Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is regularly referring to the absence of funding for the CRE, citizens advice bureaux and like. But those bodies are not there to act as adjudicators and lawyers themselves; part of their function is to refer to lawyers who do have access to the necessary funds, through legal aid. He is therefore proposing a duplication of something that already exists.
Mr. Singh: Yes, but I did not refer to a lack of funding of the CRE. Part of my Bill addresses the complaint that the equal opportunities bodies are not doing what they should be doinggiving support to people with discrimination claims. The problem with going to lawyers is that there is no funding available to unfair dismissal or discrimination complainants. No legal aid is available to them.
Mr. Flello : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me yet again. The Legal Services Commission websitecommunity legal services, the legal aid schemesays clearly that it funds cases relating to employment and provides help ranging from information leaflets to other services, to specialist advice and taking cases to court where necessary. I should be grateful for my hon. Friend's comments on that.
Mr. Singh: I am grateful for that intervention. Whatever is stated on that website, the reality is that for the majority of people no assistance is available, and I am on my feet today to try and redress that. [Interruption.] With the leave of the House, I shall continue.
Some hon. Members may say that this work should be covered by the existing equality bodies. That is clearly not happening. Between 2002 and 2005 there was a systematic reduction in the already small amount of money available for representation. In June 2004, the Government released figures that revealed that for 200405 the CRE had earmarked 2 per cent. of its annual budget for discrimination cases, the EOC
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3.1 per cent. and the Disability Rights Commission 5.5 per cent. That does not amount to significant support. The Equal Opportunities Commission, for example, tends to take up cases of "strategic importance", which to some extent applies to the CRE and the DRC. That is, it will support a claimant in bringing a case that will assist in setting a precedent for other cases. That is of little value unless those that follow have the resources to pursue their own complaint.
Hon. Members may also argue, as they have, that such support is a job for trade unions. I do not dispute that. My concern, however, is that union membership is not as high as many of us would like, and some groups of workers are especially vulnerable. Department of Trade and Industry figures for 2004 show that fewer than a third28.8 per cent.of workers are union members, and in the private sector fewer than a fifth17.2 per cent. Union membership is even lower for the 16 to 24 age group, at 8.9 per cent.
Mark Tami: Does my hon. Friend accept that there must be a balance and we have to be careful that while giving the appropriate rights we do not legislate unions out of existence? In countries such as France, where perhaps the terms of such legislation would go much further, trade union membership is very low indeed, apart from in a few sections of the public sector.
Mr. Singh: The reality is how I portrayed it, and I am trying to achieve a balance between those people who do get support because they are in unionsI would encourage more people to join a trade unionand the vast majority of people who are not in trade unions, who cannot access the support that they need in such cases. Young people are especially vulnerable. They are unlikely to be unionised and may face discrimination at the point of finding a job. In July 2005, Radio Five Live carried out a survey that exposed discrimination between job applicants. It sent dummy CVs to 60 companies. It found that 23 per cent. of those with "white" sounding names were offered interviews, while only 9 per cent. of applicants with Muslim names and 13 per cent. of those with African names were offered interviews. Nine years before, a young Bradford jobseeker, Tahir Hussain, had tested that himself with the same result, which resulted in 11 successful tribunal cases. In the 1980s, the charity Scope conducted a survey on similar principles in relation to disabilityand yes, the results were the same.
Kerry McCarthy : In relation to the young man from Bradford who tested the system and as a result brought 11 tribunal cases, does that not back up the fact that representation is available or that people can bring successful cases without the need for the Bill?
That was possible when support was available for that young man. That support is no longer available in Bradford or in many other parts of the country. Either we work on the desert and oases principle that was propounded beforethat we have a service in many areas of the country and we are not
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bothered if there is no service in othersor we have a national system that gives all complainants of discrimination in employment equal access to justice. There is no such system at the moment.
Some might suggest that no win, no fee arrangements are available to complainants. Such arrangements have received a bad press of late. There is no doubt that such agreements do not favour early conciliated resolution. Indeed, they are specifically geared to litigation. As well as often leading claimants into debt, they lead to gridlock in the courts. The complex financial and legal processes involved are often misunderstood by complainants. There is widespread mis-selling of legal insurance products. Complainants are subjected to high-pressure sales tactics by unqualified salesmen. Inappropriate marketing and sales practices are usedfor example, with salesmen approaching accident victims in hospital.
Few complainants seem to understand the risks and liabilities that they are exposing themselves to when they are misled into thinking the system will be genuinely conducted on a no win, no fee arrangement. They often find that there are hidden and unpredictable costs. Loan-financed insurance premiums, in addition to other legal costs, can often wipe out claimants' compensation. In some cases, complainants even owe money at the end of the process. So we can see that discrimination in employment is widespread and begins at the point of application. The existing equality bodies allocate a pitifully small portion of their budgets to casework support, and the number of cases is accordingly small.
Mr. Heald: It is clause 4, but not that one. Clause 4 suggests that the board shall accredit bodies to tender for the work of providing assistance. Clause 5(5) suggests that, if the board is not satisfied that it is appropriate to select accredited bodies, it can select a non-accredited body. What is the point of all the accreditation work if the board can choose whoever it wants?
Mr. Singh: The board cannot quite choose whoever it wants. The accredited body in a certain area may have failed some of the monitoring tests, so to provide a service, the board would need to invite other tenders.
In summary, the Bill provides for an independent, adequately funded not-for-profit service to give specialist support on employment discrimination cases. That can be achieved without necessarily allocating new money, but rather by transferring funds from existing sources, which would be timely given that those bodies are being restructured. Integral to the Bill are provisions to ensure that that support is properly monitored, accredited and regulated.
"In a mixed economy of services, access to justice is best promoted through a diversity of pathways to legal redress. Tribunals are often described as a cheaper more accessible and user-friendly forum of adjudication; the various tribunals handle
Citizens Advice has also reported more generally on access to justice. In its report on community legal services, it found that 27 per cent. of citizens advice bureaux had difficulty in finding solicitors to deal with employment cases. Employment tribunals are intended to ensure that both parties are on a level footing. It is widely acknowledged that the law on this issue has become increasingly complex and frequently places the complainant at a disadvantage where employers have access to lawyers and barristers.
"Employment law also grows ever more complex, with the addition of new employment rights, and there is also a growing trend, first highlighted in Citizens Advice's 1995 report "Barriers to Justice", for employers at industrial tribunals to be represented by barristers or solicitors, again putting unrepresented applicants at a severe disadvantage."