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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 7 February 2000


Assembly Member:Declaration of Interest

Assembly Business

Equality (Disability, etc) Bill: Second Stage

Financial Assistance for Political Parties Bill

Oral Answers to Questions

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure

Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

St Patrick’s Day

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.


Assembly Member:
Declaration of Interest

Mr Speaker:

At the last sitting of the Assembly, Mrs Robinson asked on a point of order whether Mr Benson should have declared an interest when tabling his question to the Minister of Education. I have taken advice on this matter from the Clerk to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and I believe that there are grounds for Mrs Robinson’s point of order. I am therefore referring the matter to the Committee.

As Mr Benson is in his place, he will have heard what I have just said. Mrs Robinson is not present, so I shall write to her about the matter.


Assembly Business


Motion made:

That Standing Orders 10(2)(b) and 10(6) be suspended for the sitting of the Assembly on Tuesday 8 February 2000. — [Mr Morrow]

Mr Speaker:

Members will note the motion under Standing Order 70, which is item two on the Order Paper. Business motions of this kind are not subject to amendment or debate. The purpose of this motion is to suspend the Standing Order relating to Adjournment debates and breaks on Tuesdays, which are from three o’clock until six o’clock. Should the motion, standing in the name of Rev Dr Ian Paisley and Mr P Robinson, in respect of exclusion receive sufficient support to be debated tomorrow without our changing Standing Orders, there would have to be a recess from three o’clock until six o’clock, despite there not being a subject for the Adjournment. This does not seem a particularly profitable way of proceeding, and it would not allow proper time for the debate. That is the basis on which this business motion stands.

Mr Morrow:

I moved the motion on the clear understanding that it is to facilitate debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That Standing Orders 10(2)(b) and 10(6) be suspended for the sitting of the Assembly on Tuesday 8 February 2000.


Equality (Disability, etc) Bill: Second Stage

Mr Speaker:

Assembly Bills that refer to reserved matters, as defined in schedule 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, require the consent of the Secretary of State before we may proceed under section 10 of the Act. It is my intention to seek approval for all such Bills after their introduction. In future, when a Bill contains provisions on reserved matters, its Second Stage appearance on the Order Paper will signify that the Secretary of State’s consent has been obtained.

The Bill that we are about to debate contains a number of such reserved matters. On 25 January I wrote to the Secretary of State seeking consent to proceed with consideration of the Bill. This was granted on 26 January. If the arrangements for the future are clear I will now proceed and call the Member in charge of the Bill to move the motion.

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):

Before addressing the important business before the Assembly I should like, on behalf of the Executive Committee and the Assembly, to express shock and anger at last night’s bombing in Irvinestown. This Assembly, along with the other institutions, was established as a result of a process designed to end violence on these islands, and last night’s act was a calculated attempt to place them in jeopardy.

I beg to move, on my own behalf and on behalf of the First Minister,

That the Second Stage of the Equality (Disability, etc) Bill (NIA 4/2000) be agreed.

The Second Stage provides an opportunity for a general debate on the Bill and for Members to vote on its principles. The Good Friday Agreement promised equality of opportunity for all, and this Bill is the first legislative step by the new Administration and the new Assembly towards delivering on that promise. It is my fervent hope that it will not be our last.

The agreement’s promise of equality has engendered high expectations. At last, with the institutions of the agreement up and running, we have the chance to deliver on this promise and to live up to those expectations. Many people in this Chamber, myself included, have complained about how the delay in establishing the institutions has hindered the equality agenda. I ask some of the people involved in that delay — and they know who they are — to reflect on the high price that we will all pay if the institutions designed to implement that agenda are suspended because of the outdated dogma of the organisations to which they may be related. Throughout our society there are those who are marginalised, those who cannot participate and those whose voices go unheard. These people will be sold short if this Administration is unable to get its work under way.

In any event, the Bill’s main purpose is to expand and strengthen the disability functions of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, and its provisions closely mirror those of the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 in Britain. It will ensure that disabled people in Northern Ireland have access to a disability rights enforcement body. To appreciate the significance of the Bill, we have to look back to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That Act gives disabled people real and important protections against discrimination. Nonetheless, it is flawed. Perhaps the greatest and most controversial flaw is that it did not establish a body to enforce the new rights that it conferred on the disabled. At that time the Fair Employment Commission could enforce fair employment law. The Equal Opportunities Commission could enforce sex-discrimination law. Later the Commission for Racial Equality was established to enforce race relations law. Yet no similar body was created to enforce the rights of the disabled.

