Committee (6th Day)
Relevant documents: 9th and 10th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Clause 51 : Sunset and review provisions
26EA: Clause 51, page 44, line 36, at end insert—
“(2A) Prior to the subordinate legislation coming into force, the review of the effectiveness of the legislation as set out in subsection (2)(a) will receive the views of businesses, business organisations, civic organisations and trade unions, and any such organisations which the person considers appropriate.”
My Lords, I hope it will be thought appropriate that before discussing the first amendment, we should take note of the resignation announced today of the Minister formerly in charge of this Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Marland. Most people would agree that the noble Lord added a certain amount of colour and indeed, candour when he was on the Front Bench, and I thank him for his friendliness and assistance in the short period we worked together on this Bill. We wish him well in his continuing role as trade ambassador.
Although he is not in his place, I should also like to welcome the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, to his new brief. I hope that he will enjoy his role on this Bill and, more generally, in relation to the department. We are, as it happens, near neighbours in Buckinghamshire. We sing tenor together in the parliamentary choir, and we also deal with the DCMS brief, although I am not sure whether he is continuing with that. We have plenty of reasons for wanting to keep in harmony and to support each other over the fraught times that we will undoubtedly face over this Bill and on other matters. If he is continuing with the DCMS brief, we will have only a short pause after today because we will be facing each other at the Dispatch Box on the Leveson report. It will not have escaped notice that the noble Viscount is the third person to occupy the position of Minister at BIS this Session, and I hope that he has a tenure more akin to that of his predecessor but one, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, than the noble Lord, Lord Marland, and that we will get though the remaining stages of this legislation without further changes.
Going through Hansard for the first four Committee days I counted 10 issues on which the noble Lord, the former Minister, suggested that a meeting or further discussion with officials might resolve a point raised in debate. Clearly little was going to happen during the Recess, but time moves on and I hope that the change in leadership of the Bill will not derail discussions which have been promised. Therefore, I wonder whether, in the spirit of working together on the Bill and to ensure that we have a successful resolution of the remaining stages, we can have an early meeting of the respective Bill teams. I should be grateful if the Minister will consider that.
Moving on to the amendment, in December 2010, the Government published a policy document entitled Reducing Regulation Made Simple in which they announced their intention that all new domestic legislation imposing a regulatory burden on businesses or civil society organisations would be required to include a review clause and a sunset clause. This reflected a commitment made in the coalition agreement to,
“impose sunset clauses on regulations and regulators to ensure that the need for each regulation is regularly reviewed”.
In March 2011, they announced the publication of Sunsetting Regulations: Guidance, intended to,
“assist Departments in implementing the Government’s commitment to introduce sunset clauses in new regulations”.
The guidance covers the application of sunsetting and reviewing to new domestic regulations that impose burdens on business or civil society, including legislation implementing international regulatory obligations.
The aim of this policy is to remove regulatory burdens on businesses and civil society by ensuring that regulations are: subject to regular review, to determine whether the policy objectives that led to the introduction of the regulations still apply and whether regulation is still necessary in achieving those objectives; and that regulations which are unnecessary or burdensome are removed. We agree with that approach. However, we think that it should go further.
Amendment 26EA deals with the need for stakeholders to be given a statutory role. For example, the British Retail Consortium stated in its written submission to the Committee on the Bill in another place:
“We welcome the intention of the introduction of sunset clauses and other deregulatory measures in the Bill ... However, we are not optimistic that these will all deliver their potential, given our experience with the Red Tape Challenge and One in, One out. We need to see genuine sunset reviews when the term is up, with a formal role for stakeholders”.—[Official Report, Commons, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill Committee, 12/7/12; col. 562.]
Businesses and other relevant stakeholders should surely be able to shape the Government’s thinking on business policy in general and sunset provisions in particular. It is of little help to businesses and the wider economy if somebody in Whitehall decides, unilaterally and without consultation, to apply sunset provisions when businesses or other groups might consider them to be successful or not in need of termination. We need to ensure that business policy is not dictated to businesses, but is produced in full consultation with them. In particular, we need to ensure that SMEs are heard: after all, in many respects, large organisations have the ear of the Government because they can employ public relations or lobby organisations.
It may well be argued that this amendment is unnecessary, as Ministers responsible for legislation and regulation will get the views of businesses, civic leaders and so on continuously. But it is interesting that paragraph 39 of the sunsetting guidance states:
“In carrying out reviews, departments will need to consider how best to gather information and views from businesses, civil society organisations, and others affected by the regulation”.
It goes on to note that, “a formal consultation may”— I emphasise “may”—
“form a valuable part of this process”.
Surely, this should be a duty on government and not left as a question of,
“how best to gather information and views from businesses, civil society … and others”.
It may well be appropriate for a proportionate approach to be adopted but certain minimum standards should certainly be present. We think it is important for businesses, business organisations, trade unions and other stakeholders to be assured that they will be consulted on sunsetting proposals. Business policymaking together, between the Government and relevant stakeholders, will always make for better legislation, regulation and policy.
I shall also speak briefly to Amendment 26EB. Like the other amendment to which I have just spoken, this is pro-business. In my role as a shadow Minister, I speak with businesses regularly and one common thing that businesses say is that, more than anything else, they require certainty from government. Provide businesses with a stable and certain policy environment in which government decisions are made—in consultation, obviously, with businesses and other stakeholders—adhered to and announced with sufficient time for businesses to plan and adapt, and businesses will have the ingenuity, entrepreneurial skill and flair to do their bit to boost the economy, create growth and provide employment opportunities.
Conversely, if there is an uncertain environment in which businesses are unsure of the general policy direction of the Government—if the Government lack a “compelling vision” for the economy, for instance, as the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills recently stated—and there are ad hoc, knee-jerk and ill thought-through policies announced without due consultation with businesses or sufficient time for them to adapt, investment and confidence will undoubtedly plummet.
In a nutshell, the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that changes to non-urgent regulations, particularly the sunset provisions outlined in the clause, come into force or end their period in force on one of only two dates in a year. We have chosen 6 April and 1 October because these dates are already familiar to businesses from the regulatory environment.
The amendment is needed because the Government are not complying with their own principles. I gather that the April 2011 statement on new regulation did not give three months’ notice for any changes to regulations and that it even included changes which had occurred three months previously. As I understand it, the September 2011 statement of new regulation was backward-looking, hardly giving business time to prepare and providing no prior warning of regulation changes. There was hardly any progress with the April 2012 statement of new regulation, which again included no changes to regulations three months prior to their coming into effect but included some changes that had occurred four months earlier. This means that businesses do not have adequate time to plan, adapt and make use of what is coming along. Statutory muscle is needed here; that is the purpose behind this amendment.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, for his generous and thoughtful opening remarks about colleagues. If I may take the recently appointed Minister’s opinions before the noble Lord knows of them, I am absolutely certain that, knowing his style, he will be very keen to continue meetings and dialogue with all interested Members of your Lordships’ House. I am sure that that will be uppermost in his mind as all Members of this House seek to improve legislation as we go forward.
Turning to the noble Lord’s amendment, I say from the outset that the Government are fully committed to the principle of engagement with stakeholders as part of a statutory review, as set out in the published sunsetting guidance. Reviews should draw on a range of evidence, including from those who are being regulated, the regulators, and those affected. It is already the case that the Minister responsible for the review is, under administrative law, obliged to consider any submissions made to him or her in relation to the review. In the view of the Government, a formal statutory requirement to receive views as proposed in the amendment would not change that position but would risk introducing additional and unnecessary administrative burdens.
For practical reasons, there needs to be sufficient flexibility for departments in deciding how to carry out the review, what evidence to use, and how to engage with those affected by the regulation. That could be inhibited if an additional statutory requirement were introduced. Effective engagement with stakeholders as part of the review can be delivered without additional statutory prescription, in a way that allows for an approach tailored to the circumstances of each review.
The Government are fully committed to the principle of common commencement dates for new domestic regulation affecting business. Where the regulation comes into effect on a common commencement date, the sunset date will, in accordance with the Government’s policy on sunsetting, also fall on a common commencement date. In the Government’s view, there is no need to prescribe this in legislation, as proposed in the amendment. Indeed, in some cases, there may be good reasons for temporary legislation to cease to have effect on a date other than 6 April or 1 October. That would be prevented by the amendment. The Government do not believe that there is a need to recast the statement of new regulation as a formal statutory requirement. There is also a risk that this would act as an unwelcome constraint, and make the statement less responsive to developing needs and priorities.
The most recent statement was published on 17 December, a full three months in advance of the April 2013 common commencement date. It provides a comprehensive summary of all the regulations affecting business that are to come into force in the first half of 2013. Regulations that will cease to have effect as a result of a sunset provision will be included in future statements.
The Government are a deregulatory government. Over the past two years, the Government have reduced the annual burden of domestic regulation on business by more than £800 million. By June 2013, a further reduction to more than £900 million is expected.
Based on the assurances that I have provided concerning the Government’s policy on the use of sunset and review provisions and related matters, I would be most grateful if the noble Lord would consider withdrawing his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comments. I note in respect of the first amendment that, while professing that the Government are fully committed to engagement, he still adheres to the idea that somehow by keeping flexibility in whether departments are required to carry out consultation the door is left open to maintaining a lesser standard than is required by the aspirations that he has expressed. We will need to keep this under review. Although I take the point that including a more formal structure for when regulatory statements start and stop might make it more difficult, there is still genuine feeling among businesses that it would be better if the Government would think more closely about the impact of how regulations apply and are started and stopped. We may need to come back to that, but, given what the Minister has said, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 26EA withdrawn.
Amendment 26EB not moved.
Clause 51 agreed.
Clause 52: Listed buildings in England: agreements and orders granting listed building consent
26F: Clause 52, page 47, leave out lines 25 and 26 and insert—
“( ) providing for any of the following, as they apply for the purposes of provisions mentioned in paragraph (f), to apply with any modifications consequential on provision made under that paragraph—(i) sections 30 to 37;(ii) sections 62 and 63;(iii) Parts 3 and 4;(iv) Schedule 3.”
My Lords, government Amendment 26F addresses a recommendation made by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in its report published on 15 November last year.
The committee recommended that the scope of the power in new Section 26B(2)(g) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, which is inserted by Clause 52, should be narrowed. This power enables the Secretary of State to modify any provision of the 1990 Act as it applies in relation to heritage partnership agreements.
Heritage partnership agreements are voluntary agreements between owners and local planning authorities designed to help them to manage listed buildings more effectively and reduce the need for individual consent applications for minor or repetitive works. In response to the committee’s recommendation, Amendment 26F narrows the scope of this power to focus on specific provisions and parts of the 1990 Act which will need to be applied, as modified, in relation to heritage partnership agreements.
Heritage partnership agreements are voluntary agreements between owners and local planning authorities designed to help them manage listed buildings more effectively and reduce the need for individual consent applications for minor or repetitive works. In response to the committee’s recommendation, Amendment 26F narrows the scope of this power to focus on specific provisions and parts of the 1990 Act which will need to be applied, as modified, in relation to heritage partnership agreements.
While on the subject of heritage partnership agreements, I should like to place on record the Government’s response to concerns expressed at Second Reading by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, about the application of Section 16(2) of the 1990 Act. Section 16(2) ensures that, in considering applications for listed building consent, special regard must be given to the desirability of preserving the listed building and its setting. Under new Section 26B(2)(f), the Secretary of State has a power to apply or reproduce any provision of Sections 10 to 26 and 28 of the 1990 Act, including Section 16(2), for the purposes of heritage partnership agreements.
I therefore assure noble Lords that we fully intend to reproduce Section 16(2) in the regulations we will be making in relation to heritage partnership agreements. We also undertake to consult on those regulations before they are made. I very much hope that this will reassure the noble Baroness about the points she made at Second Reading. For those reasons, I hope that noble Lords will be in a position to support Amendment 26F. I beg to move.
My Lords, at this stage, I would have expected—and the Committee might have welcomed—my noble friend Lady Andrews to speak to us. She has unparalleled expertise in this area, being chair of the relevant body, and a great deal of experience and knowledge. As the Minister mentioned, she spoke about these issues at Second Reading. Unfortunately, she is struck down with a lurgy. A couple of hours ago, I conversed with her—rather, I spoke and she grunted at the other end of a phone—and I was able to get some assistance in what we might say to the Committee in response to the amendments put forward today.
In relation to this amendment, my noble friend was very concerned that the recommendation of the Delegated Powers Committee should be enacted and I am happy to confirm that I will be able to say to her that that appears to have happened. The recommendation made was quite firm; namely, it considered new Section 26B(2)(g) to be inappropriate. The proposal now put forward seems to satisfy that requirement.
I am also very grateful to the Minister for reading out a section from a letter exchange with my noble friend Lady Andrews which gives the context for how those regulations as regards the heritage partnerships will be applied. I will be able to report to her that they have been indicated as she requested.
Amendment 26F agreed.
Clause 52, as amended, agreed.
Schedule 16 agreed.
Clause 53 : Listed buildings in England: certificates of lawfulness
26G: Clause 53, page 52, line 14, leave out “the application for” and insert “issue of”
My Lords, first, I am sorry to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, is indisposed. I very much hope that she will make a speedy recovery because there will be continuing amendments to which I would like to speak and which would involve the noble Baroness. Government Amendments 26G and 26H improve the operation of certificates of lawfulness of proposed works to listed buildings. This again was a matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, at Second Reading. These amendments reflect the Government’s positive response. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Marland and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, have been in correspondence about these matters.
The certificates of lawfulness will provide a simple, light-touch mechanism for local planning authorities to confirm that listed building consent is not required in cases where proposed works would have no impact on the building’s special interest. As currently drafted, certificates could potentially last for ever but, at the same time, they do not offer the owner of the listed building absolute certainty that the works are lawful. This is not the result that the Government intended, which is why we have tabled Amendments 26G and 26H. These amendments provide that certificates last for a period of 10 years, during which time the lawfulness of any works for which a certificate is in force will be conclusively presumed. A new certificate may be applied for at the end of the 10-year period if required and, if the application is for a new certificate on effectively the same terms as an existing certificate, we envisage there being a light-touch reapplication process.
Amendments 26G and 26H will ensure both certainty for owners of listed buildings and flexibility to respond to changes over time in understanding about heritage significance. Amendments 26J, 26K and 26L make minor and technical amendments to Clause 53. They correct an anomaly in the current drafting by providing that the Secretary of State’s powers to prescribe the procedure for appeals in connection with certificates of lawfulness are exercisable by regulations rather than order. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall be brief about this. My notes from the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, confirm that the two issues raised here are in accordance with those requested by English Heritage. The change from an indefinite period to 10 years, and the change to ensure that the certificates are lawful, will help considerably in trying to manage the properties with which the body is concerned. The changes allow a long enough period to be useful to the owner but will obviously reflect the fact that our views of heritage and our attitudes to it change over time and that, therefore, after about a 10-year period, it is appropriate for there to be a new application.
The noble Baroness also wanted a number of points to be made in relation to an exchange of letters that I mentioned in the earlier discussion, and I am happy that they have been mentioned here.
Amendment 26G agreed.
Amendments 26H to 26L
26H: Clause 53, page 52, leave out lines 15 to 18 and insert—
“( ) Works for which a certificate is issued under this section are to be conclusively presumed to be lawful, provided that—
(a) they are carried out within 10 years beginning with the date of issue of the certificate, and(b) the certificate is not revoked under section 26I.”
26J: Clause 53, page 53, line 27, leave out “by an order”
26K: Clause 53, page 53, line 34, leave out “by an order made by the Secretary of State”
26L: Clause 53, page 53, line 36, leave out “by such an order”
Amendments 26H to 26L agreed.
Clause 53, as amended, agreed.
Clauses 54 and 55 agreed.
Schedule 17 : Heritage planning regulation
26M: Schedule 17, page 239, line 38, at end insert—
“ In section 108 (compensation for refusal or conditional grant of planning permission formerly granted by order) after subsection (3E) insert—
“(3F) This section does not apply to the extent that the development referred to in subsection (1)(b) would, while permitted by a development order, have required conservation area consent under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.””
My Lords, government Amendments 26M and 26N make minor and technical changes to Schedule 17 to the Bill. Amendment 26M relates to the policy given effect in the Bill to abolish conservation area consent. At the moment, the demolition of a building, subject to certain conditions, is a permitted development right under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995. In order to implement the policy to abolish conservation area consent and instead require planning permission, we will have to amend this permitted development right so that the demolition of certain unlisted buildings in a conservation area will require planning permission.
However, the withdrawal of a permitted development right can in certain circumstances trigger a right to compensation under Section 108 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The Government’s view is that compensation for withdrawal of the permitted development right should not apply in these circumstances, as owners would have previously needed to obtain conservation area consent and so, in that sense, did not benefit from the permitted development right.
To prevent compensation being claimed in these circumstances, Amendment 26M amends the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to exclude development that would have required conservation area consent from the compensation provisions. I hope that noble Lords will support that amendment.
