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Lord Laird: My Lords, I rise today to join in the general approbation for this order. I identify with a lot of the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond. This is a good order, and it is well accepted. We are pleased about it in the group to which I belong, and we think it will make an impact.
There are a number of little issues which the Minister might helpfully explain to us. As detailed in the Explanatory Memorandum for the order in relation to duties placed upon district councils and their members, certain matters are excluded from the remit of Section 15(b). These include appointments to offices or committees. Will the Minister expand on this and clarify why these matters are exempt?
Article 14 of the order, which refers to discrimination in relation to the letting of premises, includes an exemption relating to small dwellings, whereby a landlord or manager may justify less favourable treatment or a failure to take reasonable steps. What circumstances would be considered justifiable? Article 14, dealing with discrimination in relation to the letting of premises, requires the landlord or manager to "take reasonable steps". How is that defined?
Section 21D(4)(c) allows public authorities an exemption from equal treatment of disabled persons if the case would involve substantial extra cost. Does the Minister have any plans to provide a transparent system which requires public authorities to publish details of how and when they use this exemption?
Article 18 removes the requirement that a mental illness "must be clinically well-recognised" before it can satisfy the mental impairment requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act. How does the Minister
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propose to monitor the application of this liberalisation of the requirement? With those three questions, I have no hesitation in supporting the order.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am most grateful for the response from noble Lords. I shall seek to provide as many detailed answers as possible while I am on my feet. Where I cannot, I shall provide them to noble Lords in writing.
On the issue of the website, I apologise, because I remember reading the Hansard of the other place. All the responses have been published on the website. From memory, I think that to 600 consultations, there were 49 responses. There is a difficulty with the link which is given in the Explanatory Memorandum, for which we apologise, but I can assure the House that responses have always been logged there and can now be accessed by way of the following link: www.ofmdf mni.gov.uk/consultation-report-disability-discriminat ion-order.pdf. That will of course be printed in House of Lords Hansard. There was obviously a problem with the link, for which we apologise. It is certainly our intention to publish the responses, as is now general throughout government. The people who do respond are usually required to make it clear that if they do not want their response to be published, they should say so.
On transport, access to buses is of course a serious issue. More and more bus stops and buses around the country are now designed in such a way as to enable reasonably easy roll-on access. There are some particular difficulties in Northern Ireland. Parking in bus-stop lay-bys will be decriminalised later in the year, and it will be the responsibility of the Roads Service to ensure that bus stops are kept free from parked cars. I am assured that the Roads Service will enforce this rule rigorously. I will not expect any complaints from any public representative in Northern Ireland that we are not taking a tough view of people blocking up parking bays for buses, simply because that will be depriving fellow citizens of their rights to good access to public transport.
Those questions of the noble Lord, Lord Laird, that I do not address I shall try to answer in writing. I refer to his question about the small dwellings exemption. If two people, one of whom is disabled, have rented two separate bed-sitting rooms in a house where the landlord lives, and they share the bathroom with the landlord's family, the landlord would be exempt from the existing and the new Disability Discrimination Act premises duties by virtue of the small dwellings exemption. Article 15 enables the Secretary of State to alter that exemption by adding to the conditions for entitlement to the exemption either by narrowing the scope of the exemption or repealing it. Therefore, any changes can only ever increase the protection for disabled people. They will travel only in one direction. For example, if the conditions for entitlement to the exemption were to be altered so that the qualifying
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number of householders went down from two to one, the landlord in that case would no longer be exempt from the premises duties. The position would be similar if the qualifying figure of six were to be reduced to three. A disabled tenant in residential premises that normally contained accommodation for five people in addition to the landlord would then benefit from the Disability Discrimination Act's protection for the first time.
The noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked what the removal of "clinically well-recognised" from the definition of disability would mean in practice. At present, the demands placed on the applicant to prove impairment by way of mental illness are greater than those to show impairment by other than mental illness. In other words, the Disability Discrimination Act was inherently discriminatory. Medical evidence must now establish the effect of the condition on the person. This puts mental illness on the same level of proof as physical impairment. What is important in future is whether the impairment, whatever its label, has a substantial and adverse effect on daily effect living. I hope that the noble Lord is satisfied that, again, the legislation is moving towards reducing discrimination.
An exemption in the small print excludes Members of Parliament and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly from this provision. They are excluded from the provision to maintain the principle of exclusive cognizance. That means that Parliamentin this case, the Assembly and hereshould have sole control over its affairs and procedures. We believe that the internal procedures at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Assembly should be used to secure the reasonable adjustments for their Members. In respect of local councillors, there is a difference. Local authorities are required to deal with their staffthat is, employees of the authorityand members of the public who use the authority, but there has always been the issue of the office-holder or the elected person. They are certainly not employees and they are not members of the public, hence, the bringing of councillors performing their council functions into the disability discrimination legislation. There is an exemption for political appointments. The exemption was inserted so that political influence on decisions regarding appointment of councillors to specific posts could be exercised. It is for the individual council to decide whom it wishes to appoint to internal or external posts to some degree to represent it or exercise some of its authority. The sanctions should not be judicial or quasi-judicial, but political. This is distinguishable from other aspects of how a council treats its members in carrying out official business, which is not political service, but related to training, accommodation, travel and, indeed, access to the Chamber.
Under Article 5, the public authority need not comply if the costs are too great. It was asked whether we will put in place a system for deciding whether the cost is too great. That system is already in place. The courts will assess whether, in the circumstances, the costs are too great. That can always be challenged. It is a little like some of the issues relating to
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disproportionate cost in answering parliamentary Questions. It can always be challenged; there are those limits. Also, should people think that the system is not working, there is no doubt that these new rights for people with disabilities will be rigorously scrutinised and policed by disability groups in Northern Irelandand, indeed, by Ministers and officials. We will want to make sure that they are working. I have no evidence, because we are basically trying to mirror what happens in Great Britain to bring Northern Ireland up to speed. Therefore, we also have the advantage of that experience in Great Britain, for disability is clearly not distinguished by which part of the UK a person is in. If there are flaws found in the way that it operates, I can assure the House that I will be back pretty quicklyand I am assured that those who watch what government does will make sure of that.
I may not have covered all the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked. I have covered small premises, councillors, extra costs and mental illness. If there is any that I have left uncovered, I will be more than happy to write to him in detail.
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