Instead, the Act established the Northern Ireland Disability Council. However, the council was merely an advisory body; it had no real powers. Despite this, it did excellent work in raising our awareness of disability- related issues, and I would like to pay tribute to its members for their hard work and commitment to disability rights.

In October 1999 the Fair Employment Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Northern Ireland Disability Council were merged into one body: the Equality Commission. This served to highlight the inequity of the situation. The Equality Commission was able to give assistance to those complaining of sex or religious discrimination but was powerless to do anything for the disabled.

This Bill seeks to remedy that inequity. It is a measure of the commitment that this Administration attaches to the cause of the disabled that we placed it at the top of our recently announced legislative programme. Yet the groundwork for it has been well laid. Indeed, it represents the culmination of many years of hard work and campaigning by disabled people, their representative organisations, Northern Ireland MPs and Assembly Members.

The Bill, like the Disability Rights Commission Act, reflects proposals put forward by the UK Disability Rights Task Force on the role and function of a Disability Rights Commission. The Labour Government established the task force in December 1976 to advise on how comprehensively civil rights for disabled people could be achieved and how enforceable they could be.

Monica Wilson, chief executive of Disability Action, represented Northern Ireland’s interests on the task force, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank her for her valuable contribution to its work.

In March 1998 the task force put forward proposals on the role and functions of a Disability Rights Commission. These formed the basis of the White Paper ‘Promoting Disabled People’s Rights — Creating a Disability Rights Commission fit for the twenty-first century’, which was launched in July 1998. The White Paper made it clear that the Equality Commission should have powers similar to those of the proposed Disability Rights Commission in Great Britain.

Interested organisations in Northern Ireland commented on the White Paper’s proposals and had an opportunity to discuss them at a special consultation conference in Belfast in October 1998. At that conference there was widespread support for the principle of a commission to enforce disability rights.

This Bill represents the outcome of that process. It is all the more important when one considers that it is estimated that there are more than 200,000 disabled people in Northern Ireland. One in six adults in Northern Ireland has a disability. That represents 17%, compared to 14% in Great Britain.

The Bill makes provision for the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to assume a number of vital functions. First, it would oblige the commission to work to eliminate discrimination and promote equal opportunities for the disabled as well as to encourage good practice. This is crucial, given the low awareness of disability issues in Northern Ireland and the formidable problems faced by the disabled in their day-to-day lives here. Research by the Northern Ireland Disability Council shows that 50% of disabled people face difficulties in accessing services that the rest of us take for granted. Things that everybody should be able to do, such as going to the cinema, eating out, and going shopping, are difficult for them. Even more disturbing is that 78% of those who experience difficulties are offered no help.

Secondly, the Bill would allow the commission to help vindicate the rights of the disabled in practice by offering advice and support in taking cases and undertaking investigations. These new functions recognise basic realities. Disability discrimination law is too complex for many to understand, and litigation is often too expensive for many to afford.

10.45 am

Thirdly, the Bill would enable the commission to perform a number of functions that would be good for the disabled and good for those who employ them or provide them with services. It would allow the commission to provide information and advice to employers and service providers and to prepare statutory codes of practice providing practical guidance on how to comply with the law. It would also allow the commission to arrange independent conciliation between service providers and the disabled. Because the Bill is aimed simply at ensuring that the existing law is complied with, it imposes no regulatory burdens on business.

Fourthly, the Bill would oblige the Equality Commission to keep the Disability Discrimination Act under review. This is important, since we know that the Act has many shortcomings. These were identified by the Disability Rights Task Force in its second report ‘From Exclusion to Inclusion’. Already our junior Ministers have written to all Ministers in the Executive asking them to consider the task force recommendations and report back.

It is my hope that the Assembly will be able to take these recommendations forward. Indeed, I wonder if it is desirable for the Assembly to consider equality laws more generally. We now have one Equality Commission, yet we have four separate equality laws. It might be better for us to create a new, single equality Act covering all forms of discrimination, based as far as possible on the highest standards of protection. But that is a matter for another day.

Finally, in this Bill we have also taken the opportunity to include some miscellaneous clauses in relation to the powers of the Equality Commission. The first is to provide for the terms and conditions of appointment of additional commissioners appointed to carry out formal investigations; the second is to enable the Equality Commission’s annual reports to be made on a financial-year basis, in line with its accounts; and the third is to amend the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 to enable the Equality Commission to continue investigations initiated by the Fair Employment Agency under the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976. The first two clauses require the consent of the Secretary of State. That consent has been obtained. All three clauses are technical in nature, and none is controversial.

