Clause 1

Equality Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 11th June 2009.

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Public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequalities

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 29, leave out subsection (3) and insert—

‘(3) A Minister of the Crown may by regulations list public authorities to which this section applies.’.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 107, in clause 1, page 2, line 17, after ‘England’, insert—

‘(l) the Financial Services Authority;

(m) the Office of Communications;

(n) the Office of Fair Trading;

(o) the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets;

(p) the Security Industry Authority.’.

Amendment 108, in clause 1, page 2, line 17, at end insert—

‘(l) Transport for London;

(m) London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority;

(n) London Development Agency;

(o) Metropolitan Police Authority.’.

An amendment to include members of the GLA family in the socio-economic duty.

Amendment 109, in clause 1, page 2, line 17, at end insert—

‘(l) a fire and rescue authority constituted by a scheme under section 2 of the Fire and Rescue Service Act 2004, or a scheme to which section 4 of that Act applies, for an area in England.’.

An amendment to include Fire Authorities in the socio-economic duty.

Amendment 181, in clause 1, page 2, line 17, at end insert—

‘(3A) This section also applies to those bodies responsible for inspecting or regulating public sector bodies.’.

An amendment to ensure that the socio-economic duty applies to inspectorates of public sector bodies.

Amendment 4, in clause 1, page 2, line 18, leave out subsection (4).

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Benton. I shall speak to amendments 2 and 4 and the group of measures before us. I shall see whether you let me get away with making some wider remarks on the clause or whether you wish me to hold them over for a stand part debate.

Amendment 2 is straightforward. It deals with how the Government have decided to set out the public authorities to which the clause relates. The strategy they have adopted is to list a number of authorities, but clause 2 gives Ministers the power by regulations to amend primary legislation. The Conservatives are reluctant to allow Ministers the power to amend primary legislation by order and the amendment sets out a different approach.

We would set out a power for Ministers of the Crown by regulations to list public authorities to which the measure applied. If they wished to add or remove public authorities from that list, they would simply change the secondary legislation. That is a better way to go about things, rather than allowing Ministers to amend primary legislation by order. This is a technical amendment.

Amendment 4 would remove subsection (4), which applies the measure to partner authorities of local authorities “in relation to” their

“preparation and modification of a sustainable community strategy.”

To explain the purpose of the amendment, I need to explain our concerns and objections to the measure. Ministers are a little confused about the difference between discrimination and disadvantage, which point my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare has made before.

Ministers appear to be confusing the poor opportunities of socio-economically disadvantaged communities with discrimination. That is a wrong-headed approach because the solution to sorting out socio-economic inequalities is to deal with their root cause, and for Ministers and other public authorities to tackle them. For example, the reason for the educational disadvantage experienced by those who come from poor areas is often that they do not have access to good schools. The duty in the Bill is not the solution; rather, it is for bodies to do something to arrange the provision of good schools.

My concern about the measure, and the argument for the amendment, is that Ministers are in danger of setting expectations that are destined to fail—it is as if the clause says, “Everyone has the right to a good life.” We do not solve such problems simply by passing a law. A good example is the fuel poverty legislation that the House passed a number of years ago. It effectively said that fuel poverty would no longer exist. Of course, several years after that legislation was passed by the House and the other place, fuel poverty still exists—indeed, it is getting worse, not better. That is a fundamentally wrong-headed approach to solving some of those problems.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

On that specific point, is it not the issue that although it may well suit Ministers to place on public authorities high-sounding obligations that look tremendous on paper, in the absence of sanctions that could in an extreme case apply to individual members of those authorities, as in the example of fuel poverty, they amount to nothing?

Mr. Harperrose—

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, may I take the opportunity to refer to his opening remarks? It is perfectly all right to allow as broad a scope as possible for debate on the amendments, but I remind the Committee that in relation to clause stand part I have the power to circumvent any further discussion if, in my opinion, the clause has been discussed adequately. I just point that out, but there is no harm at all in what is going on.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Benton.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry made a good point and it goes wider, because if we put responsibilities on a range of authorities—we are talking about a significant list and there are amendments that would widen it—we must think about not only the duties that we are placing on them, but the resources that we grant them. If we place a lot of responsibilities on public authorities without the concomitant resources, we may be setting up not only Ministers, but that significant list of authorities, to fail. From a public policy perspective, that is not sound.

Let us consider the partner authorities and the sustainable community strategy, which raise another issue. The authorities listed fall into two categories. Some are unelected quangos, which are in effect at some point responsible to central Government. Others, however, such as county and district councils, the Greater London authority and London borough councils, are elected authorities. The decisions to be taken about the extent to which they take into account socio-economic inequalities and disadvantage and the extent to which they make judgments about resource allocation are legitimate judgments, but they are judgments for political discourse.

It is for electors to make decisions when they elect different members of those authorities and it is for those authorities to make the decisions in debate, weighing up all the factors concerned. It is proper for that to be done at that level and not for Ministers to seek to put duties on them.

Amendment 4 relates to the authorities drawing up their sustainable community strategies. They would, by their very nature, be better drawn up at a very local level by those authorities that know their areas best, know the people the best and know the relevant factors. They are very familiar on the ground with the disadvantage and the socio-economic factors, and it is for them to draw up the strategy, recognising that they are accountable to the people who elect them.

There is a different argument, and Ministers perhaps have a stronger case when they talk about bodies that are subordinate to Ministers, but even then it is really for Ministers to make political judgments about socio-economic inequalities and resources and how they allocate them, and for those arguments to take place in the House and the other place.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the equality duty, be it in respect of gender, race or whatever, should apply equally to all authorities? If so, what is the difference between that and the disadvantage caused by socio-economic inequalities?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Lady comes back to a point that I made at the beginning about stamping out discrimination and confusing discrimination with disadvantage. They are not the same thing at all. The socio-economic inequality referred to is different qualitatively from the protected characteristics and stamping out discrimination.

