Orders of the Day — Equality Bill [Lords] — Order for Second Reading read.

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 21st November 2005.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality) 3:32 pm, 21st November 2005

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am pleased to open the debate on the Bill on behalf of the Government. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is disappointed not to be in the House, owing to unavoidable commitments connected with the UK's presidency of the European Union.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

Has the hon. Lady spotted the fact that religious equality takes up 36 clauses, whereas sexual equality has merely one? That is a shocking shortfall in a Bill about equality. Is she working on an amendment to put sexual equality on the same footing as religious equality?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend does not care about either.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

The hon. Gentleman answers for me. I ask Mr. Swayne to be patient, as I will get to those aspects later. If he takes the time to read the one clause, he will find that it is about sexual orientation.

The Bill is a key element in the Government's work on equality and human rights. It puts in place a new commission for equality and human rights that will support individuals, employers, service providers and public bodies. We are also examining the root causes of inequality and how they can be tackled through a fundamental review of equality in our society. Furthermore, we are reviewing the legislative framework concerning discrimination with a view to how it should be shaped for the future. The Bill and those reviews should be viewed in the wider context of the Government's manifesto commitment to bring forward a single equality Bill later in this Parliament.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Does the Minister share any of my anxieties that the creation of a huge bureaucratic quango is in danger of trampling on many of our much valued freedoms of speech or even—dare one say it—attitude? Is she not concerned that, even if enacted with all the best intentions, a Bill of this size and scope could create more problems that it will solve?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's anxieties on that, or anything else.

N

It's rarely been the practice of New Labour to trouble...

Submitted by Neil Richardson Continue reading

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I hope that hon. Members will permit me to make a little progress.

The Government have done more to promote equality and tackle discrimination than any previous Government. We have outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion and belief, and will do so next year for age. The Government have introduced the ground-breaking duty on public authorities to promote race equality, which has been followed by duties for disability, which are on the statute book, and for gender, which are being introduced by the Bill. We established the Disability Rights Commission. We have continued to extend the rights of gay men and lesbians, with the Civil Partnership Act 2004, in an important addition to which we are introducing powers to protect against discrimination in goods and services.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford PPS (Rt Hon Des Browne, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury

My hon. Friend is right to say how much work has already been done on gender equality and for transgendered people, as with the 1999 regulations. Is she prepared to take another look at that issue to ensure that transgendered people are included in the scope of goods and services, as outlined already?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. A number of people have raised that issue with me. Of course the Government are entirely committed to equality for transsexual or—as some people prefer to be described—transgendered people. However, there are a number of complexities. We have put in place the discrimination law review, about which I will say a little more shortly, and we think that that is the appropriate place to deal with that issue.

Those achievements add to the record of over four decades of the House tackling discrimination, beginning with the first race legislation in the 1960s, and the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act in the 1970s. It is, of course, 30 years this month since the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was passed.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Having enthusiastically supported the Bill on Second Reading on 5 April this year, I do not feel the need to weary the House with the same contribution all over again.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I may be on my own, but I happen to have the advantage of being in the right, which is not something that my right hon. Friend can boast.

May I simply tell the Minister that, in introducing the regulations to protect gay people from discrimination in the provision of services, facilities and goods, it is important that they be introduced soon, that they be comprehensive and that they do not contain get-out clauses that would provide licences for the continuing practice of prejudice?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes some important points. Of course, it is absolutely right that those regulations should be subject to a good deal of consultation and that we should get those issues right. That is one of the reasons why we want to take our time and why we did not want to proceed with amendments at this point, but have accepted an order-making power in the Bill.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs

Contrary to the mumblings among Conservative Back-Benchers, by which they seem to suggest that equality does not interest them at all, many Labour Members and a few Opposition Members are very grateful to the Government for giving way on the issue of goods and services for gays and lesbians—in particular, because many people in this country are already sick and tired of the fact that their general practitioners refuse to look after them because they are homosexual. That must surely be wrong, and we are grateful to the Minister for giving way on that issue.

P

I'm not so sure its wrong. I question the wisdom of obliging doctors to accept patients they don't want.

Submitted by Paul Mitchell Read 3 more annotations

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Of course such things are wrong, and they are precisely some of the issues that we hope to deal with.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I should like to make a little progress. I will give way soon.

We are also proud of what we have achieved in the area of human rights. The Government passed the Human Rights Act 1998—a historic step in bringing home the rights of the European convention on human rights and making them part of our domestic law.

The things that I am listing should not just be seen as combating unfairness, although that is certainly worth doing. Living in a country that values equality and human rights benefits everyone; it helps us to develop a better society. Equality is not a minority pursuit—although it appears to be among Conservative Members. We all have a stake in a successful society. For instance, if everyone is given the chance to participate in economic success on their own account or in a co-operative environment, wealth is created. Our country and our communities need the talents and the energy that each person has to give. Without those talents and energy, particularly if they are held back by bigotry and hatred, we are all diminished.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the Minister agree that hard work needs to be fairly rewarded? Will she have a look at the gender pay gap? Am I right in thinking that there is still a 16 per cent. difference between male and female salaries at the Department of Trade and Industry?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

The hon. Gentleman raises a point that I shall address later when we deal with the gender duty.

Many people in our society still do not have a fair chance in life. Prejudice and disadvantage continue to blight the prospects of far too many. We live in a world in which there are many identities, cultures and faiths, in which the patterns of family life are changing and in which changing demographic patterns raise important issues about the rights of older people. Those matters are not remote; they touch all our lives.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

As the Minister knows, Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill. Will she address a group of people who have not been mentioned in her speech: couples—one man, one woman—who have chosen not to marry, but have remained together for years as a partnership? Will such partnerships be recognised by the Government either through the Bill, or in the near future?

S

IF a man and a woman want to have their partnership recognised by the government, there is a way that they can inform the government of that partnership. We call it "marriage", and it can take fifty quid or so and 10 minutes...

Submitted by Sam Evans Continue reading (and 1 more annotation)

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

The Bill does not cover that matter. I understand that there are no plans at present to deal specifically with those circumstances.

Parents want their children to have a fair chance in life, whatever their race and gender, and whether or not they are disabled or gay. We all grow old and want to do so with dignity and respect.

Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I, too, welcome the Bill. The Minister touched on the discrimination that older people can often face in terms not only of their rights to employment, but of their access to goods and services. The Bill will not extend protection on goods and services to older people. Will she give us some sense of the urgency that the Government attach to extending such protection to older people and a timetable for achieving that?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

Issues of age are pervasive. Provisions on age in many aspects of our legislation affect not only older people, but younger people. We are examining the matter as part of the discrimination law review and intend to bring forward a Green Paper early next year. That will enable us to have proper consultation on such matters, which will lead to a single equality Act. I will say a little more about that later.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

I basically welcome the Bill, but I hope that the Minister can solve a mystery. She referred to the substantial review that the Government are undertaking on equality and discrimination legislation. I do not understand why they are not waiting for the outcome of the review before bringing forward substantive legislation. They seem to be putting the cart before the horse.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I thought that I was being asked to solve a mystery, but it is a bit simpler than that. The work that is going on to establish the commission will indeed take some time, as will work to examine the range of issues with which we expect the commission to deal. By bringing forward the Bill now, we can begin to move towards having the commission in place near the end of 2007.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Will the Minister ignore the siren—if majority—voices that are coming, interestingly, from Conservative Back Benchers, although they did not appear when we had this debate just before the general election?

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We were sound all round, so I am sorry that we seem to have regressed, at least in some parts of the House. Will the Minister give us an indication of how quickly the single equality Act, which will put the last pieces of the jigsaw into place, will come before the House? Some of us are anxious for it to appear as quickly as humanly possible.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I am very happy to ignore certain sounds from certain Benches. Obviously, we want to make as much progress as we can in moving towards the very important single equality Act, which is a manifesto commitment for this Parliament. I am not in a position to give a great deal more detail at the moment, but I will say more about the processes as I continue; and on that note, Mr. Speaker, I intend to make some progress.

Parents want their children to have a fair chance in life. Looking to the future, young minority ethnic workers will account for more than half the increase in the working-age population over the next decade. More than two thirds of additional jobs expected to be created over the same period are likely to be filled by women.

