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Keith Vaz: The Minister has moved a long way on representation today. Let us be clear about the race committee: she not only hopes that it will happen, but wants it to happen, so if it does not happenshe thinks it impossible that it will not happenshe will make sure that the Government's views are brought to the attention of the commission, even though it will be independent, and if necessary she will return to the House to seek ways to make sure that it happens. Am I almost right?
Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is almost right. I do not want to go as far as him, because my confidence that the commission will take the race committee seriously is so great that I cannot see the need to return to the House.
Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for making that clear. I understand the concern that the issue has raised among black and Asian communities, and I am sensitive to the need to take the matter forward in a way that encourages their involvement and also their confidence that the new body will deliver.
Ms Abbott : The black and Asian communities will be pleased that the Minister appears to have moved towards our position tonightwe have listened to her remarks carefully and will study them in Hansard. However, she should be assured that although some hon. Members will move on as the issue unfolds, others will not move on and will return to the Floor of the House again and again until we have a commission that represents a genuine step forward for all the equality strands within it.
Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. What is encouraging about this process is that the number of people who are not only interested in but committed to ensuring that we advance issues of equality is much greater than some years ago.
Keith Vaz: I apologise for intervening again, but the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) is important. Will the Minister convene a meeting between the CRE, the 1990 Trust, the Greater London authority and Operation Black Vote as soon as possible to make sure that everyone has a stake in ensuring that those commitments are carried through?
The position taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) on London is slightly different from mine. The involvement of people throughout Britain is important, and I want to see how we can involve black and minority ethnic groups throughout the whole of Britain. The board will decide the way forward, once it is appointed towards the end of year, but we are already preparing the options for it to consider. Nevertheless, I thank my hon. Friend for raising the important issue of London in amendments Nos. 25 and 26. Despite the fact that I am Yorkshire born and bred, I share his pride in what our capital, which has one of the most diverse populations of any capital city, has to offer. However, I disagree with him about a statutory committee, which would be neither necessary nor wise.
I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that discrimination is not location specific, but in many respects the commission's functions will be location specific. The site will be split between Manchester and London, but I emphasise that further work remains to be done. We need to consider what are the appropriate functions to be located in Manchester and in London. None of us, however proud we are of our own part of the country, would argue that the lobbying of Parliament and regular contact with decision making needs to be based in London. We do not have in mind specific splits in terms of numbers. This will be part of a longer process to determine the appropriate functions. Our work on location identified that many of the functions undertaken are not location-specific, particularly now that most people use the phone to contact organisations.
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There are many ways in which we can make the commission accessible without having to have it on people's doorsteps.
I should emphasise that there will be offices in Scotland and Wales as well as in Manchester and London, and regional arrangements across England. I want the commission to reach into every community. It will have regional arrangements that are beyond those for the current commissions, although further work is required to determine how that is to be done. Nothing in the Bill prevents the new commission from establishing a committee for London. Indeed, the London region will want to consider how it responds to the challenge of the regional structure. I do not, however, agree that such a committee should be set out in statute. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead will withdraw his amendment and that the people of the south and the north of England can once again become good friends.
Harry Cohen: The Minister's comments about the further work that is required are very helpful. I hope that she will emphasise the need to be effective as regards the lobbying of Ministers and key policy decision makers. On that basis, I am happy not to press my amendment.
Amendment No. 42 would ensure that a financial statement prepared by the commission is sent to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee as well as to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Secretary of State, for which the Bill already provides. The Bill requires the commission to provide an annual financial statement and send it to the Secretary of State and the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is required to examine, certify and report on the commission's financial statement and to lay a copy of the statement and his report before Parliament. Each year, the Public Accounts Committee undertakes several inquiries and investigations, often drawing on those reports. The relationship between the Committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General is close and co-operative.
I hope that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) will understand why the amendment, while well intentioned, is unnecessary. The Bill has sufficient safeguards, as there are with non-departmental public bodies generally, to ensure rigorous scrutiny, accountability and transparency.
Meg Munn: Amendment No. 11, like most of this group, is minor and technical. It corrects an anomaly in referencing in the Bill. Our intention is to oblige the commission for equality and human rights to inform the recipient of an unlawful act notice of the effect of the commission's clause 24 power, which enables it to apply to a court for an injunction in England and Wales or an interdict in Scotland to prevent discrimination. As drafted, the commission's obligation is restricted to informing the recipient of an unlawful act notice of its power to apply for an injunction in England and Wales, but not Scotland. That is not our intention. Amendment No. 11 therefore extends the obligation on the commission to include a reference to its power to apply for an interdict in Scotland.
