Race Relations Board

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th December 1969.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hamling.]

12.36 a.m.

Photo of Sir Charles Taylor Sir Charles Taylor , Eastbourne

I wish for a very short time to raise the subject of the Race Relations Board. I am very grateful to the Principal Clerk for the advice he has given me about the debate and for informing me that there are strict limits within which the debate must be confined. I shall, therefore, try to keep within those bounds of order and not incur your displeasure, Mr. Speaker, by departing from the very narrow limits prescribed.

I must point out that, as the Home Secretary is responsible for the appointment of the members of the board, presumably he has the power to sack them. For example, if a member of the board were to go mad, I assume that the Home Secretary would think it proper to remove him from the board. It appears to me that in a recent case, to which I have already drawn considerable attention—the case of the Scottish doctor advertising for a Scottish cook—not only one of the members of the board had gone off his head but the whole lot had and that, in consequence, all these rather pompous, idiotic asses should be removed.

We remember Mr. Mark Bonham Carter when he was a Member of the House and when he sat on the bench behind me. We realised then that he had little sense of humour. When Parliament passed the Race Relations Act I am sure that it thought that the Act would be administered in a sensible way—that there might be some anomalies, but that the anomalies could be ironed out in practice. For example, in the enforcement of law and order a police officer frequently turns a blind eye to an unimportant, petty infringement of a regulation and, perhaps with a friendly smile, says, "I should not try doing that again." If such human relationships are not established, almost any Act of Parliament, particularly Acts which have been passed by the House in too much of a hurry, might become a laughing stock.

There is only one other example that I want to quote about the Race Relations Board to show why I think that the Home Secretary should dismiss its members because of their lack of sense. It is the fact that the board has written a rather pompous letter to the British Hotels and Restaurants Association saying that, under the strict interpretation of the law, a French restaurant in London can advertise for a French cook; a Chinese restaurant in London can advertise for a Chinese cook; but no one may advertise for an Indian cook to work in an Indian restaurant or for a British cook to work in a British restaurant. If that letter had not been sent, it would not have been right for me to raise that example of the activities of the Race Relations Board tonight. But, as the members of the board have shown themselves to be so lacking in understanding and common sense, they all ought to be removed and replaced by people more suitable for the job.

These are matters about which people in the country feel strongly. As the Under-Secretary of State probably realises, I have received many hundreds of letters supporting the case which I have raised about tile Scottish doctor and the Scottish cook. Many of the writers of those letters want to see the Race Relations Act work and be successful, but they feel, as I do, that the chances of success are pretty remote if such idiotic interpretations are placed upon the Act.

I understand that the Home Secretary has to give his approval to any general arrangements made by the board in accordance with which it is to discharge its functions. The Home Secretary could help us there. I know that he may not give directions to the board or require information from it, and that he may not interfere with its day-to-day actions; but a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse, and I hope that these evening's short debate will show the board that Parliament wishes the Act to be administered in a humane and sensible fashion.

12.42 a.m.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Barking

I entirely agree with the last few words uttered by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor), though, perhaps, it would not be unfair to say that he has things a little out of proportion. The Race Relations Board includes a number of reasonably intelligent people. It may be that a junior clerk took some decision, for instance, about the Indian restaurant, which I find extraordinarily difficult to understand, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman in thinking that it is remarkably silly to say that an Indian restaurant may not advertise for an Indian cook.

Photo of Sir Charles Taylor Sir Charles Taylor , Eastbourne

It was not a silly clerk. It was the senior conciliation officer, or whatever he is called.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Barking

In that case, he was not being very conciliatory. To that extent, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, for, clearly, the Race Relations Board must carry out its duties with a reasonable sense of proportion.

I regard the race relations laws which we have passed as of immense importance. The board has a vastly important job to do. On the whole, it has, I believe, been doing it sensibly. Obviously, the occasional slip-ups are highlighted by publicity. I cannot blame anyone who ridicules the case of the Scottish cook, the Indian cook, and so on, but, in the main, the board has been doing a good job, so far as I know. It has many achievements to its credit in reconciliation between the races.

