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John Penrose: I will not try to try to top my hon. Friend’s penchant for reminiscing, and I certainly cannot come up with anything that wonderful. However, does he agree that the danger in the clause, and the objections to it, as laid out by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, relate not so much to a Henry VIII clause problem as to a King Canute clause problem? The Government are trying to stand in front of the advancing waves of inequality and order them to retreat. If they are to deal with inequality via disadvantage, they need to build some sea walls or a dam to hold them back, rather than just standing there ordering the waves to go back. That is the problem with the Bill.
Mr. Boswell: That was a helpful intervention although I would go further. What might be termed hard defences against inequality—I have some experience; I do not make much of it, but I used to be the Minister with responsibility for sea defences—are not always better than what might be called soft defences, which try to change culture and explain that certain things are not acceptable. Nevertheless, the intervention was helpful.
Emily Thornberry: I am getting confused and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will enlighten us. If Opposition members of the Committee think that this is a King Canute clause, with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General standing before the sea and ordering it to go back, what alternatives do they suggest? What are the hard defences that we are not using?
Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She reminds me of the anecdote about a gentleman went to a conference, which a friend had advised him to attend, because he was confused. On his return, his friend asked how he was. The man replied, “Still confused, but at a somewhat higher level.”
Mr. Harper: Perhaps I can help the hon. Lady. I alluded to a specific issue. One of the clear disadvantages that many people from poorer backgrounds face is the lack of availability of excellent schools. They cannot offset the disadvantage of their parental income by going to a good school that enables them to reach their full potential. The solution is for central Government and local authorities to implement policies that ensure that there are more good schools and that those children have access to them. That is the solution, but it will be achieved not by putting this measure into law, but by political action and the necessary steps being taken. That is how we tackle socio-economic disadvantage.
Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He prompts me to make one point, but I promise to reply in substance to the hon. Lady’s question in a minute. In my constituency, I have a continued, strong concern that in pursuing what might be called—perhaps unfairly—an urban agenda, the Government tend to overlook the fact that there are areas and pockets of rural deprivation that can be just as intense, and are often aggravated by relative affluence alongside them.
In rural areas such as my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, there are issues such as whether or not young people have access to wheels and can get about and get a job or further education. It is incumbent on us all, whatever our politics, to take those matters seriously, and I hope that that is not a matter that divides us.
Prompted by the hon. Lady—I would have said this anyway—there is some analysis to be done on the clause. The Bill is about equality and dealing with discrimination, and it reflects and consolidates a body of law that aims to protect the individual from discrimination. However, I am concerned that the clause sits ill with that, as it is an injunction to public authorities at a strategic level. The essence of discrimination is that it is at a tactical level—there is one exception, which I will perhaps come on to—and not at a strategic level. The exception might be institutional deprivation—not racism—in some local authorities that prevents them from dealing with issues for their less disadvantaged persons. If the Government are arguing that, I would like the Solicitor-General to say so. My view is that if that is happening, the ballot box is the answer, not a Government intervention or a clunky legal process. Unless that is the case, however, it is better for local authorities to make decisions.
I apologise for not having spotted this earlier and put down an amendment, but clause 1(1) refers to
“making decisions of a strategic nature”.
I am not clear whether those are intermediate decisions. I could understand it if the clause mentioned drawing up a strategy, as that would be similar to having ministerial guidance about a strategy for a local or public authority, but this is somewhere between high strategy and a tactical decision, which I suggest is the main focus of discrimination in practice. Somewhere along the line, every time people make a decision, there is a difficult evidential problem of how to decide as a local or public authority whether that is a strategic decision. If it is not a strategic plan and something appears to come out of that, then they have to decide whether it deals with socio-economic inequalities.
It needs to be recorded that there are other considerations for public authorities, which may need to balance other factors, including the welfare of the majority of their inhabitants, for example, and overall economic development, if that is not consistent with dealing with socio-economic inequalities. Those are fundamentally political decisions. Unless there is some equivalent of institutional racism—I am interested to know whether there is any evidence for that; I do not think that there is—those decisions are better left for local and public authorities and our other administrative mechanisms, such as inspection.
Inequality has to be dealt with locally. There is a national issue of concern, which is why we are here trying to get this right. But delivery will be at local level and that means making, as I have suggested, a tactical decision, perhaps when siting a school or a clinic, or something like that, or the involvement of a non-governmental organisation to try to extend the efficiency of the public sector. Again, it is appropriate that such decisions are made locally.
