Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Harper: That was a very helpful question and reply but I remain a little confused. As I hope later to discuss, quite a lot of taxpayer-funded organisations can already provide advice for those who need to go to employment tribunals. What on earth is the point in setting up this new organisation, cannibalising funding for the existing organisations and shifting it to another layer of bureaucracy, just so that the new organisation can provide advice that is already being provided? That seems a bizarre idea.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): It is very new Labour.

Mr. Singh: As I said earlier, the advice available for people who have suffered employment discrimination is very patchy. The equal opportunities bodies are not providing a national system of access to justice, and it is not a question of cannibalising funding for them. The point that this House must address, and which I shall deal with later, is that such bodies have not been spending enough of their budgets on helping those at the chalk-face who are suffering from employment
14 Oct 2005 : Column 532
discrimination. We need to ensure that complainants have the access to justice that they currently lack, despite the existence of equal opportunities bodies.

Mr. Harper: If the existing bodies, which receive a lot of money from the taxpayer, are performing as poorly as the hon. Gentleman suggests, what are they doing with their time?

Mr. Singh: I am sure that those bodies do a lot of important work in raising awareness of such issues, and so on, but I am not here to speak about what they do or do not do, except in the context of providing representation for discrimination complainants. Those bodies could doubtless answer the hon. Gentleman's questions perfectly adequately, were he to approach them.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): The Bill's supporters cite the fact that a very small percentage of the current commissions' budgets—about 2 per cent. for the Commission for Racial Equality, just over 3 per cent. for the Equal Opportunities Commission, and 5.5 per cent. for the Disability Rights Commission—goes towards directly funding discrimination cases. But is it not true that the commissions also give a lot of money directly to bodies such as racial equality councils and local community groups, so that they can fund and support those involved in discrimination cases? Do they not also spend a significant part of their budgets on carrying out formal investigations, such as the recent inquiry into discrimination in the Prison Service? As in the case of the investigation into the death of Zahid Mubarek, we can sometimes be talking about loss of life rather than discrimination, so if 25 per cent. of the budget were taken away, would it not amount to a real hit on that sort of work?

Mr. Singh: In response to my hon. Friend, the funding of racial equality councils can be quite precarious: it is supplied on an annual basis and can be taken away at any time. If the leadership complexion of the Commission for Racial Equality changes, so can its priorities. I do not believe that taking some funding away to establish the proposed board would affect the organisation's major investigations. I would argue that there is room within the budgets to accommodate my proposals as well other work in the field.

Mr. Heald: Clause 3(3) effectively says that the Lord Chancellor must pay however much money is demanded by the board that the hon. Gentleman wants to establish. The money thus comes from the budgets of other organisations that we have mentioned, yet the hon. Gentleman claims to be worried about the precariousness of their finances. Could not the provision have the effect of destroying such organisations?

Mr. Singh: I do not accept that argument at all. The important investigative work of these organisations will continue. I would like to make some progress with my speech.

I should like to provide a couple of examples to illustrate my argument. The first case relates to my own constituency and underlines two important points. First, it not only demonstrates a vivid picture of
14 Oct 2005 : Column 533
discrimination, but was directed against young Muslim women, one of whom was in her first job. Younger workers are particularly vulnerable. Secondly, it illustrates how the specialist help provided by the citizens advice bureau—the body contacted in the first instance—gave the workers the necessary confidence to take the case forward.

Four Asian young women were awarded nearly £50,000 in July 1998 in what was described as one of the most serious cases of racial discrimination against young women ever to come before an industrial tribunal in Britain. The tribunal heard an appalling catalogue of racial discrimination. The girls' wages were reduced, while white workers were moved to other jobs. Their terms and conditions were different from those of the white employees and they were systematically bullied and threatened by their white supervisor to the extent that one of them was called a "black bitch". One had been employed as a supervisor and had assumed the duties of the head supervisor, when the latter was absent, yet when the position became vacant, a white woman from another area of the company was given the job.

Asian workers in this company were instructed to undertake additional menial tasks, from which white workers doing the same job were excused. They were forbidden to speak to each other in their own language. It had been custom and practice to allow Muslim workers to carry holidays over, but that was abruptly changed, leaving the Asian women in a lottery in which only two of them could take holidays.

As the situation escalated and two of the young women were sacked, they sought the advice of the citizens advice bureau and were referred to the northern complainants aid fund. Although the company had a staff handbook, it was not readily available to the work force. White staff had time to read it, but Asian staff had to lose piece-rate pay to do so. The managing director was unaware of the CRE code of practice and staff had no training or understanding of their own equal opportunities policy. The judgment entered on their cases stated:

The second case relates to a national company. In April 2003, a south London employment tribunal found that the UK's largest rental company, Hertz, racially discriminated against Howard Morant, a black supervisor at its Victoria branch in London. For 15 months after he was employed, he was kept on a lower wage than white workers doing the same job, and less experienced workers were promoted while he and other black employees were passed over. During the course of the hearing, it emerged that, although the company claimed to be an equal opportunities employer, it had failed to train its managers in race equality. As part of the tribunal's decision, Hertz was required to provide training in race equality for its managers in Victoria and other London branches within three months. It applied particularly to managers responsible for recruitment, selection and staff appraisals.

The provision of such training is one of the main recommendations in the CRE code of practice for the elimination of racial discrimination and the promotion
14 Oct 2005 : Column 534
of equality of opportunity in employment, which was first published in 1983. Between 1983 and 2003, the CRE spent vast amounts of public funds encouraging employers such as Hertz to comply with the code and the law. Yet in the Hertz example, a single case brought by an employee—I emphasise, a single case—achieved greater compliance than the CRE managed in 20 years.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Those two cases are appalling and absolutely indefensible, but they also illustrate the fact that both were brought before an industrial tribunal, were successfully prosecuted through it and with successful outcomes. I cannot quite grasp—I would be grateful if my hon. Friend elaborated—the significance of the fact that both these cases were successful without the Bill being in place.

Mr. Singh: I am happy to respond to my hon. Friend. Both cases were taken up by the northern complainants aid fund, about which I shall say more later. That organisation no longer exists because its funding was cut. That is why I want to establish on a statutory footing a right to representation, support and advice, which will not be subject to whims of funding bodies that can pull the rug out from under one's feet at a moment's notice.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend's ambition for the Bill is entirely laudable and I recall speaking in the House several years ago about deserts of advice in parts of mid-Wales, but the issue is how best to achieve the objective without sacrificing other sectors. Could it not be argued that there should be a role for the Legal Services Commission and that the Government should seek means of filling in the gaps in the desert rather than fitting a superstructure on top, which might jeopardise other organisations? I do not want mid-Wales to have a wonderful oasis of legal advice at the risk of what is going to happen in Cardiff, Central. That is my fear.

Next Section IndexHome Page