I beg to move, That this House
disagrees with Lords amendment 35.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendments 36 to 38 and Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) to words so restored to the Bill.
Lords amendment 39.
Lords amendment 40, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (h) in lieu, and amendments (i) and (ii) to Government amendments (a), (b) and (c) in lieu.
May I say what a great pleasure it is to see you back in the Chair after your time away, Madam Deputy Speaker? I am sure the whole House will wish to echo that sentiment.
As has already been discussed in this place and the other place, the measures in this Bill aim to promote long-term growth and reduce regulatory burdens on business. Consideration in the House of Lords has led to important changes to the Bill, the great majority of which the Government believe strengthen and improve it, and we will consider those changes when we discuss the second group of amendments. The first group of amendments deals with the few issues where the Government do not support the change proposed in the House of Lords. We have reflected carefully in the light of the strong views expressed and I will take each issue in turn.
As I outlined on Report, we want a strong, independent Equality and Human Rights Commission, and a great deal has already been achieved since we last debated that matter in the House. We have appointed a new chair of the EHRC, who has been welcomed by Members from all parties, and six new members to its board. We have announced a budget, agreed with the EHRC, to enable it to continue its important work.
Under the leadership of Baroness O’Neill, we are confident that the organisation will go from strength to strength, but for any organisation to be successful, it must have clarity of purpose. The general duty is not a core purpose; it is a much more vague and aspirational statement. Although I am sure that people can agree with the sentiments it expresses, it does not help the commission or anyone else to understand clearly, in a focused way, what it is there to do and, importantly, what it can achieve. That is why we are seeking to repeal the general duty. The change will not hinder the EHRC’s ability to fulfil its important duties and responsibilities.
We are also changing the commission’s monitoring duty to ensure that it reports on its core functions, rather than on the state of society generally. That will enable the EHRC to continue to promote equality of opportunity, tackle discrimination, and protect and promote human rights, but more effectively than before. It will also enable the EHRC to gain the that respect hon. Members want it to have as our equality body and national human rights institution.
The EHRC’s objectives are clearly outlined in sections 8 and 9 of the Equality Act 2006. As I have said, although section 3 of the Act and the general duty paint a broad overarching vision, they do not focus specifically on equality, diversity and human rights as outlined in sections 8 and 9, which is what the EHRC needs to focus on day to day.
The House should remember that the commission will still have the responsibility and duty to promote understanding of equality and diversity; to encourage good practice in relation to equality and diversity; to promote equality of opportunity; to promote awareness and understanding of rights under the Equality Acts; to enforce the Equality Acts; to work towards the elimination of unlawful discrimination and harassment; to promote the understanding of the importance of human rights; to encourage good practice in relation to human rights; to promote awareness, understanding and protection of human rights; and to encourage public authorities to comply with section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Therefore, the EHRC duties that remain are significant and wide-ranging—its remit is wide and it has a huge amount of work to do—but they are not the broad, overarching and rather more vague aspirations outlined in the general duty.
I am disappointed that the Government are resisting Lords amendment 35. Is the Minister aware of the fact, and does she agree, that the general duty has considerable symbolic importance? Following the debate in the House of Lords, the EHRC this week acknowledged that symbolic importance as an indication of the emphasis we place on equality of opportunity.
I understand the hon. Lady’s disappointment and the arguments put forward in the other place. She is right to an extent that the debate has become largely symbolic. In a sense, I would argue that it has become purely symbolic. If we were writing the 2006 Act from the beginning and that long list of equality and human rights duties that I have just outlined, people would not say, “Those duties are not sufficient.” Everything that the EHRC wants to do can be done under the existing duties, so she is right that the debate is to some extent symbolic. I do not believe that our measure will have an impact on the day-to-day work of the commission.
To follow what Kate Green has said, I remind the House that John Wadham told the Public Bill Committee that he does not regard the change as an attack on the EHRC’s remit. There was no worry in that respect. Since that time, the EHRC made a vague and odd press statement, but John Wadham said that the change does not affect the philosophy, approach or goals of the organisation.
I take on board my hon. Friend’s point. We discussed on Report the EHRC council’s evidence to the Committee. As he says, repealing the general duty does not impact on those equalities and human rights duties. There is no suggestion that section 3 of the 2006 Act has any interpretive value in relation to other legislation, including that Act—it has no specific legal effect in and of itself. I understand the concerns, but I challenge hon. Members to suggest what concrete things the measure stops the EHRC doing. The EHRC has the powers and tools it needs to do its important work, which is how it should be.
I will give way to the hon. Lady, but then I want to make progress—I am conscious of what hon. Members have said about the importance of time.
I raised similar points on Second Reading. What does the hon. Lady think the impact will be on the international community’s view of the Government’s equality and human rights priorities? As many have stated, the international community could see the measure as a downgrading of the Government’s equality and human rights priorities.
The hon. Lady raises an important point and gives me the opportunity to put firmly on the record the importance that the Government attach to the EHRC as the national human rights institution, and the importance of the dialogue and discussions we have had with the International Co-ordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions, which will continue. It is vital that the EHRC maintain its A-rated status in that regard. I am therefore asking the House to reject Lords amendments 35 and 36, but I hope I have provided reassurance that the EHRC will be able to fulfil its important role in our society.
I am sorry, but I did say that I wanted to move on after taking that last intervention.
We recognise the strength of feeling and the views expressed on caste in another place, and the importance of the issue. It is important to put it on the record that the Government recognise that caste prejudice remains in the UK, not least as outlined in the 2010 National Institute of Economic and Social Research report. It is important to recognise that the problem is entirely contained within Hindu and Sikh communities, which is different from other forms of prejudice and discrimination, which can be much more widespread in society. That is why we are working with those communities to address the problem through an education programme supported by leading community organisations. That will be backed up by further examination by the EHRC, which reports later this year. Last month, the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend Mrs Grant, outlined the extra funding that had been made available for the “Talk for a Change” pilot project, so we can see how attitudes could be changed within those key communities.
Money for education and understanding is welcome and important. I am glad that the Government recognise that caste discrimination is a problem, but in doing so, why does the Minister not take this opportunity to mention it in law? Some who have tried to drag cases through employment tribunals and others have had great difficulty because caste prejudice is not mentioned specifically in law. If we understand that there is a problem with a form of prejudice, we should try to legislate as well as educate to eliminate it.
I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is a complex issue, as the previous Government also recognised. There is not one voice from the communities about the right way to tackle this issue, or whether legislation is the best solution to the problems that have been identified. That is why, when the Equality Act 2010 was passed, the previous Government took a power to enable them to introduce caste as a characteristic protected against discrimination through secondary legislation. But the communities are very concerned about the possibility of increasing stigma by using legislation to try to deal with this issue—
My hon. Friend’s predecessor as Equalities Minister was clear that the evidence was compelling and that the Government should act. Because the Government have not acted, as Jeremy Corbyn pointed out, cases of caste discrimination that people would like to bring are being held up. Cannot the Minister understand that the Government need to make a decision today to recognise caste discrimination and put it in legislation?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. We have spoken before about this issue, because it affects many of his constituents. It does him great credit that he speaks out for them and what they would like to see happen. In terms of the evidence of whether legislation is required at this point, we are not yet convinced that it is the right way forward. Some discrimination cases can already be brought under employment law. Some cases of the operation of prejudice would fall outside discrimination law, but might be able to be brought under other forms of law, such as constructive dismissal legislation. The NIESR report contained a range of cases, many of which do not actually fall within the scope of discrimination law, such as prejudice within society outside of the workplace or the sale of goods and services. Therefore the number of cases that would be potentially covered is quite small. A range of groups has expressed significant concerns about legislation on this issue, including many Sikh and Hindu groups, some of which represent low castes, such as Gujarati Arya Kshatriya Mahasabha UK, the Sikh Council UK, the National Council of Hindu Temples UK, the Rita Trust, the Hindu Forum of Britain, Vishwa Hindu Parishad UK, the National Hindu Students Forum UK and Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh UK. All those organisations have expressed their concern about legislating, and we need to listen to their voices.
