House of Commons
|Session 2008 - 09|
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Alan Sandall, Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerks
attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 11 June 2009
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair](Morning)
Equality BillWritten evidence to be reported to the House
E35 Gender Spectrum UK
E36 Stonewall Housing
E37 Diabetes UK
E38 Race on the Agenda (additional memorandum)
E39 Gender Matters
E41 Mothers Union
E42 Unison and Fawcett Society
E43 University and College Union
E44 Equality and Diversity Forum (additional memorandum)
Public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequalities
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 29, leave out subsection (3) and insert
(3) A Minister of the Crown may by regulations list public authorities to which this section applies..
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 107, in clause 1, page 2, line 17, after England, insert
(l) the Financial Services Authority;
(m) the Office of Communications;
(n) the Office of Fair Trading;
(o) the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets;
(p) the Security Industry Authority..
Amendment 108, in clause 1, page 2, line 17, at end insert
(l) Transport for London;
(m) London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority;
(n) London Development Agency;
(o) Metropolitan Police Authority..
An amendment to include members of the GLA family in the socio-economic duty.
Amendment 109, in clause 1, page 2, line 17, at end insert
(l) a fire and rescue authority constituted by a scheme under section 2 of the Fire and Rescue Service Act 2004, or a scheme to which section 4 of that Act applies, for an area in England..
An amendment to include Fire Authorities in the socio-economic duty.
Amendment 181, in clause 1, page 2, line 17, at end insert
(3A) This section also applies to those bodies responsible for inspecting or regulating public sector bodies..
An amendment to ensure that the socio-economic duty applies to inspectorates of public sector bodies.
Amendment 4, in clause 1, page 2, line 18, leave out subsection (4).
Mr. Harper: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Benton. I shall speak to amendments 2 and 4 and the group of measures before us. I shall see whether you let me get away with making some wider remarks on the clause or whether you wish me to hold them over for a stand part debate.
Amendment 2 is straightforward. It deals with how the Government have decided to set out the public authorities to which the clause relates. The strategy they have adopted is to list a number of authorities, but clause 2 gives Ministers the power by regulations to amend primary legislation. The Conservatives are reluctant to allow Ministers the power to amend primary legislation by order and the amendment sets out a different approach.
We would set out a power for Ministers of the Crown by regulations to list public authorities to which the measure applied. If they wished to add or remove public authorities from that list, they would simply change the secondary legislation. That is a better way to go about things, rather than allowing Ministers to amend primary legislation by order. This is a technical amendment.
Amendment 4 would remove subsection (4), which applies the measure to partner authorities of local authorities in relation to their
preparation and modification of a sustainable community strategy.
To explain the purpose of the amendment, I need to explain our concerns and objections to the measure. Ministers are a little confused about the difference between discrimination and disadvantage, which point my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare has made before.
Ministers appear to be confusing the poor opportunities of socio-economically disadvantaged communities with discrimination. That is a wrong-headed approach because the solution to sorting out socio-economic inequalities is to deal with their root cause, and for Ministers and other public authorities to tackle them. For example, the reason for the educational disadvantage experienced by those who come from poor areas is often that they do not have access to good schools. The duty in the Bill is not the solution; rather, it is for bodies to do something to arrange the provision of good schools.
My concern about the measure, and the argument for the amendment, is that Ministers are in danger of setting expectations that are destined to failit is as if the clause says, Everyone has the right to a good life. We do not solve such problems simply by passing a law. A good example is the fuel poverty legislation that the House passed a number of years ago. It effectively said that fuel poverty would no longer exist. Of course, several years after that legislation was passed by the House and the other place, fuel poverty still existsindeed, it is getting worse, not better. That is a fundamentally wrong-headed approach to solving some of those problems.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): On that specific point, is it not the issue that although it may well suit Ministers to place on public authorities high-sounding obligations that look tremendous on paper, in the absence of sanctions that could in an extreme case apply to individual members of those authorities, as in the example of fuel poverty, they amount to nothing?