The Government are addressing those profound changes in society in many ways, including through the three elements of our equality and human rights programme. First, the new commission for equality and human rights will be a champion for equality and human rights, using its influence and expertise to deliver real and lasting change. Secondly, there is the equalities review led by Trevor Phillips, who is currently chair of the Commission for Racial Equality. We need better to understand the long term and underlying barriers to opportunity so that we can identify the most effective ways to improve outcomes for individuals. Thirdly, the discrimination law review will develop proposals for a simpler, fairer legal framework while taking full account of the need of employers and service providers.

The two reviews are part of the essential work that is needed to deliver on our manifesto commitment to bring forward a single equality act in this Parliament. It is essential to get the new commission in place quickly.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I need to make some progress.

The commission for equality and human rights will make a difference. It will act as a champion and influencer, putting equality and human rights on the agenda across society, and helping to ensure that fair treatment becomes the norm everywhere.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I will give way shortly, but I need first to make more progress.

The commission will reach out to all sections of society, through a duty to consult on its strategic plan. It will be relevant to all—no more pigeon-holing people by one characteristic—underlining the fact that equality is important for us all, not just for particular groups.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

In a moment. The commission will work for individuals, providing advice and support on all discrimination issues. It will map Britain's progress towards equality and human rights through a duty to produce a "state of the nation" report. It will look at the hard evidence of what has been achieved and what more needs to be done. It will help make communities better places to live in through its good-relations work, to build trust and reduce tension between different groups.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

I very much welcome the Bill, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that under clause 10, on good relations, there is no hierarchy of inequality and that, indeed, there is equality of resources going to the different strands? Will she therefore look again at clause 10 (4), where there is a clear indication that particular regard should be given to "race, religion or belief"? That is of great concern to many of the other strands—we understand why there is such a provision, but it looks like a hierarchy and there is concern about the allocation of resources.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The Government believe that it is enormously important to carry forward the innovative work in that area of the Commission for Racial Equality.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

Will the hon. Gentleman please wait while I answer the previous intervention?

We want to ensure that that work is carried forward, and we believe that it is enormously important that that be given some priority. Nevertheless, the purpose of a new commission that will work across a range of issues is not to identify particular budgets for particular areas. As I said, people do not have just one identity or one characteristic. For example, we know that white working-class boys currently do not do well in education, and that might well be an issue that the commission will want to consider. So in that respect, there is not a hierarchy, although there is provision for the duty to which my hon. Friend referred.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman; he has been very persistent.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Shadow Minister (Defence)

I confess that I have not followed the passage of the Bill through the House of Lords as closely as I should have done, so will the Minister help me? She says that the Bill will make things simpler, but will she also explain how much money will be saved for taxpayers and from the lessening of bureaucracy as a result of one body taking in three commissions?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

The hon. Gentleman raises the important issue of the commissions coming together. Even though there are three existing commissions, some areas currently have no institutional support; for example, there is no such support for human rights, sexual orientation, religion and belief, or age. Moreover, and as I just pointed out, white working-class boys do not necessarily figure so far as the existing commissions are concerned. This is a question of equality, which is why we are bringing the commissions together. The overall budget will increase—[Interruption.] It will increase because we are taking on additional responsibilities, which we believe is the right thing to do. Our consultations show that this is the correct way to proceed.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I shall make a little more progress before taking more interventions. I am very pleased that there is such a lot of interest in this issue.

The new commission will give Britain a body dedicated to supporting and protecting human rights for the first time. It will have specific powers and duties to advance a human rights culture based on respect for individual rights and the worth of each person.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

If the hon. Lady will be patient, I want to make a little more progress.

Bringing equality and human rights together will help us to provide better protection for the most vulnerable in our society, such as elderly people in care homes. The commission will encourage compliance and good practice by public authorities with obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998, thereby helping to make fair and decent treatment the norm.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I want to make some progress.

Such efforts will help to bring human rights out of the courtroom and into the fabric of public services.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the Minister for giving way. Will she consider including in the Bill an explicit reference to children, and does she agree that without such a reference, there is a danger that any such organisation might ignore children's needs and rights, or give them insufficient attention?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I do not agree. Children are people and this Bill is for all people. It is important that they be considered along with everybody else, so I would resist including a specific reference to children. It is enormously important that clear guidelines and procedures be established for the commission's working with the children's commissioners. We expect that to be achieved through memorandums of understanding.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Given that, to judge by past experience, the commission will put a considerable amount of effort into dealing with employment issues, and given that one concern is dispute resolution, we will need the commission to include people with experience of such issues. Will my hon. Friend therefore consider extending to the new commission the existing commissions' practice of having experienced people from both sides of industry? Such people also have wide experience of discrimination and prejudice issues. I hope that she will continue that practice—an idea for which the Bill does not currently provide.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

My hon. Friend raises an issue of detail, and I should be grateful if she held on to that thought until I come to the relevant part of my speech, as I am about to do. First, I give way to Mr. Howarth.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have to say that, as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Scot, middle-class male heterosexual, I feel that we are increasingly becoming the persecuted who might be in need of protection. The Bill is nothing if not the ultimate manifesto in political correctness. She said that it will apply to public authorities. Can she explain why, for some obscure reason, this place, the other place, the Security Service and the authorities of both Houses are exempt from all this absurdity? Does that not undermine the whole case for this absurd and ridiculous Bill, which should be consigned to the dustbin now?

N

Hear, hear.

Submitted by Neil Richardson Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I am enjoying this more than I expected to; the Conservatives' arguments are indeed interesting. The Bill's application to public authorities is a matter of detail and if the hon. Gentleman, to whom I was extraordinarily polite, can hold on to his question, we can consider it a little later.

I now turn to the detail of the Bill. It comes to this House following thorough scrutiny in the other place. During that process, the Government showed that they were willing to listen to proposals for improving the Bill, and to amend it accordingly. I have already mentioned a key example—the inclusion of a new part 3, which provides a power to make regulations prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Other important improvements include strengthening the independence of the new commission; integrating more closely the commission's duties and functions in relation to disabled people with its duties and functions in relation to other groups; and bringing provisions in part 2 on religion and belief more closely into line with existing legislation. Part 1 establishes the commission for equality and human rights and defines its purposes and functions, including its enforcement powers. It will build on the achievements of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, which have worked tirelessly to keep equality issues high on the policy agenda. Through their work, they have made real and practical differences to people' lives.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

Is the Minister aware of the criticism of Lord Ouseley in the other place, who says that it would be possible for the commission to be an all-male, all-white body? That is most unlikely, but the Government should address that structural problem. The Minister said that she wanted to advance existing race equality work, but is that not best done by a race equality committee and a race equality commissioner?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

Again, my hon. Friend has anticipated something that I shall deal with shortly.

The Commission's general duty set out in clause 3 sums up our equality and human rights vision—to encourage and support the development of a society where everyone can achieve their potential unlimited by prejudice and discrimination, where there is respect for the dignity and worth of every individual, and where there is mutual respect between groups based on the understanding and valuing of diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Will the Minister comment on the fact that in the past 10 years the Commission for Racial Equality has faced about 20 claims of racial discrimination from its employees, some of which have been settled out of court with taxpayers' money? Does she think that that record justifies using even more taxpayers' money to bolster that organisation?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

The hon. Gentleman should read the Bill's provisions more closely.

Clauses 1 to 7, together with schedule 1, establish the new commission and set out provisions concerning its constitution, membership, planning, consulting and reporting arrangements, as well as other internal machinery. Schedule 1 provides for at least one commissioner to be a disabled person, and for a disability committee to oversee the commission's disability-specific work. The disability committee, which will be subject to a review under the Bill, will build on the work of the Disability Rights Commission and will reflect the unique aspects of disability law including, for example, the requirement to make reasonable adjustments. The schedule also specifies that there must be commissioners with special knowledge of Scotland and Wales, and committees to steer the commission's work in Scotland and Wales. That is right for modern Britain, where the devolution settlement recognises the different social, cultural and political contexts of those countries. The Government want to allow the commission as free a hand as possible in the way in which it structures and organises its activities, which was an issue of concern in the other place.