Amendment 26N ensures that all the heritage provisions in the Bill will be capable of applying to the Isles of Scilly as if they were a separate county. While the Bill will apply to the Isles of Scilly as part of England, we also need to ensure that all the heritage provisions will be able to apply to the isles as if they were a separate county, as is the case with existing planning legislation. I beg to move.
Amendment 26M agreed.
26N: Schedule 17, page 242, line 36, at end insert—
“ In section 92(2)(b) (application to Isles of Scilly), after “Schedules 1, 2” insert “, 2A”.”
Amendment 26N agreed.
26P: Schedule 17, page 242, line 37, leave out paragraph 16 and insert—
“ In section 93(5) (orders subject to affirmative procedure), after “section” insert “26C,”.”
My Lords, government Amendment 26P changes the procedure for making a national class consent order. Class consent orders will grant listed building consent for certain categories of work or buildings where the extent of the building’s special interest is well understood, without any need to make an application. The Secretary of State will have the power to make national class consent orders that will apply across England. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee recommended that this power should be subject to the affirmative rather than the negative procedure. Amendment 26P gives effect to this recommendation. It will apply the affirmative resolution procedure and ensure that national class consent orders will be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.
Perhaps I may respond to the concerns raised at Second Reading by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, about the scope of national class consent orders. It is our expectation that national class consent orders will be used to describe specific works carried out by specific organisations in specific locations—for example, works to listed structures by the Canal & River Trust for the functioning of a canal. The Government do not envisage that a more generic national class consent will apply to broad categories of work across the board. We recognise the difficulties of identifying wider categories of work that could safely be carried out across the wide variety of listed buildings without causing some unintended damaging consequence. The provisions already contain the safeguard that requires the Secretary of State to consult English Heritage before making a national class consent order. Amendment 26P will provide additional assurance about the use of such orders.
Perhaps I may also address concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, that the minimum annual review period for local class consent orders might prove so onerous that it would inhibit their use. The requirements in the Bill are broadly equivalent to those in force for local development orders, and there is no evidence to suggest that an annual review will be burdensome. The form of review will be prescribed by regulations. We intend to make the review a light-touch but important way of ensuring transparency and accountability. We will consult on the regulations before they are made. I hope that the noble Baroness, in her absence, and noble Lords will be reassured. I beg to move.
My Lords, we are pleased with the amendment and grateful to the Minister for his contextual words. The recommendation brings into play a recommendation from the Delegated Powers Committee. It is important because these national class consent orders were very broad. Although the committee recognised that there was a case for using secondary legislation for this, it was concerned that it needed a slightly higher level of consent. The amendment also fits in with the feelings of English Heritage on the matter, so we are in a good place and it was helpful to have the wider context laid out.
In his speech the Minister mentioned local class consent orders, which are not touched on in the amendment. Here we will register our disappointment that the proposal is not to revise or review the regularity of reporting, which will remain annual.
The Minister says that the request would be a light touch, but he did not give us much explanation of what that was. Can he explain in a bit more detail what “light touch” means? Will it perhaps be to report only if there are changes, which need to be brought to the attention of the authorities? Is it going to be a tick-box exercise? Is it too radical a suggestion to make that it will be electronic? I do not necessarily need a response today, but if he could write to me I could pass it on quickly to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and that would be sufficient.
Amendment 26P agreed.
Schedule 17, as amended, agreed.
Clause 56 : Commission for Equality and Human Rights
27: Clause 56, page 54, line 40, leave out paragraph (a)
My Lords, I must declare an interest, having been a founding commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and its predecessor, the Disability Rights Commission.
The Government say that the objective of their commission reforms is to focus on the areas where it can add value because of its unique role and functions. I fear that the Government have yet to articulate what they consider this unique role and functions are and the basis for concluding that. Further, I fear that they have failed to explain why a commission with fewer powers and tools at its disposal will be more effective than one with the role and powers bestowed upon it by Parliament only six years ago. Today we are being asked to debate the commission’s role without clarity as to what the Government believe its functions to be. I hope that the Minister can explain this further to allay our concerns.
The Government have described Section 3 as a mission statement and have argued that its breadth has hindered rather than helped the organisation to define its purpose. We must assume from this that the aim of repealing Section 3 is to leave the commission with a narrower and more manageable role. A narrower role may be rightly achieved in two ways—by reducing the scope and issues with which the commission might engage or by reducing the scope of opportunities for the commission to engage with those issues. I see no evidence that the repeal of Section 3 would help to achieve the former.
Section 3 is to all intents and purposes an extrapolation of the duties in Sections 8, 9 and 10 of the Act, relating to equality, human rights and good relations. It plays an important role in binding and focusing the commission’s various duties, but it does not enlarge the canvas on which the commission is to operate. If the Government believe otherwise, I would be very interested to know from the Minister with which equality and human rights issues the commission would no longer be expected to engage.
From Section 3 it is also clear that Parliament did not foresee the task of achieving this vision as one for the commission alone. It envisaged the commission using its powers to provide leadership and to motivate others. The capacity of the commission to identify and agree priorities rests on internal leadership and external expectations, not on the law. So it seems more likely that alongside the wider legislative and non-legislative reforms, the repeal of Section 3 will concern the question of what the commission is empowered to do about equality and human rights. I wholly accept that the commission should improve its strategic focus, but it does not follow that it will be more effective by having fewer tools at its disposal. As Abraham Maslow said, if the only tool you have is a hammer you will see every problem as a nail.
The proposals before us are not simply legislative tidying. Rather, they sit alongside a range of other reforms that would fundamentally change what the commission is able to do. Already, the Government have taken away the commission’s helpline and ceased funding it to provide grants and to arrange conciliation. They have said they do not believe that the commission should provide guidance on the law to dutyholders because its promotional role prevents it doing so impartially.
The Bill proposes to change the frequency of the commission’s reporting on the state of equality and human rights from every three years to every five. It proposes to remove its good-relations duty—the only power that enables it to engage directly in relations between citizens. Separately, the Government have launched a review of the public sector equality duty. The views of the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary on the Human Rights Act are well known.
We did not wish to create an enforcement factory in 2006, and I would guess that we do not wish to do so now, especially in a Bill to reduce the regulatory burdens on business. However, there is a risk that this is precisely what this package of reforms, including the repeal of Section 3, will result in.
In 2003, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its report on the case for a human rights commission, recommended:
“The commission we propose should not be seen as another inspectorate, advisory body, regulatory authority or enforcement agency. Nor should it be a body with an adversarial or litigious approach to its mission”.
Section 3 embodies this idea, placing the emphasis on promotion by requiring the commission to discharge its functions in a way that encourages and supports change—something of which I am very much in favour.
This approach also marked the convergence of thinking from the social model of disability, the Macpherson inquiry into the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence—today’s headlines in the Daily Mail are a potent reminder of its continuing relevance—and the concept behind the Human Rights Act: namely, that if as a society we wish to hold these values, we have to take proactive steps to make them a reality. It confirms the function of the organisation as an agent of social change, empowered to work with others and not tasked simply with answering complaints from those who feel that their rights have been violated—normally the most articulate. As Conservative MP James Brokenshire said in a debate in the other place, one function of the commission is to try to stop litigation and to encourage a culture in which there is not always a need for a litigious approach. I recall that this was one of the DRC’s most effective ways of working. It resulted in a seismic shift away from discriminatory practice towards disabled people, making it less necessary to go down the expensive litigious route.
The EHRC’s more celebrated initiatives derive from its ability to act beyond legal enforcement and to make recommendations on how society should take forward equality and human rights—for example, in its inquiries into the human rights of elderly people receiving care in their own homes, into disability healthcare and into the exploitation of workers in the meat-processing sector. In each case, the commission has identified the problem, investigated it thoroughly, convened the relevant parties to explore what needs to be done and made recommendations for policy and legislative reform.
Uncovering scandals in society that we would not otherwise know about and need to put right is the hallmark of a modern commission. Do the Government view such activity as campaigning? Is it not right that the commission should support progressive legal cases such as that of Sharon Coleman, which secured protection from discrimination for 6 million carers in the UK? Is the Minister suggesting that the commission should not have a role as an adviser to Parliament on equality and human rights implications of public policy and legislation? Should the commission not draw our attention to rights, risks, violations, discrimination or inequality, or propose to us how these might be remedied?
How do we imagine the commission will perform its role as the independent mechanism required by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, promoting, protecting and monitoring implementation of the convention, if it cannot recommend policy and legislative reform? I look forward to the Minister’s response to all these questions.
The fundamental distinction between a campaigning organisation and the proper role of a body such as the commission is that the latter must act consistently within its statutory authority as mandated by Parliament and in the public interest. Section 3 of the Equality Act exemplifies the values which made me a keen supporter of the commission, and I felt that it was the right time for the DRC to be part of a wider, united enterprise. Those values lie at the heart of what others, too, respect it for.
In their summary of responses to the consultation on reform of the commission, the Government noted:
“The majority of respondents were opposed to repeal and were concerned about losing the guiding principles and values set out in the general duty, which had been debated in Parliament during the passage of the Equality Act 2006”.
In a nutshell, Section 3 says to us, “We are all in this together”. By bringing together equality and human rights, it departed from the idea of people being defined only by their differences—their gender, disability, age or race, for example—to that of people being defined by their common humanity. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights noted, Section 3 echoes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states clearly that,
“recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
The inclusion of dignity in the commission’s general duty provides the glue to bind together anti-discrimination and human rights. This is not about equality as sameness and uniformity, but the pursuit of dignity and substantive freedom for each and every individual based on recognising and accommodating difference. The values set out in Section 3 are not new; they are not even contested. As the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, a great campaigner for disability rights, said of Section 3 during the passage of the Equality Act:
“From a one-nation viewpoint, I have no difficulty at all with the general duty in clause 3—that is what most of us are in politics for”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/11/05; col. 1331.]
They are enduring but adaptable values which help us navigate a path through our modern, open and plural society while staying true to our traditions of family, community, liberty, tolerance and fair play. In these most difficult times, it is more important than ever that we do not cast such values to the wind. My amendment is very simple: it would put Section 3 of the Equality Act back where it belongs. I beg to move.
My Lords, I recently put my name down to this amendment at the instance of the TUC. It is one of the many bodies that have written to us, including the Law Society and other organisations, which are very concerned at the requirement in this Bill to remove the general Section 3 duty from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The general duty is very important. It is essential because it requires the EHRC to encourage and support a society based on freedom from prejudice and discrimination; individual human rights;
“respect for the dignity and worth for each individual”;
and on having an,
“equal opportunity to participate in society”,
“mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing of diversity and on shared respect for … human rights”.
A recent report from the European Commission on national equality bodies said:
“In order to … realise their potential in promoting equal treatment for all, equality bodies should develop a vision of their role within the administrative culture and society”.
This is exactly what Section 3 does. Furthermore, it provides a guiding vision for the EHRC that unifies equality and human rights.
Section 3 of what became the Equality Act 2006 was extensively debated within Parliament during its passage and its final drafting, from which this Bill takes a piece away, was agreed by all the parties participating. There is very general agreement around what we are proposing. I hope therefore that the Government will think very seriously about what was set before us so eloquently, if I may say, by my noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton. It really is terribly important for all kinds of groups to ensure that the general duty in the Equality Act is maintained in this Bill. To leave this provision in the Bill would threaten a lot of the work that the EHRC has done. That would be an awful shame. Certainly, a lot of bodies have written to us to say, “Please, please don’t let them get away with this. We don’t want this to happen”. I therefore hope that the Minister will listen very seriously to what has been said and accept what we are proposing.
My Lords, I put my name to this amendment because I do not support the removal of the commission’s general duty. The Government say that it is too broad, then go on to say that there is nothing in Section 3 that is not sufficiently covered elsewhere in the Act—in other words, that it adds nothing. Yet if it adds nothing, it cannot be too broad. You cannot have it both ways. Again, the Government say that Section 3 is aspirational and that there is no way that the commission can accomplish all that is encompassed in it but, again, that is at odds with the argument that the same ground is covered elsewhere in the Act.
No institution can achieve all that it was set up to do all at once; there would otherwise be no reason for it to go on existing. Yet that is no reason not to have a statement of aims or objectives to indicate the direction of travel or guide the commissioners in framing their actions. On balance, the commission concludes that removing Section 3 is unlikely to have much practical effect. The Government have made great play with that, but the commission agrees that a unifying statement of principle is important and that it is beneficial to have a vision or mission statement, such as is provided by Section 3, for symbolic if not for practical reasons. However, if its inclusion has symbolic value, is it not the case that its removal will have symbolic significance also?
This, I think, is the nub of it. The repeal of Section 3 is just part of the Government’s broader attack on the EHRC. The commission’s statutory remit was the product of cross-party agreement when the Equality Act 2006 was passed. Indeed, the original wording was amended in the House of Lords to take account of Conservative concerns that it was too broad.
What has changed in the past six years to make it no longer appropriate for the commission to have the general duty set out in Section 3? I will tell you what has changed. The Government have changed. The commission is charged with championing the cause of those who are the victims of prejudice and discrimination on the part of those in positions of power and privilege and with promoting a more egalitarian society. This does not always go down too well with those in positions of power and privilege. We all know that anything with the words “human rights” in it is like a red rag to a bull to the right-wing of the Conservative Party. The Government have decided to throw the dismantling of the EHRC as a bone to their right-wing. Labour in another place has described this as abolition of the EHRC by stealth, but I am not sure what is so stealthy about it. Already, in relation to its grant-making function, the commission’s helpline and conciliation functions—the very things which ensure that it remains anchored in the realities of life with which it needs to engage—have been removed. The Bill proposes also to remove its good relations duty—something else which helps it to remain grounded. By 2014-15, it will have had its budget reduced by 62%, a far bigger cut than is being imposed anywhere else in the public sector, and will have lost 72% of its staff.
Separately, the review of the public sector equality duty, one of the most powerful engines for change and progress on the equalities front, has been brought forward. Taken together with those changes, the removal of the general duty can be seen for what it is: part of a sustained attack on the equality agenda in our society and the institutions which exist to promote it. Of course, the Minister will tell us that the Government are fully committed to equality and that the Bill is just about housekeeping and legislative tidying up, but I am reminded of an occasion when I had been rather critical of someone’s organisation. When he challenged me about it, I replied—rather lamely, I fear—that I meant no ill will, to which he said, “But if you tell me something is chocolate pie but it tastes to me like cardboard, what am I supposed to think?”.
The heads of justice, the Fawcett Society, Mind, the Refugee Council, the Equality Trust and others have expressed opposition to those changes in an open letter, stating that they will leave the EHRC a weaker body. In their consultation paper of March 2011, the Government state that Section 3 has no specific legal function, but that is not correct. The eminent lawyer, Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC, who was co-author of the Cambridge independent review of the enforcement of UK anti-discrimination legislation, which is the foundation stone of much of the equality legislation of the past decade, has issued to a memorandum in which he set up three reasons for thinking that.
First, in the absence of a purpose clause in the Equality Act 2010, the courts and others enforcing the Act were able to use Section 3 as a guide to the interpretation of the single Equality Act, enabling them to fill gaps and resolve ambiguities. The absence of a purpose clause in the single Equality Act is less important than it might otherwise have been because of the EHRC’s general duty set out in Section 3 of the 2006 Act. He says that the repeal of Section 3 will deprive those applying the law of interpretive principles and will leave equality law rudderless. It increases the likelihood of inconsistencies in the way in which the single act is applied.
Secondly, repeal will remove the unifying principle linking equality and other fundamental human rights. Respect for and protection of each person’s human right is at the core of the EHRC’s general duty and implicitly underlies the specific rights against discrimination, harassment and victimisation, and the positive duty to advance equality, which are set out in the Equality Act 2010. Professor Hepple cites the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who was chair of the advisory committee to the Cambridge review in the debates on the Equality Act 2006, as emphasising the importance of equality as a fundamental human right to be enjoyed together with other human rights—civil and political, and economic and social—and of promoting a culture of human rights. The Equality Acts 2006 and 2010 seek to overcome the fragmented approach to different strands of discrimination, which Professor Hepple says has characterised British legislation in the past. Repealing Section 3 will undermine the historic unification of equality and human rights law which was achieved under those Acts.
Thirdly, taken in the context of all the proposed changes, the proposed repeals are likely to further weaken the EHRC’s case for accreditation by the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, the ICC, as an “A” status body in full compliance with the Paris principles, which Ministers have consistently said is a high priority for the UK Government. The International Council on Human Rights Policy has emphasised:
“The most effective national institutions generally have a broad and non-restrictive mandate … an all-encompassing jurisdiction”,
and “adequate budgetary resources”.
The EHRC’s “A” status is already being questioned. In a letter from the ICC chair, Dr Mousa Borayzat, to the Home Secretary, Dr Borayzat suggests that the Government should use the opportunity of the present Bill not to weaken the EHRC but to strengthen the provisions in the Equality Act 2006 related to the commission’s independence. This letter was part of correspondence between the UN and the British Government, centring on the UN’s concerns that the Government’s approach to the commission might compromise its independence and thus jeopardise its national human rights institution status.
