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 5:30 pm on 16th October 2012.

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Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Equalities) 5:30 pm, 16th October 2012

That is absolutely right. It is also important to recognise that in an employer-employee relationship, there is an imbalance of power, even in many of the smallest businesses. One thing that the statutory questionnaire procedure helps to do is redress that power imbalance—that has been specifically noted in European directives as one of the purposes of such procedures. It is a regret that Ministers have decided that that protection for employees should be removed.

The statutory questionnaire procedure promotes efficiency in the workplace—cases can be abandoned or issues clarified early—but the fact that the judiciary has come out in the Government’s consultation largely in favour of it suggests that it also leads to efficiencies in the courtroom and the tribunal, because the issues will have been well analysed and distilled. Given the many pressures being brought to bear on employment tribunals, I would have thought that the Government would want to give serious consideration to the cost-effectiveness of the statutory questionnaire procedure in respect of tribunals.

These highly regrettable measures have been thrown into the legislation at the eleventh hour. It appears that they are more a sop to the prejudices of a small number of business organisations rather than a recognition of any business hostility to legislative provisions that have existed for many years.

Finally, I should mention what is happening to the general landscape of places where people can go for redress and advice. My hon. Friends have mentioned the ending of the commission’s grants programme to the voluntary sector; changes to its helpline provision; and the ending of its ability to offer conciliation services in non-employment matters. As the Minister well knows, that is happening against a backdrop of swingeing cuts to legal aid funding and to local authority funding for advice organisations. Those who have suffered discrimination or injustice now have real difficulty even to get to the means of presenting and taking their case. I would understand it if the Minister argued that that is not exactly the EHRC’s core function if it were not for the fact that all other provision of such advice and information is being dismantled. It is extremely difficulty for the Minister to argue that there is no need for the EHRC to provide such a service when the same service is being removed from every possible place where people in need might look for it.

The Opposition are distressed and saddened by the proposals in the Government’s new clauses and amendments. We are concerned that they speak either to Government Members’ intrinsic hostility to the concept of equalities and the landscape to protect them, or to a casual dismantling of provisions that work extremely well. We are concerned that the signal sent to wider society is a negative one—the suggestion is either that equality is a job done, which it plainly is not, or that it is no longer important, even though there is agreement across the House that it is very important.

I hope the Minister takes the opportunity to think again this afternoon about some of the Government’s proposals, but I can absolutely assure her that if that does not happen, the subject will be a matter of live debate in the House of Lords. Their lordships take a great interest in equality and social justice and will be very concerned about provisions that appear to weaken the institutional infrastructure to protect and promote equality. I look forward to many more robust arguments. I hope that, in the end, the provisions will be seen as damaging and that they will be withdrawn, so that we will be able to move forward as an exemplar country in our commitment to equality and our determination to make continuing progress.