I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill will help to transform the way in which we promote equality and tackle discrimination in 21st-century Britain. It is underpinned by the Government's belief in the equal value and worth of every human being. It reflects our commitment to creating a Britain in which every individual can fulfil his or her potential—men and women alike, whatever their background, class, religion or race, regardless of age, disability or sexual orientation.
For us, equality is a basic moral principle. We believe in a fairer society. Increasingly, however, in the present competitive and global economy, equality and economic success go hand in hand. Britain's businesses—indeed, all Britain's employers, in whatever sector of the economy they operate—need to draw on the talents of the whole work force if they are to remain successful. So promoting equality and diversity, as the Bill does, is vital not only to securing individual opportunity and potential, but to the prosperity of our society as a whole.
Many of us in the House have campaigned for equality and human rights for decades. Having worked with the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 myself, I supported what became the first test case involving indirect sex discrimination. That case led to the abolition of age requirements for admission to senior jobs in the civil service. I am proud now to serve in a Government who I believe have done more to promote equality and tackle discrimination than any other Government in our country.
In 2000, we established the Disability Rights Commission to promote the rights of disabled people. Last year, we introduced the Disability Discrimination Bill, currently proceeding through the House, which will bring into force a new duty for the public sector to promote equality for people with disabilities. We have outlawed discrimination in the workplace on grounds of religion and belief and of sexual orientation, and in October 2006 that legislation will be extended to cover age discrimination. We have delivered the biggest ever package of support for working parents, including an extension of maternity leave, an increase in maternity pay, new rights to flexible working and guaranteed free nursery places for all three and four-year-olds. As part of that approach, we have given more support to fathers, including two weeks' paid paternity leave for the first time ever. We have outlawed race discrimination in all public functions, and imposed a new duty on public bodies to promote race equality.
May I place on the record at the start my thanks for the work that my right hon. Friend has done with the black and Asian community on this Bill? She has listened very carefully to what they have said in meeting the concerns of the Commission for Racial Equality, allowing them to be part of this process while letting them, in effect, join in at a later date. In my view, that would not have happened but for her own personal commitment. She is a true champion of equality.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for those very generous remarks. May I, in turn, thank him for the work that he—along with many other of my right hon. and hon. Friends—did to ensure that the concerns that were widely held within the black and Asian British communities when we first published the White Paper were indeed addressed by the Government in our response to that consultation? As a result, the CRE has welcomed the Bill, as does my hon. Friend, and I thank him for that work.
I also want to pay tribute to the work that the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, my right hon. Friend Jacqui Smith, has done on this Bill, and in introducing and piloting through the House the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which will ensure that in future, same-sex couples will have the same inheritance, pension and next-of-kin rights as married couples. I also want to thank the many hon. Friends—honourable sisters, if I may say so—who joined me in campaigning for, and helping to secure the passage of, the equal representation legislation that has enabled all political parties that choose to do so to take positive action to ensure a proper balance in the selection of candidates, whether for this House or for other elected office.
As I reflect on our Government's many achievements, I must mention in particular the Human Rights Act 1998, which in my view is one of the most significant pieces of legislation in recent years. It has incorporated into British law the European convention on human rights, which our country helped to draft in the aftermath of the second world war. By doing so, we have ensured that British people no longer need to go to Strasbourg and to the European Court of Human Rights in order to uphold their rights under that convention; rather, they can do so within the courts of our own country.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box to introduce Second Reading of this extremely important Bill, which will clearly be overtaken by outside events. Will she give an undertaking that a re-elected Labour Government would reintroduce it very quickly? On a slightly different subject, is she as shocked as I am that the Conservatives appear to wish to abolish the Human Rights Act in certain circumstances? Indeed, they are openly saying so in their campaign literature and out in the constituencies.
I cannot pre-empt a future Queen's Speech, and rather more importantly I cannot pre-empt the verdict of the British people. But should we secure a third term in government—as I hope we will—I have no doubt that this Bill will be reintroduced extremely early in the first Session. Frankly, I share my hon. Friend's dismay at what leading figures in the Conservative party, at least, are saying about the Human Rights Act; indeed, it was in part because of those comments that I made a particular point of referring to it.
So there have been some significant achievements, but despite that, unacceptable inequalities in opportunity remain and too many people still face discrimination and prejudice. Let me give just a few examples. British African-Caribbean men are still four times as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts—a statistic that applies to every group, from the least skilled to the most, regardless of their qualifications. Women in full-time employment still earn almost 20 per cent. less than men—a figure that is almost double for those in part-time work. People with disabilities are nine times as likely as non-disabled people to be out of work and claiming benefits, even though so many of them want a job. The autonomy and dignity of many people with disabilities is still routinely impeded by the difficulties that they face in accessing shops, services and transport.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what she has just said about disability, and I welcome the measures in the Bill. In particular, I want to express the gratitude of the many people in Scotland with disabilities who realise that the Bill reflects the new situation there under devolution. I am glad to say that the Executive seem very much aware of the problems and challenges that disabled people face.
My right hon. Friend is a great champion of the cause of people with disabilities, and I pay tribute to him for that. I agree with him, in that the Bill creates the right relationship between the new commission, which will have a UK-wide remit, and the work of the Executive and of the commissions in Scotland.
Returning to the broader issue of discrimination and continuing prejudice in our society, we know that gay men, lesbians and bisexual people still far too often face discrimination and prejudice at work and in the wider community. We also know that many older people—I declare an interest as a 56-year-old—who want to work and who enjoy full opportunities are prevented from doing so. I am glad to say that that does not apply to those of us in this House, but as I constantly observe in my own constituency, far too many people find it impossible even to get a job interview, never mind a job, because of their age. A distressingly high proportion of people from the Muslim communities report unfair treatment from private and, I regret to say, public services alike.
I understand that the Bill provides for a duty to promote gender equality, which we all welcome, but not age equality. Will my right hon. Friend look at the question of discrimination on the ground of age in the context of this Bill?
I am sure that we will return to this extremely important issue, but in any case, we will be considering it in the wider review of anti-discrimination law, on which I will have a little more to say later.
This Bill is a major plank in the Government's strategy to ensure that every individual can fulfil their potential, and that discrimination and prejudice have no place in our society. It will herald a transformation in the way that Britain tackles discrimination and disadvantage, and it will do so in three ways. First, it will establish a powerful new commission to champion equality and human rights for all. Secondly, it will extend the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief beyond employment and into goods, facilities and services, the management and disposal of premises and the exercise of public functions. Thirdly, it will create a duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between men and women.
Much progress has been made over many decades towards a more equal society, not least through the achievements of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission. I pay tribute to the pioneering work that those three bodies have done over the years, and to the impact that they continue to make in tackling discrimination and inequality. But I think it true that if we were starting afresh—if we were creating for the first time a framework of law and institutions to tackle discrimination and disadvantage—we would not set up separate bodies. Until now, responsibility for challenging discrimination has been sectionalised. Problems have too often been seen as the responsibility of the groups and people who experience them, rather than of society as a whole. Instead of putting people in a box—saying, "You're a woman. You're black. You're disabled."—we need to understand that in modern Britain, people's identities are multiple and complex.
I thoroughly agree with the Secretary of State on the points that she is making, but does she agree that the new commission will stand or fall in relation to its perceived service to its users and whether it is able adequately to represent the specific interests of people who may feel that they have suffered from specific elements of discrimination that require vigorous and effective pursuit?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who raises an extremely important point. The new commission will need to promote an ethic of equality and human rights that applies to everyone in our society—an ethic of respect for every individual and every community. Within that, we well know that some individuals and groups suffer from particular prejudice, stereotyping and sometimes violence because of particular characteristics of their identity. The commission must be a powerful voice for every group and able to act when there is discrimination against particular individuals. Instead of arguing about which group suffers the most from prejudice, as sometimes happens, we need to understand that all prejudice and discrimination is unacceptable.
Let me deal with some examples of acts of violence against different groups. Last October, a man called David Morley was savagely beaten to death on the south bank of London in an entirely unprovoked attack. He was targeted, it appears, because he was gay. Just as abhorrent is the murder, on average, of two women a week by their partners, husbands or former partners simply because they are the less powerful partner in the relationship. Just as abhorrent again is violence directed against members of black and minority ethnic communities, against Muslim women who wear the hejab or against fellow human beings who happen to be, for instance, in a wheelchair. All acts of violence provoked by prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping are abhorrent and all must be dealt with. In other words, the creation of a truly equal society is not a minority issue, but an issue for us all.
The Bill is critical to achieving that goal. It establishes a new commission for equality and human rights, which will bring together the work of the existing commissions with the new equality strands of age, religion and belief, and sexual orientation, alongside human rights. The new commission will be a powerful and authoritative champion for change. It will help individuals by providing them with more accessible and coherent advice and support. It will help communities by promoting good relations and increasing understanding between different groups. In that respect, it builds particularly on the work of the Commission for Racial Equality.
The new commission will also help the organisations of civil society—employers, service providers, public and voluntary bodies—by delivering a single source of help and advice on the law and spreading awareness of best practice. It will also help society as a whole, including the Government and both Houses of Parliament, by tracking Britain's progress on equality and human rights.
In drawing up our proposals, we have listened carefully to the views of a wide range of stakeholders, including members of the existing equalities commissions. In December 2003, we set up a taskforce to advise us on our proposals. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the members of that taskforce for their hard work and commitment in helping us develop our plans. It is fair to say that we could not have reached this stage without them.
In May last year, we published our White Paper, "Fairness for All". We received more than 440 responses from a wide range of organisations and individuals and we listened carefully to the issues and concerns that were raised. As a result, our response to the consultation, which was published last November, outlined a number of important changes to our proposals to ensure that the new commission effectively tackles the root causes of discrimination and successfully promotes equality and human rights.
I warmly endorse the thrust of what the Secretary of State has said thus far. However, given the importance of practising what we preach, can she explain why, in respect of the duty to promote gender equality, the relevant clause appears to provide an exemption for the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the Scottish Parliament, the Church of England and the intelligence services? That is not very good, is it?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point, and I am grateful for his support of the Bill in principle. My understanding is that the drafting of that clause closely follows the existing duties, particularly regarding race, but I am sure that we can return to the issue in greater detail in Committee—if not in the present Parliament, in the next.
I want to turn now to the detail of the Bill. Part 1 establishes the commission for equality and human rights and defines its purpose and functions. The fundamental duty of the new commission is to work towards a society in which everyone can achieve their potential, free from prejudice and discrimination, and where there is respect for the dignity and worth of each individual. It will achieve that goal by promoting awareness of discrimination and human rights law, spreading good practice and enforcing anti-discrimination legislation. Clauses 22 to 34 set out the range of powers that the commission will be able to use to enforce such legislation. Those build on the enforcement powers of the existing equality commissions, but also provide new and more flexible powers in a number of important areas.
The commission will have a new power to assess how public bodies are complying with their equality duties and also a power—available for the first time across all discrimination law—to enter into binding agreements with bodies as an alternative to an investigation. It will be able to arrange conciliation in disputes in areas where conciliation services are not already available through ACAS and it will have explicit powers to seek leave to intervene in legal proceedings as a third party, allowing it strategic influence in key cases. It will have new powers to conduct inquiries into sectors or named bodies on multiple discrimination and human rights issues. Unlike the current commissions, there will be no statutory constraints on the discrimination cases that the new commission can support and no requirement to seek the permission of the Secretary of State to summon witnesses and obtain papers for discrimination cases, inquiries or investigations.
As well as its work to promote and enforce equalities legislation, the new commission will bring together human rights and equality issues for the first time. That is a hugely significant step, which will help to build a culture in which the rights and equal worth of every individual is truly understood and honoured. The new commission will raise awareness of the importance of human rights and encourage compliance and good practice by public authorities with Human Rights Act obligations.
I welcome the Bill overwhelmingly in respect of both equality and human rights. The Secretary of State has set out the powers that the new commission will have to promote equality. Is it not the case that the powers of enforcement in respect of human rights are considerably weaker? There are no investigatory powers, no enforcement powers and no powers even to issue codes of practice. Am I missing the justification for that?
My hon. and learned Friend is quite right that we have distinguished between the new commission's powers in respect of anti-discrimination law and its powers in respect of human rights law. The reason is simple: human rights law covers such a wide range of potential obligations—particularly, but not only, on public bodies—that we decided that giving the commission the same powers in respect of human rights law as it will have in respect of anti-discrimination law would be to overburden it. It is too much to expect of it such a wide range of activities and expertise, as it might not be able to fulfil the burden of expectations or duties placed on it. We believe that we have the balance right as between securing the advantage of placing anti-discrimination law into the broader context of human rights and having a commission that will be able to promote understanding and awareness of human rights without, frankly, overburdening it or expecting it to do potentially everything for everybody. Therefore, the commission will have powers to conduct general inquiries into human rights issues, as well as into individual organisations' performance. In another new departure, it will also have powers to apply to intervene in human rights cases. The Bill does not lack powers in relation to human rights, but contains an appropriate balance of such powers.
As I said, the commission will also have a duty to promote good relations between all communities. We would expect it to give priority to the work that the Commission for Racial Equality has pioneered with black and ethnic minorities and faith communities. It will also have new powers explicitly to combat and monitor prejudice and crime affecting particular communities, such as hate crimes. Given the present enormous concerns among faith communities, especially about the rise of Islamaphobia and anti-Semitic prejudice, that power will be of particular importance.
A critical aspect of the commission's work will be to publish a regular "state of the nation" report. That triannual report will use hard measures and rigorous evidence to monitor the progress being made towards delivering greater equality of opportunity and tackling discrimination.
Does the Secretary of State agree that a triannual report appearing, in effect, only once during a Parliament would not be enough? Should not the commission report every two years instead?
That is something that we would be happy to look at further in Standing Committee. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's implication that he does not consider the commission's reporting functions as unnecessary red tape. I hope that we can agree on that, at least.
Whatever the interval, the report will be an important tool for holding to account the public sector, the Government and employers more broadly for the progress being made, as well as providing a means for Parliament and others to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies that the commission adopts to reduce inequality.
During the consultation process, organisations raised a number of important issues about how the commission will work. First, the commission needs to draw on the substantial existing expertise of those already working in different equality areas, including people in the current commissions. That point was made with great force, and we readily accept it. The appointment provisions in the Bill will ensure that members of the commission's board have knowledge and experience relevant to different areas of discrimination and human rights, and of the commission's functions in the round. Secondly, consultees stressed—and we entirely accept—that the commission needs to reach out to and involve all communities in its work. That is why it will have a new duty to consult with specific communities and the wider public on its strategic priorities. Thirdly, we have listened carefully to the views of people with disabilities. That relates to a point raised a moment ago. We have made provision for the establishment of a disability committee. Disabled people will form at least half of that committee's membership, to advise and take decisions on the commission's disability work.
Finally, we want to ensure that the commission responds fully to the distinctive needs and circumstances in Scotland and Wales. Therefore, the Bill ensures the commission has statutory committees in Scotland and Wales covering all aspects of its work.
There has been concern in the Disability Rights Commission that there is no direct representation of people with disabilities in the otherwise very effective equality body established in Northern Ireland. The Bill adopts a good approach, but can my right hon. Friend guarantee that that will continue, so that disabled people will know that they will always have direct representation on the new body? In that way, their voice will be heard directly, and just where it needs to be heard.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, and I agree strongly. The voice of disabled people will be heard and felt strongly in the commission as a result of the provisions in the Bill, especially the establishment of the disability committee and the requirement that the board reflect the broad range of experience and expertise.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the provisions of the Bill should be supported eventually by a single equalities Act? That would reinforce this Bill, and make it almost impossible for the equality commission not to take account of the interests of any sector of society likely to suffer discrimination.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Welsh committee, and I am pleased that the Government have recognised Wales' devolved nature. Can she say how the members of the Welsh committee will be appointed?
I am not sure that I can, at the moment. That is an extremely important question, and I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality to deal with it when she winds up the debate.
I want to move on to part 2 of the Bill, which will plug a significant gap in existing equalities legislation. During the consultation process, a number of organisations strongly called for the extension of protection against religious discrimination. At present, that protection applies only to employment conditions. The Bill's provisions in respect of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief are designed to answer those concerns.
The Bill will also address the imbalance that has emerged from case law under the Race Relations Act 1976. People of the Jewish faith and in the Sikh community are afforded protection in certain areas of the law as ethnic groups, while members of other religions and faiths are not. For example, a Jew or a Sikh who is refused service in a restaurant or a shop can challenge that discrimination through the legal system, but members of any other religion or belief who receive the same unfair treatment cannot. I hope that all hon. Members will agree that it is simply unacceptable that a shop, hotel or restaurant can lawfully refuse to serve Muslims, and a golf club can refuse to accept them as members, whereas the same practices would be outlawed if applied to Jewish or Sikh men and women.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her team on this important Bill, but does she agree that, in this context, another lesson can be drawn from Northern Ireland? The very deep religious and cultural differences there meant that the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland played a crucial role in the Good Friday agreement. Its recognition of the differences was an essential element in resolving some of the cultural problems in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend speaks from deep personal experience, as she made an enormous contribution to the process of achieving the Good Friday agreement. She is right: a commission that recognises the cultural differences that can give rise to prejudice and discrimination can help to create the fairer and more harmonious society that we all want. Finally, I should like to take this opportunity to say how much the House will miss my hon. Friend in the next Parliament.