The Government argue that Section 3 does not cover any ground that is not perfectly adequately covered by the EHRC’s core equality and human rights functions in Sections 8 and 9. But there are reasons for thinking that repeal of Section 3 could well have the effect of making the commission’s duties at Sections 8 and 9 more vulnerable to judicial review on the ground of challenges based on the proper statutory remit of the commission, thus handing power to the courts to determine the EHRC’s scope and weakening the influence of Parliament.
Of course, Section 3 is susceptible to judicial review. But the lesson from elsewhere, particularly Northern Ireland, is that the more specific and less general the duty, the more susceptible to challenge it becomes. Related to this point, in the absence of Section 3, there is little by which to judge whether the duties under Sections 8 and 9 are sufficient as they become freestanding and detached from any specified outcomes or overarching purpose, thus making further reform of the commission’s duties and powers more straightforward. This is of particular concern given that the terms of reference of the review of the public sector equality duty include the EHRC’s duties and powers in relation to the duty.
The appeal of Section 3 signifies that the Government have no great love for the EHRC. It is opposed by many highly reputable organisations that are in a good position to know about these things. The courts will be deprived of a road map for interpreting the legislation. That legislation will be stripped of its unifying principle linking equality and other fundamental rights. The commission’s standing as an “A” status national human rights institution will be weakened. The commission will also be rendered more liable to judicial review. In the light of all that, I do not believe that the repeal of Section 3 has anything at all to be said for it.
My Lords, I, too, support Amendment 27 and associate myself with the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, and other noble Lords who tabled it. I will try not to repeat anything that has been said. I, too, am dismayed and frankly puzzled that the Government are proposing to remove Section 3 and the general duty on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This was discussed at some length in 2006. That was before my time in this House, but I followed the debate very closely. It was a relatively short time ago and all parties at the time agreed to these principles. I understand that the objectives were discussed extensively with business, NGOs and others in the field.
I will draw attention to one interesting quote. Eleanor Laing MP, speaking as shadow Minister for women and equalities, said:
“The important thing about clause 3 is that we all admire the aspirational nature of the general duty within it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 30/11/05; col. 36.]
If we fast forward to the present day, we see that having a wide-ranging, aspirational duty is seen as a hindrance to the Equality and Human Rights Commission in carrying out its work effectively. In briefings that I have attended it has been mentioned that the duty is too wide-ranging and that the commission is not able to focus sufficiently on a narrower remit. I apologise for not declaring an interest: I was a commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission for three years until last month.
I would like to know what has changed. I still have not heard any compelling or rational argument about what has changed, and why it is proposed that the commission should no longer have a duty to promote work to eliminate prejudice and hate towards these protected groups. What has changed in our society since this relatively new Act, which is still bedding down, came into force? Are we a more equal society? Has something happened that some of us may have missed? Is racism declining? Is hate crime falling? As the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, mentioned, just today we read in the newspapers that Stephen Lawrence’s brother has launched a legal battle against the Metropolitan Police, claiming to have been stopped by the force up to 25 times purely because of his skin colour. This is still a very common experience for many black and Asian people. This comes at a time when one in five young men—21%—in young offender institutions identifies himself as Muslim, compared with 13% in 2009-10. We have 60% unemployment among young black men. Race and disability hate crime is unfortunately still rising. What has changed such that we need to take away the general duty from the Equality and Human Rights Commission?
I would also like to know what is wrong with promoting good relations. Why is that now seen as a hindrance to the commission’s work? What is wrong with promoting good relations between different sections of society? No other statutory body has this remit. If it were to be taken away who would do this work? Who would show the leadership that is needed to tackle these issues? Who would understand them? Which non-government statutory body would be able to take this up? I strongly suggest that this is not the time to weaken the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s remit.
Is this the time to be sending out negative signals, which were mentioned earlier, and to be seen watering down and neutering this country’s main race, equality and human rights watchdog? I have heard it said in briefings that this will make no difference. If this is to make no difference, why are we doing it? Surely it is better to have a wider remit that is aspirational and that allows the commission the freedom to tackle some of these issues and carry out in-depth reviews, as has been done before. What is wrong in allowing this to happen? Surely the perception and the signal that not allowing it sends out is that this Government do not value race equality, or equality for disabled people and other protected groups.
On the issue of good relations, it has been repeatedly pointed out in briefings that since its inception the commission has not always functioned properly. There were problems and nobody can duck that, but it has made huge strides in the last few years. The organisation has reformed and slimmed down a lot, and in its work has been far more strategic and effective than in some other reviews that have been carried out. It is important to note that promoting good relations between members of different groups has allowed the commission to work in relation not just to race, but with groups such as Gypsies and Travellers who, sadly, do not have the protection that other groups have. It has been able to look at interfaith relations and hate crimes, as mentioned; causes of violence against women; intergenerational issues; and highly stigmatised groups, such as people with mental health problems or HIV/AIDS. These are serious issues that need to be tackled. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is best placed to understand interracial and inter-religious tensions and advise on the best way that they can be addressed. In proposing the removal of these clauses the Government are doing more damage than they realise.
My Lords, I rise to support what the noble Baroness has just said. One of the first things that I did when I joined the House of Lords was to speak in favour of admittedly a similar aspiration provision, but in my view appropriately. It might have been on an amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in legislation in 2000. The concept eventually found its way into the 2006 Act.
When Parliament agreed this provision it was on the basis of discussion with a wide range of organisations. It was widely welcomed. Why? We do not have a fair and unprejudiced society. It may be that everyone in this room is fair-minded, but fairness and good relations between groups do not exist when, for example, Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people are harassed about where they can live. The noble Baroness mentioned that young people now describe themselves as Muslim in larger numbers. Gypsy and Traveller children dare not describe themselves as Gypsies and Travellers, because of the things that have happened to them.
We have a society in which children with disabilities are bullied in school. Members of minority groups that make up our society are denied jobs because of stereotyped expectations. Old people are despised and neglected. The ordinary self-respect that people need, particularly children, is undermined. This is at the expense of social cohesion and an ordinarily decent society. I support this group. I think that it is necessary to give the EHRC a proper strategic approach to help bring about a fair society.
My Lords, I am very glad of the opportunity to intervene briefly in this debate and should declare an interest in regard to my involvement with Mencap Wales, Autism Cymru and a number of other disability organisations. I congratulate warmly the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, on introducing this important amendment. I agree with what she said, as I did with the noble Lord, Lord Low.
I recall the battles in the 1990s to establish disability rights. Those battles were led by Lord Ashley, Lord Morris, John Hannam and others, across party boundaries, because of the importance of enshrining in law the principles of rights. My fear is that we are in danger of a movement backwards today.
The general duty is necessary to avoid regulatory gaps or the effect of overlaps. Rather than being repealed, it should, if anything, be amended to establish more clearly the EHRC’s overriding purpose, powers and duties and to support the focus on being an equality regulator and a general human rights institution.
I have concern also about the proposal to move from a three-year to a five-year progress report cycle. There is a real danger here that if the cycle were to start coinciding with the electoral cycle, we could find many of these issues becoming politicised, which is in nobody’s interest. I have further reservations about the repeal of the conciliation powers, which would amount to the loss of the EHRC’s wide-ranging, background role in monitoring the effects of legislation.
The Government need to make a very strong case for repealing Section 3 as the Bill proposes, and I doubt that they can do so. If they are not prepared to think again between now and Report, we should support similar amendments at that stage in the Chamber in order to give the EHRC and all involved in disability the strongest possible messages.
My Lords, I apologise to the mover of the amendment that I was not present when she spoke. I shall be extremely brief, because I explained at Second Reading that nothing in this clause would remove any of the commission’s powers or functions and why I regarded what was being deleted as not harming, but improving, the performance of the commission.
The general duty arose not in the 2010 Act but in the 2006 Act, and the 2006 Act unfortunately put the cart before the horse, as some will remember. Instead of doing what was done in the 2010 Act, which was to reform the underlying discrimination law and bring it all together, the then Government instead put the cart before the horse by setting up a commission without having reformed the underlying law. They put into the 2006 Act this general duty, which is unenforceable and purely aspirational—for those who pull faces when I say that, I remind them of the aspirational language, which is very fine but not capable of being enforced in any court of law. What they did in addition to that, and which is unaffected by the Bill now before the Committee, was to put in Section 8:
“The Commission shall, by exercising the powers conferred by this Part … promote understanding of the importance of equality and diversity … encourage good practice in relation to equality and diversity … promote equality of opportunity … promote awareness and understanding of rights under the equality enactments … enforce the equality enactments … work towards the elimination of unlawful discrimination, and … work towards the elimination of unlawful harassment”.
That is in Section 8 and is unaffected by anything in this present Bill. They then went on in Section 9, also unaffected by this Bill, to provide that:
“The Commission shall, by exercising the powers conferred by this Part … promote understanding of the importance of human rights … encourage good practice in relation to human rights … promote awareness, understanding and protection of human rights, and … encourage public authorities to comply with section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998”.
Those are completely intact, as are all the enforcement powers given to the commission under the 2010 Act. Rather like the socio-economic disadvantage rhetoric that the Government have rightly not sought to rely on, all that has been taken away in the general duty is the following:
“The Commission shall exercise its functions under this Part with a view to encouraging and supporting the development of a society in which … people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination ... there is respect for and protection of each individual’s human rights … there is respect for the dignity and worth of each individual … each individual has an equal opportunity to participate in society, and there is mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing of diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights”.
Everybody in the Committee would agree with those sentiments, but the point that I make as a lawyer, for which I do not apologise, is that none of that is capable of being enforceable in any way. A duty that is written in water—it is clearly aspirational—may make us all feel joyful but it is not sensible to have it in legislation for a commission that in the past, as many in this Room will know, has been distracted by an overbroad and vague mandate. It is time that the new commission, as it were, concentrated on what it is meant to do, which is strategic law enforcement and everything else associated with that. I know that I am in a minority in this Committee but I for one consider that it is perfectly legitimate to get rid of Section 3, while retaining intact all the commission’s powers and statutory functions.
My difficulty is that I cannot see what is added in Section 3 to what is mentioned in the other sections. Can it be explained why stating general aspirations of the kind that one finds in international conventions on human rights adds anything to the work of the commission? I am talking not about perception but reality; I realise that perception matters but in reality the Committee should face the fact that nothing in this Bill is taking away any of the commission’s functions. The commission itself has rightly said that it does not regard the removal of Section 3 as damaging to its work.
My Lords, it is very seldom indeed that I disagree with my noble friend Lord Lester. I call him my noble friend because he has been a friend for so many years. However, on this occasion I must disagree with him, and my reason for that goes right back to the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. How long ago was that? It is a considerable number of years. Are we entirely happy with how equal opportunities have proceeded? Has it all been achieved? I would certainly argue not yet. There is a heck of a lot to catch up on and to have accepted.
That is exactly why I recommend very strongly the amendment that has been moved, and spoken to so brilliantly by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and others. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, may well say that it is all written out there, but there is a section that can help the commission to talk to the different groups, get them together, and take them through the processes that might make their advancement as individual groups or as part of the community much more acceptable. That is a strong reason why we should retain this section. I will spend no more time than that on it but I feel very strongly that we need to retain this section.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, on moving this amendment and on her very powerful introduction. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, missed that because it really represents the difference between what the victims of discrimination, whose rights are being eroded, want for a commission, and what a lawyer wants for an organisation that is a highly esteemed body, which can be looked at and admired, but is not reaching the people’s needs. That is what Section 3 and its retention represents for us who sit here opposing what is proposed in this Bill. That also helps to answer the question posed on many occasions about the notion that it would not make any difference.
We do not have any clarity about what the Government want to see the EHRC doing and how that relates to how people in our society—whether they are disabled or on the grounds of age, race, ethnicity or other characteristics—feel about a body such as this not meeting or responding to their needs, or giving any leadership or indications about how society can move forward in healing the problems that are afflicting the many people with those characteristics and who are affected by discrimination and the erosion of human rights.
We already know how far the EHRC has gone backwards in the aspirations that a lot of people had for it. That is not a criticism to suggest that it has not done good work because it clearly has, but it could have done so much more. To a large extent, I do not have any disagreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has said but I believe that Section 3 is an important aspiration. It is absolutely right to say that it is a statement of purpose and it is very broad. For me, it enables the commission to do the sort of things in a flexible way—notwithstanding the way in which it is required to be strategic—which enable people on the ground to identify with it. That is the worst part of the past four or five years of watching the way in which the predecessor bodies faded into obscurity when the new body came on stream and lost contact with people on the ground. That is where I am addressing my concerns.
I see the general duty as a statement of purpose and a mission statement. In no way do I see it as constraining the EHRC from doing what it needs to do or what it has to do, while recognising the constraints imposed upon it by government and the limitations of its resources. That is the killer constraint, which I think will determine what exactly it will do in the years ahead. No justification has been put forward for removing Section 3, other than the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lester.
The loss of the notion of promoting good relations is very serious. I see promoting good relations as a common thread of connectivity across the diverse protected characteristics. It underpins the fundamental requirement of a body such as the EHRC to promote better knowledge and understanding of equality and human rights issues, to counter myths and prejudices with facts and to encourage good community relations across the diverse competing interests, which is quite considerable.
Should the EHRC have no role whatever in challenging policies, proposals and activities that damage community relations? Should it never challenge the Government? Clearly the Government would like an EHRC that never challenged their policies and activities. However, if the commission is not able to challenge, who will do that? This is the politics of madness at a time when tensions are rising, conflicts are on the increase, austerity is feeding prejudices, frustrations and anxieties, and blame and scapegoating are dominant features of everyday culture. Who is seeking to counter any of this? Should the EHRC not take on some of this activity? If not, why not?
The general duty is a binding and unifying concept that intertwines equality and human rights. It guards the fundamental role of the EHRC. The reason for the removal in Clause 56 of Section 3 is to weaken further the EHRC and heighten its impotence in the eyes of many people who need an effective EHRC to champion their rights and assist them in building good relations, tackling inequality and promoting human rights.
My Lords, one of the disadvantages of being around as long as I have is that you observe the tide flowing in and flowing out—ebbing and flowing. I have followed the equality debate, participated in it and in some instances been a victim of it over many years. Tides such as progress in equality need to be measured. The section that we are debating is as good a measurement as one could get. The progress that we seek will be advanced by the amendment moved by the noble Baroness. She advocates that the retention of Section 3 is an absolute requirement. The question is not just for those outside the debate but for those who are part of it.
Section 3 is the quality control mechanism by which the Act can be judged from time to time. However, it has a much wider purpose. It can be the section by which the Government’s commitment, activity and purpose in this field are judged. The proposal to repeal Section 3 is equivalent to the referee blowing the final whistle before the match has ended. It should not be the case, when debate is still going on and before it is concluded, that the key mechanism by which we can measure progress and draw some conclusions is under threat. That is why it is important that, whatever emerges in legislative terms from the Bill, Section 3 is retained. The message that its removal would send would downgrade all the other aspirations of the Bill.
Many pioneering people have made valuable contributions. However, as we have heard in the debate and read in the press, we have not abolished discrimination on grounds of race, gender, disability or otherwise. There is still a job to be done. I do not believe that at this point removing the general duty would enhance confidence in the Government’s commitment to the whole issue of discrimination. The job is not done. There is much more to do. In the best tradition of the way in which your Lordships’ House is able to engage all strands of opinion, I believe that on this issue the Government should take note and retain Section 3. It is not just a question of how others would be measured; it is a question of how the Government would be measured and judged. I support the amendment.
My Lords, I appreciate the passion and commitment that my noble friend Lady Campbell brought to this amendment and I share her absolute commitment to the aims and objectives of the commission. I have just finished a six-year stint as a commissioner. I was there from the beginning, when the noble Baroness was a co-commissioner with me.
The commission’s aims are beyond dispute and I support them completely, but I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that removing Section 3 is not of any great significance. There are things that are much more important in ensuring that the commission’s work will continue, improve and be clearer in the future. I do not think that the section does any harm, but I also do not think that it is terribly important if it goes.
A sad thing is the overriding view that seems to be around now, perhaps in government and perhaps everywhere else, that the commission has failed. I challenge that, as I think that the commission has done some excellent work during the six years that I have been there, in spite of enormous difficulties in trying to meld a whole lot of additional categories of people to be protected, as well as the original protected groups, with the people representing those groups feeling that they were going to be in some way diluted. That has made life very difficult in the commission, but I think that many of those difficulties have been overcome.
Society as a whole still has huge problems—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, about that. We still have racism and there is still a stigma attached to disability and so on. However, there have been major achievements in the recognition of that, in the ability to speak about it and in the protection of many people who were not protected before. There have been a lot of improvements. The work of the commission should not always be criticised as vague and not achieving anything, as there have been some significant achievements. I say that on behalf of colleagues and former colleagues who have done the majority of that work, which I think needs to be recognised.
The fact that the Joint Committee on Human Rights will in future scrutinise the commission’s business plan and there will be increased parliamentary involvement—for example, the pre-appointment scrutiny of the new chair—is a big improvement. We have been looking at all the things that still need to be done as if everything is totally negative, but having experienced six years of the commission I think that quite a lot has been very positive, including greater transparency about the Government’s funding decisions.
