HL Deb 15 March 1994 vol 553 cc182-8

7.57 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of this Bill is to remove the limit on the amount that can be awarded by an industrial tribunal as compensation for racial discrimination contrary to the Race Relations Act 1976. It provides also for interest on compensation awarded under that Act.

This Bill originated in another place as a Private Member's Bill introduced by Mr. Keith Vaz, the honourable Member for Leicester East. In the other place the Bill was regarded as an uncontroversial, all-party measure. It was supported by Members of the three major parties, as well as the Official Unionists and the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists. Mr. Vaz tells me that he received the support also of 28 national religious groups, 10 trade unions and 50 other community organisations. In addition, the Bill was supported fully by the Government. The honourable Member for Leicester East should be congratulated on his initiative and on using his precious Private Member's time to get the matter moving.

The need for the change lies in an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 which was made last year. That amendment in turn arose from a decision of the European Court of Justice in the case of Marshall v. Southampton and South West Health Authority. The decision of the European Court of Justice was that a limit on the amount of compensation payable in sex discrimination cases was incompatible with Community law; and that, furthermore, the court should have powers to award interest on compensation payable under the Sex Discrimination Act.

That decision was implemented by means of regulations made under Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. It has been the practice of successive governments to keep both the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act broadly in line. Indeed, at the time of announcing the amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment announced that he would seek a suitable opportunity to amend the Race Relations Act. That promised amendment is the purpose of the present Bill.

The Bill is narrow in scope and is contained in just three simple clauses. I say that with some diffidence because I have already spoken for almost as long as the Bill took to complete its passage through the other place. Clause 1(1) removes the limit on compensation imposed by Section 56(2) of the Race Relations Act 1976. At present that limit is £11,000. Clause 1(2) provides for the necessary and consequential repeal of Section 76(2) of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 which imposed a ceiling on compensation in cases falling under the ambit of both unfair dismissal and racial discrimination.

Clause 2(1) provides for the Secretary of State to make regulations in connection with interest on compensation awards at tribunals. That will enable regulations to be made in racial discrimination cases which mirror those in the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay (Remedies) Regulations 1993.

Clause 2(2) amends Section 74(2) of the Race Relations Act 1976. That subsection covers parliamentary procedure in relation to certain orders and regulations. It amends it simply by adding references to the new Section 56(5) and (6) introduced into the Race Relations Act by Clause 2(1) of the present Bill.

Clause 3 is entirely administrative. It contains the short title, repeals commencement and extent. It is to commence two months after the Bill becomes law and does not extend to Northern Ireland.

There is no money resolution attached to the Bill, as its provisions have no effect on public service, manpower or expenditure. Further, under the Race Relations Act the obligations of employers or others, whether in the private or public sector, are not affected by the Bill, so compliance costs will not arise.

Our country believes in equality of opportunity for all. it is only right that the standard of legal redress for discrimination on the grounds of race should be no less than that for discrimination on the grounds of sex. The Bill seeks to keep the provisions for redress in both Acts broadly in line. For those reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Baroness Miller of Hendon.)

8 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to support this uncontroversial all-party Bill, to thank the. noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, for her initiative in introducing it to the House, and to express my gratitude to Mr. Keith Vaz for introducing it in another place.

The Bill is modest but important. The subject matter is of particular interest to me because I left the Bar between 1974 and 1976 to help my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead take through both Houses the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. We took a decision at that time—and that only shows how times have changed—that we could only get legislation as radical as the Race Relations Act 1976 through Parliament if we began with a separate Sex Discrimination Bill in 1975. But, of course, the provisions of both Bills were very similar.

Therefore, we began a system in which one had in two separate, watertight compartments a Bill dealing with gender discrimination and one dealing with racial discrimination. Indeed, more than that, there was another Bill which dealt with religious discrimination in Northern Ireland, and that was placed in a third box. The result is that we now have a principle of equal treatment without discrimination being applied differently according to the particular part of the territory of the kingdom in which one happens to be.

Therefore, if one complains of gender discrimination, one has a remedy in any part of the United Kingdom; if one complains of race discrimination, one only has a remedy in Great Britain; and, if one complains of religious discrimination, one only has a remedy in Northern Ireland. The machinery for giving effect to the law differs according to which part of the kingdom one has in mind.

