New Clause 12 — Equality Act 2010: third party harassment of employees and applicants

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Attorney-General – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 16th October 2012.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 4:00 pm, 16th October 2012

The hon. Gentleman does not need to worry about that because under existing duties in sections 8 and 9 of the 2006 Act, the EHRC still has all the requirements and focus it needs. In the consultation, a range of stakeholders spoke about the repeal of the good relations duty in section 10, and whether it was the Association of Chief Police Officers stating that a greater emphasis on its responsibilities in regulating the new public sector duty is broadly supported, or Stonewall saying that the need for the good relations function has not been sufficiently demonstrated, a wide-range of stakeholders did not seem to think that there was a problem.

We are reducing the frequency with which the commission is required to publish a report on progress from every three years to every five years, and by allowing a longer time scale between reports, we believe the commission will be able to capture more meaningful change over time. We accept, however, that seismic societal changes or developments do not always happen conveniently every five years, and there is no reason why the commission cannot report more frequently if it wishes.

I know that many Opposition Members have concerns about the repeal of the good relations duty in section 10 of the 2006 Act, but we are clear that a separate mandate is not necessary. The commission’s most valuable work in this area—for example its inquiry into disability-related harassment—can be carried out under its core equality and human rights functions, which we are not amending. That view is supported by the evidence I have outlined that was provided to the Public Bill Committee by the EHRC’s general counsel and other stakeholders.

We are repealing the power associated with the good relations duty in section 19 of the 2006 Act because other organisations gather the information that that legislation permits the commission to monitor. For example, since 2011, police forces in England and Wales have been required to collect data on suspected hate crime relating to race, religion or belief, disability, sexual orientation and gender reassignment. The commission will retain the ability to review and use those data under its existing equality and human rights duties which—I repeat—we are not amending. In Scotland, where the EHRC’s human rights remit is limited, the Scottish Human Rights Commission will be able to use its powers accordingly.

On the power to make arrangements for the provision of conciliation in non-workplace discrimination disputes, as set out in section 27 of the 2006 Act, unfortunately the commission has consistently failed to deliver a well-targeted, cost-effective service. The free conciliation service funded until March 2012 by the EHRC offered poor value for taxpayers’ money. Average costs were more than £4,000 per case, compared with £600 to £850 when going through the Ministry of Justice website, “Find a civil mediation provider”.

A good and effective conciliation service should—of course—be available to those who need it, to help people resolve disputes without recourse to the courts. Good quality, accessible and effective mediation is readily available at reasonable cost throughout England, Wales and Scotland through the MOJ’s website that provides access to a full range of civil mediation council-accredited mediators at set fees, and in Scotland through the Scottish Mediation Network’s “find a mediator” website. For that reason, we are repealing the commission’s power to make provision for conciliation. The new Equality Advisory and Support Service, launched at the beginning of this month, will signpost individuals with discrimination disputes to those alternative, more cost-effective, mediation services. In evidence in Committee, the general counsel of the commission agreed that it is not

“particularly important for us to provide the service for conciliation.”––[Official Report, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Public Bill Committee, 19 June 2012; c. 79, Q175.]

Contrary to accusations from the Opposition, these legislative measures do not represent an attack on equalities or undermine the commission’s important role. On the contrary, we believe that they will help the commission to become more effective in delivering its core functions of promoting equality of opportunity and human rights, and creating a fair environment for jobs and growth. I am therefore unable to support amendment 56, and I commend the Government amendments to the House.