I have a lot of time and respect for the work that my hon. Friend is doing on this, but there is real disappointment in the House that the Government are not proceeding on this. It is not exclusively a matter for the Hindu community or one that should be decided by the leadership of Hindu organisations, which—if I may say so—may in some cases be facilitating the caste system here in the UK. We need a robust response from the Government very quickly.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about organisations that represent different parts of the Hindu and Sikh communities, and that is why it is important to point out that they do not only represent high castes: some of them represent low castes as well, and there is concern across the spectrum. It is a serious issue that requires serious consideration, and the Government are not ruling out legislation. We have the power to legislate under secondary legislation: what I am saying is that we are not convinced today that that is necessary.
I moved the compromise amendment that was accepted by the whole House. It provided that the Government would legislate if they could identify incidents of caste discrimination. The report identifies such incidents. It was not a matter of the form of legislation: it was a commitment to legislate. The Government are taking an extreme step backwards from what was agreed by the whole House in 2010, when it was opposed by those same organisations that the Minister has listed today. Traditional Hindus opposed Mahatma Ghandi’s attempt to outlaw caste discrimination in 1933.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and the work he has done on this issue over many years. I reiterate some of the concerns that we have heard from those groups. For example, GAKM UK, an organisation that represents a community officially recognised as low caste in India, fears that by enacting this provision, Parliament could undo all the work done by communities over the past 20 years to try to remove the differentiation by caste in all aspects of life. I am not saying that these are not important issues or that ultimately it would not be helpful to enact the provision, I am saying that we need to proceed with great caution, because the communities affected have significant differences of view. That is why we want to ensure that the EHRC makes a further assessment of the views and evidence on this issue, on which it will report back later this year. The Government have already said, through the work and the statement of the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend Mrs Grant, and through discussions in the other place, that if the assessment shows that we need to legislate, the option remains open to us.
I have raised this issue with my hon. Friend. The amendments, on a general duty of equality and on caste discrimination, both had very large majorities in the House of Lords, and I am very sympathetic to them. Bluntly, it seems to me that the only way for the Government to get themselves off the hook is to ask the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which consists of Members from both Houses and all parties, to look urgently at both matters and make recommendations. I sit on that Committee and could make sure that that happens. I think the Committee would recommend that they be supported. I wonder whether the Minister is willing to go down that road.
It is not for the Government to instruct Joint Committees to undertake particular investigations.
As I was saying, the reason for caution on the part of the Government relates to a lack of evidence. The NIESR report is clear about the lack of evidence. It states that there is no clear evidence on the extent of caste discrimination and whether it is changing in the UK. Further evidence would therefore certainly be helpful in assisting the Government’s decision making. In addition to what the EHRC is doing, the Government intend to conduct a full consultation and publish a report on its outcome. If the evidence shows clearly that legislation is the right way forward, then, as I have said, powers already exist in law to extend those protections to cover caste by means of a statutory instrument.
The UK is a signatory to the convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, and clearly there is a feeling that this is a form of race discrimination. Has the Minister listened to representations from women’s groups? Women may have an additional vulnerability to discrimination within communities.
My hon. Friend raises an important point on whether this is a form of race discrimination. I think that the law shows that in some instances it may well be that cases could be brought under race discrimination when there is an issue of caste, although not necessarily in every case, which is why this discussion has arisen. She is also right to make the point about women’s groups. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, who leads on this issue, has met a wide range of groups and organisations representing different sides, including women. It is important to ensure that all people in the community are considered.
Taking the step of legislating would mean that every employer, service provider and public authority across Great Britain would need to familiarise themselves with new legal obligations, despite the very low chance of ever being faced with a case of caste discrimination. That is why we have developed an educational programme. The EHRC has offered to complete its examination into how best to address caste prejudice and discrimination, and we will be consulting together for views across the communities. On that basis, I hope the House will agree that it is not appropriate at this time to agree with the other place on amendment 37.
I want to make a little progress, because I am conscious of time.
Amendments 38 and 39 focus on health and safety. Addressing the concerns about strict liability for breach of health and safety duties is an important element of the Government’s wider reforms to tackle both the perception of a compensation culture and the damaging effect it has on sensible health and safety management and business growth—concerns consistently reported by businesses.
As was outlined on Report, the purpose of this reform is to establish the important principle that a responsible employer should not be liable to a civil claim for compensation where they have taken all reasonable steps and have not been negligent. The substantive law is unaffected. Criminal offences and their enforcement will not be affected, and employees will continue to have the right to bring claims for compensation where they can prove their employer has been negligent.
The Government do not believe that it is justifiable to hold employers liable for incidents outside of their control that they could not have reasonably prevented. The modern framework of law and supporting evidence and guidance means that employees are in a much better position than they have been historically to demonstrate whether their employer is at fault, and that will remain relevant as evidence in assessing what employers should have known and whether an employer’s behaviour was reasonable. That reform will mean that in future there will be a consistent approach to civil litigation across all health and safety legislation. This is simpler for all to understand and will therefore have a greater impact in increasing employers’ confidence to do the right things to protect their employees and to develop and grow their business.
We have proposed an amendment in lieu of amendment 38 and proposed that the House should agree with the other place in its amendment 39, which, as well as reinstating the main provision, would also reintroduce amendments agreed in Grand Committee in response to points raised by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The Committee took the view that a power to extend the policy to wider health and safety legislation was too wide, and the Government have agreed to remove it.
I shall now turn to letting and managing agents. Many letting agents act lawfully and provide a good service, but there is a minority whose service quality is unacceptable—no doubt Members on both sides of the House have heard tales from their constituents where this has been the case. Consumer protection legislation covers many of the problematic practices, but enforcement is patchy, particularly in less serious cases. Also, existing legislation does not give consumers direct access to redress.
The noble Lady Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town said in the other place that her amendment simply required agents to sign up to a redress scheme. In response, this Government amendment gives the Secretary of State the power to make an order requiring letting and managing agents of privately rented and residential leasehold homes to belong to a redress scheme. The Government will consult on the detail, taking into account the recommendations of the Communities and Local Government Committee Select Committee and the Office of Fair Trading.
I look forward, if I can, to contributing to this debate later. In the consultation, will the Government consider setting minimum standards, adopting other codes, such as the code for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors? Will the consultation also include disciplinary procedures and will there be an improvement to the protection of leaseholder funds?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has tabled amendments and is keen to press the Government on these issues. It is important that consumers have access to redress where letting and managing agents do not act as they should. Obviously, the specifics of the consultation have not yet been drawn up, but I am sure that, through Hansard, his suggestions will be well-received. I know that the Minister for Housing, my hon. Friend Mr Prisk, will be happy to meet him to discuss his concerns in more detail in order to ensure that we get this right. Taking this power in the Bill will give us an opportunity to ensure that we get the details right. I hope I can reassure him, however, when I say that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing is keen to ensure that we make speedy progress, while still getting the details right.
I thank the Minister for the letter she sent to me, as Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee. As she knows, we are conducting an inquiry into the private rented sector and are taking evidence on letting agents and proposals to change regulations in a number of areas, but I can assure her that we will, in particular, consider the details of the redress scheme and I hope therefore that we will be able to inform the Government before they consider their secondary legislation in detail.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind offer. No doubt, his Committee’s work on this matter will be of great value to the Government when we put together the consultation and work out how to deliver the framework—it will not be a single scheme; there could be a variety of schemes—to ensure that tenants have access to redress.
The Government intend to introduce the secondary legislation as soon as reasonably possible, but it is right that this be an order-making power, because it will give us the flexibility that comes from consultation and the due processes of policy making and scrutiny.
The Lords amendment tabled by Baroness Hayter simply extended the estate agents system of regulation, which has been in place for more than 30 years, to letting and managing agents. It includes a redress scheme, but goes wider, including to cover some of the concerns that Sir Peter Bottomley has raised. Why do the Government not simply accept that amendment?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a good point, but there is also a good answer. The Government are proposing an amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 40, which, as he said, subjects letting and management agents to the Estate Agents Act 1979. The amendment made to the Bill at present would not properly achieve the effect of requiring redress. It would impose undue regulatory burdens by making such provision much broader. The requirements of the 1979 Act are rightly onerous, because purchasing a house is something that people might do only once or twice in their lifetimes and it involves a huge sum of money. There is therefore a strong case for significant levels of regulation, which is not made in quite the same way for letting agents, where redress is the most important element.
If the right hon. Gentleman is unsatisfied when I have finished answering his intervention, he may have another bite of the cherry. The Government’s other concern about Lords amendment 40 is that it does not work with the devolution settlement, because the 1979 Act is a piece of UK-wide legislation, whereas housing and letting issues are devolved to the devolved Administrations. The amendment would therefore cause a significant difficulty with them. I presume that is an inadvertent effect of the amendment on the part of its movers in the other place; none the less, we would not want it to make it into the Bill.
