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Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point when he says that the solutions to socio-economic disadvantage are quite different from those required to stamp out discrimination. Indeed, one reason why we tabled a reasoned amendment on Second Reading was that although we were happy with the bulk of the Bill—indeed, the simplification and codification in it are welcome—we did not think that this part fitted well with the rest. Indeed, it looks like it has been squeezed in at the beginning or tagged on, albeit not as an afterthought, but not elegantly.
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): The Bill’s title is the Equality Bill, and given that socio-economic disadvantage is the greatest inequality there is, it would have been negligent of the Government not to include it. My criticism is that their proposals are a weak way of including it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Mr. Harper: No, I do not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare said, the remedies and powers in the rest of the Bill to prevent discrimination are quite different from the solutions to socio-economic disadvantage.
For the avoidance of doubt, I should say at this point that we are in no way saying that there are no issues with socio-economic disadvantage. Indeed, on Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made it clear in her opening speech, as I did in my winding-up speech, that there are issues with socio-economic disadvantage. Ministers and former Ministers have been frank about that. Indeed, the Home Secretary, when he had responsibility for education, said:
“It is actually getting harder for people to escape poverty and leave the income group, professional banding or social circle of their parents. In fact, it’s harder to escape the shackles of a poor upbringing in Britain than anywhere else in Europe, and about the same as in America.”
There clearly is a problem with lack of social mobility and people being trapped in disadvantage, but we do not think that the solution is to include these measures in the Bill. Clearly, the Government, of whichever party, will have a big job dealing with the reasons for disadvantage, whether by improving families’ ability to stay together or looking at the educational opportunities available to people to give everybody an equal opportunity to succeed. However, the proposals are a profoundly mistaken way to deal with the issue.
I mentioned fuel poverty legislation, and the Government also plan to introduce a Bill to eliminate child poverty. To be fair, the Government had some success in dealing with the issue, but child poverty figures are now going in the opposite direction. We cannot solve such problems by passing a law; we solve them by tackling the root causes. A number of those who appeared before us in our evidence sessions were fairly relaxed about the proposals and supportive of them, but most did not think that they would make a huge difference. That is the flaw and why this is not the way to tackle socio-economic disadvantage.
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Mr. Harper: I do not think that it will make much difference, if any. Bills are not about sending messages; they are about changing the law. If one is going to put a duty on public sector authorities, and if that duty is not meaningful and will not make a significant difference, it sets expectations that simply will not be delivered. It also puts a burden on authorities. There will be lots of compliance that authorities will have to tackle. There will be lots of words in annual reports and people doing reports about how they are complying. If the reality is that it will not make any difference, an awful lot of money will be spent with an awful lack of outcome.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he said he does not believe—I think he is right, actually—that legislation should be solely for the purpose of sending out a message? It must be shown to fulfil another need or be effective in itself, and arguing that it sends a message is not a good basis for legislation, whether in this area or any other area, such as criminal justice.
Mr. Harper: Yes, I agree. Legislation ought to be effective. From the conversations that I have had and the evidence that I have seen, I do not think that this is the way to go about it. The issue is serious, and there is a real problem. One could argue that setting out ways in which every member of our society has an equal opportunity to succeed—it does not mean that we will have equal outcomes, but everyone will have a fair chance—is probably one of the most important parts of public policy. But this is not how one goes about doing it. I do not think that it fits well within the Bill—it detracts from the Bill rather than adding to it—which is why we oppose it.
On amendment 2, will the Minister comment on the approach, because we do not think that giving Ministers the power to amend primary legislation is welcome? It would be better to set it out differently, but I recognise that that is a technical point, which we can discuss. Amendment 4 is an opportunity to discuss where the appropriate level for the decisions sits and the appropriate forums. We do not think that this particular approach is a sound one.
Lynne Featherstone: May I say what a pleasure it is to sit on a Committee where you are the Chair, Mr. Benton? I look forward to working on the Bill and probing and improving the legislation, where possible.
The clause does not make it clear whether those GLA family members are covered by the socio-economic duty. Schedule 19 lists them individually for the general public duty, but that is not so in the clause. My purpose is to get the Minister to elucidate whether they should be named as individual partner bodies. Their roles are extremely strategic and they act independently of the Mayor, although in the matter of political direction, the Mayor of London is at the top. The bodies in question cover some of the areas of highest inequality in the country.
The list in clause 1 includes police authorities, but fire and rescue authorities constituted by a relevant scheme are not included in the same way, and amendment 109 would provide for those to be included in the socio-economic duty. Those are single-function authorities, but a socio-economic duty would ensure the consideration that the Government have deemed it important for all bodies to have regard to. Social inequality in the question of where and how to give fire cover is very important. The authorities cover huge areas—West Midlands fire service, for example. The situation is anomalous in relation to police authorities, and we cannot see why police authorities but not fire authorities should be included.
Amendment 181 is supported by Citizens Advice. We think that the provision should require bodies with inspection or regulatory duties also to have regard to socio-economic inequalities. Regulators play a huge part in the provision of public services that matter, and they sit in judgment, so it is right that they should consider the socio-economic duty. The example given by Citizens Advice is Ofgem. It argues that if Ofgem had had such a socio-economic duty, it would have acted much sooner to deal with the issue of poorer customers being charged more for metered electricity, which is obviously an important point.
