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Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am most grateful. My noble friend was quick to respond to the provocative remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I appreciate the opportunity of mentioning Amendments Nos. 9 to 11 which the Deputy Speaker said were to be considered in this grouping.
As my noble friend said in Committee, we are all agreed on the necessity to extend the scope of non-discrimination notices. I believe that the only difference between us is whether the provision should be on the face of the Bill or in regulations. The House will be aware that both the EOC and the CRE support the need for these proposals being on the face of the Bill. The views of those two bodies should be taken seriously because they are experienced people who have to face the problems of discrimination in their own fields. Operating in those fields, they have tremendous experience behind them. They know the hazards and obstacles that limit their own effectiveness. I believe that this proposal will help to avoid litigation; they, too, believe that. The avoidance of litigation could be a main aim. It is what we all want.
My interpretation of the amendment does not square with that of my noble friend, as enunciated in Committee, nor of the disability task force. They seem to suggest that it is over-prescriptive. But the amendment is not stating that in these circumstances employers must do this or that. It merely gives the commission the right to prescribe steps which will enable the employer to avoid again falling foul of the commission. It gives the commission powers enabling it to make sure that appropriate action is taken. I cannot see anything wrong with that.
The amendment puts a clear, heavy but welcome responsibility on the commission. The commission is the appropriate place because it is daily considering discrimination issues. It will be constantly seeking to ensure positive and helpful interaction between the companies and disabled people. Its objective will be to secure non-discrimination in a reasonable way as required by the Act.
I believe that the commission's reputation will depend on how it carries out the tasks placed on it by this amendment, assuming that it is accepted. It is right that this task should be the responsibility of the commission and not of the Secretary of State because the commission will have the necessary day-to-day experience.
The timing is also important because delaying tactics are unacceptable. I hope that my noble friend will agree with that. It needs to be made very clear from both the Back and Front Benches that we simply do not want delaying tactics on this issue.
Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I rise to speak on Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 in this group. The first was debated at length in Committee and in response to the strong views then expressed, my noble friend the Minister of State kindly affirmed that she would be happy to consider the issue again at Report stage. With other noble Lords, I had put it to her that power to include in non-discrimination notices the basic information listed in the amendment and in Clause 4(4) was essential. Having myself given further thought to the issue I am now more convinced than ever that this power should be on the face of the Bill and that we should not have to wait for it in regulations.
It is clearly reasonable and it will be helpful to all parties--disabled people who may be discriminated against and those who may be discriminating against them--if this can be agreed. I suspect that even those who drafted the Bill agree that the information should be in non-discrimination notices. I think that the words "in particular" gives this away.
I appreciate the Government's desire to remain flexible by allowing the administrative arrangements to be specified and modified in the light of experience. My noble friend the Minister of State explained this in Committee, but I suggest that the desired flexibility is achieved by Clause 4(3). I accept that we are moving into uncharted waters with this Bill, but the information and advice set down in Clause 4(4), which this amendment seeks to allow without waiting for any regulation, ought not to be viewed as unknown floating hazards. They are in fact fixed islands of sensible guidance through which, by means of a non- discrimination notice, a discriminator can be guided safely into harbour. It would be unreasonable in my opinion to have to wait for regulations which may be issued at some indeterminate date in the future, in order to provide a discriminator with some very helpful guidance and advice on what he needs to do and to give the commission vital information to verify that what is required to be done to prevent discrimination is in fact being done.
I turn to Amendment No. 10. This is another amendment which my noble friend the Minister of State offered to consider again in the light of the strong views expressed in Committee. The more I think about it the more difficulty I have in understanding why this crucially important power to specify when the requirements set down in a non-discrimination notice should be complied with is not firmly stated on the face of the Bill. During Committee I argued that it is absolutely essential to establish time limits by which someone served with a non-discrimination notice is required to act. Without any such time limits procrastinators will have the time of their lives emasculating the powers of the commission and devaluing the purpose of non-discrimination notices. Such procrastination could easily add unnecessarily to the costs of the commission.
Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My Lords, I shall not delay the House much because both noble Lords who have spoken have argued such a good case, but as my name is to Amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 11, I wish to say that I support them immensely strongly. Again, they are about minimising litigation by promoting clear understanding of expected behaviour. I support the amendments very strongly.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I find myself in a strange position. I have a great deal of sympathy with the two amendments in this group moved by my noble friend Lady Blatch. I also have sympathy with the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. We cannot accept all the amendments in the group because that would make a nonsense of the clause. Perhaps I can try to be constructive. I suggest that between now and Third Reading the Government should amend the clause by combining the best elements of the amendments.
Lord Addington: My Lords, I should like briefly to give my support to the gist of these amendments. Having an action plan and enforcement details as early as possible must help. My noble friend Earl Russell assured me that he will not speak in this debate, as his views on regulation are so well known to this House that they may tire your Lordships.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I apologise to the House and to my noble friends for jumping the gun when I spoke earlier. Initially, we believed that a regulation-making power ought to have been the right way forward so as to allow for a degree of flexibility both to ensure that a consistent approach is adopted by each equality commission where that was appropriate, and to allow for the detailed administrative arrangements to be specified and modified in the light of experience.
However, I have a great deal of sympathy with many points that have been raised in the debate and in Committee. In the light of that, the Government are currently consulting across departments on the issue of non-discrimination notices. We expect to return to this matter at later stages in another place. While noble Lords will appreciate that I cannot go into more detail at this stage, I hope that noble Lords will take this as a commitment to strengthening the non-discrimination notice stage of a formal investigation process, where the experience of the existing commissions has shown it to
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton who, characteristically, came up with a practical suggestion. I am not over-zealous about my own amendment. The gist of all the amendments is much the same and if the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is more acceptable to the House, then so be it. On the other hand, an amendment could be culled from those in the group to arrive at a compromise.
I agree that we are all grateful for the offer to go away and think about it and I accept that that must be without prejudice. However, I do not believe that having the secondary legislative power for the Secretary of State and putting something on the face of the Bill will cause inconsistency. A great deal could be put on the face of the Bill that would make sense and make matters clearer for those who will have to execute powers under the Bill.
I have also said that the Secretary of State would require a long-stop power to make secondary legislation, but I believe that there is enough substantive information, referring to the scope of the non- discrimination notices, for us to have the best of both worlds, and that there should be more on the face of the Bill with a long-stop power for the Secretary of State to amend in the future. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.