I am somewhat disturbed by that response and the suggestion that the homes that people buy are somehow more important than other people’s homes. We are dealing with people’s homes. Almost 9 million households now rent in the private sector, which includes 1 million families with children. They require some assurance—some security and basic rights in the market that they do not have at the moment—which a redress scheme on its own will not provide.
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman says; we may have to agree to disagree on this matter. He is absolutely right to highlight the fact that we are dealing with people’s homes, which is why this measure is so important. Incidentally, it is also something that his party did not see fit to introduce in 13 years in government. This Government are righting the situation by making amendments to ensure that there is a redress scheme. Indeed, when the Lords amendment we are discussing was introduced in the other place, that is the argument that was made and that is what was said was most important. I agree that a redress schemes is important to ensure that where there is a problem, tenants can have an avenue for redress.
Indeed, such a scheme has two functions, because it is not just about ensuring that when somebody has a problem, they can get redress. The very fact that agents have to sign up to redress schemes in the first place is in itself a driver of behaviour to ensure less wrongdoing in the first place. More widely, residential leasehold matters are being taken forward separately by the Department for Communities and Local Government in the round tables it is conducting. The noble Lady Baroness Gardner of Parkes raised that issue in the other place.
I hope I have been able to outline the Government’s position on the Lords amendments and provide some reassurance to Members of this House.
It is good to see you back in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Before I turn to the four issues covered by this group of amendments, it is worth revisiting the supposed purpose of the Bill. It is supposed to be an enterprise Bill that will generate growth. It was referred to as a Christmas tree of a Bill when it left us, but it has since become something of a forest.
Let me deal with each of the four issues in turn. The first is the Government’s move to repeal the general duty for the Equality and Human Rights Commission contained in section 3 of the Equality Act 2006. The Lords wished to reverse the Government’s move to repeal section 3 of the 2006 Act and we agree with them. The general duty sets out the mission and vision of the commission. It is worth repeating that duty, which is for the commission to encourage and support
“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…equality and human rights.”
The Government wish to repeal all of that as part of their red tape challenge, on the basis that it is a
“vague, unnecessary and obsolete provision from the Equality Act 2006”,
as the Minister put it in her letter to me yesterday. I could not disagree with her more.
I made the point on Report that this is not red tape. Vision and mission are important. The reason that the Government have failed on all manner of fronts is that they lack vision and mission. As Baroness Campbell, who sponsored the amendment in the Lords, said, the duty imports the cultural and ethical principles of equality and human rights into the commission’s remit. It makes it clear that the commission is there not just to enforce rules but to change culture.
Personally, I believe that we as a country have made a great deal of progress in this regard since I grew up here and since members of my family arrived here from abroad. However, Baroness Campbell also said:
“We would not wish to risk slipping back to the time before the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, but if Section 3 goes and the equality duty is weakened or lost shortly after, I feel that is precisely where we will be heading.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 4 March 2013; Vol. 743, c. 1278.]
Indeed, Doreen Lawrence has resolutely opposed the removal of section 3. Baroness Campbell enjoyed overwhelming support from most of the others who spoke on this issue in the Lords, and numerous others outside Parliament have objected to the repeal, fearing that the changes will result in a much weaker body. Those who have objected include Justice, the Fawcett Society, Mind, the Refugee Council and the Equality Trust.
Having listened to the arguments on this matter in both Houses and outside Parliament, the commission itself has now said that unless the Government can provide additional robust reasons for removing the general duty—which they have not done—the case for removing the Lords amendments in the Commons will not have been made. The commission therefore continues to support the retention of the general duty and the maintenance of the position established by the Lords. I put it to the Minister that if the commission is content to support the retention of the duty—which is doing no harm; indeed, it is doing quite the opposite—why does she think that she knows better?
Let us not forget that the Government are not only seeking to water down the commission’s remit; they have also cut its budget by more than 60%. The cut was so great that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was moved to write to the Government in June and July last year to express concerns.
“I do not think that it is so problematic, because other parts of the legislation provide sufficient clarity on what our job really is.”––[Official Report, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Public Bill Committee,
How does the hon. Gentleman account for the chair of the organisation—[Interruption.] How does he account for a board member of the organisation saying that in Parliament, yet now doing a flip-flop? Which is true? What does the organisation believe, and what does the hon. Gentleman’s party believe?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, our party has made it very clear what we believe. Mr Wadham can speak for himself, but I must first point out that he is not the chair of the organisation. Secondly, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has made it clear that it has changed its position on this matter. Thirdly, we are hardly going to find a senior member of an agency such as the commission seeking to have a public row with its Minister. However, I think we all know exactly what people in the commission think. I was told that the last time we discussed this matter in the House, Opposition Members were being cheered on by employees of the commission who were watching the debate. I am sure that they are watching this debate right now, and that they will have listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman has just said.
The Minister should also reflect on what the majority of her party’s members think about this issue. They cannot fathom why she and the Business Secretary are making all these changes to people’s rights at work, to the role of the commission and so on. My hon. Friend Ian Murray, the shadow Minister for employment relations has told me about his trip to the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference last month. He spoke at a fringe meeting on employment rights—I did not know he was going to do that—at which the Minister tried to justify all these changes. My understanding is that people walked out of that room in disgust at the measures that she is trying to push through today. I have, of course, castigated my hon. Friend for forgetting to take Labour party membership forms with him to dish out; he will take a big box of them next time. We support the Lords amendments in this respect.
Let me turn now to deal with caste discrimination, a matter that has attracted considerable interest outside this House. Labour has a proud history of tackling injustice and discrimination. We believe that people should be able to make the most of their potential opportunities—whatever their race, gender, family background or social circumstances. In recent months, organisations such as the Anti-caste Discrimination Alliance have campaigned for stronger action to tackle caste discrimination, and their case has been powerful. Every community group and every faith group to which we have spoken—on either side of the debate in recent days—has been united in the belief that caste discrimination has no place in our country.
We Labour Members thus believe that we must send a strong and clear message today—that caste discrimination is completely unacceptable, and that we support taking more action. That is why we will support the amendment. We need to do more to ensure that the small number of people who face such injustice have access to the redress they deserve and have somewhere to turn to for support.
It is fair to say, however, that some have raised legitimate concerns about the practicalities of how the legislation would work—about its drafting and implementation. We take those practical points seriously and we agree that any new action we take must over time reduce rather than increase the number of people being identified by their caste, eliminating discrimination in the future.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I think all of us are united in believing that any form of discrimination—caste or any other form—is entirely wrong. It is interesting to reflect that the hon. Gentleman is talking about this issue in 2013, yet the Labour party was in power—I know the hon. Gentleman was not here then—for 13 years. Did this issue not come up at any time over 13 years and, if so, why did the Labour party not bring forward any proposals at the time? The Labour party should welcome the fact that this Government are the first to put forward an education programme to deal with the issue.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we sought to deal with the issue through the Equality Act 2010 and then by providing for further action to be taken thereafter. It is not fair for him to say that we took insufficient action during our time in government, but we needed to allow time for the communities concerned to adjust and to provide an opportunity for the education which he talks about. Despite the time that has passed—the Act was passed back in 2010—it is clear that more still needs to happen.
We do not believe that the Government are doing enough on this issue, which is part of the reason why we will vote against the Government’s motion to disagree with the Lords amendment. I hope that further discussions can take place here about the implementation of action against caste discrimination before the matter is discussed again in the other place. People on both sides of the debate have said loudly and clearly that they would like far more consultation on the subject. We hope that that can happen. The goal—the place where we all want to be—is to reach agreement on a way forward over the next few days before the provisions arrive back in the House of Lords.
I will move on, because we are short of time and I want to ensure that others can come into the debate.
I shall move on to deal with health and safety. Clause 61, to which Lords amendments 38 and 39 apply, is designed to remove civil liability for breaches of duty imposed by health and safety regulations. In so doing, it overturns an accepted and established health and safety regime that has been on the statute book for a very long time—for over a century. What the Government are seeking to do is overturn legislation that has been in place since a ruling in 1898. The consequence of that is serious. The clause removes the existing and long-established right of an employee to rely on a breach of health and safety in any claims for personal injury. As was said in the other place, in respect of employer liability it will force injured employees to face
“a near impossible evidential burden.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 6 March 2013; Vol. 743, c. 1502.]
