I beg to move amendment No. 52, in schedule 1, page 57, line 33, at end insert—
‘(d)at least one female Commissioner,
(e)at least one Commissioner who represents an ethnic minority,
(f)at least one Commissioner who at the time of appointment is aged over 65 years, and
(g)at least one Commissioner who is either gay, lesbian or transgender.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 58, in schedule 1, page 58, line 9, after ‘Commissioner’, insert
‘on the grounds that a bankruptcy order has been made against him, his estate has been sequestrated or he has made a composition or arrangement with, or granted a trust deed for his creditors or’.
Paragraph 2(3) of schedule 1 states that the
“Secretary of State shall ensure that the Commission includes”
A disabled person and people who are concerned with Scotland and Wales. With amendment No. 52, we suggest that it should also include at least one female commissioner, one commissioner who represents an ethnic minority, one who is over 65 and one from the gay, lesbian and transgender community. We believe that the composition of the commission is vital to ensuring that it can undertake a wide range of difficult duties to the best of its ability.
Six so-called strands of potential inequality have been clearly identified and we currently have three bodies, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission.
Is there not a danger with lists that groups not on it are ignored by default? Men and young people, for example, are not on the list. How long a list does the hon. Lady want?
The hon. Lady makes a perfectly reasonable point. If the commission were to consist of only eight people, it would be quite over-prescriptive to prescribe conditions for six of those eight, because that would mean the commission losing the flexibility that we consider necessary to any such body. However, there are likely to be far more than eight or 10 commissioners, so prescribing the broad qualifications of 50 per cent. of them leaves flexibility to ensure that all groups in society are somehow represented.
I do not suggest for a moment that it is possible to analyse the make-up of our society, using the 2001 census and to say that the commission should be made up proportionally to reflect the exact numbers of different groups in society. That would be nonsense and the opposite of what we should have. I suggest, however, that Parliament should prescribe some of the qualifications for the commissioners, and that is what amendment No. 52 is intended to do. It is difficult to argue against it; why should we not prescribe that there should be a female commissioner? If we do not, those who appoint the commissioners might create a commission composed entirely of men. That is unlikely, but it is not impossible, and Parliament should create law that is precise, not vague. The amendment would add precision to the law.
I particularly point out the part of the amendment that prescribes
“at least one Commissioner who at the time of appointment is aged over 65 years”.
I have spoken to some of those concerned with age discrimination, such as Help the Aged and Age Concern, excellent bodies that promote the interests of people who are—I almost said in their later years, but I do not think of 65 being “later years”—above the current retirement age, although I appreciate that that is rather a sticky topic this week. People do not lose the abilities that they had during the previous year just because they reach a certain age, and there is every reason to say that at least one person over 65 should be on the commission.
There is a danger that head-hunters looking for a person to provide continuity will consider only somebody who is likely to be in a post for 10 or 12 years. One sees that sort of thing in job descriptions put out by organisations that want to ensure a build-up of wisdom and experience, and which do not therefore want somebody for just a short while. People approaching official retirement age, or those have reached it, are often ignored, passed over because their dates of birth appear on the front of the form and nothing else about them is considered.
I fully take the hon. Lady’s point about discrimination against older people, but does she acknowledge that the same problem is faced by 18-year-olds? They are deemed to be too inexperienced and therefore unable to express a valid view. Yet young people are conspicuously not included on her list.
No, I do not accept the hon. Lady’s point. There are many differences between a 64-year-old and an 18-year-old, but one essential one is that an 18-year-old not appointed to a particular post when 17, because he was thought to lack experience, is likely to be considered the following year to have more experience. Having reached the age of majority, he would probably be allowed the opportunity that he sought before, whereas somebody aged 64 and about to be 65 can be cut off forever from the world of work and the opportunity to make a contribution to society. That is an enormous difference. Although the hon. Lady raised a good point for argument, I entirely disagree with her.
Strangely enough, I stood on this very spot one week ago debating the Electoral Administration Bill and—I have a sense of déjà vu—I was arguing that 16-year-olds should not be given the vote. One of my arguments was that 16-year-olds will, in a short time, become 18-year-olds, having gained experience, and, one would hope, some wisdom, which is not necessarily the case, though nor is it necessarily the case for 64-year-olds either. However, I must not rehearse last week’s argument, and I must not get lost and mix that Bill with this one.
Amendment No. 52 would give the Secretary of State a specific duty to include someone over the age over the age of 65 as a commissioner, and likewise for the gay, lesbian and transgender community and for ethnic minorities.
I support the amendment. My hon. Friend referred in detail to the over-65s. Given our continuing problems with racism, would she agree that it is important to have a commissioner representing an ethnic minority to ensure that the commission sends out the clear message that such things are simply not tolerable?
Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes a good point. That is why I consider it to be Parliament’s duty to prescribe the qualifications of some commissioners. I am not saying that the Committee should set out a CV for all members of the commission. It is essential that those who appoint its members should have as much flexibility as possible in order to be able to appoint the best available people. That is important not only to protect the interests of those within the six strands of potential inequality and others, but to promote their interests. Hence, I commend amendment No. 52.
Amendment No. 58 would tighten the wording of paragraph 3, which sets out the tenure of a commissioner but does not mention the grounds on which a commissioner can be removed. We suggest that he should be removed if a bankruptcy order has been made against him; if his estate has been sequestrated; or if he has made a composition or arrangement with, or has granted a trust deed for, his creditors. Paragraph 3(5) allows the Secretary of State to dismiss a commissioner who, in his opinion, is unable, unfit or unwilling to perform his functions. That is fine, but there are many other instances in law in which becoming bankrupt disqualifies people from holding particular positions, including in the House. The amendment merely seeks to bring the Bill in line with similar legislation.
The Liberal Democrats fundamentally disagree with the amendment, because although it is well meaning it seems to smack of the worst kind of tokenism. We need to remember that the commission is being set up for equality and human rights. The human rights aspect is fundamental and should underpin everything that the new equality body does.
People far too often suffer extra discrimination because they fall into two minority groups. Discrimination needs to be tackled as a whole, rather than by replicating existing silos. The existing bodies do excellent work but there is little overlap between them, which is one reason why the formation of the new body is particularly exciting.
The list in the amendments includes a requirement for at least one female commissioner, so I wonder whether the hon. Member for Epping Forest objects to the make-up of the Government Benches in the Committee, on which males are conspicuous by their near absence, although I make that remark with apologies to the Whip, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda). Is that equality? It is good to see, but it worries me a little.
Since the hon. Lady asks a straight question, of course I do not object to the make-up of the Government Benches, apart from the fact that they are occupied by Labour Members. [Laughter.] I have no personal objection to any of those hon. Members; I have every respect for them. The point of amendment No. 52 is not to introduce a quota, but that at least one woman should be included. I think that that should be entrenched in law.
I feel that the people appointing the commissioners will have due regard to that. Perhaps a balance might be achieved unofficially, but it does not need to be prescribed in the Bill.