Part 2 of the Bill will end the anomaly that I described. The proposed measures will make it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of religion or belief in the provision of goods, facilities or services, or to discriminate against or harass a person on those grounds in disposing of or renting property, in the provision of education or in the exercise of other public functions. Various exceptions are provided for, for example in the case of faith schools, Parliament, the security agencies and the armed forces—again following precedent in these matters—and of course the courts.
With reference to goods, facilities and services, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a cause of great grievance among older people when they are discriminated against—for example, when somebody over 70 tries to hire a car? Although part 2 concentrates on religion and belief, there are older people who believe that the anomalies affecting them should be addressed.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which we will certainly address in the review of equalities legislation, to which I shall return shortly. It is an important point, but it was simply not possible to address all the implications of that in the Bill.
With regard to part 2, I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart, for the enormous efforts that she and her officials have made to ensure that we could have the relevant provisions in the Bill. That is an important step forward.
Part 3 brings sex discrimination legislation into step with race and disability legislation. We have already introduced a duty on the public sector to promote race equality, and we plan to enact a duty to promote equality between disabled and non-disabled people. The Bill ensures similar provisions in relation to gender, so public authorities will be prohibited from sex discrimination in carrying out their public functions, and will have a new duty to promote equality of opportunity between men and women when carrying out those functions, and to tackle unlawful discrimination.
Does that mean that for the new strands—the ones not historically represented by commissions—that duty will not be written into the provisions? What is the thinking behind that apparent discrimination? There seems to be a functional distinction between those who are reinforced by their traditional position, and those who come new to the issue.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, to which I alluded when responding to my hon. Friend Linda Perham on the question of age discrimination. It is simply not possible in the Bill to deal with every aspect of the inconsistencies in the legislative treatment of different groups.
In closing, I should like to put the Bill into the broader context of the other steps that we as a Government are taking to deal with discrimination and to promote equality. The Bill will, as I have indicated, take three important steps—the gender duty, the extension of discrimination law on grounds of religion or belief, and above all, the establishment of the single equality and human rights commission. But we are taking two other hugely important steps. We have already established an equalities review, which is being led by Trevor Phillips, who is also the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, to look at the long-term and underlying causes of inequality and disadvantage. That much wider review will inform the work of the single commission and provide practical recommendations on key policy priorities for the Government, but not only for the Government—also for the public sector, employers, trade unions, the voluntary sector and civil society as a whole.
Let me, if I may, finish the point.
We have also launched a review of equality legislation to correct the inconsistencies and inequalities in our discrimination law. That work, which will seek to simplify and modernise the law, will move towards the establishment of a single equality Act, for which equality organisations and many of my hon. Friends have been campaigning for many years. I give way to my hon. Friend Chris Bryant.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am grateful also for the way that she continued her sentence. Perhaps it would have been better if I had not intervened on her. She seems to have answered the point made by Mr. Boswell by suggesting that once the two reviews are finished, it should be possible for us to have a Bill that would require the new organisation to adopt the duty across the piece, so that equality is not atomised, but dealt with as a whole.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is precisely the scope not only of the duty on public authorities, but of various other aspects of anti-discrimination law that we will be able to examine in the review of equalities legislation—a review that my Department is leading and on which we have already started. It might be helpful if I say that there will be a full consultation and a properly inclusive process as we look at the various aspects of anti-discrimination law.
The Bill, and more broadly our strategy to counter inequality and discrimination, is a product of work right across Government. I am very grateful indeed to all my right hon. and hon. Friends who have worked as a single team not only to promote the Bill, but to put in place the two other reviews that I mentioned. We also have the cross-Government strategy to promote racial equality and social cohesion, which is being led by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary; the work to take forward the national employment panel's recommendations for increasing employment and business growth for ethnic minorities, which is led by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; and the work on improving the life chances for people with disabilities and the recently published strategy on age diversity, led my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
As I said, we in the Government believe that equality and human rights are not minority concerns. They are the cornerstones of a strong and fair society, and of a strong and prosperous society. They are the foundations of the mutual trust and respect that we all wish to see in our country. Earlier today my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the date of the next general election, so in a few days we will be leaving the House for our constituencies and the election campaign. I hope that all of us who have had the privilege of serving as Members of the House and all who aspire to do so will avoid doing anything to arouse or exploit prejudice against any group in our society.
In the election campaign, there will of course be sharp disagreements and passionate debate. That is as it should be, and it is a tribute to our democracy and to the freedom of speech and political expression that we cherish, and which is entrenched in our Human Rights Act, that it should be so. But let us exercise that freedom of speech in a way that reflects the best traditions of the House, rather than the worst elements of some of our media. I trust that once we have had the verdict of the British people, the Bill will proceed to full enactment. I believe that it is good for individuals, good for our communities and good for the social and economic strength of our country, and I commend it to the House.
I begin by declaring my interests, as set out in the register.
I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend Mr. O'Brien, whose middle son had quite a big heart operation a couple of days ago. My hon. Friend felt that he should be with his family at this time. His boy is making good progress, I am pleased to say.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the clear way in which she explained the Bill. Whatever our concerns about the Bill—we have a number of them—she has worked hard on the agenda with her right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality. In 2002 she published the consultation paper, "Equality and Diversity: Making it Happen". We then had the statement of intent in October 2003 and the White Paper in 2004, followed by the Bill. Whatever our disagreements with the Secretary of State about red tape, regulation and many other themes that we have pursued, she can be proud that what she has worked so hard on is coming to fruition. All Conservative Members praise the work that she and her team have done, but there will soon be an election and everything is now riddled with uncertainty.
I offer our broad support for the Bill, particularly clause 3 on the fundamental duties of the commission. The Opposition sign up to those aspirations. We support the principle of bringing the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission together and adding the new strands of sexual orientation, religion or belief and age. Given that no statutory body is charged with promoting human rights, it makes sense to give that duty to the new commission for equality and human rights.
I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend's authoritative welcome for the Bill's principles. In heaping justified praise on the Government for their changes following consultation, does he agree that that is an object lesson to the House and the country in the formulation of public policy? We have already made many improvements in the initial process that drives us forward to the need for careful consideration. The Secretary of State referred to the commission and we want the correct final outcome, which we have not yet reached.
I would like to praise my hon. Friend for his work on disability issues over many years, and I also praise my hon. Friend Mrs. Laing. Members of Parliament and Front Bench spokesmen on both sides of the House have worked hard on a non-party political basis. I agree that it is important that the Bill should go into Committee because we want clarification on a number of points.
I shall raise some general concerns, but first I want to examine some specific points because it is obvious that the Bill will not go into Committee in the near future. If the Minister has time when she winds up, perhaps she will clarify one or two points. Clause 6 covers disclosure, so what will be the impact of the Freedom of Information Act 2000?
Under clause 13 on monitoring progress, as I said during my brief intervention on the Secretary of State, the commission will be required to publish a report within three years of the Bill coming into force and every three years thereafter. That will be approximately once in the lifetime of a Parliament, which is insufficient scrutiny. Perhaps we can return to that.
Clause 30 refers to legal assistance and subsection (1) enables the commission to give assistance to an individual who is the victim of discrimination or
"who is or may become party to legal proceedings".
Will the cost of that assistance come from the commission's budget or will it be funded by the Legal Services Commission, and what is the relationship between the two? The commission for equality and human rights could be running other cases—for example, judicial review cases under clause 32—and that could have a substantial impact on its budget. What would happen if it ran over budget? Will there be a supplemental budget for such legal cases and will the Legal Services Commission be involved?
Clauses 38 to 40 refer to dissolution, which is highly relevant to today's announcement, the transfer of property, rights and liabilities and to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981. What about the existing commissions' ongoing cases? It is important during the transition period that the three commissions are not deterred from launching new actions and it is equally important that existing legal actions are pursued with the usual professionalism, resources and commitment. I hope that the Minister can give an assurance on that.
Clause 34 refers to public sector duties and enables the commission to require a public authority to comply with its public sector duties covering gender, race and disability. What about the other strands of age, religion or belief and sexual orientation, to which Chris Bryant alluded? Age Concern is worried about that and sees some illogicality. It believes that omission of the other strands and the relationship of public authorities in terms of their duty goes against the essence of the commission's approach.
The Secretary of State kindly wrote to me and other colleagues on
Stonewall has said:
"the creation of the CEHR will show that the current inequality in legislative provision is untenable. A Single Equality Bill, simplifying and standardising equality legislation for all protected groups, will bring greater clarity for individuals and employers as well as equality for those groups who are lagging behind."
That view is echoed by other bodies.
It is important to get the Bill right and it might be better to have one really good Bill following the outcome of those reviews. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that.
The Disability Rights Commission states in its briefing to Members on the importance of harmonised equality legislation:
"The DRC believes that a CEHR cannot be fully effective without new legislation to level up the current provisions for the various equality strands . . . The wide disparities within current equality legislation will result in different groups of people having different levels of protection."
That is my concern and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that when she winds up.
In light of the current circumstances and the detailed examination that the Conservatives have given to their spending plans if they were to form a Government, have they earmarked expenditure for these provisions and will they support and push for them, or will they be among the £35 billion of cuts?
That is a red herring. We have made it clear that we will streamline the Department of Trade and Industry and cut some of its funds. Its budget and the number of staff have risen sharply over the past eight years and there will be plenty of money around for important legislation and maintaining priorities. If I am fortunate enough to be in the position of the Minister of State and in charge of the legislation, the DTI team will do what it can to ensure that those priorities are maintained.
I want to take a different tack, but before doing so, I have to say that it is a delight to hear the hon. Gentleman citing Stonewall in this Chamber. He would not have done so five or 10 years ago and we are enormously grateful for that change in the Conservative party in recent months.
Mrs. Laing said earlier from a sedentary position that the Conservatives would introduce a similar Bill soon after the general election. If he can do so with a straight face, will the hon. Gentleman say how quickly they might introduce such legislation when they win the general election?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the word "when"; perhaps he has seen the opinion poll in the Financial Times today. Obviously, I cannot pre-empt what my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard will do in his first Queen's Speech, but our Front-Bench spokesmen and spokeswomen feel strongly about the Bill and will do all we can to pursue its important priorities if the electorate give us the mandate.
On disability rights and the work of the DRC, I recently had a useful meeting with the West Norfolk disability information service—WNDIS—and its representatives, Mr. Jonathan Toye and Mr. Brian Reed. They expressed concern that the new commission will not have the same focus, bite, and detailed and expert knowledge that the DRC has. We discussed at some length how the disability rights functions of the new commission will work. I feel, as they did, that the commission must reflect the unique and complex nature of disability as well as the distinctive legislative provisions on disability. Incidentally, they do a superb job helping disabled people in my constituency, explaining what their rights are, sponsoring cases in which there has been injustice and a breach of those rights, explaining to local businesses exactly what they should be doing, and working with local public bodies. We discussed the importance of the commission having a dedicated disability committee, and I should like the Minister to elaborate on that and to put at rest the minds of two excellent and hard-working constituents of mine who are concerned that the DRC's expertise and professionalism should be continued.
Is there a real possibility that the other strands will also want their own dedicated committees? I have always been in favour of a federal approach, under which the commission would be an umbrella body focusing on cross-cutting and shared issues together with units and appointed committees, with executive powers, concerned with each strand. Whether it is too late to go down that route, I do not know, but there is the obvious precedent of the disability committee.
We support the idea of a one-stop shop. We find it attractive, and it has been welcomed by a lot of organisations, such as the CBI, which has not always supported what the Government have done, but which said:
"The current approach is often confusing, time consuming and does not offer adequate support for issues crossing over different equality strands. A single commission would have the advantage of being a simple 'one-stop shop' for advice on all equality issues, presenting a joined-up approach that could help rationalise support."
It is important that the Government should listen to business needs, and the Government's White Paper, issued a short while ago, noted on page 164, in paragraph 7.23:
"The Government expects members of the . . . board and senior management team to include people with experience of business and management to help ensure that, as an organisation, it is equipped to engage constructively."
We certainly support that, particularly bearing in mind the importance of small businesses, which represent 99 per cent. of all firms. They generate 52 per cent. of the country's wealth, and many prefer to work through intermediaries. That is why it is vital that the commission should make a special effort to work with those intermediaries so that it is able to get through to the small businesses that are such an important part of our wealth creation.
There is no reason why the commission cannot develop as an authoritative and credible body. Merging different organisations into one should lead to efficiencies. I am well aware that the start-up costs of any new super-commission will be substantial. I understand that they will be in excess of £24 million. The transfer of undertakings will obviously be expensive, and there will be a need for new IT systems. However, given that the three existing strands will come into one body, even though there are three new strands and even though human rights work will come in, economies of scale should surely lead to a lowering of costs.
I do not understand why the DTI will not insist that a really impressive example is set here. Yet, page 47 of the explanatory notes to the Bill makes it quite clear that the estimated annual budget of the new commission when fully operational—not before 2007, and possibly later—will be £70 million. That is up from a combined budget of the existing commissions of £43 million. Most of the extra cost will be down to the extra staff, but there surely could be substantial savings on staff. In rationalising and merging IT departments and other departments, such as public relations, there should surely be a case for a more streamlined operation. I should have thought we could easily consider the new commission employing fewer than 500 staff and still doing a really good job. Surely the Secretary of State should at least try to deliver that and to set an example.
In theory, merging and consolidating existing regulators into a new super-regulator should lead to more efficiency and a simplified service. On the other hand, if one thinks of recent history, that has not always been the case. Consider the Financial Services Authority, whose handbook now runs to more than 8,000 pages. Can it really be said that the FSA is better run and more user friendly than some of its predecessor bodies, such as the Investment Management Regulatory Organisation and the Life Assurance and Unit Trust Regulatory Organisation? The DTI should do its level best to set a good example of a state-of-the-art, efficient organisation that offers really good value for money.
On the subject, incidentally, of the DTI setting a good example, the Secretary of State mentioned that diversity is important. Why, therefore, do a significant majority of DTI officials—60 per cent. in a recent survey—not agree with the statement:
"I believe that DTI recognises the diversity of its customers and adapts its policies to reach them."?
The Secretary of State has rightly said that it is important to narrow the gender pay gap, and we feel strongly about that. Why, then, is there still a 16 per cent. difference between male and female salaries at the DTI, a figure only marginally better than the national average? Surely that should concern the Secretary of State.
We are, to some extent, in a slightly surreal situation. We are debating a vital matter, an issue of great importance to millions of people. Yet everyone knows that we are putting up a fac"ade this afternoon and that the Bill will go nowhere. That is why it is important that the Bill should be brought back at an early stage after the election.
I should make one point to the Secretary of State. We have made it clear all along that we support the Bill. The Liberal Democrats also support the Bill. Yet quite a few Bills have been brought before the House in this Session that did not command cross-party support. Why was not this Bill given greater priority? Why did not the Government bring it forward months ago? We would have supported it, and it could be on the statute book. I do not understand that at all. It does not seem to make any sense. There were no logical, technical or practical reasons why it could not have been brought forward.
As an Opposition, we feel strongly that everyone should be given fair treatment. Discrimination of any kind is morally wrong. It destroys lives; it breaks up families; it ruins health. It also destroys wealth, because the most valuable asset of any business is its employees. If they are undervalued, undermined or discriminated against, how can they give of their best? If their lives are falling apart because their home life is a misery, how can they go to work with motivation and commitment?
We want everyone to be given every possible opportunity to reach the maximum fulfilment of their lives, free of any kind of discrimination, free of any kind of abuse and free of any kind of prejudice. We respect and support much of the work that the Government have done, but we are equally proud of our own party's record, especially on disability, and particularly of the work done by the late right hon. Nick Scott when he was Minister for Social Security and Disabled People and by my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague when he was in that post. Our party has an excellent record on these issues, and that is why, if we do win the support of the electorate, we will continue with that work.
Not only do I agree strongly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but I find myself agreeing with the main thrust of the remarks of Mr. Bellingham and with Mr. Boswell, who has made a distinguished contribution on disability matters, when they welcome the Bill and, I assume, welcome the aspects of it that refer to disability.
It seems odd, on a day when an election has been declared, that the House is again showing that we can reach agreement on important issues. If the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk sounded a little impatient, I hope that in the course of my remarks I will be able to reassure him that, particularly in the field of disability, patience is, I am afraid, something that has to be acquired. I hope, nevertheless, that when my party is deservedly re-elected in a few weeks' time, it will bring the Bill back to the House very speedily, if only because of its great merits.
The Bill's main thrust is to establish a commission for equality and human rights. That will, of course, take over disability rights, and I want to devote most of my speech to that, as well as to the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission.
There are, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, 10 million people in this country who experience some aspect of disability, and of course it is right that in a society committed to pluralism we bear in mind not just their needs but their rights, including the rights of participation which were, to some extent, discussed following the statement earlier today.
I wonder whether the House will, if only for a few moments, allow me a degree of nostalgia when I refer to the setting up of the Disability Rights Commission. As someone who was fairly heavily involved in that policy, it seems to me that its existence will last for a shorter term than I expected. Reflecting on the formation of the DRC, I can tell the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk that the intervention from my hon. Friend Helen Jackson—a very distinguished parliamentarian whom we will miss very much—was extremely relevant.