The Bill is only necessary because in the Marshall case, as the noble Baroness indicated, the European Court of Justice compelled the United Kingdom Government to remove the very low limit on damages for equal pay and sex discrimination. Therefore. the Secretary of State and his colleagues have very sensibly decided that they cannot continue to have a distortion in remedies as between gender and race. I greatly welcome that development.

However, it seems to me to be completely incoherent that we should treat the wrong of unfair discrimination differently, in the way that I described, in different parts of the country. Therefore, I very much hope that consideration will be given—of course, I do riot mean in the present Bill—by the Government to the prospect of introducing a human rights or equal opportunities Bill which would create a single concept of equal treatment without discrimination and provide similar enforcement machinery and harmonious remedies.

As one of the architects of the Race Relations Act 1976, I should say that, although I believe the Government have appointed an excellent chairman in Mr. Herman Ouseley and very good commissioners, I do not believe that the legislation has been very effective. One of the reasons has been the lack of adequate remedies which the Bill would help to alleviate. But another problem has been that the enforcement machinery has proved in practice to be very weak. I urge the Government to heed the recommendations made by the Commission for Racial Equality in two reviews (the last of which was in 1992) to strengthen the enforcement of the legislation, especially by enabling the commission to obtain binding undertakings from appropriate bodies, ensuring appropriate monitoring and so on. It would not be right for me to elaborate on that aspect this evening.

I mentioned to the Minister that another aspect which worries me is whether the removal of the artificial limit on damages for race discrimination will be applied to the fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland. It seems to me to be ludicrous if we now have a limit of £30,000 on damages in Northern Ireland for religious discrimination, but no limit on damages for race discrimination in Britain or on sex discrimination throughout the whole country. I did not give the Minister much notice on that point. However, I would be grateful for some enlightenment on it. Having said that, I very much welcome the Bill and the noble Baroness's initiative in introducing it.

8.7 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I rise to support the Bill so ably introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. I should also like to thank the noble Baroness for the detailed explanation that she gave the House. Of course, it is not a party matter and is entirely non-controversial. As the noble Baroness said, it stems from a ruling by the European Court of Justice that a statutory compensation limit for breaches of sex discrimination legislation is incompatible with EC law. Law, in regard to race relations, should obviously follow the same pattern. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, elaborated on that point. I fully agree with what he said.

I, therefore, welcome the Bill which not only has the support of all parties but also the support of organisations active in the field of race relations, including, as we heard, the Commission for Racial Equality. While welcoming the Bill, perhaps I may say something about race relations in general.

If press stories are to be believed—and, I believe that they are—it seems disturbingly true that, despite the anti-discrimination laws in the United Kingdom and the existence of the Commission for Racial Equality (laws, I may say, that do not apparently exist so strongly in Europe, although there is legislation about gender inequality and discrimination) we, nevertheless, have plenty of evidence of continuing racial harassment and discrimination. Many organisations active in the area which represent ethnic minorities believe that our laws should be strengthened. In particular, there has been talk of the need for a law against racial harassment. According to police reports, in 1988 there were 4,382 cases, while in 1992, 7,793 cases were reported. Moreover, not all cases are reported.

It may be true that laws by themselves cannot change the attitudes of some people: but it is distressing—is it not?—to learn of Asian families being bullied and harassed out of their homes. Although the Bill deals with levels of compensation and it is not the appropriate vehicle, I hope that at some time in the not too distant future we shall be able to discuss possible remedies for such a situation. I feel that sooner or later we shall have to address the problem of racist attacks.

As I said, I hope to be able to return to the subject at some time in the future. In a society that calls itself civilised, it cannot be right that some of our citizens should be intimidated and, in certain instances, actually live in fear. They do so because, through our inaction, we are countenancing behaviour which should be seen as criminal and deserving of penalty. As the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has said, even as regards the present laws, enforcement machinery is extremely weak. Let us hope that we can address that problem also at some time in the future.

Nevertheless I am grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing the Bill in this House and also to my honourable friend Keith Vaz for introducing it in another place. This is a substantial breakthrough in the field of race relations because the ceiling for compensation was far too low. In fact there was even a case reported in the House Magazine some little while ago of a hearing before a Leeds industrial tribunal where the chairman clearly would have awarded higher compensation to the group of Asian workers involved had it not been for the limit imposed by legislation. The Bill therefore is an important step forward. Cases will no longer be capable of being settled by a quick, cheap payout at an industrial tribunal. I am delighted that there has been consensus over the introduction of this measure and I am glad to welcome it from these Benches.

