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Lord Cope of Berkeley: I would not mind, but uniforms have "gone out", for the most part, for what one might call persons of this class. I claim to be the last Minister to have worn Privy Council uniform on duty, but that is a different matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, also talked about assistance to the defending body. I have some sympathy with what he says but, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, rightly pointed out, it is a very difficult balance to strike. I once met a chap who told me that he had worked for me not long before. It turned out that at the relevant time he had been an official of the Department of Finance and Personnel. When I asked him what his function had been and what he had looked after, he said, "Trippers". I assumed that he had had something to do with encouraging tourism. However, it turned out that his duty was to pay people who tripped over paving stones. There were an enormous number of them. Until shortly before that time, it had been the Government's habit to pay such people automatically. Some people had tripped over paving stones no fewer than eight times and had been paid substantial sums over a period of years. It was almost becoming part of the social security system. The Government therefore took the decision to oppose every case involving compensation for tripping over a paving stone. That was good because, although it led to more court cases in the short term, the matter balanced out and, after a while, the number of claims became much more reasonable. Striking a balance is difficult.
It is sometimes extremely difficult for firms, particularly small firms which become enmeshed in a case involving a former employee who complains about some form of discrimination, to resist the temptation to settle a case and thus to avoid all the hassle. That is particularly so when, as we are providing elsewhere, the claimant is likely to have behind him the full weight of the money and skill of the commission. The commission will need to bear such factors in mind when deciding who to support. I do not believe that this is a matter on which we can legislate to provide the necessary balance. The commission must deal with it as part of its responsibilities. My main question relates to what the Government see as the commission's responsibilities and whether or not they can be met by the Bill as it stands.
Lord Dholakia: I wish to make two brief points. One relates to the practicality of the timetable governing the working group. My noble friend Lord Lester welcomed the establishment of the group to consider the equality commission. I understand from the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland that the timetable
I make my second point on the basis of my considerable experience in race relations work in this country. I was involved in such work from 1965 until about 1994. Race equality would have had no meaning if the concept of indirect discrimination had not been clearly defined. It is vital to bear in mind the restrictions of the Race Relations Act 1976 and of the 1995-96 legislation. The effectiveness of the Commission for Racial Equality would have been very limited but for the fact that this country has had a fundamental definition of indirect discrimination. I hope that the Minister will take those factors adequately into account when the process of consultation is defined.
Lord Blease: I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, preceded me because he dealt with the matter more succinctly than I could have done. Part VI is an important part of this Bill. It deals with matters relating to the Assembly and the United Kingdom Government. Last Friday, it was mooted in Northern Ireland that the Secretary of State proposed to set up the working group. That was generally warmly welcomed by those who were aware of it. I know from information I received today that the equality bodies--that is, those organisations dealing with such matters on the ground--generally welcome the establishment of the working group. I am sure that when they read in Hansard the Minister's opening remarks they will recognise the great opportunities that it represents.
However, there is concern about the working group's report being available in January and about whether that gives the group sufficient time. Although it can be argued that we are coming up to the Christmas holiday period and that meetings cannot therefore be held, the bodies that have been in existence for some time want to know more about the timetable. This represents a wonderful opportunity for the Government to meet members of the working party who are to deal with the provisions of Part VI, which relates to equality and to issues that really matter in Northern Ireland. There should be the opportunity to talk to those who want to bring equality of opportunity and fairness back into society. I believe that the establishment of the working group is a great step forward in resolving a number of problems. However, I am concerned about the timescale and I ask the Minister to be flexible. I am sure that what he has said today will be warmly welcomed when it is read in Northern Ireland.
Lord Dubs: This has been an interesting debate ranging over many aspects of the work of the equality commission. There has been something of a clause stand part debate about it. For the avoidance of doubt, perhaps
Lord Cope of Berkeley: I apologise for interrupting the Minister. I am grateful to him for giving way so soon in his speech. The Minister said again, very clearly, that the existence of the commission is a reserved matter. That means that potentially it can be transferred at some time; it is not an excepted matter. Perhaps paragraph 17 of Schedule 2 does not apply for some reason--I do not know--but if this is a reserved matter, that means that the expectation is that it will be transferred to Northern Ireland at some point. Am I correct in thinking that? If so, is it to be in a long time, or is it expected to be in a year or two?