The motion to transfer clause 28 is also a minor and technical matter. It does not alter the content or effect of the clause but moves it to the end of part 1. Clause 28 gives powers to the Disability Rights Commission for matters concerning rented accommodation in Scotland in the period before the new commission is operational. It is therefore more appropriate for it to be located at the end of part 1 under the "Miscellaneous" heading than with clauses that confer enforcement powers on the commission for equality and human rights.
More important, in its current position, the commencement of the clause would, because of clause 42, end the transitional period that precedes the new commission taking on its powers in October 2007. Unlike the other clauses, the commencement of which ends the transition period, clause 28 does not confer any powers or duties on the CEHR.
The substance of the Disability Rights Commission's equivalent powers for rented accommodation in England and Wales, which were conferred by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, will come into force on 4 December 2006. As explained in Committee when the amendments were tabled, we are working closely with the Scottish Executive to ensure that the DRC's powers in relation to Scotland come into effect on the same day as in England and Wales. The transition strategy for the commission has been planned to allow time to ensure that the most suitable candidates are appointed to the board. Ending the transitional period prematurely by leaving the clause in its current location would seriously jeopardise an effective transition. It is therefore necessary for the clause to be moved as proposed.
Amendment No. 15 is a more substantive amendment, responding to concerns raised earlier as well as in the fourth report of the Joint Committee on
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Human Rights. In Committee, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) tabled amendments to modify the exemption for schools of a religious character from the discrimination provisions. I promised to consider his arguments, which appeared to have some substance, and the amendment is the result. The Government are committed to maintaining the status quo as far as the right of faith schools to operate as such is concerned, and that necessarily means that they must be free to discriminate on the ground of religion to the extent necessary to make that a reality. In view of that need, faith schools are currently exempted entirely from the provisions specific to educational establishments.
We remain convinced that faith schools must be exempt on admissions and on provision to pupils of access to any benefits, facilities or services. In common with other schools, they are also exempt regarding the curriculum and acts of worship or religious observance organised by or on behalf of the school. However, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon argued that making it lawful for faith schools to exclude a pupil or subject a pupil to any other detriment on the ground of religion or belief goes beyond what is needed to protect their position. We have given the matter much consideration since Committee and officials have been in discussion with the Anglican and Catholic Churches.
Exclusion from school is a serious matter that neither the Government nor schools take lightly. Existing guidance for schools sets out that a pupil's behaviour must be the only factor to consider in matters of exclusion. It therefore would not be right for faith schools to exclude an existing pupil purely on the ground of religion or belief. I do not believe they would wish to do that but it would be wrong to give the impression in the Bill that the Government are in two minds about the matter. We therefore propose to remove that exclusion.
Detriment is a wide concept that is loosely defined in law. We have been trying to identify any actions that constitute direct or indirect discrimination, falling within that term, that faith schools would wish to take, that they would be justified in taking and that would not be adequately protected by other exceptions to the measure. So far, we have drawn a blank.
On the other hand, it is possible to think of unreasonable and unjustifiable actionsand, let me say, highly unlikely onesthat the exception might appear to allow. Hence our conclusion that we should also remove that exception. It is unnecessary and risks giving the wrong impression. Let me make it clear that nothing about the amendment is intended to suggest that we believe that faith schools are likely in practice to discriminate against children of other faiths or of none. In the absence until now of legislation on such matters, I am not aware of any evidence to the contrary. The amendment simply recognises that exceptions to discrimination law must be tightly drawn.
During the passage of the Bill, the education exemptions, especially those regarding faith schools, have been the subject of much consideration and debate, not to mention a raft of amendments. That has demonstrated the depth of feeling, the importance and necessity of exemptions and the need to strike the right
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balance between the protection of pupils and the needs of schools. We have listened to and carefully considered views from both sides of the debate and believe that we have now struck the right balance. However, the Bill contains regulatory powers to alter, add or remove any education exemptions. We believe that those powers are crucial, since if, in practice, there is evidence that the exemptions for schools are not working as we intend, the necessary changes can be made, following full consultation with all key stakeholders.
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