Treasury fears surface over disabled plans: Ministers worried by costs to businesses

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The Independent Online
CONCERNS about the costs to business and industry of Government plans for disabled people have surfaced among Treasury ministers, even though the department was involved in drawing up the consultative proposals in July.

A paper proposing a right of access to employment, financial services, cinemas, restaurants, and other areas open to the public came in response to the controversy over the Government's decision to kill a private member's Bill to give equal rights to an estimated 6 million disabled people. The Government put the cost of compliance with the Bill at pounds 1bn a year in recurring costs and pounds 17bn in non-recurring costs. But disabled rights groups claimed the true figure was nearer pounds 5bn.

The document, pulled together by the Department of Social Security Disability Unit after discussions with all interested departments, puts the costs of the toned down plan at just pounds 17.2m. Employment proposals would total pounds 11.2m but would have a net cost of pounds 8m because of savings from abolishing the 3 per cent quota system, the paper says. It puts the cost to business of the right of access at pounds 9.2m, an average of about pounds 10 for each business affected.

Although most of the costs would fall on employers the Treasury appears to be concerned about the inflationary effects of the costs, which some sections of business argue could be higher. The Treasury confirmed yesterday that ministers were concerned about the 'burden on industry'. A spokesman said: 'I hope that industry itself will look at this thing closely. There could be enormous costs to industry.'

The development heralds a period of intense lobbying by the business community and disability rights groups who have until next month to respond to the consultation document.

The potential cost to employers is the chief concern of the Institute of Directors, which was instrumental in persuading the Government to kill off the Civil Rights Bill. The costs of the proposals in the consultation document are far less than those in the Bill but the institute remains opposed to busineses having to pay for them, arguing that any reforms should be financed by the Government.

The Confederation of British Industry was also concerned about costs but appeared to be more sympathetic. Robbie Gilbert, director of employment affairs, said: 'We need a new and effective framework in law in this area which opens up opportunities for people with disabilities so that they can make a fuller contribution in the workplace and as consumers.'

Bert Massie, director of Radar, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, accused the Treasury of briefing journalists and giving 'fantasy' figures of costs. He said: 'The Treasury is trying to paint us as radical extremists making unreasonable demands. We realise there must be a realistic timescale to introduce improvements to access. In fact the Government's watered down proposals are totally inadequate. They have a get-out clause which says access to buildings is allowed if there are physical barriers.'

The Department of Trade and Industry yesterday moved to allay the fears of partially deaf people that telephone loudness standards are to be relaxed in response to pressure from foreign manufacturers, writes Stephen Goodwin.

The statement denying the claim followed the release by Nigel Griffiths, Labour's consumer affairs spokesman, of leaked documents, which he said showed that discussions had taken place between the DTI and the British Standards Institute on cutting the loudness rating of telephone sets.