Committee (1st Day)
Lord Graham of Edmonton (Labour)
I know the area and, so far as I know, the people there are very proud of the noble Lord.
I received a brief from a body called the Equality Trust, which states:
"More equal societies work better for everyone".
It comes at the issue not from the point of view of sexual equality, differentials, and so on, but from the view that we can have a better society if we find a means of ironing out some of the inequalities. My amendment strengthens the assertion that social and economic inequalities play a large part in the disparate nature of our society. The Minister who will be replying to the debate should look on it as an opportunity to deal with the issues that are not covered, according to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, but should also assert those that are.
Members of this House, who have some responsibility for society, cannot hide or run away from the fact that there are enormous inequalities in many ways. I regard the Bill as an opportunity for the Government to bring forward ideas and aspirations-the word of the day. There are aspirations in the Bill, and I would not criticise this or any other Government for aspiring to change without necessarily being able to argue that every aspiration can be turned into an achievement either now or later.
The opportunity of upward mobility is something to which we all aspire. That should be the aim of all countries, but sadly Great Britain lags behind other societies in many ways. Equality is not just about equal pay; it is about a great many other things as well. Economic democracy leads to fairer disparities in business. Gaps may never be wholly eliminated but they can be narrowed with a little help from our friend-an understanding Government. If there is common cause that inequalities that exist should be eliminated, eroded or substantially affected, surely that is a platform that can stretch right across this Chamber and right across government. It is not what you do, but the way that you do it. If there is common ground about the need to eliminate inequalities, we are half way there.
Trends in the past 20 years can and should be reversed. Businesses do not have to be run only for profit at the behest of rich, external shareholders. We come up against the broad division between public and private enterprise but there is a place for both. I was delighted that the noble Lord referred to the Rochdale pioneers of 1844 and how, over that century and beyond, that organisation has given to those who wish to use the tool an opportunity to improve their lot. I know that the noble Lord will be knowledgeable and generally familiar with the Co-operative movement. The London Co-operative Society, or the Enfield Highway Co-operative Society which operated in his area, was there only because the idea and that example existed. It started in Rochdale and spread, and the Co-operative movement has much to be pleased about. It struggled and was the economic enemy of a great many of the great names in this House and outside in trying to do its job. What job is it trying to do? It is trying to say to ordinary people that, in their busy lives where there are harsh conditions, if you care to combine your facilities and resources, you can improve your lot.
We will never have a completely clear or clean society, but I want to comment on the kind of organisation that the Co-op is pleased to be. Here I declare a non-financial interest as a lifelong supporter of the Co-operative idea. Although in the 1980s and 1990s there was a move to demutualise many businesses and institutions, there are still 63 building societies with 2,000 branches and 38,000 employees. There are still 650 credit unions, 250 friendly societies, 70 mutual insurance companies and 170,000 charities. There is also the Co-operative Bank, which is recognised as one of the finest ethically run and driven organisations.
What are we trying to do? I relied on the brief from the Equality Trust, and it produced some interesting comparisons. For instance, it says that if we could only halve equality in income-only halve it-we would halve the homicide rates, reduce mental illness by two-thirds, halve obesity, imprison 80 per cent fewer people, have 80 per cent fewer teenage births, increase trust of other people, and become significantly more environmentally sustainable. Those are laudable aspirations, but many of them are not capable of being achieved in your Lordships' lifetime or mine.
I hark back to the Rochdale pioneers and their ideas, which they got from Robert Owen. He was a great social reformer in the early part of the 19th century. They would never have expected-and nor should we-to find that all the ills that have been created can be eliminated. However, I congratulate the Government. As has been said, this is an election year and I am sure that the Minister is able to withstand what I call snide remarks about the basis on which the legislation has come forward. It may be years late, but it is about time that we tried to face up to the issue. I hope that the Minister will take heart from the fact that at least if we have the platform rolled out before us in the Bill, Members of this House and interested people all over the place will applaud the fact that an attempt has been made to do so. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on having the courage to take up time now. My amendment is designed to give a cutting edge to this clause and I hope that, without its remotely being able to solve the problem, the Minister will recognise that.