I think I am right in saying that in the evidence-taking sessions the hon. Lady was concerned that the clause does not apply to the Scottish Government. One thing I thought while she was making those points was that, particularly in relation to those hon. Members who supported Scottish devolution, the decisions that the Scottish Government make on their policies and resource allocation and how they go about tackling disadvantage are surely for Scottish electors to consider when they choose who represents them in the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government have to make those decisions when they weigh up their public spending priorities and other decision making. It is surely in that forum that those challenges should be addressed. If the Scottish people feel that the Scottish Government are not making the right decisions, they have the opportunity to throw them out.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

I totally agree. I am a firm supporter of Scottish devolution—I would even say that I am one of its more ardent supporters among my colleagues—but there is the capacity to adopt the duty in Scotland through a Sewel motion. It would then be up to the Scottish Government and the Scottish public authorities to decide how to implement it. I think that the Scottish people want Westminster and the Scottish Government to work purposefully together.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Lady makes a good point. Clearly, I would have no objection if the Scottish Government decided to do that. It would be a matter for them, and if they wished to adopt the duty, that would be absolutely fine. My point is that devolution implies that authorities will tackle things differently.

Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Does my hon. Friend agree that an additional distinction can be made between disadvantage and discrimination? The grammar of discrimination is rightly all about perpetrators and victims—people discriminating unfairly against others, who lose out as a result. Disadvantage is an important concept, and the Government have rightly made efforts to wipe it out, but it is very different. It is not about perpetrators and victims in the same way that discrimination is; it is about systematic problems and failures and about assisting, helping and supporting. By definition, the public policy solutions required to deal with disadvantage are very different from those required to deal with discrimination, which is why disadvantage does not fit so well in such a Bill.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend makes a good point when he says that the solutions to socio-economic disadvantage are quite different from those required to stamp out discrimination. Indeed, one reason why we tabled a reasoned amendment on Second Reading was that although we were happy with the bulk of the Bill—indeed, the simplification and codification in it are welcome—we did not think that this part fitted well with the rest. Indeed, it looks like it has been squeezed in at the beginning or tagged on, albeit not as an afterthought, but not elegantly.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families)

The Bill’s title is the Equality Bill, and given that socio-economic disadvantage is the greatest inequality there is, it would have been negligent of the Government not to include it. My criticism is that their proposals are a weak way of including it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

No, I do not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare said, the remedies and powers in the rest of the Bill to prevent discrimination are quite different from the solutions to socio-economic disadvantage.

For the avoidance of doubt, I should say at this point that we are in no way saying that there are no issues with socio-economic disadvantage. Indeed, on Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made it clear in her opening speech, as I did in my winding-up speech, that there are issues with socio-economic disadvantage. Ministers and former Ministers have been frank about that. Indeed, the Home Secretary, when he had responsibility for education, said:

“It is actually getting harder for people to escape poverty and leave the income group, professional banding or social circle of their parents. In fact, it’s harder to escape the shackles of a poor upbringing in Britain than anywhere else in Europe, and about the same as in America.”

There clearly is a problem with lack of social mobility and people being trapped in disadvantage, but we do not think that the solution is to include these measures in the Bill. Clearly, the Government, of whichever party, will have a big job dealing with the reasons for disadvantage, whether by improving families’ ability to stay together or looking at the educational opportunities available to people to give everybody an equal opportunity to succeed. However, the proposals are a profoundly mistaken way to deal with the issue.

I mentioned fuel poverty legislation, and the Government also plan to introduce a Bill to eliminate child poverty. To be fair, the Government had some success in dealing with the issue, but child poverty figures are now going in the opposite direction. We cannot solve such problems by passing a law; we solve them by tackling the root causes. A number of those who appeared before us in our evidence sessions were fairly relaxed about the proposals and supportive of them, but most did not think that they would make a huge difference. That is the flaw and why this is not the way to tackle socio-economic disadvantage.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office 9:15 am, 11th June 2009

In fact, almost everybody who was asked about the provision—they were repeatedly probed by members of the hon.  Gentleman’s party—was immensely supportive. The hon. Gentleman makes the point that it is not the solution; of course it is not, because the problem is entrenched and difficult. However, what is the harm of it? It will help. EDF has 50 members, each with a large membership, and they all think that this will help. ROTA, which also gave evidence in favour of the proposal, has 1,500 member organisations, each with many hundreds of members, and therefore with many discrimination strands, and they think that it will help. What does the hon. Gentleman say is wrong with the proposal?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I do not think that it will make much difference, if any. Bills are not about sending messages; they are about changing the law. If one is going to put a duty on public sector authorities, and if that duty is not meaningful and will not make a significant difference, it sets expectations that simply will not be delivered. It also puts a burden on authorities. There will be lots of compliance that authorities will have to tackle. There will be lots of words in annual reports and people doing reports about how they are complying. If the reality is that it will not make any difference, an awful lot of money will be spent with an awful lack of outcome.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he said he does not believe—I think he is right, actually—that legislation should be solely for the purpose of sending out a message? It must be shown to fulfil another need or be effective in itself, and arguing that it sends a message is not a good basis for legislation, whether in this area or any other area, such as criminal justice.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Yes, I agree. Legislation ought to be effective. From the conversations that I have had and the evidence that I have seen, I do not think that this is the way to go about it. The issue is serious, and there is a real problem. One could argue that setting out ways in which every member of our society has an equal opportunity to succeed—it does not mean that we will have equal outcomes, but everyone will have a fair chance—is probably one of the most important parts of public policy. But this is not how one goes about doing it. I do not think that it fits well within the Bill—it detracts from the Bill rather than adding to it—which is why we oppose it.

On amendment 2, will the Minister comment on the approach, because we do not think that giving Ministers the power to amend primary legislation is welcome? It would be better to set it out differently, but I recognise that that is a technical point, which we can discuss. Amendment 4 is an opportunity to discuss where the appropriate level for the decisions sits and the appropriate forums. We do not think that this particular approach is a sound one.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families)

May I say what a pleasure it is to sit on a Committee where you are the Chair, Mr. Benton? I look forward to working on the Bill and probing and improving the legislation, where possible.

I rise to discuss our amendments 108, 109 and 181, amendments 2 and 4 tabled by the Tories and amendment 107 tabled by the SNP. It is quite clear that partner organisations, regulators and a whole range of authorities  and agencies could have the duty, and I want to find out which of them might be included in the lists. Amendment 108 relates to the partner agencies as part of the Greater London authority. Transport for London, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, the London Development Agency and the Metropolitan Police Authority are clearly strategic authorities and partners involved in pursuing, delivering and implementing policy.

