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Disabled need stronger laws at work, survey shows

WEAK employment rights legislation is being exploited to discriminate against people with disabilities, according to a report by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

Complaints from sacked and unhappy staff form an increasing proportion of the workload of CABs. They have risen by 31 per cent in the last five years.

Problems facing the disabled include failure to protect them against bullying by other staff and refusal to allow time off for medical needs.

One employer in Warwickshire withdrew permission for a diabetic to undertake her blood tests at work after a change in company management. A deaf employee in Wiltshire had sawdust and glue put in his food and was attacked and injured with a nail gun.

The report, published last week, says that discrimination against other segments of the population - women, ethnic minorities, gay men and lesbians - is also increasing because employment protection is inadequate. It says the failure of employers to regulate themselves effectively means tougher laws are required.

'The climate of job insecurity and erosion of employment rights in recent years has led to an enormous increase in the level of harassment and discrimination at work,' said Ann Abraham, chief executive of the association. 'CAB evidence shows that a fundamental review of the Government's approach to tackling discrimination is required. Appeals to the enlightened self-interest of employers, while important, have had only a limited impact. The growing scale of the problem now makes it essential to strengthen existing anti-discrimination legislation and to introduce specific protection for disabled people, for whom existing laws are not only inadequate but sometimes positively detrimental.'

The association is calling on MPs to support a private members' Bill, which has its second reading on Friday, sponsored by Dr Roger Berry, MP. The Bill would make it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, imitating legislation successfully introduced in the United States and elsewhere.

'Most employers I have discussed this with welcome initiatives to eliminate discrimination against disabled people,' said Dr Berry. 'The issue is, who bears the cost of improving access for people with disabilities? Naturally, employers are concerned at any costs that could fall on their establishments.' A new pounds 14.6m government programme announced last week goes a long way towards meeting those costs. Under 'Access to Work', the Department of Employment will cover the full costs of building and equipment adaptations up to a ceiling of pounds 21,000 for each person. It will also pay for support workers to provide transport and communication for the blind and deaf.

Draft proposals suggested that the Government and employers met the costs equally and pressure groups have welcomed the change. The scheme replaces several programmes but includes pounds 3.5m of new money.

Independent research has proved that disabled people are not getting a fair chance to gain employment. The Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys found that disabled people were more than twice as likely to be unemployed, and earned much less than average if they were in work.