Clause 91

Equality Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:00 pm on 23 June 2009.

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Qualifications bodies

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I shall endeavour to be brief. The clause concerns qualifications bodies and will make it unlawful to discriminate against, harass or victimise people in  making arrangements for deciding on whom to confer qualifications. It carries across an existing provision in law.

Concerns have been raised by the National Deaf Children’s Society on behalf of deaf children as well as by the Royal National Institute of Blind People. Those organisations point out that disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications. Of those disabled people without qualifications, only 23 per cent. are employed. That is in stark contrast to non-disabled people without qualifications, of whom 60 per cent. are employed. Having a qualification is clearly important, and it is vital that the examination system is accessible.

I raise the point because at the moment, the Bill proposes to replicate provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act that place a duty on qualification bodies offering general qualifications to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students. It will give new powers to the qualifications regulator—Ofqual in England, and others in Wales and Scotland—to decide what adjustments would not be reasonable and what parts of the qualification are not subject to reasonable adjustments.

I will give a couple of examples of my concern and leave it at that. Also, I wanted to flag up to the Minister that I have tabled an amendment to schedule 19 that would extend the public sector duty to Ofqual, so that it would not just have to make reasonable adjustments but have a positive duty to promote the interests of disabled people.

My purpose is to raise with the Minister some of the concerns of those organisations. Despite the fact that existing law will carry through into the Bill, there are a lot of examples of deaf candidates, in particular, finding that qualifications providers are not making reasonable adjustments for them to get qualifications and are not thinking creatively enough about how they could test ability and learning rigorously, thereby protecting the value of the qualification.

One example—I will leave it at one—involved a profoundly deaf candidate who was asked a question about listening to music on his GCSE English exam. He had never experienced music and so was not familiar with how people enjoy and talk about it. That question was not necessarily appropriate for a deaf student. He could easily have been asked to demonstrate his English ability without being asked that inappropriate question.

Although I said that I would give one example, I will give one more, and that really will be it. GCSE music tends to highlight a number of issues. One example involved a family whose son is profoundly deaf and uses a cochlear implant. He is selecting his options for GCSE and wishes to do music. The school uses the Edexcel exam board, 40 per cent. of whose music GCSE is a listening exam. The family want him to be able to study music, and they want the exam board to think about ways for him to do alternative work because of his hearing impairment. That could be dealt with in a range of ways, given that he has a cochlear implant, but he is basically being told that unless he can listen to CDs and answer questions, he should not really be studying that subject at all.

I accept that there are cases in which nothing can be done, but schools do not seem to be thinking creatively enough. I wanted to raise that issue in respect of the  clause and to flag up the fact, in looking at the public sector equality duty in respect of schedule 19, that rather than just having the provision on reasonable adjustments, by placing the public sector equality duty on the qualifications regulator, there will be a positive duty to work with disabled people and those with the other protected characteristics to deliver a more inclusive system, while still protecting the value and rigour of the qualification. Has the Minister anything to say about those examples and how we might tackle the problem and disadvantage for disabled people?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

Those examples seem quite gross. We do not have provision in legislation to command regulators to think creatively. I think it is a matter of what is a reasonable adjustment. I take it that the hon. Gentleman is not concerned about the balance between what is adjusted and what is not. He is just saying that people are insufficiently imaginative, when it comes to reasonable adjustments, with some aspects of disability. The long and short of it is that the court will have to decide on judicial review whether sufficient adjustment has been made for the individual. I can only echo what he says. One hopes that this provision will not have a depressing effect on creativity and the way education is delivered to the disabled, but will strike a balance, allowing it to have a positive effect. When we come to schedule 19 we might hit the nail more firmly on the head when we talk about the equality duty.

y

I agree with Vera.

The examples are really quite gross.

Submitted by yvonne hadley-jones

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 91 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.