The clause does not make it clear whether those GLA family members are covered by the socio-economic duty. Schedule 19 lists them individually for the general public duty, but that is not so in the clause. My purpose is to get the Minister to elucidate whether they should be named as individual partner bodies. Their roles are extremely strategic and they act independently of the Mayor, although in the matter of political direction, the Mayor of London is at the top. The bodies in question cover some of the areas of highest inequality in the country.

The list in clause 1 includes police authorities, but fire and rescue authorities constituted by a relevant scheme are not included in the same way, and amendment 109 would provide for those to be included in the socio-economic duty. Those are single-function authorities, but a socio-economic duty would ensure the consideration that the Government have deemed it important for all bodies to have regard to. Social inequality in the question of where and how to give fire cover is very important. The authorities cover huge areas—West Midlands fire service, for example. The situation is anomalous in relation to police authorities, and we cannot see why police authorities but not fire authorities should be included.

Amendment 181 is supported by Citizens Advice. We think that the provision should require bodies with inspection or regulatory duties also to have regard to socio-economic inequalities. Regulators play a huge part in the provision of public services that matter, and they sit in judgment, so it is right that they should consider the socio-economic duty. The example given by Citizens Advice is Ofgem. It argues that if Ofgem had had such a socio-economic duty, it would have acted much sooner to deal with the issue of poorer customers being charged more for metered electricity, which is obviously an important point.

I forgot to say in beginning, Mr. Benton, that I want to deal with the wider issues on clause stand part.

I want to discuss the Conservative amendments 2 and 4. We agree with amendment 2 to the extent that the list in the clause is imperfect, as I hope that I have shown. However, the Liberal Democrats would much prefer a prescriptive list to the delegation to Ministers or a future Government of the power to list authorities. Delegation of the power would make the application of socio-economic duty subject to the whims of Ministers or the Government of the day, which would mean uncertainty in the Bill. As to amendment 4, there are many examples of partner authorities that should be covered, because of their strategic nature and their potential impact in reducing socio-economic disadvantage.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Order. I interrupt the hon. Lady because I have been thinking about what she has said about not discussing the broader issues at this stage. On reflection, and bearing in mind my earlier ruling, we may not have a stand part debate, and it would be  helpful—I do not say that it must happen—if she were to address the broader issues. That is a suggestion, not a ruling.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

I hope to assist the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. We do not wish to have a clause stand part debate, but the ball is entirely in the hon. Lady’s court.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

On a point of order, Mr. Benton. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean, who speaks for the Conservatives, raised a number of general points, but my understanding is that the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green wishes to raise are wholly different from and unrelated to the issues relating to public bodies in this group of amendments. Because they are specific, finite points relating to the question whether there is alternative way of doing what the clause seeks to do, they would fit best in a separate debate. Will you, Mr. Benton, reflect on your current advice—it is obviously your ruling to make—to see whether separating things out would aid debate?

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has mentioned “advice” as opposed to “ruling”. It will depend precisely on how proceedings go during the discussion of the amendments. I was merely pointing out that it would be helpful. It is not a ruling and you can leave the advice. It does not necessarily mean that there will not be a clause stand part debate, but if the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green is so disposed to talk in general terms, it might be helpful. It is entirely a matter for her, and it is not a ruling.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families)

I thank you, Mr. Benton, and I am happy to be helpful on this occasion.

Moving on to some wider issues associated with amendment 4, the Liberal Democrats think that the socio-economic duty is generally a good and important thing. There may not be enough similar measures in the Bill. Because the measure came in at such a late stage, there was not adequate time to consult all the relevant bodies. There is no greater inequality than the socio-economic divide, and I regret that the duty in the Bill is so weak. We fully support its aims, but we feel that the measure is more about sending a message than imposing an actual duty. In reality, most authorities and agencies have some regard to the issue already, certainly at local council and government level.

How much consultation were the Government able to do on the socio-economic duty? The measure was introduced very late, but it is one of the most important elements of the Bill. It is in clause 1, so the Government have given it some import, but I would have liked that to have been reflected in the depth of the consultation. Had that happened, there would have been ramifications. The measure might not simply have been an attempt to deal with the symptoms rather than the cause.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

As this is the first time that I have spoken in Committee, may I say that I appreciate your chairmanship, Mr. Benton? I want to make some general points to begin with before specifically discussing amendment 107, which is similar to the proposals that we have heard about this morning.

The Scottish National party and the Government of Scotland very much support the Bill and welcome the fact that different strands of inequality are being brought together. A lot of good has been done in recent years, but much remains to be done, for example, on equal pay for women. Also, are the reasonable adjustments for disabled people moving forward fast enough? That I and others will table amendments to the Bill does not take away from the fact that we very much support it.

I am very supportive of the socio-economic duty. One reason why I am in politics is to try to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. I asked about that last week in what was my first question to the Prime Minister in the House. My first question on this specific duty is this: are we going far enough? There is little power of redress. Will the Minister explain exactly what will be different under the legislation? For example, the city that I am most familiar with is Glasgow. My experience of Glasgow is that both the local authority and health services take poverty into account when allocating resources. For instance, in the east end of Glasgow, there is a lack of breastfeeding and a particular problem with smoking, and the NHS and the council have targeted that together.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock 9:30 am, 11th June 2009

I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Gentleman has said. In Scotland, extensive measures are taken to tackle disadvantage, but before 1997, the link between poverty and ill health, for example, was not recognised by the Government and support did not filter down to that level as it does today. If he supports the power, will he urge his party to put sectional interests aside and adopt a socio-economic duty in the Scottish Government?

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

The hon. Lady is jumping slightly ahead to my next paragraph, so I will move on as I think it will address her question.

Will the Minister explain how things will be different in practice in a city such as Glasgow as a result of the power? What can happen now that will not be able to happen in the future?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

Obviously, the power will not make the slightest difference to Glasgow, as the Scottish Government have not accepted it.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

It will affect bodies such as the Department for Work and Pensions, I think.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

Theoretically at least, if the power applied throughout Scotland, what difference would it make? Perhaps I should be asking what difference it will make to Manchester or Birmingham.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Perhaps the Solicitor-General was being a bit roundabout. I suspect she was really wondering—given that the hon. Gentleman said that he and the Scottish Government support the power, and given that his answer focused particularly on the difference it might make to his constituents in Glasgow—why the Scottish Government do not want it to apply in Scotland.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I will answer both those points eventually, as I have a letter here from the Minister for Housing and Communities, Alec Neil MSP. The basic position of our party and the Scottish Government is that we are totally committed to challenging socio-economic inequality. It is a question of the best way to go about it and whether the Bill goes far enough, as has been mentioned.

