Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My Lords, I welcome Amendments Nos. 55 and 100 most enthusiastically. I was extremely pleased when the Minister said in Committee that she hoped to return with an amendment at a later stage. I admit that when it had to fit in with issues of race and sex equality as well, I wondered whether the amendments would appear in time for Third Reading. But the amendments are here and they have encompassed more than my original proposed amendment and it is only Report stage. Therefore, I thank the Minister and her officials and congratulate them on having accomplished that. It is excellent that the amendments address race and sex equality as well as the position of disabled learners and that they require the councils to report on their arrangements to promote that equality.

I have not yet heard what the Minister has to say but I believe that she will stress that although the duty relates to disabled learners as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act, in fact it must be taken in the context of Clause 13, with the wider definition of learning difficulties, which is extremely important. However, I shall wait to see what she says about that.

With regard to the amendment moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I understand absolutely what he is saying. I agree that we should offer equality of opportunity in relation to sexual orientation, religion and age. As the Minister probably cannot accept the amendment, I wonder whether some encouraging words and perhaps some mention in guidance will satisfy him for the moment. I feel a bit of a wimp saying that because I remember in the days before the DDA my irritation at having to be content with a line in Hansard, whereas provisions relating to sex and race discrimination were included in the Bill. However, having done my wimpish bit, I return to Amendments No. 55 and 100, to which I give three hurrays.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and my noble friend on the Front Bench come to reply, will they clarify what they mean by "persons of religion"; I believe that that, or something similar, is the term used? I wonder whether they would include people who do not have a religious belief. On the surface, it seems a contradiction to discuss religion and non-religion in the same breath. I believe that it is what has come to be called in modern parlance a "catch-22 situation". In other words, people who do not have a religious view find it impossible to put forward their point of view.

I raise the point because for some time now opinion polls have shown that between 25 and 30 per cent of people do not hold a religious point of view. That percentage is increasing. That is a substantial minority. I believe that I am right in saying--my noble

13 Mar 2000 : Column 1302

friend on the Front Bench will confirm this--that on the permanent committee on religious education there is at least one person who is either an atheist, humanist, agnostic or does not have any religious belief. It seems to me that in modern times that factor should be considered. These amendments lend themselves greatly to the point I am making. I hope that some assistance and clarification will be provided at the end of the debate.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I appreciate the attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Dormand. Of course, it is difficult to have a negative idea without a positive idea. The noble Lord's tight religious education in a state school in Durham is what has produced his agnosticism. One cannot teach non-religion without teaching religion. In other words, we all agree that people should be aware of their religious background, even if they reject it. I wonder whether the noble Lord is asking Her Majesty's Government to ask schools to teach non-religion, particularly to the 16 to 18 age group. I am rather puzzled, because one gets into something of a morass there.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am unhappy about the amendments. The reason is not because I do not believe in equality of opportunity, which I understand to mean fairness to the underdog, but because the amendments limit equality of opportunity only to certain categories of people. I need not go into detail, but the Minister's amendment is limited only to racial groups, women and the disabled. Why should it be that equality of opportunity is limited only to those with the loudest voice? Plenty of other groups in our society are desperately underprivileged and are entitled to the same level of equal opportunity. If Amendment No. 7 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, were to be accepted, I should be minded to table an amendment at Third Reading to remove the words,

    "in relation to race, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation or religion",

because the provision reads perfectly well without them. It would then state:

    "In appointing a member the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to reflect the diversity of the population as a whole and to include those with an understanding of or an interest in achieving social inclusion and equality of opportunity".

I cannot see why other amendments in this group should not be amended in the same way.

Lord Rix: My Lords, I support Amendment No. 55. Naturally, I am delighted that it is set alongside the duty to have regard to the needs of all students with learning difficulties or disabilities, reinforcing the need to pursue actively the equalisation of opportunity between disabled and non-disabled learners. That duty is certainly a cause for optimism; optimism that the council will start off with the right intentions and that the councils will deliver for all learners at risk of exclusion or discrimination. The clause sends a clear message from government of their expectations. It is a message which I fully support.

