When older people are neglected or mistreated in a care home, when medication is used as a chemical straitjacket, when relatives are told that they cannot visit because they ask awkward questions, when a married couple are separated and sent to different care homes against their wishes and when an older person is evicted from a care home, they are rarely seen as human rights issues. Such matters are often seen as poor practice or poor standardsyes, standards matter but first and foremost, they are violations of a person's human rights, which relates to the rights-based approach discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey. Twice yearly inspections by the Commission for Social Care Inspection are not the answer to violations of older people's rights and dignity. Plans are afoot to introduce an even lighter-touch inspection regime in the future, so the inspection regime will not deliver the protection of human rights.
If one crosses the threshold of a private care home, the Human Rights Act 1998 does not apply, and a person receiving services from a private body does not benefit from the protection of the 1998 Act, which was a point established in the Leonard Cheshire Foundation case.
Meg Hillier : The hon. Gentleman has made some interesting points about care in institutions. On a slightly wider point, if a worker registers with a private agency, performs badly and is asked to leave, they can register with another agency and, provided that they do not have a disciplinary record, continue to work with people. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue goes wider than rights in care homes?
Mr. Burstow: I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. Another Bill is coming before the House to widen the protection of vulnerable adults list in order properly to safeguard others within the system. I think that that change is a result of the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry, and I hope that the legislation goes on to the statute book at the earliest opportunity.
Returning to the Leonard Cheshire Foundation case, we must deal with the restrictive interpretation of the 1998 Act. On Second Reading of Human Rights Bill, the Lord Chancellor described the Government's intention:
"We also decided that we should apply the Bill to a wide rather than a narrow range of public authorities, so as to provide as much protection as possible to those who claim that their rights have been infringed."[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 November 1997; Vol. 582, c. 1232.]
The problem is that that is not happening in practice. In the care homes sector, which particularly concerns me, nine out of 10 care homes are operated in the private sector, but two thirds of the people who live in those homes are paid for by local councils. Despite the legal duty on public authorities under the National Assistance Act 1948, the 1998 Act does not apply because privately run care homes are not public authorities for the purposes of the legislation. Self-funders pay for themselves and are never assessed by the local authority. They face an even greater potential risk because there is not even the possibility of a vigilant local authority using its contracting muscle to safeguard their dignity and welfare.
Two years ago, the Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the courts should interpret the 1998 Act more widely and agreed with the proposition
21 Nov 2005 : Column 1303
that that could be done by intervening as a third party in a test case. The problem is that we are still waiting for an appropriate case to come along in order to make the Government correct the law. How much longer must older people in care homes in the private sector wait before that action is taken? It is not acceptable that some of the most vulnerable in our community are waiting for the Government to step in. I therefore hope that during the passage of the Bill some way can be found to enable legislation to be amended so that that anomaly, which the courts have brought into being, can be put right and older people can be given the protection that they deserve, whether they are in a council-run or a private sector care home. I hope that the Minister will provide reassurance on those points.
The Bill is long overdue and rightly brings together all the strands of discrimination, because discrimination does not occur in a silo. Discrimination does not often occur purely on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or any other matter, and many of us have experienced multiple discrimination, which is why we need an agency that can examine such matters together. I hope that the existence of such an organisation is not too far in the future and that the right legislation will provide a comprehensive equality framework, too.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) consistently speaks up for older people, and I join him in pressing for strong laws to stop discrimination against older people and for a strong commission to enforce those laws.
I congratulate the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), on her fine first performance in charge of a Bill at the Dispatch Box and my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), who has spent a very long time campaigning tirelessly and skilfully for a single equality Bill, which draws ever closer.
Since the Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted, I have been convinced of the need for a single commission, which I envisage bringing to bear great expertise, a wide range of powers and, crucially, an influence that will help us to eradicate discrimination in our society. The Bill brings about that single commission for equality and human rights, and the two reviews will lead to a single equality law. I was also pleased when the Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended in 2003 that the Government create an integrated commission for equality and human rights.
To my mind, fairness, equal opportunities and dignity are essential values for a successful society, and in those terms measures of success include social cohesion, enterprise, co-operation and wealth creation. We have seen ground-breaking steps in the past: the UK set up the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1975, the Commission for Racial Equality in 1976 and the Disability Rights Commission in 1999all those achievements occurred under Labour Governments. However, that approach means that some areas of discrimination and some groups of citizens receive attention, while others do not. It has also led to great complexityreams of Acts of Parliament, statutory instruments, codes of practice, codes of guidance and, more recently, European legislation.