The letter says:

The Scottish Government has supported the principle of the Equality Bill from the outset and continues to support it. A number of provisions in the Bill require the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Government introduced a Legislative Consent Memorandum... on 7 May.”

I believe that is working its way through the process.

The Minister for Housing and Communities goes on to mention the socio-economic duty, saying

“it is correct that the socio-economic duty... will not extend to Scotland. Scottish Government officials have only had limited contact with the Government Equalities Office (GEO) on the proposals for a socio-economic duty”.

The suggestion seems to be that the Government in Westminster have not been doing a lot of talking to the Scottish Government to explain the duty and whether we should take it through.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

I have no idea where that suggestion comes from. I have been to Scotland several times and given evidence to the Scottish Parliament, and officials have been in pretty constant contact. We would be pleased if we persuaded the hon. Gentleman’s party to take on the duty, and we have done our level best to do so. Compare and contrast Wales, where we have had far less trouble persuading the Government that it will be helpful to their people.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have had an enormous amount of contact. He is in a funny position—I acknowledge that straightaway—in that he seems to support the measures, although he does not think they go far enough, but his own Government will not have anything to do with them.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I would be happy to act as go-between if the two Governments would like to use my services.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Labour, Islington South and Finsbury

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that his constituents would be somewhat alarmed by this situation? Surely they sent him to Parliament to deal with precisely this sort of problem, if it really is a problem.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

In one word, yes. Let me read the next paragraph of the letter, because it might clarify things further:

“Within our devolved powers we are able to carefully consider how we can direct our efforts to tackle poverty, reduce inequality, and promote social mobility in a way that is most appropriate to Scotland. As it is, we are completely committed to reducing  socio-economic inequality in Scottish society. Our Solidarity and Cohesion targets commit us to taking serious action to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, both at an individual and an area level. Achievement of these targets will be supported by a wide range of measures already in place.”

I take that to mean that the Scottish Government remain to be convinced that the proposed power has teeth.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I confess to being confused. If we take my view, the hon. Gentleman’s comments make perfect sense. He has set out his view that the Scottish Government have wide-ranging targets and measures to deal with socio-economic disadvantage. In that case, they are getting on with it, and presumably the electorate are happy with that, because the Scottish National party did well in the last elections. It seems, therefore, that he should be supporting my view too.

However, if the hon. Gentleman accepts the view that he has already expressed—this power is appropriate and the only thing wrong with it is that it does not go far enough—it seems strange that he does not want the Scottish Government to adopt the proposed power. Most of his remarks appear to agree with what I am saying, but coming from him, they do not seem consistent or logical.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I am sorry if I am not explaining myself well enough. Let me try again: I, the Scottish Government and our party are totally committed to challenging socio-economic disadvantage, and I believe that we are more committed to that than the Westminster Government—

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

Let me finish my sentence. I believe that we are more committed to that than the Westminster Government, so we want to find something better than this socio-economic duty. As has been said by the Conservative party, it seems to have been tagged on a bit, even though it is at the beginning of the Bill. We want to find the best solution. We can use this measure, for now, but we should try to find something better.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

I remind the hon. Gentleman that his Government have been in power for two years. Will he tell me one measure that they have introduced to address socio-economic disadvantage?

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I think we are probably straying from the subject. However, I would suggest that reducing prescription charges is one. I know that the Welsh are ahead of us on that—they have free prescriptions—but we are reducing charges, while in England they are increasing.

I am not as familiar with the situation in England as I am with that in Scotland; perhaps Scotland is simply slightly further ahead on some of these issues. Another slightly different factor in Scotland is the concordat between central Government and local government—I assume from the comments of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that the Conservative leader would agree with this kind of measure. Instead of central  Government imposing lots of new duties on local government, they very much work in agreement. That has certainly been welcomed by the Labour party in Scotland.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

To put it very mildly, the concordat is on a shaky peg and might well break down, although I accept that it did happen. In my area, the Tory and Scottish National party council is shutting things down and making cuts left, right and centre. The concordat means little to the people I represent. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is a missed opportunity? The Scottish Government simply want to plough their own furrow. They do not want to co-operate with Westminster. As usual, they want to pick a fight with it, instead of being constructive.

John Masonrose—

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I suggest to the Committee that we have discussed the intentions of the Scottish Parliament at inordinate length. Can we please return to the amendment?

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I apologise for everybody else’s interventions.

I am grateful to Citizens Advice for its help on amendment 107. Clause 2 provides for the list of authorities in clause 1 to be added to through regulations. I believe that it is important for the duty to apply clearly to key regulators, Executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies, particularly those with an economic impact. Would it not be better to include those in the Bill now to ensure fairness as we come out of the recession, rather than waiting for a Government to include the bodies at a later date? That would mean regulators taking the duty into account when setting regulatory policies and strategies.

The amendment suggests five additional authorities, although there could be more—this is just for starters. The Liberal Democrats have mentioned a few other bodies and similar arguments apply to each of those. Often, there is already a duty on them that might include socio-economic issues, but extending the duty specifically to cover them should strengthen their resolve.

I want to consider specifically the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets. Ofgem’s principal objective is to protect the interests of existing and future consumers, promoting effective competition wherever appropriate. In addition, when carrying out those functions Ofgem must have regard to the interests of individuals who are disabled, chronically sick, of pensionable age, on low incomes or residing in rural areas.

That is of particular concern to me, as a number of poorer people in my constituency are struggling with fuel bills, paying more for electricity and paying in advance through a pre-payment meter. That is a real problem. Extending the socio-economic duty to Ofgem would reinforce its ability to deal with that issue and justify the regulator prioritising its work on socio-economic inequalities ahead of other matters, such as certain competition issues. The amendment could bring about a slight difference in emphasis.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Particularly because so much of the direction of public services has been delegated to regulators such as these, away from elected Governments, it is important that we use every opportunity to give them a steer when there are certain public policy outcomes, such as the elimination of disadvantage, that we would like to be delivered through utilities or public services, without putting too much of a burden on industry. That is why his amendment and the Liberal Democrat amendment, which says much the same thing in respect of regulators, are so important.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and agree with his point.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

I am being as sympathetic as I can, but our concern is that there is no point putting a duty on regulators if a duty cannot be put on the people they regulate. It cannot, because we are talking about the private sector, so what is the point?

