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Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for replying on this matter. I was not expecting a reply. I simply gave that as an example of the kind of thing that the commission will have to tackle. It is bound to be raised, but nobody would regard it as a right when there is the perfectly good alternative of postal voting.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government entirely accept that that is a perfectly good alternative. The Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord

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Campbell of Croy and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. I believe they are both aware that we have not yet had a response from the committee as it has not yet had time to consider the matter. Of course, we shall look carefully at any recommendations it makes and we shall want to respond positively to them.

A number of speakers in the debate, including my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke and the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen and Lord Addington, mentioned the small employers' threshold. The Bill provides for an amendment to the DDA so that the Secretary of State must consult the commission before making any proposals to alter the small employers' threshold--the threshold in terms of the number of employees below which the employer provisions of the DDA do not apply.

As I think noble Lords are aware, after our recent review that limit has been lowered from 20 to 15. It has included an extra 45,000 employers and brings another 70,000 disabled people under the protection of the provisions. I am sure that many noble Lords will welcome that as a step in the right direction, although I accept that some noble Lords who have taken part in the debate would like it to go further.

However, I must correct the figure given by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. It is completely wrong to suggest that 95 per cent. of employees are not covered. On the contrary, around 80 per cent. of employees are now covered as a result of the latest change. The provision in the Bill is concerned with the method of consultation on further changes to the threshold and it is not itself a mechanism to make further alterations to the threshold.

My noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke indicated the complexity of employment issues in some instances for people who have disabilities. The commission should be well placed to give advice on when small businesses--

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I would like to clarify that point if my noble friend will permit me. Is it not the case that the Government can hold a review, can lower the number of firms and can bring in all firms, except those with fewer than two workers, without the need for a commission? That makes this quite unnecessary. The Government can act, and act decisively, to include nearly all firms in the DDA.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government believe it is right to involve the commission in advice on an important matter of this sort. For that reason there is a clause in the Bill to make sure that can happen.

The noble Lord, Lord Rix, asked about the right of appeal for those who are not given help by the commission. The task force considered whether there should be a right of appeal where the commission does not support an individual, and it concluded that instead the commission should write to an individual explaining why it had decided not to support that person, setting out the reasons clearly. Those arrangements apply to the other commissions and seem to work perfectly well.

The noble Lord also asked about access to education, training and transport as a right. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, the task force will

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consider and report on the composition of comprehensive rights. We shall be hearing from the task force later and considering the report carefully.

The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, also asked about the ability of the DRC to charge for any services that it makes available. It is intended that this provision should cover, for example, charging for attendance at a conference or charging for copies of reports that it has published. It will not be able to charge for support in formal investigations. The ability to make charges is consistent with those powers of the EOC and the CRE under the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, who spoke in the gap, asked about the role of both Houses of Parliament on the issue of codes of practice. The commission will ensure that all codes are subject to wide-ranging and comprehensive consultation in draft form. Noble Lords will have a full opportunity to comment at that stage. Once it is laid before the House, it will not be susceptible to amendment unless the process of consultation is started again. I hope that is clear.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked about regional offices. That is an issue that the disability rights task force considered. It recommended that the DRC's services would need to be available to disabled people and to employers throughout Great Britain. However, it was not convinced that regional offices were the best way to achieve that or that they would offer best value for money. Alternative methods--for example, through regional seminars, workshops and commission staff travelling round the country--will make the DRC accessible and be an efficient way of targeting services where they are most needed.

We agree with the disability rights task force that the commission should consider whether it needs more officers around the country in the light of its experience. It is not something that is ruled out, but I do not think that that should be on the face of the Bill.

The noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, asked about devolution issues. I can assure them that arrangements will be in place to ensure that there will be at least one office in each of both Scotland and Wales. In addition, one commissioner will be appointed with the agreement of Scottish Ministers and one with the agreement of the First Secretary in Wales. The commission's annual reports will be provided to Scottish Ministers and to the First Secretary in Wales. They will submit them to the Scottish Parliament and to the Welsh Assembly respectively. However, the matter of equal opportunities is reserved to the Westminster Parliament. That reflects what has been agreed. That is why we have established a commission which will have a remit to include the whole of Great Britain.

I hope that I have managed to answer almost all of the questions asked. If I have failed, I shall write to those noble Lords whose questions were not answered.

Perhaps I may return to two points raised by my noble friends Lord Ashley of Stoke and Lord Morris of Manchester. My noble friend Lord Ashley said that

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deafness can be a greater obstacle to getting a job than is a criminal record. We must try to resolve that and to ensure that that is not the case in the future. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for the appreciation that he has expressed for the introduction of this Bill and, indeed, for his "Hallelujah".

