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Baroness Blatch: I have studied the Bill to ascertain the basis for establishing regional offices in Scotland and Wales. I note also that my noble friend Lord Mackay when speaking at Second Reading posed a number of questions in relation to Scotland. He asked whether a reserved power or a devolved power was involved and the degree to which the commission would be accountable to the Scottish Parliament, who would appoint the Scottish members of the commission and so forth. I may be missing something but I did not notice any answers to those questions in the wind-up speech. I do not know whether the noble Baroness has written to my noble friend between Second Reading and today's proceedings and I have not seen the letter. However, it would be helpful to be given answers to those questions. I should like to know the basis on which the regional offices will be established.

If there are powers to establish regional offices in Wales and Scotland, can I assume from that that the commission would have the freedom and the powers to set up regional offices anywhere else in the United Kingdom where it wished to do so? That, of course, raises the thorny question of finance and does not totally tie up with the response the noble Baroness gave to an earlier amendment when she said that she would respond in detail to this issue when responding to this amendment.

Whether the commission sets up outposts around the country, or simply puts some of its work out using the organisations that already exist on the network of organisations concerned with services to disabled people, either way, it will need funding. I come back to the point about the £4 million which the CRE has to fund out-posting of its work, albeit the way in which it started off is slightly different. Nevertheless, if there is to be a delivery of some of these services at a local level, it will need to be funded. That brings us back to the basic question.

There are two issues: first, the particular specific Scottish dimension; and, secondly, if the power is in the Bill, where is it--and does that power subsume the right of the commission to set-up regional and/or area offices anywhere it wishes throughout the United Kingdom?

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: I support this proposal. I am surprised that when noble Lords talk about regions they seem to run out of examples after Wales and Scotland, and maybe Manchester. There are other regions in this kingdom--and if you lived in Norwich, you would not be very grateful for a regional office in Manchester.

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Part of the commission's duties relates to the provision of advice for employers, and certainly one of the elements in the legislation relating to regional development authorities concerns social exclusion--the addressing of social regeneration in the regions. Would it not be a good thing if there was a determined effort from the very beginning to ensure that the interests and concerns of disabled people were fully on the agenda in regional developmental authorities?

As the noble Baroness has just said, it is clearly a matter of money. One has to look and ask what will be the most effective deployment of the undoubted limited resources which will be available to pursue this work. We already have plenty of regional structures which are charged with policies relating to social regeneration. Social exclusion is part of their brief, and therefore there is a ready-made vehicle for the intentions of this amendment.

Earl Russell: I support what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has said about the costs of travel to other parts of the country. Recently I was listening to a member of a working group from the north of England who was complaining that it cost him £150 a time to attend meetings of the group. This is a very considerable sum of money. In the context of the Bill, we are discussing the concept of equality. When you hear people expressing concerns about equality, it is increasingly often a concern for equality between London and the rest of the British Isles. If you look at the situation from north of the Trent or from west of the Tamar, you tend to see London as an over-privileged place. It does not of course seem that way to me, but then "it wouldn't, would it?".

I apologise if my next point was covered in the debate on Amendment No. 1, from which I was unavoidably absent. I think I can script in my sleep the ministerial reply to an amendment of this kind: "This amendment is unnecessary. The Government have the power to do this already. Why is this brought before the House?" On the hypothesis that that is the reply we are likely to get, I would ask the noble Lord this question: when the funding level for the commission was reached, was it intended to be sufficient to fund the setting up of regional offices? If so, on what scale?

Lord Morris of Manchester: I would like to thank my noble friend Lord Burlison, for informing me that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, had suggested that I might wish to comment on the proposal that there could be a regional centre in Manchester. I hope very much that there will be. I remind the Committee that the head office of the Equal Opportunities Commission was in Manchester and, by common consent, succeeded extremely well there in its important work. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and I hope that the Minister will bear in mind this suggestion when he comes to reply.

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Lord Swinfen: I, too, welcome this amendment. I make no apologies whatever for having raised the subject under Amendment No. 1. It has a bearing on the necessary funding for the commission, and the funding of the commission has a bearing on the number of offices it will have.

The noble Baroness has said that there will be an office in Scotland, which is a very large place. I think that there will need to be more than one office, purely to do away with the additional time and costs incurred in travel. Wales could also need more than one office. I understand that if you live in North Wales and need to go down to Cardiff, you have to leave the Principality and go via England, which is quicker and easier. There may well need to be two offices in Wales.

The right reverent Prelate mentioned having an office in Norwich. From some parts of the country it is extremely difficult to get to Norwich. It is also difficult to get to Exeter, Leeds, Newcastle and all sorts of places. In order for the commission to do its job properly, it is absolutely essential that it does not operate from one place; it must have several different offices. I hope that the noble Lord will tell us that the commission will have several offices, and possibly give us an indication of the number. The Government have avoided answering this question; now is the time when an answer would be very helpful.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: We have had a good debate on the issue of regional offices, both here and in the discussion on Amendment No. 1. I refer your Lordships to the consideration of the disability rights task force which gave this matter its full consideration and concluded that regional offices did not necessarily offer the best way forward for making services to disabled people as accessible as possible. Nor did they offer best value for money. The task force felt that much in the way of service delivery might be achieved through alternative methods. For example, as my noble friend Lady Gould suggested, the commission could conduct regional seminars or workshops.

As to the suggestion that disabled people might be required to travel to the national office of the commission, one would rather put it the other way round; equally, the commission staff could travel to the client rather than the person being required to come to them.

Any of us who have been involved in national organisations which have regional structures, will know from experience that very often regional offices are not at all accessible, particularly in large regions. Nor must we forget the use that could be made of modern technological methods, which for some disabled people could mean accessing the commission from home.

Having said that, the commission will be free to establish regional offices if it decides in the light of experience that it is appropriate. It is that experience which will be invaluable in deciding not only whether to have regional offices but where they might be located and what resources they should have.

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In relation to funding, I must reject any notion that not providing immediately for regional offices can simply be presented as a cost-saving exercise. Value for money is a two sided equation and one that has to be balanced--

5.30 p.m.

Earl Russell: Would I be correct in construing what the Minister has just said as an admission that the budget is not sufficient to cover the costs of regional offices?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, I do not think the noble Earl can construe that at all. I am talking about the priorities which the commission will have to set for the various tasks that it is being called upon to play. Like any organisation, it has to balance those priorities. In the light of experience it will be better able to make that kind of judgment.

A number of questions were asked about the potential headquarters of the commission. I remind the Committee that at the Second Reading of the Bill my noble friend Lady Blackstone said that the commission will be established with an office in England and also one in Wales and one in Scotland. As regards the office to be placed in England, we are clearly at a very early stage. We cannot be in a position to know where the office will be located.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked about the impact of devolution. Equal opportunities are a matter reserved to the Westminster Parliament. The commission will cover Great Britain and the matter will not be devolved to Scotland and Wales post-devolution. Provision has been made by government agreement for one commissioner to be appointed in consultation with Scottish Ministers and one in consultation with the First Secretary for Wales on behalf of the Welsh Assembly. The annual reports of the commission will be provided to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. As I have already said, an office of the commission will be located in both Wales and Scotland.

I was asked about the performance and operation of the offices in relation to racial equality councils. It is worth making the point that these are independent organisations that work locally to support local networks. The distinction with disability is that those networks in relation to disabled people are already in place. The role for the disability rights commission is to work with those networks that are in place and not to replace them.

Perhaps I may conclude my remarks by re-emphasising that the Bill does not constrain the commission in this area. It allows the commission to establish regional offices but I believe that these decisions are best made in the light of experience and in the judgment of the commission.

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