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Mr. Singh: The point of the Bill is not to have deserts and oases, but to establish a constant pattern of support across the country, which does not exist at the moment. If we leave it to existing bodies, I do not believe that we will see much further action taken: it has not happened so far. If the Scottish Parliament has addressed the issue by extending legal aid, is it not incumbent on our Parliament to extend similar rights of access to justice to complainants of discrimination in this country?
Huw Irranca-Davies: But would my hon. Friend accept that, as he said in his opening remarks, Scotland has dealt with the matter by increasing funding and legal aid? There may well be a case for filling in the gaps in the deserts of legal advice, but that is quite different from what is being presented here today.
My hon. Friend will realise that in a private Member's Bill we cannot ask for new money, so that avenue was not open to me. The two cases I cited would not have been brought without the northern
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complainants aid fund, which highlights why we need help and advice in a statutory framework for the whole country.
Mr. Singh: An extension of legal aid in Scotland has put money into lawyers' pockets, but my Bill is a not for profit measure that will involve lay people and not simply lawyers, who would be involved only in certain circumstances at the very end of the process. That is the difference between what I am proposing and what happened due to the extension of legal aid in Scotland.
Mr. Singh: I am not entirely sure about that, but if that is so my approach is better than the Scottish approach because it will give direct help, advice and representation to people who need it and who have a viable case.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I have been listening carefully to the case that the hon. Gentleman is putting to the House. We need to consider what he is saying in context and it seems to me that he is being a little careless about the question of costs in his Bill. Costs will be involved in setting up the board and whoever the board appoints. Even worse, in the wider context of paragraph (v), subsection (f), clause 13, the costs of those attending the tribunal would also be met, irrespective of whether they had a proper case. The case might be vexatious or the complainants might be liars but their costs would still be paid. Can the hon. Gentleman give the House some idea of what he expects his Bill to cost the Exchequer?
Mr. Singh: No. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information, but codes of practice would be drawn up by the board so that the type of case he cites would not go through. The system would be accountable and, to be part of it, bodies would have to prove that they were efficient and effective in mounting cases.
Age discrimination is on the increase. By 2006, there will be more people aged between 55 and 64 than 16 to 24, and 45 to 59-year-olds will form the largest group in the labour force. However, discrimination affects both older and younger workers. The young are least likely to have access to representation, especially when they are entering the job market for the first time.
Other forms of discrimination include homophobia and religion. All result in lost output to the economy, which is impossible to quantify and an unacceptable blight on social cohesion and human rights. Indeed, fighting discrimination is so difficult, as we have seen, that almost half all discrimination cases are withdrawn compared with a quarter of unfair dismissal claims. Behind those figures lies a picture of misery and lost
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potential. If even a small percentage of those cases were withdrawn due to lack of representation, it is tantamount to a national disgrace.
My previous intervention was a little careless in that I said that the costs were Exchequer costs. They are not. They are directly attributable to the Lord Chancellor because a private Member's Bill cannot include increased costs to the Exchequer; ipso facto, all the costs that the hon. Gentleman cannot quantify will come from the budget of the Lord Chancellor and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. What does he think should be cut from that budget at present to pay the costs of his Bill?
Mr. Singh: The Bill is about principles; it is about access to justice and whether we believe in that. If we followed the hon. Gentleman's argument on costs, we would not be providing access to justice for many groups of people. The principle of the Bill is not finance; it is about providing access to justice for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend read a brief but appropriate list of groups of people who suffer discrimination. A fortnight ago, I visited a group in my constituency, the Yellow project, which deals with young, single, homeless males who are liable to suffer particular forms of discrimination in the work force. Although my hon. Friend's Bill has entirely appropriate aims and principles behind it, I am not clear how it would reach such people in a way that current provisions do not.
Mr. Singh: The group in my hon. Friend's constituency may have support, but support for various groups of people is patchy across the country; for example, it does not exist in my constituency, in Bradford. The whole point of the Bill is to set up a national framework of help and support that is consistent throughout the country.
Mr. Paterson: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time, but his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) was totally unsatisfactory. There is a given pot in the Lord Chancellor's Department to deliver justice, yet, for example, in paragraph 10 of schedule 1 we see that the board will pay the chairman and any other appropriate staff. What analysis has the hon. Gentleman made of the real cost of that and what impact will it have on other aspects of justice? How do we know that other people who want legal services will not be prejudiced by that quango, the financing of which seem to be open-ended?
Mr. Singh: The financing of the board will come from existing equal opportunities bodies. As those bodies will be merged under the Equality Bill, the board could be part and parcel of that reconstruction.
I want to turn to some of the specific principles that underpin the Bill. Recent legislation and policy guidance have demonstrated a trend toward discouraging litigation in favour of dispute resolution. We have seen that in the revised employment tribunals regulations and the Employment Act 2002. I am in favour of that, provided that it genuinely works to resolve discrimination rather than simply pushing complainants into withdrawing genuine claims. It must not be an excuse to conceal or bury discrimination. My Bill will ensure that that does not happen.
The Bill's provisions will provide the best possible support for complainants; they are not about lining the pockets of the legal profession. The Bill explicitly does not provide for lawyers and barristers as the first recourse, but for specialist help that is properly accredited and monitored. Many claims are settled without a tribunalas many as 46 per cent. for unfair dismissal, 49 per cent. for disability discrimination and almost 40 per cent. of equal pay claims.
An employment lawyer, quoted in The Guardian in July 2004, estimated that 85 per cent. of employment claims are settled out of courta strong indication that the majority of complainants would prefer a conciliated settlement. Few actually want their day in court; they want to exercise their human right to access to justice and to redress discrimination and unfair employment practices. There will of course be a few cases where lawyers are necessary, but the process will ensure that it is only when they are really justified.
Since the 1990s, we have seen an emphasis on fostering development in the voluntary and not-for-profit sector. While this confers a valuable and desirable degree of independence, it is vital to ensure that the service delivered is to a high standard. The Bill aims to do just that.
We are all well aware of the sterling work carried out by many voluntary bodies, such as Citizens Advice and law centres, which undertake a range of advice services and are frequently constrained by lack of adequate funding. A quote from Citizens Advice illustrates this. Citizens advice bureaux place great emphasis on mediation, negotiation and settlements, use of tribunals, ombudsman schemes and other alternative dispute resolution procedures where these are effective. But, as I mentioned, they are constrained, not only by the total amount of funding they have overall, but restrictions on how it can be used, and
"there are no incentives or rewards for publicly funded practitioners to pursue these avenues for clients. For example Citizen's Advice Bureaux are currently limited in the amount of contract time they can claim for dealing with correspondence on behalf of clients, which may be essential to negotiate a resolution, and can prevent the client being taken to court in debt cases".
I also draw attention to an example from my constituency. The northern complainants aid fund was founded in 1991 by a group of former complainants in Bradford. Between 1992 and 2003, the NCAF represented complainants in 110 successful discrimination cases at employment tribunals and negotiated settlements in hundreds more cases. It also provided training for union staff and others working on
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discrimination and in 1993 was described by the CRE as a best practice model. The landmark Birmingham pregnancy discrimination case that I mentioned earlier, which stimulated the Equal Opportunities Commission research, was brought by the NCAF. Yet, because of cuts in funding for complainant aid, in 2003 it was forced to suspend direct assistance.
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