Turning to the issue raised by my hon. Friend Harry Cohen, the Bill gives the commission complete discretion to establish committees and delegate functions to them as it sees fit. It can establish committees to provide a voice for specific groups, to bring in specific expertise, or for any other purpose. It is better for the commission to make those decisions, rather than impose committees through the Bill. Clauses 8 to 12 set out the commission's duties in relation to equality and diversity, human rights, and good relations between groups, as well as its duty to monitor the law and undertake a regular equality health check for Britain.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

Is my hon. Friend aware of the sad death of Charles Smith a week ago? He was a CRE commissioner and a Gypsy who fought endlessly for equality and human rights. Will my hon. Friend ensure that Gypsies have a voice on the new commission?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

My hon. Friend raises an important matter. Indeed, I was aware of the gentleman's sad death and pay tribute to the work that he did.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

The appointment of commissioners needs to reflect the whole range of equality issues. Regardless of what some Opposition Members seem to believe, I repeat that equality is an issue for everyone. We need a balance of commissioners who take into account a range of issues, such as trade unions and employers. Specifying individual commissioners in the Bill might prevent the commission from covering the full range of equality issues that we want it to cover.

I will give way to David T.C. Davies for his persistence.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I thank the hon. Lady. Whatever else we may say, she has certainly been generous with her time. Does she acknowledge that one of the failings of the Commission for Racial Equality has been its presumption that the only people in our society who are racist are white? Will the successor body to the CRE take action to eradicate the racism and prejudice that are clearly present among the black, Asian and Muslim communities, and also acknowledge that white people are occasionally the victims of that racism?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

Again, the hon. Gentleman takes me away from the specifics of the Bill.

Clause 10 places the commission under a duty to promote good relations, work to eliminate hate crime and encourage participation in society. We recognise the significance of the commission's good relations role with race and faith communities and have ensured that the commission for equality and human rights will be required to consider the particular importance of that. This reflects the need to build on the pioneering work of the Commission for Racial Equality in this area. It also enables us to underpin our commitment to support the important local race equality work carried out by the network of racial equality councils and others.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

I am grateful to the Minister, who is indeed being generous. I hope she is now being treated equally in the Government and being paid for what she is doing. In the other place, an amendment was moved and carried by some 90 votes to remove religious harassment from the Bill—a very wise move. Can the Minister give the House an assurance that the Government will not seek to re-insert that?

N

Nice one, your lordships.

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

If the hon. Gentleman is patient, I will come to that shortly.

Clauses 13 to 19 set out the commission's general powers to publish information and give advice and guidance, arrange for research and promote compliance with the law. The commission will be able to issue statutory codes of practice and conduct general inquiries into equality and human rights issues. Clauses 20 to 32 set out the commission's enforcement powers. These are based on those of the existing commissions, with some modernisation and increased flexibility. The remainder of part 1 sets out the provisions for transition from the existing three commissions to the new one.

In part 2, clauses 43 and 44 define religion and belief, and discrimination. Clauses 45 to 54 generally set out the prohibitions on discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities, services, premises, education and public functions. General exceptions are at clauses 55 to 63, and the rest of the part deals with enforcement and other matters.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been astonishingly understanding. Are we really to understand that public organisations such as our own are to be excluded from the Bill? It is always better to lead by example, rather than by exception.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I shall return to it shortly.

At present, case law under the Race Relations Act has seen protection against discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services, and in education and the provision of public functions, extended to Jews and Sikhs, but to no other faith or belief groups. This inequality of treatment is not right, and the Bill corrects it.

Part 2 was thoroughly debated in the other place, and a number of significant and helpful amendments were made. For example, in clause 44, the grounds on which discrimination can occur were clarified, and in clause 52 provisions were made against discriminatory practices. The exception for the immigration service in clause 51(f) was narrowed in response to comments from the Joint Committee on Human Rights and others. There was considerable debate, in particular, around issues connected with education. I am sure these important provisions will enjoy both the robust scrutiny and the support of the House.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The Minister has been extremely generous in giving way. A few moments ago, she referred to the importance of tackling hate crime. Given that there have been several instances, including a number of relatively well publicised cases, of musical lyrics urging the assassination of gay people, and that in each and every one of those cases no action has been taken, does she think that the existing law is adequate, and if not, what does she propose to do about it?

D

A very relevant question!

Submitted by Dr Peter Bowen-Walker

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. It is important to deal with hate crime, wherever it occurs. Hate crimes from which people with disabilities suffer were debated in the other place, and we must tackle them, too. The Bill does not seek to do everything in relation to equality—it is a further step along the road. The discrimination law review, on which a Green Paper will be introduced early next year, will enable us to consult much more widely and begin to consider all the issues in detail with a view to introducing a single equality Bill to tackle a range of issues and bring all our discrimination law into one place, which will make it much simpler to access for individuals, organisations, companies and public authorities.

Sir Patrick Cormack raised the issue of harassment. Hon. Members know that the one point on which the Government were defeated in the other place involved an amendment that removed harassment on grounds of religion or belief from part 2, the effect of which is that the Bill no longer prohibits harassment on the grounds of religion or belief in the exercise of public functions, housing or education.

We have considered very carefully how to respond to the debates in the other place and that vote. We remain convinced that it is important to act against harassment on the grounds of a person's religion or belief, particularly in the provision of public functions and the other areas that I have mentioned. We are committed to the development of sensible proposals to combat harassment in its different manifestations across the range of equality strands. However, the strength of feeling in the other place, the current work of the discrimination law review in fundamentally examining issues of inequality and discrimination, and the subsequent opportunity to reintroduce the provision before Parliament in a single equality Bill have persuaded us not to seek to reintroduce those provisions in this House at this time. We will continue to consider the detail as part of the discrimination law review before making further proposals. I hope that the House will join me in recognising the principle that it is important to act against harassment on grounds of religion and belief, as many people do not feel that the current arrangements adequately protect them.

N

We all disapprove of certain forms of hatred (except isn't it good to hate evil?).
What chills me to the bone is that 'Hate Crime' is surely a New Labour coinage that is so very close to George Orwell's 'Thought Crime'.

How can a government criminalise a disposition of thought?!

Submitted by Neil Richardson Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Will the Minister explain why the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 does not provide a sound basis for dealing with those issues?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

The hon. Gentleman has introduced a level of detail to which I am unable to respond at this point, but I will try to obtain a response for him.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

As I raised the subject, may I thank the Minister for her response? I urge the Government to consult widely before they tackle the subject in any future Bill.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is our intention through the discrimination law review.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell (Also PPS To the Chairman of the Party), Work & Pensions & Welfare Reform, Parliamentary Private Secretary To Francis Maude and Shadow Minister for Work & Pensions and Welfare Reform, Conservative Party, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack on the wisdom of the course that the Government have taken, which has clearly caused genuine disagreement. In the spirit of the discrimination law review, which is being conducted in-house at this stage, will the Minister confirm that she welcomes representations from, for example, hon. Members on both sides of the House and others, which will allow those representations to be fed into the review at an early stage, because I agree that it is important that the review come up with a series of balanced and defensible findings?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

Of course I am always happy to receive representations that seek to take us to law that effectively does what we want in preventing harassment. The views of hon. Members and many people outside Parliament are important in these matters.

I want to deal with the question of why there are certain exclusions in discrimination law. It is sometimes necessary to ensure that legislative measures are not fettered by public duties to promote equality and that the important work of the security and intelligence agencies can continue effectively.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I need to proceed, because many hon. Members want to take part in the debate. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman stays he will have an attentive audience.

I turn to the new part that was added to the Bill during Third Reading in the other place. The Government have accepted amendments to provide a power by which the Secretary of State may make regulations that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services or in the execution of public functions. We recognised the widespread support in Parliament and beyond for these measures, and continue to be firmly committed to the provision of comprehensive rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. This change in the law is another important move, among many taken by this Government, towards that aim.

Part 4 contains provisions that prohibit public authorities from discriminating on grounds of sex when carrying out their public functions and place on them a duty to promote equality of opportunity between men and women when exercising their functions. That will lead to important changes and may be the biggest advance since the passage of the 1975 Act itself. It complements the duties in respect of race and disability that are already on the statute book.

Although the Bill is not intended to deal comprehensively with all equality issues or all discrimination law, it is another major step towards a society where every person has a chance to achieve their potential, not limited by prejudice and discrimination—a society that is based on the enduring values of respect, dignity and fairness, which we all share and which form the foundations of British society, and where groups and communities are able to live side by side with mutual respect and understanding, not fear, ignorance or hostility.

