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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con):
It is a pleasure to follow the contribution of the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who speaks on this subject with a lot of passion. I should also declare my interests, which are stated in the Register of Members' Interests.
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I had the privilege of leading for the Opposition on this Bill before the general election. On 5 April, I made the Opposition opening speech, in response to the speech of the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt). Since then, she has been awarded a remarkable promotionshe is now the Secretary of State for Healthwhereas I have moved into the obscurity of the Whips Office. That might be something to do with the speech I made at that time. It received the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), but I do not know if it was read by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), and for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)
I support the broad principles of the Bill. It must make sense to bring the different commissions together into one body, and to add the additional strands of sexual orientation, religion or belief, and age. My party has had grave reservations about the legislation on human rights, but given that no body is charged with the promotion of human rights, it must make sense for that to go to this new commission.
I would like the Minister to address clause 13 on monitoring progress. I understand that the commission will be required to publish a report within three years of the Bill coming into force, and every three years thereafter. That will be approximately once in the lifetime of a Parliament. Is that sufficient scrutiny, or does the Minister feel that the report should be produced more regularly?
John Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that the best forum for the exercise of scrutiny is this House? Therefore, would it be a helpful indication of the Government's good intent if the Minister were to suggest a willingness to consider an annual parliamentary debate on the progress made by the commission?
Mr. Bellingham: As always, my hon. Friend comes up with an intelligent and sensible suggestion, but surely the debate in Parliament would have more impact if it were to debate a report by the commission. That is something that we can discuss in Committee, although that is not an offer to serve at this stage.
Clauses 36 to 38 refer to dissolution, the transfer of property, rights and liabilities, and to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981. What about the existing commissions' ongoing cases? It is important during the transition period that the three commissions are not deterred from launching new actions, and it is equally important that existing legal actions are pursued with the usual professionalism,
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resources and commitment. What is the Minister's view on that, and can she perhaps suggest that at least those particular points will be taken care of?
The then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry wrote to several MPs in February, announcing the Government's equalities review, which will run in tandem with the Department of Trade and Industry's discrimination law review. The equalities review will be chaired by Trevor Phillips and will report in 2006 at the earliest. It will review all equality legislation, so is it sensiblea point made well by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry)to go ahead with the Bill before we see the findings of those reviews? I and my Front-Bench colleagues support the broad outlines of the Bill, but it is vital to get it right in every respect, so it would be sensible to await the findings of the review.
John Bercow: My hon. Friend is being exceedingly generous in giving way, so may I gently remind him that on 5 April he was so kind and gracious from the Front Bench as to seek my advice on that point? I was not expecting him to do so but he did. He asked: should we or should we not wait? I advised him that as the decision to bring forward the Bill setting up the commission was based on substantial existing evidence acquired before the decision to initiate the inquiries, it would indeed make sense to proceed. At that point, although Hansard will not record it, I think that my hon. Friend nodded.
Mr. Bellingham: I certainly did: I remember the exchange very well. However, I am concerned that we shall have to come back with further legislation at some point in the future. DTI Ministers will have to look at that point extremely carefully.
I recently held a useful meeting on disability rights and the work of the Disability Rights Commission with the West Norfolk disability information serviceWNDISand its representatives, Mr. Jonathan Toye and Mr. Brian Reed. They expressed concern that the new commission would not have the same focus, bite and detailed expert knowledge as the existing DRC. We discussed at some length how the disability rights functions of the new commission will work. They do much important work in my constituency and, like me, feel strongly that the new commission must reflect the unique and complex nature of disability, as well as the distinctive legislative provisions on disability. I congratulate them on their work in my constituency, representing individuals and explaining to local businesses exactly what the law says, and helping people with problems in a way that is constructive and invariably sensitive to the needs of business and wealth creation while supporting people with legitimate concerns. Will the Minister comment on that?
"The current approach is often confusing, time-consuming and does not offer adequate support for issues crossing over different equality strands. A single commission would have the advantage of being a simple 'one-stop shop' for advice on all equality issues, presenting a joined-up approach that could help rationalise support."
I support that point of view, but like the CBI I am concerned about a point that has been made eloquently from our Front-Bench colleagues and by several of my
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hon. Friends. Yes, there will be substantial start-up costs for the new body; I understand that Ministers are looking at a figure of £24 million. Obviously, the transfer of undertakingsTUPEwill be expensive. New IT systems will need to be set up. Whenever a new organisation is created and various commissions and bodies are moved into a new quango, there will be requirements for updating facilities, such as moving into a new building and so on. Those are the one-off costs, but even bearing in mind the fact that, as the Minister argued, we shall be bringing into the commission additional strands and human rights responsibilities, it should not be necessary for the existing budget of £43 million a year for the combined commissions almost to double to £70 million. Some changes will be needed, but will there really be a need for so many extra staff? A large organisation need have only one IT department, rather than the existing IT departments of the various commissions. It will need only one public relations department and one human resources department. Consolidating all those facilities and departments should bring substantial savings and economies of scale. The DTI can do better than simply saying that the new body will cost more, that there will be many more staff and the budget will be almost twice as big as the combined budgets. The Minister shakes her head, but perhaps she could focus on that question in her reply.
The Minister should look at other examples of the Government creating new consolidated regulatory bodies. The Financial Services Authority's handbook now runs to more than 8,000 pages. Can it really be said that the FSA is better run and more user-friendly than its predecessor bodies such as the Investment Management Regulatory Organisation, the Life Assurance and Unit Trust Regulatory Organisation and the many other bodies that formed the FSA? The DTI can set a better example; it is after all the Department of wealth creation and of business. If the Department really wants to show business that it is serious about offering the taxpayer value for money, it should look at the costs of the new organisation and the number of staff to be employed in it.
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