All parties in Northern Ireland are committed to strengthening disability rights. The Equality Commission supports the legislation, as do Disability Action and other voluntary bodies in this field. Our aim is to have this new legislation come into force in Northern Ireland on the same day as in Britain: 25 April 2000. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister has worked to give this Bill priority, as has the Executive. I would be grateful if the Assembly were to do likewise.

I ask the Assembly to approve this Second Stage of the Bill and to support the motion which will allow the Committee of the Centre to take the Committee Stage.

Ms Lewsley:

This is the first opportunity the House has had to consider the important issue of disability. I am conscious of the time, but I must tell the House that I will return to many of the issues I am touching on today.

The Good Friday Agreement had the foresight to affirm, in the human rights section,

"the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity."

The inclusion of the disability issue in the agreement was ground-breaking for Northern Ireland. For the first time it shifted the definition of disability away from being a health issue, which it is not, to being one of human rights and equality. It is disappointing that the medical definition of "disability" has not been replaced by something more acceptable. The challenge for this House in the future will be to ensure that when discussing policy and legislation relating to disability, Members look at things from a very different perspective than that applied by civil servants when they were taking decisions in the past.

I welcome the establishment of the Equality Commission. However, I am sure that the House will agree that, given the umbrella nature of the Commission, some safeguards will need to be put in place relating to the funding and structure of the new body, safeguards that will ensure that specific problems relating to disability are not lost or subsumed in the wider remit of the commission. Members must ensure that that will not happen.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is already on the statute book. However, for this excellent law to have real teeth in the future it will be essential to establish an enforcement commission in Northern Ireland. Without such enforcement it will not be possible to make serious inroads into the present levels of discrimination.

This House has much to do to empower and liberate disabled people in Northern Ireland. Members have a responsibility to ensure that people with disabilities are able to play as full a role as possible in society. It is incumbent on this House to lead by example. In addressing the needs of the disabled, Members must start by making Parliament Buildings much more accessible. We must remember that disability is not manifested just in people using wheelchairs. The vast majority of disabled people in Northern Ireland have a hidden disability. The time has come for this Building to be made more accessible, both inside and outside. Doorways, ramps, signage for the partially sighted, audio loops for those with hearing difficulties and provision for people with learning difficulties are issues which we can and must address. An audit of the Building has been carried out, but sadly it seems to have been buried somewhere. Why?

It is nearly two years since the Assembly was set up, and a person with a disability still cannot use the front door. Interpreters have been employed for Irish and Ulster-Scots, but there is no sign language interpreter. The issue of access includes not just physical access to the Building but access throughout the Building.

The Disability Discrimination Act remains a flawed piece of legislation. People with disabilities require full and comprehensive anti-discrimination measures, giving them full civil rights. The Assembly should state that this is its objective and should publish a timetable for the implementation of such a commitment.

Finally, Members should not forget that should the work of the House be suspended later this week, the effect on the disabled people of Northern Ireland will not be mentioned in the news headlines, but the impact of the suspension of the institutions will be immense. As the rest of the UK and Ireland moves ahead with the equality agenda, disabled people here will have nothing in place to assist them. This must not be allowed to happen. In the coming weeks, it is to be hoped, our hopes will overcome our fears so that we can set about underpinning the new beginning by enabling people to have full access to Parliament Buildings and the democratic process — access in the most liberal sense.

Mr Campbell:

There is no doubt that the Equality (Disability, etc) Bill addresses a great many of the issues which for many years have lain buried beneath equality legislation. Aspects of religious discrimination were addressed in the 1970s and 1980s — whether satisfactorily is a matter for another debate. The gender issue has also been addressed, and progress has been made in that area.

However, before the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 no serious attempt was made by society either in Northern Ireland or in the United Kingdom to address disability discrimination. There has been substantial progress since 1995. Greater awareness has been shown by employers, and there has been significant progress on aspects of access to public places. However, there is much, much more that can be done.

I welcome what the Deputy First Minister said about the numbers of people involved. Very often society thinks — as was the case in the 1970s and 1980s — that only a small minority of people are affected by disability. The fact is that in Northern Ireland one in every six adults has some form of disability.