These are important issues that we must address if Britain is to face the challenges of the future with confidence. The Bill will help us to do that. The time is right for the Bill. The Government moved swiftly to introduce it following the election because it ran out of time in the last Parliament. There is a great deal of support for the Bill across the House and among the many groups outside the House who have a detailed interest in its provisions. Equality and human rights are important to everyone. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland 4:12 pm, 21st November 2005

I welcome the Minister to her first Second Reading debate in her ministerial role. She puts her points eloquently, even where I do not agree with her, and I am grateful to her for doing so. I am also grateful to her for listening patiently to many of my hon. Friends. I think that we are going to have a lively debate.

I pay tribute to the many outside bodies that we and the Government have consulted on these matters. The Equal Opportunities Commission, the Disability Rights Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality have worked hard to refine the contents of the Bill, as have the Christian Institute, Stonewall and Age Concern. We have considered their views carefully; I am sure that the Minister has done the same.

The Bill has been considerably refined and improved by many of my noble Friends and other Members in another place, particularly Baroness Miller and Baroness O'Cathain. Lord Alli and Lord Rix also made terrific contributions, all of which will inform and improve our debate.

In general, the Bill has good intentions and we support it. However, as some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, like all good intentions, the Bill must be refined and implemented in a workable fashion. When it goes into Committee—I hope hon. Members will decide that it should—we will have many detailed questions to ask and suggestions for improvements to make, and I hope that the Minister will consider them positively.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird PPS (Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Secretary of State), Home Office

As the Member who leads the Conservative party's support for the Bill—and who did so historically—is not the hon. Lady as upset as I am by the Neanderthal comments from Conservative Back Benchers? How does she cope with the yobs at the back?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird PPS (Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Secretary of State), Home Office

I am sure that there is not a single yob on the Back Benches of the Conservative party.

N

:-)

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for withdrawing a question that I cannot answer.

I hope that the Minister will consider our reservations positively. Any criticism that Conservative Members make is meant to be constructive because we want the proposals to work. To command the widespread support that is necessary for that, the Bill must fulfil four specific conditions.

First, the new body—the commission for equality and human rights—must be cost-effective. I am worried about the Government's estimate of its running costs. The Minister said that they are likely to be £70 million per annum—almost 50 per cent. more than the current cost of the three bodies it would replace.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I withdraw the "almost 50 per cent."; let us stick with 43 per cent. The cost will be 43 per cent. greater than the current cost of the three bodies it would replace.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point but she forgets the economies of scale of combining those organisations. With economies of scale, the cost almost doubles. Why will that happen?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I thank my hon. Friend, but of course I had not forgotten the economies of scale—I am about to deal with them. Why is there such a significant increase in cost? We all know that when the Government or any other body estimate a cost, it almost always increases in reality. I therefore suspect that when we examine the measure in two or three years, my initial 50 per cent. figure will probably be nearer the mark than 43 per cent.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

My hon. Friend's comments are important, but something else is even more important. The new body should be credible and earn respect. If it is to achieve that, is not it important that it does not appear to be meddlesome on the side of those who would remove Bibles from lockers and do silly things that would bring it into disrepute?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

My hon. Friend is right—he must have read page 5 of my speech. We will get there in due course. Cost is only my first point; there are many others.

We understand that the new commission will have additional powers and duties and that a balance must therefore be struck between the economies of scale of bringing together the administration of the three bodies under one roof and expanding its remit. I strongly welcome the fact that the new body will deal with discrimination on the ground of age, sexual orientation and religion or belief as well as race, gender and disabilities, which the current bodies cover.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I hope that she will continue to be robust with the reactionary tendencies on the very back of her Back Benches. She is making a case about the increase in funding. In addition to the three strands that have traditionally formed part of the pioneering anti-discrimination legislation of the 1970s, we now have four more. Are not the increases in funding therefore entirely in order, to enable the new protections that are being extended to many of our citizens to become a reality?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

The hon. Lady makes a point about arithmetic, but none of us can prove the arithmetic until we see exactly what the new body will do, and exactly how the economies of scale will work in bringing the three existing bodies under one roof. It makes sense to bring all the aspects under one directing body, especially as many instances of discrimination relate to more than one of the six categories, and I totally support that plan. However, when we do the arithmetic, the necessary increase in funding—taking into consideration economies of scale and the expansion from three aspects to six—will surely not amount to 43 per cent.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

Increasing the commission's remit and bringing in the additional four strands will lead to an initial increase in costs, but the new quango will need only one information technology department, one human resources department and one new public relations department. Surely that is where the savings could be made. Far from making savings, however, the commission's budget will almost double.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Yes, I would have thought that savings could be made in those areas, and that they could be offset against the increases that will be necessary to bring in the other three strands.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack raised a perfectly fair point about the need for the commission to establish credibility. Does my hon. Friend Mrs. Laing agree that, in its dealings with individuals and organisations, the commission should be guided by a very simple principle, namely that it should be the friend of the willing but uninitiated, and the foe of the wilfully non-compliant and incorrigibly discriminatory?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. His poetic way of expressing his view is excellent, and I hope that he will forgive me if I steal his words to use in future discussions—[Interruption.] The Minister seems to suggest that she might do the same.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

Notwithstanding the hon. Lady's point about costs, is not there a strong case not only for a London committee, but for the commission's national base to be in London? If we do not want a situation in London similar to the one that we have seen recently in Paris, the commission will surely need to be on hand and active in London, and able to lobby Ministers here.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I understand why the hon. Gentleman is standing up for London, and I am sure that that matter will be discussed at a later stage. If I were the Minister, I might be able to give him an answer on that point, but sadly I am not.

The Government will have to go a lot further to justify the proposed increases in the cost of the new body. This is all taxpayers' money, and it is the Government's duty, when spending it, to consider that, if that pot of money were not spent on the administration of the new commission, it could be spent on education and training, for example, which would give more opportunities to all kinds of people in all parts of the country. I am sure that we shall return to the issue of costs in our further consideration of the Bill, and I hope that the Minister and her colleagues in the Treasury will give the matter serious consideration.

The rules and regulations imposed by the Bill must not put too many burdens on business, especially on small businesses that do not have human resources departments to deal with them. I cannot emphasise this point too strongly. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire rightly said, it is important that the new body—and all that it stands for—commands respect. If the new provisions are seen to be disproportionately bureaucratic and overbearing, all that will happen is that employers will find an excuse not to employ women, disabled people, people from ethnic minorities or gay people in the first place. Reasonable employers who have an unreasonable fear of expensive litigation will find a way round it. They will not risk having a case brought against them, so the Bill's good intentions will backfire. I do not want that to happen, so the balance must be kept reasonable.

Thirdly, the new provisions must not be seen to interfere in people's lives where such interference is unnecessary. I am pleased that my noble Friends have succeeded in removing the clause relating to harassment on grounds of religion or belief. We all want to see an end to such harassment. No one wants to see harassment on any grounds whatsoever, but the end that the Government rightly sought to achieve will not be achieved by enacting overbearing legislation that would have had unintended consequences.

In all that we do in considering the Bill, it is vital that we preserve the distinctiveness of traditional groups, organisations and institutions of any religion or belief from any part of the country, representing any sector of our society. That distinctiveness is absolutely essential. There was a danger that that might have been lost under the Bill as originally drafted. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said a few moments ago, displaying a subtle and peaceful symbol of a religion, be it a necklace with a cross or a seven-branch candlestick at the back of a room, or playing traditional Indian music at a gathering, must not be allowed to be interpreted as causing offence to someone of another religion. That is going too far and would make the legislation backfire. So I am pleased to hear from the Minister that the Government do not intend to reintroduce the relevant clause to the Bill, but I am also pleased that the matter will be considered at greater length under the review, because it is a complex matter that deserves deeper consideration.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

My hon. Friend is right about the complexity and the need for greater reflection, but she will notice that in relation to part 3 the harassment provisions remain within the Bill, and it is within the Minister's power to make regulations. Surely that is not acceptable.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In principle, it is acceptable to try to enact legislation to stop harassment, but I intend to look at the matter in great detail in Committee, because we must be careful that the provisions relating to preventing harassment do not have unintended consequences.

Will the Minister now give me an assurance that the Government will, in their further deliberations, protect the distinctive ethos of groups, organisations and institutions throughout the country? Perhaps when the Minister replies she will give that serious consideration. Every group, society or institution should be allowed to have their distinctive ethos, and we do not want, in the name of equality, to destroy distinctiveness.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Like the Minister, my hon. Friend has been extremely generous in giving way. Is she aware that reputable bodies such as the Christian Institute feel that, if we are not careful—I choose my words carefully—some of the Bill's proposals could create a situation where one has freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion and for religion?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

My hon. Friend makes another good point. I mentioned the Christian Institute and its consideration of the Bill at the beginning of my speech. Many of the unintended consequences were dealt with very well by Conservatives and others in the other place. I am sure the Minister will be pleased to hear that we will deal with the issue in more detail in Committee, when I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend said.

