30 Jul 2002 : Column 807

House of Lords

Tuesday, 30th July 2002.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough.

Race, Sex and Disability Commissions

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to merge the commissions on race, sex and disability or to keep them separate.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, my honourable friend the Minister of State at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister announced the start of a project to consider the feasibility of, and options for, a single equality body in Great Britain earlier this year. I refer my noble friend to the reply that my noble and learned friend the Lord Privy Seal gave to my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde on 14th May 2002. This project is ongoing and we expect to announce our initial findings in the autumn.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful response. Is she aware that many disabled people and organisations, including the Disability Rights Commission, are deeply worried that any new arrangement will mean that the rights and interests of disabled people suffer? Does she agree that tackling disability discrimination is different from dealing with other forms of discrimination, because it is a matter not only of dealing with prejudice, but of improving access, which costs money? That necessarily means that special consideration should be given to disability and to its funding. Can the Government give an assurance on those points?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, of course we understand and honour the worries and concerns that are being expressed by those who suffer from a disability, who have only recently had a commission of their own. I assure the noble Lord that the Government understand the difference between the various species of discrimination. We will very carefully consider all the representations that are made by all the groups before we take any step on this matter.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, while gender and race are fixed personal characteristics, disabilities, which can be of various kinds, may arise and affect people at any time during their lives. Is there any reason why they should be grouped together?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, these are very important issues, which we shall consider after the consultation. There is no fixed decision at the moment. A number of models have been suggested, including a

30 Jul 2002 : Column 808

federal system, with the current commissions remaining under a new framework. We have no fixed position on what may be best. We shall consider the consultation openly. We hope that all who are interested will put their views forward forcefully and fully so that they can be properly considered.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I have been involved with the subject for 40 years, I am afraid. I strongly welcome the commitment to the Government's proposal. In addition to considering the case for a single Equality Commission, will the Government also consider the case for a single equality Act? The Minister may know that the chair of the Disability Rights Commission has said that he would be much more sympathetic to a single Equality Commission if there were a single equality Act that covered disability discrimination as strongly as the other forms of discrimination. Will the Government have an open mind about that, as they seemed to indicate in a debate on the subject on 25th April 2001?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we are looking at the whole area. I hear what the noble Lord says about the benefits of a single equality Act. He will know that there has been a lot of debate and discussion about that. There are some significant difficulties to overcome in arranging such a move. The consultation is open. We shall consider what everyone has to say. To that extent, nothing is ever closed, but I would not like your Lordships to think that this is likely to happen very quickly in the foreseeable future.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, even at this early juncture will my noble friend accept, from those of us who work day by day with the disability organisations, that a single Equality Commission without a single Equalities Act—one that would recognise the reality that effective legislation to protect disabled people must differ in fundamental respects from other anti-discrimination legislation—would be seen by disabled people as a step, not forward but backward? What special arrangements are being made to ensure that disabled people are fully and meaningfully consulted, bearing in mind their difficulties often in achieving even equal access to the consultative process?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, all these are genuine points for anxiety and concern. I assure noble Lords that every effort is being made to ensure that all those who represent disability interests are consulted and brought in. The consultation process is ongoing and the Government are very anxious to hear all opinions on how to fashion any new step to make sure that it does not inure to the disadvantage of any group. Any change must be beneficial and advantageous to all.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, given the wide range of concerns that have been expressed in the House today, will the Minister explain exactly where the Government see the benefit and advantage of merging the commissions? While I am on my feet, I pay a brief tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford, who is so associated with good work on race and religion and who is retiring from the House tomorrow.

30 Jul 2002 : Column 809

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I think that it would be inappropriate for me to make a positive case now one way or the other. We have certainly listened to the arguments; there are arguments on both sides of the divide. The Government's consultation paper Towards Equality and Diversity, published in December 2001, set out our proposals for implementing the EC employment and race directives. It also stated that we saw arguments in favour of a single statutory commission in the longer term. Following that, on 15th May, we announced a project to examine the feasibility of and options for creating a single equality body for Great Britain. That is what it is—a feasibility study. We shall examine that feasibility study and all that it tells us with great care before taking any further steps.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords—

Lord Renton: My Lords, will the Government bear in mind that there are vast numbers—

Noble Lords: Cross Benches!

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I think that it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, does the Minister agree that for legislation and its translation into policy to be truly accessible and consumer or user led, it must be the experts—in this case the commission, and a single commission—who advise the individual on the best way to ensure redress or compensation? Therefore, a one-stop shop backed by a single Act is essential, as many people could be eligible under the Act on more than one ground—for example, age or disability or race or gender.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, that is certainly a powerful argument—the noble Baroness has made the case—for why we have to consider all points of view before deciding which course would be best for all concerned. The noble Baroness is quite right that the species of inequality come in many different forms, all of them infringements in one way or another of people's human rights.

Non-Executive Directors

11.5 a.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to provide a statutory definition of the role of non-executive company directors.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, the Government published their White Paper on company law on 16th July. The White Paper proposes a statutory statement of directors'

30 Jul 2002 : Column 810

duties. The Government have also asked Derek Higgs to conduct a review of the role and effectiveness of non-executive directors.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, and I am aware of the review being carried out. Meanwhile, I find it a bit surprising—I ask the noble Lord whether it was deliberate—that no reference was made to non-executive directors in the document to which he referred, the White Paper on company law. I should have thought that in the light of the present uncertainty about corporate affairs such reference would have been necessary.

Furthermore, in view of the importance attached to the independence of non-executive directors, is the Minister aware that there is some ambiguity about this in the Combined Code which lays down the rules for corporate behaviour in that it refers to the appointment of,

    "non-executive directors (including independent non-executive directors)"?

Is there a new class of non-independent non-executive directors?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page