Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Renton: Clause 5 is an unusual provision. I do not remember seeing anything like it previously. I believe that it will be difficult to administer. Instead of coming to the rescue of people whose disability rights have been infringed, there may be a compromise agreement. That is most unusual. I believe that my noble friend's amendment is commendable because it enables the commission either to suspend the investigation or to take no further steps in investigating the unlawful acts.

We must be very careful about granting such an unusual power to the commission. I believe that my noble friend's amendment gives a desirable flexibility.

Baroness Darcy De Knayth: I support the amendment.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I hope that I can set noble Lords' concerns at rest. The amendment seeks to allow a formal investigation to be stopped if the

4 Feb 1999 : Column 1656

disability rights commission and a person being investigated agree to enter into a written agreement. It may be helpful if I briefly explain the background to this provision and how it is intended that it should operate.

If the disability rights commission has reason to believe that a person has committed or is committing an unlawful act and decides to conduct an investigation, Clause 5 gives it the power to stop the investigation and enter into a written agreement with that person. By entering into a written agreement, the person whose actions were under investigation will agree to abide by the requirements set out in the statutory agreement. These requirements must be within the scope of those which could be specified in a non-discrimination notice.

The Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality have both made use of written agreements informally and consider them a valuable tool in the formal investigation process. Indeed, there are a number of advantages to this approach. In contrast to non-discrimination notices, they could be arrived at relatively quickly; they are likely to be less confrontational than non-discrimination notices and more effective in encouraging employers and service providers to tackle discrimination in a positive manner; and they could limit the need for lengthy and expensive formal investigations. I would like to reassure noble Lords that there will be no requirement to enter into a written agreement--it will be voluntary for both parties.

I noted with interest the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, about the potential compromise character of those agreements. I would prefer to write to him about that.

Compliance with a written agreement would be enforceable by the commission through the courts. However, it is open to the parties to agree, when deciding the terms of a written agreement, that a breach of the agreement should result in the formal investigation being re-opened. This is one of a range of possible steps allowed by the provision as drafted. Specifying that a formal investigation should be suspended as one of the alternatives neither adds nor subtracts anything and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: The Minister rightly said that entering into an agreement is a voluntary activity on the part of both parties. However, a sword of Damocles hangs over the party being taken to task by the commission because if he does not enter into an agreement the investigation proceeds. I wished to put in place a degree of flexibility and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton for his support. I propose that where there is an attempt to conform, and for one reason or another either wittingly or unwittingly it does not conform, the investigation can be suspended but if

4 Feb 1999 : Column 1657

necessary proceeded with at a later stage. I am not sure whether the Minister is saying that all that I want from my amendment is subsumed and assumed in the Bill, or that my amendment is not necessary, in which case I would disagree with him.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I believe that I made it clear that it is open to the parties when deciding the terms of a written agreement that a breach should result in a formal investigation being re-opened. That seemed to meet the point raised by the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blatch: If once an agreement has been entered into voluntarily by both parties the only action which can be taken is to the court if the terms of the agreement are not met. My argument for allowing a suspension to be one more tool in the armoury of the commission is to postpone going to court by reinstating the investigation. The agreement could then be modified and re-agreed, which would keep the case out of court, because the breach may have been the result of a misunderstanding. My amendment allows a little more flexibility.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: The provision as drafted allows a range of possible steps to be agreed, including simple suspension. That would allow the revival of a formal investigation, but it would also allow the investigation to be brought to an end. Specifying one of the various alternatives neither adds to nor subtracts from the clause.

Baroness Blatch: I wish to read more carefully what the Minister has said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 5 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Renton: I have not given notice, but I wish to raise a short, general point. I am very much afraid that the clause will give rise to considerable difficulties. I believe that it will be open to anyone who feels aggrieved to take the matter to court--it would have to be to the High Court--in order to have the application of the clause put right or to seek an injunction for the annulment of any unsatisfactory agreement.

I do not expect an answer from the Minister today, but I would ask him to bear the matter in mind. I hope that between now and the Report stage the Government will reconsider the clause. I believe that it will give rise to litigation and to practical difficulties, and will occasionally result in injustice, the rectification of which will be delayed for some months. It is a difficult matter and I hope that the Government will give it careful thought.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton. As he requested, we shall consider the points he raised alongside the earlier point in relation to the character of the agreement.

Clause 5 agreed to.

4 Feb 1999 : Column 1658

Clause 6 [Assistance in relation to proceedings]:

Lord Rix moved Amendment No. 14:


Page 4, line 27, after ("individual") insert ("or organisation representing groups of individuals").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 14, I shall speak briefly also to Amendments Nos. 16 and 17.

A number of references have been made this afternoon to class actions, but I hazard a guess that this amendment may not be strictly appropriate until the outcome of the Lord Chancellor's Department's investigation into their feasibility. Nevertheless, it is important to look towards the introduction of group representation under the Disability Discrimination Act because it may prove to be particularly effective in supporting groups of excluded, vulnerable people who are lacking individual support. It is evident that there will be circumstances in which the commission would wish to bring class actions to protect against institutional discrimination and that should be made clear on the face of the Bill.

In relation to Amendment No. 16, the Government rightly recognise that the commission will need to provide assistance to individuals in relation to proceedings on the grounds that the applicants may be unable to deal with their cases unaided. It is an important measure in the Bill and will ensure that people with learning disabilities are given practical help and support to redress their grievances under the law--something which many other people take for granted.

I should like to draw one rather obvious point to the Committee's attention: that is, that it is highly unlikely that a person with a learning disability will approach the commission independently for help in relation to proceedings. That means that a supporter, a relative or carer may be involved very early on and continue to be involved right through the person's experience with the commission--assisting in new situations, helping the individual to handle detailed documents or helping the individual to communicate effectively. For that reason I wish to add to the list of forms of assistance that the commission may provide. I believe that support, including financial support, should be provided or arranged for an applicant's relatives or carers because those people may be put to a lot of time and effort supporting the person who has been discriminated against. Amendment No. 16 clearly covers that point.

Finally, Amendment No. 17 concerns a minor point, but one that may have a bearing on assistance available to individuals in relation to proceedings. If the commission itself cannot provide assistance which it deems appropriate, then it ought to be able to arrange for that assistance to be provided by somebody else. The focus here should be on what helps the individual, not on forcing the commission to be an expert on providing support for every eventuality. I beg to move.

Lord Renton: I strongly support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. Here we are trying to protect people who are essentially vulnerable. I am thinking not only of those who are represented by MENCAP--perhaps I may say in passing, as the father

4 Feb 1999 : Column 1659

of a daughter who is severely handicapped both physically and mentally, that the expression "learning disabilities" is an unfortunate, limited and unrealistic one--but of any organisation which can help the person or the group of people involved. They should have the opportunity of representing disabled people under Clause 6.

MENCAP is one of our largest charities, but there are many others; for instance, the British Legion. I am sure the Committee will agree that nearly every human ailment now has a charity or pressure group to represent and support it. It would be most unfortunate if, in the administration of this Bill, those charities and pressure groups were not given the opportunity of helping vulnerable people.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page