The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, may I take the opportunity to refer to his opening remarks? It is perfectly all right to allow as broad a scope as possible for debate on the amendments, but I remind the Committee that in relation to clause stand part I have the power to circumvent any further discussion if, in my opinion, the clause has been discussed adequately. I just point that out, but there is no harm at all in what is going on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry made a good point and it goes wider, because if we put responsibilities on a range of authoritieswe are talking about a significant list and there are amendments that would widen itwe must think about not only the duties that we are placing on them, but the resources that we grant them. If we place a lot of responsibilities on public authorities without the concomitant resources, we may be setting up not only Ministers, but that significant list of authorities, to fail. From a public policy perspective, that is not sound.
Let us consider the partner authorities and the sustainable community strategy, which raise another issue. The authorities listed fall into two categories. Some are unelected quangos, which are in effect at some point responsible to central Government. Others, however, such as county and district councils, the Greater London authority and London borough councils, are elected authorities. The decisions to be taken about the extent to which they take into account socio-economic inequalities and disadvantage and the extent to which they make judgments about resource allocation are legitimate judgments, but they are judgments for political discourse.
It is for electors to make decisions when they elect different members of those authorities and it is for those authorities to make the decisions in debate, weighing up all the factors concerned. It is proper for that to be done at that level and not for Ministers to seek to put duties on them.
Amendment 4 relates to the authorities drawing up their sustainable community strategies. They would, by their very nature, be better drawn up at a very local level by those authorities that know their areas best, know the people the best and know the relevant factors. They are very familiar on the ground with the disadvantage and the socio-economic factors, and it is for them to draw up the strategy, recognising that they are accountable to the people who elect them.
There is a different argument, and Ministers perhaps have a stronger case when they talk about bodies that are subordinate to Ministers, but even then it is really for Ministers to make political judgments about socio-economic inequalities and resources and how they allocate them, and for those arguments to take place in the House and the other place.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the equality duty, be it in respect of gender, race or whatever, should apply equally to all authorities? If so, what is the difference between that and the disadvantage caused by socio-economic inequalities?
Mr. Harper: The hon. Lady comes back to a point that I made at the beginning about stamping out discrimination and confusing discrimination with disadvantage. They are not the same thing at all. The socio-economic inequality referred to is different qualitatively from the protected characteristics and stamping out discrimination.
I think I am right in saying that in the evidence-taking sessions the hon. Lady was concerned that the clause does not apply to the Scottish Government. One thing I thought while she was making those points was that, particularly in relation to those hon. Members who supported Scottish devolution, the decisions that the Scottish Government make on their policies and resource allocation and how they go about tackling disadvantage are surely for Scottish electors to consider when they choose who represents them in the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government have to make those decisions when they weigh up their public spending priorities and other decision making. It is surely in that forum that those challenges should be addressed. If the Scottish people feel that the Scottish Government are not making the right decisions, they have the opportunity to throw them out.
Sandra Osborne: I totally agree. I am a firm supporter of Scottish devolutionI would even say that I am one of its more ardent supporters among my colleaguesbut there is the capacity to adopt the duty in Scotland through a Sewel motion. It would then be up to the Scottish Government and the Scottish public authorities to decide how to implement it. I think that the Scottish people want Westminster and the Scottish Government to work purposefully together.
Mr. Harper: The hon. Lady makes a good point. Clearly, I would have no objection if the Scottish Government decided to do that. It would be a matter for them, and if they wished to adopt the duty, that would be absolutely fine. My point is that devolution implies that authorities will tackle things differently.
John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that an additional distinction can be made between disadvantage and discrimination? The grammar of discrimination is rightly all about perpetrators and victimspeople discriminating unfairly against others, who lose out as a result. Disadvantage is an important concept, and the Government have rightly made efforts to wipe it out, but it is very different. It is not about perpetrators and victims in the same way that discrimination is; it is about systematic problems and failures and about assisting, helping and supporting. By definition, the public policy solutions required to deal with disadvantage are very different from those required to deal with discrimination, which is why disadvantage does not fit so well in such a Bill.
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