There are problems with the list in the amendments. For example, we generally have a female Minister for Women, and I may be shot down in flames for what follows since I suppose people may say that that is appropriate. At one stage, however, the Liberal Democrats had a spokesman for women who was a man, and a fine representative he was. It is sometimes tokenistic to say that only a woman can understand all the problems and discrimination that women experience, and only a disabled person can fully understand discrimination against disabled people. We need to think more holistically about discrimination. We now have not a Minister for Women but a Minister for Women and Equality. If we were to take the idea I have been discussing to its perverse extreme, we would need to find an ethnic minority woman with a disability and an interesting sexual persuasion, which would be tokenistic in the extreme.
What counts is that people are committed to equality and human rights. I do not suggest this as an amendment to the amendment, but the list might, arguably, require at least one feminist commissioner to be included. It is the struggle for equal rights that is important—not necessarily the presence of two X chromosomes. Some of the people most opposed in the past to equal rights for women have been women.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. In fact, those in our party who are opposed to all-female shortlists are frequently women. Having a woman on the commission does not mean that the right views will be put forward.
There are other problems with the drafting of the amendment, because sub-paragraph (e) states that there should be at least one commissioner who represents an ethnic minority. I am not quite sure that the word “represents” is appropriate. Representation indicates some sort of choice by an ethnic minority community—perhaps by election—and might give that person a status they do not have. How do we define an ethnic minority? In many parts of London, there is a significant Irish minority, but I suspect that, were an Irish person appointed to comply with the amendment, there would be huge uproar from people who represent organisations such as Operation Black Vote. The amendment is well meaning but could lead to many problems in the interpretation.
I also want to talk about the arbitrary age limit of 65. Although I have long campaigned on the discrimination that older people experience, the fact remains that discrimination can happen at any age and in many different ways. We should not get hung up on age discrimination being something that affects only older people. There are plenty of examples of the discrimination that younger people face, even when they have reached 18 and are, according to the hon. Member for Epping Forest, more sensible—whatever that means.
No, I want to finish this point.
When it comes to employment, in particular, many people who are 55 years old and above experience a great deal of discrimination that is often hard to prove. Those people would probably be disfranchised by choosing someone of the arbitrary age of 65. There are far too many reasons to oppose the amendment. I appreciate that it is well meaning and an attempt to achieve an overall balance, but I would hope that that would be achieved anyway and that the commission would have due regard to all its duties when making appointments. If the Minister can offer the hon. Lady any reassurance, I am sure that we would all be delighted.
I support my hon. Friend who tabled the two amendments. We have had an interesting debate about tokenism and issues surrounding it. I certainly do not see the amendments as a sop to tokenism in any way, shape or form. The Minister will be aware of comments made at the weekend by Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, when he mentioned concerns that the new commission might be regarded as a bargain basement commission if it does not show that it is taking issues such as racism seriously.
I have received some representations since my name was put forward to serve on the Committee from people who are concerned that, if a commissioner is not identified as representing or coming from a black or minority ethnic community, that will, in some way, send a message that such issues are being downplayed. Clearly, when we are trying to emphasise greater equality within our community and to ensure that racism is stamped out and that people from all backgrounds—race, sexuality or whatever—are given equal opportunity, the Bill should not be seen as downplaying such issues. The amendment is not being introduced on the basis of tokenism. It emphasises the strands that are put forward through the Bill and would demonstrate clearly, through the make-up of the commission, that such issues are taken extremely seriously. It would emphasise that to those on the outside who may be concerned that issues of discrimination on the basis of sex, gender or ethnic minority are being weakened in some way, although I am sure that the Minister will say that they are not. It is important that we show that those issues are not being ignored by clearly setting out in the Bill that there should be commissioners who represent various different strands and communities. That would give the message to the outside world that those issues are not being downplayed. The commission will be made up of between 10 and 15 members, so there will be a lot of flexibility to take on board some of the comments about whether there should be representatives to reflect other communities or interest groups. Clearly, the number of commissioners would allow that.
Paragraph 2(1)(b) states that, when appointing commissioners, the Secretary of State shall
“have regard to the desirability of the Commissioners together having experience and knowledge relating to the relevant matters.”
It is not just desirable but essential that the commission should have that make-up and broad spread of commissioners. That underpins the amendment, which effectively underlines that approach. I welcome the proposal. It is neither tokenism nor something that does not embody the spirit behind the Bill. The risk is that we could end up with a commission that, because of its make-up, does not do the job that it should do.
The hon. Gentleman says that people in the categories mentioned in the amendment would be on the commission because they had something specific to bring to a particular strand. How then would he deal with the strand that he has not mentioned so far: religion and belief? Does he envisage someone being selected because they have a religion, or do not have a religion—which is everyone? How would he deal with the problem that commissioners might feel that it is their job to deal particularly or only with the issue in relation to which they were chosen? That is the problem with this sort of amendment.
Those are fair points. My approach would be to say that there is flexibility in the commission to take on board the considerations of other interest groups by virtue of the number of commissioners that can be appointed. There should be some provisions in the statute that underpin certain specific interests, especially considering the comments of interest groups outside this House and the concerns that have reasonably been expressed, which need to be considered properly in the context of the Bill to ensure that the new commission fulfils the task that it is being given.
On amendment No. 58, I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, who stated that the provision is, in many ways, a legalistic one, which is included in legislation for many other Government bodies in relation to grounds for removing a commissioner. The amendment speaks for itself and is entirely reasonable. I hope that it will find favour in the Committee.
I thank hon. Members for raising important issues about how representative the new commission will be and about grounds for the dismissal of commissioners. I shall deal first with amendment No. 52. Like me, the hon. Member for Epping Forest and the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), who made a thoughtful contribution, are concerned that the new body should carry the confidence of the many communities who will look to it for leadership and support, and of the wider public. I agree with the hon. Member for Romsey that it is fundamental that human rights considerations should underpin the commission.
All of us are in no doubt that the commission’s authority and credibility will be judged, in part, by whether it appropriately reflects wider society, especially marginalised or disadvantaged groups. It would be inconceivable for all the members of the board to be white heterosexual males under 65, because such a board would neither command the confidence of communities nor champion equality with credibility. Hon. Members and I differ, however, on how best to achieve our aims.
One approach, which the hon. Member for Epping Forest described, is to have an ever-growing list of the sort of people who must be appointed. The problem, of course, is that someone will always be left off the list, while others will spend a lot of time making their case for being on it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) made clear. That echoes the concern that we might put into people’s minds the idea that it would be acceptable to have just one woman, for example, on the board.
The other approach is to focus on skills, experience and knowledge. That approach was strongly endorsed by the task force of external stakeholders, which represents each of the groups involved. Those competencies are arguably more important than whether an individual looks right for the part.
Nevertheless, paragraph 2(2) of schedule 1 contains a major safeguard. The schedule provides that in making appointments, the Secretary of State must have regard to the fact that the commissioners collectively have
“experience and knowledge relating to” discrimination and human rights. The schedule also makes it clear that that must include experience and knowledge of
“discrimination ... on grounds of age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or otherwise”.