8.11 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, I suspect my noble friend Lord Ferrers would echo my thoughts when I say, if only all legislation could be dealt with as simply and with as little controversy as is the case with this Bill. As is quite clear, the Government welcome the Bill and we are most grateful both to my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon for taking the Bill through this House and also to the honourable Member for Leicester East, Mr. Keith Vaz, for taking the Bill through another place.

As my noble friend made quite clear, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced last year the Government's commitment to amend the Race Relations Act so that it should reflect the changes made to sex discrimination legislation by the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay (Remedies) Regulations which came into force last November following the Marshall case. The aim of this Bill, as is clear to all of us, is to make just that amendment. It offers an early opportunity to achieve our objective. I am grateful for that early opportunity, as often quite a long time elapses after governments make commitments to legislate at a suitable moment, and it is very rare that one has an opportunity to legislate as early as this. I am grateful that such an opportunity has arisen.

I wish to deal with one or two of the points made by both the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. First, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, pointed to the fact that there was different legislation in different parts of the United Kingdom. He particularly pointed to the measures of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 which are designed to deal with unique, severe and complex problems arising from religious discrimination in Northern Ireland. We believe that the situation there with regard to religious discrimination is very different from that of racial discrimination on the mainland and that is why, historically, it called for more stringent measures. It is not thought that there should be any need for legislation on race discrimination in Northern Ireland. But, as regards the particular point about the limits and whether those limits should be brought in line with the removal of limits as regards both race and sex discrimination, certainly I shall bring the remarks of the noble Lord to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

More generally, as regards merging, as it were, both race and sex discrimination Acts together, they are dealt with in separate Acts. We believe that they do in the main work very well in this form, although on this particular occasion it has meant that, sadly, one could have been dealt with by means of secondary legislation and the other by primary legislation. But I do not believe that there would necessarily be any clear advantage in merging the two together and re-ordering them in such a manner. I think, technically, it might be difficult because of the differences of detail which are very significant, and the differences between the concepts of race and sex discrimination. But certainly if that could be done at some point in the future, it is something which could certainly be looked at, but it is always right to point out the major difficulties that would be attached to such an effort.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, talked about the need to strengthen race relations legislation generally. I think both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness will appreciate that on this occasion I shall confine my remarks to the employment field, although I take on board very much the remarks they made more generally relating to race relations. Within employment we have an Act which works, and we also pursue a policy of persuasion of a fairly active sort within the department. I commend to the noble Baroness and to the noble Lord the work of the Race Relations Employment Advisory Service of my own department which takes a fairly active approach in trying to persuade employers of the value to the community at large and to themselves of taking an active role in seeking to adopt nondiscriminatory recruitment and employment practices for the very simple reason that, if one takes a discriminatory approach in these things, one is missing out on a fairly large section of the community.

While I do not particularly wish to comment on the remarks of the noble Baroness and the noble Lord about race relations in the main, as regards the employment field I should say we believe that the combination of both the Act and the active educative process that we pursue within the department serves a useful purpose. I am sure the noble Baroness will quite rightly be able to cite many, many cases of actual and genuine discrimination. I suspect that even in a thousand years we shall still face discrimination of an unfair sort in all walks of life and we will do our best to eliminate that. But there is never any easy solution that can resolve this merely by the legislative process in this field or necessarily in another.

Having made those fairly general remarks, I end by saying yet again how grateful I am both to the honourable Member for Leicester East, Mr. Keith Vaz, and in particular, as we are discussing the Bill in this House, to my noble friend Lady Miller for taking this matter forward in this House. On behalf of the Government I commend the Bill to the House.

8.16 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I would like to thank noble Lords who have supported the Second Reading of this Bill. I acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, has certain reservations about the scope of the Bill, which he does not otherwise oppose. His credentials as someone concerned with human rights and opposed to both racial and sexual discrimination are beyond question. Indeed, he and I have for many years joined in a cross-party campaign for the advancement of women in public and political life.

However, the purpose of this Bill, as I have said, is to keep the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act broadly in line. It is right that an unequivocal message should go out not from the Government but from Parliament as a whole that every citizen and every resident of this country has equal rights and may not be discriminated against. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until five minutes before nine o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.18 to 8.55 p.m.]