It is a huge problem that is only beginning to be addressed, and this Bill will go some way towards doing that. I hope that the Committee of the Centre, in conjunction with Disability Action — I have talked to Monica Wilson of that group — and the other interest groups that are involved can address some of the issues that are referred to, albeit not in sufficient detail, in the Bill. If we are still here and get to the Committee Stage, I hope that we can bring back a Bill that everyone is able to accept.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

Does Mr Campbell agree that the issue of leading by example in respect of this Building, as referred to by Ms Lewsley, should be addressed? There has to be a more disability-friendly attitude towards access to Parliament Buildings. We should not put demands on other businesses throughout the Province without giving a lead ourselves. Many people would frown on any other approach.

Mr Campbell:

I agree entirely. Only in recent years have local authorities begun to make access for the disabled an important issue. If this Building, which is regarded as the premier public building in Northern Ireland, is inaccessible in any way to those with a disability, some people will say "We hear what you are saying, but what action are you taking in relation to Parliament Buildings?" We should look urgently at this matter — it should not have to await the deliberations on the Disability Bill.

Other disabled persons have said that inaccessibility in public places is still a problem. This matter has not seen the progress that it should have since the 1995 Act. Even over the last five years disabled persons have had restricted access to public buildings. Public buildings should be as freely accessible to the disabled as to others. I welcome the Bill. Even if we cannot debate it in full, I welcome its coming into effect in the near future.

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.

I welcome the Second Stage of the Equality (Disability, etc) Bill. It is imperative that the needs and the rights of the disabled be fully recognised. I, like other Members, am disappointed that this Building is still inaccessible to wheelchair users.

The Bill does not go far enough, but it will allow us to further the debate and put what we have discussed into practice. Unfortunately, the disabled do not have a strong voice. Often they have to rely on Members to speak for them. I have invited the Southern Forum for Disability to come to the Assembly on 13 March. I know that I should not be plugging this visit now, but I ask all Members to come and meet members of this group and hear what they have to say.

It is regrettable, given that equality is being placed with the Committee of the Centre — and its Chairman has talked about leading by example — that that Committee has not been able to get off the ground because of the inequalities that are practised in it. I find it hypocritical that the Chairman can say that he is leading by example, yet treating members of that Committee in a disparaging fashion.

The disability issue needs to be given more time in the Assembly. Debating this issue is one thing, but unless we put what we say into practice the Bill will not be worth the paper that it is written on.

Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs E Bell:

I endorse most of the comments that Members have made, especially those of the Deputy First Minister about Irvinestown. That attack was not just against the people of Fermanagh; it was against the right of every citizen to live in safety.

11.00 am

I formally welcome the Second Reading of this Bill, insofar as it is another belated step forward, as Colleagues have said, in eliminating discrimination against and improving the situation of people with disabilities.

The fact that the legislation is specifically designed to include such areas as employment and access to goods, facilities and premises means that a large section of the community will be supported by the law in their attempts to increase their active participation in public life. It will take much work, as the Deputy First Minister and other Members have said, on the part of the Government, the Equality Commission and, of course, employers and providers of services to ensure that this legislation is complied with by all. I hope that this will happen immediately.

As a temporary occupant of a wheelchair some years ago, I can say from first-hand experience that I could not go anywhere in my area — for example, to the shops — without someone to help me to open doors, and so on. [Interruption]

I am sorry, but I cannot hear what I am saying, never mind being heard.

I was made very aware of the shortage of practical support and advice. I hope that this legislation will remove such attitudes and perceptions. I will reserve more detailed comments until the Bill gets to Committee Stage. If the Committee of the Centre gets off the ground, I hope that it will be discussed there. I am not sure whether that will happen, but the matter should be dealt with urgently.

I welcome this legislation, which will consolidate good practice and good conduct towards all citizens, whatever their background or ability.

Ms McWilliams:

Before devolution, there was a discussion about merging the various equality commissions. My party’s argument was that that should not happen. It was our belief, and it remains our belief, that there should be a hierarchy of equality in Northern Ireland. It will probably still be the case that religious and political identity will top that hierarchy, and because of the activism of those involved with sex discrimination we may find that gender and race will come next; disability will come at the bottom of the ladder. With the merger of existing bodies into the Equality Commission, that is something that concerns us. Indeed, we will scrutinise this new Equality Commission to see that disability is given the treatment that it will have in Great Britain, that it will have its own commission, its own resources, its own secretariat and its own investigatory powers.