I mentioned the excellent work done in the other place. I am also very pleased that the Government have accepted the amendments relating to discrimination in the provision of goods and services on grounds of sexual orientation. It is only logical to give those who might be discriminated against on such grounds the same rights as other groups, and I commend Stonewall for its reasonable arguments in that regard.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Does my hon. Friend accept that there should be exceptions for religious groups?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Of course there should always be exceptions. Laws without exceptions are not good laws.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

In the interests of fairness and equality, I will.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

When we consider exceptions, what is important is scrutiny of the parliamentary process. However, one clause in part 3 effectively hands over the entire legislative process to a Minister, in the form of regulation-making powers, thus denying the House the opportunity properly to scrutinise a very sensitive and technical issue.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

We shall have to look at every word of the regulations if and when the Government attempt to introduce them. We shall have to be very wary. I certainly intend to be.

My fourth point is that the Bill must not be seen a merely another vehicle for political correctness. People are fed up with political correctness. I do not want my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), or my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth, to feel persecuted. Political correctness gets a bad name, and law made in the name of political correctness alone is bad law.

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Labour, Livingston

Can the hon. Lady give a definition of political correctness?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I possibly could, but I might have to write a book. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall use the phrase in its usual sense for the moment.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I have given way a good deal. If I do not make more progress others will have to make much shorter speeches, and I am looking forward to hearing what Members on both sides of the House have to say.

As well as not being merely for the purposes of political correctness, the Bill must not become merely a charter for lawyers by creating rights and causing more litigation. A litigious society is not a harmonious society. I want the Bill to result in a harmonious society, not a litigious society.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

The hon. and learned Lady is a lawyer, and so am I, so I will give way to her.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird PPS (Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Secretary of State), Home Office

Is not the purpose of the commission to take the emphasis away from individual cases? Attempts to achieve equality can be very haphazard. Someone who is wronged must have the money and the courage to keep going—those elements must coincide—and once the case has gone to court, the outcome will not be widely published. Is not the point of the Bill to reduce litigation and generate a culture of equality?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Yes, it is. I was about to make that point. For the sake of brevity, I will not repeat it. The hon. and learned Lady has made it well. That is the whole point. This Bill is not about creating more work for the courts. It is not merely about being politically correct, but about creating a different framework where disagreements between employer and employee or any other parties can be sorted out without resort to litigation and without going so far on the political correctness agenda that we take rights from people to whom we want to give rights. The Bill does not deserve to be interpreted as being merely politically correct, but we must fight to protect it to an extent from itself and from those who would push its provisions too far.

It is 30 years since the Sex Discrimination Act was passed and it is very disappointing that we still need to introduce more legislation to try to enforce it. I appreciate that today we are talking not only about sex discrimination but about five other strands and indeed the general issue of discrimination. I welcome that, but one would have thought that we might have made more progress than we have in 30 years. However, I do not support the campaign for equality only because it is altruistically correct, which it undoubtedly is. It is also economically imperative.

I was struck by something that the Minister said last week. I do not think that she repeated it this afternoon, so let me repeat it for her. Unusually, I am quoting her and agreeing with her. She made an extremely important point:

"Maximising women's skills in the economy could bring economic benefits worth up to 3 per cent. of GDP, which equates to the total value of UK exports to Germany"—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 10 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 192WH.]

That is an enormous amount. At the moment, our GDP is failing by that 3 per cent. because women are not working to the full extent of their abilities. If that is the case as far as women are concerned, there can be no doubt that a similar proportion of people from ethnic minorities, gay people, older people, younger people and disabled people are contributing far less to the economy and to society than they might if only we protected them and gave them the opportunities they need.

We as a country are missing out economically as well as socially because we do not encourage all our citizens to contribute to their highest potential. That is shameful. Therefore, we should support the Bill today not just because it is altruistically correct and equality is a good thing, but because it is an economic imperative. The suffragists would not have succeeded had it not been for the changing economic circumstances after the first world war.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

No, I do not mean suffragettes; I mean the suffragists. They would not have succeeded had it not been for the changing economic circumstances after the first world war. Equality legislation will not succeed now unless it is recognised that there is a good economic case for its success, which there is.

I hope that today's debate will open a few eyes and that the Minister will seriously consider those four concerns as the Bill progresses: costs, burdens on business, unwarranted interference in everyday lives and overplayed and unnecessary political correctness. I will raise them again in Committee.

Equality is a bit of a misnomer for what we are considering today, or at least it is shorthand for a much wider issue. We all want to see equality of opportunity for everyone, but the essence of a free society is that people are not equal because each individual is different from every other individual, and we much respect that diversity.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I want to finish, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.

I want to see every person in Britain today being encouraged, first, to use his or her talents and abilities to the very limit of their potential; and, secondly, being allowed to live their own lives as they wish, while respecting the right of every other citizen so to do. In trying to achieve equality, we have no wish to make everyone the same, but simply to allow everyone to be different and to encourage, understand and support that diversity. I would say that that is not much to ask of a decent and civilised society.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 4:40 pm, 21st November 2005

I welcome the support of Mrs. Laing, who spoke from the Conservative Front Bench, and, as I often do in such debates, I wish her well in dealing with her recalcitrant Back-Bench colleagues. It is good to know that at least some parts of the Conservative party understand the importance of the anti-discrimination agenda. Unfortunately, not all Conservative Members believe that discrimination is wrong and their behaviour at the start of the debate was extraordinary. That saddened me, as I had thought that progress had been made when we last debated the Second Reading of this very Bill in the dying days of the previous Parliament. On that occasion, the chorus of, how shall I call it, antediluvian chuntering and reactionary chatter on the Conservative Back Benches was absent, and it is a great pity that that element has turned up today.

Conservative Front Benchers should be supported in their attempts to change the views of their Back-Bench colleagues, but on the basis of today's evidence, the hon. Member for Epping Forest has a long way to go. I wish her well—[Interruption.] She supports the Bill and Labour Members welcome that. That said, she wants to starve the new commission for equality and human rights of the funds necessary for it to do its job properly, especially in respect of establishing new strands of work to enshrine equality in terms of human rights, age, sexual orientation and religious belief. That task would be a challenge for any new body and I certainly believe that the suggested funding allocation is the minimum necessary to ensure that the single commission gets off to a good start.

The Bill is most welcome and it has improved since its introduction in the dying days of the last Parliament—not only as a result of events in the other place, but when the Government realised that they could extend the scope of the Bill in certain necessary respects. The Bill sets up a new commission for equality and human rights to take forward equality work and enforce those new rights.

It is argued that extending equality protection to the majority of citizens in this country somehow sets the scene for us all to be the same, but the Bill is about protecting people from the adverse effects of overt discrimination and extending those rights from the three strands covered by the previous Labour Government to include two new strands. That is to be welcomed. It is not about uniformity or creating some false equality. It is about giving positive protection to sections of our citizenry who have never been afforded it and who have faced overt discrimination day-in, day-out of a type that has been outlawed in terms of other groups of people. Two obvious examples of that are, first, the extension of protection against discrimination in the supply of goods and services to people on grounds of their religious belief and, secondly, in respect of sexual orientation. The latter category was included as a result of the Government's decision in the other place.

In reality, that means something very simple: once this legislation is enacted, it will be illegal for people to be denied a hotel room, or access to a service such as hiring a car, simply on the grounds of their religious belief or sexual orientation. That has surely got to be right, and I do not see how any Member of this House could possibly object to it.

P

"Antediluvian chuntering" - what a great insult!

Submitted by Paul Mitchell

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Well, an objection might be about to be made.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

I entirely agree with the provision, as the hon. Lady has just enunciated it. What I do not understand is why it is included in the Bill in respect of religion, but is to be achieved by order-making power in respect of sexual orientation. I regard that as wholly unacceptable.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

This legislation is a welcome patch job, which will be put right by the single equality Bill, which I hope will be introduced soon and will add goods and services protection across legislation more coherently than at present.