I understand the motives behind the clause and it is just conceivable that it might do some good as a kind-bully pulpit, but that is the only argument for this clause, which is not well articulated. The remedies and sanctions under it—
Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend says that the clause is a bully pulpit, which means that there is a danger of passing laws to send messages, which we discussed earlier. If a clause is going to be used to send a message, the message needs to be clear. There is a fleck of clarity in the first part of the clause. I talked earlier about disadvantage and the need to increase equality of opportunity, but the clause mentions inequalities of outcome. There is a significant difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. If a piece of legislation is going to be passed to send messages, there needs to be clarity about the message that is sent.
Mr. Boswell: That is an honourable and proper stricture. If one is looking for ways of dealing with redressing the inequality of outcome, I suggest a measure of redistribution within the tax system. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I thought I would get some results with that. At least then we could have a discussion about it. There is the slight danger that the message being sent by the clause is, “Oh dear. We’ve got an unequal society and we’re going to legislate to stop it.”
The Solicitor-General: Do it take it from what the hon. Gentleman has said that he is on board for the 50p tax rate and off board for inheritance tax?
Mr. Boswell: I hope that the Solicitor-General will not go too far down that line, because it might distress you to know, Mr. Benton, as she well knows, that the 50p rate is likely to have a negative real yield and that measures to ameliorate inheritance tax have been encouraged by the Government themselves in response to Conservative initiatives. But we will leave the issue of redistributive taxation.
We would feel happier with a society where people had opportunity and were not frustrated, discriminated against or humiliated. Whether the clause, with its high-sounding rubric and poor, questionable and indirect delivery, will achieve that is a matter that we may wish to test later on.
John Howell (Henley) (Con): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton.
I want to follow a couple of comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry and mention my recent experience as a county councillor—I was in that role until last week—during which time I held the portfolio on equalities for three years. With that portfolio, I was keen to move away from the output-based duties and tick-box exercises that had led to the exercise of the duties in question becoming discredited, and towards a more outcome-based series of plans, on which action could be taken.
Mr. Boswell: I do not want to interrupt my hon. Friend’s argument, but perhaps I can tell him something that will be some consolation to him: he may not know that the leader of his excellent county council lives a mere whisker across the constituency boundary, about a mile from me. So near am I to that constituency boundary that I regularly receive missives from Oxfordshire county council through the postal system, telling me how well it is doing. I can say that those are genuine achievements, which I welcome and encourage people in Northamptonshire to emulate.
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John Howell: I thank my hon. Friend. I have learned in my year here that flattery comes rarely in one’s parliamentary life, so it is always nice to have it unprompted from an hon. Friend.
In changing to outcome-based plans, one of the most crucial things to understand is that the choices are political. Whether they are called strategic, tactical or tactically-strategic is neither here nor there; they are political choices in relation to what outcomes are wanted. It is impossible to achieve a large number of outcomes, so there is a need to be selective about them.
In reality there was a significant overlap between the socio-economic disadvantages in the county and the groups covered by the existing equalities duties. Paragraph 42 of the explanatory notes gives an example from the health sector about targeting specific groups where health inequalities existed and the messages might not have got home for a variety of reasons. That was already being done as a political priority, and there was no better example of it than the joint appointment of a director of public health between the county council and the primary care trust, precisely so that there could be a focus on such disadvantages across the area, and so that the equality duties that already existed could be used as a significant lever for achievement. My question, therefore, is what additionality the measure brings to that system, which is already working.
My second question arises from experience of unintended consequences. I am thinking of the Building Schools for the Future programme in my constituency, where there are pockets of deprivation, despite its description by The Guardian as “opulent”. There are enormous areas of deprivation, some of which are semi-urban but some of which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry mentioned earlier, are places of obvious rural deprivation.
The Building Schools for the Future programme places a clear emphasis on building schools where there is socio-economic deprivation—I do not have a problem with that. However, the orientation and limits that have been set have produced results that do not match need, meaning that although one can visit a school and, on leaning accidentally against the wall, come away with bits of wood in one’s hand, because it is so rotten, one can still be told that the school deserves nothing because it is not in a socio-economically deprived area.
That is an unintended consequence, and we need to be careful when we include the type of duty in question with much harder—stronger, rather than more difficult—duties which, in my experience, are being exercised with great fairness and awareness, including political awareness, of what is happening in a council area.