It will be sad if the general duty goes, as removing it is not a huge priority, but I do not think that it will affect the work of the commission. To that extent, I do not think that the Government have to worry too much. We have to work hard to ensure that the commission’s aims are met in the future. More specific duties and responsibilities ought to be useful in improving the situation and making sure that the aims are met. I am sorry if I am in a minority here, but I am passionate about what the commission stands for and I want to acknowledge some of the good things that have happened in the six years during which I have been involved in its work.
My Lords, despite the legal view presented by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, I refer us back to some of the words spoken by my noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton. She said that the inclusion of dignity in the commission's general duty provides the glue to bind together anti-discrimination and human rights. I think I got that right. I agree with that and other important points that she made in her eloquent speech. Such an approach underpins the accepted goal of living with dignity and independence. As such, Section 3 is critical in providing coherence to the commission’s duties to promote equality and human rights. I was involved with one of the commission’s predecessor organisations, the Disability Rights Commission, in a major inquiry conducted into discrimination in access to health services by people with learning disabilities or mental illness. It indeed found discrimination; it was very effective and led to some improvements in access to healthcare for those groups. It is very important that such issues continue to be seen as a priority and investigated.
I worry that, without Section 3, that priority may be lost. I oppose the removal of Section 3. It has an important role in focusing the commission’s various duties, and I add my support to the amendments tabled by my noble friend.
My Lords, I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I have been fired up by comments made. I start by declaring an interest as having spent six years, until the beginning of December 2012, as the deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I shall be brief. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, are not alone in considering that the loss of the section would not cause any harm. Obviously, I respect the right of people to hold a different view, but I make the point that there is a long history in legislative terms of overarching statements of intent being extremely useful to judges and others when determining the meaning of legislation—so, even on that level, it has a value. I run with my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Low, especially in his comments that this has a symbolic value. In this country, we are far from being able to consider that there is no further need for symbols, promotion, ideas, excitement or energy about the equality agenda. We are lacking that in great amount at the moment. We need to be as positive as we can about the need for an equality programme within our society. We continue to need to encourage and explain to people the value to society as a whole of the equality agenda.
Finally, having been deputy chair for six years, it is unsurprising that I take exception to some of the comments made about the equality commission, many of which seem to me to be based on myth upon myth. I agree that there have been issues and problems far too complicated and outside the remit of the equality commission to go into here. Equally, I would say that there is a tendency on the part of many to look back at the pre-Equality and Human Rights Commission era and look at the previous commissions through rose-coloured glasses. People involved in each of the three commissions have done that. This has not been a steady or an easy path since the 1960s, when legislation was first introduced to try to address some of these issues. We need to be careful about making comments about the role of the EHRC in recent years without making sure that we are really clear about the issues, why they have arisen and what has been done to try to detract from them. I support this amendment because it is part of a programme of encouragement of a society becoming more equal, understanding and tolerant.
My Lords, it is significant that it has taken an hour and 10 minutes to get to this point. Noble Lords across the Committee feel very strongly about this and I suspect about some of the other amendments that the Government are proposing to this part of the Bill.
We have heard some wonderful speeches this afternoon, including the opening speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and sometimes they show aspiration and emotion. The speeches show that these things matter. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, makes some technical analysis about the effects of removing Section 3. I am surprised that such a distinguished campaigner as the noble Lord is out of step on this particular matter.
I do not need to say much more. On these Benches we support the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, my noble friend Lady Turner and the noble Lord, Lord Low, in these amendments. I expect that the Minister will pray in aid evidence given to the committee that the EHRC has stated that it does not object to these changes in its remit. I confess that I was surprised when I read that. However, we must look at this matter in the context in which those remarks are made. In addition to the proposals to amend the legislative basis of the EHRC, the Government are also undertaking a range of actions that seriously threaten its independence and effectiveness. A few weeks ago the Government published a review of the public sector duty, most of whose members as far as I can see are from either the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrat party, or they are officials from the GEO. I do not know if they will be taking evidence. If they are, I hope that those who are interested in this matter will tell them what their views are about it.
In the context of this proposal, I ask the Minister if it would not have been better to wait before abolishing the general duties and making these changes to see what the review of the public sector duty proposes, since the Government have used its existence to defend precisely this proposal. Does the Minister think that we are in danger of both these duties being abolished? What effect does she think that will have on the work of the EHRC?
In the Third Reading of the Bill in the Commons, my honourable friend Kate Green said:
“There is still racism and there is still religious hatred. There are still women who … are victims of violence, or who are at risk of it. All those groups continue to suffer from derogatory language, discriminatory behaviour, prejudice and public hostility. It is quite wrong to think that we do not need to continue to protect in legislation a positive duty to promote and improve good relations”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/10/12; col. 253]
The Minister argued that since the EHRC is bound by the public sector equality duty in Section 147 of the Equality Act 2010, it will still have a duty to consider the need to take steps to promote good relations and activities. Given that we know that the future of this duty is in doubt, I wonder if it is not better to shelve these proposals right now and wait until we see what happens. How is this going to be resolved? If this is taken together with the fact that the EHRC will have its budget cut by 62%, as had been mentioned, and will have lost 72% of its staff compared to when it was established in 2007, these are disproportionate cuts. Further cuts are anticipated in the next spending review and as a result of a zero-based budget review.
It seems that we need to ask the Government whether they see the EHRC as a human rights and equality body or just as a regulator of some kind, because that looks like the direction in which we are heading. I would like to see some reassurance from the noble Baroness that that is not the case. It also raises the issue of the EHRC’s role as a human rights institute enjoying a grade-A status, which has already been mentioned in this debate. Do the noble Baroness and the Government value that grade-A status and are they prepared to risk that status, as they seem to be doing in the Bill through the amendments that they intend to make to the Act?
Finally, Vince Cable himself admitted that there is no business advantage to be gained from the removal of Section 3 and termed it simply a piece of “legislative tidying-up”. That seems to be deeply sloppy policy-making at its worst. Other people argue that removing Section 3 will prove to be a substantial loss. For example, Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC said that it has the potential to leave the Equality Act “rudderless”. Surely, this should give the Government pause for thought and time to draw back and think again.
Can I not ask the noble Baroness to go a bit further than that? For that comment by the Secretary of State for Business to be relevant, surely he should have explained why removing this section is helpful. In other words, he seems to have it the wrong way round. It does not help to say, “This section, in its existence, is not being helpful to business”. That is one thing, but it is there. Removing it is a real action. In that case, surely he should have explained why it would be helpful to business to remove this section. I do not see that he has proved that. My problem with this issue is that I do not see why we should not just leave it there, unless there is a good reason to change it. I am old-fashioned enough to believe, “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to change it”.
The noble Lord makes an absolutely perfect point; I wish I had made it myself. I have two final points on the amendments that the Government are proposing in this part of the Bill. One is on the provision of conciliation duties and the repeal of Section 3. Under the Equality Act 2006, the EHRC provides conciliation services and the Government propose to repeal that provision. One particular issue really concerns me, which is that of transferring the complaints service for disabled travellers to the Civil Aviation Authority. I have to say that this astonished me. Apart from concerns arising on the ability of the CAA, which has close ties to the aviation industry, one has to ask: will it act independently and impartially? It seems a remarkable thing to be doing.
Moreover, through forcing private and public sector organisations down the more costly compliance route, rather than that of conciliation, and driving the commission towards a court-led approach as opposed to pre-court conciliation, the repeal of Section 3 directly contradicts the overarching aim of the Bill. I would be grateful if the noble Baroness could explain to the Committee how this can be justified.
My Lords, this has been an important and impassioned debate. I must say that, from the conversations I have had with many of the noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, that was what I expected it to be. I say from the start how grateful I am to so many of your Lordships for giving up their time to talk to me. I would also like to place on record from the start my recognition and thanks for what so many noble Lords who are here today have achieved on equalities over not just years but decades. I recognise that. Indeed, I know that I am a newcomer to this issue. As a fairly recent member of the Government, I tend to hear myself saying that I am a newcomer to whatever debate I happen to be responding to. In this area, I genuinely think that the fact that I come to this without any of my own baggage is helpful. I have been very open-minded in my approach, apart from my firm belief in the importance of equality and having an equal society, which I know I share with everybody in this Room.
The debate is helpful because it allows us to talk about this important issue. We will agree on several things and, from the comments made by most noble Lords today, one is that the commission has to date not lived up to expectations. Its initial problems had many causes, including government failings. That said, things have improved, certainly in the past couple of years, as evidenced by its unqualified accounts. Although things have improved, we are not there yet. We can all agree that we want a strong and effective equality body and an A-rated national human rights institution. More than anything else, what we all want, and what the debate is all about, is an equal society free from discrimination. Today is not about the past; it is an opportunity to focus on the future. I noted carefully what many noble Lords said, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Morris, that the job of achieving an equal society is not a job that is done yet. I recognise that and share his view.
I also understand from the comments made and the strong and powerful speeches today that noble Lords want me to be clear about what the Government expect of a strong and effective equality and human rights body. They will want me to spell out what success looks like, which is certainly what I will try to do. As for looking to the future, it is important that the commission has the right relationship with government. Some noble Lords have talked about accountability but we can come on to that in the debates that will follow on later amendments.
For an organisation to be successful, it needs to be clear on its purpose. At its most simple, the purpose of the organisation of the commission is to promote and protect equality and human rights. That is reflected in what I regard as the commission’s core duties at Sections 8 and 9 of the Equality Act 2006. There is nothing passive about these duties. They require the commission to be an agent of change, to promote understanding, encourage good practice and promote awareness. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, raised a concern about whether the commission would still be an agent for promoting change in the future. The answer is absolutely yes. While the Government consulted on amending the equality duties in Section 8 of the Act to clearly define the commission’s role as an equality regulator, we listened to the feedback and decided against those changes. We agreed that it was neither realistic nor desirable to expect the commission to regulate every part of society. The commission has quite enough on its plate as an agent of change. We want the commission to monitor our progress in reducing persistent inequalities, conduct inquiries into their root causes, establish the evidence about what works, and make and publicise its recommendations for action. I take this opportunity to point out, as the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, has just done, that some very important work has been carried out by the commission during the past years. I pay tribute in particular to the disability harassment inquiry and the home care inquiry.
To have impact, the commission must gain the respect of all as our national expert on equality and human rights issues—a body to which everyone can turn and have confidence in, even if its final conclusions will not be supported by all. I heard very clearly what the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, said. I say to him that, when I talk about final conclusions not being supported by all, I mean that a salutary and sharp nudge in the ribs of the Government is sometimes what we would expect this commission to do.
That is not least because rights are competing. The importance of the commission lies in its ability to advise on how we get the balance right; for example, between the rights of the offender and the rights of the general population to be protected; and between the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to be protected from discrimination and the rights of religious people to act in accordance with their faith.
The commission cannot be, or be seen to be, the voice of any one group. It has to be guided by the evidence—that is what I think we are all looking to it for. It should not be possible to presume the EHRC’s position on any issue, because its position should be evidence-led. It should not be not an impassioned lobbyist leading emotive campaigns; its role is to be an expert witness, and to make recommendations on the basis of the facts.
As the guardian of our legal rights, it is also the commission’s role to raise awareness of people’s rights under equality and human rights law and to ensure that the law is working as Parliament intended. Where there is a lack of clarity, it should use its enforcement powers where they will have most impact, in a strategic way, to clarify the position; for example, where there appears to be a contradiction between domestic and EU legislation.
Noble Lords are right: the repeal of the general duty will neither stop nor impair the commission’s ability to fulfil its important equality and human rights functions. Nor does it provide a clear statement of purpose. Section 3 is a political statement with no clear legal effect. In many respects, no one can disagree with it. Who does not want to live in a society in which people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination? The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, quoted my noble friend Lord Boswell, and my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece quoted my honourable friend Eleanor Laing as stating their support for the intention behind the general duty during the passage of the 2006 Act—and that is right; it is something with which we agree. But the problem with Section 3 is that it implies that the commission, uniquely, is responsible for encouraging and supporting the development of such a society. This is patently wrong and arguably insults the efforts that we all make in support of these goals, whether through the work of Parliament, government, the wider public sector, business or the community. We are collectively responsible. We might need the commission’s help, but it cannot achieve an equal society on its own.
We are seeking to repeal the general duty on the commission because it creates unrealistic expectations, positive and negative, about what it on its own can achieve. However, as several noble Lords have said during this debate and as I have already indicated, the statement in that general duty is important and removing it from the legislation does not mean that it cannot be replicated in the commission’s own strategic plan or in the way it wants to set out its own mission. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, who referred to it as a mission statement. I agree. I think that that is where it is best used and will have most effect.
As to the other changes that we are making to clarify the commission’s mandate, we are making a consequential amendment to Section 12 to clarify that the commission is required to report on progress against its equality and human rights duties and to change the requirement for it to report on progress from every three years to every five years. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who said that he would be concerned if this became an exercise where reporting would coincide with the electoral cycle. There is no suggestion of that happening; there is no suggestion of the commission’s reporting cycle coinciding with the political cycle.
In parallel, we have decided to repeal the commission’s separate good relations mandate at Section 10. This is not because we do not want the commission to promote good relations; it is because improving relations between groups should be an outcome of the commission’s equalities duties. If the commission is focusing on what it exists to do and it has in its remit a firm and clear responsibility to promote equality duties, it should be able to decide what work it is going to do rooted in that core responsibility and allow itself the flexibility to decide how to promote good relations rooted in that core responsibility. Repealing the good relations mandate has no effect on its ability to do work such as its inquiries into disability-related harassment, as I mentioned, or on stop and search.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Low, mentioned, we are also seeking to repeal the commission’s power to make provision for conciliation because of concerns about the cost-effectiveness of the commission’s service and the extent to which it duplicated services elsewhere. I stress that this is not about services ceasing; it is about them being continued but being done by others that we think are in a better place to do them.
The noble Lord, Lord Low, and I think the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, also mentioned the commission’s budget in this context. The budget for the commission has been reduced in line with those for other public sector bodies. The significant reduction in the budget is a result of the fact that the funding for services such as conciliation and the helpline is going with those services, as one would expect, rather than remaining with the commission.
I add that I hope that very soon—indeed, imminently—we will publish the budget that the Government have agreed with the commission. It is important for me to make the point that the setting of the budget is informed by the commission’s core function, its responsibilities and what it is required to do. We are confident from the conversations and discussions that we have had with the commission that the budget that we have agreed with it will properly allow it to fulfil its responsibilities.
During this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and other noble Lords raised the issue of the public sector equality duty. We will come to later amendments where I expect the debate to focus very much around that issue. However, the public sector equality duty review is just that—a review of the public sector equality duty. When noble Lords refer to the general duty in the public sector equality duty, I think that it is worth my responding that that is very different from the general duty that we have discussed today. The two things are very different. Our proposal to repeal Section 3 is not related to the public sector equality duty.
Bearing in mind that there are other amendments where we will be able to continue the debate about accountability and, as I said at the start, the commission’s relationship with government and Parliament, I would conclude at this point and say to all noble Lords who have spoken today—not just those who have put their names to the amendments—with the exception of my noble friend Lord Lester and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, to whom I am grateful for their support, that I hope that I have given some assurance which goes some way to giving the Committee the clarity that it is seeking from me as far as what the Government intend in their proposals in this Bill.
Since the Minister has been kind enough to refer to me, perhaps I may say to her that I hope it is absolutely clear that my position in supporting the removal of the general duty under Section 3 of the 2006 Act is predicated on there being no regression whatever in weakening the legal powers and functions of the commission. She has already stated that in an Answer to a Written Question from me, which is the basis on which I can support the Government.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. I hoped that I had said that in my remarks concluding that the public sector equality duty review is just that. What we are proposing is very much contained in Section 3 and does not relate to what we are reviewing in the public sector equality duty. The decision to remove Section 3 is a decision that we have reached. Now, we are reviewing the public sector equality duty and that is not related to this decision.
If I were the noble Lord, Lord Lester, I might be slightly worried about this. Perhaps the Minister would be wise to take up my proposal to withdraw this. Let us see what the review holds and where we are after the public sector equality duty review. My reading of what the Minister has just said—she has repeated it twice—is that these two things are completely separate.
They are separate because the public sector equality duty review, which we will debate when we come to the noble Baroness’s amendment about the equality impact assessment, is about whether the public sector duty is operating in the way in which it was designed. Is it achieving its purpose and its aims? We are reviewing how that operates. We are saying that the core function of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is very much rooted in its responsibilities for equality and human rights. The removal of Section 3 does not weaken its ability to do what it exists to do. Its removal is because we believe that it is a statement which should not sit on its own as a responsibility for the commission but as a responsibility for a wider set of public bodies, including Parliament.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her genuine attempt to understand and respond to all our arguments against removal of the general duty. I mean that; we have spent time together discussing this in detail. I also thank all noble Lords who have supported the amendment and I hope that they will forgive me if I do not respond to them by name. I am sure that they would want me to save my breath for my response.
