HC Deb 16 July 1965 vol 716 cc1019-31
Dame Joan Vickers

I beg to move Amendment No. 15, Clause 2, in page 2, line 26, at the end to add: at least one of whom shall be appointed by reason of colour, race, ethnic or national origin of a minority group".

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

With this Amendment we can discuss Amendment No. 17, Clause 2, in page 2, line 28, after "committees", insert on each of which at least one member shall be appointed by reason of colour, race, ethnic or national origin of a minority group".

Dame Joan Vickers

I have put down these Amendments because I would like the assurance of the Home Secretary that he intends to have some people, not of this country, on, I hope, both the Board and the local committees. I am certain that the commissioners selected will be chosen with great care from among people with great knowledge, and that they will be impartial. But I feel that it would give greater confidence to the people coming here from overseas and improve race relations, if they had some sort of representation on the committee.

I realise that as the Board is drawn it is extremely small and I am not going to press the Home Secretary to say that he will place somebody, of the origins I mentioned in my Amendment, on the Board as it stands, but perhaps in due course he will consider it a good idea to enlarge the Board. That depends on the number of cases likely to be brought before it, and we all hope that they will not be very many.

On the other hand, he will, I hope, accept my Amendment in regard to the local conciliation committees because these people are in the areas concerned. There is no number stated in the Bill and these people will be able to play a very big part in conciliation work. They will have an understanding of the customs of their people which is a very great advantage.

I have had experience of working as a welfare officer for the Colonial Office in Malaya and I found that when I had to adjudicate between different races with completely different customs, not easy to understand, it was a great advantage to form a committee of the leaders of the various communities with which I was working. When I had any difficulty I always went to this committee for advice, and I would have thought that it would be a very great advantage, from the point of view of the local conciliation committee to have such assistance. It will also give the people the assurance that their point of view is going to be put forward. Often the people of this country are not particularly knowledgeable of the customs and ways of overseas people as they have not had the advantage of living amongst them.

I think that a tremendous number of the difficulties which occur at present are due to a lack of understanding of an individual's background. It may be said that someone is not as clean as one would wish, that he has different standards and that he has habits which annoy his neighbours. But if it can be explained that it is a person's habit, people can perhaps be got together and a better understanding achieved. A great many people carry on their own customs because it takes them a long time to become assimilated. I am certain that a great many of the present difficulties are because we do not take sufficient interest and have insufficient knowledge of their customs.

I hope that if the Home Secretary cannot accept Amendment No. 15 he will accept Amendment No. 17, as this will give a real assurance to the people concerned, and definite guidance to the Board as to their future action. I shall be grateful if he will consider this Amendment and give a reassuring answer on Amendment No. 17.

1.45 p.m.

Mr. John Hunt (Bromley)

I would like to support my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). It is vital, if the conciliation machinery which has been set up under the Bill is to work smoothly and effectively, that we should include some representatives of the immigrant community, in order to reassure members of minority groups who may be brought before the local conciliation committees, that their inquiries are being conducted in a completely impartial way. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport has said, it is the old tag of justice being seen to be done.

One other reason why I would like to speak in favour of these Amendments is that I am sure that one of the essential prerequisites to racial harmony in this country in the years ahead is going to be the development of experienced and responsible leadership within the coloured community. One of the disappointing features of the current race relations scene is that comparatively few immigrants have so far come forward to voice the views and aspirations of their communities. It may be that service on these local conciliation committees would provide an invaluable opportunity for members of the immigrant community to extend and expand their experience of public work and public service to the immense benefit, not only of themselves but of their community as well, and to the general cause of race relations.

For this reason I hope that the Home Secretary will be persuaded to accept at least Amendment No. 17.

Mr. Gurden

I hope that the Home Secretary will not accept this Amendment, mainly for the reasons he gave to us in Standing Committee, namely, that he wants to have people on these committees who are the most capable of dealing with the job, and who are not representing specific groups or organisations. One could put up a very strong case for saying that local authorities and others should be represented on these committees. I accept the strong case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) for these particular people to be represented on these committees. But, clearly, there could be a very strong case made for so many groups which, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman explained in Committee, would confine representation to these groups and possibly make it very difficult to keep down the size of these committees and enable them to make a good job of their work.

We have to remember that among the settlers who come to this country we have many different types who are not always in harmony with one another. They may come from the same part of the world, but from different countries which are opposed to each other. I am sure that if a person of one nationality was represented and not of the other nationality it would be felt that they were not getting a fair deal. These people have to adjudicate, and I am sure that the Home Secretary is right when he says that they must be selected for the work which they are capable of doing and not because they represent a particular society.

Sir F. Soskice

I find myself in agreement with a good deal of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) said. I am not able to accept either of the Amendments. May I say why and indicate the Government's concept to the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) and the hon. Member for Bromley (Mr. Hunt).

