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Mr. Bellingham: I would like to praise my hon. Friend for his work on disability issues over many years, and I also praise my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing). Members of Parliament and Front Bench spokesmen on both sides of the House have worked hard on a non-party political basis. I agree that it is important that the Bill should go into Committee because we want clarification on a number of points.
I shall raise some general concerns, but first I want to examine some specific points because it is obvious that the Bill will not go into Committee in the near future. If the Minister has time when she winds up, perhaps she will clarify one or two points. Clause 6 covers disclosure, so what will be the impact of the Freedom of Information Act 2000?
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Under clause 13 on monitoring progress, as I said during my brief intervention on the Secretary of State, the commission will be required to publish a report within three years of the Bill coming into force and every three years thereafter. That will be approximately once in the lifetime of a Parliament, which is insufficient scrutiny. Perhaps we can return to that.
Will the cost of that assistance come from the commission's budget or will it be funded by the Legal Services Commission, and what is the relationship between the two? The commission for equality and human rights could be running other casesfor example, judicial review cases under clause 32and that could have a substantial impact on its budget. What would happen if it ran over budget? Will there be a supplemental budget for such legal cases and will the Legal Services Commission be involved?
Clauses 38 to 40 refer to dissolution, which is highly relevant to today's announcement, the transfer of property, rights and liabilities and to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981. What about the existing commissions' ongoing cases? It is important during the transition period that the three commissions are not deterred from launching new actions and it is equally important that existing legal actions are pursued with the usual professionalism, resources and commitment. I hope that the Minister can give an assurance on that.
Clause 34 refers to public sector duties and enables the commission to require a public authority to comply with its public sector duties covering gender, race and disability. What about the other strands of age, religion or belief and sexual orientation, to which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) alluded? Age Concern is worried about that and sees some illogicality. It believes that omission of the other strands and the relationship of public authorities in terms of their duty goes against the essence of the commission's approach.
The Secretary of State kindly wrote to me and other colleagues on 25 February announcing the Government's equalities review, which will run in tandem with the Department of Trade and Industry's discrimination law review. The equalities review will be chaired by Trevor Phillips and will report in 2006. It will review all equality legislation. Is it sensible to go ahead with the Bill before we have the findings of those reviews? We support the broad outline of the Bill, but some important reviews will report in the near future.
"the creation of the CEHR will show that the current inequality in legislative provision is untenable. A Single Equality Bill, simplifying and standardising equality legislation for all protected groups, will bring greater clarity for individuals and employers as well as equality for those groups who are lagging behind."
It is important to get the Bill right and it might be better to have one really good Bill following the outcome of those reviews. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that.
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"The DRC believes that a CEHR cannot be fully effective without new legislation to level up the current provisions for the various equality strands . . . The wide disparities within current equality legislation will result in different groups of people having different levels of protection."
Helen Jackson: In light of the current circumstances and the detailed examination that the Conservatives have given to their spending plans if they were to form a Government, have they earmarked expenditure for these provisions and will they support and push for them, or will they be among the £35 billion of cuts?
Mr. Bellingham: That is a red herring. We have made it clear that we will streamline the Department of Trade and Industry and cut some of its funds. Its budget and the number of staff have risen sharply over the past eight years and there will be plenty of money around for important legislation and maintaining priorities. If I am fortunate enough to be in the position of the Minister of State and in charge of the legislation, the DTI team will do what it can to ensure that those priorities are maintained.
Chris Bryant: I want to take a different tack, but before doing so, I have to say that it is a delight to hear the hon. Gentleman citing Stonewall in this Chamber. He would not have done so five or 10 years ago and we are enormously grateful for that change in the Conservative party in recent months.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said earlier from a sedentary position that the Conservatives would introduce a similar Bill soon after the general election. If he can do so with a straight face, will the hon. Gentleman say how quickly they might introduce such legislation when they win the general election?
Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Gentleman mentions the word "when"; perhaps he has seen the opinion poll in the Financial Times today. Obviously, I cannot pre-empt what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) will do in his first Queen's Speech, but our Front-Bench spokesmen and spokeswomen feel strongly about the Bill and will do all we can to pursue its important priorities if the electorate give us the mandate.
On disability rights and the work of the DRC, I recently had a useful meeting with the West Norfolk disability information serviceWNDISand its representatives, Mr. Jonathan Toye and Mr. Brian Reed. They expressed concern that the new commission will not have the same focus, bite, and detailed and expert knowledge that the DRC has. We discussed at some length how the disability rights functions of the new commission will work. I feel, as they did, that the commission must reflect the unique and complex nature of disability as well as the distinctive legislative provisions on disability. Incidentally, they do a superb job helping disabled people in my constituency, explaining what their rights are, sponsoring cases in
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which there has been injustice and a breach of those rights, explaining to local businesses exactly what they should be doing, and working with local public bodies. We discussed the importance of the commission having a dedicated disability committee, and I should like the Minister to elaborate on that and to put at rest the minds of two excellent and hard-working constituents of mine who are concerned that the DRC's expertise and professionalism should be continued.