Part of the trouble in relation to the Scots, in particular, may have arisen from a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word "race". In any case, "race" is rather a bad word. It dates only from the 17th century, I think; it was an Italian word with a bad ancestry. There is no racial difference between the Scots, the English, the Germans and the French. There are ethnic differences between the Scots, the English, the Germans and the French on one side and the Indians or Africans on the other, but these ethnic differences should not be confused with national differences. The Race Relations Board should concentrate, as no doubt it mainly does, on problems which arise between those people who are a distinctively ethnic groups.

12.45 a.m.

Photo of Sir Brandon Rhys Williams Sir Brandon Rhys Williams , Kensington South

I do not think it is necessary for me to declare to the House my interest in the matter because it is well known that I work for one of the most prominent firms in the country concerned with recruitment advertising.

Briefly, I hope that the matter, which has attracted a good deal of mirth, will not be regarded as something trivial which affects only domestic occupations or rather recondite cases. The essence of our work, if we are to act responsibly for clients, is that we should put into advertisements which appear in newspapers precisely what we mean. In dealing with the question of the Scottish cook, the Race Relations Board has given a good deal of anxiety to people who, like myself, have from time to time to draft advertisements where there is a fear that we may be infringing the law.

I do not want to say any more, but I hope that the Minister, in dealing with the matter, will not take the view that it is merely a trivial matter about which the less said the better but will recognise that it is a serious point which deserves to be corrected.

12.46 a.m.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I assure the hon. Member for Kensington, South (Sir B. Rhys Williams) that I do not regard this as a trivial matter. Nevertheless, perhaps if I explain what my right hon. Friend's responsibilities are in this matter it will put in perspective the point that was made by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) at the very beginning of his speech—the question of the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend and then the responsibilities of the Race Relations Board.

The board was first established under the Race Relations Act 1965 with the responsibility of securing compliance with the provisions of those parts of the Act which dealt with racial discrimination. The board was reconstituted under the 1968 Act, and the extension of the race relations legislation over a much wider field—housing and employment—placed a much heavier duty on it. It was, therefore, necessary to strengthen it both numerically and in terms of experience. My right hon. Friend's first responsibility, then, is the appointment of the chairman and other members of the board.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned Mr. Mark Bonham Carter, who was the chairman of the original board and was reappointed, and a first class chairman he has proved to be. Among the other members of the board are Sir Roy Wilson, President of the Industrial Court since 1961; Mr. Leslie Blakeman, Director of Labour Relations of the Ford Motor Company, and Lord Constantine; and there are many others. These are not insignificant people.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend is responsible for approving certain of the arrangements made by the board for the discharge of its functions under the Act. In the debate on the Race Relations Bill the principal concern was to ensure that complaints from the employment field were dealt with by a committee of the board which would include, among others, those members of the board with particular knowledge of employment matters. This committee is chaired by Sir Roy Wilson. The point that I am making here is that this is an aspect in which my right hon. Friend, in carrying out the function that I mentioned, is interested.

Thirdly, my right hon. Friend is responsible for laying before Parliament the board's annual report. The board's report for 1968–69 was laid before Parliament in May. It was delayed because of the problems at the Stationery Office. I only wish that the very intelligent report had received one-hundredth of the interest that the case at Eastbourne evoked. The report shows the excellent work that is done.

My right hon. Friend's fourth responsibility is for the financing and staffing of the board. He is responsible for the budget and the establishment, though not for the individual appointments, which are a matter for the board itself.

That puts in perspective what the hon. Member for Eastbourne perceived at the beginning of his speech, and—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will not mind my saying it—this is why we kept carefully off the case under issue, because I do not believe that that would be in order.

The board is responsible for the day-to-day conduct of its affairs, and for the work of the regional conciliation committees which it appoints. It has been highly successful in recruiting for the committees, and the names of the people on the committees in the various regions are mentioned in the reports. They come from all walks of life.

The board's main responsibility is to secure compliance with the law and, by a process of conciliation supported where necessary by proceedings in the civil courts, to resolve differences arising out of the provisions of the Act. The board or a conciliation committee has a responsibility under the Act to receive a complaint made in due form and within the prescribed time limit. There is no discretion to disregard a complaint, whatever its apparent merits or the apparent motives of the complainant. The board is then required to make such inquiries as it thinks necessary with regard to the facts alleged in the complaint and form an opinion whether any person has done any act which is unlawful.

Again, except in so far as it may decide the extent of the inquiries to be made, there is no provision for the exercise of discretion.