As the member of the shadow Cabinet responsible for disability matters before 1997, it was my task to contribute to policy formulation and to present to my party's annual conference, which I was very proud to do, the proposal that such a measure should be included in the manifesto and then introduced by a Labour Government. I was proud to do it, particularly after we had been defeated by a mere 13 votes by the previous Government, whose spokesman on disability, Mr. Hague, who later became Conservative party leader, strongly resisted the idea.
My hon. Friend's intervention was relevant to this extent: I can tell the House that before I was able to make the declaration to our party conference, seek its approval and, I hope, have something to do with its inclusion in our manifesto for the 1997 election, the proposal had to be costed very carefully. I remember long conversations well into the night on the Friday before conference, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who was then the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. We did not get an agreement easily, but once it was done we knew that the proposal had been costed and was to be part of our Government's policy, and I am very glad that that has been implemented. These matters have to be considered carefully, so my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough is right.
When it was proposed to set up a new commission embracing other bodies, including those for disability, I took the view that there might be a backlash against the idea, but I am pleased that that has not happened. That was largely because of the way in which the Government dealt with the matter, which included setting up the taskforce, and also because they went out of their way to embrace not just the DRC but the various disability organisations that realised, although they were so supportive of the DRC, that they would have an even stronger role in a larger, more effective and influential body. I hope that that is how things will develop.
I can remember the Disability Action Network, some of whose members decided to occupy Labour party headquarters for nearly a day, initially to protest about lack of access. Once they found that it was easy to get to the third floor, where the national executive met, they changed their demands. They wanted an immediate declaration from the then Leader of the Opposition—now my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—that a commission would be set up. We do not make policy under those conditions, and I said so. However, because of those strong feelings, I want to refer to the views of the DRC.
It is true that there are reservations about some aspects of the Government's thinking, but the DRC view on the Bill is clear. It says that it
"marks a new approach to equality and human rights which we believe has great potential to transform the life chances of disabled people and other marginalised groups in our society".
I know that the House will give great weight to the views of the DRC in that regard.
The DRC went on to say—and I agree—that there is a need for
"strong advocacy and a real voice in an effective enforcement body".
It hopes that the commission will follow that path. The DRC's emphasis is important. As I said, it welcomed the main proposals but said that the Government's proposal for at least one disabled commissioner and a disability committee for at least five years should be widely debated in the House before the Bill is enacted, if only to answer the questions: why five years, and why impose a limit at all? Those are fair questions, and I endorse them.
The DRC generally welcomes both the wide enforcement powers at the disposal of the commission for equality and human rights and the remit to promote and investigate human rights—as far as it goes. Many Members on both sides of the House want it to go further. The new provisions to counter discrimination on grounds of religion or belief in relation to goods, services and facilities, and the new duty for the public sector to promote gender equality are welcome, too. They certainly represent progress.
The DRC supports a single measure on equality, and I welcome the intervention by Malcolm Bruce. He made an important point, representing a view that is widely shared. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may not have had time to respond in detail, but perhaps the Government's position will be expressed with greater clarity in the wind-up, not least because of what we read in the excellent Library note. Library briefings are always good, but Vincent Keter has done a superb job on the Equality Bill. He refers to the TUC. Indeed, I shall simply quote what the TUC said:
"In the interests of social justice and fairness, a single equality act should establish high and consistent standards of protection across all equality areas. A single equality body established without the full statutory backing of fair, comprehensive and transparent equality legislation would lack authority and have trouble dealing with the expectations of different interest groups."
That is also the view of the Commission for Racial Equality.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that that is also Labour party policy? The policy forum was of that opinion when it met last year, and that opinion was subsequently agreed at last year's conference.
I am delighted, as always, to be reminded by my hon. Friend of the importance of Labour party policy formulation.
Before I deal with another aspect of the Library paper to which I have referred, I should like to ask whether copies of the Bill—or rather, in due course, the Act—will be made available promptly in the full range of accessible formats, so that people with all sorts of disability can have access to it. The Government are committed to a more inclusive society, as the Bill shows. They have an excellent record in challenging discrimination and prejudice across the board. That, too, is reflected in the Bill. I urge them to confirm yet again the importance of enforcement, promotion and a robust commitment to the human rights remit.
I should like to refer—very briefly, as other hon. Members want to speak—to the other aspect of the Library paper. In respect of disability, it refers to the hierarchy of equality and expresses the view that some groups have been left with less protection than others. I believe that to be the case, and I believe that it is wrong. We should seek to put it right.
The Library paper says that the equality commission will amplify the impact of discrimination legislation and promote equality. It rightly talks about employment, which is crucial if people with disabilities are to make progress and gain the feeling that they are a very important part of our society, respected and encouraged to achieve their full potential.
The Disability Discrimination Bill rightly addresses goods and services issues, but we have not been as specific as the disability organisations would like, especially in relation to transport issues. I certainly take the view that, although we have made tremendous progress under this Government, some public bodies might be encouraged to reflect the disability awareness that we have accepted in the House.
I should like to give an example, without, I hope, being at all patronising. Today, I decided to ring Mencap—one of the many wonderful organisations involved in this field—and the young woman who answered the phone has learning disabilities. I simply wish to say that there are many public bodies whose personnel could well emulate the absolutely charming, helpful and efficient way in which that young lady did her duties, and it is that sort of approach that we want to encourage.
I referred in an earlier intervention to the Government's thinking about Scotland. I welcome what they have to say about Scotland, and in particular, the links that they have already established with the Scottish Executive, with the proposal for a Scottish representative on the commission and the encouraging of an annual report to the Scottish Parliament. I welcome that very much, as long as it is consistent with the commission itself. We will provide resources and staffing so that the commission has the best possible professionalism and advice to allow it to make the kind of report that that Parliament—and this Parliament, for our interests—is entitled to receive.
I have spoken about disability, but I know that the Bill embraces other aspects of human rights, which I welcome. For example, it adds to the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. Mr. Speaker has arranged a reception tomorrow evening at which my good friend Lord Morris of Manchester will be the principal guest, and it is right for that Act to be honoured 35 years on.
The Bill is welcome and noble. Whatever the differences that we will demonstrate over the coming weeks—I will play my part in debating them—I think that it reflects the basic commitment of the British people to a civilised society, which is reflected by the Government's policy on such important matters.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Clarke, whose record of campaigning on disability issues, especially, is perhaps unrivalled in the House. I have been happy to support him on several occasions. He gave an eloquent testimony to the reasons why he supports the Bill and how he has come to arrive at that point.
Before I go into the details of our support for the Bill, may I apologise, especially to the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, for the fact that I will have to leave just before the end of the debate, although no discourtesy is intended? I am pleased to say that she will know that although I have several comments to make about the Bill, my party certainly supports it and regrets, in one sense, that our debate is only a rehearsal for proceedings that will presumably take place in the fairly near future and follow through to the Bill's enactment.
The very title of the Bill seems to encapsulate how we have turned round 180° in our approach to these issues. It is not an anti-discrimination Bill, but an equality Bill, which represents a fundamental change of approach. Indeed, although I noticed that the Joint Committee described clause 3 as being more like a party manifesto than a piece of legislation, the provision nevertheless makes it clear that the Bill is hugely aspirational, with the intention of promoting equality rather than giving people the means of dealing with discrimination. After all, the opportunity to deal with discrimination comes only after the event if the law gives one rights to protest against it. The Bill is an attempt to give people legal rights so that they are equal in the first place. That is a fundamentally different approach.
Reading through the submissions that we have received, I was interested to see that, whatever their initial reaction, the overwhelming majority of organisations are now pretty well on board, although some have made supplementary comments on what is necessary. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the legislation's application in Scotland. Even those of us who represent Scottish constituencies appreciate the fact that the Bill addresses the differences between the roles of the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament, but I hope that when the Bill is enacted and the commission is established some clarification will be made available, otherwise people in Scotland might be confused about where to turn for support. I am sure that that can be done.
In an intervention on the Secretary of State, I raised what will be the main thrust of my speech, which is my hope that a single equality Act will deal effectively with the hierarchy of equality, which the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned. In the past, we have addressed different aspects of equality in a piecemeal fashion through different pieces of legislation, with the result that the various aspects are perceived to be of different degrees of importance. That is why the disability rights organisations, for example, were concerned and suggested that—in a sense as a gesture—the Bill should provide for a person who is or has been disabled to be on the commission. In reality, it is inconceivable that the commission will not represent and promote the interests of disabled people. The issue will not be whether a person has been disabled, but what is done to ensure that disabled people's rights and opportunities are promoted to the full.
At this point, let me make a small special plea, as I tend to do on occasions such as this, as chairman of the all-party group on deafness, which has been established in the past year. There is a range of disabilities, each of which brings different needs. We have not set up the all-party group on deafness to detach ourselves from the general campaign on disability rights. We simply acknowledge that there are discrete issues of particular concern to deaf people that need to be addressed separately, while continuing to support and to work in full co-operation with other groups.
I welcomed the Department for Work and Pensions' recognition of sign language, which took place within the past couple of years. It was nicely publicised as the Government giving official recognition to British sign language; in fact, it was the Department doing so and I have not seen anything comparable from other Departments, such as the Department for Education and Skills. My serious point is that the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is determining what type of legal instrument can be added to the European convention on human rights to give sign language users the recognition that has been given to users of other minority languages. It is worth putting on record the fact that in the UK there are more users of British or Irish sign language than speakers of Welsh or Gaelic, yet the resources that the latter two languages attract are probably 50 times as great as those that go to sign language. Although I welcome the DWP initiative, it is only a drop in the ocean of what is needed to enable sign language users to use their language fully in the wide range of circumstances to which clause 3 refers. I hope that the commission recognises that it should take a proactive approach to that issue.
Having put that on the record, I shall get down from my soapbox and address the mechanics of the Bill and its proposals. Several of the groups that made representations have argued the case for a single equality Act. The Equal Opportunities Commission supported that case particularly well, saying that if the new body is to be effective, it must be backed up by a consistent legal framework, be able to fulfil a full range of roles, be organised and resourced to work effectively in Scotland and Wales as well as in England and Great Britain, and be able to deal effectively with each of the equality strands and with human rights. It also has to be properly resourced.
I do not disagree with Mr. Bellingham, in that it is legitimate for the following question to be asked and for the Government to spell out the answer. They do not have to do so today. It is: why will the new body cost £70 million as opposed to the current cost of £43 million? I hope that there are good reasons for this, because the aspiration is to do a great deal more. A little more information about why this will be the case and how the distribution will take place would give us some comfort that the extra cost will be because of the reach of the new legislation and not because of an expanding bureaucracy.
The Secretary of State, Mr. O'Brien and I recently spoke at a CBI conference on diversity. It is worth noting that at that conference Sir Digby Jones of the CBI said that the organisation supported the Bill and the representations that had given support to the Bill, but then expressed many reservations about the detailed application and regulations that may flow from it. I hope that the Government will recognise that a single equality Act should reassure the likes of the CBI that it would bring together and simplify legislation and regulation rather than make it more complicated. That, fundamentally, is the objective.
I agree with so much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, I understand that his party has undertaken completely to get rid of the Department of Trade and Industry. If the Liberal Democrats are in Government in six weeks' time, how will he administer the very good points that he is making now?
The mechanisms for delivering policy and particular Ministers are matters for judgment. Our view is that it is perfectly possible for this matter to be dealt with in another Department—for example, the Home Office. I understand that the DTI, partly because of the second nature of the Secretary of State, is also the Department for equality, but it is slightly odd that the Bill has been promoted by the DTI. People might worry that it was more narrowly drafted because of that and confined to economic issues when, I am glad to say, it was not. The Bill runs much more widely than the DTI. It reaches throughout society, as it rightly and properly should. It is just a convenience of current Government organisation that it happens to be coming from the DTI.
I reinforce another point made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk. On the impact of the proposed legislation on business—I reiterate that it has a much wider impact than business—it is important that the needs of small and medium-sized businesses be particularly represented. With the greatest respect to the Government, there is sometimes a tendency to think that if they have spoken to the CBI, they have the voice of business. Big business has an agenda and a capacity to respond that are different from small and medium-sized businesses'. I hope that that will be taken firmly on board.
The main case is for a single equality Act. Current legislation has grown up piecemeal over the years. I am advised that there are currently 30 Acts, 38 statutory instruments, 11 codes of practice and 12 EC directives and recommendations relevant to the areas and activities of the proposed new commission. That is a difficult mix of areas for people to take account of. As has been said, there are anomalies within the existing system. If someone is being discriminated against because they are Jewish or a Sikh, they can have recourse to the law. If, however, that is happening to someone and they are Muslim, currently they do not have that recourse. An equality Act can deal with that simply and straightforwardly.
The bringing together of equality and human rights is absolutely right in principle and in practice. It is often forgotten that the UK is not only an early signatory to the European convention on human rights, but that largely we wrote it. It is not some form of alien European imposition. The convention was drawn up largely by British lawyers in the aftermath of the war and the Nazi occupation to create a framework of fundamental rights to which all countries that had been engaged in the war could sign up. We might tend to think that we were providing the convention to the occupied, defeated and liberated nations of Europe out of magnanimity, and that it somehow did not apply to us. However, we wrote it in our own terms and we signed up to it.
The Conservatives talk glibly about the possibility of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998. I saw the Leader of the Opposition looking somewhat uncomfortable when challenged on this point recently. When he was asked whether he was going to renege on our commitment to the European convention on human rights, he said no. I should remind the Conservatives that when we signed up to the convention in 1953, we also undertook to incorporate it in our domestic law, although it took us nearly 50 years to do so. It is really disconcerting to hear the Conservatives suggesting that they might go back on that fundamental part of our treaty obligations. The Human Rights Act gave British citizens the right to take human rights cases to the domestic courts, rather than having to incur the expense and delay of taking them to Strasbourg.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point entirely. Is he aware that that message is going through many people's letter boxes in direct mailings from the Conservatives even as we speak, despite the fact that their Front-Bench spokesman feels uncomfortable about it? What does the hon. Gentleman make of that phenomenon?
The Conservatives' entire campaign is dishonest. I am glad to say that I do not believe that they have any intention of withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. I am not even sure that they seriously intend to repeal the Human Rights Act. However, they want to lead people to believe that they could do so, without confronting the real issues. Indeed, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk made a reasoned and considered case for his party's supporting this Bill.
This is a British piece of legislation that the Government have introduced after consultation to put in place a much more detailed development of human rights and equality which will, I hope, go substantially beyond the basics of the European convention on human rights. Indeed, the Joint Committee, while expressing some concern that there might be areas of conflict or uncertainty, was quite clear that the general objective was to develop and enhance equality and human rights in the United Kingdom, above and beyond the provisions of the European convention, to meet the needs of our own societies.
Reservations were expressed by many of the organisations that will be affected by the creation of the equality commission. Perhaps a climate of vested interests is created when people have worked with their own equality commission. They might have reservations about its being merged with a greater organisation. However, to be fair to the Government, they have clearly persuaded people that the added weight and value of combining all these aspects will be beneficial. Speaking as a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, I can say that that organisation certainly welcomes the single commission approach.
I reiterate my party's view, which has been much more eloquently argued by my noble friend Lord Lester, who, regardless of politics, is regarded as one of the finest human rights lawyers in the country. He has attempted to introduce his own Bill on a single equality commission, and I hope that that was seen as a serious endeavour to put a framework in place. The Government have suggested that their own review is designed to lead in that direction. I do not concur with the view that we should delay the setting up of a single commission, and I would emphasise the urgency involved. We must not rush into this, but we must ensure that a single equality Act is introduced sooner rather than later. If not, the single commission will spend an awful lot of time dealing with an inadequate collection of piecemeal laws. Those could quickly be put to one side once we had clearer, simpler legislation.
I commend the Bill. As I said earlier, a fundamental approach to promoting equality rather than dealing with discrimination represents a radical and welcome shift that should greatly enhance the quality of life of every minority—we are all minorities at some stage or another—that could conceivably be discriminated against, and give them the backing and resources to create, as the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston said, a civilised society that is tolerant and inclusive.
It gives me great pleasure to follow Malcolm Bruce. I especially appreciated his important reference to deafness, which made the point that the political will to move strongly on equality makes a difference to every form of discrimination on the ground of disability.
It also gives me great pleasure to contribute to the debate on the day that the general election has been called. I am proud to be a member of a political party that has had equality and fairness at the core of its constitution and principles since the day that it was founded more than 100 years ago. Despite some people's grumbles, equality remains at its core. Every Labour Government have made significant progress on equality and this Government have made huge progress, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spelled out in her speech. Although I do not expect the Bill to go through all its stages in the next two days, I hope that it becomes the centrepiece of the third term of a Labour Government.
I praise the way in which consultation prior to the Bill's publication has been managed to gain the backing of all the relevant organisations. I pay tribute to Ministers and their team on undertaking careful consultation and gathering support so that our discussion is consensual on this important day. However, I want to utter some words of caution. In my experience, when one mentions equality and human rights, it is easy to get uncontroversial support—there is no problem. It is also easy to urge public and private bodies to make progress. It gets harder and controversy begins when we move towards insisting that public and private bodies implement standards of equality and human rights. It becomes harder still and more controversial when we pass legislation that insists that public and private bodies and individuals respect specific standards of equality and human rights. It becomes even harder and much more controversial when we start to penalise public authorities or private bodies for not conforming to the standards that we have set.
