HC Deb 30 October 2003 vol 412 cc17-9WS
The Secretary of State for Trade. and Industry and Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

A fair and prosperous Britain must provide opportunity for all. A society that is to flourish must make full use of the talents of all its members. Thriving societies and economies are based on strong, cohesive communities where diversity is celebrated as a strength and discrimination tackled.

Equality matters to everyone—it is not a minority concern.

Last October the Government launched the consultation document "Equality and Diversity: Making it Happen" to seek views on the role, priorities and structure for Great Britain's statutory equality institutions in the new century to help meet this vision of a cohesive and prosperous society.

The consultation drew a strong response from a wide range of interested groups and individuals. I am placing a summary of those responses and copies of the responses themselves in the Libraries of both Houses.

In the light of the consultation the Government have concluded that a single body represents the best option for realising its vision of a fairer, more inclusive and prosperous Britain. A single equality body provides an effective and flexible framework for supporting our equality legislation as well as underlining the importance of equality as a mainstream concern.

Many respondents also highlighted the potential role a new body might play in providing support for human rights as well as equality. The government also considered carefully the sixth report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which called for integrated institutional support for human rights and equality. We have therefore decided that the new body's remit should cover the promotion of human rights together with its equality responsibilities.

The Government recognises the crucial contribution to the diversity agenda already made by the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission and the need for a single body to build on and protect the programmes they have put in place.

Role of the New Body

The working title of the body will be the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. It will promote an inclusive agenda, underlining the importance of equality for all in society as well as working to combat discrimination affecting specific groups. It will promote equal opportunities for all and tackle barriers to participation. It will play a key role in building a new, inclusive sense of British citizenship and identity in which shared values of respect, fair treatment and equal dignity are recognised as underpinning a cohesive, prosperous society. It will promote a culture of respect for human rights, especially in the delivery of public services.

I intend to publish a White Paper next spring making detailed proposals for the body and seeking comments. At this point the Government has reached no conclusions on key issues such as the governance of the body and its internal structure. A range of views on these and other questions were expressed during the consultation, which need further examination and debate with interested stakeholders. I am therefore establishing a task force with members reflecting the interests concerned to provide advice on these issues. This reflects the Government's commitment to an open and transparent process for developing the new body. The task force will include representatives of the existing commissions and the new anti-discrimination strands of sexual orientation, religion and belief, and age. It will also include members with a particular interest in human rights as well as people from Scotland, Wales and other interests.

The responses to the White Paper will inform the preparation of legislation to establish a single body which will be introduced as soon as Parliamentary time allows. Late 2006 would be the earliest that the new body can be established.

There was a strong call in the consultation for the body's arrangements in Scotland and Wales to fit well with devolved legislation, institutions and policies and for its policies to take account of the social, cultural and economic circumstances of Scotland and Wales. The Government will set out proposals for the Commission's Scottish and Welsh arrangements in the White Paper to be published next spring.

Key Priorities for the New Commission

The Government looks forward to the Commission's priorities being defined through continuing consultation and debate. However, the Government believe the following principles should underline its work: Promoting equality and diversity in the round, fostering understanding of their importance in underpinning a prosperous and cohesive society; promoting a culture of respect for human rights and acceptance of the responsibilities that go with them. Giving full attention to the specific needs of individual groups who receive legislative protection against discrimination, ensuring the availability of relevant skills and expertise. Improving support for individuals through better and more accessible provision of services, particularly advice and information. Working in partnership with business and public sector organisations, meeting the requirement expressed strongly by business and others for a single, accessible source of advice and guidance covering the breadth of legislative obligations as well as advice and support on good practice. Mainstreaming equality and human rights in the public sector and public service delivery. Key tools will be the promotion and enforcement of the Race Relations Amendment Act statutory duty on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity, the planned disability duty. awareness of the duties under the Human Rights Act and working to encourage good practice in equality and human rights generally. Developing partnerships with a range of bodies at regional and local level, including statutory, voluntary and business organisations, to deliver local, accessible information and advice to individuals, public sector bodies and businesses. Bringing a strategic, modern approach to enforcement of equality legislation supported by up to date enforcement tools. Promoting community cohesion through providing support to local initiatives to promote dialogue and understanding between different communities and groups, where relevant drawing upon the balance between rights and responsibilities contained in the Human Rights Act.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the needs of all groups covered by equality legislation will be met by the new body, as well as supporting our legislation on human rights, and that relevant levels of focus, expertise and influence are all retained.

We will therefore ensure that the single body has robust and transparent means of ensuring that the voices of specific groups are heard and that they have a significant role in steering the policy and approach of the body on matters of concern to their strand. We will also ensure that strand specific work is clearly identified, supported and attracts appropriate priority, visibility and profile within the organisation; and that fit for purpose governance and organisational structures are developed which reflect this approach.

Disabled people and their organisations have raised concerns that a single equality body should meet their particular needs. The Government recognise the distinctive aspects of the disability rights agenda and the concerns above that reflect the relatively recent establishment of the Disability Rights Commission and the fact that there has been relatively little time for the distinctive disability rights legislation to take hold. There is also a demanding programme of disability legislative reform over the next few years requiring sustained and major campaigns of information, advice, publicity and guidance to ensure effective implementation.

Our White Paper will put forward proposals developed in conjunction with key stakeholder interests to deal with these and other related concerns.

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