Lord Dubs: First, perhaps I should say that I shall have something to add about paragraph 17 of Schedule 2 in a few minutes. However, the fact that a topic is a reserved matter means that there is a possibility that at some point it will pass to the Assembly. There is no way in which I can foresee when that will happen; nor can I guarantee that it will happen at all. This is, however, certainly one of the powers which has the possibility of being transferred. Perhaps I may deal with Schedule 2 in a few moments--
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps I may press him because of our concerns. Does the noble Lord accept that there would be very widespread concern if the basic core guarantee of equal treatment without discrimination were to be diluted in one part of the country, namely, Northern Ireland, as a result of the matters being transferred by this Government or a future government? Does the Minister accept that that would be quite wrong and that we should have a basic, core, minimum standard of treatment throughout the United Kingdom so far as non-discrimination is concerned?
Lord Dubs: Perhaps the noble Lord will bear with me for a short while. I shall try to deal with his point in a few moments. Perhaps I may first take up a point made by my noble friend Lady Turner regarding support for the proposal to merge the four organisations into one. Yes, I can tell my noble friend that there was consultation and, indeed, 45 per cent. of the comments were against. But that was not a majority: some people were in favour, some did not have an opinion and others
Let us remind ourselves that the population of Northern Ireland is a small one; indeed, it comprises 1.6 million people. There is a danger that the effectiveness of work against discrimination may actually be hampered by having too many bodies, all of which have to have their own administrative set-up, their research facilities, statistics, and so on, rather than using the money on the actual work that they intend to do. I suggest that there are good arguments for having the bodies merged together.
I was also asked about certain assurances. The equality commission will certainly have the power to establish consultative councils which will allow links with voluntary organisations in any of the fields covered by the commission. There will be a requirement on the commission to aim to secure an appropriate division of resources between the functions previously exercised by the four statutory bodies. Moreover, that is to be demonstrated in the commission's annual report so that there will be transparency in the way that the commission is to proceed. As many noble Lords said, a working group is being established in November to advise on the format and structures of the new commission. It will comprise the chairs of the four bodies, plus an independent working group chairman, although that individual has not yet been selected.
I understand the force of the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that perhaps the period proposed for consultation is not a very long one. However, I am reluctant to allow that period to stretch out for too long. After all, the bodies which will be consulted and which will have an input are the same ones that have already been consulted and, I suggest, are those which are already lobbying Members of this Chamber very assiduously. Therefore, I should not have thought that there would be very many new issues coming forward. I note what the noble Lord said, but I do not want to concede that I will extend the consultation period. In my experience, extending consultation periods in Northern Ireland simply gives people more and more time and I am not sure that it actually leads to a more effective consultation process.
I hope that those assurances will make Members of the Committee realise that the Government are very committed to the different elements which will make up the new equality commission. I repeat: we certainly do not want to see a hierarchy of work or a hierarchy of priorities. Indeed, that is not the way we want to move forward. I can assure my noble friend Lady Turner that the question of sex equality will in no way be marginalised. We do not want to marginalise any of the areas of responsibility of the new commission--far from it. We want the new commission to have as much effectiveness as is possible.
I believe that the noble Lord suggested that, somehow, local politicians would renege on the commitment to tackle discrimination and achieve equality. He certainly did not have the sort of confidence in the equality commission, because it will be under the Assembly, that I believe he would feel if it came under Westminster. I believe that that was the thrust of the noble Lord's argument. I simply tell him that responsibility for the functions of government will be with the Assembly. It seems to me that it would be wrong in principle to then take the oversight of those functions as regards equality away from Northern Ireland and have them here. That would suggest that we do not have confidence in the way that the Assembly is to operate and oversee its functions. I give way to the noble Lord.
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