I welcome the legislation in that, for the first time, it allows the commission to undertake formal investigations. It is my belief that although people would have paid lip-service to the legislation, without that power they probably would not have done anything to enforce it. For me, it is not just about passing the legislation but also about monitoring, evaluating and enforcing it. There should also be penalties in place when people do not sign up to it. That is the way we can change not only people’s attitudes but also their behaviour towards those who are disabled.

I remain concerned about the Committee of the Centre and its current inability to function. I note that there is a proposal to refer the Bill to that Committee, but as it is currently not functioning I do not think we should have to refer it there if we want it passed as quickly as possible.

Those of us in the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee thought that it was the more appropriate Committee to which to refer this Bill. However, the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee would also be appropriate. I can understand that those who were trying to decide which Committee the Bill would be best placed with finally decided that since equality crossed all of those Departments —

Mr A Maginness:

I accept all the points the Member has made about the so-called hierarchy of concern in relation to various disadvantages in the community, but, given the importance of this Bill, does she agree that it would be a disaster for those who suffer from disability if the Committee of the Centre were unable to deal effectively with the legislation?

Ms McWilliams

That is the point I am trying to make. I am greatly concerned that that Committee will be unable to deal with the legislation. There may come a time when the matter has to be referred to another Committee that can deal with it more effectively. Perhaps we should propose that the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee take the Bill forward.

Those of us on other Committees will need to look at this matter very carefully. The Committee of the Centre does not have a representative from every party, though those of us in the smaller parties came together in order to facilitate representation on that Committee. The smaller parties need a mechanism for liaising about how other Committees could pick up aspects of this legislation. This is a matter of major concern. I am putting down a marker that if the Committee of the Centre is not functioning we need to take serious notice of that fact and find a more appropriate Committee to consider the legislation.

Disabled persons should not simply be defended —

Mr Speaker:


Ms McWilliams:

Their rights should be promoted. If we are not in a position to promote the rights of the disabled we will come in for severe criticism.

Mr Speaker:

It is open to the Assembly to make a different kind of referral at a later stage if it so chooses. This is covered in Standing Orders.

Mr Shannon:

The Committee of the Centre will meet on Wednesday at 2.00 pm, when there will be a full programme of business. We hope we get this chance. That is what the Committee is for.

I commend this Bill to the Assembly for a number of reasons. Disability affects everyone. Those of us who are in full possession of our faculties are nonetheless very conscious of those who are not. For this reason alone, the Bill is worthy of recommendation.

Our duty as elected representatives is to look after those in society who are less well off and those who need help, and today we have an opportunity to do that. People with disabilities have been ignored for years; the able-bodied have closed their eyes to them or turned their heads. However, some people have worked very hard to bring the disability issue to the attention of the public and their elected representatives, and they should be commended.

Not everyone is able-bodied or has full possession of his or her faculties. It is important, therefore, that elected representatives recognise the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. We want to improve the quality of life of the disabled. That is our goal and our responsibility.

One Member has said that one in every six adults has a disability. This should put the issue into perspective. Our duty is to do our best for these people, whether they are senior citizens or folk with mental, physical or learning disabilities. It is important that every opportunity be afforded to them all.

One thing which concerns me is that the care which has been available over the last 10 years is not as good or extensive as it should have been, and the number of beds in residential homes has decreased. Why? Is it because the Government have been hoping that more people will volunteer to look after those who are less well off?

A number of my friends have children with Down’s syndrome. They do not regard their children as having a disability; they look on them as being a special gift. Perhaps we should be looking at this issue in that way. Those who have this disability and have a real need for help from society should be given the opportunity.

Another big issue which is raised in our advice centre is that of public accessibility, whether of this Building or of other public buildings such as council offices. Ards Borough Council installed a lift as part of its last scheme for the town hall. This made the building disability-friendly, and people who are wheelchair-bound can have access to all its facilities. That is our council’s policy, and I hope that many other councils will adopt a similar one.

The third issue that I would like to highlight relates to those who are in need of benefits. Over the years they have been discriminated against in many ways. Through our advice centre we have had the opportunity to hear some of their problems — the problems of people who are in need of benefits and who are not getting all they are entitled to. We want to highlight that issue. The week before last, we heard of a lady who had a disabled brother and who, for 31 years of his life, got no financial assistance whatsoever. There is something seriously wrong there, and we must address such issues. I commend this to Members for their consideration, and I look forward to meeting them on Wednesday and discussing these issues.

