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Clause 31

Enquiries by the Commission

Lords Amendment : No. 38, in page 24, line 7, at beginning insert

"The Commission may from time to time require the employer to give the Commission such information held by the employer, being information to which section 29(1)(a) or (b) of this Act applies, as the Commission may specify ; but an employer who has been required on any date to give any information under this subsection shall not be required to do so again before the expiry of the period of six months beginning with that date.


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Mr. Tom King : I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker : With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 39 to 44.

Mr. King : The amendments extend the powers of the commission to require the disclosure of information by the employer. The existing power hinged on the employer's having submitted a monitoring return, and extended only to information supplementing that given in the return. We have released the commission from both those constraints. Accordingly, the amendment provides that the commission can obtain from the employer any of the information which he might use for monitoring. Thus, where an employer who is not required to monitor applicants holds information on job applicants, the commission will be able to gain access to that information.

The second effect of the amendment is that the commission can exercise its powers whether or not a monitoring return has been submitted. This is to avoid an employer who has neglected to submit a return attempting to get out of disclosing information to the commission on the point that under the Bill as drafted its powers came into play only following submission of a monitoring return. There are certain restrictions on the commission's total powers of inquiry. We have restricted it to six-monthly intervals. Although the commission has extensive powers of inquiry of employers, a balance must be struck. It is wrong that employers should be continually subjected to repeat inquiries. Therefore, we have set the six-monthly intervals.

The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) has argued that the commission's powers should not be so restricted. I know that he will be concerned to achieve credibility for the commission and the voluntary co- operation of employers. There must be some recognition of the fair interests of employers. The commission has no restraint. If it behaved in an unreasonable way, a climate would be created in which people would justifiably feel unwilling to co-operate in reasonable inquiries. We do not believe that the commission would abuse its powers, but we think that, in giving it wide powers, there should be some restriction and protection in these respects for the employer. That is why I do not encourage the House to support the amendment tabled by the hon Member for South Down. I ask the House to agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Ms. Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar) : The Opposition disagree with the Minister's interpretation of this group of amendments, especially No. 38. We argue that the practical implications of the amendment will restrict the ability of the Fair Employment Commission to require employers to supply information. We see it as another example of a Government attempt to restrict the commission's role and we find it unacceptable.

At present, the commission may, after the monitoring return has been received, require an employer to produce further information, as the Minister has outlined. The Commission could, for instance, request a breakdown of the composition of the work force by grade and could then require further details, perhaps to verify that information. We argue that amendment No. 38 will prevent the commission, once the initial request is made, from asking for supplementary information for a further six months.

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That would be a serious hindrance for the commission in verifying the monitoring returns. It is an incentive to less enlightened employers to prevaricate and obstruct the commission's work. We certainly accept that it is a balancing between the two forces, but we think that, in practical terms, the amendment will work in exactly the opposite way to the Minister's proposal. We therefore oppose amendment No. 38.

The Minister has claimed that the amendment extends the commission's powers in some senses, as it can request information beyond that laid down in the monitoring returns and will be able to ask for information even when a monitoring return has not been submitted. However, we believe that the practical effect of the six-monthly interval will be to constrain the commission's ability to pursue its inquiries unless it resorts to a full- scale investigation. We understand that a full-scale investigation can take place only in limited circumstances and is, by necessity, a cumbersome process. It would not provide an adequate method of dealing with obstructive employers.

We are concerned about amendment No. 39 because it prevents the commission from requiring employers to produce supplementary information about the composition of the work force other than the information relating to the way in which the monitoring returns were compiled. That is an unacceptable limitation on the commission's information-gathering role. Therefore, we will oppose amendment No. 38.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) : In presenting Lords amendment No. 38 the Minister made generous reference to my starred amendment which appears on the Amendment Paper but has not been selected. I agree that it would be improper to impose on employers unjust obligations and unnecessary trouble in making these returns to the Fair Employment Commission.