The hon. Gentleman will know if he reads his history that current equality legislation is a patchwork of provisions that has been created piecemeal over the years. That is why we need the process of consolidation and entrenchment that the single equality Bill will give us when it is finally enacted. Protections will then be enshrined in legislation, as they should be. However, I welcome the decision to protect immediately against discrimination access to goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation, as otherwise it could take two years or more for such protection to be offered. This measure is entirely appropriate in the circumstances.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting

Is not one of the reasons for urgency in this regard the outrageous behaviour of Tory Bromley borough council, which is depriving its citizens of the right to celebrate civil partnerships? Is that not one reason why the Government have done the right thing by bringing this provision forward now, rather than by waiting for the single equality Bill?

D

I fully agree with you here.

Submitted by Dr Peter Bowen-Walker

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I agree, and there are many other examples of gay people being blatantly denied access to goods and services that others take for granted. It is right that this House takes a stand, and puts a stop to that.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Mr. Khan has made a perfectly fair point about Bromley borough council and I agree that its attitude is to be deplored. However, to ensure that we maximise cross-party agreement, can I make the fair point that, by contrast, Kensington and Chelsea borough council has done the decent thing?

In respect of taking this matter forward, does the hon. Lady agree that, in terms of exemptions, people should not be able to use the possession of religious belief as a cloak behind which to continue their practice of prejudice?

N

That is so scary. Millions of people around the world, if the not the majority, are religious. The majority of these (e.g. all devout Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Christians) believe in sincerity and in all charity, from the authority of their scriptures, that homosexual practice is wrong, and an inappropriate use of the human anatomy. If we disagree with John Bercow about what is right and wrong,...

Submitted by Neil Richardson Continue reading (and 8 more annotations)

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I certainly agree, and I am more than happy to have cross-party consensus, at least with the hon. Gentleman, on this issue. However, perhaps he should talk to the hon. Member for Epping Forest. In what was otherwise a good speech, she said something that worried me a bit; when she was talking about political correctness, she said that she supported goods and services protection on the grounds of sexual orientation, but with exemptions. She did not specify the circumstances in which she thought that exemptions from that protection would be acceptable. That is clearly an issue for debate in Committee, but I would be interested to know what she thinks they are.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I am sure that we will consider this matter at length in Committee. However, let me explain the exemption I have in mind: a small hotel with two or three rooms should not be treated in the same way in legislation as a large central London hotel with 100 rooms that is part of a hotel group. In forming legislation, we must respect those upon whom a duty lies, as well as those to whom rights are given.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am sorry to hear the hon. Lady say that. I do not see why there should be an exemption in that case. It is hard when people are refused a hotel room simply for being a gay couple, when it is currently illegal for an ethnic minority couple to be refused a hotel room. I am sad to hear the hon. Lady's comments and I do not agree with her.

Today, Labour Members should celebrate our record on equality, not only in this Government but going back many years. On a day such as this, I think of our women pioneers.

N

Because skin colour is not a choice, whereas sexual behaviour is. It's a simple fact that in the vast majority of cultures, in the vast majority of history, homosexual practice has been considered to be immoral. Why should hoteliers be forced to deny their conscience on this?

Submitted by Neil Richardson Read 9 more annotations

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Following the point made earlier, if one forces somebody to do something that is entirely against his or her principles is not that making another victim? Is not outlawing victimisation what we are really about today?

N

Absolutely.

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

That is an issue for Committee, but it is currently not legal to deny somebody a hotel room because they are black. We have just commemorated with sadness the passing of Rosa Parks who demonstrated that principle powerfully. I do not see why similar provisions should not apply on the grounds of sexual orientation. It is a simple matter of human rights.

I wanted to recall the Labour pioneers who did so much to bring us to this point. In political life, we rise on the shoulders of our pioneers. I think of women such as Ellen Wilkinson, otherwise known as Red Ellen or the Mighty Atom, who led the Jarrow march and was the first woman trade union official to battle for equal pay in the 1920s. When she came into the House she showed many people what a fantastic Member of Parliament she was. She worked in this sphere long before we were born.

I think of Jo Richardson, our first shadow women's Minister when we were ridiculed for even thinking that there should be such a post. She did much work in opposition to prepare the way for the agenda of change that we brought naturally to government. I think of Barbara Castle, whose Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and Equal Pay Act 1970 paved the way and showed the future, bringing us the most enlightened protection against discrimination in Europe in the 1970s.

That legislation has stood the test of time but it needs amending to become more effective so that we can move on. The gender pay gap has been cut from 31 per cent. in the 1970s to 18 per cent. That is still too high, but it is nevertheless an improvement. We need to remould our anti-discrimination and protection laws, and the Bill paves the way for us so to do by introducing preventive measures in the duty to promote gender equality. I should like those provisions extended to the private sector where the problem is much worse than in the public sector. When we look at the pay gap on a sectoral basis we find that it is 60 per cent. in the financial services industry, but less than 10 per cent. in the national health service. We need to consider how to address the problem of both the gender pay gap and the race pay gap, so that we can prevent discrimination rather than compensating people after they have suffered discrimination. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for women and equality is engaged on that work and she follows a long line of doughty, famous women whom Labour hold in great respect.

Many of us attended Mo Mowlam's memorial last night. She put women and equality at the centre of achieving and solving the problems of that difficult place, Northern Ireland. We can learn many lessons from the way that anti-discrimination legislation was developed in Northern Ireland, which have resonance in this country. I think of all those women as I congratulate the Government on making the progress that we see today.

N

We have arbitrarily decided (or at least the political elite have decided) that sexual behaviours, no matter how deviant, are in the category of human rights and equality, along with skin colour, age, disability, etc.

Why should other sexual behaviours be outlawed? Why is it prejudice and inequality to say you disagree with homosexuality, but shocking and disagraceful to say you agree with bestiality or rape?

Basically, these people decide on what behaviours suit them, and then try to criminalise everyone who tries to disapprove of them. How close to totalitarianism are we?

Submitted by Neil Richardson Read 13 more annotations

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

In the hon. Lady's list of female pioneers in Parliament, has not she forgotten the outstanding achievement of Britain's first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher? She did a far better job than any of the men could have done at the time.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I have a great deal of respect for Lady Thatcher, but I fear I cannot include her in my list as she did little for women's equality, except for leading by example—I give her that. In the 18 years that the Conservatives were in power, our anti-discrimination legislation was weakened and ignored and no progress was made. A Labour Government set up anti-discrimination legislation in the 1970s and we had to wait for the return of a Labour Government to take it forward.

As we see, the hon. Member for Epping Forest, who sits on the Conservative Front Bench, has a difficult job persuading some of her recalcitrant Back Benchers that they should even support the Bill. However, she does have a handbag and I wish her luck. Perhaps she needs to put a couple of bricks in it to persuade them of the way forward.

The Bill includes a public duty to promote gender equality, which will help to tackle the issues today, the 30th anniversary year of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. That duty will help us to deal with the pay gap problem. Women working full-time still earn, on average, 18 per cent. less than men, so a woman earns 82p for every £1 that a man earns. That is considerably better than in the 1970s; but, clearly, we need to reform and remould our protective legislation to go the extra mile and close that gap still further.

The position of women who work part-time is particularly difficult because, on average, they earn 41 per cent. less than full-time male workers. As many Labour Members who have been campaigning on pensions know, only 15 per cent. of women currently qualify for the basic state pension in their own right, essentially because of the way that the pension system has been moulded—by Beveridge, originally—on a single male earner model, which simply does not reflect the shape of society or the working lives of many women.

The pay gap for ethnic minorities is extremely similar. It is clear that we are dealing with institutionalised discrimination. I do not mean, however, that loads of people want deliberately to discriminate against different groups in our society, although there are some such people, and they need to be dealt with harshly.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

No. I am sorry, but there is a time limit, and I have very little time left. The hon. Gentleman will have to make his own speech.

The important thing is that we can close the pay gap by providing protection for those who are discriminated against. The positive duty to promote gender equality is extremely important, and it is obvious that that requirement will need to be extended. I am looking forward to the outcome of the findings of the women and work commission because I want to see what it says about pay audits and to find out how we can close the pay gap. We need compulsory pay audits and pay plans to ensure that we can end pay discrimination systematically over a period.

