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Lord Carter: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is correct in saying that in the Joint Committee we debated extensively whether there should be a list of public authorities or the general authority as set out in the Bill. On balance, we came down in favour of the list, but the argument was a fine one.

I see that the noble Lord has 60 authorities and I assume that it is the list from the Race Relations Act. He indicates that I am right. It is of course in the Race Relations Act and the Northern Ireland legislation, but it is not in the Human Rights Act. The Government have argued that a list quickly becomes out of date.

If we were to have a list, I should have thought that it would be appropriate to use the negative procedure rather than the affirmative procedure. Merely to change the name of an organisation, or something of that nature, it would seem odd to use the affirmative procedure in Parliament. We argued the matter in the Joint Committee and on balance we just came down on the side of the list. However, I equally understand the Government's argument that a list is quickly out of date and that even with the negative procedure parliamentary time would be needed if anyone cared to pray against the order. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister said.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, raised an issue we touched on in Committee; that is, how to ensure that the public sector duty is properly applied across the whole range
 
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of public authorities. How do you make sure that it applies where we want it to and does not apply inappropriately?

These amendments seek to replace the generic definition of "public authority" with an approach based around a prescriptive list of bodies. It has been argued that only by having a list can bodies be sure who is covered and only by having a list can people outside have confidence that they are covered.

I disagree. The Government have thought about this very carefully and have tried to sort out whether we should go down one path or the other. We believe that the best approach is to set out a clear statement of principle that bodies which carry out functions of a public nature are subject to the duty in the new Section 49A unless the law expressly excludes a body from the coverage of the duty. This approach is similar to that adopted in the Human Rights Act. The Joint Committee on Human Rights—and this is important—did not believe that generic definitions should be replaced by a list, but instead be backed up by guidance. Therefore, there is a discrepancy between the Joint Committee on Human Rights and my noble friend's committee.

However, the DRC can issue guidance, so we are consistent with the approach. That approach is similar to that adopted in the Human Rights Act and others in which a generic definition of "public authority" is used; for example, the Companies (Audit, Investigations and Community Enterprise) Act 2004.

Let me explain why we believe it to be the case. First, last year the Joint Committee on Human Rights considered in some detail the meaning of "public authority" in the Human Rights Act. It considered whether it was appropriate to recommend a list-based approach as an alternative, but dismissed the idea as it did not feel that it would be advantageous to do so. It felt that a generic definition avoided the risk of a list becoming restrictive in its application, and that even with a list there was still room for judicial interpretation. It was talking about the term "public authority" in relation to the Human Rights Act, but we think it has relevance here.

Secondly, I think it is clear to those people working in public bodies that they are carrying out functions of a public nature. The police know that; the NHS knows that; teachers working in schools know that; as do people working in government departments and local councils. I do not believe that anyone would argue that these key bodies are not public authorities, so there is no advantage in listing them.

That leads me to my third point, which I think is well illustrated by the list of bodies created by the amendment. The amendment proposes a list of bodies and a mechanism for amending it by regulation. That list, in the view of the Government, does not go far enough. While impressive in coverage, it fails, for example, to take account of the full range of bodies disabled people would expect to be covered. For example, important parts of the NHS, such as strategic health authorities, would not find themselves subject
 
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to the duty with the list as it currently stands in the amendment. I suspect that if we were to scratch away we would find others which had not been included.

For the list to cover the public sector properly, the list would need amending regularly as the public sector changes in a way that is unnecessary if a generic description or a definition of "public authority" based on what bodies are, and what they do, is applied.

Therefore, we believe that a generic definition is stronger and more helpful. We believe that the presumption that the duty applies across the public sector is a strength. It is a principle that the public sector understands and it is a principle which ensures that the duty continues to apply and cannot be allowed to become out of date, for example, by a government failing to amend a list promptly.

These amendments would undo all of that and, therefore, the Government are opposed to them. Perhaps I may say that the Disability Rights Commission prefers the Government's approach—the generic approach—and is right. Given those arguments, together with the fact that the DRC favours the Government's approach, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, my noble friend puts her case very well. I, too, was torn between the two paths and was, at first, inclined to support the views of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, but I have changed my mind because, when one thinks of the problems and difficulties associated with a list, one realises that the matter will become embedded in a fog of confusion. The fact that the list will quickly become dated is crucial. We would have amendment after amendment to the list and people would not know where they were.

I cannot believe that any list, however comprehensive, would cover all the organisations, so, by definition, those organisations that are not on the list would be deemed not to come under the Act. That would be unfortunate. That problem, as my noble friend said, can be met by a statement of principle. I am strongly opposed to the amendments, formerly having been a supporter of them.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I accept, of course, that the arguments are extremely finely balanced, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said. They are so finely balanced that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has changed his mind since we last considered these matters. I also recognise that the DRC and the Royal National Institute for the Deaf are opposed to the amendment, whereas the Law Society has promoted it. I shall consider what has been said. I certainly take seriously the criticisms of the amendment, especially the new schedule that it proposes. This matter really boils down to the fact that the Government do not wish to keep such a list up to date. That is probably the truth of the matter.
 
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Finally, I was surprised not to be teased on my natural aversion to lists, about which I spoke in Committee and, I believe, at Second Reading as well. I would have faced that criticism, had it arrived. It has not and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 15 not moved.]