Lords amendment No. 38 provides that an employer who has been asked for information in the previous six months cannot be asked for "any" information within the ensuing six months.That means that if information is received from an employer that is not explicit or adequate and does not address the point that it should address, the commission may not ask for supplementary information to provide elucidation. That is why I object to the word "any". I have tried to provide a more practical arrangement by substituting the word "that". That would ensure that the commission would not repeat itself in asking for the same information, but it would have the ability to ask for additional information to process the information received in the first volley.

This is an inhibiting administrative defect in the commission's power to pursue for six months the information for which it legally and legitimately asks under the Bill. It would have a stultifying effect on the processing of cases. For that reason, and because of the broader points of principle lucidly stated by the hon. Member for Redcar (Mr. Mowlam), I oppose amendment No. 38 in its present form. 8.45 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : Evidently, information will be stored somewhere from which it can be made available when requested, but that was not the promise made to employees in Northern Ireland. They were told that after they gave the required information about their religion, schools and so on and after the quota was made

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up, all the information would be destroyed. Now we are told that this information will be stored and will be available to the commission if requested. I should like to know who else will get his hands on that information.

As we know, there is a serious security situation in Northern Ireland. Information like this leads to people being fingered and murdered. The Government have a duty to tell us who has that information. Is it destroyed? Is the undertaking given to employees not really an undertaking but a falsehood? Will this information always be available so that it can then be made available to the commission when it requires it?

Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West) : I had the opportunity, like many hon. Members, of serving on the Standing Committee on the Bill. I think that, on quiet reflection, Members who served will say that matters were debated in a way that brought particular distinction to the House of Commons.

There was general acceptance in Committee that the most important part of the Bill concerned the commission's complete impartiality and its important role. In my judgment, Lords amendment No. 38 is the cornerstone of the Bill. There must be faith and trust in the workings of the commission. If there is not, the Bill will fall into disrepute, as the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) has outlined. It is important that there are some qualifications to it. Having had the opportunity of serving on the Standing Committee, I believe that we should accept the amendment because it shows the weight and force of argument that are placed on the workings of the commission.

I am particularly attracted to the comments of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) on safeguards for this information. I stress that there will be a great cry throughout the Province and in the House to ensure that the commission's reports and findings are confidential.

I should like to pay a warm and generous tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who served with particular distinction as the Minister on the Bill. In addition, this is almost certainly the valediction of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), as he takes up his new appointment. I wish him success.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East) : When I listened to the comments of hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench, I had the impression that they, and to a lesser extent the Government, were behaving and talking as if there were a vast army of employers in Northern Ireland who spent all their time dreaming up ways to get past laws against discrimination and who were continually and assiduously practising discrimination at every level of employment and in every way they could. In revealing that attitude of mind, they betray the vast gulf between their views and the reality of society in Northern Ireland.

I want to follow up the point made by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) when he talked about information lying around and being liable to be consulted by other people, some of whom might be of evil intent. Will the departing Secretary of State, before he becomes the departed Secretary of State, tell us whether the Data Protection Act 1984 has any bearing on this information?

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Will this information be stored in hard form on paper, or is it to be stored on computer? The House and employers want to know that. Will the existing laws governing such information and its storage be transgressed in any way?

Some will say that the Bill is not sufficient. However, having passed the first group of amendments, it will lie permanently in the hands of the House to correct any deficiencies that become apparent. I am sure that the Secretary of State will remember that the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) turned down the point we accepted at the beginning of this debate. As shown in columns 65 to 66 of Hansard for Standing Committee B, in refusing to accept the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs), he said that the reason he could not accept it was that it could be a devolved matter. Since the House and the Government have accepted the point this evening, it is clear that the Government accept that there will never be a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, at least into the far future. As a result, it will always lie in the hands of Ministers of whichever party, for the political lifetime of all here, to make any changes they wish.

Mr. Tom King : With all courtesy, I disagree with the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam). We discussed the matter a great deal in Committee and she fairly referred today to the point about balance. I have in my previous incarnations debated with Opposition Members the question of balance. The endless pursuit of perfection in legislation has often been the Opposition's objective and they have often not given sufficient consideration to whether such legislation will work. We can pass amazing legislation and Bills of huge complexity, but if they are ineffective or too complicated and do not achieve their objectives, it is a pointless exercise. It is a question of judgment, and we have reached the judgment that our proposals are a sensible way to proceed. I know that the hon. Lady will agree with me--this picks up a point made by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross)--that our proposals will work better if employers come to regard them as a reasonable and sensible requirement.