At the heart of taking any of those actions is the first step of establishing a system whereby we know what is happening and progress is monitored. That aspect becomes controversial and difficult with the realisation that it will be effective only with the support of sufficient resources, teeth, clout, legislation and political determination. The system has to be clear and firm and have resources. With the greatest respect for both Opposition spokesmen, when they were pressed on financial aspects, the response was woolly. I have absolute confidence that the Labour party is determined to put the resources behind this important legislation.
The Bill is on the right track because it recognises the need for legislation, encompasses the entire breadth of disability and sets out a system for implementation. When I was active on Sheffield city council and, in the mid-1980s, we reached the first stage of controversy by appointing our first equalities officer, we were told that it was a great waste of money by our then opposition. They were even more horrified when that equalities officer recommended that there should be a women's training workshop on information technology. There was a huge fuss and enormous opposition. How on earth did we know, as a council, that there was any call for a women's training workshop on information technology? Bizarrely, we did know, but even more bizarrely, by the end of the week when this was on the front page of the newspapers, the relevant council department had had 2,000 applications for the women's information technology workshop, which was only a subject for council debate at that stage. Often, therefore, it is important to be ahead of the game, in each area of disability, to recognise the need to move to legislation. We then find that such a move was crucial for a large number of people or a minority.
We must recognise, of course, that equality is a dream, a goal or target that we never reach. We say that every baby is born equal, but of course that is not the case. The life chances and expectancies of all of us are grossly unequal. We must also recognise the international dimension, which was brought home to my family recently when one of my grandsons was born with a defective heart. After intensive surgery at one week old, which was successful, he is now at home, six weeks old and quite well. He is probably among the 1 per cent. of the world's population for whom such intensive surgery at seven days old can be successful. The idea, therefore, that equality for every individual can be easily achieved is nonsense. Nobody would approach the international context without recognising that.
That brings me to my next point, as the only reason that baby Seamus is still with us is that we have a national health service that is free, open and accessible to every individual, at least in this country. Having a public service that is open, free, accessible and of world-class standards is one of the most important pieces of equality legislation that any Government can pass. That is the same in every area. Everyone recognises that we cannot even start to get near achieving the millennium development goal of every child in the world achieving equal access to education unless there is free primary education. That is a law of equality in itself.
I was pleased to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggest in the run-up to the election that each and every pensioner will have free bus travel, which is particularly relevant to me, as I am shortly to enjoy that, in good measure.
Every area of legislation has an equality aspect, whether in relation to housing, transport, education or health. In relation to housing, the equality aspect might be accessibility or ease of getting around the house. It is impressive that this Bill has been put together with the co-operation of and contributions from every Department. We talk a great deal about Governments being too parcelled up when it comes to legislation, but this is a good example of legislation to which that does not apply.
Breadth and scope are important, and I want to say more about the Northern Ireland experience. An important aspect of the peace process was the funding regime from Brussels, the European peace and reconciliation programme. The then Commissioner Wulff-Matthies included in that programme criteria according to which every penny of the money had to be spent. It was a partnership action for fair treatment: every item of expenditure had to meet standards of equality, or the money would not be released from Brussels. The partnership boards did not just include people on both sides of the sectarian divide—there was an equality balance in terms of gender, of race where appropriate, and of disability. The whole range of equality was encompassed to defuse the specific inequality issue about which people in Northern Ireland felt so strongly.
There was considerable debate in Northern Ireland about the proposal for a single equality commission. People naturally feared that it would weaken the individual commissions dealing with gender, race and other aspects of inequality. In fact, the emphasis on a single commission strengthens each inequality issue and strengthens the anti-discrimination agenda in each area.
We have seen that closer to home in our party. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the Representation of the People Act 2000, which we produced after a huge amount of discussion in our party—and a very important piece of legislation it is, applying as it does to all political parties. Now the issue of racial imbalance in this Parliament is being raised in the party far more strongly than ever before and we are considering action to redress that imbalance. Once progress has been made in one respect, we can raise our sights in the case of all the other aspects of inequality. I would say that the equality agenda in the last Parliament led to pressure for successful legislation on, for instance, same-sex couples.
As was said earlier, the Bill's establishment of a single commission will make further legislation urgent and essential. I should be very surprised, and a little disappointed, if the legislation that follows is not a little controversial, and does not push the boat further than every Member may wish.
I finish by giving three warnings. First, everything in the Bill is about individuals. Clause 8(2) defines equality as being "equality between individuals". That is the right way to go, but it is sometimes in conflict with people being defined not as individuals but as part of a household. The future role of pensioners and pensions is an issue that many of us have been concerned to pursue in the House, and I believe that important legislation on it will be introduced in the next Parliament. For far too long, women pensioners in particular have been seen as part of a household or a couple and, therefore, as being more dependent than men, who are assumed to have been in full-time employment, and not as worthy of financial reward for the effort and work—of whatever type—that they have put in during their lives. I hope that the Bill will set the scene for women pensioners and potential pensioners being given that status in their own right, so that women's work will be valued and women pensioners will get a better balance of income. At the moment, it is appallingly unbalanced.
My second warning to Ministers concerns universal legislation and choice. I have mentioned those areas of universal legislation that in my view form part of inequality legislation because they apply to everyone. The issue of choice must be carefully considered, as must league tables that encourage us to say, "Are we up here or down there? Is ours a very good school or not? Are we doing well or not? Is this a hospital in which people might die more easily than in another?" In considering such choices, we must be careful that we do not undermine some of the basic principles of equality that we want to pursue.
My third warning is that we must make sure that the commission and the legislation arising from it have strong, sharp, powerful teeth. When controversial issues arise that challenge accepted norms and assumptions of behaviour, there must be a strong recognition of the need to be absolutely clear that the equality agenda leads many other important agendas that any Government might want to pursue to produce a better society. I hope that, when our political leaders go out campaigning today and in the weeks ahead, they ensure equality is up there with the economy, education and the other big issues. I say that unashamedly, because Labour has a superb record on equality. If that record is presented frequently, powerfully and consistently, there is no doubt that we will have not just a third term of government, but a fourth, a fifth and perhaps many more. So let us put the Bill in the Queen's Speech and make it the No. 1 priority for the next election and the essential flagship of Labour's third term.
It is a privilege to follow Helen Jackson, who—aside from the triumphalism towards the end of her speech—spoke authoritatively and movingly from her own experience in family terms and her experience culled from her work in Northern Ireland. I respect her passionate commitment to equality. Knowing that the hon. Lady is not seeking re-election to the House, I wish her every success and happiness in what she goes on to do.
I welcome the Bill. I believe that it is a good measure that deserves support. Let the background to the Bill's introduction be clearly understood. Inequality before the law, prejudice and discrimination are still commonplace features of our society and we have the responsibility not to look the other way, but to seek to attack those inequalities, that discrimination and that prejudice. The Bill is by no means the only way of achieving that. Everything cannot be achieved through legislation, but legislation has an important contribution to make in tackling the prevalent negative attitudes and stereotypes, tackling tendencies to caricature people to disadvantage and in conducing to an atmosphere and culture in which we respect each other.
What it is really about is equality before the law and the principle of social justice. As far as I am concerned, that means that every individual, irrespective of race, sex, disability or sexual orientation, is entitled to be treated by his or her fellows with respect and to be granted equal protection by the law. That is a statement that I confidently make on the Floor of the House today, and it is a point that I shall reiterate time and again in the period lying immediately ahead. Each and every one of us can do only his or her bit in trying to tackle discrimination, to undermine the causes of prejudice and to promote social justice. In the course of this Parliament, I have attempted to promote what I believe to be the right course, with my voice and my vote—and I intend to go on doing so.
I welcome the opening speech of the Secretary of State and I would like to focus on a number of the Bill's aspects. First, on the major proposal to establish a commission for equality and human rights, the background was rehearsed by the Secretary of State and by my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham. The case for it is compelling, indeed.
At the moment and of long standing, we have had three commissions to address particular types of discrimination: the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission. Each draws its powers and exercises its functions courtesy of a number of different pieces of legislation. I believe that the intended creation of the new body should in no way suggest—Ministers will not allow it to do so—that the record of those three organisations is anything other than excellent.
The reality is, however, that those bodies have had responsibilities to deal with sex discrimination, race discrimination and disability discrimination. In discharging their responsibilities, they have had a budget of something in the order of £45 million a year. When I last looked into it, the figures for 2002 showed that those bodies were undertaking about 4,400 cases and the respective websites of the three anti-discrimination bodies were taking about 75,000 hits per month. They have been extremely busy; they have had a great deal to do; they have done exceptionally well.
It is important to recognise that those bodies' responsibility was to deal with only three, albeit three very important, types of discrimination. The Government are proposing, consistent with the findings of the review and with consultation held over a long period, that new strands be introduced. If they are to be introduced and if we are to attack religious discrimination or discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and if we are to afford equal protection to transgendered people as well, the case—strong in any case—for a merger of those anti-discrimination bodies becomes, frankly, overwhelming. The creation of three more commissions will mean that six different commissions will exist. The potential for overlap in their strands of work, and for duplication, waste of resources, misunderstanding and conflict, would be preposterous, so the Government's proposals in the Bill make obvious sense. I also very much welcome the robust and supportive terms with which the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk, greeted the Government's proposal to establish the commission for equality and human rights.
However, the argument for the new commission is not simply about minimising duplication. It is stronger than that, as the commission has multiple merits. It will have the opportunity to work as a champion for equality and human rights, and to provide a single focus for the articulation of the important message that we must change our society's values and culture.Moreover, the commission will be able to tackle the multiple discrimination suffered by many people. The tendency has been to think that people who suffer discrimination are, for instance, women, members of ethnic minorities or disabled, or that they have a gay sexual orientation. In fact, it is possible that a person might suffer from several different forms of discrimination and inequality. That person should be able to turn to what will prove to be a one-stop shop. The establishment of the commission will streamline the service and provide a single and unified source of information, advice and guidance.
That one-stop shop will be good for individuals, and that is important, but it will also be good for public authorities and private businesses. They will not have to consult a multiplicity of different pieces of legislation but will be able to take advice from one body. In due course, I shall say something about having a single piece of legislation in this area, but the commission will have the virtue of being the only body offering guidance. That seems to me to make a great deal of sense, and the argument for the establishment of the commission is therefore positive and powerful.
Secondly, I want to say something about the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. I welcome that, but it does not apply to discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. That is regrettable, but I suspect that the Government would argue that they cannot be expected to do everything in one Bill.
The Government may also take the view that such legislation should be adopted on the basis of slowly, slowly, catchee monkee. After all, outposts of prejudice, discrimination and diehard neanderthal resistance remain, and must be countered over a period. Everything cannot be done at once, but I believe that we need to get our ducks in order in respect of equality.
Stonewall has made the case for a similar prohibition of discrimination in the provision of goods and services to gay people. That is an intelligent argument, and I believe that the same case will be made again and again. I welcome what has been said about religion and belief, but we should look at extending the provisions. I am sure that my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk and for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) will echo that commitment. I look forward to the next Conservative Government having the opportunity to introduce a robust piece of legislation along those lines.
Thirdly, I want to say something about the duty to promote equality. As I understand it, that duty is to promote equality between men and women. It is extremely welcome, but it does not apply to people who suffer discrimination on grounds of age or sexual orientation. Therefore, if we are not careful and delay for too long, another injustice will be created. I warmly welcome the duty to promote gender equality. It is fair to say that some concerns have been expressed, not so much about what the Bill says on the subject, but about areas that are still uncovered and questions that remain unanswered. Specifically, I should like to elicit from the Government a comment on the harassment suffered by women. I know that the Equal Opportunities Commission has raised the matter. The elimination of harassment seems a fairly basic and prosaic demand. To my knowledge—I am not a lawyer, and I say that as a matter of pride—it is not provided for in the terms of the Bill. I do not know whether the Minister would be open to amendments on this front in Standing Committee, but we ought to be told.
Other issues related to the promotion of gender equality need to be addressed. I remember taking part in a stimulating debate in Westminster Hall on
Incidentally, in this context, tributes have rightly been paid to people responsible for the introduction of the legislation. Those tributes should properly be paid to members of the Government and officials who have assisted in the drafting of the Bill. At the EOC I pay particular tribute to Julie Mellor and Sam Smethers, who have done magnificent work in championing the cause over a long period. Some right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that I have taken a particular interest in the issue of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. In that context, I cannot think of two more persistent and effective lobbyists in any organisation in Britain than Ben Summerskill and Alan Wardle. Their work ought to be acknowledged and I hope it will be eloquently championed by Members in all parts of the House. The EOC has raised important issues, which I hope the Minister will address in her winding-up speech.
There is some concern in the EOC that sections 55 and 73 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 are not replicated in the Bill. There are specific powers under those sections that allow the EOC to review health and safety requirements as they can affect, for example, cases of pregnant women in employment. Similarly, I think I am right in saying from memory that section 73 of the Sex Discrimination Act gives powers to the EOC to pursue strategic cases against recalcitrant employers who persistently behave badly and then typically, as a commercial tactic, settle out of court before the heat in the kitchen becomes unbearable.
As I understand it, under present law, relying on the 1975 Act, the EOC has been emboldened over a long period to pursue cases. There is a concern that that power might not exist under the Bill. If that were so, notwithstanding the commitment that the Government have made to ensure a direct transfer of powers and functions, it would necessarily follow that the EOC would be in a relatively diminished position. I very much hope that that is not the case. The Minister might well be able to reassure me. She knows very well that I approach these matters in a non-partisan spirit, and I would go so far as to say that I would dance round the mulberry bush in celebration if she were able to tell me that my concern was unfounded. However, on the basis of a cursory perusal of the terms of the Bill, I think my concerns have some grounds.
Malcolm Bruce on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench repeatedly and powerfully made the case for a single equality Act, and I welcome his comments. We cannot entirely anticipate—it would be premature to do so—the findings of the equalities review and the discrimination law review. That said, we have a lot of evidence to study. There is a good intellectual argument for saying that if the work of a number of commissions is to be brought together into one commission, there is a certain logical coherence, if not inevitability, about having a single equality Act from which the powers, functions and, dare I say it, the comportment, culture and language of the new body should flow. I use those terms advisedly and with some force. The terms of the Bill are one thing; the way in which they are applied, the enthusiasm with which the tasks are embraced and the sense of understanding and rapprochement between the different equality strands are of the essence in translating aspiration into reality.
The hon. Member for Gordon made the point with some passion; I shall do so slightly differently. If memory serves me correctly, we currently have in equality and anti-discrimination legislation no fewer than 35 Acts, 52 statutory instruments, 13 codes of practice, three codes of guidance and 16 European directives and recommendations. I was not a competent mathematician at school, but I believe that that adds up to no fewer than 119 pieces of legislation or guidance flowing from this House or the European Union appertaining to equality and anti-discrimination. Given that an important part of the thrust of the motivation behind the Bill is to ensure that there is coherence, intelligibility, simplicity and focus in public policy, it seems that it is not wildly prescient but merely averagely discerning to suspect that the outcome of the equalities review and discrimination law review will be a commitment from the Government, whatever party that may be, to introduce a single equality Act.
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent and powerful case and I would like his advice. Does he believe that we should await the findings of those two reviews before moving forward to one consolidated piece of legislation, or would that be a mistake and should we move forward and set up the commission in the first instance?
My view is that we should proceed with the commission for equality and human rights. I do not believe that it is necessary to await the outcome of the reviews, because the proposal to introduce the Bill was decided on the powerful and compelling evidence of unsatisfactory practice before the decision to establish those reviews was taken.
The outcome of the reviews may be invaluable in informing the legislative framework and bolstering the effectiveness of the commission but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk and other right hon. and hon. Members know, there is a tendency to inertia under any Government or, alternatively and sometimes as well, there is a tendency to have too many pieces of legislation and too little time in which to introduce them. My strong preference is to press on with the Bill while we have the momentum.
Our support for the Bill should be unequivocal. I was extremely appreciative of what my hon. Friend said. He did not sit on the fence and there was no question of "on the one hand" and "on the other hand". He rightly expressed reservations from the Front Bench about specific clauses and asked sensible and proper questions, but his clarion call for decisive action could not be bettered by anyone in the House. I pay tribute to him for his commitment. Indeed, he and I have often talked about which of us is the modernising Conservative. I have always tended to say that I am and that I am seeking to persuade him to join me in that cause, but today he was superb. We are all modernisers now; we all want a modernised, successful Conservative party, in government after the election, with my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard as Prime Minister.
I want to conclude on an issue that has been touched on and which cannot be disregarded. It is business involvement—I use the term advisedly—with the new commission and business reaction to the legislation. There is a fine balance. Everybody these days talks about the importance of better regulation, light-touch regulation and sensitive regulation. I agree with that: my view is that regulation should be relatively light touch in the sense that it should not impede the successful operation of legitimate and fair-minded business. On the other hand, it cannot be so light touch as, frankly, to undermine the very purpose of, and rationale behind, the introduction of the Bill in the first place.
