Hard times for the disabled prompt great expectations : Inside Parliament

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Indy Politics
Alan Howarth discomforted his Government front bench yesterday with a suggestion that a new Charles Dickens was needed to describe society's complacency over the plight of disabled and poor people.

The MP for Stratford on Avon and a former minister, Mr Howarth increasingly appears as an awkward conscience for his party on social issues and has been a consistent supporter of civil rights for disabled people.

His intervention yesterday came as the Social Security minister, William Hague, sought to defend a decision to exempt firms employing less than 20 people from the rigours of the Disability Discrimination Bill.

"It may be more difficult and burdensome for smaller firms to get to grips with the new rights," Mr Hague said as he moved the Bill's Second Reading. Those with more than 20 employees will be forbidden from discriminating against applicants with physicalor mental disabilities and have to make adaptations in the office or factory.

But Mr Howarth, wanting the Bill to apply to all firms, thought it not unreasonable to "expect businessmen to behave as decently as other people''.

"Does my honourable friend recall Oliver Twist's first cry on being born in the workhouse advertising to the inmates the fact of a new burden being imposed upon the parish? Does he sometimes feel, as I do, that we need a new Dickens to describe the absurdities and indeed the horrors of our complacencies?"

Acknowledging the literary reference, Mr Hague replied: "We can think of these things as burdens, we can also think of them as opportunities for employers and providers because many will find there is a benefit to including disabled people. But we do have to recognise there will be a cost for many employers. We expect that the cost in the case of goods and services providers to run into hundreds of millions of pounds."

Tom Clarke, Labour's spokesman on disabled people's rights, said it was not so much a measure to help disabled people as one to help ministers to get out of the hole they dug last year in killing off a more ambitious private member's Bill.

He criticised the Government for excluding transport vehicles and education from the right of access, and failing to provide the Disability Rights Commission campaigners have demanded.

These stronger provisions are on offer in another private member's Bill, due on 10 February. Sponsored by Harry Barnes, Labour MP for Derbyshire NE, it is the latest in a long line of disabled people's rights Bills. Mr Hague said that unlike Mr Barnes's Bill, the Government's proposals were workable and fair. He put the maximum cost of them at about £1.3bn, but said the "so-called" Civil Rights Bill was "a blank cheque".

After two assertive Question Time performances, John Major was forced on to the defensive over boardroom pay.

As several executives, including Cedric Brown, the £475,000-a-year chief executive of British Gas, prepared to give evidence to a Commons select committee, Tony Blair asked why the Prime Minister did not intervene on pay at National Power and PowerGen, where the Government is a 40 per cent shareholder. Labour released figures yesterday showing the pay of the heads of the two privatised electricity generators exceeded £1m last year.

But Mr Major said he had made clear from the outset that having put the companies in private hands the Government was not going to retain control over detailed decisions.

Mr Blair said Labour believed in "public services run for the public and in the public interest". While the Tories represented "these excesses", Labour would stick up for the vast majority of ordinary people.

"Those people, struggling to pay their bills, worried about living standards, are fed up with the same small group playing the boardroom equivalent of the National Lottery and awarding themselves huge pay increases - hitting the jackpot week after week at the public's expense," he said.

Mr Major accused the Labour leader of "becoming a slave to grievance politics". In the privatised services, prices were falling, investment was rising and consumers were getting a better deal, he said. "What the Labour Party's campaign shows is how unreconstructed and envious they still are."

With local education authorities warning of cuts in teacher numbers to meet tight budgets, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, offered parents the dubious assurance that studies have "never shown conclusive evidence that there is a link between class size and pupil performance".

"There is no reason to see marginal increases in class sizes as a threat to standards," she said. Her Labour shadow, David Blunkett, retorted: "Tell that to the public schools and those who buy private education, and they will laugh in your face."