As my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester said--I think that he was quoting--morality cannot be legislated but behaviour can be regulated. I am grateful to my noble friend for what he said about those Members of your Lordships' House who have fought for greater fairness and equality for disabled people, and I join him in saying that the greatest tribute must be given to those many disabled people who have fought for so long for their rights. We support them. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Parole Board (Transfer of Functions) Order 1998

2.2 p.m.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The order before your Lordships will be made under Section 50(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and will extend the powers delegated to the Parole Board by the Secretary of State. Specifically, the board would have authority to take decisions on the grant of parole to determinate sentence prisoners who are serving a sentence of up to, but not including, 15 years. At present, the board has those decision-making powers in respect of determinate sentence prisoners serving up to seven years. The order does not deal with the arrangements for considering the release of discretionary or mandatory life sentence prisoners. There are no plans to change those arrangements.

The order is part of the Government's wider commitment to modernising and improving the performance of the criminal justice system. The Prison Service has a central role in taking forward this programme of change, and in working with other criminal justice agencies to develop more effective ways of protecting the public.

The parole system, introduced in its current form by the Criminal Justice Act 1991, plays an important part in reducing the cycle of offending behaviour and hence reducing the overall level of serious crime. In particular, parole offers a valuable incentive to prisoners convicted of more serious crimes to address the root causes of their offending behaviour while in custody. However, decisions about parole are primarily about risks. I am afraid that we cannot get away from that. For the parole system to operate effectively, and to maintain public confidence, the evaluation of risk must be undertaken very carefully. Above all else, decisions on releasing prisoners on parole must be concerned with the need to protect the public. It is a testimony to the success of this

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process that only around 5 per cent. of those released from prison on parole are recalled for reoffending while on licence.

Alongside effective decision-making, the Government are also conscious of the importance of timely decision: both for prisoners themselves and to ensure the most efficient and effective use of prison accommodation. The Prison Service is working together with the Parole Board to reduce delays. A range of improvements to existing procedures are being introduced to make the parole process more efficient; these actions are being supported by independent research and audit projects. The goal is to ensure that all those prisoners regarded as suitable for early release are freed at the earliest possible date.

It is in this context that the Government have reviewed the way in which parole decisions are taken in cases involving determinate sentence prisoners. The Parole Board currently has delegated authority--by means of the Parole Board (Transfer of Functions) Order 1992--to take decisions on the grant of parole to determinate sentence prisoners who are serving sentences of at least four years and less than seven years, and who were sentenced after 1st October 1992. In other cases involving determinate sentence prisoners, the Parole Board currently performs an advisory function, and final decisions are taken by Ministers, or by the Prison Service on behalf of Ministers. Last year, the board's recommendations for release were agreed in all but two out of 520 cases. This clearly underlines the quality and consistency of the board's decision-making and raises questions about the need for the board's recommendations to be subject to review before a final decision is made.

The Government, therefore, take the view that the Parole Board's delegated authority should be extended. We published our proposals in a consultation paper entitled, Improving Parole Decision-Making, on 6th October. At the end of the consultation period on 4th November we had received 38 responses to the paper: 33 supported the paper in their entirety; five others offered differing degrees of support. The proposals also have the full support of the Parole Board's chairman and chief executive.

The proposals outlined in the consultation paper are those which are now set down in the order that we are debating today. The central proposal is to extend the Parole Board's decision-making powers to cover prisoners sentenced to determinate sentences of up to, but not including, 15 years. I should stress that there is no magic claim for moving the cut-off point from seven years to 15 years. Certainly, there is no direct correlation between the length of the sentence and the complexity of the parole decision. Wherever the line is drawn, the board is likely to be faced with a small number of complex or contentious cases.

We have aimed to strike a balance between removing the existing inefficiencies in the system and ensuring that the release of offenders responsible for committing the most serious offences would be subject to ministerial veto. Prisoners serving longer sentences are likely to include those considered a significant danger to the

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public at the time they were sentenced. There is clearly a "public interest" argument in allowing decisions in these cases to involve an element of review, including the possibility of referral to Ministers in particularly contentious cases. Most importantly, the vast majority of the correspondents to our consultation exercise on this issue agreed that 15 years was an appropriate threshold. The order, therefore, sets out proposals for extending the scope of the Parole Board's delegated authority to encompass determinate sentence cases involving sentences--I say again--of up to, but not including, 15 years. This will include those sentenced before 1992 who are not covered by the present delegation.

The draft order also reflects the need for transitional arrangements for cases where the Parole Board makes a recommendation prior to being granted its new powers, but the Secretary of State has not acted upon it. We propose to limit the Parole Board's new powers to take final decisions on those cases which are considered by the Parole Board after the new order comes into force. Cases where the Parole Board has made a recommendation prior to the order coming into force, but where no final decision has been reached, will be dealt with under the current procedures. Increasing the scope of the board's delegated authority to take decisions in this area would be a positive recognition of the quality of the Parole Board's assessments in these cases. It would also allow decisions to be made more quickly. I commend the draft order to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th November be approved [First Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Hoyle.)

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