I started by saying, quite categorically, that I thought there was a problem and that it needed to be addressed. The notion, sometimes rather vulgarly popularised in the more down-market red-top tabloids, that prejudice does not really exist and is just the politically correct plaything of politicians of the left has to be decisively challenged and countered. That discrimination is there. Sometimes people suffer in silence because they do not know how they are to secure redress, do not think that they will be heard or do not know where to go. Discrimination and disadvantage exist, and we have to be prepared to tackle them.
What we cannot allow is a regime so minimalist that the noble aspirations of the Bill are not given effect in practice. It has to be light touch, but clear and firm. In the best spirit, I suggest to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, who, I hope, will occupy the Minister's post in a matter of weeks, that the principle that should guide public policy here is quite straightforward. The commission on equality and human rights, in dealing with businesses, should be the friend of the willing but uninitiated and the foe of the wilfully non-compliant and incorrigibly discriminatory. I cannot put it more simply than that.
I have often argued for exemptions from legislation for relatively small businesses. I do not think that that approach would work in this context. The point has been made, and rightly, that more than 99 per cent. of businesses in this country are small—more than 99 per cent. employ fewer than 100 people. They account for somewhat over 50 per cent. of the private sector work force, and last time I looked they generated well in excess of two fifths of our national output. In other words, most businesses are small. We cannot simply say in matters of equality, good practice and human rights that they are to be exempt from requirements that will apply to larger businesses and to public authorities.
We have a duty to try to ensure that we are sensitive, that we are not unduly adversarial, that we work with and try to bring the best out of agencies that are trying to do the right thing. But on the principles of equality, of respect and of human rights, there cannot and should not be a compromise.
I welcome the Bill, and I am pleased to have had an opportunity to speak in support of it. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk on his passionate and effective contribution to our proceedings.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. Bercow, who is the first and last of the great modernisers in the Conservative party.
I, too, welcome the Bill and I wish to focus on the measures aimed at tackling age discrimination, on which I have campaigned since I was elected in 1997. In fact, I was fortunate enough to be drawn ninth in my first private Member's Bill ballot and I introduced a Bill on age discrimination in employment advertisements. Unfortunately, the Government did not support it, but it did lead to the code of practice on age diversity, which has now become the Age Positive programme, so I am very pleased about that.
When I introduced that Bill in 1998, I remember the word "complex" being used about any issues to do with age. I also remember that when my hon. Friend Mrs. Roche was in the relevant position, she, too, used that word when speaking to the all-party group on ageing and older people—of which I have the honour of being secretary—about the Age Equality Commission Bill, which my hon. Friend Ms Atherton was trying to introduce in November 2001.
It is disappointing to me that age is the last strand of implementation of the EC directive on equality and employment; it is three years on from the other two strands that were required to be introduced under the directive. This Bill sets in motion the establishment of the commission, which will, at last, include age.
"most radical change in sex equality law for 30 years".
However, there is still no duty to promote age equality, when such a provision will now exist for gender, disability and race. The other main omission as far as the age focus is concerned is the protection against discrimination in goods, facilities and services, which I raised in an intervention with the Secretary of State. Part 2, which is quite extensive, extends the protection against discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. Why does the provision not extend to age? I know that the Bill cannot cover everything, but older people have even less time to wait than others.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a particular shortage of skills and expertise in several areas and that now is a good time to encourage older people back into work, to make use of the experience and expertise that they have? She has pursued the issue vigorously for many years. Does she agree that now is an opportune time, when unemployment is so low and there are so many job opportunities, to make a positive effort to get those people back into work?
I thank my hon. Friend for those comments; he is a man after my own heart on this matter. There is a great cohort of people in their later years who have a big contribution to make and, in fact, they outnumber younger people. Employers would do well to recognise the talents of those older people.
As I was saying, part 2 extends the protection against discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. Clause 56 mentions discrimination in advertisements, which returns us to the Bill that I tried to introduce seven years ago—but I was addressing age discrimination. Older people are demonstrably discriminated against in financial services, including insurance of all sorts, in travel, in car hire, in civic life, where magistrates and jurors have to retire at 70, and in social care, where people who are disabled and over 65 cannot apply for mobility and independent living allowance. There is discrimination in health care. I campaigned with Age Concern to extend the invitation for breast cancer screening to those aged up to 70. I think that the statistics still show that women between the ages of 70 and 74 are most in danger of contracting and dying from breast cancer. Also, I know that we are not within the jurisdiction of the Holy See, but cardinals over the age of 80 are not allowed to vote in the papal elections.
My hon. Friend says, "disgraceful". I just threw that in as a topical example of age discrimination, although not one in this country.
I hope that the discrimination law review, which is being mentioned by the Secretary of State and others, will assess how anti-discrimination legislation can be modernised to fit the needs of Britain in the 21st century and that it will examine those injustices.
My hon. Friend Mr. Pike alluded to the number of older people who could make a contribution. More than a third of our population is over 50, including many Members of this place and even more in the other place. Age discrimination in all its forms could affect all of us. The Bill takes a huge step in raising awareness of the need to challenge inequality and to promote human rights for older people.
My support for and belief in fairness and opportunity for all motivate me to serve my constituents and represent them in this place. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned basic moral beliefs as a defining principle. I am proud to agree, and I am proud that a Labour Government are introducing the Bill.
Like every Member who has spoken in the debate so far, Linda Perham made a helpful and thoughtful contribution to our proceedings. As she has done throughout her parliamentary career, she emphasised the particular concerns of older people. When one considers only the political merits of the measure, as some of us will be doing in the weeks to come, it is interesting that the emphasis has been not so much on older people as on some other aspects of discrimination. I make no qualitative judgment about that, I merely mention it.
What has struck me about the debate is that we are talking about an argument whose time has come. Its consequences are irreversible and that is much to be welcomed. It will be reflected on the slate of candidates that my party is putting forward, some in very winnable seats, at the general election. There will be much greater diversity on our Benches, which may translate to the other side of the House when we come back. I am delighted about that diversity. It is an index not merely of a party that has changed its views and habits but of a much wider national commitment to changes that need to take place. We all welcome them.
It would be difficult for a Member to come into the Chamber and say that they were against equality. I can certainly tell the House that I am not against equality, but we need to flesh out why we support it and the nature of our enthusiasm, as well as any qualifications that we may have. I am glad that the Bill has received universal support. A strong argument in its favour is that it has been highly consultative and there will inevitably, due to the election timetable, be more consultation to come. Had the Bill been introduced on the back of a bright idea from the Institute of Public Policy Research two or three years ago and rushed through as some legislation has been, it would not have commanded the same degree of authoritative support.
The Bill's support is also due to the considerable work that has been done in a process of dialogue with various stakeholders, including the three equality commissions. I think particularly of my experience with the DRC, to which Mr. Clarke was kind enough to refer earlier. I began as a sceptic about the DRC, but I leave this Parliament as an enthusiast for its achievements. Conscious of its special role, the DRC was undoubtedly sceptical about the move to a single equality commission, but those difficulties have been largely overcome. The EOC has expressed active and enthusiastic support for the Bill, as have many other non-governmental organisations that have written to us.
There is a further need to adjust our legislative base to incorporate all the unfinished business from the European directive, and to make effective and reasonably comprehensive—I stress the word "reasonably"—provision for the new strands of ageism, sexual preference and religious or other belief commitments.
There is also a need, although it is not wholly met by the Bill, to begin to set up the stakes for moving in an evolutionary style towards a harmonisation of the various approaches to discrimination in all its forms and to deal with the problems that have been mentioned about double, triple or quadruple jeopardy for people who may be discriminated against in a number of ways. Finally, and in no sense least in my book, there is a need to move the public debate on to give some teeth and force to the human rights agenda in its widest sense.
Those are all strong arguments in principle for the Bill, and I will say in a moment where I stand in relation to the introduction and timing of the Bill measured against other issues, but I must enter a degree of caution about overselling it. Indeed, I usually need to advise the Government against overselling their legislation generally. The Bill looks good. As I said, it would be a brave man or woman who came to the House this afternoon and said that they were against equality or against legislation to promote it, but the Bill is more about machinery than concept. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in introducing it was heavy on the concept—I genuinely agreed with her in an intervention—but, in fact, the Bill is about machinery.
Frankly, before the consultation process, Ministers initially ran into difficulties even with their own statutory bodies. I can remember some pretty blistering initial comments from the Commission for Racial Equality, and the DRC had familiar reservations. Those reservations have been largely resolved in the process to date, but the Bill is, of course, by definition, given the timing, only a demonstration of commitment. That is what we are hearing this afternoon. We all know that the real business is to come, and that there must be further examination, input, consultation and, of course, the parallel process of the studies to which Ministers have referred.
The questions rightly put by my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham from the Conservative Front Bench are always reasonable ones. Are the resources sufficient and appropriate? Is the new structure adequate to carry the weight for all the various strains and to represent the interests of those who are within those strains? Equally, is it possible to put together what has been an historic legacy of different commissions in a way that is as economic and cost-saving as possible, while providing equal convenience and service for users?
For example, the DRC has an excellent helpline. It is terribly important that that is continued and that the help is provided by people who are disability specialists. I am not too interested in one sense in the tokenism of the membership of the commission, although it is often useful in practice to include those who have direct experience of the difficulties and discrimination that people face. I am absolutely concerned that there should be a proper underpinning of expertise. Indeed, there was some historic concern from Northern Ireland, when the single commission was created, about whether those pockets of expertise were continuing. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston was right to remind us, as he so often does, about the importance of advocacy and supporting people in their concerns.
Much reference has been made already—in the case of my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow, magnificently from his own memory—to the very clear briefing provided by Stonewall about the ramshackle nature of the existing law. With all the different bits of law that apply—I think that he totalled them at 119—it is rather like a kind of Austro-Hungarian empire that has built up and is now applicable. Ministers are conscious of that; they have commissioned their own review of discrimination law, and a parallel study of equalities is being carried out under Trevor Phillips, and I welcome both of those.
I follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Ilford, North in thinking that there must be concern not just about the different bits of law, but about the fact that, even after the Bill, their application will still be very uneven. There will not be positive duties relating to age or sexual preference. Again, we must return to the fact that enforceability measures on human rights are weaker than those on discrimination. I did not think that the Secretary of State's explanation that addressing that might be rather bothersome and go too far was entirely convincing.
Leaving aside the issue of the duty on public authorities and focusing for a moment on the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the provision of goods, services and facilities, does my hon. Friend think that it is unfortunate that the cases of gay and lesbian people are not advanced in any way under the terms of that aspect of the Bill, given that considerable publicity has been given to the example last year of a gay couple who were denied the right to stay in a Scottish hotel—if I remember rightly—because of a bigoted and prejudiced proprietor? It is unfortunate that that aspect of the matter cannot be dealt with now, although perhaps it could be by amendment in Committee.
Yes, the short answer is that I agree with my hon. Friend on that, as I have when we have discussed the matter over several years. The issue must be considered properly in Committee. I say this neutrally without making a prediction about the general election. Over the years I have sometimes noticed that Ministers are unnecessarily timid, but can occasionally be encouraged to do the right thing with the assistance of a lively debate in Committee. Unfortunately, however, that is an unrealistic prospect today.
I have said this regarding disability discrimination, but I say it again now because it is still important. There is a need—I hope that the Minister's study of discrimination law will examine this—to consider the different forums under which redress can be obtained in law. Of course, there might be a single commission under the Bill, but there would still be different legal ways of obtaining redress depending on the nature of a case. The Minister will well know from our discussions on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 that even in education provision, special educational needs are dealt with by tribunals during the compulsory years, but anyone who complains of discrimination and is older than the compulsory age of education must have recourse to the county court. There are several examples from the past. A study by the Royal National Institute of the Blind showed the different results obtainable through employment tribunals under part 2 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1985 compared with those obtained under part 3 of the Act following discrimination in relation to goods and services. The Minister needs to examine carefully and critically how fairly people will be able to get their legal rights, even if those rights exist in legislation.
I must warn the House that special factors regarding disability do not apply to racial discrimination and arguably apply to a lesser extent to gender discrimination. I am thinking especially of the fact that questions of disability discrimination often hinge on the extent of adaptation and what represent reasonable adjustments. However, one can say quite simply that a person either is a racist or homophobe, or is not. There is not a question of accommodation, but whether people behave acceptably.
I welcome the interaction with the reviews about which the Secretary of State talked. I hope that they will go forward in a good spirit as promptly as possible. We all understand the point well made by Malcolm Bruce that we will need a single overarching legal framework in due course, which I readily concede. It may well be that the studies will coincide with the future reintroduction of the legislation, but, on reflection and partly stimulated by the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, I feel that it would be better to get on with establishing the commission now. There might be advantages in doing so—as a Conservative, I can see the argument for getting the commission up and running—but I say to Ministers, whoever they may be in future, that we must also make sure that the legislation that we enact now is fit for purpose and can be adapted to a new framework, and that ultimately we have a single, overarching, consolidated piece of legislation that everyone can understand and that can be explained in simple terms. At that point, we will have achieved what I believe is a common objective.
It is hardly surprising, given how much politics is in our mind at the moment, that we have discussed the various views and provisions in respect of human rights. Let me say neutrally and with no political intent that I want to see a little less political correctness and a little less legalism and a lot more delivery in terms of securing people's rights and avoiding discrimination. Before coming here, I gave a little thought to the questions what is discrimination and what are a person's rights to avoid it. It seems to me—here I emphasise the point that my hon. Friend made—that there is a proper place for legislation in terms of setting out people's rights, in part to punish defaulters and those who are not willing to play by the rules, and in part to drive good practice by giving management a reason, motive or excuse to do the right thing, while emphasising the strong business case for doing so.
I have argued that case in the House before, but I shall do so again now. If one is a good diversity employer and if one has an enlightened attitude toward people of different sexual orientation—or whatever—one is more representative of society and one's customer base, and people will come to one's store, bank or service industry because they are more comfortable about doing so. I think that the business case aligns quite closely with what I call, in shorthand, the moral case for these provisions. As has already been said, it is therefore especially important to ensure that, as well as leaders of industry, small and medium-sized enterprises are given active encouragement and support to do the right thing.
I agree with Helen Jackson that there is scope for more serious analysis of the underlying issues. We are not here because we think that lawyers feel uncomfortable with discrimination or because there is a European directive, or even because the Minister is moving the Second Reading of this piece of legislation. We are here because many of us—perhaps we Conservatives have made less of our commitment in this respect—are aware of the history of under-representation, in effect a denial of full participation in society. Examples include the lagging remuneration of women and the huge unemployment among disabled people—much higher than the average, despite the fact that many want to work. People face obstacles to their career, denial of some of their life chances and, as the Disability Rights Commission is reviewing, functional discrimination in relation to access to medical services. All those things happen. They ought to be a concern of the united commission and of this House. It is not just a matter of passing a piece of legislation that says we are all equal now. It is a matter of asking how unequal are we and what are we going to do about it.
My hon. Friend educated me in these matters some five years ago and he is therefore responsible for a good deal of what has followed. I have always been grateful to him. May I put it to him that the essence of our argument is that legislation of this sort is to be viewed not as a threat to be minimised, but as an opportunity to be grasped, because for individuals and for the country as a whole it makes sense socially, culturally and, indeed, economically?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He leads me on to my third point by way of general argument. Apart from the need to consider rights as a positive way of driving forward good business practice and apart from having regard to the pockets of functional discrimination that continue in this country and blight it, there is a general national need to conduct our affairs with decency and respect. The word "respect" has appeared in a number of places and it is right that it has.
I believe firmly in the idea of one nation. I do not want to see anybody left out or put upon. I believe positively that our society is strengthened and empowered by diversity. We should all have moved on from the stage of saying that we should not be nasty to one another to asking, "Why wouldn't it be a good thing if we realised what tremendous assets we have in people and made the best use of them?" Surely that is a perfectly proper approach.
If, in a sense, there is to be an overarching public duty, we could start profitably with clause 3, which provides general duties. Above all, however, public authorities collectively should treat citizens decently. That is what the European convention on human rights was meant to be about. I am not a lawyer but I understand that the convention was very much grounded in the British concepts, of which we are still proud, of common law and equity. It is about how we treat people properly. That is a great prize.
I am not sure how we can underwrite decency into public policy. I do know, however, as a constituency Member—I am sure that we have all had this experience—that people come to see us who have not been treated decently by the public system. There has been a distressing element of harshness, lack of communication, administrative failure or whatever. A Member often has to say, "I am sorry. The system has let you down. I shall try to rescue you from it." We can perhaps do something to improve both public law and public practice to make such an approach more a thing of the past.
Beyond that there are some private duties, which we have personally, in terms of our own moral ethic. There may be no way in practice that we can either achieve, or claim to have achieved, the removal of any discrimination or nastiness from our inner thoughts or our hearts. We cannot legislate for that. However, Government and public people can help both by their own example and the language that they use—for example in election campaigns—and by the way that they approach these issues. They can help also by achieving, encouraging and fostering a higher level of public debate and public education. It is clear that when people are educated, they behave better in relation to these issues than if they are not. If fear can be removed from the process, that is also positive.
