My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for the debate today. It is one further addition to the excellent work he has carried out so often on the same subject in this House. We all welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter.
I was a dentist in general practice when the Act was introduced. My only awareness of disabled people was in terms of patients who came for treatment. I found that they were a remarkably independent group. Often, they had their own ways of getting in and out of the chair or from the waiting room to the surgery and they could manage better without one trying to help. Interference was not always the most useful policy. I remember in particular one woman who was blind and wore a heavy calliper on her leg. She managed her life so well and was such a marvellously happy person.
We tend to believe that anyone disabled might not necessarily be such a happy and forward-looking person. That has not been my experience. I have found that such people often have a remarkably strong will and a great, good spirit that keeps them going. Sadly, there are a few, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, mentioned, for whom things go wrong. That is not so good.
At the time of the Act, I was also a young councillor. We were absolutely staggered when it landed on our doorstep. We were terrified about the cost. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, was absolutely right in saying that no one knew how many disabled people there were. We were told that we must carry out a survey to discover the number. This was in about 1973. We had had the oil crisis and everyone was worried about his financial situation. No one knew how much the survey would cost. We decided that if we found a huge number of people requiring help, we could not possibly deal with the situation. Eventually, the council decided to carry out a 10 per cent survey immediately from which it could work out needs and thus develop provision. But even the 10 per cent survey was a major exercise.
At that time disabled people seemed almost to conceal the fact that they were disabled. Noble Lords have described how no one wanted to be pitied and no one wanted to feel embarrassed by asking for something from others. Fortunately, over time we have seen a complete change in that attitude. My recent experience of self-assessment of disabled people--which I have quoted in your Lordships' House before--worries me in terms of the National Health Service. If one applies to be considered for a board, one may tick that one is disabled and one will be granted an interview.
I interviewed one such person. We had actually interviewed several, but we had to reconvene because one whom we had omitted, believing him to be totally unsuitable, demanded to be seen and there was an obligation to see him. When he came in he looked fit. We said, "What's your disability?" and he replied, "I suffer from asthma." One of the interviewing panel was a doctor. He said, "But you seem to be in very good health." The patient replied, "Oh yes, it is just for a couple of days in the summer." That did not seem to justify his right to tick the box by which he was guaranteed an interview. That kind of fiddle, or whatever it was, does not help those who are genuinely disabled. But it is a rarity and it is not something we need to discuss too much.
The terminology has changed too. People used to be called "registered disabled". I remember when there were two Bills going through your Lordships' House; one abolishing the term "registered disabled" and the other containing a whole lot of clauses to cover the registered disabled. In the debate I asked the Minister why we were putting into one Bill what we were abolishing in the other. The matter was discovered and put right.
Access to buildings--which we all believe is essential--is still not 100 per cent, even in new buildings. Buildings are still going up which do not have access. Nowhere is really much worse--unless it has improved miraculously recently without my knowledge--than Heathrow airport. When I have arrived at Heathrow and the escalators have been out of order, I have asked people, "How do you get down?" and they have replied, "You've got to walk down." A non-working escalator is of course much worse than one which is working. The gradient on the escalator is not really suitable for walking. I said, "What about a disabled person? How would they get down?" They replied, "Oh, we have no way they can get down." In the newer terminals, improvements have been made. But the difference between that and the new Waterloo station where there is splendid wheelchair access shows how progress is being made in terms of improvements.
I have almost run out of time, but I must comment on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. I am sorry that he is not here to hear me. He congratulated the Labour Government on everything they had done. I cannot let him get away with that, because, after all, the Act about which we are talking went through under a Conservative government. We have just been told how they allowed it to come back again. It was stated earlier that it started under the Labour government, then came the election of the Heath government and it was carried on by the Conservative government. I see noble Lords looking at me and wondering--