Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed and I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, that my ambition is for the Committee stage very much to be an opportunity for me to gain the knowledge and experience of so many noble Lords who have worked in the fields of equality and human rights, and very much to be a listening Minister. So I hope that one amendment will not fall in favour of another at this stage, because I wish to ensure that we have a good, detailed debate on which I can reflect further with colleagues in other Government departments.

I, too, am sorry that my old and trusted friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, is not here, but, perhaps, I am grateful that she is not adding her voice to this debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that the critical point is that we should have confidence in the commission. In that context, I fully accept the principles behind the debate, about seeking accountability and independence to ensure that the commission is taken seriously so that we can all have confidence in it, regardless of who we are and our particular views on it.

4 pm

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that I am perfectly comfortable with the word "chairman". I am used to being a chairman; it does not worry me in the least.

I was very pleased with the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, talked about the proposal. I would take issue with some of the ideas behind it, as
6 Jul 2005 : Column 643
the noble Lord would expect. I was particularly worried about the smallness of the committee. A committee of three people did not appeal to me very much. I would be very nervous about putting so much power and accountability into the hands of three people, as the way in which they were appointed could reflect the political persuasions of the day.

Noble Lords quite rightly referred to the role of anyone who has control of funding being able to strangle an organisation. Within all the proposals, there is no question that the funding for the body will come from the Government. I take the view—I was discussing this with the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, a couple of hours ago when we met more informally—that we have to create a commission that commands authority and confidence in such a way as to make it quite difficult for any government, regardless of who they are, to feel that they could use funding as a weapon to try to stop the commission carrying out its work.

My ambition for the commission is that it will have the confidence of the population of this country and be able to feel that it has a sense of independence from government. That is what I am searching for in discussing with noble Lords the proposals on the table.

Of course, we have listened very carefully, not only to the views of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but also the Committee on the Constitution. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, is not in his place, but has written to me and I have replied on these issues. I know he has put the correspondence on the website to ensure that it is read as widely as possible.

I do not believe that what we are setting up will have a constitutional role which requires a complete separation from government. My difficulty is that, as yet, no proposal has been put to me that will enable us to achieve what noble Lords seek to achieve. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart—he probably agrees with me—I do not believe that his proposal achieves that.

At the moment, I would argue that the proposals for the body to be a non-departmental public body fit the bill, on the basis of ensuring that there is a proper, well understood framework and that confidence in any body comes from an understanding of how, and the transparency with which, it has been set up. Although I fully understand what the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, and my noble friend Lady Lockwood said about their own positions—I pay tribute to their chairmanship of their respective commissions—I am very aware that we must ensure that we use a framework that people well understand and that the commission is set up in the right way.

I am trying to achieve a well defined relationship with government and with Ministers, with well defined duties and well defined powers to build confidence in all directions. If noble Lords feel that a non-departmental public body is an inappropriate vehicle, I remain unconvinced that we have a solution. I would look for a solution that could command confidence by being well understood and transparent and a solution that has a track record as well.
6 Jul 2005 : Column 644

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, talked about and read from the Paris principles. I am not entirely convinced that all noble Lords will be very familiar with those principles, so I shall undertake to place in the Library of the House this afternoon, and send to noble Lords who might be interested, a copy of the principles so that they understand them. They are important principles as regards the way in which the commission will operate.

It is important that the body feels free to speak out on issues of importance. Our current commissions do that and I pay tribute to them for doing so, however uncomfortable, on occasions, that might be for the Government or any other body. That is very important.

We want an open and transparent process for appointing the chairman and the commissioners. Following the standards laid out by the office of the Commissioner of Public Appointments, I do not as yet know its future. If I find out more, I shall be happy to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, put a copy in the Library of the House and write to key members of the committee. Again, it is a well recognised and well respected process. It is critically important that the commission is responsible and accountable to its stakeholders. I tend to include government in that, but, much more importantly, I believe it is the stakeholders who look to the commission to deal with issues that are of particular relevance and importance.

The strategic plan, and we will come on to discuss its role later in our deliberations today, plays an important part. I also agree that it is important to have accountability to Ministers and to Parliament through annual reports and accounts.

So, the door is not closed to further discussion by any means on how we make sure that the commission operates in an independent and appropriate manner. My argument is that I have not yet seen a proposal that, in a sense, moves us further towards how that makes the greatest sense for the commission. I would be loath to move away from a process that has served us well, that is well understood and very transparent. Overall confidence in this new body is as much about how it operates and its ability to demand from government and to stand apart from government, as it is about the nature of that relationship in terms of funding or the relationship with the Secretary of State.

I make a further point to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. There is no question at the moment of this being any one particular Secretary of State. The Bill comes to your Lordships' House from the Department for Trade and Industry. It is being taken through your Lordships' House by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. There are interests from a number of departments. There is no particular relevance as regards the Home Secretary or any other Secretary of State. Where best the commission should sit is currently being debated. As soon as any conclusion has been reached I shall tell your Lordships' House.
6 Jul 2005 : Column 645

So on that basis, but also on the basis of continuing to discuss this matter further with noble Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Goodhart: First, I very much welcome the support which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, expressed on behalf of her party, or, should I perhaps say, on behalf of her party except for the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. But that is certainly encouraging.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: I was making a general point about the independence; I did not go into the specifics. It may be that my noble friend Lord Ferrers did not understand that.

Lord Goodhart: I accept that. I deal briefly with the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour. The powers of the new commission, as of the existing commissions, cover the whole of Great Britain—not of course Northern Ireland. But there is a provision in Clause 7 which states:

So devolution is provided for. The Scottish Parliament has set up a commission. But where that commission does not have powers to look into these matters, it remains a matter for the parent body, which will be the commission to be set up under the Bill.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I think that the matter is important. It may seem to be a small point, but the human rights of one tenth of the United Kingdom in relation to devolved matters will, we anticipate because of Clause 7, be in the hands of a commission set up by the Scots Parliament. Has the noble Lord consulted his colleagues in Scotland about whether they would be prepared, should such a commission as he anticipates be set up, to have a totally independent one as well with appointment by her Majesty the Queen and so on? If not, it would be very unfair on people in Scotland, and, I should have thought, a contravention of their human rights.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page