HC Deb 30 October 2000 vol 355 cc546-51
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 4, line 5, leave out from beginning to "due" in line 6 and insert— ', in carrying out its functions, have'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 6 to 10, 24, 26 and 28.

Mr. Tipping

Government amendment No. 5 alters the wording of the new general duty on public authorities to promote race equality to reflect better the Government's policy intention. It makes it clear that public authorities, rather than simply putting arrangements in place to have regard to the need to work towards the elimination of unlawful racial discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups, must have regard to that duty. Although they should of course make arrangements to meet that obligation, greater focus is placed in this amendment on the outcome rather than on the process itself. The wording follows the approach taken in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and has the support of the Commission for Racial Equality. I commend the amendment to the House.

I deal now with Government amendments Nos. 8 and 9, which are perhaps slighter than the preceding one. Many public authorities are already subject to various statutory duties imposed by other legislation. I cite as an example the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which subjects the Greater London Authority to a duty in relation to equality of opportunity for all people. In clause 2, the proposed new section 71(2) of the Race Relations Act 1976 will allow, by order, the Secretary of State to impose on bodies that are subject to the general duty to promote racial equality specific duties aimed at ensuring their better performance of that duty.

The proposed section 71(6) in clause 2 allows the Secretary of State to make such incidental, supplementary or consequential provision as appropriate when, by an order under the proposed section 71(5), he amends the list of public authorities subject to the duty in schedule 1A.

We wish to have similar powers in the proposed section 71(6) in relation to orders as those made under the proposed section 71(2). That will allow the Secretary of State, when making such orders, to amend other legislation imposing duties on bodies in order to remove any overlaps on the duties. That is necessary to avoid a body becoming subject to separate but possibly conflicting duties.

Amendments Nos. 6, 7 and 10 are technical drafting amendments. Amendment No. 24 adds a new entry to schedule 1A to bring the coverage in Scotland of certain health bodies under the general duty into line with coverage of the Bill in England and Wales. Amendment No. 26 adds regional development agencies, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise to the schedule, along with the London development agency which was already in it. Certain housing bodies covered by the existing section 71 duty are added by amendment No. 28 so that they remain seamlessly specified for the purpose of the new duty. That extends the scope of the bodies covered. I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. Lidington

I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he moved the amendments. I understand the Government's reasons for proposing the new draft of the general statutory duty, but I would like to press him on the Government's thinking on what they expect public authorities to deliver under the statutory duty. It is important for the Government to clarify their thinking, given that we are proposing to grant the Secretary of State extensive powers by order to impose specific requirements on individual public authorities if he believes that they are failing to comply with the general duty. That marks a significant departure from the arrangements set out in section 71 of the Race Relations Act 1976, which places a duty on every local authority to make appropriate arrangements to carry out their functions with a view to the need

  1. (a) to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination; and
  2. (b) to promote equality of opportunity, and good relations between persons of different racial groups.
The 1976 Act does not give the Secretary of State the power to step in to say that a local authority is failing in that duty. However, under the Bill, central Government will be able to insist on certain actions being taken or certain codes being adhered to so that a local authority or group of local authorities complies with the Government's view of how to give effect to the general duty. That is important, partly for the parliamentary reason that the order-making power is subject only to the negative resolution procedure. It could come into effect without any debate or formal approval by this or the other House.

More important, when we judge the amendments and the definition of the statutory duty, we need to pay careful regard to the specific obligations that we wish to impose on specific public authorities as a result of what is phrased in fairly general terms in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of his thinking on that.

The precedent set by the 1976 Act shows that in the 24 years in which local councils have been under a statutory duty, most have used the requirement in section 71 to good effect in serving their local communities. That is how I would like things to continue.

However, certain local authorities have hit the headlines because they have interpreted the duty in the 1976 Act in a way that many people have found outrageous and not in accord with their expectations of their local council. In the past couple of weeks, the report of the Runnymede Trust's commission, which was chaired by Lord Parekh, has been published. Although I do not disagree with everything in the report, it calls for a much greater degree of central Government interference in promoting good relations than I believe to be justified.

We are told by the media that Home Office Ministers had intended to welcome the report with open arms and to announce several specific measures to give effect to some of its recommendations. It is not unfair to ask the Minister what he expects local councils and other public authorities to do that they are not doing already. For example, do the Government intend to impose on all public authorities the more onerous requirements of ethnic monitoring that the Runnymede Trust's report recommends?

To take things to the extreme, do the Government foresee that they might want to implement what I would regard as one of the daftest recommendations in the report—namely, that museums and art galleries whose exhibitions do not comply with the Government's idea of what promotes racial equality should lose some of their funding? The report is explicit in that it recommends: Organisations funded by public bodies should lose some of their funding if they do not make changes in their staff and governance and do not demonstrably make their programmes and activities more inclusive. The amendments and clause 2 will give the Home Secretary or his colleagues in the Cabinet the power by an order, which is subject only to the negative resolution procedure, to instruct a local authority museum or art gallery to change its way of doing things. If it does not do what he prescribes, it will stand to lose its grant.

In our previous debates, the Minister has also shown himself to be a reasonable chap who wishes to argue constructively, so I hope that he will be able to reassure me that my fears are misplaced. Given the general terms in which the statutory duty is defined in legislation, it is only fair to ask the Government to be more specific about the practical measures that they wish authorities to undertake or that they will seek to impose on them.

