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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 4th March 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Prosser Baroness Prosser Labour 7:30 pm, 4th March 2013

Before speaking to this amendment, I should like to clarify for your Lordships any question of a possible conflict of interest. I was until 3 December last year the deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. At that point, I had served two three-year terms and my appointment terminated. I therefore no longer have a direct interest in the commission but I do of course retain a general interest in both the commission and its work.

Turning to the matter at hand, perhaps I may express to noble Lords my overall view of the value of this part of the debate on Clause 57 and why this group of amendments is so important to the future of the commission and to equalities in our country more generally. The ability of citizens to feel and believe that they have an equal chance in life and, importantly, to feel and believe that their Government think they should have an equal chance is key and central to the development of a harmonious and comfortable society. At this particular time, with its harsh economic circumstances and shortage of employment opportunities, it is common for those who are struggling to lay the blame for their plight on those less familiar to them.

Situations such as these require Governments to be strong and forthright in making clear their support for tolerance and fairness, and to speak loudly of the value of legislation and government machinery which helps people to enjoy equal rights and to access recourse to justice when those rights are violated. Comments from government which continually link equalities legislation with red tape, bureaucracy and burdens undermine the confidence of citizens and allow for the growth of intolerance and unfair behaviour. The purpose of this group of amendments is to enable the Government to be seen to recognise that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is a valuable, serious and important tool in delivering and regulating equality legislation in this country. It would put the commission on the same footing, for example, as the National Audit Office, the Electoral Commission and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

Strengthening the commission's accountability to Parliament has been endorsed by the United Nations International Co-ordinating Committee chair. In a letter to the then Minister for Equalities, Theresa May, the ICC chair, Dr Mousa Borayzat, suggests that the Government should use the opportunity of this Bill to strengthen the provisions of the Equality Act 2006 in areas related to the commission's independence.

Parliamentary scrutiny of the appointment of the commission chair has already taken place. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, appointed in November of last year, appeared before the Joint Committee on Human Rights. That extra interest and study of the recommended candidate not only adds to the status of the appointment but involves and includes Parliament in the process. Greater knowledge and greater transparency ensue. Amendment 77 calls for this process to be extended to the appointment of commissioners-again, increasing knowledge and transparency-and I look forward to the Minister's response on that point.

Amendments 78 and 79 seek to rectify the current unsatisfactory position whereby the commission's annual report and accounts and the strategic plan are presented to whichever Secretary of State happens to have the current responsibility for equalities generally. Since its inception, the commission has reported to four different Secretaries of State, each of whom has had equalities added to their already busy portfolio of responsibilities. Changes to the responsibilities of those Secretaries of State have meant that the commission has been shuffled around Whitehall depending on where the Secretary of State came from. It is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. Given that the rights and responsibilities contained within the equalities agenda touch every single adult in the land, is it not more sensible and more appropriate for Parliament to oversee and question these important reports and plans?

Finally, I turn to Amendment 80, which calls for the commission's budget to be approved by Parliament. Two dangers arise from leaving the situation as it is. First, the current practice is for a budget allocation to be drawn up and allocated to the Government Equalities Office. This money then gets separated out with a share going to the EHRC. This hardly helps to instil any sense that the commission can maintain a healthy independence from government. Secondly, and most seriously, the EHRC is internationally recognised as the national human rights institution for England and Wales. Crucially, financial health and independence are central to our being able to maintain that international recognition.

In 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted the Belgrade principles. These relate to the relationship between NHRIs and national parliaments, and they include several mechanisms for closer relations between parliaments and national human rights institutions. For example, parliaments should develop a legal framework for the NHRI which secures its independence and its direct accountability to parliament. The principles also suggest that parliaments should invite members of NHRIs to debate their strategic plan and/or their annual programme of activities in relation to their annual budget. These amendments would enable government to state clearly that arrangements in this country most certainly comply with the Belgrade principles.

None of these amendments should concern the Government's desire to go easy on regulation or so-called red tape. They are all designed to help the Government to promote their commitment to the equality and human rights agenda and to send a message to the citizens of Britain that government believe in openness and transparency and the delivery of equal opportunities for all. I beg to move.