European Union

1.33 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on prospects for the European Union over the next year.

"A year ago, I made a number of proposals to the House to improve the way in which the Government are held to account for the conduct of European Union business. One of these was the publication of regular White Papers on Prospects for the European Union, the first in April last year (Cmnd 6174). As with the White Papers which I published on the EU constitution negotiations, I hope honourable Members will feel that this fuller and more timely information on EU business has helped to stimulate wider debate and discussion. Such discussion shapes and strengthens the Government's position in European negotiations.

"I am, therefore, today publishing a White Paper setting out prospects for the European Union in 2005. Let me highlight three of the main areas of work which it covers: on enhancing prosperity across Europe and in this country; on working together to tackle common threats to our security; and on preparations for the United Kingdom's presidency of the EU later this year.

"In the European Union, Britain is part of the world's largest common market of 450 million consumers—giving new opportunities to our businesses, greater choice and quality to British consumers and boosting jobs and growth here and across Europe. But there is more to do to ensure that we get the maximum benefit from that market, by pursuing further liberalisation and reform.

"We will, therefore, continue negotiating a directive to liberalise services across the EU. Services account for 70 per cent of the EU's output, but at present only 20 per cent of trade. Creating a true single market in this sector would boost growth in the EU and improve the price, choice and quality of services on offer to businesses and consumers. The Government are also working for better implementation and enforcement of the Financial Services Action Plan, which offers great benefits in another sector where this country is particularly strong.

"We are also working to ensure that European Union law, so vital for the operation of the single market, is the most effective possible for business.
 
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The Government have been working closely with the Irish, Dutch and Luxembourg presidencies on regulatory reform in Europe and we have now extended that to include the Austrians and Finns, who follow us in the EU presidency next year. I also welcome the strong lead from Commission President Barroso, whose five-year plan, published on 26 January, made clear that better regulation is a priority for the new Commission. We will be working with the Commission to ensure we have better assessment of the impact of new proposals and systematic reviews of existing EU legislation.

"The White Paper also highlights the continuing negotiations on the European Union's budget. The Government are working especially with Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden, to ensure that future EU budgets are limited to 1 per cent of Europe's economic output and that this money is spent where it most adds value. We also continue to make clear that the UK's budget abatement remains fully justified. We, like all other countries, have a veto on any changes proposed in this area.

"As well as the economic aspects of our EU membership, the White Paper also sets out many areas in which our common work in Europe makes the United Kingdom safer and more secure. It shows how we are improving co-operation between police forces and other authorities so as better to tackle international organised crime and terrorism across national borders. It highlights our work to ensure that European measures to stop asylum-shopping and to create a level playing field on asylum across the EU are properly implemented and evaluated. It describes work on concluding readmission agreements with countries outside the EU.

"The coming year will be an important one for the EU's crisis management and aid operations abroad, which themselves make a direct contribution to our own security. The largest EU military mission to date will help to build stability in Bosnia, under a British commander, Major-General David Leakey. EU police missions will continue to work in Bosnia, Macedonia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A new European Defence Agency, under a British chief executive, Nick Witney, will increase Europe's capacity more quickly to deploy effective forces in response to international crises and ensure that they can work better together.

"The Government will continue to play a leading part, along with France and Germany, in European efforts to ensure that Iran's nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes. What we have decided to date, with Iran suspending the processes which could produce fuel for a nuclear bomb, demonstrates the value of this common approach.

"The EU is the largest provider of development assistance in the world. As well as delivering Europe's contribution to reconstruction in the areas hit by the tsunami in Asia, we will work to strengthen the EU's work to support Africa.

"As the House is aware, the United Kingdom will hold the presidency of the European Union from July. Our presidency will focus on the themes of
 
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security, stability and prosperity, both within the EU and outside. Africa and climate change, the priorities of our concurrent presidency of the G8, will be important parts of the European Union agenda. We will continue to push for economic reform and better regulation in Europe to deliver long-term improvements in growth and we will steer preparations for the next stage in the world trade negotiations.

"This White Paper makes clear the central importance for the United Kingdom of our work throughout the European Union. And it shows Britain delivering in Europe—delivering because we are engaging with our partners on issues which no country can tackle alone.

"This Government has put Britain back where we belong: not carping from the sidelines, but as a leading power in Europe. We are winning clear benefits for British consumers, for British businesses and for British families in areas which make a real difference to their lives. Through Europe we are increasing Britain's power and influence in the world.

"Our approach has helped us to deliver the European Union's greatest ever enlargement and agreement to historic membership negotiations with Turkey which will begin in October under our presidency. It has got us a European Commission which has made jobs, growth and better regulation a top priority; European defence arrangements which work with, not against NATO; and European co-operation on foreign policy which is delivering real results, as in Ukraine. And, again thanks to this Government's approach, we have delivered a constitutional treaty which every other country in Europe is calling a great British success. I look forward to debating the facts of that treaty, not the myths of the party opposite, in the months ahead.

"Ten years ago this country was isolated in Europe. Today we are where we belong: leading reform in Europe, and working together to enhance Britain's prosperity and power. That is the difference between this Government and those who want to detach us from Europe—a difference which is clear from this White Paper. We are confident about Britain's future in Europe; and we are determined to continue shaping that future in the interests of businesses and people in this country. I commend this White Paper to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

1.42 p.m.


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