More MS news articles for March 2001

Disability rights to cover millions more workers

9 March 2001

The government yesterday promised the biggest extension of disability rights for 30 years, including legislation to protect people diagnosed with cancer and HIV from victimisation by their employers.

Margaret Hodge, the employment minister, said she would amend the Disability Discrimination Act to strengthen protection for 600,000 already in work and cover nearly 7m jobs previously excluded from the legislation.

They include police officers, firefighters and prison officers, but not the armed services, which are to remain exempt following a rearguard action by senior officers.

By 2004, small businesses will be obliged to make "reasonable adjustments" to their premises for the benefit of disabled employees and job applicants.

All firms will have to remove unreasonable obstacles for disabled customers. And the government will place a legal duty on public bodies to provide equal opportunities for disabled people.

Bert Massie, chairman of the disability rights commission, said it was "the most significant programme of reforms since disability rights legislation was first introduced 30 years ago ... Under these proposals, millions more disabled people will be protected against discrimination."

Ms Hodge said the changes - recommended by a taskforce in 1999 - would give disabled people "comprehensive and enforceable civil rights".

Enhanced protection for cancer sufferers was triggered by evidence that women were sacked, or selected for redundancy, while the disease was in remission and unlikely to recur. In one case, a woman who had recovered from a mastectomy was told to quit when she needed reconstructive surgery.

Ms Hodge said: "This is shameful. The taskforce found some employers discriminate against people diagnosed with cancer even though the cancer had no present effects, or was in remission."

Under the new law, people's employment rights would be protected from the moment they were diagnosed as likely to require substantial treatment for cancer or HIV. They would have the same rights as those available for those diagnosed with diabetes, epilepsy or arthritis.

Nick Partridge, chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust Lighthouse, said: "The announcement sends a clear message to employers that it is not acceptable to practise discrimination against people just because they have HIV."

There will also be more protection for people who are blind or partially sighted, but have had difficulty qualifying as disabled.

Ms Hodge said she made no compromises to win business support for the changes. "We have persuaded employers that nobody will be asked to do anything unaffordable or beyond common sense."

The average cost for smaller firms making their premises suitable for disabled employees would be £78 per person.

The CBI said the 2004 deadline for small firms was "appropriate and realistic".

Paul Whitehouse, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers, welcomed the extension of the act. "It will require us to establish clearly what the requirements are to be an effective police officer."