Dr. Harris: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Henley, who is my neighbour. He has made a fine contribution to the House in his short time here and I remember his maiden speech. My feelings about him are somewhat strengthened by the fact that I spent weeks, ultimately fruitlessly, wandering around villages in the north of his constituency during the by-election seeking to prevent his election—I still have the blisters.
I have a few points to make in respect of clause 1, and I wish to ask the Minister to reconsider a couple of things in respect of the amendments that deal with regulators, one of which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green and I, and the other, which is more detailed, by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East.
The Minister said that although she thought that there might be merit in imposing a duty, such as it is, on inspectors and regulators, it would not be consistent or rational to do so because one could not impose the same duty on the bodies they regulate. She might therefore consider that such a measure might be fruitless in some way. I question that, because the duty in clause 1 is that the bodies to which it applies must, when carrying out their functions,
“have due regard to the desirability of exercising them in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage.”
The Minister explained on Second Reading that that was as far as she could go.
We are not talking about any sort of guarantee on socio-economic disadvantage, so it is not right to say that simply because the duty to bear socio-economic inequalities in mind cannot be imposed on the private sector, one should not impose a duty on the inspectors of the private sector. It would not do any harm if the inspectors of utilities, for example, concentrated on the duty or were to make a point of it by giving advice or making representations, in a non-binding way, to those they inspect. The fact that someone is not bound to follow advice, that there is no legal duty for them to do so, or that there is no duty to implement advice—or even to have regard to it—does not mean that that advice should not be given. Advice can be a steer for those who are regulated, and regulators could set out their priorities and focus. Will the Minister reconsider her opposition to the thrust of the proposals, if it is based only on the fact that the duty does not apply to all those regulated by the inspector? It does not need to do so to obtain the benefit set out by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East.
Sometimes public and private sector bodies are subject to regulation and inspection by regulators and inspectorates. Health service inspectorates, for example, cover private and public sector organisations. The same defence of the Minister’s opposition does not apply in those circumstances. Indeed, given that organisations in the health service are subject to so many demands, including, rightly, those in the clause, it would be helpful if health service inspectorates had to have regard to socio-economic inequalities in their inspections of organisations. Otherwise, there will be a concentration purely on other matters, such as quality and efficiency. They are important, but we might lose an opportunity to deal with equity, which is a big issue for primary care trusts, which are rightly listed. It should also be an issue for providers, because their policies on the cost of car parking, for example, can have serious equity implications.
Rather than list all the providers, as the Minister has chosen not to do in the Bill, we could deal with the problem by ensuring that the health service inspectorates have regard to socio-economic inequality in the advice they give to, or in the metrics they develop for judging, health service providers. They would be able to point to the Bill and give a clearer steer. I hope the Minister deals with that in her response.
Finally, there is the question of whether this is the best way to achieve the Government’s genuine intention of dealing with socio-economic inequalities. I do not believe that it is simply a way to provoke the Conservative party into arguing that there is some form of class war, and I was glad that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean did not rise to that bait in the tone and tenor of his remarks. I do not believe that that is the Government’s intention; the Government’s intention is to tackle the problem.
However, I do not think that there is a choice between the clause and, for example, dealing with taxation. My party is untainted by what the hon. Member for Daventry called the Government’s collusion in the inheritance tax arms war that took place 18 months ago. We think that that was a regressive step. It would be a regressive tax change, and it is far better to make progressive tax changes.
To return to our fundamental point, there must be alternative and better ways of dealing with the problem. The Government should at least have considered that through formal consultation, rather than leaping straight for such provisions at the last minute. That was why my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked whether the Government had consulted on the question of whether socio-economic disadvantage should be a protected characteristic. Why not argue that that might be a way forward, whether or not we deal with it at a later stage, as we might well do? It would be interesting to know whether the Government considered a range of options before arriving at the present one.
This is very much a clause stand part debate. In relation to my earlier point of order, most of the clauses in the Bill are restatements of existing laws that we all support on race and disability discrimination, and clause stand part debates are unlikely to be sought on any of them. On brand new legislation, where a principle is involved, it is likely that a clause stand part debate will be sought, certainly by Liberal Democrat Members. We will seek to engage with the Government behind the scenes. I ask the Minister and the Conservatives to consider engaging us in conversation about what debates they wish to have on clause stand part. There will be isolated areas where we, separately from the Conservative party, will want to agree with the Government, or to disagree because we do not think that they have gone far enough. It is slightly easier to make such points in a separate stand part debate, if they are made briefly.
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