That knowledge and experience of discrimination is a solid reassurance that the commission will bring together the skills and competencies necessary for the board to command the confidence of its stakeholders.
As I said, the point made by the hon. Member for Hornchurch was thoughtful. I do not doubt that the board will have among its members people from all sorts of communities. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) also said, some of those people may represent or be from more than one community. The requirement to demonstrate knowledge and experience of discrimination will be a key criterion for appointments. In addition, we have strengthened the provisions to ensure that appointments are made on the basis of merit, unless there is a special reason to do otherwise.
The hon. Gentleman focuses on one of the important aspects that the Secretary of State has to take into account, and there is a range of such issues. It is important that we have commissioners who represent the range of issues and bring the right knowledge and experience with them. That must be one of the aspects that is taken into account, although it is not the only one, and hon. Members have rightly mentioned financial issues, to which I shall come shortly, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.
I share the aspirations behind the amendment, which seeks to ensure that the board’s composition is such that people will seek it out to champion their causes. However, the amendment is not the best way to achieve that.
On amendment No. 58, I have listened to hon. Members’ contributions with care and interest. The arguments set out by the hon. Member for Epping Forest and others seek to establish that acts of financial impropriety should be sufficient grounds for the Secretary of State to dismiss a commissioner. I have some sympathy with those arguments, and it is right that we should hold commissioners, as holders of public office who are paid out of public funds, to high standards. Indeed, it is right that the standards should be higher than those that might apply to people working in the private or voluntary sectors.
The Bill already provides the Secretary of State with the power to dismiss commissioners who, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, are unfit or unable to perform their functions. Our lawyers have advised us that the amendment’s language is already covered by the Bill. It would be perfectly reasonable for the Secretary of State to dismiss a commissioner if evidence of his financial impropriety rendered, or could reasonably be considered to render, him unfit to perform his functions. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.
Furthermore, the effect of the amendment would be much wider. It would mean that any financial impropriety, whether relevant or irrelevant to the commissioner’s functions and no matter how far in the past, would be an automatic ground for dismissal. It would mean, for example, that small business owners who took entrepreneurial risks but who are now making a success of their initiatives would automatically be disbarred from serving as commissioner. That cannot be right, nor is it fair.
Small business experience will be a key ingredient in the commission’s success. Small businesses make up the vast majority of employers in Britain, and evidence suggests that they struggle the most to comply with discrimination law. Understanding the constraints within which they operate and the challenges that they face will be crucial if the commission is to make a success of working in partnership with business.
The example that I gave is, of course, hypothetical, but it illustrates the point that the activity for which one is being dismissed must be relevant to the commissioner’s functions. Relevance and judgment must be part of any consideration for dismissal. They are, after all, key principles of good administration law, and we should not dispense with them lightly. The Bill already provides safeguards against financial impropriety that the Secretary of State judges to be relevant to the commissioner’s functions.
I hope that I have explained my concerns about the amendment and why I do not believe it to be wise or necessary, and I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw it.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive explanation of why the Government do not accept the amendments. I have considered what she said about the provisions of paragraph 2(2), which she argues cover everything that we seek to cover in amendment No. 52. I am satisfied that it does, but it is important that we had the opportunity to air the subject.
Although I fundamentally disagree with some of the things that the hon. Member for Romsey has said, it is important that we are seen to have discussed the matter and to have properly scrutinised the commission’s composition as set out in the Bill, because that will be one of the key factors that determines whether the Bill does what we all hope it will do when it comes into force.
The Minister made some very good points about amendment No. 58. We had not intended to insert the condition that anyone who had ever been declared bankrupt should be unfit to serve as commissioner. I entirely agree with her that the amendment should have taken into consideration the fact that someone whose bankruptcy had been discharged would certainly not be subject to that obligation.
I accept the Minister’s very good legal argument that schedule 1 covers what the amendment sought to achieve, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The real emphasis of the amendments is on the control of the Secretary of State and the need for the new commission to be seen as a robust, strong body that is not simply an arm of government but independent enough to conduct its affairs in a way that demonstrates, internally and externally, that it is at arm’s length from the Government. Given that it is intended that the commission might at times put forward ideas that do not necessarily correspond with the thinking of Government, it should be able to adopt a robust approach to issues with which it is tasked.
When we examine the structure of the commission and the rules that govern it, it is important to be clear that the commission will have that degree of independence and will be able to run its affairs as it sees fit. Amendment No. 53 seeks to delete paragraph 7(2), which states that the chief executive may be appointed only with the consent of the Secretary of State. Given that the Secretary of State will be entitled to appoint the commission and all the commissioners, so will effectively decide who the chief executive should be, it is clear that the Government will have some control over the perspective of the commissioners. The purpose of the amendment is to emphasise the fact that the chief executive needs to be viewed as a robust person who represents the views of the commission. If we are to demonstrate the independence and emphasise the robustness of the commission, it is important that we ensure that there is not a direct link between the Secretary of State and the chief executive by appointing somebody who is not signed off by Government.
Amendment No. 54, too, seeks to provide independence by deleting the words
“and approved by the Secretary of State” in relation to the appointment of other staff. It seems strange that the Secretary of State should be able to control who the commissioners and the chief executive are, as well as controlling the budget—we shall talk later about the financial arrangements for the support of the commission. The provision would further limit the ability of the commission to conduct its affairs by specifying that the Secretary of State should approve the numbers of staff and their terms and conditions of appointment.
I understand and respect the need to ensure that public money is spent wisely and effectively. However, there are other ways of doing that, and we are likely to discuss other checks and balances in relation to other provisions and amendments. By prescribing such matters in so much detail, the Bill gives the impression to the outside world that the new commission will not be as independent as it may need to be.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument with interest; it has some merit. However, has he considered the fact that paragraph 1(2) of the schedule says that the chief executive of the commission will himself be a commissioner? Consequently, since the Secretary of State is to appoint all the commissioners, the oddity would arise of that one commissioner not having been approved in that way. Does that undermine the hon. Gentleman’s argument?
The hon. and learned Lady makes a reasoned point. However, I am concerned that the commission should have the necessary strength to enable it to fulfil its duties in the effective way that the Committee would want. My amendment would bring about a more independent role for the chief executive, and that question is not dealt with by the point that the hon. and learned Lady made about paragraph 1(2). I maintain that the amendment is important in providing the level of integrity and independence that the commission needs.
Amendment No. 59 provides clarification. It would ensure that the commission had regard to the number of staff that it had determined, and that it would review and set overall limits; it would also ensure that the commission carefully considered the location of staff. Bodies outside Parliament have expressed concern about staff location and the possibility of a resulting diminution of influence on the part of the commission and certain other organisations. The commission must have due regard to, and consider carefully, the location of staff, and the message that that may send out to bodies or the public about the importance being placed on the issues that the Bill is concerned with.
The amendments are intended to emphasise the need for a robust commission that is seen as strong and independent. They would ensure a more arm’s-length approach to some issues of detail in the commission’s day-to-day arrangements, without losing sight of the Secretary of State’s power to appoint all the commissioners bar one.
