At first, the problems may be confined to the medical arena. However, as learning disabled people grow from babyhood to childhood, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the medical needs of many become no more and no less than their peers born without a disability. The problems then are social, educational and of course the quality of life.

Recently MENCAP has altered its constitution to ensure that people with a learning disability are on its councils. The Minister, Paul Boateng, when involved with the Department of Health, promised at the MENCAP conference in September last year that people with a learning disability would be serving on the health authorities and health boards before the end of this Parliament. The Royal College of Psychiatrists believes that these changes will have a profound effect for the better on the self-belief of people with a learning disability.

Recently the Millennium Commission awarded MENCAP nearly £2 million to ensure that people with a learning disability would receive training to enable them to take up many more responsible positions in life. Some of the money will be spent on training 150 people with a learning disability each year for three years, plus their enablers--900 people in all--to make it possible for them to serve on committees, councils, boards--and to be commissioners.

I know that there are many who believe that a person with a learning disability serving on a committee is a contradiction in terms. If you have been concerned with learning disability as long as I have, you will know that the range of ability is very great indeed--from those who are profoundly and multiply disabled, to those who are severely disabled, like my daughter, to those who have a learning disability which is barely indistinguishable from a learning difficulty.

Unhappily, the world outside seems to think of the needs of a person with a physical disability as being paramount. Next in the queue--if they are lucky--come

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people with sensory impairments, while people with a learning disability or a mental health problem are not considered to be fit to join the queue at all.

Acceptance of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, will ensure that the Government are in no way a party to that view, and a major step will have been taken to ensure that the least respected and least represented in our society are truly being granted their disability rights.

Lord Swinfen: I support these amendments. There is a fear of people with learning disabilities which also extends to people with physical disabilities. As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said, there is a range of learning disabilities. The Committee knows that for a number of years I have spoken in the House about disability. For a number of years I have been briefed on Bills by people with learning disabilities--and very good they have been too. They know their subject very much better than I do and I found it extremely useful. I say this to emphasise the fact that the commission must have among its commissioners people with a wide range of experience of different types of disability.

As to Amendment No. 29, I am sure that there will be commissioners who are profoundly deaf. They will need interpreters for sign language. We must have people there for the purposes of advocacy or communication support for the commissioners. There will be other support staff, but let us not forget these special ones.

Lord Addington: The purpose of these amendments is to draw the Government's attention to the fact that the people who know these problems best are those who have direct experience of them. If you are disabled, you know what that is like and you know what discrimination is like. These amendments draw to the Government's attention that unless they include these people they are ignoring those who have the best knowledge of the subject. If they accept these amendments--or some like them--they will be drawing in expertise to the exact place where it can do the most good.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I warmly support Amendment No. 22. It is important to have commissioners with experience of each of the major types of disability. It is particularly important to mention those with learning disabilities and those with mental health problems. MIND says that the latter face particular discrimination and stigma. I was horrified to read on page 15 of the February issue of Disability Now that David Grayson, who is the chair of the National Disability Council, says that when a person with a mental disability tries to explain in a job interview the gaps in his CV he will sometimes attribute it to his being in prison because he thinks that someone who has been in prison has a better chance of getting the job than someone who has a history of mental health difficulties.

I just want to say from personal experience--my noble friend Lady Masham would also say this but, unfortunately, she cannot be present today--that the

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best way of getting to understand people's problems is by getting to know them and going around with them. When I have been the only person with a disability on a committee the other members have learnt by going to the canteen with me and going around seeing things. That is the way they learn. They say, "My goodness, I did not realise the problems you face". It is not the obvious problems but the others in day-to-day life that they discover. In its briefing MENCAP says that choosing a commissioner with a learning disability will be a positive message to people with learning difficulties. I think it will be an extremely positive message and a real learning experience for the other commissioners and the people with whom the commissioners will come into contact in the course of their work.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: As we will run past eight o'clock if we are not careful, I want just 30 seconds to express my support for the amendment in my name. Only disabled people know what disability means. Therefore, that knowledge is crucial to being on the commission. I believe that the chairman should be disabled. I know of the argument that there should be a random sample, but I believe that the chairman should be disabled. That would send a signal to the great British public about how well disabled people can do the job. The experience is vital.