I could recognise one or two employers in the Province of Northern Ireland who may not rush to carry forward to the ultimate the general principles of the Bill, but there will be many others who are willing to see what they can do, as long as the legislation is reasonable and not hopelessly over- bureaucratic. We have to strike a balance because we do not want to lose their support.

Although the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) dressed it up in rather more lurid colours, he made an important point about confidentiality. He will know that confidentiality of information has been a clear concern of the Government in the preparation of this legislation. He knows that clause 19 is directed specifically to that important point. Clause 19 makes it an offence to disclose information from which a person's religious beliefs could be deduced.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East also asked me about the Data Protection Act 1984. I can confirm that the Act applies if such information is stored on computers.

Mr. William Ross : Will that point be made clear to all employers?

Mr. King : We shall take steps to try to ensure that employers are aware of all the provisions of the Bill. Perhaps the word "we" is a rather broad description of

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those who will seek to carry the proposals through. However, I know that we have been anxious--and I am sure that others will be equally anxious--to ensure that information and helpful advice is given to ensure the successful implementation of this legislation. Against that background, I urge the House to agree with the Lords in the said amendments.

Question put, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment :--

The House divided : Ayes 179, Noes 89.

Division No. 325] [8.55 pm


Alexander, Richard

Alison, Rt Hon Michael

Amess, David

Amos, Alan

Arbuthnot, James

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Ashby, David

Atkinson, David

Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)

Baldry, Tony

Batiste, Spencer

Beggs, Roy

Bellingham, Henry

Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)

Bevan, David Gilroy

Blackburn, Dr John G.

Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter

Bottomley, Mrs Virginia

Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)

Bowis, John

Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard

Brandon-Bravo, Martin

Brazier, Julian

Bright, Graham

Brooke, Rt Hon Peter

Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)

Buck, Sir Antony

Burns, Simon

Burt, Alistair

Butler, Chris

Butterfill, John

Carlisle, John, (Luton N)

Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)

Carrington, Matthew

Carttiss, Michael

Cash, William

Chapman, Sydney

Chope, Christopher

Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)

Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)

Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Cope, Rt Hon John

Cormack, Patrick

Couchman, James

Cran, James

Currie, Mrs Edwina

Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)

Davis, David (Boothferry)

Day, Stephen

Dorrell, Stephen

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Dover, Den

Durant, Tony

Emery, Sir Peter

Fallon, Michael

Fenner, Dame Peggy

Fishburn, John Dudley

Fookes, Dame Janet

Forman, Nigel

Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)

Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)

Forth, Eric

Franks, Cecil

Freeman, Roger

French, Douglas

Gale, Roger

Garel-Jones, Tristan

Glyn, Dr Alan

Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles

Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)

Greenway, John (Ryedale)

Gregory, Conal

Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)

Ground, Patrick

Hague, William

Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)

Hanley, Jeremy

Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)

Harris, David

Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney

Hill, James

Hind, Kenneth

Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)

Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)

Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)

Hunt, David (Wirral W)

Hunter, Andrew

Irvine, Michael

Jack, Michael

Janman, Tim

Jessel, Toby

Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey

Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)

Jones, Robert B (Herts W)

Jopling, Rt Hon Michael

Kilfedder, James

King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)

Knight, Greg (Derby North)

Latham, Michael

Lawrence, Ivan

Lightbown, David

Lilley, Peter

Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)

Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)

McCrindle, Robert

MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)

McLoughlin, Patrick

Mawhinney, Dr Brian

Meyer, Sir Anthony

Miller, Sir Hal

Mills, Iain

Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)

Molyneaux, Rt Hon James

Morrison, Sir Charles

Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester)

Moss, Malcolm

Moynihan, Hon Colin

Nelson, Anthony

Neubert, Michael

Nicholls, Patrick

Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)

Oppenheim, Phillip

Page, Richard

Paice, James

Paisley, Rev Ian

Patnick, Irvine

Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth

Porter, David (Waveney)

Portillo, Michael

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