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Lord Addington: My Lords, this series of amendments addresses something which has been seen as a very serious flaw in the process now before us--namely, that the commission would be able to take on legal proceedings on behalf of a person. When we talk about the disabled, it is easy to forget that we are considering a wide group of people. The right to bring an action is all very well if you happen to be a graduate sitting in a wheelchair. Of course, it will still be incredibly stressful and difficult but there is no reason why you should not be successful if your case is good and your lawyers are competent.
However, if you happen to have, for example, a learning disability coupled with something like stress-related asthma, going through the detailed proceedings of a court case as regards a situation where you were directly discriminated against would probably be one of the most stressful experiences imaginable. Indeed, that, plus the extra stress placed upon someone who has basically an intellectual impairment, is asking the almost impossible of such a person.
The proposals now before us would actually address a flaw in the current system. It would mean you would be able to give the commission certain powers, and that would address a flaw in the legislation. You would be able to ensure that a whole range of disabilities would be covered. The Government should accept this proposal, or something very like it. If they do so, they will have achieved that wide-ranging cover.
In the previous debate we had a great, so to speak, personal CV of reminiscence. Mine is not quite as long as that of some of the other speakers, but I have still been an active Member of this House for slightly over 10 years. This is one of the few Bills where there has genuinely been a will to improve the legislation across the House. When the Government respond, they should bear that fact in mind. These amendments have not been brought forward as a wrecking mechanism or in order to score petty political points. If the Government had made it possible for me not to move or support any of the amendments to the Bill, I should have been very happy. Bearing that in mind, I hope that the Government will accept these amendments.
Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My Lords, as I have attached my name to these amendments, perhaps I may speak briefly to them. I believe them to be tremendously important. When he introduced the amendments, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, spoke about increasing the effectiveness of the commission. Much of this is about effectiveness. If it is effective we shall have less legislation, and we shall achieve that by banishing ignorance, promoting understanding and, to a certain extent, increasing the confidence in the people who are likely to be brought to court.
When speaking to Amendment No. 13, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, mentioned Michael Rubinstein who said that the history of discrimination law is littered with cases where the applicant was unrepresented or badly represented. I think that Amendment No. 13 would go a long way towards improving this legislation. Indeed, such provision is very important with a relatively new law. Moreover, if it takes the view on the correct interpretation of the issue of law, the commission might wish to intervene on the side of the employer or the service provider accused of discrimination if it felt that the latter had a point. I believe that that would give great reassurance to those who are service providers.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, spoke a great deal about Amendment No. 21, so I have nothing to add. However, Amendment No. 22, which deals with the power to seek an injunction, is extremely important. It would give the commission the power, which the other commissions have, to deal with unintentional and institutional discrimination. That is particularly important in the field of disability where there is not yet very much understanding. Indeed, there is much ignorance about dealing with disabled people. I support these amendments most strongly. I hope that the Minister will respond positively.
Lord Renton: My Lords, if I may say so, a strong case has been made for Amendment No. 7 and it has been well supported. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, I should like to say a few words about the amendments which are grouped with it. Amendment No. 13 gives the right to intervene in proceedings started by someone else. I believe that the commission should have power to do so. The issue could well relate to the very problems with which the commission is involved and with which it is charged to deal by statute.
Amendment No. 21 is important from the following point of view. Some disabled people, especially those who are mentally disabled, simply could not bring proceedings to protect their own rights; indeed, they might not even have the consciousness to do so. Nevertheless, those proceedings should be brought so that they can be protected. Amendment No. 21 would give the commission power to bring proceedings on behalf of a "complainant or claimant". We must be careful of the words here because a severely handicapped person might not even have the power to claim, but there must be an opportunity for proceedings to be brought on that person's behalf.
I do not believe that Amendment No. 22 is so necessary. I shall explain why. If power is already given in the Bill to bring proceedings, that includes power to seek an injunction. Therefore, in my view--I may be wrong; indeed, the Government might even disagree with me--I do not think that we shall need Amendment No. 22 if the other amendments are accepted.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have two specific questions for the Minister. First, why is it that the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality are funded at a higher level than is proposed for the body we are discussing? Secondly, why is it that the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality appear on the face of it to have greater powers than is proposed for the body we are discussing?
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I, too, support this group of amendments. The answers to the questions just posed by my noble friend are extremely important. I do not understand why the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality have the powers that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, is now seeking for the disability rights commission and why the Government have not put that into the Bill of their own accord.
Lord Renton: My Lords, before the Minister replies, I hope I may correct a slip of the tongue. I said that I supported Amendment No. 7; I should have said Amendment No. 5. For the sake of the record I wish to put that right.
Amendment No. 5, tabled by my noble friend Lord Ashley and the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Swinfen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, and Amendments Nos. 13, 21 and 22 tabled also by my noble friend and the noble Baroness concern the power of the commission to initiate or intervene in proceedings. In considering the substance of this group of amendments, I would like to make clear at the outset that I do not wish to dismiss what I believe noble Lords want to achieve through these amendments. I can assure noble Lords that I recognise the strength of feeling on this matter. However, I believe much could be achieved by the procedures which already exist and which this Bill would allow. I hope that Members of your Lordships' House will not accuse me of not responding positively. I want to respond positively wherever I can, but there are of course important legal issues involved here, as I am sure many of those who have already spoken will understand. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I take a little while in dealing with this group of amendments and in covering some of the legal issues.
I shall deal first with Amendment No. 21, which will in part deal with Amendment No. 5. This concerns the matter of the commission initiating proceedings in its own name on behalf of individuals. I wish to deal straight away with the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Morris, the noble Lord, Lord Renton--I think the noble Lord, Lord Rix, also picked up on this--and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, concerning people who
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. My noble friend Lord Renton made the point that the person concerned may not be sufficiently conscious or aware that he or she needs legal redress on a particular matter, and may not even be able to advise a friend to seek this on his or her behalf. The commission may be aware of the problem, but not a friend. How can a person in such circumstances be not just expected, but relied upon, to enlist his or her own help through a third party?
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