Photo of Sir Charles Taylor Sir Charles Taylor , Eastbourne

I said it was a silly Act

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

What the hon. Gentleman did was to criticise the people who were carrying out the Act. That is a completely different matter.

Where the board's opinion is that an unlawful act has been done, it must use its best endeavours by communication with the parties concerned to secure a settlement of any differences and a satisfactory written assurance against any repetition of the act. If the board cannot obtain a settlement and assurance—and this has so far occurred in a very few cases—it must decide whether to bring proceedings in the county courts.

The board is also required, on completing an investigation, to give a written notification to the parties stating, first, whether or not it has been able to form an opinion with respect to the complaint and, if it has, what opinion; second, whether or not it has secured a settlement and assurance; and, third, what action, if any, it proposes to take in the matter. This procedure was properly followed in the Eastbourne case and, as far as I am aware, in every other case which has come to the notice of the board and its conciliation committees. Difficulties arose in the Eastbourne case, first, because a member of the public chose to make a formal complaint about something which I should have thought scarcely merited a complaint, and, second, because of the difficulties inherent in the advertisement provisions of the Act.

On this point of the Act, which is the only other major point that I think I should refer to, in this House we had to decide whether, on the one hand, to make discriminatory advertisements unlawful only if they referred to an act which was itself declared unlawful under the Act. This would have had certain attractions. It could be argued that where it is not unlawful to discriminate—for example, in engagement for domestic employment or in the letting of lodgings in a small boarding house—it is illogical to make it unlawful for the employer or lessor to advertise the fact that he will discriminate. It could also be argued that people will be put to the unnecessary trouble of applying for certain jobs or types of accommodation from which they can lawfully be excluded. That was one approach.

The other approach was to make all discriminatory advertisements unlawful, recognising that they represent a particularly blatant and objectionable form of discrimination which can give great offence and is open to considerable abuse. Moreover, all discrimination on grounds of race or colour is undesirable, even though the Act provides that in certain circumstances some acts of discrimination shall not be unlawful. Provision that all discriminatory advertisements are to be unlawful requires an employer, for example, to exercise his discrimination personally, instead of impersonally by means of an advertisement. Parliament, therefore, decided that the Bill should adopt this wider approach.

It was at this time considered desirable to make some provision for advertisements which, though they might be technically discriminatory, were clearly unobjectionable. Section 6(2) accordingly introduced exceptions for advertisements in respect of employment abroad, and in respect of aliens required for employment here.

In spite of the best efforts of the Parliamentary draftsman, it was not found practicable to take the latter further by extending it to advertisements for the employment of Commonwealth citizens in this country, since this would have permitted the "English only" type of advertisement which would have negated the whole purpose of the section. Once "English only" advertisements were prohibited, so, too, were "Scottish only" advertisements.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The best legal minds have put their brains to this question and there are pages in the OFFICIAL REPORT dealing with the matter. It has not been found possible to deal with this issue, given the two aspects of the matter to which I referred.

Photo of Sir Charles Taylor Sir Charles Taylor , Eastbourne

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) pointed out all the problems that would arise when the Act was going through the House?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

We were all aware of the problems. Nobody has been caught out. It was thought sensible to adopt a wider approach to deal with the problem of discrimination, and it was not found possible to hedge back, as it were.

There was no question whatever of the board or the conciliation committee harrying the advertiser in this case. A reasonable letter was sent to him on behalf of the conciliation committee calling his attention to the wording of the advertisement and the provisions of the Act. The board did not consider that any further action needed to be taken.[Interruption.]—The person who raised the matter in the first instance had a peculiar approach to the problem of race relations—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. The Minister is drifting into day-to-day matters for which the Race Relations Board is responsible.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I will drift no further, of course, Mr. Speaker. There are responsibilities which the Home Secretary has for the board, but this aspect is not one of them, though I understand why the matter exercises the minds of hon. Members.

The Race Relations Board has done, and is doing, an excellent job, but in the context of cases which cause amusement, it must not be forgotten that these were entered into by Parliament. If there is any criticism, it is of Parliament and not of those who exercise the functions of the board.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Barking

Is it really the case, as my hon. Friend says, that the board has no discretion whatever, even to disregard obviously mad or frivolous complaints?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I said that the board had no discretion. I was absolutely firm on this point.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to One o'clock.