The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers has stated that the clause will favour negligent employers over those who take health and safety considerations seriously and who treat people with the care that they are due.
The Government have not been able to provide evidence on the matter to support legislative change. They justify their amendment by referring to a recommendation in Professor Löfstedt’s report “Reclaiming health and safety for all”, published in November 2011. However, Professor Löfstedt himself has expressed doubts about the Government’s plan. In his review of progress a year on from his report, he states:
“the proposed amendment to the Health and Safety at Work Act reverses the current position on civil liability. This means that, unless exceptions apply, claims for compensation in relation to breaches of health and safety legislation will need to prove that the employer has been negligent. The approach being taken is more far-reaching than I anticipated in my recommendation.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that as a result of the failure of cases that would otherwise have succeeded, people who have not received compensation will look to the statutory authorities for their rehabilitation—for their care, speech therapy and physiotherapy—and that that will effectively constitute the nationalisation of rehabilitation?
I do agree. I think that describing it as the nationalisation of rehabilitation is entirely appropriate. I know that my hon. Friend, whose practice advised people who were claiming for personal injury, speaks with the benefit of huge experience.
The Government declined to undertake the review that Professor Löfstedt recommended on the restriction of the number of situations in which strict liability would apply, saying that it would be too complex. The other place rightly voiced serious concerns about that. Lord McKenzie of Luton said:
“On the basis of the flimsiest of evidence, the opportunities for those injured at work to obtain redress are being substantially impaired. We should be very clear about that. This is not ‘business as usual’. The beneficiaries, of course, will be the providers of employer's liability insurance. The losers will include taxpayers because reduced compensation will mean reduced benefit recovery.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 6 March 2013; Vol. 743, c. 1504.]
In less than a fortnight it will be workers memorial day, and many ceremonies, involving many Members of Parliament, will take place around the country to remember men and women who have been injured or killed in the workplace. The current framework is accepted and well established, and has helped to prevent workplace deaths and injuries. I ask the Government to reflect on the debate and the vote in the other place, and to preserve the status quo in the interests of the appropriate balance of rights and responsibilities between employee and employer in keeping the employee safe at work. We support the Lords amendment in that context.
I apologise for arriving late. I was at a meeting of the Backbench Business Committee.
My hon. Friend has just made an important point. This is not about compensation as such; it is about ensuring that employers introduce and abide by regulations that prevent accidents from happening in the first place because they are frightened of having to pay the compensation. That financial disincentive will drive employers to do the right thing in circumstances in which they might not otherwise have done so. This is not about people at work receiving money; it is about people at work not getting hurt and not getting killed.
I entirely agree. This is one of the aspects of the debate on health and safety that I find particularly frustrating. While we must of course retain a balance, we must also be clear about the fact that protecting people at work and keeping them safe is not a matter of red tape. It is a matter of safety at work.
Lords amendment 40, to which the Government have tabled their own amendment, relates to estate agents. It represents a welcome U-turn by the Government, who have backed Labour’s proposals to give greater protection to tenants and landlords by forcing letting agents to join a scheme to deal with complaints. It is a victory for tenants and landlords who rely on agents to rent, or care for, their property in a market described as the wild west by the industry itself.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the organisations across the sector who have worked with us to secure this change in position from the Government. Tenants and landlords have for too long had little protection, and have been bewildered as to why it has taken so long for the Government to recognise the need for change. Until this eleventh-hour U-turn, the Government seemed out of touch and isolated on this issue. It is good that they have changed position, recognising the need for a proper complaints system for all consumers. However, we are disappointed that the Government have not gone further, having rejected other parts of Baroness Hayter’s amendment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that slight qualification, but he may be in danger of overstating the extent of the U-turn. There are growing problems of unjustified, unfair, upfront fees, misleading advertisements, repairs not being done and visits not being made. This is a step in the right direction, but it is a small step, and will prove insufficient to deal with a market that is not functioning properly and fairly in the interests of tenants or landlords.
The issue of caste was very well covered yesterday on the BBC’s “Newsnight” programme, and I hope the Government will take up the suggestion that there should be discussion over the next few days about how the points made can be incorporated into the aim to get fairness. My reaction on watching people describe what it was like to be told by someone junior to them that they should not take orders from them because of something that happened in their family past was that that was ludicrous.
Ghandi called the untouchables the children of God over 70 years ago—in the 1930s, I think—and we ought to find some way of picking that up and echoing it in our country.
I could speak on a number of issues, but I will stick to the issue of agents, and in particular leasehold managing agents. I hope that when the Select Committee looks at this, it will address not only the letting of residential tenancies but the 3 million leaseholds in this country, many of which are held by people who are old, frail and on fixed incomes. My hon. Friend the Minister may be right to say that the majority of managing agents behave well. In the past, however, many of them, and especially those who were associated with the freeholder, ripped off their leaseholders left, right and centre. Such agents are a minority, but they hold the majority of the responsibility for managing leasehold properties, and the faster they are brought out into transparency and openness, the better.
I pay tribute to the Minister for Housing. Through his efforts and the co-operation of his colleagues, the Government have come forward with a welcome initiative. I am not arguing it is completely right—I would be surprised if it were—but its 10 measures deal with a variety of issues, the most important of which is openness.
Having a redress scheme requires having a code. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has a good code, as do some of the associations of letting agents. This explains why most people have argued for licensing, which would include an ombudsman service and a redress system. As things stand, we are going to get the redress system, but we are not necessarily going to get the code.
I hope Ministers, either in this place or the other place, can assure the Houses of Parliament that they agree that having redress requires having a code, and that managing agents will not be able to practice if they have been struck off or cannot give adequate assurances that they meet the code and will abide by decisions if they are held to have offended against it.
Ordinary disputes are one thing. I ought to declare that I have an interest in a small leasehold flat—I am now a freeholder—and our managing agent and freeholder behaved impeccably with the six leaseholders. I have no complaint about that at all. I have taken advantage of the present system, but many people have not.
In Oakland court in my constituency, a group of really old people took action against their freeholder as they were being charged for a warden’s flat when there was no warden. Eventually, when they could get to the leasehold valuation tribunal, there was an effective judgment that would have given back to them—although sadly many of them had died—not only tens of thousands of pounds but possibly £100,000. Eventually, they came to a settlement and I pay tribute to the freeholders for doing that.
To have clever lawyers, some of whom will appear at LEASE—the Government-approved agency for giving advice on leaseholds—advise managing agents on what can be done with leaseholders within the law does not strike me as balanced. I ask the Government to ask LEASE to ensure that at least one of the two people I will name is invited to join its board. One is Sebastian O’Kelly, who runs the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, and the other is Martin Boyd.
Martin Boyd got involved because he was one of the leaseholders who took on the Tchenguiz brothers. It is not for me to get involved with whatever happened, right or wrong, with the Tchenguiz brothers, the action to which they were subject and the separate action that they are now taking—although I would have thought that a handshake and an apology would solve that. I am saying, however, that the Tchenguiz brothers do not have the best reputation for how they deal with leaseholders. Sometimes, they appear to charge rather high sums if someone wants to sublet a leasehold property and sometimes they want to sell it. A whole series of other issues should, I believe, be fully examined under parliamentary privilege.
It seems to me that officials in the Departments involved have had to work really hard to produce the five pages of new clauses that we are discussing, so I shall not add to their burdens by trying to go through them in detail.
The permanent secretaries at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Ministry of Justice have a responsibility to add to the numbers of people involved, because Parliament will ensure that the issue gets proper attention—not just the 9 million tenancies, but the 3 million leaseholders. That will require serious effort in Government and by Parliament and I hope that in time the injustices that are rampant will have evaporated, partly through transparency and partly through legislative action.
Let me give an example of transparency. I challenge every managing agent to tell every leaseholder now what commission the freeholder is getting on the insurance premiums to cover the value of the properties. Those commissions go up to 65%. In my view, they should not be more than about 5% or 10%. Let us get that out in the open, and we will get the rest of the muck out afterwards.
I want to make a few remarks about the abolition of the general duty.
