Equality Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 3:15 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords for their applause, if I can call it that.

Nothing at all divides us on the principle that children are central to the Bill—I take what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said about what central should mean and the need for all vulnerable groups to be central to the work of the commission. It is absolutely critical that the new commission should promote the rights of children and young people just as it promotes those of adults. I will say a little about what that means in practice because I was much taken with what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said about wanting the guarantee that that will be crystal clear. I want to bring life to that guarantee so that the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Howe, will feel confident about what I have to say.

We are absolutely clear that the new commission must consult with children and young people, and do that effectively. That means working very closely with organisations such as the Children's Rights Alliance, but also in less structured ways to ensure that the needs and priorities of children and young people are part of the priorities and planning of the commission. Innovative techniques will be required in order to engage with young people—noble Lords who have experienced working with children and young people will know that that is essential to ensure that we learn from children and young people what they want and need. That will be critical.

The commission will also need to address issues of equality and discrimination that directly affect children and young people—as much, as my noble friend Lord Morgan said, as for any other group, including older people. I am sure that your Lordships will know that discrimination legislation and human rights apply equally to all, regardless of age. The commission's job will be to promote human rights, and promote and enforce the equality enactments in relation to old and young alike. It will need to work in a joined-up way with other organisations whose remit covers children, particularly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, says, the Children's Commissioner. We expect, want and desire a memorandum of understanding to be agreed between the commissioner and the new commission to ensure that that happens effectively.

On human rights, the remit will embrace children and young people. For example, the commission's inquiry powers will allow it to look into general discriminatory treatment of children and failure to meet human rights standards. Similarly, the commission will be expected to work with children and young people to tell them about their rights, and how those rights can be protected.

Noble Lords will know that we build on work that has happened with existing commissions, such as: the work of the Commission for Racial Equality, promoting youth leadership among minority ethnic groups; the EOC's work to combat gender stereotyping in children's early years; and the Disability Rights Commission's running of the educating4equality campaign, raising awareness of new rights for disabled pupils, and its work with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to ensure that awarding bodies do not discriminate against disabled pupils. I mention those because they are good examples—not necessarily with the high level of publicity that I would like—of how the commissions are already working. It is our intention to ensure that the new commission will do the same.

I will probably rue the day that I ever mentioned lists, and my phobia of lists. There is a difficulty with the amendment as it stands, however. I have had a conversation with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, and say to her and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that I have tried hard to find a way that I could put this in the Bill that would not run me into difficulties because it would invite everybody to want a list—an issue that we have to take seriously. Also, the difficulty with the amendment is that when I took it to parliamentary counsel, they advised me that it would cast doubt over whether children were covered in the other provisions of the Bill. I know that is not the intention of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. It could also, of course, narrow the scope of the clauses concerned, in that the commission could undertake its activities only with individuals, and not with public authorities and other bodies at a corporate level. I could not accept it if I wanted to, because it would not do.