The Low Pay Commission should be given a specific remit to narrow the gender pay gap as part of its deliberations on the national minimum wage. I would support more training and development opportunities, particularly for women who work part-time. We should simplify our equal pay legislation so that it is more user-friendly. I welcome the Bill as the starter to the main course that will put the final legal structure in place—the single equality Act that is yet to come. Such an Act would deal with some of the problems of our existing anti-discrimination law, which is complex, piecemeal, sometimes mutually inconsistent, under-inclusive and needs updating.

In total, 30 Acts of Parliament, 11 codes of practice, 38 statutory instruments and 12 EU directives have a bearing on our anti-discrimination legislation. With the best will in the world and with the best employers and employees in the world, it is difficult to untangle the plate of spaghetti that that leaves. We need to ensure that we simplify, so that those who want to ensure that they do not discriminate can follow the law more easily.

I look forward to the single equality Bill and to my hon. Friend the Minister publishing the results of discrimination law review. I should like all strands of our anti-discrimination legislation to be consolidated to make it more proactive, more preventive, more effective and simpler for everyone to understand. I look forward to speaking on the Second Reading of the yet to be announced single equality Bill, which is a manifesto commitment, and welcoming it as the final piece in the jigsaw that will ensure that everyone has the right to protection from discrimination simply on the grounds of skin colour, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, age or disability. We can then be proud of what the Labour Government have done, following in the footsteps of our great pioneers, such as Barbara Castle. I look forward to that time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on introducing the Bill. I wish it a safe and speedy passage.

N

Can't New Labour see the MASSIVE clash between sexual orientation and religious belief? A Catholic or Muslim's religious belief leads him to believe homosexuality is an abomination, whereas a gay person's sexual orientation leads him to believe that these religions are repressive at best?

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities 5:00 pm, 21st November 2005

Liberal Democrat Members welcome the Bill, although that is not to say that it is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It was improved during its passage through the other place, and we will work together in Committee to improve it further.

A strengthened human rights remit is probably the way to tackle the problems of prejudice and discrimination generally. We have the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission, but with the three new strands, it is important that the approach to the problem becomes unified. We need a bottom-up approach, rather than a which-bit-of-legislation-can-we-use-now approach, because that will be the only way of tackling the common problem of multiple, or cross-strand, discrimination.

The Fawcett Society produced a report in January called "Powerless, poor and passed over", which examined the experiences of black and minority ethnic women. It shows that the experiences of those women are often overlooked because studies focus on either race or gender, but not both. It highlighted the lack of data on gender and ethnicity combined.

The report also found that women experiencing domestic violence often had to contact agencies 11 times before they received the help that they needed, but black and minority ethnic women had to contact agencies an average of 17 times. If we are talking about the pay gap, women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin earned 56 per cent. of the average salary of a white man. There are clearly many problems that must be tackled.

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Conservative, Braintree

Angela Eagle made some excellent points by referencing statistics from the Fawcett Society. It is important to examine the pace of change of the disparity between what women and men are paid. The pay gap between full-time workers has moved by just 0.6 per cent. over the past year to 17.2 per cent.—I think that my figures are slightly more updated—and the gap between female and male part-time workers has moved by just 1.1 per cent. to 38.5 per cent. Given that rate of change, it will take 80 years, or even a century, for women to catch up with men. The point that I would like to make is—

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

Those of us who are regular attendees at questions to the Minister for Women and Equality are well aware of the statistics cited by the hon. Gentleman. Although the full-time pay gap has narrowed since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970, the big problem that must be addressed is the fact that the part-time pay gap has narrowed little.

I welcome the Government's attitude towards the Bill and the spirit in which they have worked with all the stakeholders and agencies involved. Talking to people in preparation for the debate has been illuminating because most of the organisations seem fairly happy with what has been achieved so far. That makes it a challenge for Opposition Members to come up with major points of difference—[Interruption.] There are always some luddites in the House who do not want any change, but the Front Benches of all three parties are as one on the Bill. I hope that that spirit is allowed to prevail in Committee.

It is worth paying tribute to some of the changes that the Government allowed during the passage of the Bill through the other place. They accepted an amendment to outlaw discrimination in goods, facilities and services on the grounds of sexual orientation, and that is very welcome. However, the issue of transgender people has been raised today, and it seems inappropriate to kick that into the long grass. It would be more useful to address that during the passage of the Bill.

The Lords also improved the Bill so that the elimination of harassment is included in the gender duty. However, the Equal Opportunities Commission has raised concern that the interpretation of harassment is worryingly narrow and will leave some without protection under the law. An example of a woman working in a local authority leisure centre who is harassed by a customer has been cited. Her employer clearly has a role to play in doing all it can to prevent and deal with such a problem, but even under the proposed harassment provisions the woman would have no grounds to challenge her employer if she felt that it could have done more to prevent or deal with harassment unless she could prove that the employer would have treated a similar complaint from a male member of staff more favourably or show that it would have taken different action in similar circumstances. It seems an unintended consequence of the Bill that an employer could therefore fail in equal measure to protect its male and female staff but not be held to account for doing so. That clearly needs to be addressed further in Committee.

Provisions in section 73 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 were missing from the draft Bill, but that has been partially addressed. That power allowed the Equal Opportunities Commission to tackle persistent discrimination, but there is still some way to go, because the Bill has been amended to give the commission for equality and human rights the power to apply for an injunction if it thinks that discrimination is likely to take place. That sounds positive, but in previous cases an early court or tribunal ruling would have been made. The tribunals in particular have built up great expertise in such cases, so by limiting the power to the courts, expertise and familiarity with discrimination law currently found in tribunals could be lost. Will the Minister confirm when she sums up that additional support and training will be provided to the courts that might have to become involved in such decisions? There are also some concerns—I am not sure whether we can be reassured on this today—that discrimination cases could be less successful in the courts.

I very much welcome the fact that the Secretary of State's direction-making powers have been removed, because many stakeholders feel that that has reasserted the independence of the CEHR from Government interference, and that can only be welcome. However, all is not rosy. Some concerns have been raised and it is worth running through them, because they will form the basis of discussion in Committee.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Just before the hon. Lady goes on to those important budgetary issues, she will doubtless agree with me that two of the main contributory factors to the pay gap are straightforward discrimination on the one hand and occupational segregation on the other. Given the growth of market testing and competitive tendering—a phenomenon which I warmly welcome—does she agree that it is important for the Government to ensure not only that their own house is in order but that they have satisfied themselves that contractors with which they deal adopt such practices?

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point to which I will return. There is an educational element to gender segregation which is not covered in the Bill.

I turn to the budgetary implications. The existing budget is approximately £50 million and the new one is estimated to be £70 million. It is very difficult for us in this place to comment on whether that is the right amount. It has been interesting to hear the comments of Conservatives; every single agency that I spoke to insisted that a lot more money was needed.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

I want to finish my point. It would be helpful if the Government published a breakdown of how the costs were arrived at, so that Members who want to deal with the arguments made by organisations such as the Commission for Racial Equality can reach an informed opinion about, and decision on, what is a realistic level.

Concern has also been expressed about the existing agencies' input into the new body. A particular worry is how the CRE's input will be managed, bearing it in mind that it will come on board later on. While researching for this debate I discovered the alarming fact that the three main equality bodies have different pay rates. Indeed, I was somewhat horrified to find out that the EOC has the lowest pay rate, which seems perverse. It would be helpful if the Minister gave guidance on how that issue will be resolved.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

Is not that difference down to the location of the different commissions' offices? Does not the hon. Lady accept that most London workers receive a London premium?

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

That point can be taken into account only to an extent. The EOC is in Manchester, but so, I believe, is the Disability Rights Commission. The CRE is based in London, but that does not account for the entire anomaly.

There are also concerns—they have been hinted at today—about the location of the new commission. The current commissions are split between Manchester and London, with some small regional variations. Because London has the highest ethnic minority population, much of the expertise that has been built up is London-based, and the CRE is concerned that people will not necessarily want to relocate. It would be helpful if the Minister gave some hint as to whether that problem will be dealt with.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The CRE is based in my constituency, which is very welcome, but it is very important that the new commission is not seen as a metropolitan organisation that is close only to those close to the levers of power. Of course there should be a London presence, but the commission should be equally accessible to the rest of the country.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, as always. The key is achieving a balance between retaining existing expertise, and ensuring that other areas of the country are not disadvantaged.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

Is the hon. Lady aware that there is an EOC, a DRC and a CRE in Cardiff, in Wales? She omitted to mention that point.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

I am aware of that, but given that such responsibilities are partially devolved, and that I have limited time, I did not want to go too far down the road of considering the complete geographical picture of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

I want to make a little progress.