It is sad that we are repealing the general duty under the Equality Act 2006. It was not plucked out of mid-air and something that the then Government suddenly decided to put into an Act of Parliament. Progress towards the Act was long and conciliatory and it worked for this Parliament and organisations outside it, yet under the guise of deregulation we are seeing the undoing of many years’ work, much consensus and much acceptance that the general duty laid out a set of values and principles for the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
I find it doubly sad that the Minister, who has apparently built up a reputation as a champion of equality, is having to justify this proposal today. The general duty sets out a unifying vision for society, which the EHRC must work towards. I find it disappointing that she dismissed the idea that aspiration could sit comfortably with some of the other specific duties of the EHRC. Unlike the Minister, I think that the general duty is fundamental to how the EHRC operates. It sets out the guiding principles and values of the EHRC. It had cross-party support and I suspect that if I checked the voting record of the Minister, I would probably find that she wholeheartedly supported that general duty in 2006, as did her party. Seven years on, what was achieved by working with her party and members of the other party in the coalition is dismissed as a burden on us all.
Section 3 of the Equality Act 2006 brings equality and human rights together. It identifies the fact that we are defined not by our differences, but by our common humanity. To put that another way, it says, “We’re all in this equality game together.” That is what the Minister has failed to see. The Government have not defined what the EHRC would do better as a result of the abolition of the general duty. They have made an assertion, but they have proved nothing about the repeal of section 3.
We cannot consider the repeal of section 3 in isolation. As my hon. Friend Mr Umunna identified, the EHRC is undergoing tremendous change. It has had its budget cut by 60%, yet the stoics within the EHRC have said that they can continue to do some of the good work. It has been weakened by the withdrawal of many of the facilities that it offered, including a telephone helpline. Where do people go now? What will the Minister say to people who need the help and support of the Equality and Human Rights Commission? The general duty reflects the values that a modern society should aspire to.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the key thing about the general duty is section 12 and the requirement to monitor the progress of society towards the general duty? That is where it has a practical effect.
Yes and, as I understand it, the monitoring period has been extended from three years to five years. The hon. Gentleman has identified an important aspect. We should get away from the idea that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is merely the sum of its compliance powers. It is more than that. It should be working with the wider community to establish a society that has equality and human rights at its heart. The Government’s disregard rejects the view that the EHRC has a role working with the wider community.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham mentioned Baroness Campbell of Surbiton. The House owes the baroness a great debt of gratitude because she has a long record of working on human rights and equality issues—far longer, probably, than some of the younger Members of this House have been alive. She knows what she is talking about, and her charge to the Government was that they have yet to prove that a commission with fewer powers and tools at its disposal will be more effective than one with the role and powers bestowed on it by Parliament some six years ago.
The Minister has failed to make that case. I hope she will think again. If she is not prepared to do so, I hope Members in all parts of the House who believe that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has a role beyond its compliance powers will support Baroness Campbell and the House of Lords, and will support their amendment when it comes to the vote this afternoon.
I will restrict my comments to the discussion of caste discrimination. As I said in my intervention on Mr Umunna, I think we can all agree that caste discrimination is wrong and abhorrent, as is any form of discrimination. I welcome the fact that the Government are making a real effort, taking the issue seriously and putting in place a programme of education.
I hope that the hon. Member for Streatham would agree that, before introducing legislation, we should ensure that there is an evidence base for doing so. As I am sure he will be aware, the NIESR report was incredibly comprehensive. As I understand it, NIESR approached CasteWatch UK and Voice of Dalit International and looked back at cases that were up to 10 years old, yet it came up with a relatively low volume of caste-related incidents. I have no wish to trivialise any of those incidents, and clearly they were incredibly hurtful to the individuals involved, but I will just make the point that, ultimately, if we are to introduce legislation, we need to ensure that there is a broad evidence base for doing so. I understand that 32 people were interviewed for the NIESR report and 23 were used as case studies. Those 23 people reported 36 separate caste-related incidents.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to ask him two questions. Does he accept that caste discrimination is going on and, if he does, does he agree that the fact that it might be quite restricted should not preclude us taking action to protect the small number who are subject to it?
I have referred to the NIESR report, and clearly there is evidence that such discrimination is going on, and ultimately we need to ensure that there are remedies for it. As I was about to say, nearly half of the 36 incidents discussed are not covered by the area of equality legislation. Indeed, for many others there is scope to find the other remedies available.
Does my hon. Friend not also accept that, because the chances of a successful prosecution are small, individuals are less likely to come forward and report incidents?
That might indeed be the case. I have been a Member of Parliament for only three years—many Members have been here far longer—and I represent a constituency whose make-up means it is a microcosm of Britain, but in those three years not a single constituent has come to talk with me about being subject to caste discrimination. People have come to talk about other forms of discrimination, but certainly not caste discrimination.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain to me the relevance of the number of constituents who have come forward to talk with him, or with anyone else? Surely a few cases means a few cases too many. If we base our understanding of discrimination on numbers, we will not get very far.
I understand the sentiment the hon. Lady expresses, but is she suggesting that the Government should legislate to protect people from every conceivable form of discrimination? We know that class discrimination exists, as do other forms of discrimination, but we follow other approaches for those, rather than legislation.
Is my hon. Friend not concerned that most ordinary, sensible people probably believe that caste discrimination is already illegal and that if we do not go ahead with this, we will be sending out a message that it is acceptable and that claims against it are not supported by the law?
Of course it is unacceptable. As I said earlier, any form of discrimination is unacceptable, but we need to ensure that the remedies we have available are used, and ultimately there has to be an evidence base for legislation.
I took part in a debate on Radio 5 live this morning, and that was one of the examples that came up. Clearly it is unacceptable. I do not know the details of the case, and I do not know whether there is a remedy under workplace legislation, but, to continue with the theme, I think that we need to ensure that there is an evidence base. I welcome the work that the Government are proposing on education. One of the points made by a caller to the Radio 5 live debate this morning was that much of the time employers do not understand caste discrimination. That could form part of the education process. As I understand it, certainly based on my reading of the debate in the other place, the Government have not closed their mind to legislation. They said that an evidence base is needed and that additional work is being undertaken.
Does my hon. Friend accept that were the Government motion to pass, this issue would not return to the House of Lords and could not be subject to a further amendment, but it is possible to deal with it through a statutory instrument? There is general agreement that the Lords proposal is not an acceptable solution that would solve the problem properly.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. As the Minister said, this is a complex issue and there is not necessarily a common view about how we need to deal with it. That is why the proposal to have education as a first step is absolutely right. I welcome the fact that Talk for a Change will be running the—
I am pleased that we have come a long way from that time. We live in a modern society, and that is entirely appropriate.
As I understand it from the debate in the other place—I am sure that the Minister will respond to this—the Government’s mind is not closed on legislation. The fact that work is going to be done by the Equality and Human Rights Commission should also be welcomed. This is a very complex issue, and it would be unfortunate if we were to follow a route of introducing legislation without having the evidence base for it.
My final point, which was made by a caller this morning, is how much of an issue this is from the perspective of those who are second, third or fourth generation and were born and brought up in this country. I do not define myself by my caste and I suspect that there are millions like me up and down the country. I will therefore support the Government’s motion.
I should like to speak to amendment 38. As my hon. Friend the shadow Minister said, this proposal goes much further than the one made by Professor Löfstedt in his review of health and safety law. Professor Löfstedt referred to ending civil liability, but only in relation to strict liability, whereas these proposals will impact on the vast majority of employer liability cases, where breaches of statutory duty allegations are usually more important than negligence. In every case, the injured worker will have to prove that the employer knew, or ought to have known, that a machine was unsafe, equipment was faulty, or there had been previous accidents—something known to the employer but unlikely to be known by the employee.
It is worth noting that over 90% of health and safety regulation enforcement is through the civil courts. There are some 78,000 claims for compensation following accidents at work every year, but only 1,000 criminal prosecutions under health and safety, so if this proposal proceeds we will be singularly relying on the Health and Safety Executive to do a better job than it is doing now—and what is the likelihood of that, given the resources that are attributed to that organisation?
This is not fanciful or esoteric: we are talking about real people’s lives. Michael Adamson was a 29-year-old electrician who suffered a fatal electrocution in the course of his employment in August 2005. The accident occurred during the construction of a retail outlet when he touched a cable labelled “Not in use”. The cable was live and Michael was fatally injured, but Michael’s family saw justice because they were able to rely on the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989. If they had not been able to rely on the regulations, they would not have been compensated for the loss of a son and brother.
