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Lord Dholakia: I support the amendment proposed by my noble friends Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester. I shall be brief in giving one or two examples of how a lack of independence could make the organisation that we are trying to set up fairly sterile.
First, an organisation such as this must not be an extension or the mouthpiece of the government. If it is going to establish any credibility whatever, it must have the confidence of the public with which it deals. It would be a tragedy if pressure were brought on the commission by the government to pursue a particular line that favours that government.
Secondly, unlike previous commissions, we are now talking about a commission that also deals with human rights. There have been examples in the past. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, is in his place. I remember during his time as the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, he banged at the government's door year after year for an investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence, and yet that was rejected until another government came into being. That sort of approach by a government does not necessarily help to advance the cause of race relations in this country.
I can give other examples where pressure has been brought on the existing commission, which again makes it fairly ineffective. During Second Reading, I cited the Commission for Racial Equality's investigation into prison services. That was a task that the government themselves could have taken on, but instead they pressurised the commission into undertaking a massive investigation that cost a lot of money, and the end result was no more than what the prison inspectors had reported in previous years.
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There is another example of how powers can be abused. I remember when the Commission for Racial Equality in its early years decided to mount a formal investigation into the immigration control procedures, about which the government was not at all happy. Ultimately, it was not for the government, nor for the commission, but the matter had to go to the court, which decided that the commission had powers to mount an investigation in administration of those services. Those are tactics by which the community soon loses confidence.
No government last in perpetuity. We must be careful. When I worked at the CRE, it was pretty clear that many times the government exercised control through funding, which made its work fairly ineffective. We must understand that there may be other governments who may not necessarily be sympathetic to bodies such as this. It is right therefore that it has an independent status and is able to perform its tasks without any hindrance from the government.
Baroness Lockwood: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for setting out so clearly the amendments before us. There is a long and comprehensive list of amendments. Certainly, I would happily support some of the amendments, but taking the package as a whole, I have some reservations. In Committee, we need to remove some of the powers that are given to the Secretary of State to make the commission completely independent of being directed by the Secretary of State. But I am not sure whether creating another committee, as is proposed under the amendments, is the answer to the problem. It will be a completely new structure and I would not want it in any way to fetter the freedom of the new commission to carry out its responsibilities under the Act.
With regard to the financial amendments, in particular, I know it has been suggested that in the past the Secretary of State might have tried to interfere on the financial side. During my days as chairman of the EOC, we would certainly have wished to have more finances than we did. But that was not a question of interference; it was a question of the adequacy of the funding, which is an entirely different matter, whichever form of answerability the commission has. I give way to the noble Lord.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I apologise for interrupting the noble Baroness. Does she agree that if a governmentI am not talking about this onestarved the EOC of enough funds so that it could not, for example, carry out its law enforcement functions, that would certainly be an interference with its real independence? In other words, there are situations where a lack of funding leads to a lack of real independence in functions.
Baroness Lockwood: But I think that from time to time all bodies, whether they be government departments or independent commissions, will feel that their funding is inadequate because any body such as this is going to be enthusiastic about its cause and may want to do more than is possible under the
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circumstances. Clearly a government must have some control over that. On the other side of the argument is the question of whether or not the commission would be strengthened by having a government department as its spokesperson in the Cabinet and other government circles.
Returning to the point that I was making when the noble Lord, Lord Lester, intervened, it is crucial that the commission is independent in arranging its own financial budget, and I would not want any other committee to look at what the commission had set out as its own priorities and perhaps overrule them. Certainly that point needs to be considered.
The question of appointments has also been raised and I sympathise with the points that have been made. It is essential that, whoever is appointed as the chairmen and members of these commissions, they should be prepared to exercise their independence fully, even in the face of government resistance. When I was chair of the commission, there were occasions under both governments when slight pressure was applied over an action that the commission was proposing to take. For example, when the commission took cases to the European Court of Justice, it was not liked in government that the UK should be brought up before that court. But that did not affect the commission's decision. It was pointed out to the Minister of the day that the commission had responsibilities under the Act and that it must fulfil those responsibilities. So the independence of the people appointed is crucial. If we want to ensure such independence, we must examine other structures, not necessarily just this commission, to ensure that Government appointments really are independent and that whoever is appointed to those offices should be prepared to act independently on the basis of their responsibilities under the legislation.
I support some of the points that have been made in the debate and I certainly support restricting the powers of the Secretary of State, but, at this stage in our proceedings, we should not take so fundamental a decision as that proposed in the amendment.
Lord Ouseley: I find myself in the difficult position of supporting my Amendment No. 3, in which I ask for commissioners to be appointed by the Secretary of State. It has been pointed out that if that amendment succeeds, it would be difficult for the main amendment to be made. However, I wish to speak on the principle of independence and my support for what is proposed.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, gave clear examples of interference and non-independence by the commission. If the Commission for Equality and Human Rights is to work effectively and bring about genuine fairness and equality to Britain as a whole, it needs to be seen by everyone as having independence of mind and being independent in how it operates, free from Government interference. I have real worries about the way in which interference by the Secretary of State occurs as a result of my practical experience of interference and involvement by Secretary of States,
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which has not been in the best interests of the functioning of the existing commission. Obviously, I speak about the Commission for Racial Equality.
On one occasion, I was asked to assess the performance of one of the commissioners. Having done so, I felt, objectively, and after passing it back to the department concerned, the next day the same person was appointed, even though I felt that that person had not performed well. On another occasion, I was asked to interview a prospective appointee as a commissioner, who I felt had immense qualities, but was not necessarily the right person in terms of balance and breadth. That person was appointed the next day.
I seek to demonstrate by such examples that we need a mechanism which can give confidence to all concernedeither to those who are intended to be the beneficiaries or to those who have a relationship with the proposed commissionthat that body will operate with integrity and independence and will not experience day-to-day Government interference.
So I add my support to the concept of creating a commission that will be seen to be independent and will give confidence to everyone that those who are appointed, by whoever appoints them, will be of genuine competence and bring qualities, skills and experiences that will add to the range of competencies that are necessary for this body effectively to execute its responsibilities and produce the outcomes that we seeka more fair and just society for everyone.
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