13 Mar 2000 : Column 1303

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I should like to begin with government Amendments Nos. 55 and 100 before I turn to the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, and to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for their support for the amendments.

We want the LSC and the CETW to ensure that learning opportunities of high quality are available to meet the needs of all learners across the whole range of abilities and aptitudes. In addition, it will be critical that the councils are able to combat the disadvantages that some learners and potential learners genuinely face. As new bodies, we want the LSC and the council in Wales to show the way to all public organisations in building equality of opportunity into all their policies, programmes and actions.

In December, we set out in the LSC prospectus what that would mean in practice. We expect the LSC to draw up an equal opportunities strategy including targets and performance indicators to tackle both under-representation and under-achievement. Vital to that strategy will be the principle that policies and funding take account of the different characteristics of learners, such as race, gender and disability. The LSC will benchmark the equal opportunities performance of each of the local councils. It will encourage all providers to take positive steps to widen participation and will promote equal opportunities through marketing its activities. We are already working closely with the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission to prepare for what I am sure noble Lords will agree is a challenging agenda. We expect the LSC to continue the close liaison that we are now establishing.

Against the background of that firm commitment to measures to promote equality of opportunity, I was keen to respond quickly and positively to the important amendments debated in Committee on provisions for disabled people. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said about what was perhaps an unfortunate omission. The noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, also proposed that the LSC should have a duty in respect of the promotion of equality for disabled learners. Clause 13 already makes specific provision for the wider group of people defined as those with learning difficulties. We shall also be bringing forward new rights to prevent discrimination against disabled learners in our forthcoming Bill addressing disability in education. However, I said that I would consider further whether an additional duty would be helpful in that area.

As I am sure noble Lords are aware, the Government are committed to ensuring that all public bodies take a lead in promoting equal opportunities. We announced last November that we would place that obligation in legislation as soon as parliamentary time permitted. Our aim is to take a consistent approach across all public bodies. It would have been preferable to wait for a suitable legislative vehicle

13 Mar 2000 : Column 1304

where the same duty could have been applied to all public bodies. However, as noble Lords know, we shall be introducing a duty in respect of race equality alone in the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill and I appreciate the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. Those arguments, together with the fact that the learning and skills council is a new body, mean that a duty to promote equality is desirable at this stage.

On reflection, therefore, we decided that it would better represent the broad thrust of government policy for equality in public bodies to go further than the noble Baroness's amendment and, through government Amendments Nos. 55 and 100, to place the councils under a duty in respect of race and gender as well as disability. We have also gone further than the noble Baroness's amendment in requiring the LSC and the CETW to provide annual reports giving details not only of what they have done to promote equal opportunities in the past year, but also what effect those measures have had and the steps which the councils intend to take in the following year. That is an important way of monitoring and publicising the work and effectiveness of the LSC and the CETW in this important area.

There is one important point which I should make clear about the work of the LSC and CETW for people with disabilities. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, shares with me the view that, while it is sensible to address equality provisions towards the group of people who are defined as "disabled" under the Disability Discrimination Act, in the sphere of education law we must take account of the needs of the wider group of people who have difficulty in getting access to education. These are defined in the Bill, as they are in the current Further and Higher Education Act, as persons with learning difficulties. The full effect of the duty of the LSC to address the needs of people with disabilities is seen only when Clause 13 and this new Clause 14 are taken together. I hope and believe that the noble Baroness and other noble Lords will welcome this approach.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 56 and 101. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, wishes to extend the provisions of the duty of equality to other groups who might experience barriers in securing learning opportunities. The LSC prospectus already makes clear that the LSC will have a comprehensive approach to the needs of all learners. Perhaps I may give a few more examples. We shall require the LSC to have a wide-ranging equal opportunities strategy and action plan. We will want the LSC to use performance indicators to set targets to tackle under-representation and under achievement by any group; to mainstream equal opportunities in all its policies and programmes; to encourage all providers to take positive steps to widen participation and to engage in learning those groups which are currently under-represented (the kind of groups to which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred); to challenge discrimination and stereotyping; and to monitor and evaluate performance and disseminate examples of good practice.