I wish that I felt more assured—I really do. For myself and dozens of other people and organisations around the country, the significance of the general duty is quite apparent. I still struggle to understand how the repeal of Section 3 will assist the commission’s future. I do not feel that we have had tangible evidence or examples of what it does now that it would do better if the duty were removed.
We have talked a lot today about perception and mission statements. I was sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was not with us when I made my contribution. He asked someone to explain to him what is added by Section 3. Perhaps the noble Lord does not believe that the power of perception is as strong as the hand of the law. I say to all noble Lords that in my experience perception, not the law, has been the main liberator and discriminator all my life. I am positive that I am not alone in this.
The Minister also tells us that it is wrong for a statutory body to campaign for law or policy reform and that it should focus on promoting the enforcement of laws agreed by Parliament. I agree but—there is a but—there is so much more to a viable equality and human rights commission that would not, if it lost the general duty, have a mandate sufficient to comply either with the Paris principles regarding the status of national human rights institutions or with EU law regarding the mandate of national equality bodies. The Government need to think about this very carefully. Their view of us is really important in this area. I feel that we need more compelling examples of what will be improved by repealing Section 3 as I have heard none so far.
Although I will withdraw the amendment, I fear that if we do not have anything more convincing we will be back at Report, probably saying the very same powerful things we said today. The noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, rightly said, that this is not just about lawyers and the law; it is about people. It is wrong to say that Section 3 is a political statement. It does not imply to me or others that this is a unique role for the commission. I dare say that all the voluntary organisations in this country would be very hurt by that statement because they take Section 3, the guidance and the authority of the commission and run with it. If it is gone, we will be back to fragmentation. As I said, we are all in this together. Without it I will not feel that I am together with anyone. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, before putting the Question for withdrawal, it may be helpful to the Grand Committee if I say that I have received advice that in order to take part in discussion on an amendment, a noble Lord must be in his place throughout debate on an amendment, most particularly while the proposer of the amendment is making his or her speech. Thus, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, his intervention, although out of order, is, nevertheless, on the record and will remain on the record.
My Lords, before we leave that point, it would be very helpful if the Annunciator could keep up with the debate, so that we can be here in time, because there are times when it is five or 10 minutes behind in showing the changes of speakers and the issue being debated.
Amendment 27 withdrawn.
Amendments 28 and 28ZA not moved.
Clause 56 agreed.
28ZB: After Clause 56, insert the following new Clause—
“Commission for Equality and Human Rights: accountability to Parliament
(1) The Equality Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) In paragraph 1 of Schedule 1, (membership) after sub-paragraph (1) insert—
“(1A) Appointments shall not take effect until such time as they are approved by a Committee of both Houses of Parliament.”
(3) In paragraph 7 of Schedule 1, for sub-paragraph (2) substitute—
“(2) An appointment under sub-paragraph (1)(a) shall not take effect until such time as it has been approved by a Committee of both Houses of Parliament.”
(4) In paragraph 32 of Schedule 1, for sub-paragraphs (4) to (6) substitute—
“(4) The Commission shall lay each annual report before Parliament within 3 months of the end of the financial year to which the report relates.
(5) The Commission shall send a copy of each annual report to—
(a) the Secretary of State,(b) the Scottish Parliament, and(c) the National Assembly for Wales.”(5) In section 4 (strategic plan), for subsection (4) substitute—
“(4) The Commission shall lay the plan and each revision before Parliament.
(4A) The Commission shall send a copy of the plan and each revision to the Secretary of State.”
(6) After paragraph 38 of Schedule 1 (funding) insert—
“38A The budget fixed under paragraph 38 is subject to approval by a resolution of each House of Parliament.””
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, and the noble Lords, Lord Low and Lord Crisp, for supporting me on the amendment. This is by way of trying to be helpful. As the Government, in their wisdom, chose to alter our equalities framework, we thought that we would take them at their word and make even more improvements. I suspect that the amendment is not perfect, but I hope that it gives the gist.
I acknowledge, as was outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, when she was in her place, that the balance of accountability has already started to shift. I should also say, as a member of the Government who put the 2010 Act on the statute book and supported the Equality Act 2006, that perhaps we did not get it quite right then. This is an attempt to remedy that. The amendment amends the Equality Act 2006 so that Parliament can have a greater say in appointment to the EHRC, its budget setting and its reporting.
The EHRC put forward a proposal that required the commission to lay its business plans before Parliament, achieving, as he put it, an optimal balance between independence, accountability and transparency. I recommend Members of the Committee to read what the commission said in its document of 2011, Building a Fairer Britain: Reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. That discusses in detail what the balance between independence, accountability and transparency should be. This amendment is drawn very largely from those proposals.
Parliamentary accountability was recommended also by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which stated that,
“the standard model of non-departmental public body accountability is [not] a sufficiently outward and visible guarantee of independence from the government to be appropriate to a national human rights commission (or indeed the proposed single equality body, whether or not integrated with a human rights commission)”.
Similar constitutional bodies with a role in holding the Government to account, such as the National Audit Office, report directly to Parliament, as do other national human rights institutions such as the Scottish Human Rights Commission, which is accountable to the Scottish Parliament.
Furthermore, the previous and current chairs of the UN International Coordinating Committee endorsed this model. In June 2011, the then chair of the ICC, Rosslyn Noonan, wrote to Theresa May MP and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, stating:
“The challenge is in the nature of the accountability, which should not be, as proposed, to an agency of the government, but should be to the Parliament … Providing an individual government agency (other than the official Auditor) with active oversight powers would undermine the independence of the NHRI in relation to its monitoring of that agency”.
To this end, we tabled this amendment, which seeks to change the balance of accountability of the EHRC in accordance with the Paris principles that gave our EHRC its “A” status.
I hope that this will be seen in the light of trying to start a discussion. The amendment will strengthen the commission’s accountability to Parliament, thereby making it better able to fulfil its mandate as Britain’s equality regulator and national human rights institution. It covers the appointment of commissioners and the chief executive of the EHRC and includes requirements for the commission to lay annual reports and strategic plans before Parliament and for the commission’s budget to be subject to approval by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
The commission has a strategy responsibility to assess how the Government are complying with their domestic and international equality and human rights obligations. It will do that job very much better if parliamentary accountability provides it with the appropriate independence from government. I mean any Government, not just this Government. I include what I hope will be my own Government after 2015. That is the right way to go. It is not always comfortable for Governments to be held to account in this way on their equalities and human rights record, but it is vital that they are.
In addition, this approach will offer long-term consistency of accountability arrangements to the commission. This will overcome some of the major difficulties recognised in the establishment of the commission, which to date has had a number of different sponsor departments. Again, I hold my own Government responsible for the movement of the Government Equalities Office and therefore for the commission. I understand that it is now on the move from the Home Office to the DCMS; a machinery of government announcement was made just before Christmas. Frankly, that is not consistent. We will have a few months of planning blight, because that is what happens when departments have to move their base and find themselves a new home. I do not think that that is a particularly good move, but if the commission is accountable to Parliament for its work, that will help and perhaps, as the future unfolds, we will find a permanent home in government for the Government Equalities Office. That would be a very good idea.
This does not mean that Ministers and the Government do not have responsibility for the overarching policy and the policy framework through which our equalities and human rights legislation should take place. That is not the purpose of this amendment; its purpose is to make the EHRC a more effective and accountable body to our Parliament. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this amendment, which has been ably moved by the noble Baroness. As a minimum requirement, “A” status national human rights institutions must comply with the Paris principles. The key ones among them relate to independence from government, guaranteed by constitution or legislation. Greater parliamentary accountability would also be helpful in this regard.
Parliamentary accountability has also previously been recommended by the JCHR in three reports. In 2003, it stated that the “standard model” of non-departmental public body accountability is not,
“a sufficiently outward and visible guarantee of independence from the government to be appropriate to a national human rights commission (or indeed the proposed single equality body, whether or not integrated with a human rights commission)”.
The proposed single equality body did not exist at that time. Again, it said:
“On the whole we would tend to favour a form”,
“which requires a duty to consult Parliament on the appointment of commissioners as a guarantee of independence and democratic accountability, so long as this was a statutory duty”,
“as a guarantee of independence … Parliament should be directly involved in the setting of any commission’s budget”.
More recently, the JCHR has agreed the Belgrade principles, which relate to the relationship between national human rights institutions, such as the commission, and national Parliaments. The principles were adopted by participants at an international expert seminar led by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2012. The Belgrade principles include several mechanisms for closer relationships between Parliaments and the national human rights institutions: for example, that such institutions,
“should report directly to Parliament”,
“Parliaments should develop a legal framework for”,
the national human rights institution,
“which secures its independence and its direct accountability to Parliament”.
Again, the principles say:
“Parliaments should invite the members of”,
national human rights institutions,
“to debate the Strategic Plan and/or its annual programme of activities in relation to the annual budget”.
The Public Administration Committee has also emphasised the importance of parliamentary accountability and scrutiny of non-departmental public bodies. As the noble Baroness has told us, many similar constitutional bodies with a role in holding the Government to account, such as the National Audit Office, the Electoral Commission and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, report directly to Parliament. So do other national human rights institutions, such as the Scottish Human Rights Commission, which is accountable to the Scottish Parliament. Other regulators, such as the Office of Fair Trading, also report directly to Parliament with the status of non-ministerial departments. The Government have recently published plans to make the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England more accountable to Parliament. In future, that office will lay its own business plan before Parliament and will be expected to involve appropriate Select Committee chairs in developing its business plan.
In framing this amendment, we have taken account of many precedents that suggest the appropriateness of greater accountability to Parliament for national human rights institutions, both in terms of the advocacy of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Public Administration Select Committee and precedents constituted by the existence of a raft of other bodies, which report directly to Parliament. We have also taken account of the Belgrade principles in framing the matters which we think ought to come before parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that the Committee will feel that this amendment is very much in keeping with the way in which these matters have been developing over the past few years, and that we have framed the amendment by taking full account of the issues which it is suggested should form the subject of parliamentary scrutiny. I am happy to support the amendment.
My Lords, I, too, have put my name to this amendment to move towards greater direct parliamentary accountability for the Equality and Human Rights Commission. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said, this could be advantageous as a tidying-up exercise. It needs to be done. Given all the criticisms that the commission has faced from individuals and others, some of which have been about its accountability to Parliament, I am slightly disappointed that the Government, in drafting these various changes, did not take the opportunity to look at making the commission better able to fulfil its mandate as Britain’s equality regulator and national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris principles, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, said.
Unfortunately, the commission has come under sustained attack. Some of that has been quite intense and some of it has been justifiable, but a lot of it has been rooted in the past and has not recognised the work that the commission has done, how much progress has been made and how much the commission has moved on from those early years when the three organisations came together.
In terms of greater accountability, I think that what is proposed would be desirable. It would ensure greater transparency and openness. It would assist the commission in its statutory responsibility to assess how the Government comply with their domestic and international equality and human rights obligations. Parliamentary accountability would provide the commission with more independence from the Government in order to fulfil this role rather more impartially. At the moment, we do not have the best of both worlds. The commission is partly accountable to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and it is partly accountable to the Minister through the Government Equalities Office. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said, that relationship has not always been positive; it cannot be deemed to have been a successful relationship.
There has been turbulence as a result of reorganisation. With each reshuffle—every couple of years, it seems—the equalities unit and, by virtue of that, the commission have been shunted about. I think that it is on its fourth or fifth government department. As was said, it was initially under the Department of Trade and Industry, then the Department for Communities and Local Government and then the Department for Work and Pensions; then it was standalone and now it is with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. That does not provide the organisation with the stability and continuity that are needed. These constant changes have in some respects been detrimental to the commission’s work and some of the blame for that has to lie at the door of the last Government, as has been acknowledged.
There have also been problems with the sponsoring department. The commission has never had, certainly in the three years when I served there—others may bear me out on this—the independence to act as other non-departmental public bodies have been able to. For example, permanent senior appointments have always been at the behest of Ministers giving the go-ahead. I found myself in the situation when, after the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and other newspapers criticised how much was being spent on consultants for temporary positions, we advertised at great expense for a permanent chief executive. That was then stopped because, for whatever reason, it was not deemed to be the right time. That meant that there was another delay. The acting chief executive continued and it was a couple of years before we had a permanent chief executive in place. The same has happened with other senior appointments when the commission was not given permission by the Government Equalities Office, through the Minister, to appoint a permanent director for various positions. It was quite unfairly pilloried in the media for wasting public money when it did not have the independence to make such appointments. If we are going to have an organisation which we want to be independent and robust, it has to have freedom in that regard.
In order to retain the commission’s “A” status as a UN accredited national human rights institution, it needs to be assured and shored up. On occasion, there have been letters threatening to remove the “A” status of the commission purely because of activities from government departments that have been outside its control. It is time to allow the commission to have the consistency, the stability and the independence that it needs but also to be robustly accountable to Parliament. Models for other regulators and national human rights institutions have already been mentioned. There are others, including Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, and the Electoral Commission, which we could look at and which work perfectly well.
Accountability to government would allow the commission to work across government bodies. That has been a problem, particularly when the commission has wanted to look at issues which do not come under the remit of the sponsoring committee or department. There have been problems about working cross-department as well. This proposal would give it the freedom to do that and would satisfy the Cabinet Office test for independence and accountability against which all public bodies are reviewed every three years. It would also allow the commission to formalise relationships and fulfil its mandate as a regulator, which it has not been able to do. I strongly recommend that the Government look at this and I will be very interested in what the Minister says in reply as to whether the Government will look positively at this.
I know that in previous discussions—I am grateful that the Minister has made herself available for discussions and briefings—the Government have not felt that this is an issue and that it should not be touched. It is interesting that for other things legislation is needed, whereas, so far, something that would make this organisation far more accountable is not deemed to be needed, although I am hoping to hear a more positive reaction today. The appointment of the chief executive and of commissioners would be subject to parliamentary ratification. For those who have followed some of these things in the media recently, the last tranche of appointments of commissioners has not been exactly exemplary and probably would not have been tolerated at other organisations.
In terms of the commission being directly responsible, it could respond directly to parliamentary questions rather than the Government responding on the commission’s behalf, which is the problem at the moment. The commission’s budget also could be set by Parliament, rather than the arcane situation that exists. I seem to remember that as late as the end of February/the beginning of March of this year, the commission still did not know its budget for the coming financial year, which would be unheard of at any other organisation. I strongly endorse this amendment and believe that it could strengthen the independent requirement in Schedule 42 to the Equality Act 2006.
My Lords, I am sympathetic to the object of the amendment. I just want to supplement that great summary of the history given by the noble Lord, Lord Low, by adding one or two aspects.
When the previous Government introduced the 2006 Act, I was was pressing for something on exactly these lines and I was concerned about the Paris principles. Thanks to the creativity of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, in particular, we were able to write into that Act some guarantees of the independence of the commission which are still there and I am delighted to see will remain. We removed all the bossy, ministerial interference provisions that were originally in the 2006 Act and that would have given powers to Ministers to intervene all over the place in the commission’s work. All those were wisely removed by the previous Government. We then introduced an express provision stating that Ministers were not allowed unnecessarily to interfere with the commission—that is still in the 2006 Act. We also introduced an obligation on the Minister to make sure that enough funds were available to ensure that the commission could carry out its work effectively in accordance with its statutory duties. We also introduced a merit requirement for appointments. All those are still there.
One of the great problems, however—it has been referred to by my noble friend just now—is that the commission when it was set up became the orphan of Whitehall; that is, no major government department was willing to take responsibility for or ownership of it to give it the backing that it really needed. I can say as someone who was the unpaid independent adviser to the previous Government’s Minister of Justice and Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, that I was unsuccessful in persuading the previous Government that the Ministry of Justice should take charge of this area, because, frankly, the civil servants at the time did not want to know. And so, a strange floating kidney was set up instead. It was not a proper department and it did not have any of the power and influence of a major government department. That led to all kinds of managerial and other failings from the beginning through lack of proper back-up within the Administration. This was not just the fault of Ministers; it was more a fault of senior civil servants, including a Permanent Secretary whom I went to, who said that they would rather not want to know, thank you very much, because it was too difficult or too hot a potato.
That is part of the background. As the noble Lord, Lord Low, has indicated, the Joint Committee on Human Rights on which I serve has several times advocated that there be proper parliamentary accountability, not only because of the Paris principles but because it is healthy in a parliamentary democracy with a body of this kind for there to be a proper relationship.
One thing to have changed since we on the JCHR made those reports is the appointment of the new chair, whom I am delighted to see in her place, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. Her appointment was made only after the Joint Committee on Human Rights interviewed her and came to the conclusion that she would be admirably well qualified for the post. Another change is that the Joint Committee will now have the main responsibility for the work of the commission; it will not be split, I think, with the House of Commons committee. We are a Joint Committee of both Houses comprising six Peers and six MPs; we cannot be controlled by Government because one of us is a Cross-Bencher—we are the only parliamentary committee of which that is true—and we are not tribal or party-political in the way in which we conduct ourselves. We have real expertise going back for more than a decade.
I have not discussed the question with the Joint Committee since we came back because we have not met. The amendment states:
“Appointments shall not take effect until such time as they are approved by a Committee of both Houses of Parliament”.
