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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I share his hopes and regard his response as encouraging, without committing the Government, as is quite right. It will be for the democratic Chamber to make the final decision. I am grateful for, and content with, the Minister's reply and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is designed to extend the Race Relations Act to cover indirect discrimination by public authorities. The Government have already agreed to do that. I raise the matter at this time only because, on a previous occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, expressed the hope--and I share that hope--that it might have been possible to make the amendment at this stage; namely, before the Bill goes to the other place.
I seek an indication now of whether that is possible; or are there technical reasons why it would be preferable to postpone amending the Bill until the matter is dealt with in another place? I beg to move.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, in our previous debates, in particular on Report, the Government said that they accept that the Bill as it stands is half baked. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is willing to trust the Government to take action along
I should like to point out one difficulty about leaving this matter to another place. If that happens, I do not believe that this House will have had an opportunity to give proper consideration to the full effects of the amended Bill. Some doubts have been cast on those effects. First, there may be effects on the police. We have in the past discussed the issue of stop and search. I shall not go over the arguments again. Nevertheless, the police are the most examined, inspected and supervised of all the institutions in this country. They do an extremely vital job and we should be careful before we impose new layers of inspection and review upon them.
In any case, the wider question is whether all public authorities should be covered by legislation on indirect discrimination. At first, the Government declared that sensible government would become impossible, with issues constantly stuck in the courts. I wonder whether they have anticipated that they might be taken to court, for instance, over university fees, an area where, so far as I can see, the Government discriminate on the ground of nationality between Scottish and English students. The same applies to students from other countries within the European Union. However, that argument has now been dropped and replaced by ministerial assurances that all will be well.
I have been around this Palace long enough to become a firm believer in the law of unintended consequences and I am not yet sure what the consequences of this legislation will be. If it results in a string of cases against the Government and other public authorities, as the Government at first feared, tying down scarce resources, I do not believe that that will help sensible government; and it will do no good for the cause of good race relations.
We seem to be in an interim position whereby the Government have changed their mind but have not yet decided precisely how to implement the change. The matter is expressed in clear and simple terms in the amendment of the noble Lord and I am surprised that the Government are unable to accept it.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, I believe that we can safely trust the Government on this occasion. I do not often trust any government, but the undertakings given have been firm and definite and have already been taken up by those affected by them. I want to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that the Local Government Association, which welcomed the extension of indirect discrimination legislation, has already said that it will follow up the conference on the Lawrence inquiry which it held in November 1999 and consider further the steps that local authorities need to take in order to tackle institutional racism and to avoid legal challenge under the new legislation. Therefore, before those changes have even been implemented--which the Government have undertaken to do--those
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for tabling this amendment again, if only because it gives me the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to accept in principle the basis of the amendment. I am quite happy to have that on the official record this afternoon. It also gives me the opportunity to welcome the correspondence that I have received on this matter over the past few days. I seem to have become very popular overnight. I wish that I could sustain that popularity for much longer. I receive a nice post bag on the subject and that is most welcome. Government Ministers always like to be thanked.
I particularly welcome also the Local Government Association's initiative in producing its rough guide, which I have read with interest today. I have received a useful letter from the CRE; my office has received a copy of a press release from the National Black Police Association, which puts on record its support for the amendments; and we have also received a letter from the LGA which says much the same thing. That is useful because they want to see some consultation in this area and to get the matter right. For that reason, essentially we want to bring forward our own government amendments in another place so that we can get it right and so that a broader range of considerations can come into play. It may well be that in the end we shall have something very similar to that which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has perfected in his usual, masterful manner.
As to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, I can say only that I have become somewhat confused over the past few weeks as to what is the Conservatives' real position on this piece of legislation. Do they support our initiative? For 18 years there was not a single piece of legislation which did anything to improve the quality of race relations in this country.
When the noble Lord, Lord Cope, made his comments at Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, I began to believe that the Conservatives were in principle opposed to the Bill. I believed that they did not consider it essential and that they viewed it as an unnecessary interference in the race relations field. I should like to know whether that is the case as I believe that their view should be placed on the official record. It would be nice to know exactly what position they will adopt in the other place on this matter. At first the noble Lord, Lord Cope, seemed to say that the Bill was inadequate because it did not contain clauses which tackled indirect discrimination and the duty to promote. Then he seemed to say that it was inadequate
For all the criticism that we have received, we have not had a great deal of support for our intervention and development of policy in this area. I should like to see that support because I believe--it has always been a principle that I and our party have carried--that we should create a consensus in race relations so that we can get to the root of and tackle discrimination in all its vicious variants. That is most important. If we could create that consensus in race relations, it would be good for this country, would do much to break down the discrimination that has existed in the past and would create a firmer foundation for good race relations for the future.
Therefore, yes, we shall bring forward an amendment in another place. We welcome the progress that we have made. Yes, we have had a change of view and there has been a development of policy. The principle has always been accepted that indirect discrimination is an area where we should legislate. I very much appreciate the support that we have received--a critical focus, at times, from some of your Lordships, and rightly so. We have considered the matter seriously and have come to the conclusion that we are going in the right direction by accepting this new departure and development of our policy. I hope that with that firm commitment the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will withdraw his amendment this afternoon.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to everyone who has spoken in the debate and to the Minister for his full reply. I deal, first, with the two problems raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley. One was the position of the police and the other was the position of university tuition fees.
So far as concerns the police, as I believe has already been made clear, the extension of the concept of discrimination to cover indirect discrimination by the police in their operational activities will have scarcely any effect. What really matters in relation to the police is the concept of direct discrimination, and that has already been explained fully in the past. Secondly, as I understand it, senior police officers throughout the country have been busy implementing the Race Relations Act, whether or not it has applied directly to them, and they continue to do so. I discern no problem for the police in their operational activities with regard to discriminating unjustifiably on racial grounds--unjustifiably and indirectly or without any justification directly.
So far as concerns university fees, that is a large subject. I need say only that if any public authority were to discriminate on grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins or nationality, under common law as well as under the Race Relations Act as it stands, difficult problems would arise. The extension of the Race Relations Act to cover indirect discrimination would not change that since university authorities and
The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, raises a wider question, which the Minister has also addressed; that is, what is the position of Her Majesty's Opposition? When I was young I read Dr Doolittle. I remember that there was a curious creature called "pushmi-pullyu"--a creature that pulled in opposite directions within the same animal. I have great affection and respect for the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, and I like to feel that he pulls in what I might call the "enlightened" or "liberal" direction. I realise that the creature is torn in two opposite directions and is, therefore, in a state of paralysis. It cannot move, except to be grumpy. I do not believe that this is an appropriate Bill for the Opposition to be grumpy about.
In fairness to the Conservative Party, it did two great things for anti-discrimination legislation during its long period in office. One was the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989, for which the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, was partly responsible. That was a great step forward. It has been said that the right honourable Michael Howard, MP, as Home Secretary extended race relations law to Northern Ireland just before his government fell. Having said that, it is also true to say that over the years--in 1965, 1968, 1975 and 1976--the Conservative Party in Parliament, I am sorry to say, has never been an enthusiast for this body of legislation. I had hoped that during the debates on this straightforward Bill one might have had wholehearted support.
In summing up, I am wholly satisfied that what the Government intend to do is right, that it is right to give the opportunity to the Government to come forward with the amendments which are needed and for the other place to consider them. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.