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Huw Irranca-Davies: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Singh: I should like to make progress.
Research shows that representation can make a real difference to the outcomes of tribunals. It has long been the view of the CABs that their clients would benefit from funded representation at tribunals, that in many cases achieving a positive resolution at tribunal stage saves further expense at a later stage and that tribunal representation should be treated in the funding code on a similar basis to legal representation.
Equalities work is set to become yet more complex. It is an expanding area, with new strands being incorporatedfor example, age discrimination and transgender issues. Legislative provisions for age discrimination are due in 2006. Legislation passed in 2003 addressed religion and sexual orientation, and transgender discrimination regulations were introduced in 1999.
I am conscious that some may fear that Britain is developing a compensation culture, but that is outside the scope of my Bill, as it largely relates to injury claims, rather than discrimination claims. However, a closer examination of news reports finds that that assertion originated with the CBI in August 2001. The Better Regulation Task Force has exploded that myth, which is largely a matter of perception rather than substance. The cost associated with legal cases in this country as a proportion of gross domestic product is among the lowest in the world at 0.6 per cent.
As I said earlier, most complainants do not want their day in court but the means to exercise their statutory rights. Therefore, there are three main strands to my Bill. While providing long overdue support to victims of discrimination in employment, it will promote conciliation and arbitration. That will reduce, not
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increase, litigation. It will be not-for-profit, while ensuring the standard of services, and it will create parity for both parties.
As Lord Irvine said as far back as 1996:
"There is no greater unfairness than the legally unrepresented applicant against the legally represented employer in industrial tribunal cases".
"Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights establishes the principle of 'equality of arms' in the context of criminal law, but arguably the principle extends to all proceedings involving the determination of civil rights and obligations. As a result of lobbying by human rights lawyers, Immigration Adjudicator and Immigration Appeal Tribunals have now been brought into the scope of Community Legal Service funding."
Writing in 1998, in the foreword to the white paper, "Modernising Justice", he also said:
"People need to have ways to uphold their rights and defend their interests in their dealings with others including employers, retailers, service providers and the state. It is not enough for people to have rights; they must be confident they can enforce those rights if need be. This was the purpose behind the Human Rights Act 1998, which enables citizens to enforce their fundamental rights through the British Courts."
Now is the time to ensure that victims of employment discrimination have the same equality of arms, so that they, too, have the necessary resources available to them to exercise and realise their human rights. We are talking about the most vulnerable people in the workplace: young people, ethnic minorities and people who have been discriminated against because of religion or gender. At election time or during the meetings that we attend, we can wear our hearts on our sleeves and say how much we oppose discrimination and how much we support equal opportunities and a multicultural society, but discrimination is still prevalent. Unless the vulnerable groups facing discrimination have access to justice, all our protestations about equality sound rather hollow. It is time to change that situation. Discrimination has no place in our society; it has no place in a civilised society.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) on his success in the ballot and on presenting a Bill that highlights an important issue: public funding for employment discrimination cases. However, although he has raised a important issue, I do not believe that his Bill is the correct way to rectify the present situation. The Bill would create yet another quango: the tribunal representation and assistance board. We have far too many quangos already, and we should be getting rid of some of them, not creating yet another one. He raised the important issue of legal aid not being available for representation in employment tribunal cases in England and Wales, although it is available under certain circumstances in Scotland, but there is no need to create yet another quango to address the matter.
I fully support what the hon. Gentleman says about quangos in general, so will he support the moves by the Welsh Assembly Government
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to try to get rid of some of the superfluity of quangos? At the moment, those moves are being opposed by his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I am afraid that that is not a point that can be answered in this debate.
Mr. Reid: I believe in devolution. It is for Wales to sort out the matter for itself; I do not propose to interfere.
The functions that the Bill proposes to give to the new board could just as well be carried out by existing quangosby the Legal Services Commission or the Scottish Legal Aid Board. In most cases, legal aid is not appropriate for employment tribunals. There is, however, one exception, which I will come to later. Employment tribunal hearings were not intended to be as formal as a court of law. They were designed so that the parties could represent themselves or be represented by lay representatives. Indeed, two of the three members of the tribunal are usually lay members.
Appeals on a point of law can be made to employment appeal tribunals where parties are entitled to apply for legal aid, and parties may also be entitled to legal aid to help prepare them for employment tribunals. As employment tribunals are meant to be accessible to people who are representing themselves, I support the general principle that public funding should not be available for legal aid in most cases.
There is, however, one exception. That is on those rare occasions when the tribunal hearing will involve complex legal issues so that detailed and effective presentation are required for a case to have any hope of success. In such complex cases, the lack of legal representation could well amount to non-compliance with article 6.1 of the European convention on human rights, which is the right to a fair trial.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the vast majority of tribunal cases are covered by just two or three pieces of case law? The cases to which he refers are few in number, if not unique.
Mr. Reid: I certainly agree that the complex cases to which I am referring are very rare, but they will undoubtedly occur from time to time.
Mark Tami: Is that not the point? We should be concentrating on the very complex cases and not opening everything up. We should try to ensure that people do not get to that point and, through the work of trade union representatives and discussions with employers, we should try to resolve the issues before they reach the tribunal stage. That should not be the first port of call.
Mr. Reid: I entirely agree; that should be the approach. However, a very small number of complex cases will arise, and that was recognised in Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman said in an earlier intervention.
In Scotland, legal aid is available only for a very small number of complex cases. The Scottish Executive introduced the Advice and Assistance (Assistance by
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Way of Representation) (Scotland) Regulations 2003. They give the Scottish Legal Aid Board powers to award legal aid for proceedings before an employment tribunal in cases where the board is satisfied that, first, the case is arguable; that, secondly, it is reasonable in the particular circumstances of the case that assistance by way of representation be made available; and, thirdly, that the case is too complex to allow the applicant to present it to a minimum standard of effectiveness in person. In reaching its decision, the board has also to take into account the fact that the applicant may be unable to understand the proceedings or to state his own case because of age, inadequate knowledge of English, mental illness or other mental or physical disability.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman accept my contention that although in this important debate a very powerful case has been made on the extent of discrimination that remains in the work force, we still have not got to the nub of the issue? How many are disfranchised from being able to bring such cases? He talks about exceptional cases, but I am still not convinced. Given the mass of discrimination that there may be, how many cases are being stopped? What is his perception of the scale of the problem?
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