The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before the commencement of business I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to make an official visit to Manchester where I will visit the courts and have meetings with the judiciary tomorrow, Tuesday 12th December, when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.
The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, just over 116,000 firms and other employers such as public bodies are covered by the DDA employment provisions. There are just over 1.2 million firms which are excluded as a result of the small employer exemption threshold. Over 75 per cent of disabled employees are covered, as most employees work for large employers.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that response, but is she aware that there is no justification for excluding any firms from the employment provisions of the DDA because to do so simply enables them to discriminate legally against disabled workers, which cannot be right? Is she aware that the only feeble argument used by some small employers is that they will suffer unreasonable burdens? However, as my noble friend is aware, the Act specifically states that only reasonable provision should be made. Therefore that argument is absolutely bogus. Why cannot we include all firms immediately with no nonsense about phasing in?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am familiar with the strong feelings on this matter of my noble friend Lord Ashley. Everyone in this House is sympathetic to disabled people and opposes discrimination against them. However, we have asked the Disability Rights Commission to consider this matter. It is currently
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the reasons given in the past for exempting small firms no longer apply? For example, the quota scheme was replaced in 1995. Have the Government recently consulted the Federation of Small Businesses, because I understand that its views on this matter have changed?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am delighted to hear that that is the case. My department has produced a good practice guide for employers which contains specific advice for smaller employers tailored to them. The Government want to listen to the views of employers, large and small, on this matter. However, if the Federation of Small Businesses is now happy to see the exemption removed, the Government will, of course, take that in to account.
Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, would my noble friend agree that it does not help to persuade private sector employers to increase job opportunities for disabled people if big public sector employers fail in their duties to them? Has she seen today's tragic announcement that Rehab UK's Greater Manchester Brain Injury Vocational Centre now faces closure in April, notwithstanding its huge success in enabling victims of serious road accidents and of the "yob" culture to return to work, because only three of the conurbation's 10 councils have agreed to pay their share of the cost?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government are aware of the excellent work that Rehab UK has carried out in Manchester helping the recovery of people who have suffered traumatic brain injury. As I understand it, the Department of Health is providing a grant for that organisation. It will be possible for it to bid for further funding from the New Deal for disabled people. I very much hope that it will do so. We shall consider the position with regard to local authority support, but, in the end, that is a matter for local authorities.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is not a matter of imposing a level of bureaucracy but rather of bringing small firms with fewer than 15 employees within the employment provisions of the DDA. That should be capable of being achieved without bureaucracy. There will be some costs in relation to making it possible for people with certain kinds of disability to work in some contexts. However, the access to work scheme which is funded by the Government will provide extensive
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. It has been agreed by all member states of the EU that eventually there should be no threshold of this kind in any member country. The Government, like all other member countries, are committed to putting this in to practice no later than the year 2006. However, as I said to my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke, further discussions are continuing with the Disability Rights Commission to decide the timetable to institute this change.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am sorry to come back on the issue, but we are talking about a minor measure to prevent discrimination against disabled people. Does my noble friend agree that to say that it imposes bureaucracy on the poor employers is to play nonsense with the English language and betrays a misunderstanding of what the Act is all about?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I entirely accept what my noble friend has said. As I have already said, I do not think that it is a matter of imposing bureaucracy; we are asking all firms, small and large, not to discriminate against disabled people.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the award of the National Lottery operating licence and the terms of that licence are a matter for the National Lottery Commission. The commission has not specified the number of terminals under a new licence, but it will require the successful applicant to commit to a
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, the commission will not be much more than a fig leaf of protection for the Government if anything should go wrong. Does the Minister agree that it would be a huge risk to change both the operator and the provider of the technology in one move? Does he realise how complex the operation is? There is the selection and appointment of the retailers, the purchase of terminals, their installation and testing, the training of staff and the establishment of a huge communications network. I am sure that the Government understand that any interruption or hitch would result in a lack of public confidence and the flow of funds to good causes being turned off.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I agree that the operation is very complicated. As the noble Lord rightly said, it involves a number of members of the consortium, the retailers and the public, whom I may call the punters. If we take his argument to its logical extreme, no change could be allowed in the operating consortium or the systems to be used. That would result in whoever got the contract first having it in perpetuity. I think that he will agree that there could be disadvantages in that.
Lord Mancroft: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the new operator has to install 30,000 terminals? I must declare an interest. I am a lottery operator, although I have no interest in the National Lottery. I am sure that, like all of us in the lottery industry, the Minister is aware that it is physically impossible to install 30,000, or even 20,000, terminals in the time that is left. If the present timetable is to be kept to, either the existing operator, which has already been told that it is not fit and proper, will have to continue for a period, or a new operator--I gather that the only one is Sir Richard Branson's organisation, which has never run a lottery before--will have to be up and running very quickly. I assume that Sir Richard knows that ours is the most complex lottery in the world. Are the Government going to allow the situation to continue?
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