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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 4th March 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Lords Spokesperson (Department for Work and Pensions), Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 4:00 pm, 4th March 2013

My Lords, this has been an important debate and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed. We have covered an important matter about which we all feel strongly. We all want a society based on equality of opportunity which respects human rights. I pay tribute, as I did in Committee, to all noble Lords who have worked hard in this arena over many years. I especially pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, not just for everything that she has done but for the very open and straightforward manner in which she and I have discussed her amendments at various stages of the passage of this Bill. I really am grateful to her for that.

A lot has been achieved since we last debated this issue. We have appointed new commissioners and the commission's budget has been announced. I will come back to these points later today when we debate the accountability of the commission in the final group of amendments. First, I shall be absolutely clear about what this Government seek to achieve via this Bill. We want a strong and independent Equality and Human Rights Commission which promotes and protects equality and human rights. We want it to be recognised and respected as the national expert in these areas as well as for being a strategic enforcer of equality law.

Under the leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, who is respected and renowned the world over for her evidence-based approach, we are confident that the commission's work will be respected, but in order for her, her board and its successors to determine their priorities and agree a coherent strategy, we must first be clear on the purpose of the commission.

The commission has done some good work since it was established in 2007-most recently, the inquiry into the home care of elderly people and the disability harassment inquiry, among other things, which were referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. Let me be clear: removing the general duty would not prevent this kind of work taking place in the future. I will explain in a moment why that is the case. However, we also have to acknowledge that the commission has not been universally acclaimed as a national institution. Indeed, it has been criticised for the way that it has been run. Poor financial management resulting in qualified accounts was the most serious evidence of its failures.

In the past couple of years things have started to improve. Indeed, the past two sets of accounts have been clean and substantial savings have been made. I pay tribute to all those who played their part in that, which includes several Members of this House. However, when an organisation seriously underperforms, it would be negligent not to understand what caused those problems and take steps to put things right. As most successful leaders, whether they are in business or politics, will testify, when things go wrong in an organisation it is often because the organisation lacks clarity of purpose. Indeed, they will argue that for any organisation to be successful, it needs clarity of purpose.

The general duty is not a core purpose. It is a statement with which we all agree, but it is not a purpose. As I said in Committee, that statement for the general duty includes the requirement that:

"We must 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", and goes on. If the statement were enshrined exclusively in statute and described as the commission's general duty, that would imply that the commission is responsible for encouraging and supporting the development of such a society on its own.

I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, questioned my reasoning, but I stand by it. The Government's argument remains that several institutions-Parliament, the Government, other public sector organisations, business and everyone-are collectively responsible for achieving the kind of society that that general duty sets out. Having such a wide-ranging and unrealistic general duty would make it harder than it should be for the commission to prioritise its work. That would be the case for any organisation given that general duty.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill of Bengarve, made clear in her contribution the commission's view of what the Government are proposing, and I am grateful to her for that. She said that while the commission lacks enthusiasm in the language that uses for the Government's proposals to remove the general duty, it none the less acknowledges that it would not impact significantly on its work. She also agreed that that general duty is aspirational, the nature of the Equality Human Rights Commission is for it to be aspirational and that that is not required to be set out in statute.

The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and other noble Lords referred to the memo from Sir Bob Hepple and questioned the unifying link that Section 3 provides between equality and human rights. The commission can perform its functions under its duties in respect of equality under Section 8 and of human rights under Section 9, so that any unifying link between these two concepts provided by the duty is not essential. As the commission made clear in the briefing distributed at the end of last week, it sees the general duty as symbolic rather than practical.

The Government are clear that the commission's core purpose is to promote equality and to protect human rights. These duties are set out in Sections 8 and 9 of the 2006 Act. They are supported by a suite of enforcement powers in that Act, such as conducting inquiries and investigations, issuing compliance notices or entering into agreements with organisations and instigating or intervening in judicial reviews or other legal proceedings.

In her opening remarks, the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, referred to the banking crisis and argued that the removal of the general duty would prevent the commission becoming involved in addressing the kinds of problems associated with that. I would make a different point. To put it in its simplest terms, Sections 8 and 9, covering equality and human rights, should inform the commission's strategic and business plan-in other words, its proactive work-and its enforcement panels are what authorise it to act when it suspects unlawful activity is occurring. So there is in the Act, without the general duty, the clarity that is necessary to inform the activity that the Equality and Human Rights Commission rightly needs to be able to carry out, which is important to it and what it is there to do. As I stated in Committee, the repeal of the general duty will neither stop nor hinder the commission's ability to fulfil its important equality and human rights duties. I believe that by providing the clarity which will come through removing the general duty we will help it become more effective.

There is nothing to stop the commission reflecting the contents of the general duty in a mission statement, if it feels that that would help it in its work. Several noble Lords asked me to respond to the proposal circulated by the commission at the end of last week about an alternative to the general duty, reflecting some other kind of language. Let me be absolutely clear: the Government are not proposing an alternative to Section 3. We are clear that Section 3 is not required; if the commission decides it wants to produce its own internal mission statement, that is a matter for it.

Amendment 72, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, is about monitoring duty and seeks to halt the changes to Section 12 of the 2006 Act. I reiterate the point I made in Committee that this change is being made to ensure that the commission reports on progress against its core equality and human rights duties. It is a consequence of the changes that we are making to remove Section 3. It will also amend the reporting cycle from three to five years. As I also stated in Committee, I should like to be clear that there is nothing to stop the commission reporting more frequently if it wishes to do so. Our change would simply reduce the risks of overburdening the commission with reporting obligations and of it being unable to fulfil its duty of monitoring progress adequately.

The commission has had a difficult birth, but it has also done some good work. I believe that, with a clarified legislative mandate, the commission will continue to promote equality of opportunity, tackle discrimination and protect and promote human rights. It will be able to do so more effectively than before and so will gain the respect we all want it to have as our equality body and national human rights institution.

I hope that, in responding in this way to the noble Baroness and all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate, I have given an assurance of what we expect from the commission as well as of the importance we attach to it and to the work it does. I hope that I have also been able to give the noble Baroness the assurance she needs that, in making these changes, we believe the result will be that the commission will be able to exercise its responsibilities more effectively than it has been able to until now.