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

One suggestion is that the regulator must prioritise the work that it does. Specifically giving the regulator the socio-economic duty as well would, we hope, push that up its agenda. I know that in many cases the regulator is struggling with a wide agenda, but I believe that the point of the Bill is in some cases to double-underline duties that may or may not apply to other authorities. If this duty applies to other authorities, it should apply to the regulator as well.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

Let me try to help the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that a consideration in this respect might be whether the regulator would require the introduction of a particular social tariff to meet the problems of disadvantage? That at least, whatever the merits of the clause, might be a perfectly proper steer that the regulator could be obliged to give.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

That is an extremely good example and there are probably others. I appreciate the intervention. If the duty already applied to Ofgem, the regulator, following its conclusion that consumers on pre-payment meters were subject to unfair price differentials, might have been able to act more swiftly and take decisive action.

As well as regulators, certain Executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies should be subject to the duty. Although it may be argued that those public bodies will be covered by the duty applying to Departments, it should be made clear whether that is the case. I would appreciate the Minister clarifying that. One example would be Jobcentre Plus, in the same way that the duty under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 to promote disability equality applies to certain Executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies.

Finally, I oppose Conservative amendments 2 and 4 and support amendments 108, 109 and 181.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry 9:45 am, 11th June 2009

May I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton? I think that we will have a positive and constructive Committee. I promise to speak about some of the general aspects of the amendments and the  clause without straying on to the issue of Scotland. However, it is just conceivable, in view of my wife’s nationality and certain involvements that I have in Cardiff, where I come across the Welsh Assembly Government, that I may advert to that body. That is not a threat; it is simply that we have heard a lot about the different implications of devolved Administrations.

I will not indulge myself at length, but it comes as a wake-up call telling one that it is time to go when one finds that Cabinet Ministers were born after one had left higher education. I was shocked to discover that the other day, but it also prompts my first general remark. Forty-five years ago, I had the first—and probably only—lesson in moral philosophy that I can remember, which was to the effect that there is a distinction between saying that something should happen and saying that there should be a law that something should happen. That is the general issue raised by this place.

The Solicitor-General has been very kind to me on occasion, and I hope that there will be no argument about whether we are interested in inequalities. There could have been that argument, and there could still be in respect of certain members of my party and other parties, but we need to be alert to such factors.

Among local authorities in my county and most others, and even among regulators, which we recently discussed in relation to an amendment, there is a disposition to even things up and, to use a phrase that I used on Second Reading—I am interested in the human rights side, as well as the discrimination and equalities issue—to treat people decently. That is really why we are in business in Parliament, and we should not have an argument about that. The issue, however, is how we deliver that and whether it is appropriate to have a general duty.

When I interrupted the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, who was making a perfectly reasonable distinction between inequality and discrimination, I adverted to my concern that the proposals did not amount to much, particularly when there was no opportunity of litigating in private to correct failures by a public authority. There are no teeth, although that does not necessarily mean that we should never have legislation.

During our evidence sessions, the Solicitor-General objected to my slight penchant for principles clauses, which we may have occasion to discuss later. She said that such a clause would not add value and that it was not clear how it would operate in practice. However, one could reasonably turn her argument against her and say that if she does not like principles clauses, she should accept that clause 1 is, in a way, a clause of generality or principle, which may not have many teeth or substance and which may serve a political rather than a purely functional purpose.

I add another general concern, which strays forward into clause 2. It relates to the operation of so-called Henry VIII clauses. The only other reminiscence that I will relate to the Committee is that the first house I grew up in was a farm house. It was nothing very grand; indeed, it had previously been used to store onions. It was called Bull’s lodge. Bull was in fact Boleyn, as in Anne Boleyn. It was a small hunting box that had been owned by Sir Thomas Boleyn. It was next to New hall, which happened to be one of Henry VIII’s palaces. Indeed, we found evidence that he and Anne had been  courting, because there was a secret passage between the two. That is the early memory, but I was going to say that Anne Boleyn had a nasty time at the hands of Henry VIII, and we should resist Henry VIII clauses in principle.

Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I will not try to try to top my hon. Friend’s penchant for reminiscing, and I certainly cannot come up with anything that wonderful. However, does he agree that the danger in the clause, and the objections to it, as laid out by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, relate not so much to a Henry VIII clause problem as to a King Canute clause problem? The Government are trying to stand in front of the advancing waves of inequality and order them to retreat. If they are to deal with inequality via disadvantage, they need to build some sea walls or a dam to hold them back, rather than just standing there ordering the waves to go back. That is the problem with the Bill.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

That was a helpful intervention although I would go further. What might be termed hard defences against inequality—I have some experience; I do not make much of it, but I used to be the Minister with responsibility for sea defences—are not always better than what might be called soft defences, which try to change culture and explain that certain things are not acceptable. Nevertheless, the intervention was helpful.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Labour, Islington South and Finsbury

I am getting confused and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will enlighten us. If Opposition members of the Committee think that this is a King Canute clause, with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General standing before the sea and ordering it to go back, what alternatives do they suggest? What are the hard defences that we are not using?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She reminds me of the anecdote about a gentleman went to a conference, which a friend had advised him to attend, because he was confused. On his return, his friend asked how he was. The man replied, “Still confused, but at a somewhat higher level.”

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Perhaps I can help the hon. Lady. I alluded to a specific issue. One of the clear disadvantages that many people from poorer backgrounds face is the lack of availability of excellent schools. They cannot offset the disadvantage of their parental income by going to a good school that enables them to reach their full potential. The solution is for central Government and local authorities to implement policies that ensure that there are more good schools and that those children have access to them. That is the solution, but it will be achieved not by putting this measure into law, but by political action and the necessary steps being taken. That is how we tackle socio-economic disadvantage.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He prompts me to make one point, but I promise to reply in substance to the hon. Lady’s question in a minute. In my constituency, I have a continued, strong concern that in pursuing what might be called—perhaps unfairly—an urban agenda, the Government tend to overlook the fact that there are areas and pockets of rural deprivation that can be just as intense, and are often aggravated by relative affluence alongside them.

