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Promotion Of Equal Opportunities In Relation To Employment By Licence Holder

Volume 178: debated on Friday 12 October 1990

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Lords amendment: No. 110, after clause 34, insert the following new clause—

(".—(1) Any Channel 3 licence or licence to provide Channel 4 or Channel 5 shall include conditions requiring the licence holder—

  • (a) to make arrangements for promoting, in relation to employment by him, equality of opportunity between men and women and between persons of different racial groups; and
  • (b) to review those arrangements from time to time.
  • (2) In subsection (1) "racial group" has the same meaning as in the Race Relations Act 1976.")

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment. I understand that with this we are discussing Lords amendments Nos. 124 and 310.

    I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Minister for your courtesy. The amendments were moving like a blur before my ears. I do not want to detain the House for long, but it is important to record the thanks of a great many people for the Minister's commitment on Report to deal with equal opportunities. In view of his doubts about that in Committee, it reflected well on the way in which he listened to the debate and considered it. Many people were extremely grateful to him.

    The Minister received a delegation from myself and others including Cherry Ehrlich, the BBC's equal opportunities officer, Christina Driver, the industrial officer of the Broadcasting and Entertainment Trades Alliance and Sophie Balhatchet of the Independent Programme Producers Association. He listened, as is his wont, very attentively. We put it to him that a generalised commitment to equal opportunities would not achieve what he had sought to give as a commitment on Report. We told him that we were seeking a definite statement that Channel 3 companies should have a policy on equal opportunities and that it should cover employment, promotion and other training issues. We said that in order to ensure that the policy was effective, we would at least need to monitor the progress of each company and for it to publish its progress in its annual report. The Bill requires the companies elsewhere to produce annual reports. That would not be an onerous responsibility and would ensure that there was some accountability to the public and the work force that progress was being made.

    The Minister heard our submission with great attentiveness and we went away believing that he was sympathetic to it. Therefore, it was disappointing to receive a letter from the Minister three or four weeks later saying that after further consideration and discussion with the shadow ITC he felt that this could best be achieved by a generalised statement in the Bill and guidelines from the ITC that would have non-statutory force. The shape of that argument is ironic when it is the reverse of the argument on impartiality that we had earlier in the evening. Perhaps such inconsistencies are a feature of these debates.

    I should be grateful if the Minister could put on the record why he feels that the very loose and generalised statement presented in Lords amendment No. 110 is satisfactory, and how the guidelines will achieve what I took to be his intention that each company should have an equal opportunities policy, monitor the progress of that policy and publish the results annually. That does not strike me as an expensive or arduous commitment; it would also promote the skills of women, members of the ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. That last group seems to have disappeared from the clause, although the original intention was to include them. All three groups, however, have many skills to offer independent broadcasting-—skills that are not being fully represented now.

    10.30 pm

    The Minister knows the statistics; they do not need to be laboured. Let me point out, however, that this is not simply an argument for equity and justice: if the skills that those groups have to offer are muted or unrealised, not only will the people concerned be disadvantaged or prejudiced against, but the rest of us will suffer too. We shall be the losers, because broadcasting will be less strong, skilful and various than it would otherwise be.

    I suspect that the Minister has considerable sympathy with the case that I am making. My point is that the Bill and the guidelines are unlikely, in their present form, to have the impact that we understood him to intend following the meeting in his office.

    I think that the key remark made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) came at the beginning of his speech: having been rather dubious about it, we have put a clause clearly on the face of the Bill. There is, of course, always the danger of being outbid—we cannot do everything that people want—but, having read the clause again while the hon. Gentleman was speaking, I feel that it represents a very real commitment. I am sorry if it did not emerge plainly enough at the meeting that what I envisaged would be couched in general terms, but I feel in any event that the best must not be the enemy of the good. This is, I think, a significant step forward.

    Licence holders—that is, holders of licences for Channels 3, 4 and 5, domestic satellite services and national radio services—will be required to make arrangements to promote equal opportunities for men and women and for people of different racial groups, and to review those arrangements from time to time. The ITC and the Radio Authority will enforce the provisions through the licence conditions that they impose under the new clauses. They may require the applicants to set out their equal opportunities policies, and successful applicants would then be subject to an equal opportunities condition in their licences. That condition would take account of any undertaking that the applicant had made, and—this is relevant to one of the hon. Gentleman's points—the IBA has undertaken that the licence conditions should include a requirement for the holder to review progress on equal opportunities in the company's annual report.

    I recognise the strength of the case for the involvement of disabled people. I discussed the matter with the Department of Employment. The Department's view was that—as it is reviewing discrimination against disabled people, and has recently issued a consultation document, "Employment and Training for People with Disabilities", and as that consultation period does not expire until the end of the year—it would not be right to pre-empt the outcome of the review by carrying out a specific review relating to broadcasting. We have no sinister motive for not including such a provision; we simply wanted to have regard to the fact that consultation is in progress.

    I hope that what I have said about the way in which the regulatory bodies propose to deal with the matter strengthens the case for the clause, and convinces the hon. Gentleman that we are making a genuine effort. Even if it falls short of the ideal, it is still not bad.

    I accept that there are encouraging elements in what the Minister said, although he will understand that, when it is a question of the difference between "may" and "should", there is the possibility of misinterpretation. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will do all that he can to encourage the ITC to fulfil those aspirations and to introduce an appropriate requirement as part of the licence application.

    People with disabilities will genuinely be disappointed with the Minister's remarks. They have few opportunities and are permanently discriminated against not just by the Government but in all walks of life, yet the Bills equal opportunities clause excludes them. It is not good enough for the Minister to argue that because the Department of Employment has initiated a consultation exercise and produced a document—although it is not a bad document—there is no need to make provision in the Bill for people with disabilities.

    Even if the Minister has not gone as far as we want, he has taken an important step forward by putting equal opportunities on the face of the Bill, and by placing a duty, albeit couched in gentle terms, on a particular group of employers. Still, to have missed the opportunity to represent the interests of people with disabilities will be gravely misinterpreted by them. I urge the Minister to think again, even at this late stage. That apart, I welcome the encouraging signs that he has given, and hope that he will pursue the point more fully.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to, [Some with Special Entry.]