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The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, the Government's proposals are made to fight discrimination and inequality as effectively as possible. The new body is the result of the biggest review of equality institutions in a quarter of a century. Bringing the existing commissions together and adding human rights will give greater support and more coherent advice to individuals, businesses and communities. A single body had the support of a clear majority of the respondents to the consultation.
The commission's chair and members will be appointed in accordance with the Code of Practice of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, which ensures a fair, open and transparent process for making public appointments and includes provision for independent scrutiny.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for that helpful Answer to my Question. The Government's announcement in it will be very welcome to the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, which has advocated these reforms, as has my party.
Does the noble and learned Lord agree that in order to win and retain confidence among the vulnerable groups which are the potential victims of discrimination, it is essential that in any reform nothing should be done to weaken the existing legal protection provided against discrimination? Does he also agree that there is nothing whatever in the suggestions around the marketplace that someone has already been lined up to be chair, notwithstanding that this is a Nolan appointment?
Lord Carter: My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that the problems of discrimination which face disabled people are of a different degree and kind from problems of those who face discrimination on grounds of, say, gender or race? There are physical problems of mobility and access; there are communication problems for those with learning difficulties; and there are different communication problems for those who are visually or hearing impaired. Will my noble and learned friend assure the House that the work on all those different problems which are specific to disabled people will not be lost in the work of an overarching commission for equality and human rights?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend's description of the differences in relation to the problems faced by the disabled. In constructing the single bodyand much work needs to be done in working out the detailwe must be sure that people who are disabled and have experienced the problems of disability discrimination are actively involved in the process of creating the new body. That is why a task force has been set up in which those campaigners will be actively involved and we shall try to meet the very point that my noble friend has raised.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, indeed, that point was made during the consultation. We had to take a decision in relation to it and we believe that the right course is to bring the Disability Rights Commission into the single body. However, we must ensure that the creation of the body meets the point raised by my noble friend Lord Carter.
Baroness Prashar: My Lords, as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I, too, welcome the establishment of a single commission to promote equality and human rights. However, does the Minister agree that if the objective of the commission is to promote equality for all, it should be seen as a new body and not one which emerges as a result of the merger of the existing equality commissions?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, very much so. I remind noble Lords of what I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lester: it must not dilute existing protections for those who suffer discrimination. However, in creating the new body, one of the
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the announcement about the single body relates only to the setting up of the single body. It is not about changing any other aspects of the discrimination legislation. A whole range of other issues need to be considered in relation to further legislation, but we propose to proceed on an incremental basis in relation to those other issues, one of which my noble friend Lady Lockwood has raised. The announcement we made last week is about the single body.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, the Government believe that it is not sufficient to have the Disability Rights Commission in consultation. That is fine and helpful. However, is not the real answer to ensure that on disability the new body has complete autonomy? Without autonomy, disabled people will be overshadowed, overruled and overseen by other problems. Can the Minister assure us that there will be a significant degree of autonomy for the disabled groups?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, as I said in answer to my noble friend Lord Carter, we are absolutely determined that the disability issues are not lost in any way. Precisely how one ensures that is a matter for the task force that has been set up. It will have those involved with disability as its members and it will be for them to work out the best way to put forward the detail which will achieve that.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, in the light of what has been said today, can the noble and learned Lord assure us that such a giant-like organisation can be as effective as the existing organisations in protecting the rights of the groups they represent?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we believe that it can. That was the view of the majority of people who responded to the consultation; it was the view of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We believe that it can because it brings equality and anti-discrimination issues into the mainstream. Instead of going to a number of bodies, one can go to one body to obtain the support that so many people need for equality and anti-discrimination issues.
The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 144, I shall speak also to the other amendments standing in the name of my noble friend Lady Scotland of AsthalAmendments Nos. 145 to 154. Also in this grouping is Amendment No. 155, standing in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Dholakia.
Schedule 4 to the Bill, to which the amendments relate, contains the list of offences that the Government presented as those most suitable for the new retrial procedures. Opposition to this part of the Bill has focused on three points: first, some have criticised the schedule for being too extensive; secondly, some thought that the list did not comprise the most serious crimes; and, thirdly, others in another place argued that some of the crimes were high volume and that, instead of the retrial procedures being used in exceptional circumstances, retrial would therefore be used as a matter of routine.
The Government have listened carefully to the criticisms levelled at Schedule 4 in both Houses. What comprises the most serious offences remains a matter of judgment, but I believe that the retrial procedure should apply to offences other than murder, soliciting murder and genocide alone, as was proposed by the Opposition.
I should point out that, although we have deleted a number of offences, the list overall does not look shorter. However, that is because we need to include in the schedule the new sex offences which are regarded as of equivalent seriousness to rape or attempted rape under the new Sexual Offences Bill. Because those offences are brigaded under heads, they seem to go up in number but they are equivalent in terms of seriousness. I hope that the amendments will allay the fears of noble Lords who have expressed concerns about this part of the retrial provisions.
With your Lordships' leave, I shall wait to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, says about Amendment No. 155 and then respond. I beg to move.
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