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Several hon. Members rose—

Meg Munn: I shall make a little more progress before taking more interventions. I am very pleased that there is such a lot of interest in this issue.

The new commission will give Britain a body dedicated to supporting and protecting human rights for the first time. It will have specific powers and duties to advance a human rights culture based on respect for individual rights and the worth of each person.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Will the Minister give way?

Meg Munn: If the hon. Lady will be patient, I want to make a little more progress.

Bringing equality and human rights together will help us to provide better protection for the most vulnerable in our society, such as elderly people in care homes. The commission will encourage compliance and good practice by public authorities with obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998, thereby helping to make fair and decent treatment the norm.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Meg Munn: I want to make some progress.

Such efforts will help to bring human rights out of the courtroom and into the fabric of public services.

Several hon. Members rose—

Meg Munn: I give way to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke).

Annette Brooke: I thank the Minister for giving way. Will she consider including in the Bill an explicit reference to children, and does she agree that without such a reference, there is a danger that any such organisation might ignore children's needs and rights, or give them insufficient attention?

Meg Munn: I do not agree. Children are people and this Bill is for all people. It is important that they be considered along with everybody else, so I would resist including a specific reference to children. It is enormously important that clear guidelines and
 
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procedures be established for the commission's working with the children's commissioners. We expect that to be achieved through memorandums of understanding.

Several hon. Members rose—

Meg Munn: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber).

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Given that, to judge by past experience, the commission will put a considerable amount of effort into dealing with employment issues, and given that one concern is dispute resolution, we will need the commission to include people with experience of such issues. Will my hon. Friend therefore consider extending to the new commission the existing commissions' practice of having experienced people from both sides of industry? Such people also have wide experience of discrimination and prejudice issues. I hope that she will continue that practice—an idea for which the Bill does not currently provide.

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend raises an issue of detail, and I should be grateful if she held on to that thought until I come to the relevant part of my speech, as I am about to do. First, I give way to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth).

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have to say that, as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Scot, middle-class male heterosexual, I feel that we are increasingly becoming the persecuted who might be in need of protection. The Bill is nothing if not the ultimate manifesto in political correctness. She said that it will apply to public authorities. Can she explain why, for some obscure reason, this place, the other place, the Security Service and the authorities of both Houses are exempt from all this absurdity? Does that not undermine the whole case for this absurd and ridiculous Bill, which should be consigned to the dustbin now?

Meg Munn: I am enjoying this more than I expected to; the Conservatives' arguments are indeed interesting. The Bill's application to public authorities is a matter of detail and if the hon. Gentleman, to whom I was extraordinarily polite, can hold on to his question, we can consider it a little later.

I now turn to the detail of the Bill. It comes to this House following thorough scrutiny in the other place. During that process, the Government showed that they were willing to listen to proposals for improving the Bill, and to amend it accordingly. I have already mentioned a key example—the inclusion of a new part 3, which provides a power to make regulations prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Other important improvements include strengthening the independence of the new commission; integrating more closely the commission's duties and functions in relation to disabled people with its duties and functions in relation to other groups; and bringing provisions in part 2 on religion and belief more closely into line with existing legislation. Part 1 establishes the commission for equality and human rights and defines its purposes and functions, including its enforcement powers. It will build on the achievements of
 
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the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, which have worked tirelessly to keep equality issues high on the policy agenda. Through their work, they have made real and practical differences to people' lives.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Is the Minister aware of the criticism of Lord Ouseley in the other place, who says that it would be possible for the commission to be an all-male, all-white body? That is most unlikely, but the Government should address that structural problem. The Minister said that she wanted to advance existing race equality work, but is that not best done by a race equality committee and a race equality commissioner?

Meg Munn: Again, my hon. Friend has anticipated something that I shall deal with shortly.

The Commission's general duty set out in clause 3 sums up our equality and human rights vision—to encourage and support the development of a society where everyone can achieve their potential unlimited by prejudice and discrimination, where there is respect for the dignity and worth of every individual, and where there is mutual respect between groups based on the understanding and valuing of diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights.

David T.C. Davies rose—

Philip Davies rose—

Meg Munn: I will give way to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).

Philip Davies: Will the Minister comment on the fact that in the past 10 years the Commission for Racial Equality has faced about 20 claims of racial discrimination from its employees, some of which have been settled out of court with taxpayers' money? Does she think that that record justifies using even more taxpayers' money to bolster that organisation?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman should read the Bill's provisions more closely.

Clauses 1 to 7, together with schedule 1, establish the new commission and set out provisions concerning its constitution, membership, planning, consulting and reporting arrangements, as well as other internal machinery. Schedule 1 provides for at least one commissioner to be a disabled person, and for a disability committee to oversee the commission's disability-specific work. The disability committee, which will be subject to a review under the Bill, will build on the work of the Disability Rights Commission and will reflect the unique aspects of disability law including, for example, the requirement to make reasonable adjustments. The schedule also specifies that there must be commissioners with special knowledge of Scotland and Wales, and committees to steer the commission's work in Scotland and Wales. That is right for modern Britain, where the devolution settlement recognises the different social, cultural and political contexts of those countries. The Government want to allow the
 
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commission as free a hand as possible in the way in which it structures and organises its activities, which was an issue of concern in the other place.

Turning to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), the Bill gives the commission complete discretion to establish committees and delegate functions to them as it sees fit. It can establish committees to provide a voice for specific groups, to bring in specific expertise, or for any other purpose. It is better for the commission to make those decisions, rather than impose committees through the Bill. Clauses 8 to 12 set out the commission's duties in relation to equality and diversity, human rights, and good relations between groups, as well as its duty to monitor the law and undertake a regular equality health check for Britain.


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