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Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that response. Is she aware that, despite the fine work done by this Government on disability, our legal framework fails to provide comprehensive civil rights for all disabled people? That is because the framework is full of holes which could have been repaired long ago. Is she further aware that the proposals put forward by the Disability Rights Commission go a long way towards solving these problems? Will the Government take on board the proposals as soon as possible? How soon will that be?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, perhaps I may suggest to my noble friend that he is repeating his original Question. I hope and expect that we will be producing a draft disability Bill later this year. Already by October 2004, around 70 per cent of the original task force recommendations will have come into law, and the proposed disability Bill will extend those recommendations further. The additional recommendations identified by the DRC referred to by my noble friend will assist our future legislative plans and obviously we shall consider them.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, will the Government give special consideration to the commission's proposal that disability discrimination cases should be started in the relevant tribunals rather than go straight to the courts? This would be helpful to the disabled people concerned.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, again, we shall look as soon as possible at those and related proposals in the DRC report, which we have only just received.

Lord Carter: My Lords, when considering the various proposals regarding disability, will my noble

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friend give any thought to bringing forward improvements to the Access to Work Scheme? Furthermore, if the disability Bill is published in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny, does my noble friend agree that such scrutiny would be an ideal subject for a Joint Select Committee of both Houses?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, perhaps I may respond first to my noble friend's second question. Given that the Bill will be subject to prior scrutiny, which I am sure would be very desirable, I understand that we shall have three options available. First, we could set up an ad hoc committee of either House. Secondly, as my noble friend suggested—and I see the advantages of the proposal—we could have a Joint Committee of both Houses. Thirdly, such a draft Bill could equally be referred to the House of Commons Select Committee responsible for matters affecting the Department for Work and Pensions. Those options are being considered. As soon as a decision has been arrived at, it will of course be made public.

On my noble friend's first point regarding the Access to Work Scheme, he is right to point out that we have a good record on this. The scheme was started by the previous administration. Since its introduction, over 100,000 people with disabilities have either gone into work or stayed in work as a result of the programme, which gives them support equipment. Since 1997, I am pleased and proud to tell the House that the Government's expenditure on the scheme has trebled.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the encouraging remarks she made in her previous answers. But does she not agree that it is very important that we plug all the holes and take an all-encompassing approach? If we do not do that, the current situation will continue; that is to say, people with a degenerative disease or who are predetermined to develop a degenerative condition have no defence in law if they are sacked because of it. The Government should attempt to block such a hole.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, is right. It is one of the issues that have been raised with the Government. In our previous debate in the House, a fortnight ago, I made clear that one of the areas that we expected such a draft disability Bill to address was the precise one that he raised: extending the protection of the DDA to people with HIV and cancer whose symptoms are not yet evident. At present, they can be discriminated against. That is one of the proposals that we expect to bring forward.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, given the Communications Bill, which received pre-legislative scrutiny and is being discussed today, yet again, in the House, perhaps the noble Baroness will reconsider whether pre-legislative scrutiny is a good idea, whether in this or any other area. Does she agree that it is no longer good enough that the 40,000 or so statutory and

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political office-holders, magistrates and school governors are still excluded from the Disability Discrimination Act?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, in response to the first point, no. On the second point, which relates to magistrates and councillors, I share the noble Lord's view. We are looking at the matter. Different circumstances affect councillors, magistrates, members of voluntary bodies, public appointments and quangos.

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, can the Minister assure us that all aspects of the consultation process on the draft disability Bill will be accessible to as wide a number of disabled people as possible, and that the Bill will be available in alternative formats at the same time as it is published in print form?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I shall seek to ensure that.

Drug Side Effects: Reporting System

3.22 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In the light of the concerns about the anti-depressant drug Seroxat, whether they plan to review the yellow card scheme for reporting drug side effects.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the yellow card scheme is recognised to be one of the best in the world in terms of the level of reporting. It has a proven track record of identifying new drug safety hazards and enables the monitoring of all medicines, including Seroxat, in clinical use. The effectiveness of the scheme is under continuous review by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the Committee on Safety of Medicines. From April 2003, the first phase of patient reporting of suspected adverse drug reactions via NHS Direct was introduced. That will enable the first-hand experiences of patients to be utilised in the identification and assessment of drug safety issues.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I thought that she was somewhat congratulatory of the yellow card scheme, despite the substantial under-reporting noted in the "Panorama" programme and the associated papers by Social Audit. I welcome the NHS Direct innovation, but we must go further. Will the Minister confirm that the MHRA and the Committee on Safety of Medicines will be encouraged to seek direct patient experience, not simply via health professionals, and that that experience will be taken on board in the committee's review of SSRI drugs such as Seroxat?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, in response to the first point, the yellow card system has been tried and tested

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over many years. It serves as the model for other countries and is recognised to be the best of its kind. One should not confuse under-reporting with ineffective reporting. One does not want to report every adverse reaction. But, through the yellow card system, we pick up the reactions that we need to know about so that we can do enough about them. In recent years, the number of people who can make adverse reports has expanded; for example, nurses can now do so. We welcome that.

On the second point, the Committee on Safety of Medicines has set up an expert working group, which will look at the safety of Seroxat. It has received the patient reports generated by the "Panorama" programme. It will look at protocols on how best to evaluate the evidence, which it will take extremely seriously. It will look at what needs to be done potentially to improve the leafleting. It will test those improvements with a user panel. Sir Gordon Duff, who chairs the CSM, is extremely anxious to do that.

Lord Winston: My Lords, I declare an interest as the director of research and development at Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust. Does the Minister not agree that Seroxat and the class of drugs that deal with serotonin in the brain are the most effective anti-depressants that we currently know? Seroxat has been in use for more than 12 years and is available in more than 100 countries where none of the side effects mentioned has been highlighted. The "Panorama" programme has not always been noted for its accuracy in other areas. It would be premature to condemn what is an extremely good drug. The side effects reported are those commonly reported in recovering depressive patients who are not taking the drug.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I can hardly improve on that description. Seroxat is an effective treatment for depression and anxiety disorders. Four million prescriptions are made every year in this country alone. We have a wealth of evidence from Europe and the United States that it is a safe and very effective drug. Nevertheless, we want to respond to the concerns raised in the "Panorama" programme. We do not want people suddenly to stop taking their medication. That is why the Committee on Safety of Medicines has set up an expert working group to see how it can address some of the issues as appropriately as possible.

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