Employers argue for strong disability law

TALK of any attempt to improve the lot of disadvantaged sections of society gcnerally has business up in arms. If industrialists are personally in favour of legislation, they are liable to object to the cost and interference. It is perhaps surprising, then, to find a significant number of companies broadly in favour of the Disability Discrimination Bill due to become law later this year.

During its lengthy passage through Parliament, the Bill has fallen victim to various attempts to characterise it as another piece of Brussels-style regulation with Draconian requirements that hard-pressed businesses will find diffcult to meet. But the members of the Employers' Forum on Disability believe the proposed legislation should go further, not be watered down.

While it would perhaps be naive to suggest that their motivations are necessarily the same as those of the interest groups that have made well- publicised attacks on the Bill at various stages, they do share concerns about the effectiveness of the planned law.

In particular, they believe that the proposal to establish a National Disability Council to run alongside the existing National Advisory Council on the Employment of People with Disabilities will weaken rather than strengthen the position of the disabled.

They say that not only would this idea split responsibility for Britain's 6.2 million disabled people, it also suffers from the fact that - under the Bill - the advisory council does not have the same remit to help the public as the analogous Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. Moreover, the NDC's proposed budget is only about pounds 250,000, compared with pounds 6m for the EOP and pounds 15m for the CRE.

Cynics might feel that this would favour employers. But the forum argues that it is not as simple as that. Without clearly defined legislation, say the employers, confusion will reign and unnecessary litigation will surely follow. Moreover, lawyers point out that since disability is much more open to interpretation than race or gender, there is room for greater contention even without confusion in the legislation.

The Employers' Forum on Disability is concerned about these issues because in recent years its members have made great strides in helping people with a variety of disabilities find work in their organisations. Working in association with the Prince of Wales' Advisory Group on Disability and in close partnership with Business in the Community, it is a non-profit company funded by members that aims to improve the job prospects of disabled people by making it easier for companies to recruit, retain and develop disabled employees.

Among its initiatives are the publication of such booklets as Welcoming Disabled Customers and Working with Disabled Constituents: A Guide for MPs. In 1992, it drew up an Employers' Agenda on Disability, which spells out what needs to be done if equal opportunities policies are really to include Britain's 2.4 million disabled of working age. So far 50 organisations employing more than 650,000 people have signed up for the agenda and its 10 points for action. Employers as varied as the Bank of England and Birmingham City Council are involved in such programmes as disability awareness training and installing braille printers.

For others, though, the effects of the Bill - which is expected to receive the Royal Assent in November - promise to be somewhat further-reaching.

Bus companies, for instance, would be required to make their all their vehicles accessible to wheelchair users, and much attention has been paid to the scale of this undertaking for London Transport.