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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I wonder whether he will also agree to consider whether there might be some machinery, some person, providing adequate safeguards against abuse of discretion within the system so that that might be built into the Government's thinking?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I take it that the noble Lord's intervention refers to some form of commissioner or monitor. Yes, I can confirm to your Lordships' House that that is one of the issues to which we are giving detailed consideration.
Again, I must pay a compliment to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, by saying that that is one of the issues to which he has helpfully drawn our attention. There are some precedents and parallels. Therefore, we shall reflect on the way in which they are working and give this matter a broader consideration.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, the Minister is too generous, because I believe that it was the Government's idea rather than mine, or it may have come from his own department. But I am grateful for that very positive reply and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, before we decide the Question before us, perhaps I may say a few words. This is a small but very important Bill. It is small because it deals with only one serious defect in the Race Relations Act 1976; that is, the failure of the Act to give comprehensive protection to victims of racial discrimination by government departments and public authorities generally and to impose an
It is important both because that failure of the 1976 Act was a serious failure and because what is done in the field of racial discrimination will influence the other anti-discrimination legislation as we move towards a comprehensive, coherent, user-friendly and effectively enforced statutory code to tackle unfair discrimination on other grounds. In other words, this is an important first step in the direction of more radical reform of the kind being undertaken, for example, under the leadership of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his colleagues to reform the regulation of financial services. It shows it can be done.
The Home Secretary and his colleagues are to be commended on having introduced the Bill in the first place. I doubt whether a Conservative government would have done so. The role of this House in scrutinising and strengthening the Bill has been a fine example of an open and well-informed dialogue conducted across parties and from all sides of the House. That has been a dialogue with a Government who are willing to listen and to change their mind.
It has been suggested in the media that the Home Secretary bowed to pressure because he would otherwise have been defeated in this House. That is not correct. Regrettably, it is unlikely that the Official Opposition would have voted to support any amendment that was designed to strengthen the Bill. We shall watch with interest their response when the Bill is debated in the other place.
The first reason why the Home Secretary and his colleagues changed their minds was that he and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, are firmly committed to racial justice and the elimination of racial discrimination wherever it arises. Secondly, they and their advisers in the Home Office have given generously of their time to meet with friendly critics to discuss ways of making the Bill seaworthy. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
Thirdly, the composition of the transitional House includes a new generation of noble Lords who have experienced racial and religious discrimination, whether as Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs or as members of the black and Asian ethnic minorities. I am glad to say that this House is becoming more representative of Britain's ethnic minorities, perhaps more representative than the democratic first Chamber.
We who have personal experience of the evils of discrimination and bigotry have spoken with one voice, whatever our political or other backgrounds. I believe that that collective voice has impressed the Home Secretary and his colleagues in a way which augurs well for the future. We should pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, and his advisers for their enlightened and principled response.
We hope and believe that the Bill will be amended to widen the definition of what constitutes lawful positive action to complement the extension to indirect discrimination. We also hope that the exception for ethnic discrimination will be carefully tailored to the legitimate needs of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and that there will be adequate safeguards against abuse.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I agree with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to the extent that the Bill as presented to the House, and indeed as it leaves the House, is not "seaworthy". The earlier debates we had demonstrated that point extremely effectively.
I hope that I am second to none in my desire to fight racial discrimination in every possible way. The noble Lord drew attention to a small part of my record in this way, which I believe can stand examination. However, at the same time it is true that I, together with my party, have less confidence in the ability of the law to solve these problems as opposed to other approaches. I refer in particular to the attitude of Government. I do not distinguish between the previous and the present Government in that respect. I am not trying to make a case that either government played a greater or lesser role. The attitude of government is the most important factor as regards all the public authorities concerned.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I shall not take more of your Lordships' time than I believe is necessary. I referred in my earlier comments to the Conservatives and their view towards this legislation. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, that such comments were not meant to be personal. The noble Lord has a valuable track record on this subject. His enlightened approach is one which we, on these Benches, appreciate. However, I sometimes wonder who is pulling the strings behind that enlightenment. That is of concern in an area of policy where we would like to see much greater consensus, and perhaps see Members of the Opposition moving towards our position.
I refer to another point raised by the noble Lord, which is of importance. Legislation, of itself, changes nothing. It is the spirit, intent, content, meaning and effect of legislation which can help to change the culture of a society and its approach to key issues. Race is one such important issue. The heart of the issue
The discussions in your Lordships' House have been fruitful and, by and large, constructive. I am pleased that there has been good and helpful dialogue. I am grateful for the courteous and constructive way in which the debates have been conducted. I suspect that throughout the course of the debates I have thanked the noble Lord, Lord Lester, enough. However, I should like to put on record my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, for her valuable contribution. Her rich experience in these matters is probably beyond equal. She has a deep understanding of the problems that the legislation tries earnestly to tackle.
The Government are committed to achieving a step change in race equality, with the public sector leading by example. The Bill represents a key part of our programme in that regard. As your Lordships know, the Bill will be further strengthened in the Commons to meet the commitment the Government made before your Lordships' House both on Report and today.
I believe that your Lordships can look forward to seeing the Bill in a new and improved form. I look forward to further constructive and enjoyable debate on these matters and to keeping the dialogue going so that we get the quality right as well as the content. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.