I have spoken rather personally because I feel strongly about these matters. I welcome the Bill. I realise that it will not happen now but it paves the way for changes that are important and are already happening, and it reinforces those changes. The process is irreversible but so it should be. As this is part of a process in which we are engaged, I do not want to leave politics—I can assure the House that I am standing as a candidate at this election—unless and until our better instincts as a nation are fulfilled.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Boswell. I note with interest that the modernising tendency of the Conservative party is in great evidence, but the massively empty green Benches around the hon. Gentleman demonstrate that the enemy, if I might put it that way, in internal Conservative party terms has not really made an appearance today, which is a pity. It would have been interesting to hear from those Members and learn of their thoughts on a radical and welcome Bill. I am sure that those of us who are fortunate enough to be back in this place after the election will hear from them.
I congratulate the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality on introducing the Bill, and on the great deal of work on it that she has personally undertaken. I congratulate her and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the work that they have done as Ministers with responsibility for women and equality. Who knows what position anyone will hold when we get back after the election, but I would like to pay tribute to them now. Baroness Morgan initiated the move towards a single commission, and those of us who agree with that approach will want to put on record our thanks to her for that. The measures are now close to fruition, although this is perhaps more of a dress rehearsal than the opening night of a play. However, we shall just have to enjoy it for what it is, and anticipate the debates to come in the next Parliament.
I welcome the approach taken by the Bill. It has been commented on by many of those who have spoken today. It represents the modernisation of the way in which we regard equality legislation, and a move forward from the approach introduced by a great heroine of mine, Barbara Castle, who put a great swathe of anti-discrimination protections on to the statute book in the 1970s, ranging from the Equal Pay Act 1970 to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and by the former Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, to whom moving tributes were paid yesterday, who was responsible for the race relations legislation that accompanied that first generation of laws. Those laws made a big difference in what had been an area of great worry and narrowed life opportunities, in which people who were being subjected to prejudices and discrimination through no fault of their own found themselves without legal redress.
I am encouraged by the debate that we have had today. The time is now right to move on to a different generation of anti-discrimination legislation that seeks to prevent discrimination from happening in the first place—rather than offering redress after it has happened, important though that is—and to promote equality. That is a much more proactive approach which will prevent a great deal of distress and alleviate a lot of suffering by ensuring that the discrimination does not happen. That is what we all, as legislators, wish to see in Britain. We must move this legislation on to the front foot, so that it can prevent discrimination from happening rather than arriving after the mess has been made. That is not to say that redress after the event is unimportant, and when the Bill finally reaches its Committee stage, we shall look carefully at the enforcement powers of the new, and very welcome, single commission, to ensure that none of its teeth are lost in the transition.
It is also important to welcome clause 3, which sets out in very eloquent terms the fundamental duties of the commission for equality and human rights. I shall read out its provisions, because they really do say it all. It requires the commission to work towards the
"creation of a society in which . . . people's ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination".
That is an important aspiration, which has been shared across the House in today's debate. Clause 3 also requires the commission to ensure that
"there is respect for and protection of each individual's human rights . . . respect for the dignity and worth of each individual", and that
"each individual has an equal opportunity to participate in society, and . . . there is mutual respect between communities based on understanding and valuing of diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights."
I could not have put it better myself. I would be pleased to see such an aspiration and duty on the face of British legislation. It marks a shift away from trying to clear up the mess after the event through redress to trying to forge a different sort of society, in which mutual tolerance and respect is almost taken for granted, and is promoted and expected in all walks of life. I hope that that will apply equally in the private sector, where we have a little more to do.
I agree with the hon. Lady's point about prevention rather than redress whenever possible. However, given that there has been widespread flouting of the law on the minimum wage—an important Government policy—does she agree that one way in which to concentrate ministerial minds would be for the Government to give a commitment, which Conservative Front Benchers would echo, to an annual debate on equality issues on the Floor of the House so that evidence of breaches could be highlighted?
All attempts to raise the issues in Parliament, whether in Government time or in other ways, are welcome. When we ultimately reach a Committee stage, we might want to re-examine the Bill to ascertain whether to include further mechanisms in it. Given the good will in the House, at least today, I hope that we can find reasonable ways of realising that ambition.
Despite 30-odd years of anti-discrimination legislation, serious problems remain. The gender pay gap is approximately 18 per cent. on average, and is grossly higher in some sectors of the economy, especially financial services, where it is about 60 per cent. Members of ethnic minorities suffer from a similar gap, for which only their ethnicity can account, and it is as unacceptable as the gender pay gap. The House will consider the Disability Discrimination Bill tomorrow—thank goodness that will reach the statute book. However, people with disabilities are not even at the starting gate because many are denied the practical right to get to work, participate fully in society and make the undoubted contribution that their many talents would bring to it. We want the new single commission to assist us in dealing with those formidable problems.
I especially welcome the extension in part 2 of the goods and services protection on the ground of race. However, I echo the impatience that has been expressed in the Chamber today at the exclusion of what I call the orphan strands—sexual orientation, age and religious belief—which currently have no primary legislation. I suspect that we can put that right only through a rapid move to a single equality Act. My right hon. Friend the Minister knows that I have been pushing for that in the party—it is now official party policy—and in any other way that I can, including involvement in the all-party group and working with Lord Lester, who is a doughty campaigner on such issues. I promoted his private Member's Bill in this House after he managed to carry it in the other place. It is important to get on with this matter quickly.
I especially welcome the duty in the Bill to promote equality on the ground of gender. The Government promised to do that in 1998, but used the ominous phrase, "when legislative time is available". Some of us have fought since then to ensure that legislative time would be made available. We have not quite made it under the gate as it closes on this Parliament, but I hope that we will revert to it as a matter of great urgency in the next. I am encouraged by the response to my question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East—[Hon. Members: "West."] How could I confuse the Members for Leicester, West and for Leicester, East? I must be having a tiring day. I apologise to my hon. Friend Keith Vaz. I was encouraged by the Secretary of State's answer that we would proceed rapidly from dress rehearsal to the real thing at the earliest opportunity in the next Parliament.
It is interesting that the Joint Committee on Human Rights described the Bill in uncharacteristically enthusiastic terms as
"the most important measure for the advancement of human rights in this country since the Human Rights Act itself"
I am encouraged that there is enthusiasm for creating a mechanism to ensure that the rights of British citizens under the Human Rights Act are effectively safeguarded without the need for extremely expensive and cumbersome constant recourse to the courts. I know that other Members want to concentrate on that issue, so I will not pursue it. The fundamental duty of the single commission, however, is very welcome.
I agree with many of those who have said that we need a robust legal framework for the commission for equality and human rights to enforce. That brings us back inexorably to the case for a single equality Act, and the importance of ensuring that such an Act reaches the statute book as quickly as possible in the next Parliament, consistent with doing a good job on the drafting. To that end, I am extremely encouraged that the discrimination law review has been set up, with the equality review working in tandem with it, to begin to do the work on what the single equality Act will look like. It is important that that proceeds as quickly as possible so that the single commission has a coherent set of legislation to enforce once it is up and running.
It has been said that the existing anti-discrimination law in the UK is rather complex. Different figures have been given for the number of items—I think that Mr. Bercow had slightly more up-to-date figures than I have. I had a figure of slightly less than 100, but a few more statutory instruments and EU directives have probably passed me by since I last did a count. We can all agree, however, that people must try to find their way through a tangled, inconsistent, unpredictable, piecemeal and complex web—even when, as in the majority of cases, I believe, employers wish to do the right thing and ensure that they abide by the law.
Such a complex network of legislation and duties also makes it almost impossible for individuals who believe that they may have been discriminated against to find out, by examining the law, what their rights are, how they might access them and how they might protect them, unless they have the support of, say, a trade union or an advocacy group, which can teach them and point out what their rights are. Ideally, a simplified, harmonised approach is needed. We need an approach that consolidates some of the law that we have, but that also extends that law. As many Members on both sides of the House have pointed out today, there are some serious loopholes and inconsistencies in the law, which create a hierarchy of discrimination and protection from discrimination, which is unjustifiable when it is examined.
The existing law is under-inclusive. Those who are discriminated against on the grounds of gender, race or disability are more widely protected than those who are discriminated against in relation to what I have referred to as the orphan strands—the newer strands of sexual orientation, age and religious belief. As has been pointed out by other Members who have contributed to the debate, those of a certain age or sexual orientation may be actively discriminated against in the provision of goods, services or facilities, yet have no redress in law.
The present position is ridiculous. It is illegal for a landlord to say that he does not want a woman tenant or to prevent someone from becoming a tenant because of that person's colour, but it is not illegal to refuse tenants because of their age or sexual orientation. I cannot for the life of me see any justification for that. It must be put right as quickly as possible.
As I said earlier, we must shift the focus towards promotion and prevention rather than concentrating only on redress. That means restructuring some of our current laws. Our efforts to introduce a single equality Act must proceed in parallel with work that has already begun to create mechanisms for the enforcement of such a law, and the establishment of the commission for equality and human rights. I hope that in the next Parliament, in the not too distant future, we shall be able to enact both pieces of legislation. I welcome this dress rehearsal, and look forward to the real thing.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this important debate. I welcome the opportunity to give the Bill a Second Reading, especially as it takes place on the day on which a general election has been called. I shall be proud to campaign on the Bill, which focuses on the fundamental issue of equality and sends the clear message that it is at the top of our agenda, and I am proud that the Government have introduced it.
We know of the discrimination that still exists widely in nearly all spheres. The Secretary of State described it vividly, and I shall deal with some aspects of it later. First, however, let me congratulate the Secretary of State and her team on the hard work that they have done with various organisations to generate all this support for the Bill. I also congratulate the organisations involved, particularly the Equal Opportunities Commission. It helped the all-party sex equality group, which I chair and which has engaged in discussions on the Bill. I pay tribute to its relentless pursuit of the equality agenda.
I am very pleased about the review of all equality law. There has been a good deal of pressure for that from Members who are present today and from a number of organisations, and I am glad that the Government have responded. The current law is complex and inaccessible, and the mismatch of legislation is unacceptable. We have heard references to 35 Acts and to numerous statutory instruments, codes of practice and EC directives. It is impossible to continue with that legislative framework.
I especially welcome the creation of the commission for equality and human rights. Like my hon. Friend Angela Eagle, I felt very proud when I read the list of fundamental duties that it will have,
"with a view to the creation of a society in which . . . people's ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination", and providing that
"there is respect for and protection of each individual's human rights . . . respect for the dignity and worth of each individual . . . each individual has an equal opportunity . . . there is mutual respect between communities".
I am proud to be associated with those ambitions, and, like others who have spoken, I am very pleased that the Bill promoted equality rather than just picking up the mess. It is a proactive Bill.
The commission will carry out the work of the existing commissions on gender, race and disability and will work to prevent discrimination and promote equality in the areas of age, sexual orientation and religion or belief. I welcome the extension of protection to groups discriminated against on those grounds. I also welcome the extension of protection against discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the basis of religion or belief, but I would like such protection to be extended to cover discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or age, and to be extended to transgendered people. That issue has been referred to and the Secretary of State responded to it, but it is important that we bring those different strands together as soon as possible.
From a Welsh perspective—there is a distinct one—I welcome the fact that the commission in Wales will have greater autonomy than the commissions currently enjoy and will have an explicit power to advise the Welsh Assembly. However, I want an assurance that it will have a strong, devolved structure so that it can engage effectively in the context of devolution. I would be grateful if the Minister assured me about that when she responds.
I welcome the fact that there will be a separate Wales committee, which will be part of the new commission. It will set the agenda of the commission for equality and human rights in Wales, and it will take into account the fact that Wales is different from England. I hope that the Minister will respond to my earlier question about how that committee will be appointed.
The commission needs to acknowledge that there are specific circumstances in Wales that need to be addressed, such as the high number of small and medium-sized enterprises there. I agree with Mr. Bercow that those businesses should not be exempt from the legislation, but we need to address the equality issue with them in a sensitive way. The Equal Opportunities Commission has received a tremendous amount of lobbying from small businesses in Wales. We must not exempt them, but we must approach the equality issue carefully.
I want the commission to be properly resourced, so that there is adequate funding to address the issues in Wales.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about how the different situation that may pertain in parts of Wales should be taken into account when considering equality issues. However, I hope that she would not encourage too much divergence from the fundamental principles embraced in the Bill. Part of the advantage of having a separate Wales committee is that some of the work done in this area by the Welsh Assembly Government has been groundbreaking. Indeed, we might want such suggestions to be brought into play throughout the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention and I agree with the points that he made.
I want the commission to be properly resourced, so that there is adequate funding to address equality issues in Wales. The current budget—£70 million has been allocated to it—is, in the opinion of many equality organisations, insufficient to meet all the demands placed on it. I was concerned to hear from Conservative Front Benchers that the budget could be streamlined. In fact, the budget is probably not enough, and I hope that the Minister will address that issue when she responds.
A report by the EOC, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Legal Services Commission found that Wales was an "advice desert". There is only one law centre in the whole of Wales. Even if an individual can get advice, they may not have access to experts trained in discrimination law. Funding for training advisers in Wales is clearly needed, and we need to make sure that the Bill provides it. So there is much work to do in training people in Wales, and we must have a budget that is able to provide for that. There is also, of course, the issue of the Welsh language.
I therefore agree with the intervention from my hon. Friend Chris Bryant. We do not wish to diverge from the main thrust, which is the commission's covering the whole UK, but we must take into account the particular issues relating to Wales.
I also welcome the creation in the Bill of a public sector duty to promote equality between women and men. That duty will come alongside the existing race duty and the new disability duty, and I congratulate the EOC on its effective lobbying on this issue. In addition to what is covered in the Bill, I would like the elimination of harassment to be included in the gender duty, and I would like an assurance from the Minister that the gender duty will require public sector bodies to address unlawful pay discrimination, and to carry out the pay reviews that the EOC is promoting in its briefing for the Bill.
The pay gap in Wales is of particular concern, though on the basis of the figures provided by my hon. Friend Angela Eagle, it may be less than in England. For full-time women workers in Wales, it is 14 per cent. and for part-time workers, a completely unacceptable 32 per cent. A mandatory pay review would go some way towards addressing the problem, and I would like to hear whether the Government are prepared to go down that route.
I would like to raise the issue of the relationship of the new commission with the Children's Commissioner for Wales—it is a rights-based organisation—and with the new commissioner for older people, which we discussed in connection with a draft Bill in the Welsh Affairs Committee this morning. There is bound to be an overlap of functions and it is important to develop relationships between the bodies that cover the same issues. The draft Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill will, we were led to understand by the officials who gave evidence this morning, enact the first such commissioner in the world. The Bill's general aim is, among other things, to promote awareness of the interests of older people in Wales and to promote the provision of opportunities for, and the elimination of discrimination against, older people in Wales. We need to ensure that the two elements work well together and to avoid competing legislation. That will be part of the detailed work in Committee, which I hope will take place soon after we return to government. Tackling these issues should be one of our first priorities.
I would like to deal with some particular aspects of discrimination. We legislate for a purpose—to ensure that equality is promoted and honoured—and I believe that the Bill will help to eliminate sexism and gender discrimination, as well as racism and racial discrimination.
I also hope that the Bill will help us to deal with one of the most discriminated against groups in our society. I refer to the position of Gypsies and Travellers in this country. I am pleased that the Commission for Racial Equality is now working hard to promote the rights and needs of Gypsy Travellers. I hope that the legislation will help to ensure that adequate Traveller sites are provided in this country. Since the duty on local authorities was scrapped by the Leader of the Opposition when he was in government—he got rid of the Caravan Sites Act 1968—we have faced a difficult situation as to where Gypsies and Travellers are to stop. It has caused many problems for Gypsies and Travellers and for the local settled communities.
We all know that the policies of the market—Travellers were told that the market would provide and that they should buy their own land and get planning permission to set up their own sites—have failed miserably. It is very difficult for them to secure planning permission; indeed, the planning system rejects 90 per cent. of applications from Gypsies and Travellers. That has resulted in many illegal encampments, which then cause problems for local residents and are unacceptable for the Gypsy Travellers themselves. Currently, we face a no-win situation.
I believe that the Gypsy and Traveller community has cause to welcome the Bill. We know that these are among the most discriminated against groups in society. If the Bill means anything, we will have to tackle this issue and try to change people's attitudes towards Gypsies and Travellers. It is not easy to tackle it; we politicians find it difficult to do so. Sometimes I feel that we are discussing the Bill in theory, but at some point we have to face up to the existence of real discrimination and then do something about tackling it.
We know that Gypsies and Travellers have the highest rates of infant mortality, the worst health and the lowest levels of educational achievement in the country. A fairly recent MORI poll was commissioned by Stonewall. The attitudes survey showed that 18 per cent. of respondents felt "less positive" about members of other ethnic groups, while 35 per cent. said that they felt "less positive" about Gypsies and Travellers. I hope that the Bill will tackle that problem and will go some way towards providing equal opportunities in housing, health and education for Gypsy Travellers. It should help to stop the current highly unsatisfactory position, which is very hard on both Gypsy Travellers and on local settled communities. If we get back into government, that is one of the first issues that we must tackle. We must improve the situation for people who suffer such great discrimination, and for the residents who suffer the problems of illegal encampments.