Mr Hill, who was a roofer and slater, fell from scaffolding during the course of his work and suffered very serious injuries resulting in incomplete tetraplegia. The accident occurred as he came down the scaffolding on a portable ladder that was not fixed or in any way secured; he fell to the ground, causing the injury. His injuries were so severe that damages were agreed at just under £2 million. The court held that there was no liability at common law, but there was liability under the Work at Height Regulations 2005. Were it not for those regulations, Mr Hill, whose injuries were so serious and life-altering, would not have received any compensation.
Finally, Mr John Smyth suffered catastrophic injuries in the course of his employment. He was working on a barge. A coupling on a crane that was moving a steel beam overhead failed and the beam fell, striking Mr Smyth on his head. He suffered a severe brain injury and has been rendered quadriplegic. His life and the lives of his family have been shattered. Compensation exceeding £2 million was obtained, because Mr Smyth could rely on the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 and the Work at Height Regulations 2005. He would not have received any compensation if those regulations could not be relied on.
Significant sums are involved in catastrophic injury cases. When I left practice, I left behind a case load that ran into hundreds of millions of pounds. Those are not windfalls for people. This is not about a compensation culture. These people have not won the pools or the lottery. Those moneys are there to provide them with lifelong care—with transport, rehabilitation, speech therapy and physiotherapy—but the Government’s proposal seeks to pull the rug from under all those people. Why on earth will this Government not think things through? Where will those people turn? They will turn to the statutory services. Are the Government serious about nationalising rehabilitation and giving the bill to the taxpayer while letting the insurers off the hook? Insurers are rubbing their hands in glee at these proposals, and it is about time that this Government woke up. It will cost this country a fortune if they proceed in this way.
People now face difficulties in making their case. Lord Brown, a former Supreme Court justice, highlighted in the other place the difficulties experienced by workers in proving the negligence of employers. He said that when he worked as a barrister a number of claims were lost
“because the claimants were not quite able to assemble all the evidence necessary to prove actual negligence.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 6 March 2013; Vol. 743, c. 1513.]
That is the situation that people will be placed in—they will be denied a basic human right, and at a massive cost to the taxpayer.
Karl Tonks, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, has said:
“Lord Brown’s comments go to the heart of the matter. People injured through no fault of their own will find it extremely challenging to secure justice.”
He also commented on
“unintended consequences which will not just affect the workers involved, but society as a whole.”
I beg the Government to think again about the proposals. I do not think that they have thought through the consequences of their actions. This will result in a lot of misery for people who will have to turn to our statutory services and not receive the care and attention they need. The lack of availability of district nurses will mean that those with a spinal cord injury will have to wait in their properties for the nurse on duty to evacuate their bowels at a time not of their choosing, when the whole point—the whole caboodle—is to make sure that people can live the lives that they want to and fulfil their potential. The proposals will deny them that opportunity and I beg the Government to think again.
I will speak in support of Lords amendment 37, which would provide people with legal protection against caste discrimination in the workplace.
I have listened intently to the debate. A number of speakers have said that this is a complex issue, including the Minister, the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend Alok Sharma. I regard all those colleagues with great esteem, so I hope that they will forgive my saying that the idea that this is a complex issue is rubbish. This is a straightforward issue. Caste discrimination in the workplace is wrong and the people who suffer from it deserve legal protection. That is the beginning and end of the matter.
To help the Minister, who with the best of intentions has found herself on the wrong side of the argument, I will answer three questions that I expect this Government and the previous Government asked on this issue. Is there evidence of a problem of caste discrimination? Is legislation the best approach? Is a delay to implementation justified?
On whether there is evidence of a problem, I have received a petition signed by more than 300 of my constituents in Bedford and Kempston. I have received representations from the Valmiki community, the Ravidassia community and the Dr Ambedkar Mission Society in Bedford. Those who saw “Newsnight”—a current affairs programme on the BBC—will have seen, towards the end of the programme, personal testimonies from three of my constituents: Mr Ram Dhariwal, Mr Sam Kalyan and, most movingly, Mr Prithi Kaeley.
On behalf of those constituents and many others, I must say that I cannot see how people can argue that there is no evidence of a problem. Some may say that the studies by the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance and the NIESR did not provide sufficient evidence. Those reports made me angry and made me cry. They made me feel that action on this issue was all the more important.
I repeat what I said to the Minister earlier on the evidence for a problem. She should listen to her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Lynne Featherstone, who said:
“The evidence is compelling—so hopefully the Government who said that they would consider any evidence coming forward will now bring forward their own amendment to include caste.”
We are not talking about caste discrimination in social or personal circumstances. However, I understand that when the Equality Act 2010 was debated, the then Solicitor-General accepted that the evidence showed that caste discrimination was prevalent in personal and social situations. I ask the Government, and in particular the Minister, whether we can rest comfortably on the assumption that discrimination that persists widely in personal and social situations will magically halt at the threshold to the shop floor or the door to the office? That is a hard position to take.
On whether legislation is the right approach, I say to the Government that Talk for a Change is an inappropriate and insufficient measure. The NIESR report advised that education would not be sufficient. I ask the Minister whether she would rest on education alone as the answer to racist or sexist behaviour in the workplace. If not, why should we rest on that alone in this case? On the basis of my constituents’ experiences, I disagree with the argument that caste discrimination is a diminishing issue. Does the Minister not see that the provision of education without the provision of legal remedy is the worst possible solution, because it raises knowledge but does not afford consequences for discriminatory actions?
The current laws do not provide sufficient protection for those who face caste discrimination. I draw the House’s attention to the judgment in the employment tribunal case of Naveed v. Chilli Pink in November 2011, which stated:
“We consider in the light of the above provisions”— meaning section 9(5) of the Equality Act 2010—
“that the Claimant’s complaint of discrimination based on his caste was doomed to fail… First, no order has yet been made extending section 9 of the Equality Act 2010 so as to provide for caste to amount of itself to an aspect of race.”
The current situation is hostile to people who want to bring discrimination cases based on caste, and delay in that matter is serious.
Hon. Members have already said that we need legislation so that some of those cases can move forward. There was an important case recently. I will not talk about it specifically, but the impediments faced by the person trying to bring the case to justice in terms of understanding among the police of the issues involved, access to legal advice and legal aid, and the personal costs in such circumstances, would put anybody off doing so.
On whether a delay is justified, the EHRC’s position seems perverse—we heard earlier about its flip-flops on other issues. Yesterday, the policy statement on its website stated:
yet after being given this job by the Government, it recently stated:
“What is clear is that caste is an extremely complex area,”.
I would be interested to hear from the Government—perhaps the Minister will respond—whether the EHRC is researching this issue or looking at ways in which companies could move forward with rules on implementation should the Government enact this measure. Would it be possible for the EHRC to bring cases to court or support cases going through the courts?
I tried to intervene earlier on the shadow Secretary of State because I want to be absolutely clear about the position of the Labour party on this issue, and specifically on whether it would like this measure on caste to be enacted. That was not clear from what the shadow Secretary of State said because he also talked about consultation and other things. It would be helpful to have clarification on that. I argue that whether or not the issue of caste is diminishing over time—that may or may not be true—is not material. Discrimination today deserves remedy today. It is no good telling people that we can sort the issue out and that their grandchildren and great grandchildren will be fine. We need a remedy today.
I am conscious that I shall not get the chance to intervene again. The Labour party’s position is clear: more needs to be done and if we are to do more in legislation, further consultation must be carried out and the issue must be looked at properly. That is why we support the amendment so that it can go back to the Lords and we can have a discussion about how to get more consultation and how agreement can be reached. We are clear that more needs to be done and I remind the hon. Gentleman that we touched on this issue in the Equality Act 2010, although we did not bring into force by order the inclusion of caste in the definition of race in that Act. However, the fact that we addressed the issue in that Act shows we were alive to it. As he and I know, practically implementing such measures in a way that does not lead to a plethora of litigation is something of which we must all be mindful.
If I can hear that as a clarification—I do not wish to misstate what I heard—the position of the shadow Secretary of State and the Labour party is precisely the same as that of the Government on the key issue of whether it is abundantly clear that discrimination based on caste is wrong, and that we should enact the relevant measure today. The hon. Gentleman’s answer is “Let’s have more time; let’s do more consultation”, which is what I heard the Minister say. Perhaps I misheard.
There are two points. First, if our position was the same as that of the Government we would reject the Lords amendments. Secondly, we are clear that more needs to be done and we must look at legislation and at what measures to introduce. I cannot be clearer than that for the hon. Gentleman.