One question is whether that could be done without the need for some legislative requirement, but simply by a protocol being developed by agreement between the Joint Committee and the Government that the Joint Committee will effectively do that which was done in relation to the new chair of the commission. Similarly, there is no reason why the Joint Committee on Human Rights cannot have responsibility for many of the things to which my noble friend referred in her speech in support of the amendment. Where I do not agree with her is on the idea that any parliamentary committee should be setting the budget and be involved in what might be called micro-managerial decisions on how the commission should spend money. It is still correct in a parliamentary democracy that public expenditure has to be approved by a responsible Minister and accounting officer responsible to Parliament for ensuring stewardship.
I want to come back on one point, if I may. In 2003 the Joint Human Rights Committee had three reports, and one of the clauses said that,
“as a guarantee of independence … Parliament should be directly involved in setting the budget of the commission”.
Can the noble Lord clarify that he said he could not see the point in that? He seems to be contradicting what the report said.
I was talking about an idea that I thought was being suggested—not that there be some kind of consultation but that Parliament itself, or a parliamentary committee, should agree and set the budget, rather than that being done by the Treasury and the responsible government department. Of course, it is possible to have consultation by a parliamentary committee on the size of a budget and how it is to be spent, but under our system of parliamentary government, it seems to me that the ultimate responsibility for deciding on the budget and ensuring proper accountability is through the accounting officer—normally a Permanent Secretary in charge of the department, who is then accountable to Her Majesty’s Treasury and to Parliament. We tried all of that when we looked at the Judicial Appointments Commission; we tried to ring-fence the budget of the Judicial Appointments Commission and of the judiciary as a whole, but failed to do so for similar reasons.
I am sympathetic to the idea of parliamentary involvement and accountability. All that I am suggesting is that the way forward is to encourage the Joint Committee on Human Rights, if it is willing to do so, with the consent of the Government, if they are willing to do so, to develop new protocols that will allow this kind of accountability to occur. I am sympathetic with the object, but I do not think that the amendment is the best way forward. Similarly with regard to annual reports, there is no reason why there should not be a report that is then scrutinised and discussed with the commission by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It seems to me to be better to have an existing piece of expert machinery than to create a new Joint Committee of both Houses without purpose.
I say all this with no authority; I do not speak for the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It has not considered that; nor do I have any idea of whether the Government is be sympathetic. I am a member of the committee suggesting that as one way forward.
My Lords, as somebody who is also very sympathetic to the purpose of the amendments, I follow my noble friend’s thoughts. I declare an interest as chairman of the Climate Change Committee. We have a very independent situation—more independent than any of those mentioned earlier by my noble friend. The whole question of budgeting is very delicate and difficult.
If you insist that the budget should be discussed in detail in a nitty-gritty way, it makes it almost impossible to be independent, because independence is about how you use the resources that you have. It is bad enough being at the behest of Government as to how much money you may have—there are always arguments about that. You say, “If I am going to do this job, I need this amount”, and the Government will always want you to do it for less. Those arguments go on, inevitably, because the paymaster is always, in the end, the public purse. I think that my noble friend Lord Lester is right to say that the amendment would add to that yet another inappropriate level. However high-minded a committee may be, it is difficult to understand the balances that have to be made. It is like any business, it is difficult.
I hope that the Government will take on board the concerns which the amendments evince. I hope that they will understand that the proposals added by my noble friend Lord Lester: not only that the role of the Joint Committee will be seen by the Government as useful but that the Joint Committee will turn out to have the same view of its purpose. That seems a sensible way forward. I hope that the amendments, which are a good probing way into the issues, will not be pressed. I have to say how hard it is to be independent and run the system in the best way in the public good and still have to answer to five different sets of people who feel that they have, at least, advice to give. I hope that we will not go too far down this route.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate about the accountability of the commission. Picking up on what my noble friend Lord Deben said, there is real value in Committee in having probing amendments that allow issues to be discussed and explored. That is the whole point of this stage of scrutiny of legislation. I welcome that and will, with officials, carefully reflect on our debates on all the amendments today.
Going back to the original question put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about the “A” status of the commission, I know that she asked me this question in the previous debate and she may well have repeated it in her speech on this debate. I can say categorically that it is important for the commission to retain that status. I recognise that accountability is important to the perception of the independence of the commission, which is important to the status conferred on the commission by the ICC, but it is worth reminding ourselves that the commission has a status under the present arrangements.
All that being said, I think that it is possible to strengthen the accountability of the commission to Parliament. In the Government’s opinion, the solution to strengthening accountability does not lie in shifting roles, it is about responsibilities. It is about being clear and transparent about who is responsible for what and by when, and to invite closer scrutiny of the effectiveness of those arrangements. To say it another way, we want to make it clear who is responsible for what, so that people can see as clearly as possible how we are carrying out our different roles and functions. That is why officials in the Government Equalities Office and the commission spent more than six months agreeing the framework document, which is publicly available on both their websites.
I know that there have been some teething issues in the implementation of the framework document which officials in both organisations are reviewing at the moment, but there is no dispute on the principles that the commission must be free to exercise its functions free from ministerial interference or undue influence and that the commission must comply with the same expenditure rules as every other public body. There is no doubt that progress has been made, as I mentioned in the last debate. Indeed, the commission has laid its first two clean sets of accounts before Parliament; there has been a 75% reduction in the commission’s reliance on expensive interim staff, a point to which my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece referred; and the commission’s strategic plan was published promptly last April.
As I say, we are working to increase the transparency of the Government’s decisions on the commission to Parliament. For example, the appointment of the new chair—the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill—to the commission was for the first time subject to pre-appointment scrutiny, and we have committed to send the report of the comprehensive budget review to Parliament, setting out the evidence base for the Government’s funding decisions—and by that I mean the funding decisions for the commission, which includes the funding for the GEO.
We are working with the commission to increase the transparency of its work to Parliament. The commission’s strategic plan, annual reports and accounts and progress reports are already laid before Parliament, and, indeed, Parliament has shown interest in its work, with the chair and the chief executive having been called to give evidence before a number of our committees.
As noble Lords speaking today have acknowledged, the commission reports to Parliament through the Minister for Women and Equalities. Although we support the commission having a closer working relationship with Parliament, we do not think that this requires a wholesale change in the reporting arrangements, which are in line with standard UK practice for non-departmental public bodies. I can refer to some examples where that is the case, including ACAS and the Independent Police Complaints Commission. My noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece referred to HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. I think it is true that that organisation is strengthening its accountability to Parliament. However, I think I am also right in saying that it remains, none the less, an organisation sponsored by the Home Office. The arrangement by which it is accountable to Parliament through the relevant Minister therefore exists there too.
As for how Parliament might strengthen its relationship with the commission, clearly it is for Parliament to decide how much interest it wishes to take in the commission’s work and indeed in the GEO’s sponsorship of the commission. However, we have made it clear that we would support the Joint Committee on Human Rights taking on a greater scrutiny role, for example in examining the commission’s business plan, which was indeed suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, in her pre-appointment hearing.
It is also worth noting the points that my noble friend Lord Lester made. I know that he caveated his remarks by saying that he does not speak for the committee in this context today. However, we certainly support the willingness on both sides for there to be a stronger relationship. We support that in principle and it is something that we would only encourage.
On the specific issue of the commission’s independence, it is worth saying that this is ensured by the Equality Act 2006, which provided that there is transparency around the commission’s role, relationship and responsibilities to government, which my noble friend Lord Lester has referred to. It is because it is enshrined in law that I believe we can be confident that the commission’s independence is properly protected. As I said, we support the strengthening of accountability to Parliament. We have already seen some improvement with the appointment of the chairman and we would certainly support an active dialogue between the chairman of the commission and the chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Before the Minister sits down, would she reply to the point made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the standard model for non-departmental public body accountability is not a sufficiently outward and visible guarantee of independence from the Government to be appropriate to a national human rights commission and, indeed, the points raised by the chair of the UN commission about the need to strengthen the commission’s accountability by making it more accountable to Parliament?
The simplest response that I can offer the noble Lord, Lord Low, is that we are in active dialogue with the ICC. My right honourable friend the Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller, has exchanged correspondence with the ICC, as I know has the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. This dialogue has been very productive. As I said at the beginning, the commission has a status under its existing arrangements. Its reporting to Parliament has not been questioned when it was given its status. We are retaining its reporting to Parliament via the Minister but we are seeking to strengthen the transparency of its roles and to ensure greater scrutiny of its work, if that is something that the Joint Committee on Human Rights would like to carry out. I think that the combination of both those things will safeguard its status. I am not aware, from the correspondence with the ICC, that that is in doubt.
I was the one who above all raised the issue of the Paris principles in relation to the setting up of the commission in the 2006 Act and beyond. I have sat on the JCHR ever since. I have no doubt that it is not the function of the UN Paris principles procedure to prescribe precisely to each member state the nature of each relationship in order to satisfy the requirements of the principles. I suggest that the commission would not be treated in the same way as other public authorities, because it would have a continuous role through its chair and, if necessary, otherwise with a standing committee of both Houses that was expert in human rights and had an oversight function, in addition to its relationship with Whitehall. I would be amazed—although I will ask; we will see whether I am right or wrong—if the JCHR, having considered this, came back and said that it thought that that relationship was inadequate to satisfy the Paris principles. I would say that this is premature at the moment, but perhaps the right thing to do is to put it on the agenda of the Joint Committee on Human Rights next week.
I thank the Minister and my supporters, the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece. I also thank the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Deben. I think that we have made some progress with this discussion, which is what we intended to do.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, gave us a very useful description of the practicalities and symptoms of the dysfunctionality in the relationship between the Government Equalities Office and the EHRC, and of the way in which it has impacted on the commission’s work and on its ability to do its job properly. It seems likely that the Government Equalities Office and the EHRC share the same budget source. That would be quite wrong, because they are probably fighting for the same resources. I ask that as a question that does not need to be answered now but which is pertinent.
It possibly answers the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, which I completely accept: that the reason that there were serious management problems was because the two organisations share the same budget line. Despite the assurances put into the 2006 legislation—the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was quite right about them—the relationship simply has not worked in some respects. That has been very important and a source of genuine regret. The discussion is about how we make these things work better and how we make sure that accountability works better.
I hope that the Joint Committee on Human Rights will have this discussion before the next stage of the Bill, because that will help us. If we need to discuss this at the next stage of the Bill, I hope that the discussion will be about what will happen in future and that we will get the discussion on the record.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for allowing me to come back to her in writing on the question of budgets. There was one point on which I was not as clear as I ought to have been. I was reminded of something that my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece said. I said repeatedly that the commission had “A” status under the current arrangements. As has been made evident in the debate, clearly there were problems in the past in the way in which the commission related to the Government Equalities Office. The relationship did not work as well as it needed to. However, what I sought to say on behalf of the Government was that the relationship had improved and continues to improve. We are in danger of shooting ourselves in the foot. We have “A” status under the current arrangements. We are improving what is wrong. We will continue to improve and put things right, so let us not put ourselves in a situation where we improve everything and then the ICC turns around and says, “We will remove your ‘A’ status because you keep telling us that the arrangements do not work”, when we have been able to show that recently they have started to improve and that we know how to improve them further—which is what we will do.
Perhaps I may add that the independence requirements that we wrote in were used by some at staff level on the commission to justify not being properly financially accountable. I was blamed by officials for having introduced the independence requirements on the ground that there was not proper accountability. Therefore, those at the UN who are considering the Paris principles will also consider that independence does not mean a lack of proper accountability. I make that point because that is something for which we all wish—I refer to financial accountability for the way that money is spent.
Amendment 28ZB withdrawn.
28ZC: After Clause 56, insert the following new Clause—
“Equality Act 2010: Equality Impact Assessment
(1) The Equality Act 2010 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 149 (public sector equality duty), after subsection (6) insert—
“(6A) A public authority shall make the following arrangements for compliance with the duties under this section—
(a) assessing and consulting on the likely impact of its proposed policies on the promotion of its duties under this section; (b) monitoring its policies for any adverse impact on the fulfilment of its duties under this section;(c) publishing the results of such assessments and consultations as are mentioned in paragraph (a) and of such monitoring as is mentioned in paragraph (b);(d) ensuring public access to information and services which it provides; and(e) training staff in connection with the duties imposed by this section.””
My Lords, two of the strongest indications to date that the Government may be rowing back on the issue of institutional discrimination are the reviews of the public sector equality duty and of the requirement to undertake equality impact assessments that are under way. On the public sector equality duty, despite a recent public consultation in which 90% of the respondents were opposed to any change being made to the public sector equality duty, the Government have appointed a steering group to consider whether that duty performs as intended.
We are right to be suspicious. I hope that the Minister will be able to allay those suspicions, but, so far, she has not done so. The removal of that duty could lead to public organisations no longer being required to consider the wider impact of policy on marginalised groups, less than two years after the duty was introduced.
On the issue of equality impact assessments, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced at the CBI conference on 19 November:
“So I can tell you today we are calling time on equality impact assessments. You no longer have to do them if these issues have been properly considered. That way policy-makers are free to use their judgement and do the right thing to meet the equalities duty rather than wasting their own time and taxpayers’ money”.
That means that public sector organisations will no longer be required to undertake equality impact assessments as a means to fulfil their obligations as outlined in the public sector equality duty. Instead, those important assessments have been dismissed as unnecessary box-ticking, with no alternative suggested that will enable and ensure robust consideration of the impact of policy proposals on protected groups.
Each of those announcements presents its own challenge, but the two are also clearly correlated and, together, risk undermining the consideration of marginalised groups in policy development altogether. Without a duty “to have regard to”, the risk of neglect must be high. We believe that, instead of destabilising this important piece of legislation further, we should be seeking actively to strengthen it. That is the point of the amendment.
Rather than calling time on equality impact assessments, we should enshrine them in legislation. We therefore call for an additional amendment to be made to the Bill that will require public authorities to assess, consult, publish and monitor the likely impact of proposed policies.
The public sector equality duty, as set out in Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, requires public authorities to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation, as well as to advance equality of opportunity and to foster good relations between people who share protected characteristics and those who do not.
The new duty replaces the former race, disability and gender equality duties, the origins of which date back to the findings of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in 2000, with a single duty that applies to eight protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. The public sector equality duty requires public authorities to assess the impact that changes to policy and practices could have on different protected groups, ensuring that those decisions are being made in a fair, transparent and accountable way, and in consideration of the needs and rights of different members of the community. It applies to public bodies across Great Britain listed in Schedule 19 to the Act and to any other organisation that is carrying out a public function. It having been in place for less than two years, repealing or significantly changing the duty now would be premature. A much better evidence base is needed before a decision is reached.
An equality impact assessment involves assessing the likely or actual effects of policies or services on people in respect of disability, gender and racial equality. Although equality impact assessments are not legally required, they have been widely adopted as an effective and efficient means for public authorities to undertake proper consideration of equal opportunities and are described by the authorities which use them as,
“a positive force for the delivery of real equality”.
In addition, case law suggests that those assessments provide robust evidence documenting how decisions were reached.
The recent announcement by David Cameron indicates that policymakers will be free to determine how the need to have due regard to equalities issues in policy development should be met. However, without robust alternatives to EIAs, that ambiguity could leave public sector organisations exposed to costly, time-consuming and reputation-damaging legal challenges.
The public sector equality duty is one of the most significant developments in equality law. Removing from individual victims the burden of taking reactive action against perpetrators and, instead, placing a positive duty on public authorities is proactive and collective rather than retrospective and individualised. That is a much more effective and cost-effective way of proceeding. In the current economic climate, these mechanisms are more important than ever to ensure resource-effective decisions are taken to address the need of local communities.
Research carried out for the Government by Schneider-Ross looked at the benefits of different elements of the previous duties. Can the Minister confirm that this showed that more than half the respondents from across the public sector rated the specific duties, ranging from 55% to 81% for each of them, as either very effective or effective? Furthermore, in this Government’s Red Tape Challenge, more than 90% of responses were in favour of keeping the duty. Of the 213 responses received, just 12 were actively in favour of scrapping the duty.
The public sector equality duty and quality impact assessments provide encouragement and support to public bodies and deliverers of public services in understanding how different people will be affected by their activities, so that their policies and services are appropriate and accessible to all and meet different people’s needs. In turn, this will assist a better understanding of the impact of their activities on different people, of how inclusive public services can support and open up people’s opportunities, and of how public bodies can be more efficient and effective. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have already expressed my concern about the signs of the Government rowing back from the equalities agenda. I do not intend to go over that ground again, though I share the suspicions of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, which she has just expressed in moving her amendment.
In support of the amendment, I shall make two brief points. Doing away with the equality impact assessments would be a retrograde step—or “calling time” on them in the Prime Minister’s words. There are two reasons for this. First, they force people to think about marginalised groups who are often overlooked. Far from being a burden, these assessments have often been welcomed by people with responsibility for running organisations and providing services as helping them at the end of the day to provide a better service. Secondly, it is essential for the proper evaluation of the implementation of policy and for accountability that we should continue to have these assessments.
