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The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): In view of the groupings, I should point out to the Committee that if Amendment No. 3 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 4. Amendment No. 3 is of course not part of this group, but Amendment No. 4 is.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I shall supplement what my noble friend has so clearly expressed with one or two additional points. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, is very sorry that she cannot be here today, but she wants to take part in these debates at later stages.
Secondly, my noble friend referred to the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I was not a member of that committee when it produced this report, but the House will note that it was unanimous and that the Lords Members included the noble Lords, Lord Bowness and Lord Campbell of Alloway, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, the noble Lords, Lord Judd, Lord Plant of Highfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. In paragraph 29 of that report, the Joint Committee explained that its proposals, which my noble friend summarised,
"translate into the UK context the principle which was constantly impressed upon us in our investigations of equivalent or similar commissions in other countries, namely the fundamental importance of national human rights institutions being independent from Government, both constitutionally and in practice, if they are to operate effectively".
"we have consistently maintained that it should not be a creature of Parliament, any more than it should be a creature of Government. Nevertheless, we believe that it is right that, in comparison with the Government's proposals, the Commission's accountability to Parliament should be strengthened. This would be a logical reflection of the Commission's constitutional role as an independent watchdog over the executive's actions in relation to equalities and human rights".
"The purpose of . . . funding should be to enable it to have its own staff and premises, in order to be independent of the government and not . . . subject to financial control which might affect this independence".
Finally, on the basis of 30 years' experience especially with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, having had the good fortune to advise them occasionally on the exercise of their powers, I think I can say without revealing any official secrets that there have from time to time under successive governments been real problems about ensuring the independence in practice of what happens within the commissions. There are others in this House who also have some experience of that. Whatever the Bill might say and whatever Ministers might believe, I can assure the Committee that there have been very real problems in practiceproblems involving staff leaving because they felt that there was too much government influence or control, for example.
It is a particular problem because government and central government are often the direct respondents to the work of these commissions. In other words, very often it is the public sector and especially the government who find themselves on the receiving end of investigations especially into alleged discrimination on grounds of sex or gender. Obviously, to some extent, government would rather not be subjected to strong independent scrutiny of that kind, since everyone, all of us being human beings, believes that power is delightful and absolute power is absolutely delightful and we would rather not have judges and commissions looking over our shoulders.
It is the pressure from governments on the commissions not to be robust which gives rise to problems. Therefore it is vital not only that those who are appointed to be commissioners and staff are really independent, but that the structure encourages public confidence in the independence of the new commission. I as one of the architects of the old commissions feel we made a mistake 30 years ago in not finding ways of enhancing the constitutional status of what is really a public watchdog.
Therefore, without necessarily, as my noble friend has put it, saying that this is the only way of doing itof course it is notwe hope that imagination and skill will result in the course of the Bill's passage in provisions that will enhance the appearance and reality of independence.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: The two noble Lords who have just spoken to this group have explained very clearly the idea of more independence for the commission. Noble Lords will remember that, on Second Reading, we were concerned that there was not sufficient independence for the commission. It is therefore fair to say that on this side of the House we would support that group of amendments.
Earl Ferrers: I hope that the noble Baroness will be a little cautious before she accedes to these amendments.
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One of the problems is that we have set up an organisation with hugecolossalpowers but we have then turned round and said who will be members of it. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, is right to say that the commission must be as independent as possible. However, in the end someone has to decide the matter.
If the AOC appoints the relevant people, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, someone has to appoint the members of that committee. It all becomes very complicated. I am not so sure that there is not a certain amount to be said for the buck stopping where it starts, so to speak. The Minister who appoints these people should bear that responsibility rather than creating yet another body to look after yet more people. If we were to set up such a body, I hope that we would refer to a chairman and not to a chair, which is a most horrible habit.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: Has the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, consulted with his colleagues in power in the Executive in Scotland on what they would do with the commission which the Executive intends to set up to perform the same function as the commission at United Kingdom level in relation to devolved issues? It seems to me that it would be quite wrong to have a commission with the enormous power which the one established by the Bill will have and with the degree of independence which the noble Lord is proposingI understand his arguments very well; an argument could be made for thatwithout the relevant decisions being made by a Scotland commission of similar standing. To have a commission in Scotland that is not completely independent deciding the same issues that are being decided south of the Border by a commission which is completely independent would be very strange. Has the noble Lord confronted that problem? His response would help me, and, I am sure, other noble Lords, to know how to react to his proposals.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I added my name to this amendment because, as other noble Lords have said, I think that it is the independence of the commission which is of crucial importance. I took some time to bring myself round to believing that a commission covering so many areas of equality was the right way forward. However, having accepted that, it is clearly of crucial importance that it is not only independent in its activities but is seen to be independent in the way that its members are appointed. We must not forget that the commission will have human rights promotional duties as well as other duties.
I well remember occasions when I served on the EOC when we had to consider investigating government departments. That was all a little difficult given that the EOC was appointed by, and its funds provided by, government. Those matters are of crucial importance.
Of course, I acknowledge that improvements have been made in the way people are now appointed to public bodies in view of the Nolan principles and so on. But having said that, I am not yet certain what will happen with regard to the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. I do not believe that we have
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yet heard what will be the next stage with regard to that body. I am delighted, as I am certain are all noble Lords, that Dame Rennie Fritchie is to come to your Lordships' House. She will be a great help in ensuring that an extra eye is kept on all public appointments. But even so, there was a suggestion that that body should be amalgamated with the civil servants' public appointments body. All these issues are important, whoever makes the relevant appointments, whether that is a Crown Commission or whether the matter passes much more from government's to Parliament's control. That is behind my support for this rather different method.
As other noble Lords have said, this may not be quite the right composition of people to do the job, but the work of the commission will be crucially important. Let us not forget either that there is not a Human Rights Bill or a Human Rights Act, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, would have wanted, to bolster the work of the commission. There is not one yet, so its independence will be of even greater importance. Those are my reasons, and I hope that the Government will seriously consider if not this amendment, an alternative that will satisfy.
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