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Lord Rix: I was going to speak to Amendment No. 153 but I understand that the Minister is not minded to accept that amendment. It therefore seems appropriate to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, with one or two suggestions with regard to the equality commission. I hope that the Minister will be able to give further assurances to Northern Ireland disability organisations that disability issues will enjoy equal billing on the equality agenda.
As the Minister is all too well aware, disability issues are complex and varied. I hope he will be able to give the following assurances. Will additional staff with particular expertise in disability matters be recruited onto the equality commission? Will additional resources be set aside to enable the commission to do its work in relation to disability issues and to ensure representation and advocacy, particularly for people with learning disabilities?
There are other measures that will give assurances to organisations that are of and for people with disabilities. Will the Government confirm that all staff on the commission will undergo disability awareness training? Will they also ensure that the new body has a meeting with Northern Ireland disability organisations on an annual basis in order to monitor and review the workings of the new equality commission? Finally, will
I am sure that if these reassurances are given they will ensure that the needs and rights of people with disabilities, including learning disabilities, will not be subsumed or lost in all other matters and therefore that Amendment No. 153 will in fact become redundant.
Baroness Lockwood: I think I welcome the Minister's statement, but, like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, I shall need to read in Hansard exactly what he said. I saw the amendments for the first time when I came into the Chamber today so I am not quite sure just how wide the implications are. Perhaps I may ask my noble friend a number of questions. He said that the equality commission will be a reserved matter, and that is certainly to be welcomed. He also said that the equality commission will be concerned largely with the present equality agencies--the Northern Ireland Equal Opportunities Commission, the Race Relations Commission and, I assume, the disability commission. However, as has already been pointed out, the powers of those three commissions vary to some extent. I wonder what my noble friend's amendment will mean. Will it weaken in any way the powers that already exist under the Equal Opportunities Commission? If so, I would be very saddened about that.
During my period as chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission in Great Britain from 1975 to 1983 we worked closely with the Northern Ireland commission. The powers were exactly the same. It is important that throughout the United Kingdom the same sex discrimination laws should apply. I hope that there is no weakening of the Northern Ireland order which took for Northern Ireland the powers of the Sex Discrimination Act. I should like further clarification on that point from my noble friend.
There is also the whole question of resources. My noble friend Lady Turner referred to the concerns that are felt by women's organisations in Northern Ireland. I understand those concerns and I, too, have had representations on this issue. As long as it is clearly laid out what the powers of the equal opportunities side of the equality commission will be, and as long as they are not weakened, I do not oppose the question of an equality agency. But I think it is important that we spell out the safeguarding of the resources and the functions. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, I think it is absolutely essential that the concept of indirect discrimination is embodied in this legislation. If that is not done we shall lose a great many of the benefits that have been brought about over the past 22 years. I should like some further reassurances from my noble friend on those points.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I agree that we must look much wider than the actual text of these various amendments. The grouping--one might call it a "supergrouping"--of the amendments as distinct from what appeared in the original Marshalled List will, to use an Irish saying, considerably shorten the winter. I do not question the list of possible complainants set
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, stressed the inevitability of our seeing this on a much wider canvas than just the various clauses of the Bill. That being the case, I wonder whether it might not be fairer to the taxpayer to introduce some form of financial assistance to what I would call the defendant bodies to enable them to break free from the pernicious practice of settling a claim right at the very beginning to avoid the expense not only of legal representation but of the diversion of key members of staff from essential duties leading to the engagement of additional staff and therefore placing an added burden on the taxpayer. For example, the board of a hospital group might be tempted to take the easy way out and settle even vexatious claims.
That disturbing habit is creating a thriving industry in Northern Ireland. One paramilitary organisation to my knowledge--I am sure there are plenty of other examples--has a desk staff to deal with the giving of advice to all-comers who feel that they have a complaint, bogus or otherwise. Callers are given certain directions. If they say, "We are not certain whether we have a good claim", the advice from the paramilitary body is, "Go ahead, you are bound to get something". Then the rider is added, "Do remember that when you succeed we will need our cut out of the proceeds". That is a very unhealthy situation.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Is the noble Lord aware that there is another side to the coin? It is that public bodies which do not settle cases but insist on fighting them to the bitter end often incur much greater public costs as a result, enriching my profession--the legal profession--unnecessarily. Does he know, for example, that the Ministry of Defence incurred costs of many millions of pounds of taxpayers' money by continuing to insist on the ludicrous practice of dismissing female members of the Armed Forces who became pregnant? Had they settled at a very early stage, they would have saved us a very great deal of money. Therefore it is sensible to settle, if you have not got a very strong case.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I am grateful to the noble Lord, because he makes my point. In the case of a hospital board, it is not a question of sitting down and deciding whether they have a good case or whether they have a poor case. They will say, "Good gracious, we are going to a disruptive element injected into our proceedings"--and I do not mean the complainant, but the fact that it is superimposed on an already
I am simply saying that what I call the pernicious practice of settling right at the very beginning, whether they feel they are going to win or lose, is something that we really must try to stamp out because ultimately it puts an intolerable burden on the taxpayer.
I was going to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for the points he made earlier. He stressed the need for adequate funding for complainants, but I am suggesting that some way really must be found of making good the losses of public bodies. I am not talking here about private firms or private bodies, but about public bodies. Unfortunately, because of the way in which the system is being distorted and misused, the public bodies are finding it very difficult. I trust that perhaps consideration could be given to these aspects before we come to the rest of the proceedings on the Bill.
On Second Reading I perhaps prematurely congratulated the Government on their use of modest titles, mainly for the equality commission, on the grounds that the use of words like "members", "chairman", vice-chairman" and so on would create the perception that as a body and as individuals they would be readily acceptable and approachable. I now find it difficult to understand why the Government have elevated the body to the stratosphere. Considering the pressure from the bodies which are now to be disbanded and feel aggrieved because of that decision, and the views that have been put forward by other noble Lords, those bodies expressed fears that their interests would be submerged in some kind of super quango. These amendments surely justify those fears: that is, the government amendments.
Can the Minister indicate what lay behind these amendments and what persuasion was applied to the Government to induce them to move away from the sensible and clearly understood titles of "chairman", "vice-chairman" and "members" of the commission to these other grandiose titles which I am afraid give the wrong impression of the role of the commission itself? Originally the Government did not want them: otherwise they would not have been printed as they were in the Bill. Therefore I would ask: who did want the increase in prestige? Was it considered that commissioners, and not members, deputy chief commissioner and not simply deputy chairman and commissioners instead of members--all these high sounding titles--might command a much higher salary? Is it just possible that the Treasury might be more likely to consider it proper to award a commissioner a salary double that of a member? I really think that we are entitled to an explanation as to why all these wonderful titles should have been introduced into a Bill which otherwise made a lot of sense.
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