In rural areas such as my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, there are issues such as whether or not young people have access to wheels and can get about and get a job or further education. It is incumbent on us all, whatever our politics, to take those matters seriously, and I hope that that is not a matter that divides us.

Prompted by the hon. Lady—I would have said this anyway—there is some analysis to be done on the clause. The Bill is about equality and dealing with discrimination, and it reflects and consolidates a body of law that aims to protect the individual from discrimination. However, I am concerned that the clause sits ill with that, as it is an injunction to public authorities at a strategic level. The essence of discrimination is that it is at a tactical level—there is one exception, which I will perhaps come on to—and not at a strategic level. The exception might be institutional deprivation—not racism—in some local authorities that prevents them from dealing with issues for their less disadvantaged persons. If the Government are arguing that, I would like the Solicitor-General to say so. My view is that if that is happening, the ballot box is the answer, not a Government intervention or a clunky legal process. Unless that is the case, however, it is better for local authorities to make decisions.

I apologise for not having spotted this earlier and put down an amendment, but clause 1(1) refers to

“making decisions of a strategic nature”.

I am not clear whether those are intermediate decisions. I could understand it if the clause mentioned drawing up a strategy, as that would be similar to having ministerial guidance about a strategy for a local or public authority, but this is somewhere between high strategy and a tactical decision, which I suggest is the main focus of discrimination in practice. Somewhere along the line, every time people make a decision, there is a difficult evidential problem of how to decide as a local or public authority whether that is a strategic decision. If it is not a strategic plan and something appears to come out of that, then they have to decide whether it deals with socio-economic inequalities.

It needs to be recorded that there are other considerations for public authorities, which may need to balance other factors, including the welfare of the majority of their inhabitants, for example, and overall economic development, if that is not consistent with dealing with socio-economic inequalities. Those are fundamentally political decisions. Unless there is some equivalent of institutional racism—I am interested to know whether there is any evidence for that; I do not think that there is—those decisions are better left for local and public authorities and our other administrative mechanisms, such as inspection.

Inequality has to be dealt with locally. There is a national issue of concern, which is why we are here trying to get this right. But delivery will be at local level and that means making, as I have suggested, a tactical decision, perhaps when siting a school or a clinic, or something like that, or the involvement of a non-governmental organisation to try to extend the efficiency of the public sector. Again, it is appropriate that such decisions are made locally.

I understand the motives behind the clause and it is just conceivable that it might do some good as a kind-bully pulpit, but that is the only argument for this clause, which is not well articulated. The remedies and sanctions under it—

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend says that the clause is a bully pulpit, which means that there is a danger of passing laws to send messages, which we discussed earlier. If a clause is going to be used to send a message, the message needs to be clear. There is a fleck of clarity in the first part of the clause. I talked earlier about disadvantage and the need to increase equality of opportunity, but the clause mentions inequalities of outcome. There is a significant difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. If a piece of legislation is going to be passed to send messages, there needs to be clarity about the message that is sent.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

That is an honourable and proper stricture. If one is looking for ways of dealing with redressing the inequality of outcome, I suggest a measure of redistribution within the tax system. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I thought I would get some results with that. At least then we could have a discussion about it. There is the slight danger that the message being sent by the clause is, “Oh dear. We’ve got an unequal society and we’re going to legislate to stop it.”

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

Do it take it from what the hon. Gentleman has said that he is on board for the 50p tax rate and off board for inheritance tax?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

I hope that the Solicitor-General will not go too far down that line, because it might distress you to know, Mr. Benton, as she well knows, that the 50p rate is likely to have a negative real yield and that measures to ameliorate inheritance tax have been encouraged by the Government themselves in response to Conservative initiatives. But we will leave the issue of redistributive taxation.

We would feel happier with a society where people had opportunity and were not frustrated, discriminated against or humiliated. Whether the clause, with its high-sounding rubric and poor, questionable and indirect delivery, will achieve that is a matter that we may wish to test later on.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton.

I want to follow a couple of comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry and mention my recent experience as a county councillor—I was in that role until last week—during which time I held the portfolio on equalities for three years. With that portfolio, I was keen to move away from the output-based duties and tick-box exercises that had led to the exercise of the duties in question becoming discredited, and towards a more outcome-based series of plans, on which action could be taken.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

I do not want to interrupt my hon. Friend’s argument, but perhaps I can tell him something that will be some consolation to him: he may not know that the leader of his excellent county council lives a mere whisker across the constituency boundary, about a mile from me. So near am I to that constituency boundary that I regularly receive missives from Oxfordshire county council through the postal system, telling me how well it is doing. I can say that those are genuine achievements, which I welcome and encourage people in Northamptonshire to emulate.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 10:00 am, 11th June 2009

I thank my hon. Friend. I have learned in my year here that flattery comes rarely in one’s parliamentary life, so it is always nice to have it unprompted from an hon. Friend.

In changing to outcome-based plans, one of the most crucial things to understand is that the choices are political. Whether they are called strategic, tactical or tactically-strategic is neither here nor there; they are political choices in relation to what outcomes are wanted. It is impossible to achieve a large number of outcomes, so there is a need to be selective about them.

In reality there was a significant overlap between the socio-economic disadvantages in the county and the groups covered by the existing equalities duties. Paragraph 42 of the explanatory notes gives an example from the health sector about targeting specific groups where health inequalities existed and the messages might not have got home for a variety of reasons. That was already being done as a political priority, and there was no better example of it than the joint appointment of a director of public health between the county council and the primary care trust, precisely so that there could be a focus on such disadvantages across the area, and so that the equality duties that already existed could be used as a significant lever for achievement. My question, therefore, is what additionality the measure brings to that system, which is already working.

My second question arises from experience of unintended consequences. I am thinking of the Building Schools for the Future programme in my constituency, where there are pockets of deprivation, despite its description by The Guardian as “opulent”. There are enormous areas of deprivation, some of which are semi-urban but some of which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry mentioned earlier, are places of obvious rural deprivation.

The Building Schools for the Future programme places a clear emphasis on building schools where there is socio-economic deprivation—I do not have a problem with that. However, the orientation and limits that have been set have produced results that do not match need, meaning that although one can visit a school and, on leaning accidentally against the wall, come away with bits of wood in one’s hand, because it is so rotten, one can still be told that the school deserves nothing because it is not in a socio-economically deprived area.