Is there a real possibility that the other strands will also want their own dedicated committees? I have always been in favour of a federal approach, under which the commission would be an umbrella body focusing on cross-cutting and shared issues together with units and appointed committees, with executive powers, concerned with each strand. Whether it is too late to go down that route, I do not know, but there is the obvious precedent of the disability committee.
We support the idea of a one-stop shop. We find it attractive, and it has been welcomed by a lot of organisations, such as the CBI, which has not always supported what the Government have done, but which said:
"The current approach is often confusing, time consuming and does not offer adequate support for issues crossing over different equality strands. A single commission would have the advantage of being a simple 'one-stop shop' for advice on all equality issues, presenting a joined-up approach that could help rationalise support."
"The Government expects members of the . . . board and senior management team to include people with experience of business and management to help ensure that, as an organisation, it is equipped to engage constructively."
We certainly support that, particularly bearing in mind the importance of small businesses, which represent 99 per cent. of all firms. They generate 52 per cent. of the country's wealth, and many prefer to work through intermediaries. That is why it is vital that the commission should make a special effort to work with those intermediaries so that it is able to get through to the small businesses that are such an important part of our wealth creation.
There is no reason why the commission cannot develop as an authoritative and credible body. Merging different organisations into one should lead to efficiencies. I am well aware that the start-up costs of any new super-commission will be substantial. I understand that they will be in excess of £24 million. The transfer of undertakings will obviously be expensive, and there will be a need for new IT systems. However, given that the three existing strands will come into one body, even though there are three new strands and even though human rights work will come in, economies of scale should surely lead to a lowering of costs.
I do not understand why the DTI will not insist that a really impressive example is set here. Yet, page 47 of the explanatory notes to the Bill makes it quite clear that the estimated annual budget of the new commission when fully operationalnot before 2007, and possibly laterwill be £70 million. That is up from a combined
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budget of the existing commissions of £43 million. Most of the extra cost will be down to the extra staff, but there surely could be substantial savings on staff. In rationalising and merging IT departments and other departments, such as public relations, there should surely be a case for a more streamlined operation. I should have thought we could easily consider the new commission employing fewer than 500 staff and still doing a really good job. Surely the Secretary of State should at least try to deliver that and to set an example.
In theory, merging and consolidating existing regulators into a new super-regulator should lead to more efficiency and a simplified service. On the other hand, if one thinks of recent history, that has not always been the case. Consider the Financial Services Authority, whose handbook now runs to more than 8,000 pages. Can it really be said that the FSA is better run and more user friendly than some of its predecessor bodies, such as the Investment Management Regulatory Organisation and the Life Assurance and Unit Trust Regulatory Organisation? The DTI should do its level best to set a good example of a state-of-the-art, efficient organisation that offers really good value for money.
On the subject, incidentally, of the DTI setting a good example, the Secretary of State mentioned that diversity is important. Why, therefore, do a significant majority of DTI officials60 per cent. in a recent surveynot agree with the statement:
The Secretary of State has rightly said that it is important to narrow the gender pay gap, and we feel strongly about that. Why, then, is there still a 16 per cent. difference between male and female salaries at the DTI, a figure only marginally better than the national average? Surely that should concern the Secretary of State.
We are, to some extent, in a slightly surreal situation. We are debating a vital matter, an issue of great importance to millions of people. Yet everyone knows that we are putting up a fac"ade this afternoon and that the Bill will go nowhere. That is why it is important that the Bill should be brought back at an early stage after the election.
I should make one point to the Secretary of State. We have made it clear all along that we support the Bill. The Liberal Democrats also support the Bill. Yet quite a few Bills have been brought before the House in this Session that did not command cross-party support. Why was not this Bill given greater priority? Why did not the Government bring it forward months ago? We would have supported it, and it could be on the statute book. I do not understand that at all. It does not seem to make any sense. There were no logical, technical or practical reasons why it could not have been brought forward.
As an Opposition, we feel strongly that everyone should be given fair treatment. Discrimination of any kind is morally wrong. It destroys lives; it breaks up families; it ruins health. It also destroys wealth, because the most valuable asset of any business is its employees. If they are undervalued, undermined or discriminated against, how can they give of their best? If their lives are falling apart because their home life is a misery, how can they go to work with motivation and commitment?
We want everyone to be given every possible opportunity to reach the maximum fulfilment of their lives, free of any kind of discrimination, free of any kind
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of abuse and free of any kind of prejudice. We respect and support much of the work that the Government have done, but we are equally proud of our own party's record, especially on disability, and particularly of the work done by the late right hon. Nick Scott when he was Minister for Social Security and Disabled People and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) when he was in that post. Our party has an excellent record on these issues, and that is why, if we do win the support of the electorate, we will continue with that work.
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