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Mr. Forth: I am bit worried about the phrase that the hon. Lady has just used. She said that if no compensation is paid, that is all right. Surely the whole point about the phrase the "compensation culture" and the debate about the Bill is that, in encouraging people excessively to make claims, to lay blame or to seek compensation even if they fail, we add burdens to the judicial process, the business community and so on. That is the problem on which we must remain focused. Her Government, her Prime Minister and her Chancellor of the Exchequer repeat over and over again the need for us to remain competitive. If we do not keep a close eye on this sort of thing, it will run counter to that aim.

Lyn Brown: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point. The point that I am attempting to make—and perhaps have made badly—is that if one has suffered a wrong, one deserves compensation for the wrong that has been wrought. I accept that we need to be competitive in business, but I also believe that one of the things that we have not covered today is the fact that people who have been wronged deserve compensation. We need to find a way of ensuring that they receive that compensation. I am sure that Members on both sides accept that there were wrongs in the cases that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) described. In such cases, compensation needs to be paid.

There have been suggestions in the debate that those suffering discrimination do not deserve representation, advice or assistance and that this Bill is political correctness gone mad. Again, I do not subscribe to that belief. I have seen references in the media to vexatious claims, but such assumptions are a reflection of attitude, not fact.

I do not believe, however, that the Bill is the right way forward. It is built on the supposition that, with legal aid not available to workers in employment tribunals, workers are left with little support outside themselves. That is just not the case. Whereas there is no provision of financial help for representation in employment tribunals, there is support from a number of bodies—the equality commissions, legal advice services and no win, no fee lawyers—even though there are clearly difficulties with such avenues.

The role of ACAS in dispute resolution in workplace processes cannot be ignored, and I have used its services successfully on a number of occasions and, in particular, in support of a small business in my constituency. What this Bill intends to do is create another body to help fund discrimination legal cases. This would be in addition to the intended new single equality body, the new commission for equality and human rights whose remit includes funding strategic cases and contributing to the simplification of discrimination law. The possibility for
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confusion would be obvious, because the tribunal representation and assistance board would cut across beneficial strategic planning. Increasing funding for both current and new equality bodies would be better than establishing a new board at this time. It would also be better to support the legal aid service. I concur wholeheartedly with the principle behind the Bill—the protection of the vulnerable at work—but I cannot agree with the remedy that it offers.

1.40 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I affirm my support for the principle of fair access to justice, which the Bill tries to promote. I also accept, unlike several Conservative Members, that there is widespread discrimination in British society—sometimes to a shocking extent. Ensuring that people have fair access to justice is a crucial element of the drive to tackle that discrimination. However, I am not convinced that the Bill would be a means to tackle the problem.

Mr. Harper: It is clear from successful tribunal cases that people suffer discrimination in the workplace to some extent, but can the hon. Lady cite any evidence for her assertion that there is an enormous or shocking amount of discrimination in British society?

Kerry McCarthy: Several hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh), cited cases that have been brought that give us concrete evidence that discrimination exists.

I accept that some cases that get to tribunal should perhaps not have got all the way there. There has been a marked increase in the number of discrimination claims made over the past five years. Some 83,500 claims were brought in 1999–2000 and although the figure for 2004–05 rose to just under 147,000, the total number of successful claims barely increased. The number of sex discrimination cases that have been dealt with has jumped from 3,809 in 1999–2000 to 16,211 in 2004–05. Some 12,500 more cases have been considered, but only 66 more have been successful. Something is clearly wrong with the system at the moment.

Why are so many discrimination cases failing? Some of my colleagues would suggest that it is due to poor representation and that the Bill would thus be a way of addressing that problem, while some Conservative Members have suggested that it is because the cases are fundamentally ill-founded. Before we consider setting up such a body as the tribunal representation and assistance board and funding access to justice in the way proposed in the Bill, we need to investigate more closely why such claims are not successful.

Hon. Members have already pointed out that clause 3 would mean that the Lord Chancellor would be expected to write out a cheque to meet whatever the estimate of the board's financial needs might be. The Bill is inherently optimistic because it says that the Lord Chancellor would be expected to provide

It is difficult to envisage a scenario in which the Lord Chancellor would choose to pay more than he had been asked.
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There is no way of assessing what the Lord Chancellor would be asked to pay because there are no means-testing provisions in the Bill. There are pretty much no merit-testing provisions either because not only accredited bodies, but non-accredited bodies, may be funded. It is difficult to understand why the principle of means-testing does not apply to the Bill because it seems to chime perfectly with the Labour party principle of targeting the most help on those who need it most. Means-testing applies to other forms of legal assistance, so why does it not apply to the Bill?

Two recent high-profile cases demonstrate my point. Elizabeth Weston, who was a solicitor earning £60,000 a year at Merrill Lynch, took the firm to court for a discrimination claim and was awarded £1 million in an out-of-court settlement. Perhaps I should declare an interest because I used to work for Merrill Lynch, although I had no grounds to think about taking out a claim against it. Elizabeth Weston was quite capable of representing herself at the hearing and paying for legal advice, but she would have been entitled to free legal advice under the Bill. An executive at Merrill Lynch who earned roughly £1 million a year also took the company to tribunal, although she lost her sex discrimination case. Are we really saying that someone like that should be entitled to free help and legal representation? I do not understand the justification for that.

Mr. Harper: On the subject of means-testing, clause 12(4) specifically rules out anyone being eligible for help if they are receiving assistance from a trade union in connection with the complaint, but still allows help to be given if someone is getting help from another source, such as a solicitor or a citizens advice bureau. As the hon. Lady says, it does not mention finding out whether someone has means themselves.

Kerry McCarthy: Exactly. The escalation of costs under the scheme could be phenomenal; there is no way of predicting what they might be. As other Members have said, costs would also be involved in duplicating current processes. For example, the Legal Services Commission already has the role of awarding quality marks, not just to private sector firms but not-for-profit organisations involved in giving advice on employment law. There would be duplication of those resources, and two bureaucracies assessing people, which might be doing exactly the same sort of work.

Above all, there is a problem with the timing of the Bill. We need to examine discrimination in the context of inequality. For example, only 57.3 per cent. of people of working age from the black and minority ethnic communities are in work, compared with 75.5 per cent. of whites. We could say that that was a clear case of discrimination, but we could also say that there are many other factors affecting those communities: 67 per cent. of people from the black and minority ethnic communities live in the 88 most deprived wards and there is economic and social deprivation, low educational achievement, cultural factors, limited employment opportunities, health inequalities and language issues. All those factors have contributed, and we have to consider them all in the round; we cannot just assume that discrimination is to blame.
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The Government are now carrying out a fairly comprehensive review of equality and discrimination law. The Equality Bill, which is going through the House of Lords, will establish a single commission for equality and human rights. There is also the discrimination law review, which is working towards single equality legislation. The Government had a manifesto commitment to bring in a single equality Act, which I understand could come before Parliament in 2007. They have also set up an equalities review, examining the underlying causes of inequality. It is chaired by Trevor Phillips, and will report to the Prime Minister in 2006. We need to put some of the points in the Bill on hold, until we have examined the underlying issues of inequality. Perhaps if we start to address some of those, we will not need to fund so many discrimination cases.

1.47 pm

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