HC Deb 23 October 1968 vol 770 cc1340-5

Lords Amendment No. 10: In page 9, line 24, leave out from "complaint" to "is" in line 25 and insert: which is made to them within two months of the act complained of and also, if the Board think that special circumstances warrant its reception, any complaint made to them or a conciliation committee after the expiration of that period if in either case the complaint

Mr. Ennals

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

Mr. Speaker

With this Amendment we can also take Lords Amendments Nos. 11 and 34.

Mr. Ennals

The purpose of this Amendment is to allow the Race Relations Board discretion in "special circumstances" to authorise the investigation of cases which would otherwise fall outside the time limit of two months. It has always been the Government's intention that there should be a time limit for making complaints. In Committee, I argued that any decision would have to be an arbitrary one. The general conclusion was that two months seemed to be a reasonable period, and it was one accepted as reasonable by the Board. In another place Lord Gifford quite properly raised the point that it could well be that a person might not discover the possibility that he had been the victim of discrimination until more than two months had elapsed.

One can imagine a person seeking to buy a house and being told that a higher offer had been received, so that his offer is unacceptable. He might discover some time killer that no such offer had been received and that the house was sold at a lower price. After consultation with the Board, the Government decided that an Amendment should be moved on Report, in another place, to enable the Board, in special circumstances, to authorise the investigation of cases which would otherwise be out of time.

In all cases it will be for the Board, not the conciliation committees, or the voluntary machinery, to decide whether there are special circumstances. In this way the discretion will be exercised uniformly and it will be for the Board to decide in any particular case whether there are special circumstances. We understand that it would not, for example, consider delays caused through ignorance of the law or domestic circumstances. The Government are confident that the Board can be relied upon to exercise this discretion judiciously, and recommend this Amendment to the House.

Mr. Buck

I have some slight misgivings on this Amendment. The two-month limitation period made it clear beyond peradventure that stale claims about discrimination could not be brought before the courts. Now we have gone very much the other way, from a two-month period to an unfettered discretion, given to the Race Relations Board, which can consider and bring before the courts complains however stale. We have great confidence in the Board, but I wonder whether by giving it an unfettered discretion to bring forward any complaints, however stale, we are going too far.

I have made a considerable study into the limitation of actions, because in my early days in the House I was lucky in the Private Members' Ballot and managed to get through an Act which enabled people to bring actions outside the usual statutory period in specific circumstances. The principle should be that there should be a certainty of period and that outside that certainty, save in very exceptional circumstances—and perhaps there should be guidelines as to what constitute exceptional circumstances—an action should not be brought. Are we going too far by going from a very strict two month limitation to giving the Board a virtually unfettered discretion'? I must express some misgivings about the Amendment.

Dr. M. S. Miller (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

To put the record in perspective from another point of view, I congratulate the Government on accepting the Amendment. I see the strong likelihood in some instances of someone not knowing whether he has been discriminated against. But I should like an assurance that the person who is discriminated against and who does not take action within the requisite two months will be given every opportunity and assistance to put forward his point of view and for the reasons for the delay to be ascertained so that too great an onus is not put on him to give proof which it is perhaps impossible to obtain.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State indicated that the Board will have fairly wide discretionary powers.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I accept that cases could arise in which two months is an absurdly short time. But to argue that the time should be limitless is carrying the argument to a length which cannot be defended. If there is any reason for doing that, perhaps the Under-Secretary of State would tell us what it is.

We must think of the Race Relations Board. I do not doubt that it will be under heavy pressure to take up cases which it thinks, in its discretion, should not be taken up. It is desirable that it should have the protection of the law and that it should be able to say that this is what Parliament decided and that it can act only within certain limits. I should not have thought that it was in the Board's interest to make the latitude so substantial that it might well find itself in difficulty.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

I think that the House should accept the Amendment. I understand the misgivings of the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) and we must take them into consideration. I do not believe that housing is a particularly good example, but evidence in relation to employment which might not be available within the two months might come to light after the two months. For example, there could be letters which were not seen by anyone which could be discovered after that period. It would be quite unjustifiable and wrong in those circumstances if such evidence were not put before the Board. After all, the safeguard is that the Board will decide whether there is a case. It would be quite wrong if the Board did not have the opportunity of considering the matter and saying, "Here is a case which we must investigate."

I recognise the misgivings of the hon. Member for Colchester and know that they are sincerely held, but there is a case for the Amendment which might well be accepted.

Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)

I can understand the reason behind the Amendment and, to some extent, I have sympathy for it, but would the Minister say whether the Board will be required to state the circumstances which led it to agree to extend the period of two months? It is important that anybody who is involved should know the circumstances in which the Board agreed to extend the period beyond two months.

Mr. Walter Clegg (North Fylde)

I did not intend to speak in the debate until I heard the remarks of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Dr. Miller). He seemed to have a very different idea of how this provision will work from the impression given to me by the Minister. The hon. Gentleman said that the Board would have a wide discretion. I agree that on paper its discretion is wide, but I think that the Minister indicated clearly that the Board will operate this discretion in a very narrow field. It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether I am right or whether the hon. Member for Kelvingrove is right.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Southall)

In certain respects, the word of warning of the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) would be valid if we did not take into account that this is a new venture, as was said in Committee many times, outside normal judicial conventions with which the hon. Gentleman has been involved professionally. Therefore, we need not have the fears which we might otherwise have if we did not have regard to the powers of the Board, which are negligible from a judicial point of view.

This is a conciliation process and it would be wrong if, in our duty as conciliators, we put forward an arbitrary long-stop period. Having regard to the way in which the Board fits into the process, I do not think that there are the dangers which there might be if it were a court with powers to mete out punishment.

Mr. Ennals

With the leave of the House, may I say that the Board shares the Government's view that a time limit is important. It does not wish to be cluttered up with old, stale cases. The question of special circumstances does not affect the matter of staleness and the time factor. It is the circumstances which lead to the complaint not being registered within what is accepted to be the normal time, namely, two months.

May I say, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Dr. Miller), that it is not intended that the Board should have wide discretionary powers.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) wonders whether we should define "special circumstances". It would be very difficult to do so. The only difference between us is that he uses the term "very special circumstances" and the Amendment uses the term "special circumstances". I think there is a strong case for making a modest change so as to prevent injustice. I do not think that any hon. Member would wish there to be a situation in which a complaint of discrimination could not be made because the facts were not known to the complainant and that because of the two months restriction he should be unable to present his case, as others would do. I hope that the House will accept the Amendment.

Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that it might be sensible to impose a limit on the time allowed to elapse after a complainant might reasonably be held to be in a position to lodge a complaint?

6.30 p. m.

Mr. Ennals

There would be disadvantages in that. If we were to write in a new time limit, we would find that it came to be accepted as the normal limit. The normal time limit is two months and there will be only special circumstances in which the Board would be prepared to extend it. The Board makes suitable facilities available for people to make their complaint, but it does not wish to encourage people to make a complaint other than at the earliest possible moment when the evidence is to hand.

Mr. John Hall

The Minister did not say whether the Board would be required to state the circumstances in which it was prepared to extend the period.

Mr. Ennals

The Board will not be required to state the circumstances. As I indicated earlier, however, the views of the Board are clear. It wants this limit. It would not accept, for example, that "special circumstances" included ignorance of the law, domestic circumstances or the fact that somebody was travelling. If special circumstances were pleaded, it would be necessary for a person to explain why he did not have the evidence of discrimination at his disposal before. If anyone asks the Board to do so, it may state the circumstances, but the Act will not require it to give an explanation.

Question put and agreed to.

Forward to