For many reasons, I welcome this Bill. I hope that it will render George Orwell's dictum that some people are more equal than others a thing of the past. I look forward to a time when people of whatever gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation or religious belief can enjoy real equality and complete freedom from discrimination. I believe that this Bill is an excellent step in that direction.
I apologise for the fact that I was unavoidably absent for the middle part of this debate, although I followed proceedings with one ear as much as I could. I want to add my voice to all those who have spoken in support of the Bill.
The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 has been on the statute book for 30 years and, although the Secretary of State may not be aware of it, I worked very hard to ensure its success. I campaigned, lobbied, marched, wrote letters and attended endless meetings in its support, and it is good that the thinking on which it was based is being extended across society.
While I campaigned for the 1975 Act, in my heart of hearts, I hoped that it would eventually be repealed when we had succeeded in achieving our aims and objectives in respect of equality for women. It is sad that, 30 years later, we are still talking about it. I hope that it does not take another 30 years before our successors can repeal this legislation, which I believe will achieve a huge amount. It is part of the great tradition in which legislation is used to change cultural attitudes. Legislation has a real role in that process and I am sure that, in the long run, this Bill will ensure that discrimination is eliminated from our society.
I do not want to repeat what many have said already, but neither do I want the warm welcome that this Bill has received in the Chamber to end up with us being burned as we were by the Child Support Act 1991. All hon. Members will remember the heart-rending child support cases that we heard about in our postbags and surgeries, and we should be wary about a Bill that receives a similarly warm reception here. When the Bill is enacted, I am sure that it will be broadly helpful, but we must look at it with a critical eye to ensure that it does not cause the resentment and difficulties experienced with other legislation.
I am keen that the CEHR should succeed and hope that the Government are not contemplating a repeat of what happened with the Equal Opportunities Commission. I intend no slur on Manchester, but the EOC was rather banished from what might be called the centre of influence. My friends among the commissioners, and my own experience, tell me that the EOC was not as influential as had been hoped when it was established and I am sure that distance was one of the factors in that. I therefore hope that, when the new body is set up, it remains in the centre of influence, which is still London, although I accept that there should be a Welsh and a Scottish element to it because of the devolved Administrations.
It is crucial that the body works with the grain of society. Although there is a need to confront discrimination and prejudice, it is much easier to persuade a society to accept the changes that are required to deliver equality if people are encouraged to go along that route, rather than enraged or driven to take that route because resentment has built up. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell about the need to work with the grain of society, making sure that businesses, organisations and the community feel that it is in their own best interest to rid society of discrimination and to work towards equality because it would deliver a better society.
It is important that the new organisation is clear in its thinking. One problem with other equality bodies is that language has been developed that is all-encompassing and which avoids the issue in order not to offend. The problem is that the language itself is derided and people ignore or deride the organisation. None of us wants the efforts to abolish inequality to be undermined by language that invites mockery. We label it politically correct language, but in my view using such language often means avoiding clarity of thought. If we are not clear in our objectives and the meaning of the words that we use, we are likely to undermine our objectives. It is crucial that the CEHR is clear about what it wants to achieve and that it speaks in language that is readily understood.
Reading the explanatory notes, one thing that struck me was the general duty on the public bodies to ensure gender balance, with which I have no quarrel. That is not before time and I wish them all success in so doing. What slightly bothers me is how that is to be implemented—whether it will be implemented from the centre, whether public bodies will be subject to further quotas and targets, whether there will be costs to the bodies for the measurement of their achievements or lack thereof, and what impact those costs could have on the organisation, in terms of extra administration, and ultimately on the taxpayer or, in the case of local government, the council tax payer.
We are all well aware that council tax has risen steeply in recent years and that there is huge resentment of it. I would not wish legislation to be approved that added further costs to public bodies. It is encouraging that an organisation such as the Audit Commission is reviewing the amount of auditing work that it imposes on the bodies that it audits. I would hate to think that we were complicit in adding further costs, having just taken some away, particularly from local government. I would like the Minister to assure us that provisions to ensure gender balance will not give rise to extra costs and bureaucracy.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry that it is in the best interests of small businesses to maximise the quality of their employees. Labour Members discussed whether small businesses should be exempt from the legislation and I should be grateful to hear the Minister's thoughts on that and whether it is an issue for the equalities review. My hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham said that 90 per cent. of business is comprised of small businesses and that we must ensure that they are not overburdened or over-regulated. One million jobs have gone from manufacturing industry in the past few years and we do not want to put yet another regulatory burden on small businesses. We need to work with them so that they are encouraged to hire people and are not badgered and bullied into it.
Three organisations are being consolidated into one and there will be savings on premises. However, there will be overlapping expertise and the cost to the new organisation will be higher. The existing commissions believe that they do not have sufficient resources and it will be difficult for the Department to work out the balance, but we must ensure that, when the bodies are consolidated, duplication in obvious areas is winnowed out or efficiency will be reduced. No new body would want to be labelled inefficient from the start.
My final point is more personal. We have discussed the groups that we do not want to suffer discrimination, but I am concerned about the stigma that still attaches to people with mental health problems. When we discuss discrimination against people with disabilities, mental health disabilities are often overlooked. Society still stigmatises people with mental health disabilities more than those with physical disabilities. Will the Minister assure me that the commission's remit will cover mental health so that it can work with the broader population to alleviate people's fears about those with mental health problems? People who are mentally ill are capable of recovering because modern drugs and treatment enable them to play a full part in society. If that is achieved, a large group of people—one in five will suffer from a mental illness at some time—will have that stigma removed and be able to play a full part in society.
With those slightly cautionary notes, I wish the Bill well, but I also think that we need to look at it with a clear eye. There are pitfalls that we need to avoid before it passes into law, leaving us needing to change the legislation at a later date.
I am delighted to take part in what is probably the last Second Reading debate of this Parliament and which, because the Bill will not be able to complete all its stages, may well provide the first Second Reading debate of the next Parliament when we come back after the election. I have been in the House for 18 years, and I cannot recall such a good-tempered debate on an issue that used to cause great controversy. I remember debates on equality and race and community relations in which there was much anxiety and distress among Members on both sides. Certainly, that was so when we were the Opposition and the Government were Conservative. That has not happened today, and we have heard some excellent speeches on both sides. Three in particular deserve mention—those from the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)—and we have just had a speech from Mrs. Lait. I often vote for the hon. Member for Buckingham as Back Bencher of the year; I know that he did not win this year, just, and he cannot win every year, but I am sure that after the election I shall vote for him as the Opposition Front Bencher of the year, because I am sure that his hard work in Parliament will be rewarded by whoever is the next Leader of the Opposition.
What has been good about the debate are the constructive points that Members have put in welcoming what the Government propose to do in the Bill. We have needed a Bill of this kind for some time, and there is no doubt huge support for it outside Parliament. All of us have received a briefing note from practically every one of the organisations involved, and there is universal praise. When the Law Society agrees with Stonewall and the Citizens Advice Bureau with Age Concern, there must be something very right about what the Government propose.
There is all-party endorsement, although I am sorry that I missed the speech from the Liberal Front-Bench spokesman and most surprised to see so few Liberal Democrat Members attending; they often claim to belong to the party that speaks for equality, but they obviously do not feel that so strongly that they felt they should come here in large numbers, which is a pity.
As the Secretary of State said, equality is the defining issue of our age. I am proud to have been a member of the first multiracial Government in this country's history, and I am very proud of what the Labour Government have done since 1997 on equality issues. In a sense, the Bill is an emphatic underlining of the work that we have done and a pledge to continue it after the election.
A lot of tributes have been given to Ministers, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, who has steered the Bill through from the initial consultation period, but I particularly mention my Leicester colleague, the Secretary of State, for her work on the equality issue. I have called her the champion of equality. I share a city and a community with her, and we go to many community events together. Throughout her long career, and even before she came to the House through her work for the National Council for Civil Liberties, she has always championed the ethnic minority community and women's rights. It is therefore right that she should have introduced the Bill.
My concern when the Bill was published—a concern, too, of the black and Asian community—was that we did not want the Government to abolish the Commission for Racial Equality. We felt that this was not the right time to deal with the CRE on the same basis as the other organisations. I welcome the fact that a number of organisations that have never had a commission acting on their behalf, such as Stonewall and Age Concern, will be included, with all these other strands, but I felt, and the community felt, that there was a strong case for keeping the CRE outside the ambit of the new commission until it was ready to join. Ministers in this Government listened very carefully to what the community had to say. They accepted the points made by organisations such as the 1990 Trust, listened to the consultation that took place and heeded the wise words of the CRE chairman, Trevor Phillips, who will now be chairing the equalities review, and they accepted that this was not the right time.
On race, a number of issues had to be resolved and time was needed to ensure that that was done before the CRE became part of that whole. We therefore welcome the fact that late entry is being accorded to the CRE. That commitment has been warmly welcomed by the community as a whole. That does not detract from the fact that we need to get on and ensure that we have the single equality Act that we need to ensure that the Human Rights Act 1998 is very much a part of our everyday life in this country.
I know that my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird will be speaking next. There is no better advocate or champion of human rights legislation. She is much more experienced on these matters than I am, and I am sure that she will cover this point. When that legislation first became part of our domestic law, there were concerns about how it would develop. We all welcome it, and it has become part of the everyday life of our country; indeed, it is part of the law. It is right that the commission will recognise human rights issues within its overall ambit. Why have four or five commissions when we could have one commission on equality?
The other important point in this debate is the way the chairman of the commission and the other commissioners are chosen. I know that there is detail in the Bill and that we will have a chance to scrutinise it when it goes into Committee after the election, but it is important that we ensure that the commission properly reflects the community as a whole and the stakeholders in this new organisation.
The point made by the hon. Member for Beckenham is also important. I am not sure whether she was in favour of or against targets for public bodies. I think that targets are a very good idea. I recently completed a report called "Making Progress", which looks at Government appointments to quangos over the past five years with particular reference to the black and Asian community. The power of appointment is an extremely important weapon, and we need to make sure that we use it to put black and Asian people on to those committees, to put more women on to our quangos and to make sure that every group in society is properly represented.
The hon. Member for Daventry, a former Minister who, in government, had the opportunity to make a number of appointments, correctly talked about the huge talent that we have in this country. That is why we have a leadership role in equality and race issues in Europe. We are able to show by example—not by positive action but by merit—how our various communities, not just the black and Asian community, but women and all the other communities that make up Great Britain, have been able to contribute to the country. That is something that we can be proud of, but we need to go much further. Of course, jobs must be awarded on merit, but when the commission is formed, we must ensure not only that the commissioners are representative of society as a whole but, much more importantly, that people who have executive positions are also properly representative of society. That is happening with the civil service now; it is getting better. However, as the Secretary of State and the Minister of State have said in speeches on the issue, there is still so much more that can be done. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar is a rare example of a woman QC, but she was appointed on merit; she just happened to be a woman.
There has been much better progress in some Departments, especially in the Home Office. When my right hon. Friend Mr. Straw was Home Secretary, targets were introduced for the first time. In the Lord Chancellor's Department, now the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Lord Chancellor has made a huge effort to ensure that there is adequate diversity in the appointment of the judiciary—all based on merit. The basis of equality is to ensure not that we have positive discrimination in this country, but that every citizen has the right to be chosen on their merits.
On today of all days, when the Prime Minister has asked Her Majesty for a general election and Parliament is to be dissolved, my hon. Friend Julie Morgan made a good point: the Bill is a good campaigning issue. It seems as though there will be common ground, which is good for politics and for our country. If equality and race could be taken above party politics and become campaigning subjects across parties and across the political spectrum, that would be the way forward.
My final point is about location. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality may want to announce that the new commission will be based in Redditch, but what better place to house the new equality commission than the great city of Leicester?
Leicester, East is not yet a city. However, the architect of the legislation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, comes from Leicester and by 2010 the city will have more people of Asian origin than any city in Europe, and half our population happens to be women. It is a perfect location, so in supporting the Bill I put in a bid for the city of Leicester. If we spoke to the Secretary of State she might be in favour of that as well.
Even the members of the commission will have to relax some time. Redcar has a fantastic beach, so my bid is for the location to be further north than Leicester. However, I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend Keith Vaz, who gave such an amusing and knowledgeable address.
I welcome the Bill. I hope I do not sound like a pompous lawyer, but I should like to welcome it not just personally but as chair of the all-party group on equalities. We thoroughly congratulate my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, who are great champions for equalities, and in particular great champions of the rights of women.
The Bill is a huge and strong signal of the Government's commitment to eradicate discrimination and enhance the rights of all members of our society. It makes it clear that the Government understand, if I can put it in shorthand form, that we are all in this together; the pursuit of equalities is not a minority interest.
Almost equally welcome was the announcement in February of the equalities review, to try to identify the root causes of inequality. I hope and expect that Trevor Phillips can carry out a profound inquiry into the deep-seated, complex and subtle causes of the various inequalities that still limit the personal development of a large number of our citizens at a time—the 21st century—when that simply should not be happening.
Like most people, I also welcome the discrimination law review, which I hope will propose a single Act on equality. People are concerned about timing. The review is due to report in summer 2006, so if its proposals are clear, scrutinised reasonably quickly and accepted, by the time the commission starts in 2007 it may have the powers that it needs—the basis of equal law for all strands of inequality.
I repeat a point that has been made before: the current random selection of rights in equalities is unacceptable. There is a public duty for race and there is soon to be one for disability. We have suffered hugely as a gender from the fact that there has been no public duty for gender. That is, of course, in the Bill, but there is still no public duty to promote age.
Equally, discrimination in respect of goods and services on the grounds of race, gender, disability is unlawful. The Bill will prevent discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, but still not on the grounds of age. All those things must be smoothed out and recast to ensure that the new commission is not saddled with—I hope that I have in place the right grammatical structure—the oxymoron of a hierarchy of equalities.
I wish briefly to welcome two aspects of the commission: the equalities aspect absolutely unequivocally, and the human rights aspect strongly, too. The commission's equality duties, as set out in clause 8, are truly all that we could ask for. The commission must
"promote understanding of the importance of equality and diversity . . . encourage good practice . . . promote equality of opportunity . . . promote awareness and understanding of rights under" equality law, enforce equality law and
"work towards the elimination of" discrimination and harassment.
More prosaically but very practically, a huge advantage to having a single commission working together, even though the strands will obviously conduct their own separate work as well, is that it is not always possible to know the basis on which someone is discriminated against. If a 58-year-old black woman is refused a job, it is essential to have what Mr. Bercow called a one-stop shop to which she can take her problem. She should not have to guess why she has been refused the job inappropriately. She needs to go to an organisation that can pick her case, run with it and put right what has been wrong. So I am pleased with the equality aspect, and I am pleased, too, with the incorporation of human rights.
Human rights is a very dear issue to me. I pay great tribute to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I was briefly privileged to be a member of that Committee, but long after I left, it carried on its powerful work, which I firmly believe has played a large role in ensuring that human rights are part of the Bill and the commission. I strongly compliment my right hon. Friend Jean Corston, who has so very well chaired and led the Joint Committee on Human Rights and truly driven the human rights agenda in this Parliament in a way that is second to none.
The commission's human rights duties are not too bad either. The commission must
"promote the understanding of the importance of human rights . . . encourage good practice in relation to human rights . . . promote awareness, understanding and protection of human rights and . . . encourage public authorities to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998".
I give that four out of six, because I regard it as slightly weak in terms of enforcement.
I wish to express the devout hope that the commission will be instrumental in bringing about a human rights culture throughout out society. Equality teaches us that we cannot bring about a cultural change by piecemeal advances in rights that come about because of random cases that happen to go to court at any given time. The commission is necessary to drive human rights until they are rooted in our society, so that they become common values that we can use daily to frame and balance what Mr. Boswell talked about: the decent ways that we should deal with one another.
I want to express three perhaps mild concerns, given the temper of the debate. First, the commission will be able to pursue cases under human rights law where the case is brought on the basis of equality, but if the equality aspect of the case is dropped or somehow falls away, the commission must drop the case completely, unless the Secretary of State gives leave for it to continue on a human rights basis. I cannot think why it should be for the Secretary of State to make such a decision and why the commission cannot determine whether the human rights aspect of the case is good enough to continue in its own right.
My second concern, which I raised with the Secretary of State, is the absence of teeth in relation to the human rights side of the commission. It has no power to issue codes of practice, and no investigatory and enforcement powers. I appreciate what she said—that we do not want to overburden the commission—but I hope there will be an opportunity when we discuss the Bill again to consider increasing the powers that relate to the human rights side of the commission, because it is hugely important that human rights are not seen as a lower priority.
The third caution that I raise is the way in which clause 9 is framed. Not surprisingly, and entirely appropriately, it gives priority to promoting rights under the European convention on human rights, which is entirely as one would expect. However, I hope that the provision will not preclude the promotion of broader rights. For example, we are signatories to the convention on the rights of the child and the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. The specific rights in those conventions equally merit dissemination by the commission, so I hope that I can be reassured that clause 9 is not intended to limit the commission's ambit.
On the commission's budget, I wish to raise a rather different point from that made by Mr. Bellingham. I think the commission will have an annual budget of £70 million plus start-up costs. All three current commissions think that that will not be sufficient and reckon that a budget of £120 million would be closer to that required. Together they get approximately £50 million, so even with the efficiency savings of which Conservative Members understandably made much, the proposed allocation of £70 million would leave only £20 million extra to deal with the three additional strands of equality: the human rights remit, the expanded operation into Scotland, Wales and the English regions—that is an important point for someone with a north-east constituency—and the important requirements of the new commission's community functions. It is hard to see how £20 million more than that for the current three commissions would be an adequate sum.
