HL Deb 12 October 2000 vol 617 cc505-6

3.25 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they expect to reach political agreement on the proposed framework directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation at the Employment and Social Affairs Council on 17th October.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, we have made clear throughout that the Government support such a framework directive in principle but remain committed to ensuring that the final text is clear, reasonable and workable in practice, allowing a sensible period for implementation. Other member states share a number of our concerns. We are still negotiating intensively to achieve that.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she remember her statement in a debate on this directive when she said that substantial amendments would be needed, especially on Article 4 regarding the position of religious institutions? Can she assure the House that no agreement will be reached that is incompatible with Section 60 of the School Standards and Framework Act and that any revised agreement will be placed in front of the House before agreement is reached? That is required under scrutiny review.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I clearly remember what I said when these matters were debated—the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, took part in that debate. I can give him some reassurance about Section 60 of the School Standards and Framework Act. We have been pressing amendments to ensure that there is no question of religious organisations not being able to recruit in ways that preserve their essential character. That is particularly pertinent to schools. We are now very close to agreement. We have secured the amendments that the noble Lord wanted to see. It is now a matter of tidying up the drafting.

The noble Lord referred to scrutiny. I am aware that it has not been possible to get another revised version of the directive to the scrutiny committee. That has happened on previous occasions. It has simply been impossible because negotiations are continuing daily and no revised version has been published.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, the only text available is in the shape of pieces of paper in the Council written in French—negotiating positions. Surely here is a case where scrutiny must be maintained and where your Lordships' House has a right to expect the Government to come back to the House and seek its approval to the major changes that have been made to the directive.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I understand that no revised text is available. One has not been produced by the Commission. In those circumstances, it is extremely difficult for the Government to come back. I know that this is an unusual situation, but I am sure noble Lords will agree that it is important that the Government continue to negotiate in order to get the directive right and to meet the needs of the UK. I understand that officials in my department have been working to keep the committee informed through the Clerk. Indeed, my right honourable friend Tessa Jowell has written to the noble Lord to try to explain the position.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, is one of the advantages that my noble friend's department is negotiating for the UK adequate time to implement this broad and important range of measures?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I can confirm to my noble friend that this is an issue which is still being negotiated. The changes under discussion to the way in which we handle employment arrangements in this country are extremely important and complex. For that reason, we have asked for a rather longer period of implementation than would normally be the case with EU directives of this kind.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, the Minister said that these are unusual circumstances. I am sure that she will recall that the race directive was passed in similarly unusual circumstances at the last Economic and Social Affairs Council. Can she tell the House how unusual such unusual circumstances will be?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was rather happy that we were able to move ahead rapidly in the very important area of racial discrimination. I am sure that the noble Lord would not have wished to see the UK delaying that process. I should say that I cannot predict whether this will happen in the future, but the UK will certainly do all it can to ensure that, where changes of this kind take place during the process of negotiations, we are able to secure the revised text. However, that has not been possible on this occasion.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, can the noble Baroness give an absolute assurance to the House that neither the Prime Minister nor any other Minister will sign this agreement on Tuesday? The negotiations are still continuing. The agreement should not be signed at least until we in this country have had an opportunity to read it in our own language.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I can tell the noble Baroness that the Government will not accept this directive until they have agreed with other member states the changes that they believe are important from the point of view of the UK and its particular requirements.

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