Category: Reform

Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate and thankful to the Government for introducing this Bill, which will support British businesses in cutting unnecessary costs and red tape, boost consumer confidence and help to create more jobs.

I wanted to speak briefly on the amendment of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, relating to the inclusion of caste when considering cases of discrimination. This is not a new debate; indeed, when the Equality Act was published in 2010, a specific provision was included to allow for caste to be added as an aspect of race at a later date. Later that year, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research undertook an extensive government-commissioned study into the prevalence and severity of caste discrimination in the United Kingdom and concluded that it does in fact occur in many of the areas covered by the Equality Act, such as education and the workplace. That led me to conclude that government action is indeed required as a matter of some urgency.

As a man with Indian ancestry, I am all too aware of the deep-rooted prejudice and unfair treatment that results from allowing the caste-based system to persevere. The Minister may be aware of the religious concept of untouchability, whereby certain individuals are declared untouchables due to their perceived association with impurity and pollution. As a result, they are ostracised and isolated from the rest of society in order to protect and preserve the quality of the majority.

In particular, across much of south Asia, the Dalit community has suffered greatly from this deep, ingrained form of discrimination. Dalits are a community considered so lowly in the social hierarchy that in some circles they are in fact excluded from the caste system altogether and completely segregated by social customs.

Historically, in countries such as India, Dalits have also been physically separated from the rest of society, housed outside the main villages and entitled to perform only the most menial of jobs. This horrendous social mentality still prevails in some rural communities, although thankfully it is becoming less common. Today, the Indian constitution outlaws discrimination based on caste and provides for the reservation of seats in the House of the People and the states’ legislative assemblies for those who have been historically disadvantaged due to the caste system. There are also programmes to promote and provide educational and employment opportunities for those such as Dalits. Many people in this country will be completely unaware of the existence of such a caste system and its history in suppressing minorities here. This is why it is particularly important that we acknowledge the potential extent of the problem in the United Kingdom.

I was instinctively drawn to support this amendment. Following further reading and a highly reassuring discussion with the Minister this morning, I am now very much aware of how seriously the Government are taking this matter. They have been very clear that nobody should suffer prejudice because of their caste, and as such have developed the Talk for a Change programme to work with the communities affected by this discrimination. As with so many of the most deep-rooted cultural ills, education and awareness is the key to prevention and this is exactly the approach this programme will take. I also appreciate that there will be a political focus on the Hindu and Sikh communities where the problem is most prevalent. Such assertive action is extremely welcome and is necessary both in the name of protecting vulnerable individuals and in maintaining our reputation as a country that embraces progressive and tolerant attitudes.

The Government have also been clear that they have no plans to remove the provision contained within the Equality Act which allows for caste to be included at a later date. This again reassures me that they are maintaining a flexible approach to tackling this problem and were we to enforce the type of legislation called for in this amendment we would simply be pushing against an open door.

We must realise that, as a nation which has so proudly and successfully championed the fusion of a diverse range of minority communities with modern-day Britain, we have inevitable responsibilities. These responsibilities should be seen as challenges to relish; ways in which we can assist our new communities and help them to integrate better into what many see as the mainstream of British life.

Our Prime Minister has made the point that Britain is open for business, and I believe that furthering our commitment to fairness and equality in our boardrooms, offices and factories can only serve to make us an even more attractive nation to do business with. I believe that the Government share this sentiment and I look forward to following the progress of the Talk for a Change programme.

If a Division is called, I shall certainly vote not-content.

House of Lords Reform

My Lords, in preparing for this debate I was reminded of the old adage, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. There is nothing wrong with the present composition of this House and I would prefer to leave it unchanged. Any debate about this system would lead to a frustrating inability to achieve any consensus on moving in one direction or the other.

In these new circumstances, we should reconsider the need for an elected chamber. The great strength of your Lordships’ House is that it contains not just a group of experienced retired Ministers and Members of Parliament but a whole raft of individuals with specialist knowledge and experience from the worlds of commerce, medicine, the services, the Civil Service, academia, the unions—the list is endless.

I was introduced to your Lordships’ House in 2006. During the first few weeks I listened and observed. I found that I was indeed in the company of men and women of wisdom who had acquired great expertise and valuable experience. It was a pleasure to listen to the debates and I was greatly impressed by the quality of speeches. If there is any element of election, my fear is that a number of existing Members are unlikely to stand and that would be a sad loss.

The enthusiasts for an elected chamber say, “We could retain an appointed element, whether 20 per cent or 50 per cent”. I can think of nothing more destructive of the present harmonious atmosphere in the Lords. Elected Members would be justifiably incensed if the votes of appointed Members happened to determine any issue before the House.

Members of the other place should ponder what would happen if Members of the House of Lords interfered in their constituency affairs on the grounds that they, too, had a mandate. That would be likely to cause irritation.

Some people say that the second chamber should be elected. This is a knee-jerk reaction. Do they realise the expenditure involved? We should ask them whether they want another 500 elected politicians with their secretaries, offices, expenses and salaries and see whether there is the same knee-jerk reaction. In any case, where is the public enthusiasm for more elections? We have trouble persuading people to turn out in large numbers for the present elections.

I am also concerned about the possibility of domination by members of one party in both Houses if that party is popular with the British public. That may interfere with the role of your Lordships’ House, which is to keep a check on the Government.

The House of Lords plays a significant role in the work of Parliament. Its key functions are making laws, holding the Government to account and providing a forum of independent expertise. Our Chamber does not obstruct government legislation; we have the useful power to ask the Commons to think again. An elected Chamber would not be satisfied with that; in time, it would seek to flex its democratic muscle. Your Lordships’ House played a very valuable role when the terrorism Bill and the identity cards Bill were debated, and it keeps a watchful eye on the Government.

Changes to the composition of the House of Lords must protect its crucial function in British democracy. We should concentrate on what would improve your Lordships’ House, not destroy it. First, we should create a statutory Appointments Commission to choose the independent Cross-Bench Peers and to approve those proposed by party leaders, thus avoiding any future cash-for-peerages scandal. Secondly, we should end the ludicrous by-elections for hereditary Peers and transform the existing 92 hereditary Peers into life Peers. The hereditary principle would thus be extinguished.

Those changes would ensure a far preferable House of Lords that complements the House of Commons in its composition and functions. We all agree that there needs to be primacy of the other place. Given that in today’s House of Lords we have something unique, which in practice works very effectively, why sacrifice it because it fails to satisfy a narrow and modish theory of legitimacy?