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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I shall speak briefly to new clause 3. As I understand the proposal tabled by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and his party, it would allow the Commission for Racial Equality to intervene and to advise in cases arising under the Human Rights Act 1998, where the complaint involved some discrimination on racial grounds by a public authority.

The illustration that the hon. Gentleman gave the House to demonstrate the need for such a measure involved a complaint that might arise both under the Race Relations Act 1976 as amended by the Bill, and on human rights grounds. In such a case, it would be stupid for two parallel law suits to proceed.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. I am no lawyer, but I should have thought that in such a case, where the courts joined the two complaints together, and the case involved an allegation that the 1976 Act had been breached, there would indeed be a role for the commission under existing legislation, which would make the new clause unnecessary.

I went on to consider what sort of case might involve an allegation of racial discrimination by a public authority, but would not come within the remit of either the 1976 Act or the Bill. I could envisage a situation in which a citizen chose to use the Human Rights Act 1998 to try to overturn one of the specific exemptions included in the Bill or in the 1976 Act. The hon. Gentleman's new clause, if agreed to, would give the CRE the right to spend time and money on seeking, via the Human Rights Act, to overturn those aspects of race relations legislation that had been agreed by Parliament.

For that reason, I am somewhat sceptical about the proposal, although the Minister or the hon. Gentleman may be able to reassure me. I take the view that if Parliament has chosen to include in legislation specific exemptions from general statutory obligations, changes to such arrangements should be sought through Parliament via the full legislative process, not through the back-door route of a challenge under the Human Rights Act.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): May I take this opportunity to warmly welcome you to your present seat, Mr. Speaker, and express the hope that you will long be warming it?

Members of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill are aware of the Government's thinking on the issue. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and

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Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) set out our broad view. We welcome the support given by the Liberal Democrats and all other parties to the Human Rights Act 1998 when it was passed.

The new clause, like one tabled in Committee, would enable the CRE to provide assistance in relation to alleged breaches of the 1998 Act that include allegations of racial discrimination--not just claims where the principal issue was racial discrimination, but any claim that included any aspect of racial discrimination in the context of the Human Rights Act.

The Government explained in Committee that we had given a commitment to consider a request from the Disability Rights Commission for it to have the power to assist individuals in proceedings under the Human Rights Act 1998, in light of the outcome of deliberations of the planned Human Rights Committee. Rather than considering those issues piecemeal, which would involve separately examining the Commission for Racial Equality, the DRC and the Equal Opportunities Commission, our view is that it would be better to consider in an holistic manner whether all the commissions should have the right to take such action. We feel that it is important to take such a broad-based approach--the situation should be examined in a wide context involving all three commissions, and we should give our view in due course. We also hope to take cognisance of the approach suggested by the Joint Committee, once it is established.

A further difficulty is that the new clause is not clear on how it relates to the rest of section 66 of the Race Relations Act 1976, into which it would be inserted. For example, subsections (3) and (4) of that section describe how the commission should proceed on receipt of an application for assistance under the 1976 Act, but the new clause does not appear to make a similar provision in respect of claims for assistance under the Human Rights Act 1998. That technical deficiency would leave an unacceptable gap in that important area.

However, I do not want to inform the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that we reject his suggestion. There are arguments for his position, and we want to examine them in a broader context.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Human Rights Committee, whose draft standing orders are under active consideration. We hope that it will start its work in the near future, when its membership has been decided. He knows very well that the usual channels decide such matters. Decisions about the Chairperson of the Committee and other matters will no doubt be made in the usual way, and I do not intend to venture further into them. I gather that the hon. Gentleman has his own route in that regard, and he doubtless knows how to make use of it.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Although I note his comments on the envisaged time scale, I want to press the Minister not on that last matter, but on the first point that he made. What time scale do the Government envisage for the completion of their review about whether the power could be granted to all commissions, irrespective of the new Committee's timetable?

Mr. O'Brien: To some extent, we are dependent on the new Committee, whose views we want to hear and which must have an opportunity to discuss the matter.