21 Nov 2005 : Column 1304
It is better to have one commission that adopts a holistic approach to equality and human rights issues and one equality law, which will come next, to provide a coherent and understandable single reference point. A commission for equality and human rights will go beyond individual casework. Crucially, it will act strategically to provide advice and information, and it will be capable of conducting inquiries and investigations. It will support test cases, but it will also seek to work by non-judicial means, such as establishing agreements to enforce compliance without going to court. It should stop unlawful behaviour and promote good relations between individual groups.
To take one obvious area that requires a new, stronger approach, we have had legislation on equal pay since 1970, but the pay gap persistswe heard the figures earlier in the debate. We must take new powers and adopt new approaches to eradicate the pay gap between men and women. The approach is not anti-business, and, indeed, most businesses will welcome a single commission and a single equality law. Earlier, we heard a quote from the CBI, which welcomes the establishment of the single commission. The single commission can help businesses to adopt fair practices in the workplace, avoid tribunal cases and, hopefully, recognise the benefits of a diverse work force.
The European employment directive requires the introduction of national legislation to eradicate ageism by the end of 2006. It seems that such legislation will be introduced next year, and the powers under the legislation will be given to the commission to enforce the rights of older people to a place at work. Too few companies act like B&Q in volunteering to employ a diverse work force and accepting older people as valuable members of it. The commission will ensure that more employers behave responsibly and experience greater economic success as a result. It will also take responsibility for enforcing the new rights for older people in employment and training, which is why Age Concern warmly welcomes the Bill.
Age discrimination does not relate only to older people, because, as the Minister said earlier, children, too, may be subject to age discrimination. Children do not have votes or political organisations such as political parties, trade unions and the CBI to represent them, so it is particularly important that Parliament has regard to their rights and needsfor example, the need for protection. It is arguable that the Bill provides implicit coverage of issues relating to children and young persons, but the coverage is certainly not explicit. For example, clause 9(2)(a) defines human rights as specifically including rights under the European convention on human rights, but only in paragraph (b) does it say that the commission can also exercise its functions in respect of "other human rights". On Third Reading in the other place, Baroness Ashton said that the phrase "other human rights" would include rights under the UN convention on the rights of the child, which this country signed up to in 1991.
Clause 10 defines groups or classes of persons who share a common attribute. The definition could include a group defined by age such as children and young persons under the age of 18. That could be used to challenge measures that are having a particularly adverse effect on children and young persons, thus arguably discriminating against them because they are children.
21 Nov 2005 : Column 1305
Perhaps children's and young persons' rights will be covered by the Bill and the commission will help our country to become more child-friendly, tolerant and inclusive. However, children do not get a fair deal out of the existing laws and commissions. According to the Children's Rights Alliance for England, an examination of the most recent annual reports of the existing equality bodies shows that babies, children and young persons feature very little in their work as people in their own right, despite comprising one fifth of the population. The Minister could argue that children are implicitly covered in the legislation for each of those bodies, yet in practice their work shows that children's and young persons' equality issues are largely overlooked.
Is it not therefore better to make it clear in the Bill that children and young persons will have their rights under the UN convention on the rights of the child enforced and that they will be a group having the benefits of the commission's work? An additional benefit of that approach is that we can clarify in law the respective roles of the commission and the various children's commissioners around the United Kingdom. Some of those commissioners, like the commission, have rights and abilities to give information and advice, to carry out research, to carry out education and training, to take up individual cases, to make assessments and to carry out investigations. There is clearly some overlap between their rights and those of the commission. The Minister says that a memorandum of understanding will sort out how they relate to each other, but those rights and that interaction can be resolved in an Act of Parliament.
We have already had great successes in children's issues during my time in Parliament, with the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the "Every child matters" agenda, and the Children Act 2004. There has been good progress so far; now, let us get the Bill right to augment the good work that has been done. We have made progress from the Human Rights Act 1998 through consultation, the White Paper and now this Bill, with more to comethe two reviews and the single equality law. We are promoting a fairer, more inclusive Britain. A strong, independent commission will challenge discrimination across society and for the first time promote human rights. It will be a champion of diversity, and as such a welcome addition to the architecture of a modern nation determined to harness the talents of all our citizens.