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Roger Berry: It is a pleasure to rise to speak to the amendments that stand in my name and to welcome the Bill, which is part of the significant progress being made by the Government towards the creation of the kind of society where people can participate equally without the fear of discrimination or prejudice.
I am delighted that we have a consensus, as we tend to have nowadays on equality issuesit is marvellouson most of the key issues in relation to establishing a new commission for equality and human rights. A mere eight or nine years ago, the Conservatives were fighting tooth and nail against the setting up the Disability Rights Commission and were arguing on the quiet to get rid of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. In fairness, none of the Conservative Members present tonight was involved, but I am convinced that we would not have the Bill were it not for the fact that we have a Labour Government.
I have, however, tabled amendments, for the obvious reason that I believe the Bill can be improved. I wish to support amendments Nos. 16 to 18, which stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I have reciprocated by attaching my name to all his amendments and he made powerful arguments in their support.
The amendments are essentially those that were tabled on Report in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Ouseley. The purpose of amendment No. 18 is to address representation and ensure that the commission represents the society that it will serve.
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The Bill is a curious one in some respects, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) pointed outindeed, he stole much of my speech. Schedule 1 contains a specific commitment that at least one commissioner will be, or will have been, a disabled person. I confess that I had considered asking for two or more disabled commissioners, but to my astonishment I discovered that we are still in the same position as with the first draft of the Bill: when it comes to the other equality strands, there is no provision whatever for commissioners with particular characteristics.
My main concern over the years has been with the disability strand and I am delighted that the Government have accepted the principle that there should be at least one disabled person as a commissioner. A disabled person will bring experience to the commission that the commission should own and that experience is directly relevant and important enough to the work of the commission that we should legislate in that way. I cannot understand why the principle has been abandoned when it comes to gender or race.
Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman is arguing two separate points and answers some of the questions that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) asked. There is a big difference between amendments No. 16 and No. 18, in that the first is general and speaks of
Roger Berry: I was speaking to amendment No. 18 and was going to come to No. 16 in a moment. Amendment No. 18 is acceptable and should be supported because it would cater for a minimum provision of women and members of black and other ethnic minority communities as commissioners. It is acceptable because this House apparently, and quite rightly, is going to accept that at least one disabled person should serve as a commissioner. I do not understand why the Government have said that, as a matter of principle, there should be representation for disabled people on the commission but that that should not apply to women or members of black or other ethnic minority groups. That is why the amendment proposes that no fewer than half the commissioners should be women and that no fewer than one quarter should be from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds. That is the same aim as that of amendment No. 10, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East. It is not tokenism, nor is it denying the obvious, which is that people should be appointed on merit. It is simply an attempt to ensure that all communities are fairly represented as commissioners.
The Government's arguments against the amendments have tended to be of the following kind: that it is possible under the Bill that we could have 10 white men, but as my very good friend the Minister rightly says, that could not possibly happen. No one believes that the Government would be so foolish as even to think of doing that. I genuinely believe that it has never crossed anyone's mind to have 10 white men
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serving on the commission, but nothing in the Bill would prevent a Government from appointing commissioners in that way.
The Government have said that the need for flexibility in appointments requires that no such restrictions be imposed, but apparently, there can be restrictions in respect of appointing at least one disabled person. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that it would not be that difficult to make first-rate commission appointments on merit, with at least half the commissioners being women and at least one quarter representing black or other ethnic minority groups. Doing so would be no more difficult than appointing, on merit, a disabled person.
Other Members referred to the third Government argument, which is that to appoint commissioners in such a way would reflect silo thinking. I understand the point and entirely oppose silo thinking in the commission's work. When the commission was proposed, I supported the idea of a single commission for equality and human rights, precisely because I oppose silo thinking. There were those in the disability movement, as in other equality strands, who had grave reservations about that idea. I had practical reservations about the manner in which the commission might be set up but, in principle, I have always supported a single commission, precisely because I oppose the silo mentality.
A friend of mine, Professor Paul Steven Miller, was one of President Clinton's commissioners at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington DC. He is a disabled lawyer and he convinced meas if I needed convincingthat, when people come through the door, the cause of discrimination may be not abundantly clear. People could be discriminated against on the grounds of race and gender, race and disability, disability and orientation, or goodness knows however many different circumstances. It is right to have a single commission to provide a service to people who allege discrimination; that is the only idea that makes sense. People being referred from one commission to another would not promote equality or human rights.
I support the commission because I am against a silo mentality. I want people to feel assured that allegations of discrimination will be tackled holisticallyanother term used by Members today. Having said that, I do not believe that a representative commission is a threat, but rather that it is an opportunity. It would strengthen the expertise of the commissioners. Having commissioners who are disabled, or who have experienced discrimination as women or on the ground of race, would strengthen the commission, not weaken it.
Philip Davies: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's work on disability over many years, but will he explain what somebody in a wheelchair knows about visual impairment that somebody who is not in a wheelchair does not?
Yes, where does one begin? First, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) may have noticed from his constituency experience that there is a fair degree of communication between disabled people
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with different impairments. For example, people who use wheelchairs frequently talk to people who have a sight impairment or other such conditions. A strong network of disabled people's organisations share views, and as a result, they become better informed.
I realise that, in establishing a representative commission, the question is where do we draw the line? It is self-evidentI did not expect to have to say thisthat although the Bill, which the whole House will doubtless support, proposes creating 10 to 15 commissioners, we can all think of perhaps 50 different interests that we would like to be represented. I am talking about not an abstract situation but a real one, and I am simply suggesting that, just as we need to appoint someone with experience of disability, it is important that those with experience of discrimination on the grounds of gender and race are adequately represented on the commission.
One may disagree with having 50 per cent. representation for women, but the point is that the Bill as drafted makes no provision for women at all. One may be against a quarter of commissioners coming from black and ethnic minority communities, but the Bill as drafted does not require that any commissioners come from such communities.
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