Schedule 19

Equality Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:15 pm on 30 June 2009.

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Public authorities

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

I beg to move amendment 266, in schedule 19, page 218, line 43, at end insert—

‘The relevant qualifications regulator (The Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator—Ofqual).’.

The reason for the amendment was touched on when we debated clause 91 on qualifications bodies. I went through a number of the arguments then, so I shall not repeat them all here. I gave examples in which disabled people, specifically deaf children, when seeking to take examinations appear to have been discriminated against by examination bodies. I gave some examples in which the examination bodies did not seem to have thought creatively enough, while holding up the standards and rigours of their exams, which is clearly important, about how disabled people could be given the opportunity to demonstrate their talent and ability and to show that they were at the appropriate level of skill. The Solicitor-General rightly responded briefly and made the point that, when we came to schedule 19, we could hit the nail more firmly on the head when talking about the equality duty.

The amendment is about making sure that the qualifications regulator is explicitly mentioned as one of the bodies. I wanted to make sure that the issue was discussed, partly because of the specific cases, but I also remember a discussion that we had much earlier in the Bill concerning which bodies were included. We had a discussion at that point in response to amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green about regulators—specifically energy regulators. The Minister made the point then that it would not be appropriate to extend that particular duty to the regulators because they did not have the appropriate powers to take those steps.

If the amendment were accepted and the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator were included, I should like to explore whether it would have the appropriate powers. I think that it would because it is specifically given the power to make decisions about which adjustments should not be considered reasonable, and also about what parts of the qualification of a qualification body are not subject to adjustment.

I have specifically focused on Ofqual in England in the amendment, but there are equivalents in Wales and Scotland that I have not specifically mentioned Those regulators have powers over qualification bodies about what adjustments are reasonable or are not reasonable and, by implication, what is reasonable. They also have powers about what parts of their qualifications are not subject to adjustments and, by implication, which are.

The measure takes some decisions about competence standards and reasonable adjustments away from courts and gives it to the regulator. In this particular case, the regulator has some powers and abilities to take steps to insist that qualification awarding bodies behave in a particular way. The powers piece is made clear.

I laid out some specific examples when we debated clause 91. That can be found in the report of our proceedings in Hansard, so I shall not repeat those and I think that the Minister can remember one or two of them. My amendment seeks to find out whether she thinks that explicitly putting the qualifications regulator in the schedule would be useful and help to deal with some of the cases that I mentioned. If she does not want to accept my amendment, what alternative solution does she propose in order to deal with those examples of discrimination that I have highlighted under clause 91?

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

I completely agree that Ofqual should be subject to the equality duty—it has all the roles that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. The Qualification and Curriculum Authority is subject to an existing equality duty. He has spoken about his concerns that qualification bodies need to do more to meet the needs of disabled people. We think that by showing that Ofqual is subject to that duty it will need to think more creatively about how it works with the disabled.

The specific duties consultation document proposes a duty to involve people from the protected groups, including the disabled, when drawing up policies and taking decisions. That duty will be highly relevant to engaging Ofqual in using more imaginative ways to ensure that the disabled do not suffer in their attempts to learn. There is a “but”, which concerns the peculiar state of Ofqual.

It would be useful to mention the way that we have approached schedule 19. I have already alluded to that, but I shall now do it at the right place. Ofqual exists, but only on an interim basis. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which is in the Lords, will put Ofqual on a statutory basis and we will put Ofqual into schedule 19 when it has that status.

As I have already said, we have a core of about 90 per cent. of public authorities already in schedule 19. However, we are talking to a number of other bodies that we think should be included in the schedule. We will update the schedule through secondary legislation before the new duty comes in, in 2011, so that there is no gap in coverage.

That is the same process that was used to build up the list of bodies subject to the race duty. I have already referred my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who is not in his place, to that sizeable list and we are following that precedent. It allows us to have informed discussions with those we want to list. Public authorities need to let us know their views on whether they should be subject to the duty, but they need to know what the general duty is. Therefore, we have put it out publicly and we will engage with them now that they know what being a public authority will involve. We would like to deal with Ofqual at the same time, but we will definitely put it in schedule 19.

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

I am grateful for the Minister’s assurance. I recognised the point about the status of Ofqual, which is why I tabled the amendment to test it, but she has confirmed that once it has become a statutory body—once the other Bill has passed through Parliament—it will be included. That is what I was seeking to do. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 19 agreed to.