That is an unintended consequence, and we need to be careful when we include the type of duty in question with much harder—stronger, rather than more difficult—duties which, in my experience, are being exercised with great fairness and awareness, including political awareness, of what is happening in a council area.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Henley, who is my neighbour. He has made a fine contribution to the House in his short time here and I remember his maiden speech. My feelings about him are somewhat strengthened by the fact that I spent weeks, ultimately fruitlessly, wandering around villages in the north of his constituency during the by-election seeking to prevent his election—I still have the blisters.

I have a few points to make in respect of clause 1, and I wish to ask the Minister to reconsider a couple of things in respect of the amendments that deal with regulators, one of which was tabled by my hon. Friend  the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green and I, and the other, which is more detailed, by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East.

The Minister said that although she thought that there might be merit in imposing a duty, such as it is, on inspectors and regulators, it would not be consistent or rational to do so because one could not impose the same duty on the bodies they regulate. She might therefore consider that such a measure might be fruitless in some way. I question that, because the duty in clause 1 is that the bodies to which it applies must, when carrying out their functions,

“have due regard to the desirability of exercising them in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage.”

The Minister explained on Second Reading that that was as far as she could go.

We are not talking about any sort of guarantee on socio-economic disadvantage, so it is not right to say that simply because the duty to bear socio-economic inequalities in mind cannot be imposed on the private sector, one should not impose a duty on the inspectors of the private sector. It would not do any harm if the inspectors of utilities, for example, concentrated on the duty or were to make a point of it by giving advice or making representations, in a non-binding way, to those they inspect. The fact that someone is not bound to follow advice, that there is no legal duty for them to do so, or that there is no duty to implement advice—or even to have regard to it—does not mean that that advice should not be given. Advice can be a steer for those who are regulated, and regulators could set out their priorities and focus. Will the Minister reconsider her opposition to the thrust of the proposals, if it is based only on the fact that the duty does not apply to all those regulated by the inspector? It does not need to do so to obtain the benefit set out by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East.

Sometimes public and private sector bodies are subject to regulation and inspection by regulators and inspectorates. Health service inspectorates, for example, cover private and public sector organisations. The same defence of the Minister’s opposition does not apply in those circumstances. Indeed, given that organisations in the health service are subject to so many demands, including, rightly, those in the clause, it would be helpful if health service inspectorates had to have regard to socio-economic inequalities in their inspections of organisations. Otherwise, there will be a concentration purely on other matters, such as quality and efficiency. They are important, but we might lose an opportunity to deal with equity, which is a big issue for primary care trusts, which are rightly listed. It should also be an issue for providers, because their policies on the cost of car parking, for example, can have serious equity implications.

Rather than list all the providers, as the Minister has chosen not to do in the Bill, we could deal with the problem by ensuring that the health service inspectorates have regard to socio-economic inequality in the advice they give to, or in the metrics they develop for judging, health service providers. They would be able to point to the Bill and give a clearer steer. I hope the Minister deals with that in her response.

I also wanted to make a point on the need to send a message. I agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that we should not legislate solely for the purpose  of sending a message, especially when such messages are usually not received and understood by the recipients, so that becomes a waste of legislative time. I do not even think that it is a good supplementary reason. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green and I support the clause—with reservations, because we think that it is not the best way to do things and that it does not go far enough—not because it sends a message, but because it might have an impact. I asked the hon. Member for Forest of Dean to confirm his view because many of us are sick and tired of hearing politicians in this House say in the criminal justice field, for example in relation to the criminalisation and classification of drugs, that the point of a provision is to send a message, when even the Government’s advisers are clear that there is not a shred of evidence that that message is received or understood. I will take the opportunity, if I have one, to quote his view to his colleagues on his party’s home affairs team who do not share it, at least on that issue.

Finally, there is the question of whether this is the best way to achieve the Government’s genuine intention of dealing with socio-economic inequalities. I do not believe that it is simply a way to provoke the Conservative party into arguing that there is some form of class war, and I was glad that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean did not rise to that bait in the tone and tenor of his remarks. I do not believe that that is the Government’s intention; the Government’s intention is to tackle the problem.

However, I do not think that there is a choice between the clause and, for example, dealing with taxation. My party is untainted by what the hon. Member for Daventry called the Government’s collusion in the inheritance tax arms war that took place 18 months ago. We think that that was a regressive step. It would be a regressive tax change, and it is far better to make progressive tax changes.

To return to our fundamental point, there must be alternative and better ways of dealing with the problem. The Government should at least have considered that through formal consultation, rather than leaping straight for such provisions at the last minute. That was why my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked whether the Government had consulted on the question of whether socio-economic disadvantage should be a protected characteristic. Why not argue that that might be a way forward, whether or not we deal with it at a later stage, as we might well do? It would be interesting to know whether the Government considered a range of options before arriving at the present one.

This is very much a clause stand part debate. In relation to my earlier point of order, most of the clauses in the Bill are restatements of existing laws that we all support on race and disability discrimination, and clause stand part debates are unlikely to be sought on any of them. On brand new legislation, where a principle is involved, it is likely that a clause stand part debate will be sought, certainly by Liberal Democrat Members. We will seek to engage with the Government behind the scenes. I ask the Minister and the Conservatives to consider engaging us in conversation about what debates they wish to have on clause stand part. There will be isolated areas where we, separately from the Conservative party, will want to agree with the Government, or to  disagree because we do not think that they have gone far enough. It is slightly easier to make such points in a separate stand part debate, if they are made briefly.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

Mr. Benton, I do not know whether you are now in a position to decide whether we will have a clause stand part debate. It seems to me that everybody has fed into our debate on the amendments all that they want to say about the general principle. However, I assume that we will not overlook the presence of amendment 110, which will follow separately—thanks for that indication.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton, and look forward to your wisdom, which has already been helpful, on how to run the Committee sensibly and fluidly and, with a bit of luck, with a touch of fun occasionally. I have been groping for a historical story to tell back, but have failed miserably.

Amendment 2 proposes to replace the list of organisations to which the duty applies with a power to list the public authorities in regulations. I just cannot see the point, really. It is a new duty covering only a limited number of organisations, so it is important that they are listed as early and clearly as possible. We think that we have them more or less right, and it is not a long list because it is intended to apply only to high-level strategic bodies taking key decisions.

