The Bigger Picture on the Disability Discrimination Bill
By Haroon Ashraf
When the Disability Discrimination Bill was published in the House of Lords in November, 2004, the government claimed that the new legislation to improve the rights of disabled people would make challenging discrimination much easier.
Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said at the time: “This is a landmark piece of legislation. It forms a crucial part of the government’s wider commitment to the agenda of improving the lives of disabled people.”
Campaigners have welcomed the bill and said it will advance civil rights for Britain’s 10 million disabled people.
The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) said the bill was “a major step forward in ending the discrimination disabled people experience when trying to travel in Britain”.
The Bill, announced in this year’s Queen’s speech, will amend the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which over the past few years has introduced tougher powers to protect disabled people.
The Disability Discrimination Act
The Act defines a disabled person as someone with “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
The Act gives disabled people rights in employment, access to goods, facilities and services, and buying or renting land or property. The legislation has been implemented in three phases.
Phase one set out rights for employment and access and came into force on 2 December, 1996. This made it illegal to treat disabled people less favourably because of their disability.
Further rights of access came into force in phase two on 1 October, 1999, which forced employers, including small firms with more than 15 staff, to make reasonable adjustments to their premises to help disabled employees.
The third and final phase announced in October, 2004, set out more rights of access. These obliged businesses to make permanent physical alterations to their premises to help disabled people, such as adding wheelchair ramps.
The legislation, although welcomed by disability rights campaigners, has raised several issues, such as what alterations an employer was reasonably expected to make and who would pay for physical alterations to business premises.
The Act made clear that the cost of making “reasonable” adjustments to business premises could not be passed onto disabled people. But the Act left the definition of “reasonable” alteration open.
“In broad terms, reasonableness will depend on the type of service being provided; the nature of the service provider and its size and resources; and the effect of the disability on the individual disabled person”, said the Act.
For example, judges at an appeal court in London ruled it was unlawful for low-budget airline Ryanair and Stansted aiport to pass the cost of providing wheelchair assistance on to a disabled passenger.
The wheelchair assistance was an auxiliary service and the disabled passenger could not be charged for it, said the judges. The ruling was also in line with draft European Union disability legislation said the DRC, which backed disabled man Bob Ross in his claim.
The Disability Discrimination Bill
The final step in meeting the government’s 2001 manifesto commitment to extend rights and opportunities for disabled people was the Disability Discrimination Bill, which was introduced into Parliament on 25 November 2004.
The bill widened the remit of the Act by covering more people and organisations.
Among the provisions, rail vehicles must be fully accessible to disabled people by 2020. The laws on making reasonable adjustments to premises will be extended to landlords, managers of other rented premises; and larger private clubs.
The bill extends the Act by including people with HIV, Multiple Sclerosis and cancer, which annually will bring in 175,000 additional people within scope of the Act.
Disability legislation will also cover schools examination bodies, and disabled councillors will be protected against discrimination by local authorities.
Rules on the Blue Badge Parking Scheme for disabled people will be reciprocated with arrangements in other European countries.
Disabled people dealing with landlords and managers of rented property will have greater rights, but the bill does not force landlords to make physical alterations to buildings, such as putting in stair lifts.
The DRC has welcomed the bill but wants the government to do more to make housing more accessible for disabled people.
It said 18,000 disabled people live in unsuitable accommodation because landlords refuse to carry out vital adaptations that would ensure that disabled people can live independent lives.
The DRC wants an amendment to the bill that would ensure consent to make adaptations could not be unreasonably refused.
It is hoped the amendment will be heard in the House of Lords in January 2005.
Although the Labour government has a good track record of legislating for the rights of disabled people, some of its reforms have been given a mixed reception.
For example, plans to merge the DRC with other agencies that fight discrimination, have been poorly received.
And the new benefits deal for disabled people, introduced in 2004, have had a very poor uptake.
Single Equality Body
The DRC, Equal Opportunities Commission, and the Commission for Racial Equality, are the three main agencies working against discrimination on grounds of disability, gender and race.
The government proposed a single agency in the wake of a European directive outlawing discrimination against people because of their age, sexual orientation and religion.
In a white paper, Fairness for All, which discussed the idea of a single organisation to fight discrimination, the government said it wanted to strengthen the powers of the existing equalities bodies.
It said the new body, to be known as the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) would, for the first time, provide institutional support for human rights.
The government has proposed three options for the new body:
A single equality body giving advice across the board, a single gateway for the existing commissions, an overarching commission, under which the existing agencies would work closer together.
The three existing agencies have given the idea of a single equality body a lukewarm reception.
And the CRE said earlier this year the plan for a single body was “the wrong proposal at the wrong time.”
Other groups campaigning against the proposal have said the merged body would have diluted powers. Worse still, a single body would offer unequal protection between the different groups suffering discrimination, they said.
Despite the barrage of criticism the government has committed to creating the single body by the end of 2006.
Financial support for disabled people is another issue that disability rights campaigners have said the government should have better organised.
The government offers various types of assistance, including benefits and support schemes for disabled workers and their employers.
Among these are the Disability Living Allowance and grants from the Independent Living Fund, which enable severely disabled people to pay for their personal care.
For disabled people who can work, the government provides initiatives, such as the New Deal for Disabled people, Access to Work, and Workstep.
But disabled people on benefits are £800 a month short of being able to fund an acceptable quality of life, according to a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Campaigners have said the government isn’t doing enough to publicise help for disabled people who want to work.
A survey by the Royal National Institute for the Blind found that 70 per cent of employers had never heard of Access to Work, which offers equipment, ramps and other aids.
In September the government revealed less than 2 per cent of those eligible had joined the New Deal for Disabled People – a voluntary programme that helps people with health conditions and disabilities get work.
The Department for Work and Pensions said the figures reflected the significant barriers faced by disabled people in returning to work.
Campaigners said some disabled people did not think you could get benefits and work.
To turn the situation around the government is piloting a programme called the Pathways to Work scheme in seven areas to get more people to claim incapacity benefit.
“These are people who do have problems — either mental [health] problems or physical problems — and the question is how can we help them get back to work and reconnect with society”, Work and Pensions Secretary Alan Johnson said in a BBC interview.
The programme includes compulsory work-focused interviews for new claimants and rehabilitation to help control the conditions that prevent people working.
It also offers a £40 per week credit for a year for those finding a job that pays less than £15,000 per year and access to a job seekers fund of up to £300.
Other new measures include putting employment advisers in GPs’ surgeries and allocating an extra £30 million to increase access to the number of people who can benefit from the deal.
Ninety per cent of the 2.7 million Britons on the benefit want to work and there are 700, 000 job vacancies meaning now is the “best opportunity” to help them, said Johnson.
If successful the scheme will be extended to one third of the country.