HL Deb 21 July 2004 vol 664 cc299-302

7.52 p.m.

Baroness Amos rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 10 June be approved. [21st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, copies of this order have been laid before the House. The order is made under Section 75(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The purpose of the draft order is to make the bodies listed in the Order "public authorities" for the purposes of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. They are the Electoral Commission; the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission; the Office of Communications; the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company; the Social Fund Commissioner and the Ilex Urban Regeneration Company Limited. Those public authorities will be subject to the statutory duties set out in Sections 75(1) and 75(2) of the Act, requiring them to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between specific groups.

Section 75(1) of the Northern Ireland Act requires all public authorities to, have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity—between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation; between men and women generally; between persons with a disability and persons without; and between persons with dependants and persons without".

In addition, and without prejudice to those obligations, public authorities are required under Section 75(2) to, have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group".

In order to demonstrate its commitment, each public authority is required to produce an equality scheme that sets out how it will fulfil these duties. The schemes will cover the full range of the organisation's functions in Northern Ireland. As required by the guidelines approved by the Secretary of State, each will include arrangements for policy appraisal; public consultation; public access to information and services; monitoring; and timetables. These schemes will be submitted to the Equality Commission for approval. The Equality Commission will advise on preparation and validate and monitor the Section 75 statutory obligation and will investigate complaints of default.

The Government intend that the statutory duty should, in time, embrace as many bodies as possible. This is not the end of the process, and we will bring forward further designation orders as and when required. We remain determined to build a society where the active promotion of equality and good relations is seen as an integral part of public life. Section 75 is the key to that goal, and I am pleased to be able to extend its reach to these further organisations. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10 June be approved. [21st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President for that brief and clear statement of what the order is about. I understand, like, I suspect, everyone else in the Chamber, that this is part of the Belfast agreement cost. Of course I, and I am sure most noble Lords, agree with the thinking and with promoting equality of opportunity and all that goes with it. However, the longer it goes on, and the longer this list and other similar lists grow, the more difficult I find it to come to terms with what, when totalled together, is a huge bureaucratic burden on a small society.

The Government have said that the order—I am not accusing anyone of lying—that there are no identifiable costs to the public or the Exchequer and that the order has no regulatory impact. With a directive such as this, an organisation must produce a plan or a document or a series of documents proving that it has met what the Government has passed in legislation. It also must be prepared to challenge any criticisms, complaints and answers. Again, I just do not believe that these organisations, or any of the other 120 that there are, can actually achieve that at no cost. It may be a change of cost or a change of emphasis, but I do not understand how you prepare yourself to meet the requirements that the Lord President read out just now when she was introducing the order for no cost. I would like a little further education on that.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, points to a significant factor in all of this. However, the reason that we support the passage of this order is that, unfortunately, it is necessary to give robust signals to all organisations that they must behave in a decent and reasonable way. While it undoubtedly adds to the amount of regulation in an over-regulated society, which I readily admit, it is nevertheless necessary.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. The Explanatory Notes to the order state that there is no identifiable cost to the public or the Exchequer. I wonder whether the Minister has considered the cost to the public authorities, and I do not just mean financial costs. Drawing up an equality scheme will require a considerable amount of research, time and energy, all of which will have to be drawn from other areas of a public authority. It can be an extremely bureaucratic process. How can we be sure that while concentrating on the requirements of this order a public authority is not using expertise and eating into time that could be better employed for the public good?

Perhaps the noble Baroness could comment on whether she feels that there might be a cost to the quality of service offered by a public authority by its compliance with this order. Moreover, will the noble Baroness say something about how equality of opportunity or the promotion of good relations can and has been measured? How are outcomes monitored? Is such information fed back to the public authorities to improve equality schemes? Finally, what recourse will those new public authorities have to learning from other bodies already designated? Can they pick up best practice?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their comments. I entirely appreciate the concerns expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Rogan, with respect to the burden that may be placed on public authorities. Of course equality schemes require some effort from designated organisations. But the Equality Commission is sensitive to the size of an organisation and the breadth of its activities in Northern Ireland.

From my own experience working in this area for a number of years, I would also say that it very important for organisations that want to demonstrate best practice—not just with respect to issues relating to equality but also in relation to their personnel and other practices—to use that kind of process. Organisations very often find it helpful when looking overall at their processes and practices and at improving the way in which they work in general, not just in relation to areas of equality or opportunity.

Many organisations have well developed equality policies already in existence, which can form a basis for the scheme. Where policies and functions do not adversely affect equality—many or most do not—they may be screened out from the need to produce equality impact assessments.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, that part of the process is about sending a robust signal. It is about encouraging organisations to operate in the right way. But I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, that there is a great deal of learning that can be done by other organisations which have gone down this road before.

Regarding how it will be monitored, that is something on which the Equality Commission is currently consulting; that is, whether the monitoring process should be qualitative, whether it should be quantitative and the best ways in which these issues can be addressed.

I am happy to ensure that the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, receives information about that consultation process in case he would like to contribute to it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.