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John Mason: Theoretically at least, if the power applied throughout Scotland, what difference would it make? Perhaps I should be asking what difference it will make to Manchester or Birmingham.
Mr. Harper: Perhaps the Solicitor-General was being a bit roundabout. I suspect she was really wondering—given that the hon. Gentleman said that he and the Scottish Government support the power, and given that his answer focused particularly on the difference it might make to his constituents in Glasgow—why the Scottish Government do not want it to apply in Scotland.
John Mason: I will answer both those points eventually, as I have a letter here from the Minister for Housing and Communities, Alec Neil MSP. The basic position of our party and the Scottish Government is that we are totally committed to challenging socio-economic inequality. It is a question of the best way to go about it and whether the Bill goes far enough, as has been mentioned.
The letter says:
“The Scottish Government has supported the principle of the Equality Bill from the outset and continues to support it. A number of provisions in the Bill require the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Government introduced a Legislative Consent Memorandum... on 7 May.”
I believe that is working its way through the process.
The Minister for Housing and Communities goes on to mention the socio-economic duty, saying
“it is correct that the socio-economic duty... will not extend to Scotland. Scottish Government officials have only had limited contact with the Government Equalities Office (GEO) on the proposals for a socio-economic duty”.
The suggestion seems to be that the Government in Westminster have not been doing a lot of talking to the Scottish Government to explain the duty and whether we should take it through.
The Solicitor-General: I have no idea where that suggestion comes from. I have been to Scotland several times and given evidence to the Scottish Parliament, and officials have been in pretty constant contact. We would be pleased if we persuaded the hon. Gentleman’s party to take on the duty, and we have done our level best to do so. Compare and contrast Wales, where we have had far less trouble persuading the Government that it will be helpful to their people.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have had an enormous amount of contact. He is in a funny position—I acknowledge that straightaway—in that he seems to support the measures, although he does not think they go far enough, but his own Government will not have anything to do with them.
John Mason: I would be happy to act as go-between if the two Governments would like to use my services.
Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that his constituents would be somewhat alarmed by this situation? Surely they sent him to Parliament to deal with precisely this sort of problem, if it really is a problem.
John Mason: In one word, yes. Let me read the next paragraph of the letter, because it might clarify things further:
“Within our devolved powers we are able to carefully consider how we can direct our efforts to tackle poverty, reduce inequality, and promote social mobility in a way that is most appropriate to Scotland. As it is, we are completely committed to reducing socio-economic inequality in Scottish society. Our Solidarity and Cohesion targets commit us to taking serious action to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, both at an individual and an area level. Achievement of these targets will be supported by a wide range of measures already in place.”
I take that to mean that the Scottish Government remain to be convinced that the proposed power has teeth.
Mr. Harper: I confess to being confused. If we take my view, the hon. Gentleman’s comments make perfect sense. He has set out his view that the Scottish Government have wide-ranging targets and measures to deal with socio-economic disadvantage. In that case, they are getting on with it, and presumably the electorate are happy with that, because the Scottish National party did well in the last elections. It seems, therefore, that he should be supporting my view too.
However, if the hon. Gentleman accepts the view that he has already expressed—this power is appropriate and the only thing wrong with it is that it does not go far enough—it seems strange that he does not want the Scottish Government to adopt the proposed power. Most of his remarks appear to agree with what I am saying, but coming from him, they do not seem consistent or logical.
John Mason: I am sorry if I am not explaining myself well enough. Let me try again: I, the Scottish Government and our party are totally committed to challenging socio-economic disadvantage, and I believe that we are more committed to that than the Westminster Government—
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
John Mason: Let me finish my sentence. I believe that we are more committed to that than the Westminster Government, so we want to find something better than this socio-economic duty. As has been said by the Conservative party, it seems to have been tagged on a bit, even though it is at the beginning of the Bill. We want to find the best solution. We can use this measure, for now, but we should try to find something better.
Jim Sheridan: I remind the hon. Gentleman that his Government have been in power for two years. Will he tell me one measure that they have introduced to address socio-economic disadvantage?
John Mason: I think we are probably straying from the subject. However, I would suggest that reducing prescription charges is one. I know that the Welsh are ahead of us on that—they have free prescriptions—but we are reducing charges, while in England they are increasing.
I am not as familiar with the situation in England as I am with that in Scotland; perhaps Scotland is simply slightly further ahead on some of these issues. Another slightly different factor in Scotland is the concordat between central Government and local government—I assume from the comments of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that the Conservative leader would agree with this kind of measure. Instead of central Government imposing lots of new duties on local government, they very much work in agreement. That has certainly been welcomed by the Labour party in Scotland.
Sandra Osborne: To put it very mildly, the concordat is on a shaky peg and might well break down, although I accept that it did happen. In my area, the Tory and Scottish National party council is shutting things down and making cuts left, right and centre. The concordat means little to the people I represent. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is a missed opportunity? The Scottish Government simply want to plough their own furrow. They do not want to co-operate with Westminster. As usual, they want to pick a fight with it, instead of being constructive.
John Mason rose—
The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I suggest to the Committee that we have discussed the intentions of the Scottish Parliament at inordinate length. Can we please return to the amendment?
John Mason: I apologise for everybody else’s interventions.
I am grateful to Citizens Advice for its help on amendment 107. Clause 2 provides for the list of authorities in clause 1 to be added to through regulations. I believe that it is important for the duty to apply clearly to key regulators, Executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies, particularly those with an economic impact. Would it not be better to include those in the Bill now to ensure fairness as we come out of the recession, rather than waiting for a Government to include the bodies at a later date? That would mean regulators taking the duty into account when setting regulatory policies and strategies.
