Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:58 pm on 15th December 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Wilkins Baroness Wilkins Labour 9:58 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, we have arrived at the last Back-Bench speaker, and I will try to be brief. I, too, warmly welcome the Bill, and the improvements that were made to it in the other place. As we have heard, in tough economic times equality matters more, not less, and we need to make use of everybody's talents-that of course includes disabled people, who still face among the greatest inequalities and exclusions in our society.

I am delighted that the Bill seeks to remedy the major gap in protection for disabled people left by the Malcolm judgment. The changes made to this clause-Clause 15-in the other place are very welcome, but sadly the Bill also introduces a knowledge requirement which was not in the DDA. It means that employers or service providers could claim they did not or could not reasonably have been expected to know about the disability, which leaves people with hidden disabilities or communication difficulties at an inherent disadvantage. We need to make sure that there is sufficient onus on duty holders to inquire about any potential disability before they take detrimental action. Another niggle that I have with this clause is whether it is clear enough that duty holders should be making reasonable adjustments wherever required to avoid less favourable treatment. I hope the Minister can clarify these two points in her response, though given the number of notes that she has received, I think that it is highly unlikely

I am also delighted that the Bill extends duties on landlords to make reasonable adjustments to the common parts of let residential premises and commonhold properties, as the late and much-missed Baroness Darcy de Knayth would be. We tabled amendments on this issue to both the Housing Act 2004 and the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, and at last they have borne fruit. The Bill will make it unlawful for landlords and management companies unreasonably to refuse permission for a disabled person to make vital physical alterations to such communal areas as hallways and entrances, so that they will no longer be imprisoned in their own home.

I am aware of the time pressures that we face in improving and enacting the Bill. However, there are outstanding issues which we must address. We must ensure that the Bill does not regress on the DDA. I will not repeat these points, since other noble Lords have dealt with them. A major disappointment is that the Bill has not seized the opportunity to adopt a more "social model" definition of disability, as recommended by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its legislative scrutiny of the Bill. It is a travesty that much tribunal time is wasted in arguing about how disabled someone is, rather than focusing on the discrimination that may have taken place. The Joint Committee recommended:

"At a minimum ... the requirement contained in the current definition of disability that the effects of an impairment be 'long term' in nature should be removed".

Currently discrimination can only be proved for an impairment which has lasted for 12 months or more. Should the Bill pass in its current form, it will still be perfectly lawful for an employer to sack someone for taking time off for a shorter episode of severe depression. There are also cases where people face benefit sanctions because of this rule, such as the one brought to RADAR by a distraught disabled woman who had been summoned for a work-focused interview. She could not get to the bus stop to get to the jobcentre because of a serious, though short-term, injury; but the jobcentre would not make reasonable adjustment and send a taxi because she was not covered by the long-term requirement defining disability.

Let us make sure that the Bill deals with the discrimination and not with fruitless arguments about the extent of disability. This is a good Bill which contains many helpful improvements in protection against discrimination and, with a little more work, could prove to be a great landmark in transforming the British economy and our society for the better.