Dr Hendron:

I support Prof McWilliams’s point that this Bill should have been referred to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 came about largely through embarrassment and public pressure on the Conservative Government. For years prior to that, Private Members’ Bills were brought before the House of Commons and were either directly opposed by the Government or not given the time or space for discussion.

I very much welcome this Bill. For the first time disabled people have the power of investigation, and the law is on their side. Like the Deputy First Minister, I congratulate Mrs Wilson, who has led this campaign for many years. My Committee, and I am sure every Member in the Assembly, will be very carefully monitoring how the legislation is acted upon on behalf of those who are disabled.

Junior Minister (Office of First and Deputy First Ministers) (Mr Nesbitt):

Mr Initial Presiding Officer —

Several Members:

It is Mr Speaker.

Mr Nesbitt:

My apologies, Mr Speaker. If that is my only wrong utterance I will be most gratified. There are often errors of a much more substantial nature.

Anyhow, Mr Speaker, I wish to endorse what the Deputy First Minister stated — that we view this Bill as being of such importance that it has been placed at the top of the legislative programme. I wish to put on record my thanks to Monica Wilson for her contribution. I also note that the Chairman of the Committee of the Centre looks forward to engaging with Monica Wilson in deliberation on the Bill at the Committee Stage.

The whole thrust of the Bill is to add powers to the Equality Commission. I was struck by Ms Lewsley’s comment that it was not so much to do with health as with rights. Indeed, there was a thread running through the discussion as to whether this was a health issue. Some Members said that it should be for the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee as distinct from the Committee of the Centre.

11.15 am

However, that matter will be deliberated by the Committee of the Centre. The main aim of the Bill is to create a body to which people in Northern Ireland can turn for assistance. Every organisation or entity in Northern Ireland must provide facilities for the disabled. The Committee Chairman, Mr Campbell, said that people hearing our words will be asking what we are doing about Parliament Buildings.

Ms Lewsley raised the question of funding, which is always uppermost in many minds. We are in consultation with the Department of Finance and Personnel about this. The Member is right in wanting the disabled to be liberated.

The Chairman of the Committee of the Centre pointed to the fact that one in six people is disabled. Another Member said that not all disabled people have a wheelchair. We must be very conscious of that. Patricia Lewsley said that the vast majority have a hidden disability, which is also something that we must address. She asked about the timetable too. We hope that the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland will assume responsibility for additional disability rights at the same time as the Disability Rights Commission.

Questions were also asked about this Buildings. One Member said that you cannot even get through the front door easily. The Assembly Commission is currently addressing that matter. It is to be hoped that there will soon be much easier access for the disabled to this Building.

Ms McWilliams raised the issue of funding. She said

"religious and political identity will top that hierarchy",

and added that disability will come at the bottom. I assure Members that disability will not be at the bottom of the agenda. The Deputy First Minister said that the fact that this is the first item for the Assembly means that it is at the top of the agenda.

At workshops on inequality I was heartened to hear how people were bringing matters to do with inequality and disability to the fore. I note Members’ concerns about bringing all the agencies under one umbrella — the Equality Commission. I also note Prof McWilliams’s concern that the remits of the former commissions would be subsumed under the greater body. I assure her that that will not be the case.

I have covered most of the comments that were made. Any that I have not addressed I will determine from Hansard and address them in detail later.

All of this applies because many questions were raised about the Assembly Building. Every public utility and every organisation must make provision for the disabled, so the Bill will apply to the Assembly Building. There is therefore responsibility on us as well as on everyone else. That is why I reiterate what Mr Campbell said: words from this Building are not enough; we must have action on disability.

I want to restate the Assembly’s commitment to disabled people in Northern Ireland. We wish to ensure that they have access to a disability rights enforcement body no later than their peers in the rest of the United Kingdom. Enforcing disability rights is another step towards achieving equality of opportunity. That goes to the heart of the Belfast Agreement, which was not just for the able-bodied.

The Bill will reinforce the Disability Discrimination Act by providing mechanisms for rights to be enforced more effectively. It will put the enforcement of disability rights on a par with the enforcement of rights in the other main areas of anti-discrimination law: fair employment, gender and race. There will be equality — no hierarchy of equality but equality of opportunity for all.

I support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Equality (Disability, etc) Bill (NIA 4/2000) be agreed.


That the Equality (Disability, etc) Bill stand referred to the Committee of the Centre and that, for this purpose, Standing Order 31 be construed as referring to the Committee of the Centre. — [Dr McDonnell]