Let me turn briefly to the points made by the hon. Member for Buckingham about the Equal Opportunities Commission's fears about what I call in shorthand "the missing powers". Section 55 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 currently gives the EOC the power to review discriminatory health and safety provisions. That is important when there is a requirement to treat women and men differently, such as the way in which pregnant women are treated at work. Section 73 of that Act allows the EOC to tackle persistent discrimination when an individual is unwilling or unable to pursue a complaint. It is important that the commission can take the matter to an employment tribunal, get a ruling and subsequently rely on that in civil proceedings. The power is useful and used frequently, but it is not in the Bill and I cannot think why.
Let me praise the gender duty. The Bill imposes a duty on all public bodies to have due regard to the need
"to eliminate unlawful discrimination, and . . . promote equality . . . between men and women."
What a wonderful turn of phrase, so hallelujah for it. The provision was promised in 1999 and has now been delivered by the Government. Women will be glad to hear of it in the advent of an election and will be increasingly glad as its impact starts to bite in the years to come. The duty will shift responsibility on to public authorities and they will have to ensure that they take active steps to promote gender equality.
Given the circumstances, the hon. and learned Lady is especially generous in giving way. Given the importance that the Government rightly attach to the duty to promote gender equality, does she agree that it is not too much to expect—either by amendment in Committee or through secondary legislation—a firm commitment to require pay reviews and action to counter pay discrimination not only in the provision of in-house services by public authorities, but in relation to contractors? When services are outsourced, action must be taken to ensure that those who service the Government operate by the standards that the Government apply in-house.
Three aspects of how the gender duty will impact on the pay gap need clarification. Presumably—I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will confirm this—public bodies will be required to address unlawful pay discrimination and carry out pay reviews. However, will the duty go beyond pay reviews and pay discrimination so that the kind of matters that the Women and Work Commission is starting to throw up can be examined? It has issued only a position paper thus far, but it has already found subtle ways in which the emergence of women into equal pay is being obstructed, although they can be remedied. As the hon. Gentleman says, the provision is necessary because although the definition of a public body covers any body that has functions of a public nature and the duty will therefore cover a private security firm that is contracted to provide a public function, for example, that duty will extend only to the public function, not to the whole of the private company. Consequently, the application of contract compliance becomes extremely important. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that that is what is anticipated and intended, although I do not expect much detail at this early and rather queer stage of the Bill.
I shall end where I started by giving a welcome to the Bill and a predictive welcome to what I think of as the single equalities Bill that will soon follow. In a few weeks' time, when Labour has been re-elected for an historic third time and that Bill is introduced, we will, with a straight face, have to say what we have said today all over again. Our re-election is an exhilarating prospect, whereas the repetition of this debate is a somewhat debilitating prospect, but I say of both: the sooner, the better.
I am in the peculiar position of agreeing with almost everything that everyone has said in this afternoon's debate, which is hardly the right atmosphere in the Chamber on the day that the Prime Minister has asked Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament. However, I disagree with Vera Baird in that I look forward to having the debate again, because some extremely important issues have been raised and although we have had plenty of time today to discuss them and we have heard some excellent speeches, it is worth re-examining them so that we can perfect the legislation before it is properly introduced in the House.
I agreed with much of what the Secretary of State said, in particular her remark that equality is a basic moral imperative—or words to that effect. I agree 100 per cent. and I think that all Members of this House do. It is not so long ago that that statement would not have commanded complete agreement within the Chamber, but it is now accepted that equality is a basic moral imperative and no party would argue differently. What is good about the proposals is that instead of being negative and designed to prevent discrimination, they are positive and designed to promote equality. I welcome that approach.
It is unfortunate that the Government have timetabled the Second Reading today, when the Bill has no chance of becoming law. What a pity that we did not use all those hours that we spent debating the rights and wrongs of fox hunting to consider this Bill, which, had it become law—in a slightly different form, having been through a proper Committee stage—could have done so much good.
I am confused, because Mr. Bellingham suggested that we delay the Bill until all the work had been done on the single equality Bill that must surely follow, whereas the hon. Lady wants us to have introduced this Bill sooner. Clearly, we all want legislation on the statute book as soon as possible, but I am confused about the Opposition Front-Bench team's position.
I am saying that it is a pity that the whole issue was not discussed sooner—not only weeks, but months or years sooner. However, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and her Ministers for much of the work that has been done on equality issues. We discuss those issues week after week, and much progress has been made, which I welcome.
Also welcome is my expectation that in a few weeks' time, when my colleagues and I are sitting on the other side of the Chamber—[Laughter.] Keith Vaz scoffs, but just let him wait. When we are sitting on the Government Benches, we shall have another debate of this type as a prelude to introducing our legislation on equality, to which we are all committed. Chris Bryant asked when that was likely to happen. All I can say is that it has taken the Labour Government eight years to reach this stage, but it will not take the next Conservative Government as long, because for us it is a priority.
My hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham put our case extremely eloquently. I reiterate what he said about the importance of the value of the work force and of fair and equal treatment. He put it so well, saying that what we are trying to do, if this proposed legislation were properly to be brought forward, is to encourage all employers to do what good employers have always done. At the same time we must not put unnecessary burdens on businesses and on employers, especially on small and medium-sized businesses. My worry is that if an employer knows that employing a certain type of employee—be it somebody with a disability, somebody who happens to be female or somebody from a different country—is likely to lead to a case being brought against them for some sort of unfairness, that employer, unfortunately, is likely not to employ that person in the first place. That would be a retrograde step. I do not want to see that happening because I believe passionately in equality of opportunity for everyone in the workplace.
Mr. Clarke is right in his plea for the need for strong advocacy in enforcement of the rules that would be brought forward by the commission. Any sort of legislation is meaningless without enforcement. I commend the right hon. Gentleman's patience and perseverance, having spent 19 years waiting to see the fruition of the work that he began a fair while ago. I am sure that he must be pleased to see a little step forward, and that much that he wishes to see happening will probably happen in the months ahead.
Malcolm Bruce made an interesting speech. I agree with his point about the importance of a positive approach and the need to promote a duty of equality rather than just to provide a right to complain in retrospect. He is right to promote sign language, which is what he called his personal soap box. It is so important but it is a much neglected area. I completely support what he has been trying to do. However, how strange it is that when asked how he and his party would implement what he was putting forward as being a reasonable idea, he said at the same time that his party would abolish the Department of Trade and Industry. The hon. Gentleman is a clever man and a quick thinker but he had no answer to the question. The truth is that he and his party know that there is no chance that they will be in Government to implement any of the things to which he is referring. He has no answer and he has not thought things through because he does not have to do so.
My hon. Friend Malcolm Bruce answered the hon. Lady. He told her that the Home Office was the obvious place from which to bring forward this sort of legislation. If she reads the words of Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who used to work for Roy Jenkins, she will find that it was a Department that was capable of bringing forward legislation of this sort in the past, and would be capable of bringing it forward in future. Possibly it is a failing of the Department of Trade and Industry that the Home Office is failing to recognise how important human rights are to this country. Perhaps if the Home Office had the connection with human rights, it would be the Department that might start to recognise and respect human rights.
The hon. Gentleman has had a few hours since the hon. Member for Gordon failed to answer the question, and he has thought up a really good answer. Perhaps he has worked out in the intervening period that his party might be trying to position itself in some form of coalition in the weeks ahead. That is extremely interesting. I commend him on trying to sort out a difficult situation. It might well come to that.
No. I never think that addressing a lady as a gentleman means equality. After all, a woman who seeks equality lacks ambition. The hon. Lady has been committed to these issues for many years, and she made a spirited speech today. I am sure that the whole House will wish her well in whatever the future holds for her.
My hon. Friend Mr. Bercow made an impassioned speech in which he referred to respect and used the excellent phrase "equality before the law". That is what this is all about. He and I have supported some slightly unpopular causes, and we have always been right; we are winning through. With his usual eloquence, he explained how the Bill could be improved, and I look forward to that happening in the near future. He asked the Minister an important question, of which I am sure she has taken note, about the obligations on public authorities in regard to equal pay. We look forward to hearing her answer.
Linda Perham has shown a consistent commitment to age equality. I recall the private Member's Bill that she introduced some time ago, about which she was extremely enthusiastic and on which she worked very hard. She made a good point today about the lack of a positive outlook on age. Mr. Pike intervened on her to point out that the work force needed older people, and that is true. However, we must also remember that, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made such a dreadful mess of the pensions system, older people often no longer have a choice about whether to work; many of them have to work because the pensions in which they have invested during the whole of their working lives have been plundered by the Chancellor's taking £5 billion per annum out of private pension schemes. Surely we therefore owe it to the older people in society who have been forced to work when they want to retire to ensure that they should not be discriminated against when they apply for jobs. Let us not forget that, while most of us can never change our race or ethnic origin and very few of us change our sex, we shall all change our age. It would be rather short-sighted not to look forward to the time when that happens.
My hon. Friend Mr. Boswell has been dedicated to promoting issues of disability, special needs education and equality for many years. He has committed himself to championing some unglamorous causes with his customary understatement and forensic accuracy. He is totally right to say that there is a business case for taking action. There is certainly a moral case for doing so, but there is also a business case. He also made some important suggestions on how the Bill could be improved, and I very much look forward to seeing him and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk introducing a new Bill when they become Ministers in a few weeks' time.
As the hon. Lady prepares for ministerial office, will she address the point that I made in my speech that it is important that the new commission should be located outside London? I put forward the view that Leicester would be an excellent place for it. Will she make an early commitment, before she becomes a Minister, to accept Leicester as the location?
Some of the new body's teeth are to promote human rights and the European convention in this country. Would the hon. Lady pull those teeth from the Bill under the leadership of Mr. Howard or would she keep them to promote the rights?
The Conservative version of the Bill will have all the teeth that the measure currently possesses. That is a reasonable commitment.
Julie Morgan has been committed to equality for many years and she spoke passionately about it. That also applies to my hon. Friend Mrs. Lait, who is right to make the case for small businesses and saving money. There is no point in putting three bodies into one if the costs increase. Creating one body out of three is the perfect opportunity to save costs; the public expenditure thereby saved could then be better spent on other things.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East was right to say that members of all sectors of our society must be given opportunity on merit but, sadly, some parties on the fringes of British politics do not agree. I hope that very few people cast votes for those parties in the forthcoming general election.
The hon. and learned Member for Redcar who is chairman of the all-party group on equalities, of which I am pleased to be an officer, as ever made an excellent and impassioned speech. We can all work together on the issue.
The Bill is correct, not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is good for the people of this country and our economy. We all believe in equality; let us go forward and try to achieve it.
I agree with hon. Members from all parties about the quality of our debate today. I should like to put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke, my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird and, for an intervention, my hon. Friend Chris Bryant. All have a proud record of campaigning for equality and against discrimination in the House, in our party and in their communities. I also put on record my welcome for the support from Opposition parties for the Bill, especially given that the measure is so ambitious, as Malcolm Bruce said.
The Bill needs to be ambitious because it aims to help nurture the sort of society that can meet with confidence the challenges of the future. We want a society in which, as the Bill makes clear in clause 3's groundbreaking fundamental duty, every individual can achieve their full potential and enjoy equal respect and dignity. We want a society in which every one of us has an equal chance to participate and contribute, and where our communities are strong, vibrant and celebrated as part of the essential fabric of modern Britain. The Bill is the latest step in the development of our equality and human rights framework. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says, it builds on the excellent work of the existing equality commissions, to which I pay tribute, and that of many other organisations that strive to make Britain a better place for all.
Despite the progress that we have made in the past 30 years, there is still too much evidence of persistent inequalities, whereby people's life chances are blighted because of who they are instead of enhanced by what they can bring to our workplaces, communities and civil society. Although our law has moved on, no institutions exist to enforce new regulations on sexual orientation, religion and belief—and, when they arrive, on age. Despite our historic human rights legislation, there is no institution providing advice on or promoting human rights. Individuals facing discrimination need to decide into which box they fit in order to get support, and employers large and small who want to do the right thing to tackle discrimination need to shop around for the right advice. The time is therefore right for a step change to meet those future challenges.
No, because I am short of time. I am sorry.
The single commission for equality and human rights will ensure greater impact, relevance, ease of access and coherence.
I want to try to respond to some of the points made about the commission. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough—to whom I also extend my best wishes for what I know will continue to be an active and, in the broadest sense, political life following her retirement from the House—made the case strongly for legislation to change culture. In particular, she argued that we need both promotion of the values of equality and diversity and sufficient enforcement powers to make a difference. I assure her that we have put in place the necessary teeth in terms of modern enforcement powers to ensure that the commission is able to do that.
In relation to individual cases, which were raised by Mr. Bellingham, funding will come from the commission for equality and human rights budget. At the behest of stakeholders, we have not set down specific criteria on which cases should be supported. That will rightly be a decision for the commission to take, and will be part of its strategic planning in relation to spending priorities.
I know that there is concern about rolling forward the provisions in sections 55 and 73 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. It is our intention that there will be no regression in the powers of the commission, particularly with regard to section 73. We are examining carefully what to do to ensure that that is the case. Perhaps I can write to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk on the point about freedom of information in relation to clause 6.
I want to respond, however, to the point made about the state of the nation report and the function of the commission to monitor equality. That is an innovative new duty to measure progress on human rights and equality. It is important, of course, that the commission gets it right. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk argued that the process should happen every year. In fact, we will need to take time both to gather evidence and to ensure that the right indicators are in place. That is why clause 13 provides for wide consultation. It is important that that process should not be rushed. I assure him that under clause 44, the commission will be able to continue an action started by one of the three existing commissions.
One of the important things about the commission will be the way in which it recognises the new nature of devolution in the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North raised issues in relation to Wales. I assure her that members of the Wales committee, while appointed by the CEHR board, will in practice be appointed in consultation with the National Assembly for Wales. Of course, the chair of that committee will be the commissioner with special responsibility for Wales, who will have been appointed in agreement with the Assembly. We will of course want to ensure that the commission works closely with both the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the older persons' commissioner for Wales.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston and others raised the issue of disability in particular. We have listened carefully and taken into consideration the recent history of development in relation to disability, not least the important progress made with the Disability Rights Commission. That is why we have made provision for a disability commissioner and disability committee. As my right hon. Friend said, many people in the disability world are now convinced and more confident that they will benefit from a commission that can not only give a strong voice to disabled people in determining progress on their legislation, which is right, but address cross-strand issues and be a more powerful and effective body.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East for his comments about the way in which the Government have tried to listen to the understandable concerns of black and ethnic minority communities, especially those represented by the Commission for Racial Equality, the 1990 Trust and others.
We have listened, I believe that we have addressed those concerns, and I can give my hon. Friend this commitment: we will continue to listen to those communities and ensure that they have a voice through the commission. I entirely agree that we must ensure that both commissioners and staff represent a model for the diversity that we feel should be promoted.
My hon. Friend wins today's prize for trying very hard on behalf of his constituency. I assure him that I will consider Leicester—at the same time as considering Redditch.
As for the important issue of the significance of the commission for business, Members are right: the CBI has welcomed the establishment of a one-stop shop where all the business expertise will be in one place. I take particularly seriously the need to ensure that small and medium-sized businesses can benefit from that. The opportunity to build up regional support and to use intermediaries is especially important.
Costs have been mentioned. I believe that savings will result from the combination of administration, property and other backroom services, but those savings must be ploughed back into front-line services. I therefore consider that £70 million—which builds on the £43.5 million currently being spent on the commission—is appropriate, given the commission's new responsibilities.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar and others rightly spoke of the importance of the commission's work on human rights. Human rights are about more than compliance, and the commission will enable us to take them out of the courtroom and on to the front line of public service delivery. That applies particularly to the promotion of public awareness, and to encouraging public authorities to comply with their obligations to undertake inquiries about human rights problem areas, give advice and intervene in cases. The commission must add value, however. My hon. and learned Friend mentioned additional enforcement powers, which we do not think would add value in the current circumstances. There is already a well-understood and well-used process for challenging alleged breaches of convention rights in courts and at tribunals. Nevertheless, like my hon. and learned Friend, I have no doubt that the commission will make a significant difference.
In the limited time that remains, I want to deal with what has been said about the development of harmonised legislation. It is because we recognise the need to consider our discrimination legislation in detail that we have set up not just the equalities review but the discrimination law review. That will enable us to create a simpler, fairer legal framework with a view to introducing a single equality Bill in due course. I know that many Members, especially my hon. Friends, will welcome that. Certainly the case was made strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey. However, I do not think that we should delay this Bill for that purpose.
Representatives of the new strands, in particular, think it important for us to make progress in giving them institutional support for the first time. The equalities review will enable the commission to begin its work with a proper understanding of where equalities persist, and the ability to make a real difference.
The Bill marks a step along the journey towards a prosperous and fair society. It is, I believe, a better Bill than it was when we began to plan and consult on it. Its scope is wider, its powers are stronger and it is more effective and relevant. It is a good Bill, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.