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Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Equality Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Joe Benton, John Bercow, David Taylor, † Ann Winterton
Baird, Vera (Solicitor-General)
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
Mason, John (Glasgow, East) (SNP)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Alan Sandall, Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 11 June 2009


[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Equality Bill

Clause 1

Public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequalities
Amendment proposed (this day): 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.’.—(Mr. Harper.)
1 pm
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following: 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).
The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): It is good to be under your chairpersonship on this Bill, Lady Winterton. I understand that we are going to be less peripatetic than before, which might help logistics. We did wonder whether we ought to introduce an extra strand in the Bill for wandering MPs: we had have three rooms. We shall proceed more easily now that we are not wandering about so much.
I was still talking—not wishing to sound as if I have been long-winded—about amendment 107. Many people have chosen to have a piece of the amendment 107 pie. I draw the Committee’s attention to a new document that has appeared. Members know well that there is a new single equality duty on public authorities, and that will be supported by specific duties. We have undertaken to consult on how the specific duties should be put together. That document is now available on the Table at the back of the room if Members would like to take a copy.
The hon. Member for Forest of Dean said that sometimes regulators of the kind referred to in amendment 107 did indeed have some strategic input. I accept the point that he made, although they are better characterised as reactive. However, even where they take or influence such decisions, they implement them through the bodies that they regulate, and the duty will not fall upon the bodies that are regulated. There is no lack of sympathy among Ministers with the intention behind amendment 107. It has been argued with great strength, and has garnered support, and we will look again to make sure that we are not wrong, but we think it misses the target at which it is aimed.
I turn to amendment 181, which, again, would extend the duty to all public sector inspectorates, with the purpose of driving it through the public sector more broadly. Again, I sympathise totally, but similar arguments apply. Those inspectorates do not, by and large, take the long-term decisions that we want the duty to hit, and if they do, they implement them through the bodies they inspect. Unless we are prepared to extend the duty to the whole public sector—we have limited it to the groups that we regard as the strategic ones—there is no real point in extending it to the inspectorates.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Is the Minister saying—this again is genuinely for information—that she considered the possibility of extending the duty to the public sector at large, and having derogations from that where it clearly was not appropriate or necessary? Is that a model that we should have realistically pursued, rather than this slightly odd system of specifying part of it and adding in bits of it that we have forgotten?
The Solicitor-General: I do not think we are doing quite the latter. We think that we have got into this part of the clause all the relevant strategic authorities, but we cannot be sure we have, so we kept a residual power to add to it. There has been a deliberate process of looking at those authorities to ensure that the duty bites on the right decisions, rather than thinking that it should be applied more widely and allowing everyone else in later.
As for the inspectorates that inspect the public authorities that are covered by the measure, it would be redundant to put a duty on them. The duty has been placed on the public authorities listed in clause 1(3)(a) to (k). They all have the duty. The inspectorates will have to inspect them to make sure that they carry out their statutory duties, because that is part of the matrix of their inspection. We are having detailed discussions with the Audit Commission and the other inspectorates to ensure that there are worked-out ways in which that will be done, because it is key that they should be appropriately monitored. Therefore, there is no need, where the measure bites on the public authority itself, to make it bite on the inspectorate that will inspect it. We have already heard the arguments earlier today that, if the duty is not placed on the body, it should not be put on the inspectorate.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): In relation to the health service, I want to probe the Minister. First, what is said by some inspectorates has a strategic impact. What a health service inspectorate says can significantly affect the way in which the body that it is inspecting delivers its service. There is therefore an argument to say that the inspectorate, when giving its rulings, must have regard to the impact that its ruling will have on socio-economic disadvantage, otherwise inadvertently it might say that the body must do more of something, even if that has primary care trusts, for example, choosing not to provide some of the services that we need.
Secondly, what about organisations such as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence? Its recommendations are hugely strategic and have a huge impact on what the health service delivers as well as equity in the health service. Will the hon. and learned Lady give further thought to whether that should be included in the list?
The Solicitor-General: With great respect, the hon. Gentleman is missing the point. No one will stop inspectorates saying—as he has put it—what they want and expect, or going through their usual matrix, added to the ordinary matrix of inspections. On every public authority to which the measure applies will be the duty to ensure that it has been complied with. It is really not that complicated.