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I hope that it can do so quickly. The Government will examine the Committee's views and take a broad-based approach.

To some extent, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it is important to decide on our approach in the near future, rather than in the longer term. If we took a view on the Disability Rights Commission, for example, it would be possible to make progress fairly quickly because of the way in which the legislation is framed. However, it might take longer to do so in respect of the EOC and the CRE because we might have to frame a legislative opportunity in order to take such action.

In response to the point that was raised by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), the cases that will be brought by the CRE will, primarily, involve the Race Relations Act 1976, but they may raise subsidiary points involving the Human Rights Act 1998. No doubt, such points will be raised during those proceedings. In that context, I should be very surprised if a lawyer said to a court, "I shall argue the case in relation to the Race Relations Act but not in relation to the Human Rights Act." The Government need to take a view on that matter sooner rather than later--I envisage the period involved to be months rather than years, but I do not want to be pressed further on that because it will be necessary to discuss with ministerial colleagues the appropriate speed at which we should make an announcement.

4 pm

Mr. Hughes: That was an entirely reasonable answer, for which I am grateful.

May I ask one last question about the timetable? When the public records of the last few months and this month are released to the public--as no doubt they soon will be, under freedom of information legislation--can we take it that they will show the Home Office to be actively pressing Government colleagues to set up the Human Rights Committee this very month?

Mr. O'Brien: No doubt the proceedings of the Joint Committee will be of great interest to all parliamentarians, and they will be able to find out about those proceedings in the way in which parliamentarians normally ascertain such matters. Certainly we want progress, and I am sure that the Liberal Democrats--in so far as they might be the source of any difficulties in the reaching of agreement between the usual channels--will seek not to be the source of such problems.

As I have said, we intend to look at all the commissions in an holistic way. In view of that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Hughes: I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, those on the Conservative Front Bench and the Government will be delighted to hear that--so generous are we at the beginning of the new term, and so trusting of the Minister's good faith on the occasion of his and my first appearance since our return--I am happy to make a once-only offer. I am grateful for the Minister's assurances, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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New Clause 4

Annual report on level of damages awarded

'The Secretary of State shall lay before each House of Parliament an annual report on the level of damages awarded in cases brought by virtue of the amendments made to the 1976 Act by this Act.'.--[Mr. Lidington.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Lidington: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

In Committee we had a thorough debate about compensation, in which I expressed fears that have been expressed in various quarters outside the House about the growth of a culture of litigation and compensation mirroring some of the worst examples that we have seen across the Atlantic. However, I welcome the opportunity to draw attention in this afternoon's short debate to the continuing view of Conservative Members that it is important for the Government, and all agencies that will be connected with the enforcement of the Bill once it is law, to have regard to the impact of compensation awards on the public authorities to which the Bill will apply.

Under the Bill, public authorities could be at risk from two directions. First, there would be the risk of litigation in regard to alleged discrimination on grounds of race. Secondly, following the introduction of a positive duty for scheduled public authorities to promote good race relations, there would be the possibility of judicial review of the actions of those authorities, to challenge whether they had exercised their statutory duty in a correct manner.

We should all be concerned about the risk of vexatious litigation, or of compensation awards--or, indeed, out-of-court settlements--to avoid oppressive legal costs that could lead to real difficulties for some public authorities. On 13 April, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, said in Committee--this can be found at column 48 of the report of the proceedings--that the current level of awards in non-employment cases was about £1,000, and that the level of out-of-court settlements in advance of proceedings was about £6,000 per case.

Those figures sound relatively small, but, given that later this afternoon we are to debate the inclusion in schedule 2 of schools and their governing bodies, we must bear in mind that, to a small primary school and its governing body, a sum of £6,000, or even £1,000, is significant. We must carefully consider potential litigation and compensation awards that might face small public authorities, such as schools, which are governed by volunteers, not by professional executives. Even if the Ministers do not concede a formal annual report, I hope that they will agree to keep the matter under close scrutiny and be prepared to return to Parliament to amend the legislation, if the scale of compensation that is required to be paid out under the Bill proves to be oppressive on our public institutions.

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