Baroness Blatch: I rise to speak briefly to my Amendment No. 28, which is looking more and more anomalous in this group of amendments. It should be for the commission to appoint its chief executive and not the Secretary of State.

Lord Thurlow: I should like strongly to support the substance of Amendment No. 22 in relation to mental health. I say "the substance" because I am not happy about the amendment's wording. My point is that the field of mental health is a separate universe in the realm of medicine. One cannot handle problems of mental health unless one has had experience of it. I do not think the present wording would meet the problem. One does not necessarily want on the commission people who are mentally ill or have mental illness. It is more important that the other half of the commission should have someone with this specific knowledge and experience. I do not see how the commission can responsibly deal with mental health problems otherwise. Subject to that reservation about the wording, I strongly support the substance of the amendment.

7.45 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: Perhaps I may begin with some general remarks about this group of amendments. In common with all public bodies, the appointment of commissioners to the commission will be made in accordance with guidance issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. As such, the process will be open, transparent and fair.

Through Amendment No. 22, my noble friends seek to ensure that some commissioners have knowledge of sensory impairment, learning difficulties and mental

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health problems. It must be right that between them the commissioners have the range of experience necessary to ensure from the start that the commission establishes credibility with all its key stakeholders. To do its job properly, it must understand the needs of disabled people and also those of employers and service providers. The Secretary of State will of course seek to appoint commissioners so that, collectively, they have a wide range of knowledge and experience and so that an appropriate balance is struck between the relevant interests. Much can be expected of a commission of 10 to 15 strong, and when making the appointments the Secretary of State will, I am sure, be keen to try to ensure that there are commissioners with a knowledge of the issues affecting people with sensory impairments, learning difficulties--about which so many Members of the Committee have spoken in the debate--and those with mental health problems.

The Disability Rights Task Force considered the question of whether the legislation should specify the type of experience the commissioners should have. It concluded that that would not be appropriate as it would incline towards the medical rather than the social model of disability. It also concluded that it would be impossible to ensure that people with personal experience of all types of disabilities and impairments were appointed, given the need to keep the number of commissioners at a reasonable level.

I am sure noble Lords will appreciate the difficulties of including a list in legislation. Were we to accept that approach, would we not have to consider extending the list further? For example, what about people with a knowledge of physical impairment? Any list is unlikely to be exhaustive; and if it were, it would be impossible that a commission of 10 to 15 members could have direct knowledge and experience of everything on the list.

The commission will be able to draw in expertise from elsewhere, as and when required, and it will have an important role in working with organisations representing the whole range of interests. This will help in no small measure to ensure that the commission has at its disposal the range of expertise that it will need.

Before addressing Amendment No. 23, I shall need to speak first about Amendment No. 24, which seeks to ensure that the chair or deputy chair has personal experience of disability. I can be very brief about this. It seems inconceivable that people with a disability will not present themselves as the best people for the job of chairman or deputy chairman or possibly both.

I return now to Amendment No. 23. I welcome the debate on the issue of the first three appointments in that it gives me an opportunity to clarify the Government's intention. I can assure the Committee that the intention is not that the first three appointments should not be disabled people. Indeed, the provision would allow the first three appointments to be disabled people. But to do without the provision would mean that the first two appointments must be disabled people. Noble Lords will, I am sure, understand that there needs to be flexibility in the order of the appointment of commissioners. The provision to include the first three

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appointments from majority arrangements is just a practical one. The ultimate aim is to ensure a majority of disabled commissioners. We certainly will not want to lose sight of that.

I turn briefly to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. It is important that the first chief executive has a role in shaping the commission before it is open for business. Indeed, he or she must be appointed early enough in the process to take a lead in setting up the practical arrangements for the commission. We want to get on as fast as possible with that. It is important that he or she is appointed as soon as possible after Royal Assent if we are to be up and running by the Spring of 2000. The commission would hardly be in a position to undertake the appointment at this early stage but I can assure the noble Baroness that the Secretary of State will consult fully the newly appointed chair over the appointment of the chief executive. In the light of what I have said, I very much hope that the noble Lord will be able to withdraw the amendment.

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