I give some support to the amendment, because there is a certain amount of overkill in the Bill. If all the commissioners are to be approved by the Secretary of State, he should be able to trust them to appoint a chief executive. The arrangement that has been set out seems a little too onerous and is probably unnecessary.
The issue of the location of the commissioners hit the press at the weekend. I gather that the Commission for Racial Equality is not particularly happy with the recommendation that the larger part of the single body will be in Manchester, with a smaller part in London, but my impression from the letter provided by the Minister was that there would still be a fairly significant presence in London. It would be useful if the Minister could elaborate on the point.
The ministerial statement of last Thursday did indeed say that there would be a significant presence still in London. Also, the distribution of the functions in relation to the various footprints has not yet been decided. That will be subject to more consultation with the commissions.
I thank the hon. Lady for that. I was going to ask what thought had been given to which staff would be based in London and which in Manchester. It might be useful to record the fact that the public perception is that important bodies should be located close to London as it is easier to interact with Ministers and Whitehall officials. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s perspective, as the EOC and the DRC are based in Manchester and they seem to interact effectively with Ministers and officials. It would be useful if she could allay some of those fears.
One exciting aspect has not been mentioned: the fact that the body will have a regional presence. It would be helpful if the Minister could give us further clarification on how many regional offices there are likely to be and their possible location.
Before turning to the detail of the amendment, I shall say a little about independence, a question raised by the hon. Member for Hornchurch. It was the subject of much debate on Second Reading in the other place. The Government listened carefully to what was said, because we want the body to be independent and not to be seen as an arm of government. Like the existing commissions, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights will operate within the framework established for non-departmental public bodies. That has worked well for existing commissions, which speak out independently on the issues of the day.
A number of amendments were agreed to in the other place which strengthen the independence of the commission in respect of funding, the appointment process and the removal of the Secretary of State’s power to direct the commission. In addition, there is a new statutory requirement for the Secretary of State to have regard to the desirability of the commission being under as few constraints as possible when determining its activities and priorities. That is the general context of the Government’s response to calls for the commission’s independence.
I now turn to the amendments. Amendment No. 53 seeks to remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to consent to the appointment of the chief executive. Such a provision does not apply to the governance arrangements for existing equality commissions. I shall take the opportunity to explain why we made that a requirement for the new commission.
The Committee may be aware that, during early discussions on the governance arrangements for the new commission, the taskforce of key stakeholders was keen to ensure a closer relationship between the chair and the chief executive. Many gave examples of the operational difficulties that can emerge in all sorts of organisations when the relationship between the chair and the chief executive is distant. We listened carefully to the arguments, and we were persuaded that making the chief executive an ex-officio commissioner would help foster a closer relationship.
Consistent with the standard framework for non-departmental public bodies, the commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State. A commissioner will be appointed as chair. In order to ensure some parity between the commissioners and the chief executive’s role as an ex-officio commissioner, the Secretary of State is required to give consent to the appointment of the chief executive appointment. Indeed, that reason was given in an earlier intervention by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird).
It is not suggested that the Secretary of State should have a role or influence in determining the appointment of the chief executive. That is rightly a matter for the chair and commission alone. However, it is right that the Secretary of State should consent to that appointment; he would then be aware of all who serve as commissioners, as they will be accountable for the performance and propriety of the commission. That is why we included such a provision.
When, a while ago, an advertisement for the head of the CRE was published—or perhaps it was another commission—there was some controversy about the provision that the post holder must be in sympathy or agreement with the Government’s policies on that subject. Does the Minister remember that, and can she assure us that that will not be a necessary requirement for commissioners or for the chief executive of the new commission?
I do not recall that discussion. It must have passed me by. The requirements for the appointment of commissioners and the chief executive are as set out in the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 54 and 59 seek to enable the commission to determine, without the need for the Secretary of State’s approval, the numbers of staff, their location and the terms and conditions of their appointment. The location of the commission and the numbers of staff will be key determinants of the overall cost of the new body.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest put me on notice on Second Reading that the Conservative party at least will continue to probe the subject of costs very persistently in Committee. It is therefore right that the Secretary of State, who is accountable to Parliament for the commission, should be required to approve such matters, as they will account for the largest slices of the new body’s overall budget. The requirement will ensure that the budget continues to cover reasonable expenditure; it does not include detailed approval of the terms and conditions of each individual. The Secretary of State’s financial accountability to Parliament for the CEHR is the issue. I therefore suggest that it is not sensible to remove that role, which I repeat involves the Secretary of State’s approving decisions taken by the commission, rather than taking decisions himself.
Concern was expressed on Second Reading that the members of the existing equality bodies are on different pay scales, and some of us were disappointed to learn that EOC staff seem to come off the worst. Although the Secretary of State does not have responsibility for individual budgets and the fine detail, will the Minister assure us that the current discrepancy will not be perpetuated when the new body is set up, and that a clear wage structure will be established that is seen to be above all criticism, as anyone who combines strands of staff who are currently on different wage streams runs the risk of perpetuating those mistakes?
Clearly, the process of setting up the new commission, which not only brings together three existing commissions but seeks to deal with other areas, including the underpinning issue of human rights, is long and complex, hence the Government’s very clear intention for the Bill to be debated early in the Session to ensure that the commission can be up and running by its target date of October 2007.
Part of the next stage of that process will be to start detailed work on the structure, staffing and functions of the commission. I shall say a little more about that in a moment when I respond to the points about location. I reassure the Committee that the whole process has involved a taskforce, as I said at the outset, and subsequently a steering group. The taskforce and the steering group have regular meetings and are regularly involved and consulted on all those issues, so staffing and remuneration will be part of the process. Obviously the Government will need to abide by the legal requirements governing the transfer of undertakings, redundancy and other staff-related issues.
The Government commissioned a study on location, copies of which will be available to Members very shortly. I apologise for the fact that they were not available at the start of the sitting.
We acknowledge the concerns of all commission staff. The Committee will be aware of the reservations that have been expressed, particularly by the Commission for Racial Equality. I shall spend a few minutes explaining how the decision that was announced last week was taken. My officials commissioned an independent location study to identify options for the new body. In discussion with the steering group of representatives from the key external stakeholders, including the existing commissions, the terms of reference for the study and the criteria against which options should be assessed were discussed and agreed. The consultants also met steering group members as part of the evidence-gathering for their study.
We assessed the location options against several criteria. The first was the business needs—what we anticipate the commission will do—and whether anything in the location was likely to impact on them. Many of the commission’s functions are not primarily location-sensitive. However a number of influencing functions, such as parliamentary work and some media work, were considered location-sensitive and best delivered from a London base. Other functions, such as a helpline, can be delivered off-site from the commission’s offices.
As with existing commissions, little work will involve face-to-face service delivery from the main site. Information and advice is provided through helplines, websites, and published literature; education and training is often delivered on-site. Casework support is usually handled online or, in the case of the CRE, through the network of local race equality councils and regional offices.
