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Lord Rix: I have put my name to Amendment No. 15, which I presume we are now taking with Amendment No. 2.

The Human Rights Act 1998 is of the greatest possible importance in the protection of people with learning disabilities. I support both amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke.

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Lord Swinfen: Both amendments are so logical that the Government may have some difficulty with them. I hope not.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: This group of amendments is concerned with advising the Government on the Human Rights Act 1998.

In addition to its general duties, noble Lords will be aware that Clause 2(3)(a) of the Bill already includes a power for the commission to give advice to the Government on any aspect of the law or proposed changes to the law, for any purpose connected with the elimination of discrimination and the performance of its other functions. That extends to all legislation applying to England, Scotland and Wales, including Community law and the international obligations of the UK.

Turning to Amendment No. 2 tabled by my noble friend, Lord Ashley of Stoke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, the Government are not opposed in principle to the commission providing government with its views on the Human Rights Act 1998 where its provisions have relevance to the elimination of discrimination. There is, then, nothing to prevent the commission from making recommendations to government concerning that Act.

We do not, however, believe that it is necessary to express that power as a duty to be included on the face of the Bill. The disability rights commission will pursue its duties vigorously and it will certainly take an interest in the 1998 Act where it considers it relevant to do so. We believe that the core duties of the commission in relation to legislation should be focused more directly on addressing disability discrimination issues. That is why we have provided in Clause 2(1)(c) for it to have a duty to keep under review the workings of the Disability Discrimination Act 1998 and this Bill when it becomes an Act.

Amendment No. 15 concerns the disability rights commission's power to assist individuals in cases that involve breaches of the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government share the determination of the noble Lords and the noble Baroness who have spoken that the commission shall be a body with sufficient powers to tackle effectively discrimination against disabled people. In recommendations on the role and functions of a disability rights commission, the Disability Rights Task Force urged the Government to consider carefully the impact of the 1998 Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. That is why we raised the issue in the White Paper, Promoting Disabled People's Rights. We intend to keep faith with that recommendation.

We have included powers in Clause 6(1)(b) that would allow the extension of the commission's powers, and we have made clear our intention to consider extending through regulations the range of legal proceedings in which the commission can assist individuals. That will provide a degree of flexibility, to allow us to respond to changing circumstances and needs, and also to review the powers of the commission in the light of experience.

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The explanatory notes that accompany the Bill indicate that we will certainly consider including in the regulations Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which requires public authorities not to act in a way that is incompatible with a right under the European Convention on Human Rights.

This issue involves complex questions of law and practice and we want to consider the detail carefully in consultation with others. The Human Rights Act 1998 has only recently received Royal Assent. Many of its provisions have yet to come into force and many will not do so for some time. We do not expect Section 6 to come into force before the year 2000. By then, we hope to have considered the issue in more detail.

We do not need to rush into taking a decision. We have time to approach it in a measured way. I hope that noble Lords will see that there is wisdom in that approach. We are advocating caution, which should not be mistaken for avoidance. I stress that the reasons for proceeding that way are entirely practical. The regulation-making power will give us time to consider the many complicated issues involved and to seek advice where necessary. I hope that my noble friend Lord Ashley agrees that including a regulation-making power, as has been done in Clause 6, is the proper way to approach this complex issue and will agree to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I am grateful for that explanation but I was not happy to hear my noble friend say that the commission will "take an interest". We are seeking something much more. My noble friend said that the Government will need time to consider the matter, which I appreciate and understand. I ask my noble friend to give the issue consideration before Report stage and return with a more constructive response. I appreciate the difficulty that faces him. The matter is terribly complex and difficult. I am not pressing the matter strongly at this stage but I hope that my noble friend will be able to do a bit better and accommodate us more at a later stage of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 1, line 20, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Baroness said: I wish to couple my remarks on this amendment with Amendment No. 4. There will be a ring of familiarity about an amendment to leave out "may" and insert "shall" because it comes up in almost every Bill and is the bugbear of every official in Whitehall. They do not like such amendments, and neither do the Treasury counsel, but it gives this particular Bill important emphasis.

One key concern is to ensure that the commission does not merely litigate or encourage litigation. Returning to my old theme, the commission should not be legalistic but work with people, employers and others, to ensure that they understand the obligations and how to apply the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which is practical work for the commission in eliminating as far as possible the need to end up in court.

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An essential element of the commission's work is education, and that will be high-profile. The amendment proposes strengthening the reference to the commission's role in encouraging good practice, by making it a requirement, not permissive, to do just that. We do not want the commission abandoning the encouragement of good practice to focus on a legalistic approach. Nor do we want its educational role to be permissive. We want a requirement that the commission gets into the business of providing information and practical support. That way, the commission is more likely to achieve what is needed for disabled people. That will encourage the right environment and atmosphere for companies to meet their requirements and obligations, rather than view the commission's work as an unwelcome imposition leading to greater costs.

I have a simple point to make on Amendment No. 4. The Bill does not refer to agencies, so the purpose of my amendment is to ensure that the power covers government agencies. That may well be implicit in the wording of the Bill. However, in the light of Pepper v. Hart and the importance of having a full understanding of what the Bill means, I should like to have on the record the fact that agencies are subsumed in the wording of the Bill. I beg to move.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Addington: As the noble Baroness says, the argument about "may" and "shall" is familiar. I think that this is the first time that we have been on the same side in a "may" and "shall" argument. I hope that that is a sign of good things to come.

As the noble Baroness said, the provision encourages the commission to take on the role of providing information. That would be good practice and would strengthen the Bill. The lawyers already have enough paydays!

The Government should welcome Amendment No. 4 with open arms, at least in principle, because it calls for "joined-up government". I believe that that is the expression. I hope that the Government will tell us that at least that concept is taken on board. It would help if they could point to the exact part of the Bill which achieves that, even if the amendment is not necessary.

Lord Hamilton of Dalzell: I support my noble friend Lady Blatch on this amendment. Since the passing of the 1995 Act, Queen Elizabeth's Foundation for the Disabled, for which I work, has put an enormous amount of effort into selling the merits of that Act to people by way of persuasion, which I understood was the original purpose of the Act. We are anxious that the commission handles legal proceedings with delicate hands. We spend over £600,000 every year--money collected from the public--to pay for our work. Included in that is a lot of propaganda about getting disabled people into employment. We have now had two presentations of the Ease of Access, Services and Employer (EASE) awards, first, at the Dorchester and this year at the Hilton Hotel. Awards are given for employing and providing services for disabled people.

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My anxiety is that by bringing the law into this arena in a heavy-handed fashion people will be put off and that much of the work done and the money spent will disappear down the drain because people will become antagonistic towards disabled people. Therefore, I could not endorse the amendments more, and I support them entirely.

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