I forgot to say in beginning, Mr. Benton, that I want to deal with the wider issues on clause stand part.
I want to discuss the Conservative amendments 2 and 4. We agree with amendment 2 to the extent that the list in the clause is imperfect, as I hope that I have shown. However, the Liberal Democrats would much prefer a prescriptive list to the delegation to Ministers or a future Government of the power to list authorities. Delegation of the power would make the application of socio-economic duty subject to the whims of Ministers or the Government of the day, which would mean uncertainty in the Bill. As to amendment 4, there are many examples of partner authorities that should be covered, because of their strategic nature and their potential impact in reducing socio-economic disadvantage.
The Chairman: Order. I interrupt the hon. Lady because I have been thinking about what she has said about not discussing the broader issues at this stage. On reflection, and bearing in mind my earlier ruling, we may not have a stand part debate, and it would be helpful—I do not say that it must happen—if she were to address the broader issues. That is a suggestion, not a ruling.
Lynne Featherstone: Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Benton.
The Solicitor-General: I hope to assist the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. We do not wish to have a clause stand part debate, but the ball is entirely in the hon. Lady’s court.
Lynne Featherstone: I understand.
Dr. Harris: On a point of order, Mr. Benton. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean, who speaks for the Conservatives, raised a number of general points, but my understanding is that the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green wishes to raise are wholly different from and unrelated to the issues relating to public bodies in this group of amendments. Because they are specific, finite points relating to the question whether there is alternative way of doing what the clause seeks to do, they would fit best in a separate debate. Will you, Mr. Benton, reflect on your current advice—it is obviously your ruling to make—to see whether separating things out would aid debate?
The Chairman: I am glad the hon. Gentleman has mentioned “advice” as opposed to “ruling”. It will depend precisely on how proceedings go during the discussion of the amendments. I was merely pointing out that it would be helpful. It is not a ruling and you can leave the advice. It does not necessarily mean that there will not be a clause stand part debate, but if the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green is so disposed to talk in general terms, it might be helpful. It is entirely a matter for her, and it is not a ruling.
Lynne Featherstone: I thank you, Mr. Benton, and I am happy to be helpful on this occasion.
Moving on to some wider issues associated with amendment 4, the Liberal Democrats think that the socio-economic duty is generally a good and important thing. There may not be enough similar measures in the Bill. Because the measure came in at such a late stage, there was not adequate time to consult all the relevant bodies. There is no greater inequality than the socio-economic divide, and I regret that the duty in the Bill is so weak. We fully support its aims, but we feel that the measure is more about sending a message than imposing an actual duty. In reality, most authorities and agencies have some regard to the issue already, certainly at local council and government level.
How much consultation were the Government able to do on the socio-economic duty? The measure was introduced very late, but it is one of the most important elements of the Bill. It is in clause 1, so the Government have given it some import, but I would have liked that to have been reflected in the depth of the consultation. Had that happened, there would have been ramifications. The measure might not simply have been an attempt to deal with the symptoms rather than the cause.
John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): As this is the first time that I have spoken in Committee, may I say that I appreciate your chairmanship, Mr. Benton? I want to make some general points to begin with before specifically discussing amendment 107, which is similar to the proposals that we have heard about this morning.
The Scottish National party and the Government of Scotland very much support the Bill and welcome the fact that different strands of inequality are being brought together. A lot of good has been done in recent years, but much remains to be done, for example, on equal pay for women. Also, are the reasonable adjustments for disabled people moving forward fast enough? That I and others will table amendments to the Bill does not take away from the fact that we very much support it.
I am very supportive of the socio-economic duty. One reason why I am in politics is to try to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. I asked about that last week in what was my first question to the Prime Minister in the House. My first question on this specific duty is this: are we going far enough? There is little power of redress. Will the Minister explain exactly what will be different under the legislation? For example, the city that I am most familiar with is Glasgow. My experience of Glasgow is that both the local authority and health services take poverty into account when allocating resources. For instance, in the east end of Glasgow, there is a lack of breastfeeding and a particular problem with smoking, and the NHS and the council have targeted that together.
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Sandra Osborne: I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Gentleman has said. In Scotland, extensive measures are taken to tackle disadvantage, but before 1997, the link between poverty and ill health, for example, was not recognised by the Government and support did not filter down to that level as it does today. If he supports the power, will he urge his party to put sectional interests aside and adopt a socio-economic duty in the Scottish Government?
John Mason: The hon. Lady is jumping slightly ahead to my next paragraph, so I will move on as I think it will address her question.
Will the Minister explain how things will be different in practice in a city such as Glasgow as a result of the power? What can happen now that will not be able to happen in the future?
The Solicitor-General: Obviously, the power will not make the slightest difference to Glasgow, as the Scottish Government have not accepted it.
John Mason: It will affect bodies such as the Department for Work and Pensions, I think.
Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): Theoretically.
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