To pick up on the invitation of the hon. Member for Romsey to say more on the issue of regional presence, I can say that I am keen that the commission should address issues of inequality and discrimination throughout Great Britain. The commission will have a regional presence. It will need to build on the work done by the race equality councils in the regions and to consider the provision of a range of services to the regions.
I have to say that that detail has not been worked out at this stage of the preparation work, but it will be enormously important to involve the current commissions and the future interested parties that will form the commission. Those parties are already quite rightly engaged with and interested in the process. It is enormously important to ensure that people, wherever they are in the country and whether they are a public body, an employer, or an individual, can have access to the support that the commission will give.
I want to mention the existence in the north-east of England of an excellent group called Equality North East, which is funded in part by the trade unions and works locally across all the strands of equality, primarily in the labour market but also more broadly. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that existing equality groups will be heavily involved when we consider what resources will be allocated to the region?
Absolutely. The important point is that we are not starting from scratch. Our provision does not cover the range of issues that we want it to, but working with local groups and building on existing services and organisations that have that experience—particularly of working across equality strands—will be enormously important. I would be interested to learn more about that group outside the Committee.
The first issue, as I said, was the business case. The second criterion involved work force issues: the staff costs of relocation, the recruitment and retention of key staff and accessibility to a pool of diverse and suitably qualified staff based on demographic data.
I am glad that the Minister is touching on staffing. I know that the DRC is pleased that Manchester is the key headquarters and, as the hon. Member for Romsey said, it is working effectively out of Manchester. However, it has some specific concerns about its staff, because many are disabled and have special and complex needs. Moving them, or expecting them to transfer to another venue, would be expensive and difficult. Will the Minister reassure me that in dealing with the decision to move the headquarters to Glasgow, rather than Edinburgh, where the DRC is based, the concerns of staff in Edinburgh will be met and we will not lose their expertise?
How the decisions would affect staff was an important element of the location study, and face-to-face interviews were held, questionnaires provided, a location working steering group set up and proper consultation undertaken with representative organisations to ensure that the right issues were addressed. I am told that Glasgow and Edinburgh are 46 miles apart, so commuting is possible, although I take the point that it might be a problem for those with particular disabilities. However, we live in a world in which it is possible to work in different ways. For example, many commissions use video conferencing for meetings because, as the hon. Member for Romsey said, they have staff in Manchester and London. I would certainly expect issues affecting the ability of staff to work in a new environment to be central to discussions on their moving into new posts. If we cannot get that right for the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, we will have made a very bad start, given the context of its agenda. I hope that I have been able to reassure hon. Members.
We pressed ahead with the location study and dealt with the issue at an early stage because we know that staff have a lot of concerns, as anybody would in that situation. However, that does not mean that we have a finished outcome. A great deal more work is to be done on what the new commission will look like, how it will function and where staff will need to be.
I appreciate that a lot of consideration has gone in to the treatment of staff and into the location of future and existing staff and of the body itself. That brings me to cost. Between Second Reading and last week’s announcement about the proposed location of the new body, did the Minister manage to find any cost savings?
The hon. Lady takes every opportunity. If she will bear with me while I set out in full the discussions and processes relating to the report, I shall respond to her point. If I inadvertently forget to do so, I am sure that she will jump up.
Workforce issues were the next criterion. The costs of relocation, recruitment and retention of key staff, and accessibility to a pool of diverse and suitably qualified staff based on demographic data were considered, and the location study interviewed a number of commission staff. A survey of all staff had a response rate of more than 70 per cent. The majority of staff at the EOC and the DRC favoured Manchester, but CRE staff favoured a site in London.
The next criterion was value for money. Hon. Members have made it clear that the costs of the new commission need to be rigorously controlled, and the taxpayer will expect no less. On that criterion, having a main site in Manchester scored more highly than the other options.
The final criterion involved consistency with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s guidance and the Lyons review, which seeks to encourage the location of public sector activity outside London. That is an important driver for increasing skills, investment and economic regeneration outside the south-east. Sensitive to the need for the commission to be an exemplar, we also commissioned an independent race equality impact assessment to ensure that we were aware of any potential adverse impact or unintended consequence. Those assessments were made for each of the location options identified in the study. The steering group met last week to discuss the location study and the recommendations emerging from the report. No decision on location had been made at that stage. Later last week, Ministers met to consider the location study recommendations, the equality and race impact assessments and the feedback from the steering group discussions before deciding to locate the commission on a split Manchester/London site.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport outlined, it was agreed that the Scottish office would be in Glasgow and that the Welsh office in Cardiff. The DRC and EOC have significant bases in Manchester. The Commission for Racial Equality has indicated its concerns about the Manchester location.
Last Thursday, I announced the location of the commission. We have made it clear that we expect the site to be split between Manchester and London, although we have not yet determined the exact proportions of the split. We expect that the Manchester site will be the larger but that there will be a significant presence in London. Work to determine the nature of the split, based on business needs and further consultation, will begin very soon. We will, of course, work closely with the existing commissions during the next crucial stages.
The location study has been published, and copies are being placed in the Libraries of both Houses of Parliament. I keep getting notes saying that copies will arrive in this Room shortly, and I hope that they do, because it is important that hon. Members should have the opportunity to look at them in more detail.
To return to the amendment, the Secretary of State should not be absolved of responsibility for important and costly decisions on issues such as the number and location of staff or their terms and conditions of appointment. As I said, the Bill requires the Secretary of State only to approve the commission’s decisions on the number of staff and their terms and conditions of appointment; it will be for the commission to determine its arrangements and to make a robust case for them. The Secretary of State’s intervention will therefore be quite minimal, but such intervention will be justified and necessary to provide assurances that taxpayers’ money is being well spent.
To respond briefly to the question from the hon. Member for Epping Forest—I am sure that there will be other opportunities for me do so—the £70 million for the commission reflects a robust analysis of its projected activities and costs, with input from external experts. The figure was based on an objective look at what the commission will do and what it needs to deliver the services that stakeholders want, including business stakeholders.
Obviously, the commission will be taking on three further areas of work, in addition to the overall promotion of human rights. Some efficiency savings will be made by bringing together human resources and IT. As the hon. Lady knows from our discussion last week, the cost of more than doubling the areas of responsibility is 43 per cent., so the cost is not doubling. In the light of the process through which we went and the robust examination that has been carried out by other Departments, which are contributing to the establishment of the commission, she can be reassured that there will be cost savings and that we have a figure that, at this point, best reflects what we expect the commission to do.
I have strayed a little from the exact details of the amendments, and I beg your indulgence for that, Mr. Gale. I ask the hon. Member for Hornchurch to withdraw the amendment.
I am heartened by the Minister’s emphasis on ensuring that we have financial robustness and a cost-effective commission. Although her comments may have strayed somewhat from the original intention behind the amendments, I am grateful to her for emphasising those points early in our discussion, given the importance that we place on them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest so effectively highlighted on Second Reading.
