Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill — Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 4th March 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton Baroness Campbell of Surbiton Crossbench 3:08 pm, 4th March 2013

My Lords, the purpose of my amendment is to retain Section 3 of the Equality Act. It is of critical importance. It articulates the fundamental principles that we as a society should be aiming for and clarifies the nature of the contribution that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should make towards those aims.

From the banking crisis to phone hacking, to the horrific abuse of people with learning disabilities, recent times have reminded us that culture, ethics and principles are at least as important as the law in securing a prosperous, safe, cohesive and healthy society. As Hector Sants, former chief executive of the Financial Services Authority, succinctly put it in 2010, until the issue of culture and ethics,

"is addressed we will not be able to prevent another crisis of this magnitude from occurring again".

Section 3 explicitly imports the cultural and ethical principles of equality and human rights into the remit of the commission. It reinforces the notion that its role is more than promoting and enforcing the law. That is essential if it is to help bring about a society in which prejudice and discrimination are eliminated, human rights routinely respected and everyone can achieve their full potential.

Section 3 requires the commission to discharge its functions,

"with a view to encouraging and supporting the development of a society", in which specific aims are realised. This is what distinguishes it from other bodies. As Age UK notes in its briefing, it,

"makes clear that the job of the EHRC is to change culture, not just to enforce rules".

The commission did exactly that in its widely praised inquiry into the human rights of older people receiving care at home. It identified an emerging problem and brought it to the attention of wider society with extensive media coverage. It looked beyond strict legal compliance to whether the principles of dignity, respect and autonomy were being upheld and made proposals including legislative reform. Is that the type of activity that the Minister associated with Section 3 when she said in Committee that the commission,

"should not be an impassioned lobbyist leading emotive campaigns".-[Official Report, 9/1/13; col. GC60.]

or is it the role we want it to play-not simply a law enforcer but a body that uncovers scandals and working with others points the way forward?

The Minister has said that Section 3 wrongly implies that it is for the commission alone to bring about these changes in our society. However, Section 3 was amended in this House to make clear that this was not the intention. The commission's duty is to encourage and support others to realise their aims in Section 3 whether Government, Parliament, the courts, public bodies, business, the media or civil society. It is ironic that many of the reforms proposed or under way will hamper the commission's ability to work with others. For example, it has lost its helpline, its capacity to make grants and its authority as a source of advice to business.

The Minister has also argued that Section 3 is too broad. This suggests that she considers the duties in Sections 8 and 9 to be more restricted. Repealing Section 3 will do nothing to reduce the scope of issues with which the commission might engage. Therefore, we must assume that the repeal is to limit what the commission can do about those issues, otherwise it is unclear what will be achieved. Ultimately these reforms, including the repeal of Section 3, will focus the commission on law enforcement, especially in the field of discrimination. Bizarrely, this will stem from a Bill to promote enterprise and growth by reducing regulatory burdens. We risk creating a body increasingly reliant on costly and intrusive legal action to have any meaningful impact.

With fewer resources, the commission will have to be more judicious in the issues on which it focuses. We will do it no favours by leaving it simultaneously less clear about its aims and more dependent on legal enforcement to achieve them. I do not believe that the Government want this either, which is why I ask them to think again about the unintended impact of this repeal.

Yesterday's headlines remind us that our human rights protections cannot be taken for granted. It is more important than ever that we retain the principles enshrined in Section 3. Section 3 is a declaration of our commitment to those principles. It requires us to be vigilant in their protection and restless in their promotion. It provides a direction of travel for the commission and others involved in the work. It makes clear that pursing those aims requires both enforcement of the law and the development of a deeper cultural respect for equality and human rights and it requires the commission to provide the leadership that Britain needs to make that commitment a reality.

The case for the repeal of Section 3 has not been made. The Government's assurances that it will have minimal impact on the commission are unconvincing. If that is the case, what will it achieve? These assurances are also contingent on there being no further reforms of the commission's role, yet the Government have established a review of the public sector equality duty, including some of the commission's most significant functions.

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. This is why I propose that the Government take the opportunity to reflect on the recommendations of the equality duty review and wait until other reforms have bedded in, giving the new commission some time to get to know each other and to really understand what their task ahead is, before deciding whether the repeal of Section 3 is sensible or justified.

Your Lordships may have seen a briefing from the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggesting a simpler purpose clause, but I fear that it is merely a description. There are no aims. It separates equality from human rights, rather than uniting them. It gives little or no direction and does not reflect what the Government have said about the commission's future role. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that this late stage of the Bill is not the time to be suggesting such a proposal, with no opportunity for true debate. To debate it as good scrutineers is our job, after all. It is vital to keep Section 3 and I hope that your Lordships will support me in this endeavour. I beg to move.