13 Mar 2000 : Column 1305

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that an equal opportunities strategy cannot be confined to issues of gender, race and disability. However, the Government's approach to equality in legislation, as set out in the Statement made in November by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, recognised that extending legal provisions beyond the current areas of race, sex and disability raises a number of questions which need further thought and research. To give one example, while the LSC will certainly be addressing the needs of older learners, it is a clear provision in the Bill that priority must be given to 16 to 19 year-old learners. I hope that the noble Lord will agree that we need to think through these issues and, in the light of the assurances about what we expect the LSC to do in practice, will not press his amendments.

I turn to Amendment No. 66. Once again I recognise the concern of the noble Lord that the duties should apply to local LSCs as much as to the national LSC. I share the view that local councils should be right at the forefront in ensuring that we make a real difference in removing barriers to disadvantaged groups. As I mentioned earlier, the LSC will benchmark the performance of the local councils.

However, I do not believe that the amendment is necessary to achieve the result that both the noble Lord and I want to achieve. Local councils are part of the single unitary body which is the LSC. When the local councils perform functions delegated by the national council, they will be subject to the same duty to have regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity. The LSC prospectus makes clear that action plans will be required at local as well as national level. With that reassurance in mind, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, will not feel the need to press the amendment.

As regards Amendment No. 7, I repeat that appointments will be carried out in accordance with the guidance of the office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. What is significant in appointments to the council is a person's ability to do the job and do it well over the period of appointment. We shall strive to achieve a balanced council and one which reflects the diversity of the population, which is, I recognise, the purpose behind the amendment. However, I do not accept that that objective will be further supported by setting it in this legislation.

We have set out unequivocally in the LSC prospectus that we shall expect local and national councils to include people who understand the needs of those who face discrimination, to challenge such discrimination, and to promote equality of opportunity. We are also taking active steps to encourage applications from traditionally under-represented groups, such as ethnic minorities, and are working with the CRE on that. The amendment we are introducing to place duties on the LSC in respect of equal opportunities reinforces our commitment to making progress in these areas on the face of the Bill.

13 Mar 2000 : Column 1306

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for raising the issue of equality of opportunity in relation to inspection. I have no difficulty with the principle that inspection should encompass judgments on equal opportunities. As regards, for example, inspecting provision for students with disabilities, I would expect inspectors to form and report a view about whether equality of opportunity was being taken account of properly.

Furthermore, I have no doubt that the adult learning inspectorate, and indeed Ofsted, will evaluate the extent to which equal opportunities are promoted. This is territory which I think the common inspection framework should address. I would expect that in making their judgments, inspectors will consider, for example, whether the provider promotes access for disabled students; whether there are up-to-date equal opportunity and disability policies; whether selection procedures for students guarantee equality of opportunity; and whether there is proper regard for protection against discrimination and harassment, and so forth. All those judgments should be part and parcel of any inspection. In those respects I think that the noble Lord and I are in full agreement.

But I believe that the best place for setting out those issues is not on the face of the Bill but in the common inspection framework. That will encompass many other highly desirable features of a good and comprehensive approach to inspection such as, for example, effective leadership and management or the standards of internal quality assurance and the guidance and support for learners. Once again, however, I repeat that I share the sentiments of the noble Lord, even if I take a different view about how best to give them expression.

The government amendments are a mark of our firm commitment to equal opportunities and our desire that the LSC and the Welsh council place the principles at the forefront of their work. I understand the reasoning behind the further additions and amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and I am sympathetic to the objectives. However, as I made clear in my opening remarks, I do not believe they are necessary to achieve the action we all want to undertake. I hope that the House will accept the amendments standing in my name and that the noble Lord will not press his amendments.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page