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Lord Rix: My Lords, apart from being the "Myra Hindley chappie", I wonder whether your Lordships are aware that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, was once the chairman of MENCAP. I always feel rather in the presence of a benevolent headmaster whenever he speaks. I was his chairman of fund-raising way back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so he does do other work as well, apart from being the "Myra Hindley chappie".
After a somewhat long stage wait--20 speeches to be precise--I trust your Lordships will forgive me if I refer back to the excellent and thought-provoking maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Attenborough. I should like to thank him for his persuasive arguments on the need for the arts, the need for active support of the arts, the need for the arts to be broadly-based and non-exclusive, and the need for the arts to be available--both as participants and as members of the audience--for all people with disabilities, including those whom I try to represent, the people with a learning disability.
Incidentally, on a personal level, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Attenborough, for pointing me in the direction that my own career should take when I was demobbed one year after him in 1947. All the good juvenile roles had already gone to him, and so I had to become self-employed as an actor-manager, which led me to a career of 30 years of making my living by dropping my trousers--of a strictly comical nature, I hasten to add, but a job unique in your Lordships' House, I am sure.
The noble Lord, Lord Attenborough, also gave me a splendid cue when he made reference to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill which, in theatrical parlance, flopped last summer--in spite of massive audience support--because the Government rang down the curtain prematurely during Act I of the performance. The Government have now rushed to mount a production of their own, although I gather not a revival as such. I want to welcome--as did the noble Lords, Lord Ashley of Stoke, Lord Murray of Epping Forest and the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman--the inclusion in the Government's own agenda of a Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people. In so doing, I hope I do not seem to be indulging in the second house of the powerful speeches made by those noble Lords and the noble Baroness.
Since so many have campaigned so hard, including many noble Lords present today although not here in the Chamber at the moment, I shall claim for MENCAP only a little of the credit for moving hearts and minds. We asked for the promise of legislation in the gracious Speech, and we have that promise. It is surely proper that the basic citizenship rights of disabled people should be addressed in Government proposals for legislation rather than in a Private Member's Bill. I hope that the history of attempts to block substantive legislation is now merely history.
There were times during the last Session when I was more saddened than amused to see Westminster farce challenge Whitehall farce--although I think the word "challenge" is misapplied. At least our original version down the road excited laughter and some degree of happiness. The proceedings in the other place last summer were absurdly futile and excited only sadness and frustration. I hope and believe that the Government have now got their shoulders to the wheel instead of their feet under it--a much more dignified, creative and comfortable posture.
The Minister has been listening to disabled people and to those who speak for disabled people. He has been to America to look at how the Americans with Disabilities Act is working. I am not one of those who believes that American pilgrimages necessarily resolve British problems, but I am sure that we can learn from those who have ventured before us, and who have secured much good without breaking the bank.
Nearer home, I chaired last month--as a politically neutral person--a meeting of the Conservative Disability Group at its annual conference, at which there was the same support for change that the hundreds of responses to the Government's consultative document have reflected. So we are moving forward, although there is still much to do. I welcome the principle of the Bill. As to its scope, we can only speculate at present.
Alice Etherington of MENCAP and People First--a powerful advocate for herself and for others with a learning disability--pointed out at our hugely successful three-day Gateway/MENCAP conference earlier this month, that legislation needs to cover education, transport and financial services, as well as employment and shopping, if it is to support people's rights across the whole range of their daily experiences of denial of those rights.
Those who, unlike your Lordships, can properly debate matters of taxation will have noted the suggestion from others that disabled people working for small employers might more readily be protected were there tax concessions in relation to facilities provided for them by their employers.
A narrowly drawn Bill will not be any use to disabled people or bring any credit to the Government. I am reminded that in the recent Sadler's Wells production of "Cinderella", which finished on Saturday, the wicked step-mother cuts off her daughter's toes to get her feet down to the required size. The result is that the wretched girl loses both the prince and her ability to walk. Some of us are suspicious of the Treasury as a potential wicked step-mother to this Bill.
Those of us who enjoy our citizenship rights--and, as Members of your Lordships' House, even a measure of privilege--talk about anti-discrimination with passion, but inevitably with some detachment. We are talking in the main about the rights of other people.
I have already quoted one self-advocate at MENCAP's Blackpool conference. During a conference break a young married woman with learning disability, very close to tears, told how she and her husband had been driven from their flat. They had suffered verbal abuse; excrement had been pushed through the letterbox; they had been physically assaulted, all
Violence and intimidation are not legal, but all the while discrimination is legal some of our fellow citizens will suffer from those around them. As Robert Peel said in another place--and certainly at another time--of the sufferings in the Ireland of his day:
Lord Addington: My Lords, this debate has been one in which we have drawn much attention to the exact subject that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has been talking about. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, and many other noble Lords have spoken with considerable authority about the proposed legislation on disabilities. This is something which I propose primarily to speak to, but I shall limit my comments to a very short space of time.
Primarily, what was initially proposed in the Bill was something which gave people rights--rights to be treated as other people, with some degree of assistance, in achieving their potential as full members of society, as full human beings. That right has been granted to virtually every other section of society. A decision that you shall not do something because of something which is quite arbitrary and over which you have no control has been removed.
If it can be done for people on the grounds of race, colour of skin or gender, it should be done for those who have a disability, for the simple reason that a disability is not something over which a person has control. Indeed, drawing on that analogy, the proposals which are put in front of us --that we shall have assistance for certain things that cannot be done by people in certain types of activity--seem a little like confronting a very hungry person with a wonderful nouvelle cuisine meal which looks very nice but does not satisfy the appetite.
We talk about employment and about access to certain goods and services. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said, employment rights are of absolutely no use unless there is a guarantee of the right to get to where that employment takes place. One cannot subdivide the human experience into different pieces like that. It just does not work.
I and many other Members of this House have tried to convince the noble Baroness--with, I may say, a considerable degree of success--that certain types of advice are necessary on education Bills. We can very gladly say that we do not have to go through that process again, at least this time. We have always said that information is needed because of the types and range of disabilities and the subdivisions within the bands of disability. One cannot draw an arbitrary line about something called disability. Unless we tackle the whole of the problem, the goal will be missed. Disability is not something that can be divided into certain types of activity.
Finally, the type of legislation that we have in front of us must be greatly enhanced--or perhaps it is merely the first step along a road. Personally, I should rather have all the legislation done at once; but even if it is done in a series of tranches, it will be all right, so long as we get to where we are going and address the rights of disabled people in all the activities of society. If we do not do so, we shall fail to reach even the modest goals that the Government's proposals suggest.
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