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 4:15 pm on 16th October 2012.

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Photo of Chuka Umunna Chuka Umunna Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 4:15 pm, 16th October 2012

I agree that it is absolutely outrageous. Furthermore, on the issue of simplifying regulation, let me say this to Government Members: the promotion and protection of equality and human rights is not, and should not be seen as, regulation. The unrelenting pursuit of these things helps to make this the fair and decent country that Britain is to live in. It is something that we should celebrate.

What is the Government’s defence? What is their justification for pressing ahead with including clause 52 in the Bill? In Committee, the Minister’s predecessor—she did the same today—sought to rely heavily on the comments of the commission’s general counsel in the public evidence session. I have read that evidence in full, and it is true that at the end of it he said:

“The commission is not opposed to the Bill.”––[Official Report, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Public Bill Committee, 19 June 2012; c. 80, Q180.]

As the general counsel made clear, however, it is not for him or the commission to take a position on the Bill. It is a political matter for the Government. That said, he made some interesting comments to which, I note, the Minister did not refer. He was clear that resources were being cut. He said that

“if the commission is given fewer resources, we will have fewer staff and less money to do the work that we would want to do.”––[Official Report, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Public Bill Committee, 19 June 2012; c. 74, Q162.]—[Interruption.]

From a sedentary position, the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, Matthew Hancock, says, “Who racked up the debt?” I do not think that we can put a price on human rights and equality in this country.

On the commission’s remit, the general counsel was unequivocal. He said:

“This Bill reduces our powers and our remit… We would prefer to keep the remit we have, so we have not promoted the amendments in the Bill.”

Finally, on the repeal of the general duty in section 3 of the Equality Act 2006, he said that the section

“sets out a vision for a kind of society that I guess most people here would want to live in”––[Official Report, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Public Bill Committee, 19 June 2012; c. 79, Q176-79.]

and confirmed that the repeal of the duty “lowers the vision”.

Before moving on, it would be remiss of me not to turn to the Minister’s comments about the commission’s recent problems. Yes, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Public Accounts Committee have been very critical of the commission, and, yes, the National Audit Office has qualified its accounts, but none of these inquiries concluded that its remit should be changed in the way the Government are doing in the Bill. The most recent accounts were unqualified, and the running of the organisation has not been helped by the Government preventing it from recruiting a permanent chief executive and senior management team for more than two years.

These recent problems are hopefully in the past and certainly do not justify the winding down of the commission.

The Minister, and the Secretary of State in his letter to me earlier this month, said that it was not the Government’s intention to water down, wind down or abolish the commission. Nevertheless, we know that many Government Members would like to see the back of the commission.