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 Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Lords Spokesperson (Department for Work and Pensions), Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 7:30 pm, 4th March 2013

My Lords, as I said in response to the first debate this afternoon, the Government want a strong, independent Equality and Human Rights Commission that 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 a strategic enforcer of the law. Clearly, we also value its "A" status and want it to retain it. We are committed to strengthening its accountability to Parliament and, in responding to this debate, I hope I can demonstrate what progress we are making.

I start with the appointments. As already acknowledged by the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, and others who have contributed to the debate, the appointment of the new chair of the commission, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, was for the first time subject to pre-appointment scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. That is a move that the Government welcome. In January, we appointed six new commissioners and, with the appointment of the new chair, we believe that the new board marks the start of a new era for the commission steering it in a new strategic direction. We want to see the commission go from strength to strength. We are open to discussing with the Joint Committee on Human Rights how it can be involved in future appointments.

Since the debate in Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has been in touch with my honourable friend the Minister for Women and Equalities, Helen Grant, who is the Minister responsible for the commission. The JCHR has set out its plans to work with the commission to strengthen the commission's accountability to, and co-operation with, Parliament and, in particular, with the JCHR itself. I am aware that the JCHR seeks to work with the EHRC to develop a protocol of collaborative working strategies to improve accountability. I certainly echo the sentiment expressed in my honourable friend Helen Grant's reply to the letter from the chair of the committee. We welcome the non-legislative approach taken by the JCHR, and following this exchange of correspondence, which was circulated to noble Lords before today's debate, I understand that at the request of the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights a meeting will take place soon. To reiterate: there is ongoing dialogue between the commission and the JCHR to the effect that the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, has argued for in her amendment.

I reassure the House that the commission's annual report and accounts are already laid before Parliament, as well as its strategic plan and its reports on progress. With respect to the commission's budget, since Committee, and as I referred to earlier today, we have published the outcome of the comprehensive budget review. This review, conducted in partnership with the commission, sets out the agreed level of funding adequate for the commission to fulfil its functions. As the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, said, the review agrees a budget that will allow the commission to,

"continue as an effective organisation in all our roles".

Furthermore, as my noble friend Lord Lester mentioned in Committee, the commission's founding legislation includes an obligation for Ministers to make sure that it receives reasonably sufficient funding to fulfil its functions. That will continue. As such, we do not believe that it is necessary for Parliament to set directly the commission's budget.

The vast majority of public bodies are set up in a similar way to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and that is because it is not practical as a general rule for Parliament to provide the level of day-to-day support often required. To agree a budget with an organisation requires quite a lot of ongoing detailed discussion to reach an agreed amount. That is not something which usually lends itself to the work of a Select Committee. My noble friend Lord Deben, who has a good deal of experience with this, made that argument during Committee. It is worth pointing out that, unlike most other such bodies, there is no power for Ministers to compel the commission to do anything, so in terms of the process by which it agrees its budget, it does not set a budget to ensure it fulfils something that it does not want to do.

Moving on to the framework document, officials are working with the commission to put in place a new, improved framework by the end of this month. While I cannot go into the detail as this work is ongoing, I can assure noble Lords that officials are working to ensure the commission's independence is not compromised by the need for it to be accountable. The noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, and others referred to the ICC's view of the commission's accountability to Parliament. It is quite right that in 2010 the ICC, as part of its special review, suggested that it might be sensible for the Government to consider increasing the level of the commission's accountability to Parliament. Our view is that this is being achieved through the steps we are taking, some of which I have just outlined. I should also make clear that the commission was accredited as an "A"-rated institution without any change in its reporting arrangements. My point is that its "A" status was conferred on it as it is currently constituted, so it already exists in the way that it is constructed. I am aware that the commission will be considered at the next meeting of the ICC's sub-committee on accreditation in May. As I stated in Committee, we have a constructive dialogue with the chair of the ICC and this will continue.

My noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece raised the relationship between the commission and Ministers and its accountability to Parliament. Let me be clear, the commission is accountable to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in her capacity as the Minister for Women and Equalities. She in turn is accountable to Parliament. That is a standard arrangement for non-departmental public bodies. The rules governing the relationship between the Government and the commission are the same as those for the majority of non-departmental public bodies. As I said just a moment ago, like most other such bodies, Ministers have no power to compel the commission to do anything. Parliament has scrutinises and challenged the work of the commission through Parliamentary Questions, Select Committee hearings and correspondence and will continued to do so.

I hope I have been able to demonstrate that we have worked hard with the commission to strengthen its relationship with Parliament and that we continue to support further engagement. We believe that working in partnership with the commission, as we did on the recent budget review, is the most effective way of securing the best possible outcome for the commission in fulfilling its role as a respected and valued institution nationally and internationally.

The commission continues to make great strides in improving itself as an organisation, and we look forward, as I am sure the whole House does, to an improved and closer working relationship between the commission and Parliament. I hope that after this response, the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, will feel able to withdraw her amendment.