I note what the hon. Member for Romsey said about the location of staff, which is a sensitive issue. It gave the Minister the opportunity to explain the rationale behind the decisions that have been taken. The changes will clearly affect people’s lives. They will have an impact on the staff of the existing commissions, and it is right and proper that the Committee should have the opportunity to discuss those changes and that the Minister should explain in detail the steps that have been taken.
The Government have been examining the changes to identify their effect not only on costs but on such matters as their racial impact. I was interested to hear what the Minister said about the racial impact study that has been undertaken. Concerns have been expressed by organisations such as Operation Black Vote about the proportion of people from ethnic minorities and where they are located. The racial impact analysis was undertaken when seeking to reach conclusions about where would be the greatest emphasis for the location of staff.
I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the need for integrity and independence and about the removal of certain powers from the Secretary of State to direct the actions of the commission. Those matters were effectively considered and dealt with in another place. It is still relevant to emphasise that the commission will need impact and standing to be effective. However, the Minister has told us of the provisions and relaxations that were given in another place and of the emphasis that the Government place on the robust nature of the commission, which will allow it to fulfil its duties. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Before we proceed, those Members who have not served under my chairmanship before may be unaware of my custom and practice. It is perfectly in order—I speak for myself and not for Mrs Anderson—to have a stand part debate either at the start or at the end of a clause or a schedule, but not both. I have deliberately allowed a fairly wide-ranging discussion; indeed, the Minister commented on the fact.
Although it may fall to Mrs. Anderson to determine the matter later, it seems to me that by the end of the Committee’s debates on the amendments we shall have substantially debated schedule 1. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be a stand part debate. I mention that not to invite over-indulgence by Members, but simply to say that if points need to be made it might be a good idea to seize the opportunity to make them.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 68, in schedule 1, page 61, line 4, leave out ‘2(2)(b)’ and insert ‘2(3)(b)’.
No. 61, in schedule 1, page 61, line 15, leave out paragraphs 21 and 22.
No. 45, in schedule 1, page 62, line 7, leave out ‘2(2)(c)’ and insert ‘2(3)(c)’.
No. 67, in schedule 1, page 62, line 8, after ‘Committee’, insert
‘after consultation with the National Assembly for Wales’.
No. 65, in schedule 1, page 65, line 3, after ‘State’, insert—
‘(aa)the Scottish Ministers,
(ab)the National Assembly for Wales,’
Amendments Nos. 69 and 67 probe a little further on the appointment of commissioners for Wales and for Scotland. We have already heard that the Secretary of State has to be involved in the appointment of commissioners so, to a certain extent, my concerns have been allayed. However, we should be mindful of the fact that there is a devolved element to the Bill. It is therefore a little disappointing that the Committee has no Welsh or Scottish members. [Interruption.] I apologise to the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James); I hope that she will be able to help clarify matters.
It would seem appropriate that before appointing a commissioner to deal with Wales or Scotland, there ought to be some sort of involvement with the devolved Assemblies. That does not mean that the chairs of the Wales and Scotland committees should be puppets of those Assemblies—far from it—but that there might be circumstances in which an individual was unacceptable to one of them. We mean to clarify what interaction there will be and how much say the devolved Assemblies will have in the appointments.
It may be that paragraph (3)(b) is deemed to cover the consultation, but that represents a tick-box exercise rather than a meaningful consultation. Amendment No. 45 is really a query on the drafting of the Bill. There does not appear to be a paragraph 2(2)(c), so 2(3)(c) would make more sense. On amendment No. 68, although there is a paragraph 2(2)(b), I believe that a similar drafting amendment is required.
Amendment No. 61 would remove the powers delegated by the Bill to the Scotland committee. I understand that there has been concern about that among Scottish Members, who regard it as crucial that powers be delegated to the Scotland committee. I may have misinterpreted the issue, in which case I look forward to hearing an explanation. However, amendment No. 65 looks as though it is addressing similar concerns about the appropriate treatment of the devolved Assemblies in Scotland and Wales. They must not be ignored, so we shall probably support that amendment.
The hon. Lady has said that her amendments are essentially probing. So are ours. We considered it important for the Committee to have an opportunity to examine the effects of the Bill on the relationship between bodies in Scotland, Wales and England and matters that affect the UK as a whole. Other amendments, notably amendment No. 66, will have the same affect. I am particularly concerned because, as the hon. Lady has observed, Wales is represented on this Committee but there is no Scottish Member. Although my party is in the unfortunate position of representing only one Scottish constituency, I am the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and am perfectly happy, and, I would argue, qualified, to discuss Scottish issues. I am particularly qualified because I am a Scottish lawyer, so I appreciate the differences between the law of Scotland, its legal tradition, and the basis of its laws and those that apply in England and Wales.
It is right that a Bill such as this should make distinctions that accommodate the legal systems in the different countries as well as ensuring that devolution works. Other members of this Committee may not spend as much time as I do looking at the delegated legislation that is essential to make devolution work. Having spent a lot of time on such matters, I think that it is best to deal with the issues during consideration of the Bill. Otherwise, the Government will bring forward secondary legislation in a year’s time when, as so often happens, it is discovered that the provisions of the Bill do not work in relation to Scotland and changes have to be made under the provisions of the Scotland Act. It is therefore important that we consider these issues now.
For that reason, amendment No. 61 is essentially a probing amendment. Amendment No. 65 would simply involve Scottish Ministers and the National Assembly for Wales in consultations on the commission’s accounts. If the commission is to be responsible to the Secretary of State for its accounts in some way, it should also be responsible to Scottish Ministers and the National Assembly for Wales. That is why we suggested amendment No. 65.
In formulating the law, however, one of my main concerns is that we appreciate and take into consideration the distinctive nature of the Scottish legal system and some of the slight differences in Wales. We should also take devolution into consideration in Wales and particularly in Scotland, where it extends much further. Once we have done that, however, the most important point is to ensure that we have consistency. That is why it is important for the Committee to have a chance to scrutinise the provisions before us. That is not only the case in schedule 1, and this theme will recur throughout the Bill, although I shall not address specific instances now, because it would be inappropriate. However, this is a good point for the Committee to consider the principle.
It is vital that the new laws enacted by the Bill are consistent throughout the United Kingdom. It would be nonsense if discrimination cases in Scotland and England had different outcomes. We are talking about equality of human rights, and it would be wrong if the positions in Scotland and England were different. At the same time, I very much respect the distinctive nature of the Scottish legal system and Scottish law. I often find myself arguing the point with people who have no idea what I am talking about, because they do not appreciate that the law of Scotland is different from that of England—indeed, it is significantly different in its base.
There is a difficulty here. On the one hand, it is important to preserve the distinctive nature of the legal systems in different parts of the United Kingdom and to make the Bill fit those systems. On the other hand, it is important to achieve consistency. That is my concern, and the amendments are intended to probe that issue.
I shall deal in order with the amendments, which to pertain to Scotland and Wales.