We envisage the Board as being very limited in number—three. We are most anxious that it should not be in any sense representative of particular sectional interests. We think it essential that we should obtain the right people to serve on the Board, and that that should be the sole criterion. By "right people" I mean people, whatever their colour, race or origin, whose character and intellect are such as in the judgment of the Minister responsible, mainly myself at the moment, would be able to bring to bear a mature and balance judgment in the setting up and constitution of the committees.

The prime objective is to select the three people whose character and qualifications best befit them for the work which they have to undertake which we not only hope, but firmly intend, should be entirely divorced from political influence or pressure. This is to be a wholly independent Board which is to bring its judgment to bear on what, in the first place, is the administrative task of setting up the committees. It would seriously impair their qualifications for that job if they were selected in any sense because they have a loyalty to any particular racial group or minority group. The last thing that we want is to do anything which could possibly seem to represent jostling or fighting on behalf of any particular group.

I would desire to leave the matter of the members of the conciliation committees wholly to the discretion of the Board. The plan is that the Board should be entrusted with the duty of deciding on the composition and what sort of people should be invited to serve on the committees. I do not exclude the possibility that the members of the Board may think that in particular areas it would be useful, because of the make-up of the population in the area, to appoint a representative of that population. I do not assert that or deny it. It would be a matter for them to decide in the exercise of their bona fide judgment in the light of the circumstances of the area for which they are providing in setting up the committee. One thing which I do not wish to do is to influence them. Therefore, in making these observations, I guard against saying anything, and hope to be so understood, which they might think is a norm or requirement emanating from the Government as to how they should carry out their functions.

I see difficulty in constituting committees, or any other boards, in a way which might give rise to battles inside the committees. We wish them to work together and approach the general problem of social relationships with a common good will. Nevertheless, they might think that in a particular area the advantage of encouraging the appointment of members of particular minorities would outweigh the danger of a battle in the committee. This is a matter for their discretion and I would not wish to influence them in it.

I hope that they would, in the exercise of their judgment, be careful to select people who carried confidence in the locality and who could, and would, be trusted by the local inhabitants of the community to be completely detached and fair-minded in their approach to any cases of complaint brought to their notice. They would obviously make careful inquiries from people who had knowledge of the locality as to which per- sonages in that locality would carry that type of confidence and would, I hope, make their selections accordingly.

Paragraph 7 of the Schedule, which deals with the appointment of the local conciliation committees, reads: The Board may pay to members of a local conciliation committee, and to persons assisting in or concerned with the carrying out of the functions of any such committee, travelling or other allowances …". The object of that is to enable them to be provided with, upon the basis of public service, not remuneration, such advice as to local conditions in an area which may be some distance from the quarters in which the conciliation committee sits, sufficiently far away for them to be generally but not particularly acquainted with the situation in that area. We envisage that they might wish to seek that advice or special assistance. If they called upon other people of good will to assist them, then those people should not have to suffer pecuniary loss. That is the objective of that part of the Schedule.

I hope that the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport and the hon. Member for Bromley will accept that the Government's concept is best framed to achieve the purpose which we have in mind—an experienced, mature Board with a limited membership, appointing up and down the country conciliation committees which may, or may not, as they judge in their discretion, be, to some extent, representative. They will have to judge in the individual circumstances how best to make up the membership of the Board.

Dame Joan Vickers

I thank the Home Secretary for what he has said. As he previously talked about not choosing heads, I did not expect a very favourable answer. I am rather disappointed that he did not say more definitely that he would like to see a rather wider membership of the conciliation committees. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sir D. Renton

I beg to move Amendment No. 19, Clause 2, in page 2, line 31, after "complaint" to insert "as to the practice".

The purpose of the Amendment is to get some clarification from the Home Secretary about how he thinks this procedure will work and at the same time to stimulate him into having further thoughts about the contents of this part of the Bill.

A rather strange situation arises. The two provisions which are most relevant subsection (1) of Clause 1 and subsection (2, a) of Clause 2, which I seek to amend by way of probing Amendment—are somewhat inconsistent with each other and with the procedure outlined in the next two Clauses and which could culminate in an injunction being granted at the instance of the Attorney-General.

Clause 1 (1) says that it is unlawful to practise discrimination. When the Home Secretary, in Standing Committee, moved an Amendment to it, he pointed out that it was the course of conduct which was contemplated as being unlawful and not an isolated act.

2.0 p.m.