The amendment suggests five additional authorities, although there could be more—this is just for starters. The Liberal Democrats have mentioned a few other bodies and similar arguments apply to each of those. Often, there is already a duty on them that might include socio-economic issues, but extending the duty specifically to cover them should strengthen their resolve.
I want to consider specifically the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets. Ofgem’s principal objective is to protect the interests of existing and future consumers, promoting effective competition wherever appropriate. In addition, when carrying out those functions Ofgem must have regard to the interests of individuals who are disabled, chronically sick, of pensionable age, on low incomes or residing in rural areas.
That is of particular concern to me, as a number of poorer people in my constituency are struggling with fuel bills, paying more for electricity and paying in advance through a pre-payment meter. That is a real problem. Extending the socio-economic duty to Ofgem would reinforce its ability to deal with that issue and justify the regulator prioritising its work on socio-economic inequalities ahead of other matters, such as certain competition issues. The amendment could bring about a slight difference in emphasis.
Dr. Harris: I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Particularly because so much of the direction of public services has been delegated to regulators such as these, away from elected Governments, it is important that we use every opportunity to give them a steer when there are certain public policy outcomes, such as the elimination of disadvantage, that we would like to be delivered through utilities or public services, without putting too much of a burden on industry. That is why his amendment and the Liberal Democrat amendment, which says much the same thing in respect of regulators, are so important.
John Mason: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and agree with his point.
The Solicitor-General: I am being as sympathetic as I can, but our concern is that there is no point putting a duty on regulators if a duty cannot be put on the people they regulate. It cannot, because we are talking about the private sector, so what is the point?
John Mason: One suggestion is that the regulator must prioritise the work that it does. Specifically giving the regulator the socio-economic duty as well would, we hope, push that up its agenda. I know that in many cases the regulator is struggling with a wide agenda, but I believe that the point of the Bill is in some cases to double-underline duties that may or may not apply to other authorities. If this duty applies to other authorities, it should apply to the regulator as well.
Mr. Boswell: Let me try to help the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that a consideration in this respect might be whether the regulator would require the introduction of a particular social tariff to meet the problems of disadvantage? That at least, whatever the merits of the clause, might be a perfectly proper steer that the regulator could be obliged to give.
John Mason: That is an extremely good example and there are probably others. I appreciate the intervention. If the duty already applied to Ofgem, the regulator, following its conclusion that consumers on pre-payment meters were subject to unfair price differentials, might have been able to act more swiftly and take decisive action.
As well as regulators, certain Executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies should be subject to the duty. Although it may be argued that those public bodies will be covered by the duty applying to Departments, it should be made clear whether that is the case. I would appreciate the Minister clarifying that. One example would be Jobcentre Plus, in the same way that the duty under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 to promote disability equality applies to certain Executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies.
Finally, I oppose Conservative amendments 2 and 4 and support amendments 108, 109 and 181.
9.45 am
I will not indulge myself at length, but it comes as a wake-up call telling one that it is time to go when one finds that Cabinet Ministers were born after one had left higher education. I was shocked to discover that the other day, but it also prompts my first general remark. Forty-five years ago, I had the first—and probably only—lesson in moral philosophy that I can remember, which was to the effect that there is a distinction between saying that something should happen and saying that there should be a law that something should happen. That is the general issue raised by this place.
The Solicitor-General has been very kind to me on occasion, and I hope that there will be no argument about whether we are interested in inequalities. There could have been that argument, and there could still be in respect of certain members of my party and other parties, but we need to be alert to such factors.
Among local authorities in my county and most others, and even among regulators, which we recently discussed in relation to an amendment, there is a disposition to even things up and, to use a phrase that I used on Second Reading—I am interested in the human rights side, as well as the discrimination and equalities issue—to treat people decently. That is really why we are in business in Parliament, and we should not have an argument about that. The issue, however, is how we deliver that and whether it is appropriate to have a general duty.
When I interrupted the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, who was making a perfectly reasonable distinction between inequality and discrimination, I adverted to my concern that the proposals did not amount to much, particularly when there was no opportunity of litigating in private to correct failures by a public authority. There are no teeth, although that does not necessarily mean that we should never have legislation.
During our evidence sessions, the Solicitor-General objected to my slight penchant for principles clauses, which we may have occasion to discuss later. She said that such a clause would not add value and that it was not clear how it would operate in practice. However, one could reasonably turn her argument against her and say that if she does not like principles clauses, she should accept that clause 1 is, in a way, a clause of generality or principle, which may not have many teeth or substance and which may serve a political rather than a purely functional purpose.
I add another general concern, which strays forward into clause 2. It relates to the operation of so-called Henry VIII clauses. The only other reminiscence that I will relate to the Committee is that the first house I grew up in was a farm house. It was nothing very grand; indeed, it had previously been used to store onions. It was called Bull’s lodge. Bull was in fact Boleyn, as in Anne Boleyn. It was a small hunting box that had been owned by Sir Thomas Boleyn. It was next to New hall, which happened to be one of Henry VIII’s palaces. Indeed, we found evidence that he and Anne had been courting, because there was a secret passage between the two. That is the early memory, but I was going to say that Anne Boleyn had a nasty time at the hands of Henry VIII, and we should resist Henry VIII clauses in principle.
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