HC Deb 09 July 1968 vol 768 cc409-12
Mr. Winnick

I beg to move Amendment No. 72, in page 8, line 3, leave out 'two' and insert 'six'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this Amendment we can discuss Amendment No. 73, in line 3, leave out 'two' and insert 'three'.

Mr. Winnick

The purpose of the Amendment is to extend the period for making complaints. I consider the present period too rigid. Coloured people who are new immigrants to Britain may not know the procedure. They may have a justified complaint regarding discrimination and not be told how to make the complaint until the two months period has passed. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Ennals) said that he had an open mind on the subject, so, if my Amendment is not acceptable, he may agree to a longer period than two months.

If at the end of the day the Government stand completely firm on two months, would it be possible for the Race Relations Board to look at a complaint which is more than two months old? I would rather have a situation in which the period is longer—six months, or even four months—but if it is not possible for the Government to shift on this, as a compromise could the Board have power to look at complaints which are over two months old?

Mr. Ennals

Any period we chose would be an arbitrary one. There was some consideration at one stage as to whether it should be one month and others suggested six months. The feeling of the Government and the Race Relations Board was that it should be relatively short—not so long that people would have forgotten the circumstances, but not so short as to make it difficult for busy people, or someone who had to make a journey outside the country, to make a complaint. Following discussions with the Board, which considered anything between one and three months reasonable, we thought two months about right.

I said in Committee that if I were under pressure I would not stand by two months, but there was not much pressure in Committee and my conclusion still is that two months is the right period. I cannot give the assurance for which my hon. Friend asked about the Board having power to extend the period if it wished. This was raised in Committee and it was felt that it would be putting the Board in a difficult situation. On what criteria should it decide to deal with a complaint which came three or four months later? It was thought better to have a firm rule and I think this is about right.

Mr. John Lee

As my hon. Friend did not get much pressure for this in Committee, I hope that I can supply a little pressure now. In civil proceedings under the limitation Acts one has six years in which to mount an action. This is a similar procedure dealing with simpler matters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick) said, many of those who will raise these complaints will be unused to our proceedings and uncertain of their rights. Many of them will not be English-speakers. Often they will be working in a hostile environment. It is in just that situation that allegations are likely to be justified.

Although I do not want to make too much of an issue of this, I think that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary should look at this again. Six months is not unreasonably long. It is not so long that people will forget what has happened, certainly not the complainants. My hon. Friend's reply was disappointing.

Sir S. Summers

If pressure is to be mounted on the Minister to change his mind from the intention which he announced a few minutes ago, namely, two months, perhaps a brief intervention to support him would not be unwelcome to the Government Front Bench. If a genuine complaint cannot be started on its journey to the conciliation machinery within two months of the incident, it cannot be a very genuine complaint. I hope that the Minister will not change his mind but will stick to two months.

Dr. Miller

I want to lend support to those who suggest that the period should be longer. Last Saturday a young woman of West Indian origin came to see me at my political surgery about an alleged discrimination with regard to housing. She was a highly intelligent young woman, yet she did not know that there existed in Scotland a local conciliation committee of the Board. One could well envisage a situation in which many immigrants, who obviously do not want to cause trouble and have no intention of being difficult, would not know of the facilities until the two months had elapsed. Two months is not a long time. I ask my hon. Friend to give serious consideration to extending the period considerably.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

In replying to the debate on an Amendment to Clause 8(2) the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity said nothing about complaints made to the Ministry. Schedule 2 sets out procedure whereby complaints can be put to the Ministry. They can be put to a body set up by the Ministry before they reach the Board. How would this affect the two months period? If the matter has not reached the Board, further time would be required.

Mr. Ennals

The two-month period applies to wherever the complaint is registered, whether with the Board, or through the Board, or direct to the voluntary machinery. We have looked at this issue very carefully. There has been a good deal of pressure directed to our having a system which enables complaints to be dealt with quickly. If the period from when the alleged discrimination took place to when the complaint is made to the Board is extended, conciliation is thus postponed. If rapid conciliation is desired, we must try to bring about a rapid reporting of complaints. Responding to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers), I do not intend to change my mind.

Sir S. Summers

My point arises out of what the hon. Gentleman has just said. As I understood him, the two months starts from the time the complaint reaches either the Race Relations Board or the voluntary machinery. It follows, therefore, that if the complaint is sent to the Ministry in the first place and is delayed unreasonably in the Ministy and does not reach its destination within two months, the complainant will have forfeited his right to carry out the complaint. Surely it is when the complaint reaches the Ministry that the time should start.

Mr. Ennals

The time is the time at which the complaint is registered, whether it is formally registered with the Race Relations Board or is formally registered with the Ministry. The important thing is that the period should be not less than two months after the alleged discrimination has taken place.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

The next Amendment is No. 74, with which we may discuss Government Amendment No. 95.

Mr. Ennals

I beg to move, Amendment No. 74, in page 8, line 3, after 'and' insert: 'it is accompanied by the name and address of the person by whom it is made and'. This can be dealt with very quickly. It is to carry out an assurance I gave to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) who, in Committee, proposed an Amendment requiring the complainant to give his name and address. This is what the Amendment seeks to do.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: No. 75, in page 8, line 22, leave out from 'that' to end of line 23 and insert 'the act was one of discrimination against a particular person'.

No. 76, in line 31, leave out from 'of to 'shall' in line 33 and insert 'any other complaint'.—[Mr. Ennals.]

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