As hon. Members may be aware, the Secretary of State will appoint commissioners, but the appointment of committee members is a matter for the commission itself. Amendment No. 69 would require the commission to consult the Scottish Parliament before appointing as the chair of the Scotland committee a commissioner who knows about conditions in Scotland. Given that the appointment of such a commissioner must be made with the consent of Scottish Ministers, it would seem unnecessary subsequently to require consultation with the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, I cannot accept amendment No. 69.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Romsey for tabling amendments Nos. 68 and 45, and I compliment her on her close reading of the Bill, because the amendments do indeed correct two drafting errors. As she has obviously realised, the policy intention is for the Bill to require the commissioner appointed for his or her knowledge of the conditions in Scotland to chair the Scotland committee and for the commissioner appointed for his or her knowledge of Wales to chair the Wales committee. Previous amendments to the schedule have resulted in the referencing going askew and making no sense, so I am very happy to accept amendments Nos. 45 and 68.
Amendment No. 61 seeks to narrow the powers of the Scotland committee so that it would no longer be a decision-making committee with delegated powers. The Bill provides that the Scotland committee will have decision-making powers governing the provision of information and advice to central or devolved Government about the effect of an enactment or proposed change of the law in matters that affect only Scotland.
The amendment would remove those powers from the committee, and the powers would remain with the commission for matters affecting Scotland. Although I accept that the commission could delegate the powers to the Scotland committee if it so chose, the amendment would put the matter in the hands of the commission. We have made it clear from the outset that it is important that the commission responds to the needs and circumstances of Scotland, and we have worked closely with Scottish stakeholders to achieve that. We believe that the commission’s promotional priorities in Scotland, which are the main area of delegation, can sensibly be decided only in Scotland.
The same goes for the provision of advice on the impact of actual or proposed laws that affect only Scotland. That is why we concluded that the powers in question should be delegated to the Scotland committee. Those powers need to be real, and the legislation confers them on the Scotland committee to ensure that the committee clearly has them. I cannot accept that the powers should be narrowed or removed, so I do not accept amendment No. 61.
Amendment No. 67 is similar, but not identical, to amendment No. 69. It would require the CEHR to consult the National Assembly for Wales before appointing members of the Wales committee. Again, I consider the amendment to be unnecessary, as the Wales committee will be chaired by the commissioner who knows about conditions in Wales and who was appointed with the consent of the National Assembly for Wales.
We have worked closely with the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government, as well as with key equality stakeholders in Scotland and Wales, to ensure that the CEHR will meet their needs. We expect the CEHR to work closely with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, particularly in respect of the activities undertaken by the Scotland and Wales committees and no doubt in respect of the appointment of committee members.
I am not, however, persuaded that there is a case for a statutory requirement for formal consultation before the appointment of members of the Wales committee. This is the CEHR’s committee, and it should have a free hand in appointing people whom it believes to be best equipped to carry out the committee’s remits, so I cannot accept amendment No. 67.
Amendment No. 65 seeks to require the CEHR to send a copy of its annual statement of accounts to Scottish Ministers and to the National Assembly for Wales, in addition to the current requirement to send it to the Secretary of State and the Comptroller and Auditor General. I cannot accept a requirement for a reserved body to have a statutory obligation to submit its statement of accounts to the devolved Administrations. Having said that, the CEHR’s statement of accounts will be published alongside its annual report, and will therefore be available to whomever wishes to see it. That is why I cannot accept amendment No. 65.
I thank hon. Members for their amendments in respect of Scotland and Wales. I am delighted to accept amendments Nos. 45 and 68, as I said, but I ask hon. Members to withdraw the other amendments.
I appreciate the Minister’s explanation of the reason for there being no need for amendments Nos. 61 and 65. It is important that the Committee has had an opportunity to discuss these matters. I suspect that the question of the relationship between this body and the legislative bodies in Scotland and Wales will recur in our debates, but I sincerely hope that we will end up with a Bill that has taken devolution into consideration. Many members of the Committee do not have to consider these matters daily. I do, and it is very time consuming. It is better if we get it right first time.
I beg to move amendment No. 64, in schedule 1, page 63, line 24, after ‘executive’, insert
‘or person specified in paragraph 2(3)’.
This is a somewhat technical amendment relating to the validity of the proceedings of the commission. As drafted, the provision effectively ensures that the validity of any actions taken by the commission will not be affected by a vacancy and then specifies:
“(whether for Commissioner, Chairman, deputy Chairman or chief executive)”.
Earlier in the schedule, there is specific provision for the Secretary of State to ensure that the commission includes a commissioner who is a disabled person, one who is appointed with the consent of Scottish Ministers and one who is appointed with the consent of the National Assembly for Wales. In essence, the amendment would ensure that, if we are to mention specific people such as the chairman, deputy chairman or chief executive, by way of clarity, a vacancy among the commissioners I have just mentioned would not draw into question the validity of the actions that the commission takes. Inevitably, a vacancy will arise from time to time.
Our amendment would merely clarify the situation to ensure that a vacancy of the categories of person referred to in the schedule will not result in the validity of proceedings in the commission being drawn into question. I look forward to the Minister’s comments as to whether anything else suggests that such a vacancy would not draw the proceedings into question.
Before I respond to the hon. Gentleman’s points, I want to make the Committee aware that the documents that I have been talking about—the race equality impact assessment on the location of the commission, the equality impact assessment and the location study itself—have arrived in the Committee Room and are now available to all Committee members.
The amendment seeks to ensure that the business of the commission can continue in the absence of the appointed commissioners for Scotland and for Wales, and the commissioner who is or has been a disabled person. Of course, it is important to preserve the continuity of the new commission in the absence of any one of its key officers. That has recently been the case at the Equal Opportunities Commission following the departure of its former chair, Julie Mellor. It would have been quite absurd for the commission to have been in a state of paralysis until a suitable successor was appointed. I have no objection to the principle behind the amendment. My concern, however, is that it is not necessary. The Bill already provides the commission with the power to continue its functions in the absence of a commissioner, chairman, deputy chairman or chief executive. The amendment’s additions to that list are all commissioner appointments and therefore covered by the provisions, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying the position and for recognising the need for the actions of the commission not to be under question. In the light of her comments and considering the legal advice that she has received on the definitions of “commissioner” and “vacancy”, as set out in the schedule, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
This is a large group of amendments, but with one simple purpose: to ensure that disabled tenants and occupiers in Scotland are able to receive the same help and support from the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and the Disability Rights Commission as tenants and occupiers in England and Wales. Some explanation of the history will assist the Committee in considering the amendments. Hon. Members who followed the progress of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 in the previous Parliament will, I hope, forgive me for repeating anything that they already know.
