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Lord Henley: My Lords, I do not wish to prolong the debate because it is getting late and we have other business on the Order Paper. I just want to add a word or two to what I said at the Committee stage before Christmas when we discussed a similar amendment. On that occasion I expressed my concerns about taking such a line. I should like to repeat that on this occasion. I do not know whether the Government want support from this side of the House. But all I can say is that, should the noble Lord, Lord Lester, wish to press the amendment to a Division, the Government will have the support of these Benches in that Division.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the Government's position on this matter has been well known for some time. In our White Paper, Bringing Rights Home, we set out that various matters needed to be considered before a final decision was taken as to whether to set up a commission or appoint a commissioner. We reached this decision after careful consultation throughout the summer and autumn months. We believe that we need to give more thought to the relationship between a possible commissioner or commission, the relationship between a new commissioner or commission and the existing rights bodies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. We want to ensure that if there is to be a new commission or commissioner the work would add to rather than detract from the valuable work that those bodies perform.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has tried to anticipate this concern in his proposed subsection (1)(d). We do not think that takes it any further. We think that the relationship between a human rights commissioner and other commissioners ought to be worked out before a commissioner is appointed, and not given as a function to perform after appointment.
Fundamentally, we wish the whole new culture of human rights to infuse the parliamentary process. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will be disappointed, but we have given careful thought to the representations he has made regularly to us in the Home Office together with those from other bodies such as Charter 88 and Liberty which are very knowledgable about these matters. As my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor said at Second Reading, if Parliament wishes to have a parliamentary committee on human rights--it is a decision for Parliament--the Government would wish it a fair wind. If that committee is to be established, we believe that it should review alternatives, think about structures and think about the possibilities for the way ahead. I take entirely the point made by the noble Baroness but my noble and learned friend indicated the areas which might be of interest to a parliamentary human rights committee--such as the taking of evidence not limited to London, such as educative functions, such as seminars for local government and other organisations. I can say that in the Home Office at least the questions of human rights--how one ought to approach legislation in the future and how one ought to approach the conduct of the department in the future--are under pressing daily consideration.
I think that in a sense we are agreed on the objectives but we disagree on the present steps to attain those generally accepted objectives. Therefore, we believe that the proper course is to see whether or not Parliament wishes to set up a parliamentary committee. I repeat that we would give it every blessing, fair wind and support.
When the Bill becomes an Act and the commencement date has been decided, there then should be a period of time for assessing exactly what ought to be done. First, should we have a commission; secondly, should it be a commissioner, which is very important indeed; what ought the remit of work to be and, just as important, what should be the relationship between any new body and existing bodies? Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will not regard as churlish my declining to accede to his invitation. We have thought about it, but come to a different conclusion. I believe that what is between us is the immediate approach rather than the ultimate objective.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to everyone who has spoken and to those who have not spoken, but who have remained behind to listen to the debate. I greatly welcome the notion of a parliamentary Select Committee and hope that it happens soon. But it will not do anything for the access to justice problem that I spoke about. If we are to wait until the Bill becomes law, which will be some time before 10th December 1998--Human Rights Day--and only then to start the reform process for discrimination law, I can assure the Minister that we shall not see the reforms that are urgently needed in that law in the lifetime of this Parliament. Unless the Government start soon, that will not happen. I know full well the difficulties of dealing with
I am not surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and his party oppose this amendment and that he would therefore vote against it. The reason why I am not surprised is that, throughout the long history of anti-discrimination law, going back to the period when a Mr. Ivor Richard, the MP for Barons Court, was one of the first supporters of the earliest anti-discrimination legislation of the 1960s, the Conservative Party, with one exception, has never been an enthusiastic supporter of anti-discrimination legislation. It opposed all the race relations Acts through the 1960s and 1970s. It opposed the enforcement mechanisms of the sex discrimination legislation. The only exception that was made, under American pressure, was as regards tackling religious discrimination in Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party has never been an enthusiast for effective enforcement by an administrative agency of any of the anti-discrimination legislation. The best example is the wretched, pathetic, disabled Disability Council, which was born with no teeth or muscles of any kind.
So I am not surprised that there should be that opposition. Nor am I surprised that the Government are troubled about setting up new machinery to add to the existing proliferation of quangos. But one has to make a beginning at some time. If we had heard from the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, something more concrete as to what is to be done about access to justice in order to support people bringing cases under the Bill, then I should have hesitated to test the opinion of the House. But we have been promised nothing specific or concrete as to what is to be done to help people to translate into practical reality the theoretical rights contained in the Bill and the convention. This is a matter on which my party feels strongly. It is the only provision of great importance which we agreed upon in opposition which has not been fulfilled in this Bill. Therefore, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.