If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman could try a lot harder to be much clearer than that. I am not asking specifically about the amendment but about the provision in the Bill that the people who campaigned hard on this issue want to see. I believe their expectation is that the Labour party will support that provision, but I am hearing that it does not yet support it.
I am now even more confused. I will have to read carefully the comments that have been made.
For me, this is the clearest issue, and I need no further explanation. When it comes to tackling discrimination, I ask myself whether our enlightenment should be a condition of a quantum of discrimination. If so, how many career opportunities will be curtailed, and what amount of tears will be shed, as a result of harassment based on caste? Alternatively, is our enlightenment a condition of our understanding that all people deserve equality of opportunity, protected by law, regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, faith and caste? For me, the answer is a clear one of principle. On those grounds, and on behalf of the hundreds of my constituents who have written to me to encourage me to make the case for equality of treatment under the law, I ask the Minister to reconsider her position and accept Lords amendment 37.
I am in favour of the Lords amendments on the general duty in the Equality Act 2006. I am extremely disappointed with the view the Government have taken. They are seeking to repeal the general duty because they believe it serves no useful purpose and is superfluous to requirements, but that flies in the face of the views of equality and human rights experts; the EHRC, albeit latterly; service users and other stakeholders; and the Government’s analysis of the public consultation, which shows that the majority of respondents were opposed to repeal by a ratio of 6:1, and that they were concerned about losing the guiding principles and values set out in the general duty. If the Government believe that section 3 is so insignificant, why are they using valuable parliamentary time on it? That is particularly puzzling because the measure had all-party support during the passage of the Act.
Section 3 mandates the EHRC to act with a view to encouraging and supporting the development of the various aspects of equality and human rights. The Government believe that it raises unrealistic expectations of what the EHRC can do. That view lacks not only ambition but principles. The values we enshrine in legislation send a message about the society to which we aspire. That requires not just a regulator but an organisational framework that can promote social change. As Age UK has said, the measure is about changing the culture, not just enforcing the rules.
Society values an outward-looking EHRC monitoring what is happening in the UK rather than just reporting on itself. One example is the EHRC report on the shortcomings of care provided to elderly people. That not only brought about change in practice, but highlighted the rights of elderly people to protection and to respect of their human rights.
Sir Bob Hepple has said that the Government are wrong to say that section 3 has no specific legal function. He states that the courts can use it as a helpful guide to the Act in the absence of a purpose clause, which the previous Government declined to insert in the Equality
Act 2010. I sat on that Bill Committee, and remember the Lib Dems arguing for a purpose clause. However, the purpose clause was less important than it might have been because of the general duty set out in the 2006 Act. Sir Bob believes that the repeal of section 3 will leave equality law rudderless. I look forward to the Minister informing the House of the Government’s response to that view.
Equality and human rights are inextricably linked. The point of the Equality Acts was to overcome the fragmentation of the different forms of discrimination. The EHRC needs the clear purpose provided in section 3 to guide it when deciding priorities, and to ensure that it approaches its different equality and human duties in an integrated and effective manner.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its sixteenth report, unanimously welcomed section 3, saying that it would serve in practice as a unifying factor in performance of the commission’s duties under sections 8 to 11, which the Minister outlined. I have already raised in previous debates the danger of jeopardising the EHCR’s UN A status accreditation, following the cuts of 76% of its budget and 62% of its staff since its inception. This repeal would be another nail in the coffin, and we know that the public sector equality duty is also under review. What does that say about the coalition’s commitment to equality? It is constantly chipping away at the most progressive and advanced legislation and policy, while undermining the ECHR in its infancy, when it was far too early to judge its effectiveness.
In 2011, the Deputy Prime Minister told Jo Swinson, who is now the Minister responsible, that he would resist the siren calls to water down the Equality Act by confirming that there would be no move to dilute its incredibly important protections or to enshrine and boost inequality in this country under the guise of dealing with unnecessary or intrusive regulation. That is exactly what is happening here today, so I do not expect to see any Liberal Democrats in the Aye Lobby on this issue today.
I rise to speak in favour of the Lords amendment on caste discrimination. The Minister said that we need more education and consultation. She said that she wants more evidence. We can educate and consult as much as we want, and if she wants evidence, she can come to my office or I can send her almost 1,000 letters that I have received from my constituents on this issue. This issue is close to the heart of most of the people in the United Kingdom who have been excluded from equality legislation. They ask why, when everybody else is entitled to the protection of that legislation, they are not. We want that issue to be addressed today.
We have discussed the number of people who have come forward. Most of those affected cannot come forward—as Richard Fuller pointed out—or be taken seriously unless they are prepared to spend huge amounts of their personal money to get their cases heard.
On a point of clarification, the hon. Gentleman says that he has had 1,000 letters from his constituents. Have all those people specifically faced caste discrimination in this country?
Those people have asked me to take up this issue on their behalf, as their Member of Parliament, and that is what I am doing. It is not a matter of individual cases because—as I have said and as the hon. Gentleman needs to understand—one case is too many. In this day and age, and in this country, discrimination against anybody based on who their parents or grandparents were, where they came from or the family into which they were born is wrong, and we should not go down that route. We are here to protect those people who, through no fault of their own, were born of a particular lineage.
There are cases of prejudice in my constituency and in Birmingham, but they cannot be dealt with because the law does not allow it. We want the Government to look at that issue and deal with it. The point is equality for all. This is not about discrimination against one group of people or one caste of people: it is about providing equality for all of us. If this argument had been accepted on the race relations legislation we introduced, my hon. Friend Jack Dromey would still be fighting his corner and trying to provide evidence of the number of people affected by that discrimination. We are going down a route that we have trodden long enough to understand that where there are issues of inequality and injustice we need to address them. There have been cases of people working below someone of a different caste, and believing that that they should not take them seriously. In the health service, there have been care providers who were looking after people of a lower caste but felt that they should not be doing that. We need to provide protection for those who are most vulnerable. They have suffered huge discrimination in their country of origin, and we should not perpetuate it.
I will be very brief, because other colleagues want to speak. I want to address the issue of caste, and to compliment Richard Fuller on the way he spoke and for the logic he brought to his argument.
Outside the House at lunch time today, there was a considerable demonstration in support of the Lords amendment on caste discrimination. The people on the demonstration came from different backgrounds and communities: Hindu communities, Sikh communities, Muslim communities, Christian communities and people who hold no particular faith. All were united in the view that if there is discrimination on any basis, it is wrong. While education may help people to get away from their discriminatory practices, it does not offer protection for the victims of that prejudice. It is therefore incumbent on this House to do something.
Caste discrimination is not new. In south Asia, it is a massive issue, despite it being illegal within the terms of the Indian constitution written by Dr Ambedkar, and despite the many statements on the issue by Mahatma Gandhi. In this country, we have passed race relations legislation over many years. The arguments being used today—that there is not enough evidence, more needs to be gathered and there has to be consultation—are exactly the same arguments used against the first race relations law in this country: that we cannot legislate away prejudice and discrimination. No, we cannot. However, we can offer protection for the victims, we can offer legal redress, we can stop discrimination in the workplace. That is what the Lords amendment is designed to do.
The history of the immediate issue is that an amendment to the Equality Bill, which came before the House in 2010, was agreed. Two amendments were tabled. One amendment, tabled by Rob Marris, the former MP for Wolverhampton South West, was in the form of the Lords amendment, but, unfortunately, was not accepted. Instead, the Government accepted an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend John McDonnell, which stated that research should be undertaken. That research has been done. The requirement—it was not an option, but a requirement—placed on the Secretary of State was to introduce legislation if the research report showed that there was discrimination. The research shows clearly that there is discrimination on the basis of caste. I am therefore very disappointed with the Minister’s response and hope that she will think again. We can vote in favour of the Lords amendment today. That would change the law and be the end of the immediate debate. Caste discrimination would be illegal in the UK if we were to do that today. I very much hope we do.
There are many organisations and people who say that we want more discussion and debate. We should, however, simply say that we think discrimination on any basis in our society is wrong. I am the chair of the trustees of the Dalit Solidarity Network and I have met many people who are victims of caste discrimination. On the square today were many people who had been through the most appalling situations—because they married into the upper-lower caste, got a job where their manager was a different caste or went for a promotion and did not get it. All kinds of things come out when these debates take place. I urge the House, if we think that discrimination is wrong, to legislate to say that it is wrong, and, if we want to outlaw it, to do it today.