Amendment 4 relates to subsections (4) and (5). They are important because, when the long-term vision for an area set out in its sustainable community strategy is being put together, all the parties involved are to give due consideration to the desirability of addressing socio-economic inequalities. The long-term strategic planning in which they are engaged is where the duty should be biting, yet amendment 4 proposes that we remove the provision, which will leave the local authority that needs to be planning strategically with its partner organisations the only one that has the duty at the time. It is vital that, when all the public service partners come together to make strategic decisions about their long-term vision, they all have the duty then, not at another time.
Mr. Boswell: To be clear, is it the intention that, when a public authority enters into a strategic partnership with another public authority, the duty under clause 1 would bind them in the act of going in, as well as the body that was the successor, which was the outcome of the partnership? I assume that it is.
The Solicitor-General: Is the hon. Gentleman talking about machinery of government changes binding successor authorities?
The Solicitor-General: As far as I follow that, I think that the answer is yes. Let us look back at subsection (4), which is always a good place to start. It says that the clause also applies to an authority that
“is a partner authority in relation to a...local authority”—
it deals with specific partner authorities for local government—and that
“does not fall within subsection (3)”
The measure only applies, however, so far as the authority is involved in preparing or modifying the sustainable community strategy. Going back to the core words makes it clear what the impact is. As for successor authorities post-local government organisation, I doubt that this applies.
We ask that Members do not press amendments 2, 107, 181 and 4. We shall look again to make sure that there is not anything in the points that have been made about the power of the inspectorates.
Dr. Harris: I was about to say something else before the hon. and learned Lady said what she just said. When I pressed her, she said that it was simple and therefore implied that I do not understand. What has happened is that I have failed to get across my point accurately enough. If she is willing to look at the matter again, it will be better if I put my point in writing rather than take up time now because we have had a long debate on the clause. I am grateful that she is willing to hear anything more that we have to say on that subject because I have not put across some of the points. We have not had an answer on NICE as an example of a strategic body that is not listed, which has huge implications for the approach that applies in the health service. She does not need to reply to that now if she is willing to hear further representations.
The Solicitor-General: I am not remotely convinced that NICE is a body to which one would want the duty to apply. It is not appropriate always to put that up. The Financial Services Authority was another bad example where the duty would conflict with some of the other targets that it has by statute. I do not think for one minute that we have absolutely hit the spot. I did not intend to suggest that the hon. Gentleman was not understanding by saying that it is a straightforward point but it is a straightforward point and I have made it three or four times. If he writes to me, I will read his comments with great care, but I do not doubt that he has in his usual way adequately made his point.
Amendment 108 proposes to extend the scope of the duty in clause 1 to a number of London-specific bodies. The London Development Agency is already covered under paragraph (j) in clause 1(3), because it has been set up under the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. The LDA is, therefore, already in the clause. We agree that the Metropolitan Police Authority has strategic responsibilities that are relevant to tackling socio-economic duties and is to a sizeable extent analogous to other police authorities. We will definitely look at that.
Transport for London is a bit more complicated because the Greater London Authority Act 1999 puts the relevant strategic responsibility for transport in terms of an integrated policy on to the Mayor. We thought therefore that we had covered it. We will, however, consider the detail and the division of that responsibility. If we think that Transport for London should be brought in, we will come back with such a proposal. The same can be said for the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, which is also the subject of this amendment. We will consider that one alongside the other fire and rescue authorities that amendment 109 suggests should be included. About half of the 46 fire and rescue authorities in England are already covered, as they are local authorities, but about half would not be.
My experience reflects that of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. Fire authorities do a good deal of work in deprived areas. They have their tenders out in deprived areas rather than in the fire station; they are doing a lot of work about fire prevention and smoke alarms; and they engage with the public in deprived areas where most fires start. They do a good deal of good work. My own Cleveland fire service, under strategic decisions taken by the authority, is excellent at engaging youngsters who, through its tentacles, it finds are about to go off the rails or are not gainfully occupied. It brings them in to do what is called the life course, which is to train them as mini-fire people for a week. Somebody—usually me—then presents them with a certificate.
It makes a huge impact on a young person who would otherwise be leaning against a wall in some fairly run-down estate to be taught discipline and have a wonderful time on a fire engine with these wonderful he-men who are good role models in a way the police cannot be. That does them enormous good, as it does when one gives them a certificate to say that they have achieved something, often for the first time. I agree therefore that the fire authorities have a strong role in tackling socio-economic underprivileged people and we will look again at that.
1.15 pm
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I thank the Minister for taking on board the amendments and having another look at them. To reiterate what she said, I sat on the London fire authority and the Metropolitan Police Authority when I was a member of the GLA. There is far-reaching work that could be done and it is important that that duty is placed on those authorities.
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