In Clause 2(2) the procedure for testing illegality and for arranging consultation is brought into force. According to what the Home Secretary said in Standing Committee, it is not necessarily a course of conduct which amounts to discrimination which sets the ball rolling. It could be an isolated act. He said: Perhaps I might explain how the Clause works. Discrimination is already defined in Clause 1(3) as the refusal or neglect to afford what I may shortly call facilities. One then looks at subsection (2) of the new Clause"— that is now Clause 2— which requires the committee to receive and consider any complaint of discrimination. That complaint could be of a single act. When the committee has considered that single complaint, it has to proceed in accordance with the subsequent paragraphs of subsection (2), and if it meets with no success it reports to the Race Relations Board."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 29th June, 1965; c. 363.] Bearing those words in mind, what happens in these circumstances: suppose somebody complains of a single act of discrimination and the local conciliation committee finds that the complaint of that single act is well justified? The matter is left in the hands of the person against whom the complaint is made. Let us assume that that person commits another act. It will be a second act, and that, presumably, is a course of conduct. That is plain enough. Finally, the matter will go to the Race Relations Board, who will consider whether the original act, plus any further act or acts, amounts to a course of conduct which is illegal because it is a practice of discrimination within Clause 1(1). The matter is then referred to the Attorney-General.

This is a very elaborate procedure. It has been described—I am not trying to criticise it in using this expression—as a steamroller to crack a nut. I should have thought that the procedure would be far less susceptible to that description and far less susceptible to any criticism if it were made clear from the outset that it is not the isolated act which is to set the procedure in motion, or the complaint as to an isolated act, but that it is the practice of discrimination, as Clause 1(1) seems to indicate is the intention. It was only in the later Clauses and the explanation which the Home Secretary gave of them that we found that the complaint made in the first place could be a complaint of a single act.

I hope that I have said enough to alert the Home Secretary of the point. When we are making a new departure in human relations of this kind, and when we are putting forward a very elaborate form of machinery, we should make sure that it will be evoked only when it is necessary. Let us not be left with the criticism that it may be regarded as a steamroller to crack a nut.

Sir F. Soskice

I do not think that the difficulty which the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) apprehends will arise. I do not think that the procedure is as complicated as he fears. Let me indicate how I picture that the procedure would work. The coloured man who is refused a drink or told that he cannot go into a cinema feels under a grievance, goes to the local conciliation committee, and says "This happened to me last night", and describes it. If the proposed Amendment were accepted the conciliation committee would have to say to that person, "Do you allege that it is part of a course of discrimination as described in Section 1 of the Race Relations Act, 1965?" The coloured man will not have the dimmest idea of what all that means. All he will know is that he is under a grievance because he was not allowed to go into a cinema.

I desire it to be the case, and I hope that on reflection the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees, that if he makes a complaint, the conciliation committee should be enabled by the terms of the Act to consider what in those circumstances the coloured man says. What happens? If it has jurisdiction, it is within its function to consider an isolated case, and it has to make up its mind what it will do. First, it may make such inquiries as it thinks necessary. It may think that none is necessary and that the complaint is so trivial and piffling that it can be disregarded. That should be the end of the matter. On the other hand, it may think that there is something in it, and make inquiries.

If, after inquiries, it feels that there is a case of discrimination contrary to Clause 1, a case amounting to the practice of discrimination, it uses its endeavours to bring about a cessation of that practice. If it is unsuccessful, the conciliation committee reports to the Board, and the Board has to bring its judgment to the report and to ask itself whether, within the meaning of subsection (3), there is a course of conduct in contravention of the Act.

In other words, the Board would no doubt have assembled before it a number of complaints of this sort. One coloured man complains about not being admitted to the cinema. Another complains three days later of similar conduct at the same cinema. This goes on for three months, with a series of complaints. Accumulatively they result in a determination by the committee that it ought to report to the Board. The Board examines the report and decides whether there was a course of conduct, and it must go on to ask itself whether that course of conduct is likely to continue. It is only then that the Board brings its judgment to the committee's report and decides the questions which I have asked it to answer. If the answer to both is "Yes", it will report the case to the Attorney-General.

I put it to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that in the very nature of things the committee will not be able to function unless it can take account of the individual complaint. It puts these complaints together. If it thinks that there is a course of conduct, it reports to the Board, and the Board has to confirm or reject the view which it has formed.

Sir D. Renton

I entirely accept the view expressed by the Home Secretary. It is a good thing that we moved the Amendment in order to give him an opportunity of elaborating what he said in Committee, which gave rise to a certain amount of doubt. Particularly important is the point which he made about a number of complaints which were unconnected in so far as the people making them were concerned but which, when examined, were all found to channel back to the same source. It is important that we should leave the Bill as it is in order that that situation may be covered. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sir John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)

I beg to move Amendment No. 22, Clause 2, in page 2, line 35, after the first "the", to insert "written".

