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House of Lords

Thursday, 3rd February 2000.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen

The Right Honourable George Islay MacNeill Robertson, having been created Baron Robertson of Port Ellen, of Islay in Argyll and Bute, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Healey and the Lord Gilbert, and made the solemn Affirmation.

Disability Discrimination Act 1995: Exemptions

3.6 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why 81 per cent of all firms are still exempted from the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I have been asked to answer this Question, as my noble friend Lady Blackstone, the Minister of State, is at a family funeral this afternoon.

The employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 were introduced for employers with 20 or more employees in 1996. We extended that to employers with 15 employees in 1998. The Act therefore already protects over 75 per cent of disabled employees. The Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 contains a provision requiring us to consult the commission before making further extensions and we plan to do so after it has been established in April.

The appropriate percentage in the Question should in fact be 89 per cent--a figure given by my noble friend the Minister of State in an oral Answer to my noble friend on 13th April last year (at col. 620).

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I appreciate that reply. However, is my noble friend aware that the Government "bought a pup" when they accepted the arguments of the small firms federation that small firms should be excluded from the Act? The view of the federation was that, if small firms were included, unreasonable burdens would be imposed on them. It is an absurd argument: the Act specifically states that only "reasonable" provision should be made. So, by definition, it is impossible to impose unreasonable burdens on any employer, however small. Does my noble friend know of the arguments of the organisations supporting the inclusion of all firms? They include: the Parliamentary All Party Disablement Group; the Disability Rights Task Force,

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chaired by the Minister for Disabled People, Margaret Hodge; and, significantly, the Employers' Forum on Disability. When will the Government join that distinguished group?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the Government accept the importance of trying to bring more disabled employees within the protection of the Act. As I said, we have already taken the first step. It is a requirement under the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 to ask the newly established Disability Rights Commission for advice relating to further changes. We are under an obligation to do so, as well as to consult with employers and other disability organisations. That is our intention.

So far as concerns reasonableness, after 25 years as a common lawyer--a common law lawyer--

Noble Lords: Very good!

Lord Bach: My Lords, some of the lawyers in this House are certainly not common. After 25 years, I tend to shy away from saying that the concept of reasonableness is a simple issue. It is not. It may be so in general terms; however, it does not describe the details involved. The present case law on the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is comparatively small. We are urgently monitoring that case law.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, does the noble Lord recall that, under the previous quota system, before the 1995 Act, small firms were exempted because they would have been required to employ a fraction of a person--a quarter or a third of a disabled person! That was, of course, an absurdity. As that problem no longer exists, can the Government move more quickly to reduce the exempted number of employees?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the position is that we have set up the Disability Rights Commission. There would be no point at all in Parliament having set up such a commission if we did not seek its advice on issues such as the lowering of the exception threshold. The commission's advice is crucial. I cannot think of a better reason for setting up such a commission.

Lord Addington: My Lords, at what point was the principle that discrimination does not take place at a certain level adopted by Members of the party opposite, who, when in Opposition, followed me into the Division Lobby when we attempted to remove the restriction during the passage of the original legislation?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord has the advantage of me, he having been in the House many years ago when this side was in opposition. Our position when in opposition was to make use of Section 7 of the 1995 Act to lower the threshold. To be fair, we began a review a few months after taking office and reduced the threshold only two years after implementation of the Act. Under the 1999 Act we have changed the law to make consideration of further reductions easier. The

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change makes it possible to have a phased reduction, which was a suggestion made by us when in opposition. I believe that the record of the Government in this particular field is outstanding.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, it has been reported, as my noble friend will know, that of the £195 million New Deal for Disabled People funding which was allocated to help with employment for people with disabilities, only £8 million has so far been spent. With unemployment still so very high among employable disabled people, can my noble friend say why 96 per cent of the sum allocated remains unspent?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the key principle of the welfare-to-work approach is: work for those who can and security for those who cannot. The personal adviser scheme set up to deal with disabled people in the context of the New Deal provides one-to-one specialist client-centred help. By 26th November last year advisers had worked with over 8,000 people and 5,050 people had begun to implement what is described as an employment-focused action plan. The people in that group will need many months of support before they are ready to start work. However, so far some 1,275 people have found jobs. Taking that with other results from innovative schemes, we have secured jobs for 1,749 people. In spite of what my noble friend suggests, I do not believe that that is a bad record.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, can the Minister say how many disabled people are adversely affected by the exemption?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord will recall I said that over 75 per cent of disabled employees were already covered. Perhaps the noble Lord will give me a moment while I find the number of those who are not covered. I believe that I shall be able to give the noble Lord that figure in a letter.

Scottish Universities: Fees

3.16 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they propose to take to remove any discrimination which will be experienced by English, Welsh and Northern Irish students at Scottish universities over the payment of fees.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I answer this Question for the same reason that my noble friend Lord Bach answered the last. The arrangements for student support and tuition fees in England and Wales are working well, and will be made even better by the additional financial help announced last week for mature students and young students from the least well-off families. Devolution means that the arrangements in Scotland will be different, but differences do not amount to discrimination.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that students in England, Wales and Northern

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Ireland can be forgiven for believing that they have equal rights within the United Kingdom and with students throughout the European Union? Therefore, how can the Government defend disadvantaging English, Northern Irish and Welsh students in favour of, for example, Greek and Spanish students?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, students everywhere can be forgiven for believing that they have comparable rights, as they do. The arrangements in both England and Wales and Scotland are compatible with European Union rules.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, whether or not the arrangements are compatible with European Union rules, they are a clear example of discrimination against English, Welsh and Northern Irish students attending Scottish universities which has been forced upon us by the European Union? To double, or even treble, the insult--which it is--to our right to decide our own affairs, at the same time we are forced positively to discriminate in favour of any student from the European Union who will receive the same benefits as a Scottish student. This is insupportable. What are we doing about it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend, no doubt inadvertently, is illogical in his reasoning. I said that the provisions were compatible with, not determined by, European Union rules. I have said that the provision for student fees and higher education generally in this country is justified and generous. The same may well be said of the provision in Scotland.

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