Inside Parliament: Scott put in for second 'knock': MPs resume attack on minister for disabled - Pressure for change to CSA income formula

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Indy Politics
Nicholas Scott, the Minister for Disabled People, had hoped to spend yesterday at the Oval playing in the Commons v Lords cricket match but was obliged to follow-on in his humiliating struggle with backbenchers over the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.

Watched by his daughter Victoria from the special visitors' gallery, Mr Scott defended his record as MPs used a short debate to renew criticism of the Government's tactics in killing the anti-discrimination measure.

Last Friday, after the Bill was 'talked out' for the second time in a fortnight, Miss Scott, a parliamentary liaison officer for the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, joined MPs and other campaigners in demanding her father's resignation.

Mr Scott said as Minister for Disabled People for some seven years he hoped it would be 'tolerably widely recognised in the House that I have sought to voice and demonstrate the Government's commitment to the principle of seeking to eliminate discrimination against disabled people and to widen the opportunities available to them fully to participate in our national life.

'My own personal belief in the work that needs to be done remains as strong as ever.'

Dale Campbell-Savours, Labour MP for Workington, granted the minister had had a long- standing interest, but said: 'He let the side down by deliberately misleading the House of Commons and the country, and he should be ashamed of himself.'

Opening the debate, one of a series before the Commons broke for the Whitsun recess, John Austin-Walker, Labour MP for Woolwich, said it was tragic that Mr Scott had become the 'fall-guy' over the Bill. 'The responsibility for blocking a measure which could have given civil rights to disabled people rests not with him, but with his senior colleagues (Peter Lilley) and ultimately with the Prime Minister.'

He rejected the Government's estimate of a pounds 17bn compliance cost - mostly in providing access for disabled people to buildings and transport systems - as 'wildly unrealistic'. It wrongly assumed full compliance from day one and took no account of cost benefits. The Bill's sponsor, Roger Berry, Labour MP for Kingswood, said that for John Major to claim on Tuesday that it would 'impose costs of pounds 17bn on private industry' was another example of deliberately misleading the House. According to the cost compliance estimate around half the pounds 17bn would fall on public authorities and transport systems.

Earlier this month, Mr Scott apologised after appearing to deny - quite wrongly - that officials helped draft amendments used by a handful of Tories to block the Bill's progress. But he detected a silver lining to the sorry affair. It had 'raised the profile' of disabled people. They had 'probably enjoyed rather more coverage in our national media in recent days than they've ever achieved before'.

Mr Scott's social security colleague Alistair Burt had an easier time fending off cross- party criticism of the Child Support Agency. David Tredinnick, Tory MP for Bosworth, said: 'If George Orwell were alive today and looking for a sequel to Nineteen Eighty Four, I suspect he would have based it on the CSA.'

Calling for an overhaul of the formula on which absent parents' income was assessed and for an independent appeal system, he said absent fathers 'may dislike their first wives intensely, but by and large they want to do the best they can for their children'.

Mr Burt, an under-secretary, acknowledged that the formula was rigid - and had been designed that way. 'There is a danger that if too many costs are allowed into the formula as exempt income for assessment purposes, that the payment to the child will lose the priority it has.'

He assured MPs the agency was being kept under review, but challenged by Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, said it was not possible to say if any changes would be made or that the Government should be held to any timetable.

Peers return on 6 June, but MPs are not back until 14 June, a day later than planned to await the European election results. Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover and bitter critic of the Commons' long holidays, told the House on Wednesday: 'Instead of having an extra day to count the tinpot results from the Common Market, we should sit here until the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is passed.'