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Disabled People (Duties Of Public Authorities) Bill

Volume 405: debated on Friday 16 May 2003

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Order for Second Reading read.

2.21 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the time to debate this important Bill. I am thinking of adding to the modernisation process of the House of Commons a procedure whereby we slot in Bills in a 30-second or 10-minute slot at the end of each week.

I hope that the Bill has the support of all right hon. and hon. Members. It certainly has the support of my sponsors, the Disability Rights Commission and the organisations of and for disabled people who have involved themselves in this work. All the help that I have been given in putting the Bill together has convinced me that it is right to promote the Bill.

The Bill is not about political correctness, nor is it about individual rights for disabled people. It is intended to plug a gap in the Disability Discrimination (Amendment) Act 2002 and to tackle discrimination and equality of opportunity from a different perspective—at source.

The Bill is about a practical need to put and keep disabled people in the mainstream of the development of public sector policy and practice. It is about the needs of disabled people, making them part of everyday thinking, not just an afterthought. It is about tackling discrimination before it becomes an individual problem; improving the opportunities that are available to disabled people in the public sector, whether in employment or in the way that the public sector provides its services; reducing social exclusion and social isolation; and giving disabled people the confidence that, when they deal with the public sector, their needs and aspirations will have been taken into account.

I think that the Bill has the support of right hon. and hon. Members in many parts of the House. Will the hon. Lady give some practical examples for those of us who are not so familiar with the proposed legislation that she is introducing of how the laudable aims that she has talked about will work out in practice on the ground? How would the Bill affect people in their day-to-day life?

I am grateful for the opportunity to give the simple example of a local authority swimming pool. Blind and disabled people may feel a bit fearful if there are lots of other people in the pool, with children splashing about and so on. The local authority could, for example, organise a quiet time, when disabled and blind people could use the facility on their own. That is a practical example of how the Bill would work.

The general duties set out in the Bill have regard to two principles in the discharge of public functions: eliminating disability discrimination and harassment, and pursuing equalisation of opportunity for disabled people. Further progress on the Bill is important. It will show that this House and society at large believe in building a diverse and inclusive society in which Disabled people can participate on increasingly equal terms. That will be good for our credibility and that of our public services. I commend the Bill to the House.

2.25 pm

The Bill was introduced on 11 December 2002 by the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), whom I congratulate on her efforts. It seeks to amend the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 so that public bodies have a duty to have regard to these principles:

"unlawful discrimination against and unlawful harassment of disabled persons must be eliminated"

"equalisation of opportunity for disabled persons is to be pursued."
Her Majesty's official Opposition do not object in principle to the Bill. Public authorities should of course promote good practice and encourage the inclusion of disabled people.

I am pleased to hear that the official Opposition welcome the Bill. Will she therefore make a brief speech so that it can be given its Second Reading?

The Bill is welcomed by the Disability Rights Commission, which has done good work in this area. Of course, there will be cost implications for authorities within the Bill's remit, and they need to be explored. The Bill falls into two major parts. It deals with discrimination and harassment on the one hand, which are distinct and separate from equal opportunities on the other.

I should like to indulge in one brief personal anecdote relating to one of the first occasions when I ran a polling station for a local government election. I arrived at the hall that was to be used to find that the key holder was nowhere to be seen. I used up time that I had allowed for preparing the hall for voters in trying to find the key holder. By the time the hall was opened, there was a queue of voters. To my dismay, one of the first people to arrive was a lady in a wheelchair. One of my duties had been to set up a ramp to allow wheelchairs to enter the hall, but that duty had been overlooked and I was mortified to have been responsible. That is a small example of the sort of inconvenience that disabled people face in going about their everyday lives.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which the Bill seeks to amend, was introduced to the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who was Minister for Social Security and Disabled People at the time. Part I of that Act sets out the definition of disability under the Act and explains who is protected by it. Part II prohibits discrimination against disabled people in employment and requires the employer to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled person or employee if they are at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with a non-disabled person. The 1995 Act also makes it unlawful to discriminate in the provision of goods, facilities and services. Currently, discrimination occurs if a disabled person is treated less favourably for a reason that is related to their disability. Such treatment cannot be justified. Further stages will be implemented in October 2004.

Part IV of the 1995 Act relates to education, which was initially excluded from part III, with some exceptions. However, a new amendment will shortly be ratified and will include education under the Act. Part V deals with transport and gives the Secretary of State powers to establish minimum access criteria for new transport vehicles, which will be phased in over time.

Part III excludes transport vehicles such as buses, trains and aeroplanes, but covers infrastructure such as railway stations and airports. I have tremendous problems with my station at Upminster. I have been fighting for a lift there for as long as I can remember. The station has steep steps and people who need access to it have to phone in advance and ask a member of staff to be available to let them use the goods lift.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 13 June.