Mr. Simon Hughes

We welcome clause 2, to which the Minister has introduced further amendments today. We have argued for it in the House of Lords and in Committee. We are very keen to have this new development in race relations legislation which will oblige authorities to do two things. They will have to have regard—the Minister has suggested a change of words, but keeping the same principle—to the need to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination. It is not a matter of waiting for the court case but of dealing with matters in advance and being proactive.

Secondly, authorities will have to promote equality of opportunity and good relations. Those are good things, and it is good that these provisions are in the Bill. The amendments proposed by the Minister are also welcome; they seem to be entirely consistent.

6 pm

The comments of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) included two fair points, to which the Minister may be planning to respond. First, the hon. Gentleman asked the Minister to amplify in what way the Government would expect, and people should expect, the legislation to be enacted. Secondly, he alluded to the report sponsored by the Runnymede Trust, the "Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain". I was going to say a word about it on Third Reading, but it seems logical to do so now.

It would be helpful if the Government indicated how they will respond to the list of proposals in the report. I was away on the day it was released, but I realised that the content of the report got hijacked by, clouded by and coloured by the proposal on what we call the country and getting rid of the word "Britain". That was not a key proposal, as I understand it, but just one of the things in the report.

There are none the less a significant number of proposals in the report, including a list of points for immediate action. I only have the report's summary here, but I know that the Government have many of the items, both general and specific, on their agenda. I refer to introducing a single equality act, setting up a human rights commission and legislating to prohibit direct and indirect discrimination on grounds of religion or belief—all matters to which the Government have at some time said they are committed.

I hope that the Minister will respond in general terms to the request about how the Government propose to respond to the report. I hope that once the initial wave of comment has died down, there will be a positive and considered response to each proposal. The report appears to be on all fours with the attempts by many people to have the promotion of good race relations and equal opportunity as part of the duty of those of us in public service and in public life.

Mr. Tipping

I am grateful for the general support from the hon. Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). The point of difference between them was the difference in emphasis and concentration on the Runnymede Trust's report which has been published fairly recently and has led to some controversy.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was right to say that the focus had been on one section of the report—the notion of Britishness. The Home Secretary has made his position on that clear. He has also made his position, and that of the Government, clear on the Runnymede Trust's report. We welcome the report; it contains many recommendations that can be built on. There are also recommendations that go against the grain of what the Government are doing. Suffice it to say that we generally welcome the report, are working on its propositions and intend to come forward with proposals to take the debate further.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury made two important points. He said that this was a very important subject, and indeed it is. The duty to promote is the key to the Bill, so it is important to get these provisions right. Secondly, he talked strongly and positively about local authorities, and I agree with him on that. Politicians are not very good at praising success; neither are Governments, of whichever colour. Local authorities, as has already been said, are very successful. We need to use our regulatory framework; bodies such as Ofsted and the Audit Commission, instead of always identifying weakness, should identify and promote success. Successful local authorities should be used as vehicles to drive change forward.

As the hon. Gentleman said, many local authorities have a good deal of which to be proud. There have been occasional mishaps when local authorities may have been over-zealous in their approach. However, concentrating on the best and on bringing everyone up to the standard of the best is the right approach.

I was asked directly how the Government intend to proceed. As I said earlier, we are using as our model the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The phrasing is almost the same. The hon. Gentleman, who takes an interest in these matters, knows that in Northern Ireland we are consulting on how to do this. Public authorities do not come in one shape or size. There are different degrees of public authority. The hon. Gentleman talked earlier of vicars in the Church of England pursuing a public role. That public role is only a small proportion of their work. It is important that we consult and that we are proportionate in our approach and do not bring forward a set of measures that will not work for organisations of different size and complexity.

The hon. Gentleman asked me directly what we would be looking at and looking for. He used local authorities as his example, so perhaps I can too. It is important that local authorities introduce policies that meet the needs of the entire community, so it is important to consult the entire community about how best to do that. In a social services department, areas in which policy will need to have some focus would be the kind of meals on wheels that are supplied to the entire community, and the variety of choice that there is. Similarly, the care of people from a black and Asian background in residential accommodation is a difficult and complex area. It will be important for local authorities to consult about that, introduce policies and have ways of measuring those policies to ensure that people from a black and Asian background really are taking up meals on wheels and, if not—as is often the case these days—why not. It is important for local authorities to take that into account in relation to social policies.

It is also important for local authorities to follow this approach in relation to their employment policies. Some do, very satisfactorily, but some do not. If public authorities claim to be equal opportunities employers, as many do, but do not appear to deliver when one considers their work force, it is important that local authorities consult all the community and have policies that are acceptable to all the community on the way in which staff are advertised for and recruited. They should ensure that if people from any ethnic background are not represented and there appear to be handicaps in the way of that happening, they should introduce policies to resolve the matter.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury said that he enjoyed working with me. I enjoy working with him, and I have enjoyed doing so on this Bill. These amendments are about ensuring that we set up mechanisms for public authorities, including local authorities, to have in place policies that meet the needs of the black and Asian community and to measure them.

In closing, let me simply say that the range of measures on which consultation will take place depends on the size and complexity of the public authority. As I said earlier, the Home Office is very clear that this is not a "one approach fits all" method. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 6, in page 4, line 19, at end insert— '(b) may make different provision for different purposes.'.

No. 7, in page 4, line 25, leave out "which" and insert "who".

No. 8, in page 4, line 27, after "subsection" insert "(2) or".

No. 9, in page 4, line 46, leave out— 'section 74 so far as it applies' and insert— 'sections 71(6) and 74 so far as they apply'.

No. 10, in page 5, line 3, leave out "which" and insert "who".—[Mr. Touhig.]

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