If we think about the role of EIAs in government, it may be convenient for governments to be able to avoid scrutiny, but it is not a very intelligent way to go about the rational development of public policy. It is rather an obscurantist Government who seek to avoid systematic evaluation of the impact of their policies. It would be helpful and a good development if the requirement to conduct equality impact assessments were to be written into statute. I support the amendment.
My Lords, I have a different view about this. I will try to express it in the way that one does as one tries to run a business and is concerned with public activities as well. There is a danger that these discussions become polarised. There are those who feel that unless you write all this down in a precise way you can easily mix and miss the necessary duty to ensure that what we do in the public and private sectors is properly balanced so that services and provision are accessible to all. I am one of those who think that one has to be particularly careful about disadvantaged groups and those who are most likely to be vulnerable. I lean very much in that direction.
However, there is also the other side of the argument; namely, that sometimes we have got ourselves into so prescriptive a situation that it is very hard for people to get on with the job. I want to give an example which is sufficiently far in the past for it not to be seen as party political. When I lived in Ealing, if you wanted an extension into your roof, which a lot of rather big houses in the area wanted, you could not get the decision from the planning authority until it had been discussed by the sexual orientation committee and the racial committee. Something which obviously had nothing to do with either of those committees had to go through the format to deliver. What worried me was that it was the cause of considerable aggravation for people who just wanted an extra couple of rooms for their family. It did no good for people’s views about either sexual orientation or racial equality.
I have taken that example because it is extreme but it actually happened. It caused real problems and was promoted by the then governing party in Ealing as a wonderful example of how good it was on precisely these issues. I thought that it was a terrible example of how to distort and upset the very careful balance that you have to have between practicality and the important ethical issues with which we are concerned.
Therefore, my concern about the proposed new clause is that it can so easily lead to a simple system of adding to bureaucracy without achieving any end. The important thing is that all of us in our public lives and in our private business lives—leave alone our private lives—should seek to carry through our duties, whatever they may be—familial, business or public—in a way which constantly encourages us to ask, “Is this proposal one which disadvantages sections of the community?”. You have to be pretty careful about how you define those sections because sometimes people get left out. If you are not careful, you get a whole lot of other people added in because someone says, “Oh, you have that list, but there is this lot and another group and another set who we might have missed out”. I am much more interested in framing the legislation in such a way as to encourage people to see their duties in whatever they do in this context.
It is equally difficult to argue that we should have a note in here saying that everyone should carry out their public duties remembering that they have to tell the truth, or should carry out their public duties in such a way that they do not waste money, because, if you say that, you are assuming that people do not think of those two things if they are appointed to public office. I think that most people doing these jobs already consider them in this way. I would much prefer to look for a solution that encourages people’s training and makes sure that they have sensible ways in which to remind themselves of these importances without having these detailed requirements, which very often will be used as a necessary factor in things which really have got nothing to do with the issues that we are talking about.
There is an in-between, a balance, between these two positions. We have to be careful of producing an answer which says, “If you don’t agree with this kind of detailed listing, somehow or other you are less enthusiastic about equality than those who do”. I am very enthusiastic about equality—I have a record of fighting for it all across the board—but I have to say that I also hate bureaucracy: it makes people who are on our side in the first place less on our side because of what they have to do when what they have to do is unnecessary.
My Lords, I think that it is true to say that there have been unintended consequences in the way that equality impact assessments have been applied in some instances. The views just expressed by my noble friend are widely shared in some quarters. However, I associate myself with this amendment in an effort to reform what we understand by equality impact assessments and to bring to them a sense of balance. I also want to highlight their importance and not lose sight of why we had to have them in the first instance.
Of course, there has been change. The Prime Minister mentioned that these assessments would be done away with, and there has been discussion of changing the terminology used from “equality impact assessments” to “analysis of the effects”. We need to be clear about how terminology is used in decision-making. We should focus less on the production of a document and more on impact. That needs to be clarified. More clarification is needed on intentions because it seems that government policy is veering towards getting rid of these assessments. Are we to understand that there is no longer a wish to know in advance about the impact of policies on different groups of people? If so, that needs to be said clearly.
There are concerns that too much time is taken in conducting spurious or inaccurate equality analyses, and perhaps many people conducting analyses have not always understood them. Proposed new subsection (6A)(e) refers to,
“training staff in connection with the duties imposed by this section”.
There seems to be a bit of a gap between what is expected and what should be produced at the end of the process—what we are looking for as an end result. How can we be sure that government policies do not have the effect of treating some groups of people less favourably than others if there is no evidence of consideration of the likely impact on these different groups?
A recent review of government policy suggested that there was little evidence that the impact on people had been considered when plans and proposals had been circulated. Surely we do not wish to see a return to the situation that prevailed between the late 1970s and the 1990s, when the duty under Section 71 of the Race Relations Act was applied only to local government and not to other public services such as the police. It is important to recall for the record that it was not until the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence that the public sector equality duty was extended to all public authorities and private organisations contracted to deliver services. Asserting that equality is being considered is not the same as providing evidence. The way the evidence is produced may be contentious. I have no problem with it being more streamlined and sensible.
My final comment is to highlight something positive that took place in the past two years. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, using its unique powers under Section 11, conducted an impact assessment on Her Majesty’s Treasury, among other government departments, to assess the extent to which the Treasury had met its legal obligations to consider the impact of the 2010 spending review decisions on protected groups. This was a really positive piece of work and I commend it the Committee—it is on the website and your Lordships can read it in the report. The work was embraced by the Government and government departments that have not done this before. It was a first instance; it had not happened under the previous Government and was the first report on this scale. It gave a set of recommendations for how to target spending to ensure more effective use of public money and greater fairness across government overall. It was a very significant work, so we have some good practice on how it can happen. I urge that we look at ways of reforming but retaining this very important legislation.
My Lords, I am grateful for the debate on this amendment. It might be worth saying for the record, and for the purposes of clarity, that the amendment that we are debating now is to Section 149 of the Equality Act and that the Bill in front of us does not propose to amend that bit of the Act. This is of course different from the general duty for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which this Bill will amend. I say that because, as I said in an earlier debate today, it is important to keep reminding ourselves that the two are different things.
Let me say first that I understand the concerns raised in this debate but that I would put myself absolutely shoulder to shoulder with my noble friend Lord Deben in what he says. Like him, I absolutely support equality but I do not support bureaucracy, particularly because I do not want processes to undermine our ability to extend the support for equality beyond those of us who feel passionately about it. It cannot just be the same people who believe in equality; if we are to improve equality in our society, we have to get everybody on board. We need to be mindful of that in how we design our approach to achieving that end. We all want the same thing: the better consideration of equality issues by public bodies when they are designing services and policies. Where I think we differ, and this is obviously what we are debating, is the method for achieving it. I will explain why I believe this Government’s approach is the right one.
The implementation of the public sector equality duty in 2011 marked a significant change in approach compared to previous equality duties. We wanted to move away from the bureaucratic box-ticking and form-filling to make sure we make real progress on equality. I understand that we in the Government have to deliver on that outcome; that is what we will be judged on. We believe that this amendment would be a regression to the previous practice of too much process and bureaucracy, with not enough focus on real equality outcomes.
Because it has been referred to, let me refer directly to the speech made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to the CBI about equality impact assessments. This is really a point in response to my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece, but what the Prime Minister was saying that day was that EIAs are not and never have been a legal requirement to ensure what we are committed to achieving, which is public services that do not marginalise or discriminate but which ensure that people are treated equally. They are an intensive resource that can take key staff away from planning and delivering better public services.
If that is not bad enough, worse, they are often produced after key decisions are taken, so they can be a sort of reverse-engineering exercise: a decision has been made and the decision-makers then go back and look at the equality impact assessment form, rather than thinking about the effect of their policy on equalities at the time of their forming it. For that reason, departments were asked to call a halt to the production of equality impact assessments. It was not of course to stop in any way their absolute requirement to have due regard to the public sector equality duty.
Public bodies should consider the potential equality impacts of their policies throughout their design and delivery. Records of this can be used as evidence of due regard to the relevant equality aim and there is no need to create additional unnecessary paperwork. The public sector equality review is taking place at this time but it is important to stress, going back to the point made by my noble friend Lord Deben, that we want to make sure that it delivers the outcome that we all seek to achieve. We feel strongly about it and we are absolutely committed to the need for the public sector to deliver policies and services that ensure an outcome in support of everyone. We want to ensure that it delivers that aim.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked in a previous debate whether we would be taking evidence. We plan to hold a series of round tables that will allow us to gather evidence from the VCS, legal advisers to public bodies, equality and diversity practitioners, trade unions, inspectorates and the private sector. We are also developing a questionnaire to enable public service professionals to provide their personal experience of working with the duty. The involvement of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the review is critical and, for this reason, the commission is represented on the independent steering group that oversees the review. We are also working closely with the commission as we develop the evidence-gathering for it. The noble Baroness referred to the Schneider Ross research. In evidence-gathering to date, so far we have focused on analysing existing research and case law, but we will look closely at that research as part of this. I realise that we are keen to make progress, so I hope that in this short debate I have given the noble Baroness enough reassurance for her to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for her remarks and, indeed, I am also mindful of wanting to make progress. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Deben, for their remarks.
Experience tells us—this is partly based on the very wise remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Deben—that while public bodies and people know that they must have financial probity and regard to the truth, they do not always know that they have to understand the impact of their decisions on different groups. We have mountains of experience telling us that people simply do not think about the impact of the decisions that they take on disabled people or other groups. That is why we have this legislation and why it is so important. I will read the comments made by the noble Baroness, and we will then decide what we want to do next. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 28ZC withdrawn.
28ZD: After Clause 56, insert the following new Clause—
“Equality Act 2010: caste discrimination
(1) Section 9 of the Equality Act 2010 (race) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (5) for “may” substitute “shall”.
(3) After subsection (5)(a) insert—
“(5A) A Minister of the Crown may by order—”.”
My Lords, in moving this amendment I declare an interest as the Minister partly responsible, along with my noble friend Lady Royall, for supporting the amendment to the Equality Act 2010 to give power to the Minister to add caste as a strand of race discrimination in the Act, following a period of research to establish whether caste discrimination exists in the UK and requires a legislative response.
That research took place. It was conducted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in 2010. In the past two years, the Government have failed to act. What is even worse—I hope to stand corrected by the Minister if I am wrong—they have failed to discuss with or consult effective groups and organisations in all that time.
The report that I referred to states clearly on page 48:
“Firstly, the overlap between religion and caste. Some of the cases might have been either caste or religious discrimination. This does not mean that caste discrimination laws would be redundant. Ravidassias and Valmikis may be protected under religion or belief discrimination laws. However, low caste individuals of other religions or none will not always be covered, nor would the harassment using offensive caste language. Thus, without legislation specifically prohibiting caste discrimination, such discrimination would only be partially reduced by law”.
Most recently, the EHRC stated:
“The … Commission supports the enactment of Section 9(5) of the Equality Act 2010, which provides that a Minister may by order amend the statutory definition of race to include caste and may provide for exceptions in the Act to apply or not to apply to caste. The Commission notes the findings of the government-commissioned National Institute of Economic and Social Research … paper on caste discrimination. In light of this, the Commission would suggest legal protection under the Equality Act 2010 for those experiencing discrimination in Britain should be as comprehensive as possible”.
During the past two years, despite questions and requests, the Government have ducked the issue. They have said that there is no consensus on it. However, the organisations that deny discrimination—the Hindu Council and Hindu Forum—do not like and have never liked the proposals, and it is not surprising that they resist change. They pray in aid an exchange of letters between the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the research organisation—I wonder whether the Minister is familiar with it. In September 2012, Dr Hywel Francis MP, chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, received a letter from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, stating:
“This is an emotive issue in which the considerations as to whether to legislate or not are finely balanced. For instance, as I have indicated, there is no consensus of opinion among the wider Hindu and Sikh communities as to whether such legislation is necessary. You also mention the evidence that is currently available through reports such as the NIESR report from 2010. While the NIESR report considered that: ‘Evidence of [caste] discrimination and harassment was found’ it also acknowledged that ‘proof either way was impossible’. Ministers are therefore considering the arguments presented by a range of stakeholders together with whether legislating would be a proportionate response to the significance of the problem and the scale of the issue domestically”.
I have two things to say on this. First, the letter sent to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, by the director of the research body concerned was completely clear in stating that,
“I think it would be useful to clarify our conclusions from the study, as your two quotes may leave some confusion. Our statement that ‘proof either way was impossible’ was a philosophical point over the nature of knowledge and proof. Unless a discriminator admits to discrimination, one can rarely be certain discrimination has occurred. This equally applies to, for example, race and sex discrimination, the existence of which we do not doubt. Notwithstanding the philosophical point, the evidence strongly suggests that caste discrimination and harassment, including of the type which would fall under the Equality Act, exists in Britain. I hope this clarifies our findings”.
Secondly, the bodies which do not want this legislation are part of the reason why such discrimination exists, so of course they do not want it. I therefore think that the ambiguity in that report has been cleared up.
On the discussions that have taken place, I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, hosted a meeting between Ministers and the Hindu Council and Hindu Forum in 2011, soon after the report was published. However, neither the alliance that is fighting caste discrimination, the ACDA, nor, to my knowledge, any stakeholders representing victims of caste-based discrimination were invited to that meeting. I also understand that the response of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, to Parliamentary Questions—one of which was mine—in which she stated that there was no consensus on using Section 9(5) was based on views expressed at the meeting convened by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I also understand that when the two Ministers—Lynne Featherstone and the noble Baroness, Lady Verma—attended a meeting of the alliance in January 2011, they refused to comment on the report’s findings.
The need for legislation is clear. Existing religious discrimination legislation only partially covers caste discrimination. Reliance on this was deemed inadequate. There is a real danger, if the UK Government do not accept and deal with the issue of caste discrimination, that the problem will grow unchecked, with devastating consequences for thousands of people in the UK. The report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research contends that relying on the Indian community to take action to reduce caste discrimination and harassment will be problematic. Instead, it recommends that legislative steps be taken to provide redress for victims.
I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment. It is very simple and it would right a great wrong. However, if she does not feel at this point in the Bill that she can accept it, fairness, justice and truth will be served if she agrees, with her ministerial colleagues, to meet the ACDA and other organisations that have been consistent and vigilant in their search for equality for Dalits in the UK. The Government owe them the courtesy of a hearing. I beg to move.
My Lords, in supporting the amendment, I remind noble Lords that when Section 9(5)(a) first came before the House, it had significant all-party support. I refer noble Lords to a statement by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, on 11 January 2010, reported in col. 341 of Hansard.
The previous Government sensibly decided that they needed to test the evidence. They commissioned the most reputable body in the country to examine the issue. It came up with a clear statement that there was evidence of discrimination on the basis of caste. I will repeat briefly its summary. The study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research stated:
“The study identified evidence suggesting caste discrimination and harassment of the type covered by the Equality Act 2010 in relation to … work (bullying, recruitment, promotion, task allocation) … provision of services … and … education (pupil on pupil bullying)”.
There is an important qualifying note that states:
“Pupil on pupil bullying is not directly covered by the Equality Act 2010. However, the actions of a school may be covered where it deals with bullying in a particular way because of a protected characteristic (e.g. race, sex)”.
So the most reputable body in the country for this kind of research produced evidence of discrimination; we should be quite clear about that.
What does this mean in practice? I made a point of interviewing somebody who claimed that he had been discriminated against on the grounds of caste. He had trained in India in the medical field and was extremely well qualified. He came to this country and worked in the NHS. Everything went fine for a year with the man’s job. Then he applied to his supervisor for leave to go home for a family wedding. His supervisor inquired where he lived, and who his family and other contacts were. From that moment, the relationship changed totally. The person in charge clearly felt that this man’s family and caste were beyond the pale. Life was made absolute hell for him. He took his case to the trade union, which said that he had certainly been discriminated against on the grounds of caste but that there was nothing in legislation that would enable it to bring a case on those grounds. He had to leave his job. I am glad to say that he got another job in the NHS which has gone extremely well. This person was extremely well qualified and well balanced. I was absolutely convinced that he had suffered discrimination on the grounds of caste alone.
The main question before the Committee today is: why have the Government delayed on this for two whole years? I can quite understand their initial response that they needed time to think about it, but why two years? There seem to me to be three possible reasons. The first is a general reluctance to legislate and the realisation that there is a major educational problem to be tackled. Would not the Minister agree that one major tool of education, as we have seen in the issue of race relations, is good law? No one can doubt that the law on discrimination on the grounds of race has had a powerful educational effect. Secondly, people speculate that there is pressure from India. India has very good legislation in theory about that; the problem there is in implementing it in practice. India has good legislation. I see no problem coming from India. On a recent parliamentary visit there myself, I inquired about that but could find no evidence for it. Thirdly, people say that opposition must be coming from some people. Where is that opposition coming from? I must report that there have been increasingly unsatisfactory replies from the Minister in charge of this area. An expression that keeps occurring in letters is,
“those communities potentially most affected … by the introduction of legislative protection against caste discrimination”,
“a wide range of Hindu and Sikh communities, not limited to those of any particular caste.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has puzzled over this. We wondered what the implication of this would be for race relations or abolishing apartheid in South Africa. Are we to say that we should not have abolished apartheid in South Africa because other people in the country might be affected by the legislation? That seems absurd.
A letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, was answered by the Minister on 17 May 2012 in which she tried to clarify what was meant by that. After the phrase which I have cited, she said:
“The legislation does indeed refer to ‘caste’ in general, not to any specific caste. Its coverage would therefore be significantly wider than simply an alleged discrimination against the people of the Dalit communities by other, higher-caste Hindus and Sikhs. Against this background, I do not feel it is helpful to partition the debate into ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ communities or to read such meanings into the phrase ‘those communities potentially most affected’”.
Very briefly, there are two points to be made here. First, however widely this might be interpreted, we cannot get away from the fact that there are victims and people who are perpetuating this discrimination. That is a fact. Secondly, even if it does extend more widely, if that discrimination on the grounds of caste, by whatever caste or whatever other caste, offends what is in the 2010 Act—issues of education and the public provision of goods and services—it must still be made illegal. Indeed, it could be interpreted more widely, but if discrimination occurs against another kind of low caste, in Indian terms, rather than the Dalits, we surely ought to try to stop it. I find the answers in those letters increasingly unsatisfactory.
Finally, there is widespread support from other communities. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has made it clear that it supports the amendment. There is strong support from all the UN bodies. I will not cite them because of shortage of time. We have to set this against the worldwide background. My view is that the discrimination against Dalits is an even worse evil than the worst excesses of apartheid. It is even more humiliating in some ways and it is occurring on a much wider scale. There are 270 million Dalit people in the world. We know that in this country there are 200,000. We have to set it against that kind of background. Therefore, it is desperately important that we include in our law in this country, and make it quite clear, that discrimination on the grounds of caste is totally unacceptable. That is the view of the whole range of Dalit organisations in this country.
I very much hope that the Government will be able to claim the credit of accepting the amendment which we are putting forward today.
I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for her sterling work in getting Section 9(5)(a) on the statute book. In 2010, I moved the amendment with the full support of the Government after a meeting attended by large numbers of people representing the anti-discrimination organisations up and down the country and at which the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, was present. I think that she was suitably impressed by the unanimity of the views expressed at that meeting.
I should also like to pay tribute to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for his sterling work as chair of the All-Party Group for Dalits and for the support that he has always given to the promotion of this provision in the Equality Act. I have worked out that it is nearly three years since the House agreed to insert that provision into the Equality Act, giving the Government the power to add caste to the list of protected characteristics. The Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance had presented evidence that caste discrimination existed in the UK, and the Dalit organisations represented by the ACDA and CasteWatchUK had unanimously requested Parliament to act on the matter. Giving the Government this power was a first step, followed rapidly by, as we have heard, the commissioning of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research study, to confirm what the ACDA had already discovered. The results were published on 16 December 2010 and indeed it found the required evidence, although I am sorry to say that the study was a fairly perfunctory exercise. Even so, it produced the required evidence of discrimination.
When the Government were first asked for their reaction to the NIESR report, they were cautious, but immediately indicated that the coalition was looking for ways of avoiding the issue. They said that this was a different Government from the one that had commissioned the NIESR study and that it had to be considered in the context of their own equality strategy. They needed to consider whether activating Section 9(5)(a) would be “reasonable and proportionate”—words that are repeated in most of the Government’s pro forma statements since then—bearing in mind that a lot of people would be affected by it.
Of course, if there is a great deal of caste discrimination, a lot of people would be affected, but we had understood previously that there were doubts about the existence of discrimination. Now there was at least tacit acknowledgement that this “abhorrent practice”, as the Government called it, was occurring here. But the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, seemed to have already made up her mind that legislation would not deal with the issues behind it. Equally, one could say that legislation did not stamp out the societal roots of racism, misogyny or homophobia. However, it was the main tool for dealing with the overt manifestations of prejudice and a powerful signal of society’s disapproval of the underlying ingrained attitudes of hatred and prejudice against the other.
Having acknowledged that caste discrimination exists, it would be grossly illogical to forgo the use of a weapon against it that is proving effective in the case of all the other protected characteristics in the Equality Act; that is, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sex and sexual orientation. I suggest that there would have to be some reason of principle as to why caste should be treated differently from all those other characteristics. Of course, there is none. We have to analyse the statements of Ministers both verbally and in writing to see what the Government’s real motives are.
In that first exchange on the subject, the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, spoke about consultations and meetings with people right across the caste system to ensure that both sides of the argument were put. Obviously, people who are the targets of discrimination are in favour of the legislation, while communities containing those who discriminate are on the whole, although not unanimously, against it, as we have heard. People in those communities who think legislation is the right answer may be reluctant to speak out if they do not agree with the views of their leaders. However, no rational person would give equal weight to the two opposing sets of views any more than they would nowadays to men who continue to oppose gender equality, or people who believe they belong to a superior race.
Since then, as we heard, the matter has been raised repeatedly with my honorable friend Lynne Featherstone, then Minister for Equalities, until we received her reply, particularly to a letter from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, to the Home Secretary, that she did not consider that it would be advantageous to have another meeting on the subject. We came to the conclusion that Ministers’ policy was to avoid discussing the subject—an unusual breach of the usual courtesies. We found it hard to believe the Government’s mantra, repeated by my honorable friend, that they were,
“still carefully considering the NIESR .... report together with the various representations that have been received on this matter, within the broad context of our Equality Strategy”.
A variation on that theme arose, however, from the Answer to a Written Question by my noble friend Lady Verma, who said that—we have heard this before—
“there is no consensus of opinion in the UK with regards to the need for legislative protection against caste discrimination, even among those communities potentially most affected by it”.—[Official Report, 23/11/11; col. WA240.]
As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, explained, we interpreted the expression,
“those communities potentially most affected by it”,
as meaning the Dalits, who are obviously the targets of this brand of discrimination, and we pressed for details of the organisations that were referred to in this Answer. It turned out that my noble friend actually meant the higher castes from which those doing the discriminating are drawn. It was as if we had said in the old days that we could not legislate against racial discrimination because there were organisations representing white people who were potentially most affected, and that because they were against it, there was no consensus. As the noble and right reverend Lord put it, that is tantamount to saying that this argument would have meant doing nothing about apartheid.
The most significant expression of anti-legislation views, of which the Government were aware, according to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was at a single meeting chaired by my noble friend Lord Dholakia on 15 March 2011, attended by the Hindu Council and the Hindu Forum, at which a note was taken of the speeches by two officials of the Government Equalities Office.
No official of the department was able to attend a meeting that I chaired on 29 November at which representatives of Dalit organisations throughout the country unanimously renewed their demand for action. When I sent a copy of their statement to the Secretary of State and Minister for Equalities, she merely observed that it was not clear whether commencing Section 9(5)(a) would be the best and most proportionate way of addressing the issue. On the other side of the equation we have the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as has already been mentioned, one of the functions of which I understood from the Minister’s reply to Amendment 27, which we discussed earlier, was to make recommendations on how best to achieve equality. The EHRC has said plainly that it believes in implementing this legislation, as can be seen from the announcement on its website.
Many other organisations were referred to briefly by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. NIESR has reiterated its finding as recently as 8 January and the evidence collected strongly suggested that caste discrimination and harassment, including the type that would fall under the Equality Act, exists in Britain. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has drawn the Government’s attention to the recommendation in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review that the provision be implemented. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has made recommendations on the subject, but none of these considerations is reflected in the responses we have had so far from Ministers. It would be useful if my noble friend could at least acknowledge that they are being given the due weight that should be attached to the views of national and international organisations. Fortunately, in democracies the views of minorities do not prevail in the end. If the Government come to a decision not to do anything about caste—as appears likely from everything that they say on the subject—I hope that they will at least allow a free vote on the subject when it is debated on the Floor of the House.
Internationally, there is certainly a consensus that caste should be treated as a protected characteristic. It is now up to the Government to show that while legislation is thought the best and most appropriate way of dealing with all the other protected characteristics in the Act, caste is in some way qualitatively different and therefore needs a different set of remedies. They must show also that the nature of caste discrimination is fundamentally different from discrimination with regard to the eight existing characteristics, each of which has its own peculiarities. What they all have in common—and also share with caste—is that a person with the characteristic in question is seen as being worthy of disrespect and of being treated in a less favourable manner than someone who belongs to the same group as the discriminator. If the Government can conjure up a description of the process of discrimination that applies to the eight existing characteristics but not to caste, I would be surprised—but I hope that the noble Baroness will make an attempt in her reply.
I will end on a marginally less pessimistic note. In her letter of 6 December, the Secretary of State said that she hoped to make an announcement on this matter in the new year. I interpret that as meaning January. At least we will know where we stand. Both those who believe passionately in the need for this legislation and those who believe that caste discrimination should be tackled by other means will be able to take the Government’s views and decision into account when they make up their mind on how to vote in future elections.
This is not a repeat of the same cast on this subject—I did not mean that and I beg noble Lords’ pardon. I say to the Government that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, was too kind about the previous Government spending time thinking about whether there was enough trouble here to necessitate legislation. I find it utterly impossible to explain to somebody how it is that in this country we do not apply an absolutely clear rule that people are not discriminated against because of what they are—from people who are homosexual at one end to people who are of a particular colour at the other, or people who happen to have particular views. All of them become vulnerable unless we hold to that view, because we are all a bit odd in one way or another. We expect to be treated perfectly properly whatever our position, background, colour, sexual orientation or anything else.
It is impossible—this is a very difficult thing for a politician to say—to build a case for suggesting that caste is different from any of these other things. Having been a Minister for longer than most, I am always suspicious of Ministers who write letters in which certain sentences are almost incomprehensible. It means that they do not want to write the sentence that they ought to write because they suspect that if it is comprehensible people might think that it is not adequate. I make no such claim in these circumstances. However, those of us who listened to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, read out a sentence, had some difficulty in understanding what it meant—whether or not we believed that it might mean something with which we might agree.
All that I say to Ministers is that there are no formulations. Whatever may have been written down, there are no formulations which can get out of the simple statement that it is wrong to discriminate against people on the basis of their caste. I want to say something even tougher. The standards of our nation are not up for grabs. If people want to live in this country according to any system they have to accept the fundamental standards that we have. If you really want to cause difficulties, you do so by saying that “this is a very old view of theirs”, and they have it and it may be pretty nasty: I am afraid that that is not on. In this country we treat everybody equally and properly. That is the basis of our democracy. We cannot accept anything less than that. I do not care what organisation thinks differently.
You could go even further with this argument. You could argue that the positions of all sorts of totalitarian regimes are acceptable, because you can still find some people who support them. But you cannot possibly argue that, and we should not. I hope that the least that the Minister will be able to say is that although this may not be precisely what she wants, she will go away to make sure. I think that there is an overwhelming majority in this House and in the other House who say that caste cannot be treated in any way that is different from race or sexual orientation.
My Lords, we have had another powerful debate and the speeches have clearly been impassioned and important. As this issue is so important, the Government have given careful consideration to whether the power in the Equality Act 2010 that would make caste an aspect of race should be exercised.
Let me be clear. We do not think that anyone should suffer prejudice or discrimination, whether because of caste or of any personal characteristic. Such behaviour is wrong. It should not be condoned, whether or not it is prohibited by legislation. However, before bringing in legislation, a responsible Government will ensure that that is the most appropriate way of tackling a specific problem; that the solution does not go substantially wider than the problem that it is meant to address; and that it does not create needless red tape, additional and unnecessary cost burdens for business. That is the essence of what this Bill is about.
Turning to the NIESR research, I am aware that it suggests that some caste discrimination and harassment may exist in areas covered by discrimination legislation. The report also states that it is impossible categorically to determine whether caste discrimination within the meaning of the act has occurred:
“Proof either way was impossible, particularly because evidence was gathered from a single person only”.
That is not saying the same as that there is now a compelling case to legislate. Using the letter of my noble friend Lord McNally, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, made her point about whether NIESR had shown that discrimination had occurred. We do not believe that the debate turns on whether there is any discrimination on caste grounds. The debate is about whether legislation is a proportionate response, given the range and nature of the problem.
In response to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, we are not resisting legislation in deference to high-caste views. We are wary of adopting a legislative approach, because we are concerned that that would not be a proportionate solution. The noble and right reverend Lord’s analogy, relating as it did to race, is not therefore appropriate. That said, we must consider whether legislation is necessary. There are examples in the NIESR report of incidents, such as vandalising property or threatening behaviour, that may constitute criminal activity and so would already be captured by domestic law.
Your Lordships should—and, I am sure, do—bear in mind that once legislation was enacted, ensuring the prevention of caste discrimination would become the legal responsibility not just of every public authority but of every private employer, service provider and school throughout England, Scotland and Wales, irrespective of their size or location and of whether they had ever encountered caste or even knew what it was. While I understand the arguments made by my noble friend Lord Deben—
I will finish the point that I was about to make. It is not that the legislation would catch all of those public bodies; it is that the process of ensuring that they are properly familiarised to comply with the law could, in our view, be disproportionate to dealing with the discrimination that we are discussing.
My point relates to “disproportionate”. We have legislated in our discrimination law about Travellers. There are actually not very many Travellers in this country but they suffer terrible discrimination. There are thousands of Dalits living in the UK who potentially can be discriminated against, so I am not sure what the proportion is that the noble Baroness is referring to.
The noble Baroness makes a helpful point in drawing a comparison with Gypsies and Travellers. It is domestic case law, not specific legislation, that has determined what we are discussing for Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers and Scottish Gypsy Travellers. They are distinct racial groups who are covered by our equality legislation. It is case law that has done that, rather than legislation.
As the Minister referred specifically to me, I will say that I have great difficulty with “proportionality” here because it seems to me that if one person is discriminated against, I have a duty to protect them. I do not understand proportionality in these terms. If the law does not reach a position in which someone is found to be discriminated against in the serious ways we are talking about, we had better put it like that. To say that it is disproportionate is like saying—let me be very blunt—that if not many people are murdered, we do not actually need to have a law on murder. I am sorry, we do; it is not acceptable. It is the one area where disproportion is not credible. This is what really worries me about this argument.
I understand the point that my noble friend makes, but it takes us back to the point about evidence. I refer again to the NIESR research, which suggests that some caste discrimination and harassment may exist but also says that,
“it is impossible to categorically determine whether caste discrimination and harassment within the meaning of the Act has occurred”.
I am so sorry to interrupt the Minister again; I know that she has been very patient. However, if the argument is that you do not deal with this problem because very small numbers of people are discriminated against on the grounds of caste, what does she have to say about gender reassignment, which is one of the protected characteristics? Should we have avoided placing gender reassignment on the list of protected characteristics because not many people are affected by it?
In simple terms, the protected characteristics are characteristics that we all share; we all have a sex, a race and an age. I think the point in dispute was debated on previous legislation.
I will conclude by saying that we have thought long and hard about this legislative power and about why making this change in a Bill designed to encourage enterprise and streamline regulation would be inappropriate. However, I am very happy to accept the noble Baroness’s proposal of a meeting. We also acknowledge that uncertainty as to what is to happen on the issue of caste discrimination in Great Britain helps no one.
My noble friend made reference to the letter that he received from my right honourable friend Maria Miller and her reference to the fact that we expect to be able to make a fuller announcement on the Government’s intentions on this matter shortly. I certainly will do all in my power to ensure that, as far as is possible, we do so before we get to the next stage of this Bill.
The Minister has quoted a couple of times from the report to the effect that it was not clear that this particular form of harassment was carried out on grounds of caste. If she looks at the report, I think she will see that that refers to something quite specific and in no way undermines the overall conclusion that there is clear evidence of discrimination on the grounds of caste. I think she will find that that uncertainty about caste refers to a particular kind of harassment. It does not undermine the main findings. In the light of her reply, I wish to go back to the evidence that I gave just now about my personal interview with someone who clearly had been discriminated against on grounds of caste. When they went to their union adviser, while they were very sympathetic, the union adviser said that a case could not be taken on the grounds of caste because it was not in the law. Will the Minister suggest on what grounds that person should therefore go to law if there is no law at the moment which applies to a person’s being discriminated against?
Without the full facts of the case, I am afraid that it is not possible for me to respond to an individual case in that way. The best I can do is, as I have indicated, to say that I am very happy to have a meeting to discuss matters further outside the Committee. However, I know that it is important that we now draw the debate today to a close.
I say a big thank you to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, because I am honoured to be fighting alongside them again—the old team is back. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Deben, enormously for his comments. I remember some issues from when I was a Minister—I think “contaminated blood” was the one that haunted me. The Government just got it wrong: we got it wrong all the way through. This Government came and dealt with it in the way in which my Government should have done. This is one of those issues. The Government are getting this wrong and they need to remedy it. I have enormous respect for the Minister and I am very grateful that she has agreed to have those meetings. I am hopeful that when we have those meetings we will make some progress. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 28ZD withdrawn.
Committee adjourned at 8.09 pm.