This is a very short point. The Act provides that anybody may make a complaint or that somebody may make a complaint with the authority of another person. Normally one can think of provisions in the Statutes by which things which have to be put down in writing are otiose and usually objectionable because they provide a formality which may deprive people of their rights. On the other hand, there are occasions when this is ncessary. Here an individual can make a complaint personally. If he is not prepared to make his complaint personally, then the Bill provides that is can be made with his authority. Suppose that a complaint is made on the supposed authority of a complainant, at a later date there may be very heavy pressures, when he did not want to complain at all, upon him to say that he had done, and in other cases there might be equal pressures upon a man who did complain to say that he did not and had not in fact complained.

The point of the Amendment is to make sure at an early stage of the proceedings if he makes a complaint himself—certainly he need not do that in writing—but some other body or institution or person proceeds with the complaint on his behalf he attaches his signature to a piece of paper so that there can be no doubt al all that the complainant has authorised the making of that complaint, and that never thereafter can there be pressure exercised upon him to say he did not authorise it, or people making complaint under his authority and wanting him to say it was made with his authority, when it was not authorised in the first instance.

It is a matter of judgment, and I do not press it, but it seemed to me a matter that ought to be considered, and that there would be an advantage in having the authority in writing.

Sir F. Soskice

I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be so kind as to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment on my assurance to him that I should like to consider this carefully when this Bill goes from the House of Commons to another place. It seems to me, if I may respectfully say so, that there are grounds for this change but that I should like to think them over rather carefully before making the change.

Sir J. Hobson

I am delighted to do that, and I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for undertaking to consider this matter, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sir J. Hobson

I beg to move, Amendment No. 35, Clause 2, in page 3, line 27, after "Board" to insert: and any local conciliation committee constituted by the Board under section 2 of the Race Relations Act 1965". This deals with the position of Members of Parliament and disqualification. The Bill as at present drawn provides that a person who is a member of the Race Relations Board itself cannot also hold a seat in the House of Commons. I would have thought that that principle ought to have been extended to the members of the local conciliation committees. I know that, of course they are not paid in the same way as members of the Board are, but they are, as it were, agents for the Board and they are discharging functions under this Bill, and to that extent I should have thought it undesirable that Members of Parliament should take part in the work either of the Board itself or of the agents of the Board, the conciliation committees in the various areas.

I would have thought there were really two substantial reasons why Members of this House should not serve on the local conciliation committees. First of all, as I say, they will, to some extent, be members of subordinate bodies taking directions, as I understand it, and appointed by the Race Relations Board, and whose appointment would be subject to termination by the Board, which is not itself a Parliamentary body.

2.15 p.m.

Secondly, it seems to me that if one asks oneself about one's own constituency one might come to this conclusion: I would not like to have another Member of Parliament on the conciliation committee of my own constituency. I should not think there are any Members of this House who would particularly welcome it if another Member of Parliament were suddenly to appear on the conciliation committees in their constituencies, whether a Member of one and the same party or the opposite party, on whichever side they sat, One likes to look after one's own constituency when these difficulties arise, and therefore I would have supposed, if we are to have Members of Parliament on the local conciliation committees that they would be the local Members themselves, each one in his own constituency. That, however, I would think highly undesirable, because in these matters a Member of Parliament is representing everybody in his constituency, including the people of both sides of any dispute of this nature; they would all be his constituents. The hon. Member had much better not get muddled up in the first stages of such a dispute. For instance, he might like to ask Questions in Parliament about it. There might be very hot Questions about the proceedings of the conciliation committee, or Questions other than about the conciliation committee itself. If a Member of Parliament were also a member of the local conciliation committee he might well feel himself inhibited in his work as a Member of Parliament.

For these reasons it seems to me that we ought to consider whether it is right that Members of Parliament, while not being members of the Board, should be members of the local conciliation committees. I should have thought it would have been very embarrassing for most members of the local conciliation committees, and for Members of Parliament who are members of the committees covering constituencies other than their own, and I should have thought they would be glad not to be placed in a position in which they could be elected to conciliation committees in their own constituencies, and that probably they had better perform their functions as Members of Parliament and not get involved in these disputes in this detailed way as they may arise in their own constituencies.

Mr. Gurden

My right hon. and learned Friend has made a very good case, and I entirely agree with it and for the reasons he has stated, but I should just like to clear up one point he made about a Member of Parliament acting on a committee within his own constituency. This, as we had it from the Home Secretary, would not be at all possible, because these committees are not to be drawn necessarily on a constituency basis but may cover one or 51 constituencies. These committees will not be confined to any county borough, or to any boundaries of the kind—and quite rightly. They are to be formed only where they are necessary, says the Home Secretary, and I agree with that. All these reasons strengthen my right hon. and learned Friend's argument.

Sir F. Soskice

We are most anxious that the proceedings of the committees should never become cockpits of political controversy. We want them to function completely untrammelled and uninhibited by political pressures of any sort. It seems to me that the Amendment would conduce to that, and I should be happy if the House would agree to accept the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.