I want to comment briefly—it is important that we hear from other Members in the time available—on the two issues with which this debate started.
I turn first to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. As my right hon. Friend Mrs McGuire said on Second Reading, the House of Lords has discovered that we are seeing the incremental abolition of the EHRC: cuts in its budget and staffing; the reduction of staff morale to an all-time low; the undermining of confidence in the organisation and its effectiveness among the wider community; and now—almost the killer blow—the undermining of its remit. That is what this is about, and it is a tragedy that it is a Liberal Democrat Minister bringing it about, because the Liberal Democrats supported us so effectively throughout the construction of the organisation.
I turn briefly to caste. As my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn said, I moved an amendment to the Equality Act 2010. To be frank, it was not what we wanted. I supported the Rob Marris proposal to outlaw caste discrimination, but the two Front-Bench teams were anxious about outlawing it, so we worked cross-party. Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour Members sought a compromise agreement and we got it through the House. It was simple: if the
Government were not convinced then that there was caste discrimination, they would undertake research, and the commitment was given—a cross-party promise—that if there was any evidence of discrimination, legislation would be forthcoming.
That evidence has now been brought forward. It is not numerous, but, as hon. Members have said, if one person is discriminated against, we should ensure that it does not happen. So there might not be the quantum, but there is the qualitative evidence demonstrating that discrimination is taking place. I say to Alok Sharma that I have had cases in my constituency of appalling levels of discrimination, but people are terrified of coming forward, because, without protection in place, it would reinforce the discrimination, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North said.
Today is about the fulfilment of a commitment, given on a cross-party basis, to legislate, if the evidence is there, to outlaw the discrimination. I am asking for that commitment to be upheld. My understanding of the position of the Labour Front-Bench team is straightforward. They support the outlawing of caste discrimination, which is why they support the Lords amendment. Detailed regulations would need to be introduced, as is always the case with anti-discrimination legislation, so I accept that further discussions would be needed, but let us establish the principle today.
I am an old-fashioned Marxist, but my politics over the past 30 years have also been shaped by my Asian constituents, who have taught me a lot. They have taught me about the role of Ghandi. As mentioned earlier, in 1933, his 21-day fast was followed by a year-long campaign that resulted, in 1947, in an Indian constitution that outlawed caste discrimination. My Sikh constituents have also taught me a lot. In Sikhism, caste discrimination is outlawed. I will quote from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book. It says:
“do not consider social class or status; there are no classes or castes in the world hereafter”.
To those Sikh organisations that have expressed consternation about some of the debate around caste, I say that what we have a chance to introduce today into British legislation is Sikh principles. The Sikh community in this country should be proud of that, and this House should be proud to say that we will outlaw caste discrimination once and for all. Let us do it on a cross-party basis.
Order. I wish to inform the House that the knife will fall at 5.15 pm. I will call Mr Sharma next, then Mr Hughes, and I would like both to be mindful that if they wish to hear the Minister sum up, they must leave her time to do so.
Before we debate caste, we need to understand what the caste system means. It has been a deep-rooted tradition among Indian sub-continent communities for centuries. Various social reform movements of the last 1,000 years have declared discrimination on the basis of caste to be unacceptable. Many saints, rishis, social reformers and gurus have campaigned on the issue.
Indeed, every page of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib—from which my hon. Friend John McDonnell quoted—speaks, in one way or the other, against inequality in society. Many other faiths—Jainism, Buddhism—also speak against discrimination, highlighting caste before moving on to other inequalities in society.
However, after centuries, we are still talking about the fact that there is a caste system in society. It might be alien to British society, but for people who have lived or come from there, it is in them, which is why, when India gained independence from Britain, it had to pass a law—it is in the constitution—saying that nobody can discriminate against another individual in employment, service delivery or, above all, social life. Why did India have to do that if educating people or persuading them to change their habits and practices was such a simple matter? It shows that even Dr Ambedkar, Pandit Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and many other leading members of the Indian political movement accepted that doing so was not easy. That is why that law was introduced in the constitution.
We need to understand what is in India, but we also need to understand how we are living in British society. I feel proud to represent the constituency of Ealing, Southall, in which Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Dalits—we are using that term now—and many other minorities from different parts of the world live. I feel proud to say in this place that we all live together peacefully, supporting each other. We have the Sikh procession, which all the communities join—I am sure that many Members who are present can speak about that as well. Whenever there are any issues in the community, we come together and address them.
There has been a change in social life as well. People are entering inter-caste marriages and there is more closeness, but there is still an element when we are talking about employment and, in certain areas, service delivery as well. Alok Sharma asked how many cases there were, and although sometimes we do not have the details of cases, we know that such practices are going on. In previous years, before 1976, there was indirect discrimination—that is, if it was not direct discrimination—and now there is still indirect discrimination.
I would like to make one other point. We are not talking about something that is anti-Hindu, anti-Sikh or anti-Jainist or against any other high-class, high-caste community. This is not against them; it is introducing equality, so that where any individual or group feels that they are being discriminated against, they will have the legal remedy that we are introducing today.
As I have said, there is not a major issue in my constituency. I feel proud that the Sikhs and Hindus there actively promote unity among all faiths. That is why we all meet together at the processions and at many other functions. My right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, who is in his place, was in my constituency on Sunday when the Tamil new year was celebrated. Members of all the other religions and faith groups were present at those celebrations. There is not an issue in people’s social lives.
We have heard suggestions about placing the value of education over the value of legislation in protecting individuals against caste discrimination. Of course education is key to changing attitudes and behaviour, but it is also necessary to reduce discrimination in the long term. Legislation is necessary to ensure that any victim of discrimination is protected, and to provide legal redress against discrimination. Adding “caste” alongside “race” in section 9 of the Equality Act 2010 will reaffirm our commitment to fight prejudice of any kind and to protect any individual who feels discriminated against. I can only hope that, as a testimony to the strong unity that I have witnessed in the Hindu and Sikh communities, the amendment will never have to be used in practice.
I say to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend Jo Swinson that I, like many of our colleagues, support the retention of the general duty on equality. I understand the difficulty that she has in a coalition Government, in that she has to try to reflect different views, but I hope that, whatever decision is reached today, she will be able to persuade her colleagues that we should retain that duty rather than remove it.
On the caste issue, I offered a suggestion earlier on the way forward. If the Government cannot accept the amendment to make caste a basis for discrimination—which I am persuaded that we ought to support—I hope that they will at least give Parliament an early opportunity to introduce secondary legislation to allow the provision to be added to legislation this year.
I thank my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes for what must be one of the shortest speeches of his life. With the leave of the House, I shall respond to some of the points that he and others have made, and I genuinely welcome the opportunity to do so.
The shadow Secretary of State, Mr Umunna, began by accusing the Government of making a U-turn on lettings. He failed, however, to point out his own party’s U-turn on that issue. The proposals in the Government amendment for a redress scheme bear a striking similarity to an amendment that was tabled under the previous Government by my hon. Friend Mr Prisk and supported by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. It would have introduced a redress scheme, but the Labour Government voted against it. That is why we are bringing forward the amendment today. It is a much more sensible provision than the one that was tabled in the other place, and it will give redress to consumers who are unfortunate enough to be the victims of letting and management agents who are not acting as they should.
Mrs McGuire asked where people should go for help in the absence of the EHRC helpline, and I am happy to draw her attention to the Equality Advisory Support Service that has been set up instead. Anyone who needs advice on these issues can ring the service on 0808 800 0082. That service is still available, although it is no longer supplied by the EHRC. It also works closely with the Commission to ensure that general information is passed back to inform the work of the service.
My hon. Friend Alok Sharma made a powerful speech on the question of caste. He was right to highlight the complexity of the issue. He also asked for confirmation that the Government were not entirely closed to the idea of legislation. I am happy to give him that confirmation, as I said earlier, and indeed as has been said in the other place. The issue is about ensuring that we get the right response. We recognise that, as the EHRC gathers the evidence for the assessment it is undertaking this year, it might ultimately recommend a view that involves legislation.
My hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley has tabled amendments to deal with various issues, particularly a code of practice for redress. The Government consultation will of course include consideration of how the redress mechanism should operate—
Two hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of the Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment 35 disagreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that time (Standing order No. 83F).
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 36.
The House divided:
Ayes 312, Noes 245.