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Lord Hylton: I am as sympathetic as anyone to the needs of people with disabilities. Certainly Hansard will show that in the past I have supported a good number of amendments moved by my noble friends on the "mobile Bench" and probably also by my noble friend Lord Rix.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: I have a link with Northern Ireland in that a few years ago I was awarded an honorary degree at the University of Ulster. It was a very nice experience. Given the great number of problems in Northern Ireland, we have not heard very much about problems facing the 215,000 people with disabilities who represent 17.4 per cent. of the population.
As the Minister will know, disability can be complex and varied. Are those who will be involved with the commission to be trained in all disability matters? There is a fear that Northern Ireland will restrict the quality and quantity of support to disabled people and will experience significantly lower standards of treatment than in the rest of the UK.
It is easy to push disability matters down the agenda unless they are placed in legislation in their own right. I hope the Minister will find a way of safeguarding all the people in Northern Ireland who have disabilities, many of whom have suffered over the years as a result of the troubles.
Turning to Amendment No. 38 and the other amendments in this grouping, I echo the tributes paid to the noble Lord, Lord Morris. He and I were in another place together for a long time. I can therefore say with authority that everyone who says how hard he has worked for the disabled is absolutely right.
In the Northern Ireland situation there is an additional reason for being concerned about the disabled because there are many people on all sides who are disabled as a result of the troubles. There are policemen and others on the opposite side who are victims of violence and
That brings us to the two questions posed by the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Morris. In Amendment No. 39 he suggests a Northern Ireland Minister for equal opportunities and in Amendment No. 153, which we have partially discussed, at least, he suggests a disability rights commission for Northern Ireland.
With regard to the question of having a Minister--by which it would be almost axiomatic that there would be a department as well--my noble friend Lord Renton asked whether there was a definition of "equal opportunities" for this purpose and how wide the term went. I suppose there is not such a definition in the legal sense of the word, and the noble Lord is, after all, a lawyer, but in the Northern Ireland agreement paragraphs on page 17 speak of:
I believe that there is a lot to be said for a dedicated department of equality in Northern Ireland, but that is not necessarily a decision which we in Parliament should take, for two reasons. First, it would come better as part of the setting up of the new Northern Ireland government, if that is the way that the Assembly, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister wish to organise their affairs. I believe it is something that they should decide within Northern Ireland. Secondly, the paragraph in the agreement from which I have just read makes clear that that is what is intended in the agreement. I was slightly over-egging the importance of the agreement a moment ago, but nevertheless I think we should stay with it, and that is a second reason for believing that, if there is to be a department of equality, it would be better if it came about as a result of the decisions made in Northern Ireland by the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Assembly.
Another question concerns whether there should be a disability rights commission separate from the equality commission. That question is more complicated. The first difficulty is how many rights and how many forms of equality are to be encompassed within the single commission. I take the point that Northern Ireland is not a large place to have four commissions, each dealing with different types of equality, and that they can
I realise that separating disability into a separate commission is intended to give it greater prominence, but it may not necessarily do so. If there is a large equality commission covering the three areas apart from disability, that will be the large, important body, and there will be a little body to one side covering disability only. I do not believe that the little body will necessarily exercise the clout that people who support it would wish it to.
Lord Skelmersdale: As so often in the past, my noble friend Lord Cope has said practically everything that I wanted to say on this matter. However, I was particularly struck by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, in which he intimated a conversation, to which I was not a party, with the Minister. What he said was news to me; namely, that to all intents and purposes the Minister intends that consultation on this matter will be reopened. At least, that is what I understood the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, to say. If that is indeed the case, those people from whom many Members of the Committee have received representations, especially disabled people in Northern Ireland, will be delighted. I hope that the Minister will put on record exactly what he intends.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I can do no other than support the pleas made in general on behalf of the disabled and the handicapped. I served for a good many years as vice-chairman of the Eastern Special Care Management Committee, centred mainly on Muckamore Abbey but extending over the whole of the eastern part of the Province. We benefited greatly from the visits of the noble Lords, Lord Rix and Lord Renton, during my time in office. We were demobilised by the updating and
Muckamore Abbey contained 800 patients. That number has now been greatly reduced, mainly as a result of the lobby for farming people out to what was called the community. Thankfully, in Northern Ireland we do not have many equivalents of Blackfriars Bridge, and many of those discharged prematurely from Muckamore Abbey have been well cared for.
At that time we came under the Stormont Department of Health and were fortunate in having sympathetic Ministers while I was involved. There came a time when the Department of Health muscled in on our activities, particularly with regard to the closure of the specialist schools and our specially trained teachers. As a result, despite the enlightened efforts of education experts, and so on, one finds that where two handicapped or disabled pupils are placed in a relatively small school the tendency is that far too frequently they are placed in the back row and follow as best they can. Certainly they do not benefit as much as they did under the unified educational and special care arrangement.
I trust that the claims of the disabled and the handicapped will be kept very much at the forefront of the deliberations of the new Assembly. Knowing personally a good many members of that Assembly, I am confident that those claims will not be neglected. Is it likely that the number will be increased greatly beyond 10? I note that the Secretary of State is given power to appoint an unspecified number of Ministers by order. Without wishing to spring this matter on the Minister at the last minute, can he say whether such an order will be subject to the approval of Parliament?
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