The Housing Acts 1980 and 1985 ensure that, in England and Wales, where there is a secure tenancy, a statutory tenancy or a protected tenancy, the landlord cannot refuse consent unreasonably if the tenant wants to make an improvement to the premises he rents. In plain language, that means that most tenants in the social rented sector, and Rent Act tenants in the private and social sectors, have the right to make alterations to their rented premises with the landlord’s consent, although the landlord can impose reasonable conditions.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995, by virtue of changes made by the 2005 Act, gives other tenants, including long leaseholders, in England and Wales similar rights from December 2006. From then, if certain conditions are met, landlords in the private sector will be under a duty not to refuse consent unreasonably if a tenant wants to make a disability-related improvement to his dwelling. In plain language, again, that means that tenants might be able to install grab rails, for example, to improve access for themselves or for disabled occupiers such as their children.
The 2005 Act provided the DRC with new powers enabling it to draft a code of practice giving practical guidance on all matters relating to disability-related improvements, to provide conciliation in cases of dispute and to provide legal support should the issue go to court. The Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 provides similar rights to make alterations for secure tenants in Scotland: tenants in the Scottish social rented sector.
When the Bill that became the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 was debated in the previous Parliament, there were uncertainties about putting private sector landlords in Scotland under a duty not to refuse consent unreasonably. The Scottish Executive had consulted on such a duty and included it in their Housing (Scotland) Bill, but the Bill was at an early stage. There were also complex devolution issues about whether and by which Parliament the DRC could be given powers to conciliate in respect of Scotland. The DRC is a reserved body, so only the Westminster Parliament can confer functions upon it, but housing matters have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament—I think that I am now making points that the hon. Member for Epping Forest made when she spoke about the day-to-day complexities of devolution issues. Hon. Members might recall that the 2005 Act received Royal Assent in the closing hours of the previous Parliament, which meant that there simply was not time to resolve such issues, so the new duty and the new powers of the DRC were accordingly restricted to England and Wales only. Similarly, clauses 14, 27 and 28 of the Equality Bill, which roll forward powers of the DRC to the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, cover only England and Wales.
That means that, without further legislation, there would be no statutory guidance on making alterations available in Scotland and disabled people would not be able to receive any help or assistance from the DRC or the Commission for Equality and Human Rights if disputes were to arise about disability-related alterations to rented residential premises. We and the Scottish Executive are keen to ensure that such arrangements are made for Scotland, and we have been working closely together to ensure that that will happen when the two sets of provisions establishing the right to make such alterations are brought into effect in Scotland and in England and Wales.
I am pleased to say that the various issues have been resolved and the way is now clear for us to ensure parity of treatment north of the border. That will be done by changes to the law in Scotland under the Housing (Scotland) Bill and by the amendments in the group that we are considering today. The Housing (Scotland) Bill will place the landlords of all remaining tenancies in rented residential premises in Scotland under a duty not to refuse consent unreasonably when a tenant wants to make disability-related works to the premises. Works are the Scottish equivalents to improvements in England and Wales. The Bill completed its final stage in the Scottish Parliament on 24 November and is awaiting Royal Assent. Accordingly, the way is clear for us to confer powers, through the Equality Bill, on the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and the DRC, with respect to Scotland. That is what the amendments do.
The key items in the group are amendments Nos. 23, 27 and 30 and new clause 2. Those give the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and the DRC their new powers with respect to Scotland. Amendment No. 23 would give the Commission for Equality and Human Rights the power to draft a code of practice giving practical guidance on all matters to do with disability-related works in Scotland. The commission would thus be able, for example, to issue a code giving guidance on the circumstances in which it would be unreasonable for a landlord to refuse consent to a tenant to install grab rails, for example.
Amendment No. 27 would enable the Commission for Equality and Human Rights to make conciliation services available with respect to disability-related works in Scotland and amendment No. 30 would enable it to provide legal assistance with respect to disputes about disability-related works in Scotland. There is also a substantive new clause—new clause 2. As I have mentioned, by virtue of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, the DRC already has powers in England and Wales to issue codes of practice on disability-related improvements, and to provide conciliation services and legal assistance. The new clause gives the DRC such powers in Scotland with respect to issuing a code of practice on disability-related works, conciliation services and legal assistance. That is necessary because the DRC will exist for some time before the Commission for Equality and Human Rights is set up and thus needs to be able to help people in Scotland as well as those in England and Wales.
Related minor amendments clarify clauses 14(3), 27(2) and 28(2) with regard to codes of practice, conciliation and legal assistance in respect of disability-related improvements. First, they make it clear that the existing provisions apply only to England and Wales. For example, amendment No. 22 puts it beyond doubt that the power to issue a code of practice on disability-related improvements applies only to England and Wales.
Secondly, there is a slight alteration of the relevant wording, by, for example, amendment No. 2, which makes it clear that the powers of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights include circumstances in which the landlord imposes unreasonable conditions when giving consent to a disability-related improvement. The relevant powers, and the DRC’s existing powers, provided for under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, already apply to disputes about the imposition of unreasonable conditions, as they do to disputes about refusal of consent. However, we are taking the opportunity slightly to adjust the wording, in case the insertion of the new Scottish provisions drafted to reflect Scots law casts any inadvertent doubt on the matter.
Further amendments ensure that the disability committee established by schedule 1 has delegated to it functions relating to the issuing of codes of practice and the provision of conciliation services and legal assistance in respect of disability-related improvements in England and Wales and disability-related works in Scotland. The relevant provisions are Government amendments Nos. 5 and 6.
Finally, there are a number of minor or consequential amendments and repeals, although, to save the Committee’s time, I shall not go through them all. These amendments, coupled with changes made to Scottish legislation by the Scottish Parliament, are essential to ensure that disabled people in Scotland will receive from the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and the Disability Rights Commission support broadly similar to that which disabled people in England and Wales will receive. The number of amendments and their complexity might seem daunting—indeed, they did to me—but their purpose is simply to ensure equity.
In the briefing that it sent to hon. Members on Second Reading, the DRC supported our intention to table these amendments, so I hope that they command support from both sides of the Committee.
I set out on the second to last group of amendments precisely the principle that I shall apply to this group of Government amendments. I commend the Minister on clearly setting out the case for them, and I particularly welcome and support them. If I did not do so in my capacity as shadow Minister for Women and Equality, and if the Committee did not accept the amendments, I might be standing here again in a few months’ time, in my other capacity as shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, considering a statutory instrument to introduce the very provisions that the Minister has just outlined. As I said earlier, it is much better that we get the legislation right first time.
Sometimes, people do not appreciate what devolution has done. Indeed, some members of the Committee might not fully understand the difference between a reserved matter and a devolved matter. If they do not, that is because they did not spend nearly two years, in 1997 and 1998, looking in detail at the Scotland Bill. I did, however, and I can assure the Committee that what the Minister said is absolutely correct.
I thoroughly support the intention behind all these Government amendments. It is essential not only that we respect the distinctiveness of the Scottish legal system and the particular powers of the Scottish Parliament, but that we have equality of protection under the new commission and the Bill. The Government’s amendments are therefore essential and I support them.
I said earlier that we might well cover the contents of schedule 1 during our debate, but that is not the case. Parts 1 and 2 have been thoroughly debated, but part 3, on money, part 4, on status, and part 5, on the disability committee, remain open for debate if any Member wants to raise related issues. Otherwise, I shall put the question.