We think that we should make it clear to the public and to everyone else to whom this will apply that we do not intend to add significantly to that list, but of course one cannot future-proof the clause, so it is necessary to have an element of flexibility, which is what we have sought in the drafting. We respectfully suggest that there is not much point in amendment 2, although it has helpfully probed the way our minds have worked on the matter. In a sense, oddly enough, and in contrast with most of the other amendments, the proposed subsection would extend the clause’s scope, so I am pleased to assume that most Members see the value of the duty, because they want to broaden its ambit.

I will now deal with the other amendments in what I think is the most appropriate order. Amendment 107 was tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East, who impressed me with his commitment to ending socio-economic equality and whom I invite to try to persuade his colleagues on the matter, as he offered to be a go-between and speak to us and the currently intransigent Scottish Government. We would welcome his mediation and anything he could do to encourage his colleagues to see what we think is sense.

The hon. Gentleman said that he supports the clause as far as it goes, which I am glad to hear. If the Scottish Government want to go further, that is fine, but the amendment prompts us to ask why they do not also support the clause as far as it goes and make a clear statement that they seriously intend to tackle socio-economic inequality.

I know that the hon. Gentleman did not vote on Second Reading. I do not know whether that indicates that he was confused about the position then, but that would be entirely understandable.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East 10:15 am, 11th June 2009

To clarify for the Minister, I was in fact at a conference that day and unable to attend the debate.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

Well, we missed the hon. Gentleman. I know that the amendment is well-intentioned. It would apply the duty set out in clause 1 to certain inspectorates and regulators that he has pinpointed, including those covering financial services, communities and utilities, which are essential to people’s lives and lack of fair access to which is likely to influence socio-economic outcomes.

The difficulty is the one I put to the hon. Gentleman to reflect on while he advocated his case: extending the duty to the regulators would have no effect on those bodies, which cannot have the duty extended to them as it applies to strategic public authorities, so that is where it would stop. If a body has no duty to abide by clause 1, giving the inspectorate the duty to abide by that clause cannot drive the statutory obligation into the recipient of the inspection. It simply cannot.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

The Minister makes a good point in logical terms, but many people would be sympathetic to the intention of the amendment, because we all know that many of our poorer constituents are adversely affected by, for example, fuel prices and pre-payment meters. Has she had discussions with Citizens Advice about that and what does she think made it feel that the amendment was viable?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

I assume that it is the line of reasoning the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon put forward, but I think that it is defective in exactly the way I have said: if one puts a duty on someone, an inspectorate can drive it, but if they have no duty, putting the duty on the inspectorate cannot drive that duty through. We have to do it in different ways, which of course we are doing.

Again, I do not know what the Scottish Government are doing about this, but we are trying to get rid of the penalty on pre-payment meters. We have a consistent, strong and immediately applicable plan to replace all pre-payment meters with smart meters so that the penalty will, as soon as is practical, be driven out of our poorest sections. Many things are being done broadly to assist action against fuel poverty, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, East knows, and it is slightly odd that he seeks to drive in that indirect way bodies that cannot be driven in such fashion while saying, “Well, actually, my Government do not think that the clause is worthwhile.”

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

Is the Minister saying—I think she is, but it would be useful to have confirmation—that if there is a disturbing practice or outcome in private sector delivery, the regulator of that private sector is at least not precluded from making comments to encourage improvements in the practice, even if it is outside the statutory duty, just because the delivery is entirely within the private sector?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

That is done, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and there is an agenda, which everyone has talked about, to try to use those powers to minimise  socio-economic inequality, among other things that regulators try to do. My point is reasonably clear. It is about statutory duty.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

Of course, but the hon. Lady’s amendment is slightly different and I will come to it in a moment.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families)

There is a disconnect or illogicality about saying, as the Minister did to Conservative Members, that something does no harm, so what is the objection? I ask her the same question: what is the harm in giving the duty to a regulator when it can only do good if its advice is to “have regard to”, even if it cannot compel? The clause is not one that compels.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

It does no harm to include a provision such as clause 1. Even under the Tory position that it does not go far enough and will not be effective there is no harm in it. We believe that it is quite a strong measure, but from the Tory position there is no harm in it because it is bound to push things in the right direction.

The point is simple, and I have made it three times. If there is no statutory duty, people cannot be compelled to comply with it by putting a statutory duty on inspectorates. The matter is straightforward, and I do not understand why the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is shaking his head. Otherwise, we simply could not reach the electricity suppliers and so on. The argument, with which I am hugely sympathetic because the intention is obviously to drive the agenda, just does not work.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I do not understand why the Minister believes that it would not be worth ensuring that regulators of, for example, the utilities—the case in respect of health workers is separate, but even stronger—could pass comment on the performance of the people they regulate, whether or not they have a statutory power to enforce that or whether or not there is a duty on those who are regulated to take note.

It would still be useful, not least for transparency and understanding, that the public authority concerned—inspectorates are public authorities—could judge utilities’ performance in that way. Utilities are not prevented from taking heed of what the inspectorate says, even if there is no statutory duty to do so.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

They can, they do and they will carry on doing so. That specific statutory duty cannot be driven by the regulators, but they may make whatever comment they want about how suppliers deliver. The health service is very different, and I will turn to that.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Before the Minister does so, I want to pick her up on how she characterises our approach. We are not saying that the provision does not go far enough. It is the wrong approach for solving these significant problems. Other hon. Members have said that they agree with the approach but that it does not go far enough; we believe that it is simply the wrong way to approach some of the issues. I want to clarify that for her.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

I was trying to deal with the separate point that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised, and I am sorry if I misrepresented the hon. Gentleman. He is right, and he did not say that the measure does not go far enough. He said that there are better things to do, but we will do this, because we believe that it is a compelling way forward and that it will help immensely in driving socio-economic inequality from our public services.

On the whole, regulators do not take pre-strategic decisions about service planning or commissioning, nor do they expect to do so, but those are the decisions that we want to influence.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

May I pick the Minister up on that, because I am not sure that it is true? Ofwat, the regulator for the water industry, is not mentioned in the provision, but it certainly takes key decisions because it is responsible for considering the capital programmes suggested by the water companies and weighing up against a range of objectives the implications of those plans for water prices. Those are significant and strategic for the industry. Clearly, the regulator receives guidance from the Government on what it is supposed to achieve, but it makes significant decisions about the price of water.

The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.