Another idea, which has been discussed by a number of people, is having a decision-making committee for each equality. I am not greatly supportive of that idea. As I said earlier, many discrimination cases have multiple strands. I would almost prefer the opposite to that idea, and that some reassurance be given that we will not move to a bureaucratic, council-type structure with sub-committees for each specialty. The real way to tackle the problem is a rights-based approach, as I said earlier. The Mayor of London is a keen supporter of the proposals, but they run counter to that approach, so I do not agree with him. The CRE has expressed concern about grants for local race equality work, so it would be helpful if the Minister explained how that provision will be managed during and after the transition. Understandably, the CBI has said that it does not want further enforcement powers.

Age discrimination has received less attention than other strands in the Bill. Three deficiencies in particular give rise to concern. First, we have missed the opportunity to impose a ban on age discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services. It would be useful to harmonise practice across the strands, as older people face discrimination in the provision of goods and services in insurance, social care, housing and hospital treatment. We need to level up protection for all groups rather than leave a hierarchy of discrimination in the Bill. Secondly, we should impose a positive duty on public bodies to promote age equality. Thirdly, a loophole in the legislation means that older people who receive care from private or voluntary sector organisations are not protected by the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government committed themselves to seek a test case to overturn the Leonard Cheshire judgment, but such a case has not yet been brought. I am not sure whether that is due to lack of opportunity or to lack of will, but the Government have undertaken to consider the issue as part of the discrimination law review. One of our overriding concerns is that positive proposals to even out inequalities across the strands appear to be kicked into the long grass with the promise of a further review or further legislation. We welcome what the Government have done, but sometimes they could do more.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has expressed concern about local authority contracts and their basis in human rights. However, older people who make their own private arrangements with a care home will not be covered by the legislation. That needs to be addressed if we are to protect all the vulnerable people in our society. Discrimination against older people is much more hidden than discrimination against other groups. However, there are numerous cases in which the treatment of older people demonstrates a complete disregard for their human rights, which is another strong argument for the rights-based approach. Those cases include residents of a home being fed breakfast while seated on the toilet; the death of older women from dehydration; and care home residents not being given their weekly personal expenses. The list is endless, and my hon. Friend Mr. Burstow may seek to develop that argument.

Will the Government make a commitment to act so that we can ensure that today's recipients of social care, both in care homes and in their own homes, have the rights to which they are entitled? Older and disabled people whose right to life, dignity and freedom from degrading treatment are most at risk are in reality the least protected.

We also have concerns about gender duty. The Bill places a general duty on public bodies to pay due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and to promote equality between women and men. Can the Minister confirm that that will require public sector bodies, including councils, to take action to address the causes of the gender pay gap, which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members? To what extent will public bodies be able to take appropriate action when contracting with the private sector? There is an increasing tendency under the Government to contract out to the private sector, to which I do not necessarily object, but there must be the same safeguards in place and the same level playing field as when only the public sector is involved.

The present proposals mean that education institutions are not covered by gender equality-specific duties, which is inconsistent with the way in which disability and race equality has been promoted in the sector. Concern has been expressed that as the measure is currently worded, there is a risk that the private functions of public bodies also may not be covered by the duty. That raises the question whether the Bill will have the desired impact. Such matters can usefully be raised in Committee.

The Commission for Racial Equality has expressed concern that the CEHR will not be under a duty to consider applications for assistance as currently provided for in section 66 of the Race Relations Act 1976. The removal of that duty represents the removal of a right, and no replacement arrangements have been made. The CRE is the primary source of funding for race discrimination cases, particularly tribunals, but funding is not the only issue. The CRE argues strongly that the knowledge and expertise that it builds up through its pre-litigation advice work gives it a greater awareness of the problems of discrimination and helps it come up with solutions.

The Minister mentioned earlier that she did not consider it useful to include explicit provision for children. On Second Reading in the other place Baroness Ashton, the Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, suggested that the Minister responsible for the Bill in the Commons should meet various Baronesses to consider how children might be explicitly included. Have such meetings occurred? Is it as a result of those meetings that the Minister has decided that there will be no explicit mention of children? When the Minister sums up, will she elaborate on the point?

In conclusion, the Bill is welcome. It is a shame that we have not had a single equality Act sooner. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches have long campaigned for that, and we welcome the possibility of building a culture of human rights across public services. I have urged that we should not kick too much into the long grass of the equalities review and the discrimination law review. Those must not be allowed to be used as a cop-out. Ultimately, if we can complete the passage of the Bill with few anomalies between the various strands and less of a hierarchy of discrimination, we will have achieved a worthwhile outcome.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman PPS (Rt Hon Geoff Hoon, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons 5:23 pm, 21st November 2005

Like every other speaker, I welcome the Bill. I echo the sentiments expressed by some of my hon. Friends about the proud record of Labour in government on anti-discrimination legislation. The Bill is a logical progression. It offers a point of reference and a facility to challenge multi-strand discrimination. The commission will become a champion of people's rights. I welcome the fact that the commission's remit is significantly extended. I am always loth to repeat what other Members have said in the Chamber. The fact that their comments on the Bill have been so positive is sufficient. Obviously, I want to see the introduction of the single equality Bill sooner rather than later, because it makes sense to tie all the anti-discrimination legislation into a legal framework.

I am interested in all aspects of the Bill, but this afternoon I shall discuss the provisions relating to disability in general and autistic spectrum disorder or autism in particular. I chair the all-party group on autism, so I take a particular interest in the matter, and I seek an assurance from the Minister that disability discrimination will not be overshadowed by the other strands. I am also concerned that autism is not lost within the concept of disability.

I followed the Bill's passage through the other place with interest and was extremely pleased that their lordships made some amendments on disability. In the Bill as drafted, disability discrimination and the disabled group were excluded from a general provision on good community relations, which was amended in another place. In the first instance, the disability group was not seen as a community, which was an interesting take on that particular group, but the issue has been resolved.

The Bill initially proposed that the transition disability commissioner should have a shorter term of office than either the commissioner for equal opportunities or the commissioner for racial equality, but it has now been agreed that parity will be the order of the day.

Lord Rix raised the absence of a simplified version of the Bill, which should have been produced. I understand that a simplified version of the White Paper was produced, but it was published much later than the full version. I accept that the matter is probably due to an oversight on the part of the Government, but it is extremely important, given that disability is one of the major strands. People with disabilities should have access to the legislation that we are considering on their behalf.

The disability strand is unique, because the disability committee will be retained for at least five years with delegated powers and a sufficient share of resources to exercise those powers, which is vital to disabled people's confidence.

The noble Lords also raised the importance of retaining both the learning disabilities action group and the mental health group within the current Disability Rights Commission. Although that is not possible, Baroness Ashton of Upholland suggested that the disability commissioner should pay particular attention to those groups.

As far as I can see, no Member of the House of Lords mentioned the disability of autism. The DRC has just set up a neurodiversity autistic spectrum advice and action group—a mouthful. It has been set up very late, but is nevertheless welcome. Nobody argued for it to be included in, or at least listened to by, the new commission.

People with ASDs are not physically disabled and often do not look as though they have a disability. The condition is a developmental disability characterised by an inability or impairment in communication, socialisation and imagination. There is no cure. Some of those affected have learning disabilities and some have mental health problems, but they often fall into the gap between the two in relation to support services. Given that an estimated 500,000 people have an ASD, it must be treated as a significant and common disability with clear implications for mainstream policy and practice. It is now an exemplar in the disabled children's national service framework. Diagnosis in the young is better than it was, and support for children in pre-school and statutory education is improving.

However, we have an awfully long way to go to catch up in terms of the transition stage, supported living, employment, and support for carers. Seventy per cent. of carers of children with autism said that they were prevented from returning to work by a lack of appropriate care facilities. Seventy-two per cent. of schools are not satisfied with their teachers' training in autism, and only 6 per cent. of people with an ASD and 12 per cent. of those with high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome have full-time paid jobs. According to a report by the National Autistic Society, 40 per cent. of carers were dissatisfied with the support that the person whom they care for received from social services.

The strand of disability must have recognised within it the specific strand of ASD—a significant and prevalent disability. On Second Reading in the other place, Lord Rix said:

"I have an overriding concern that the lives of disabled people . . . will be made better by the creation of a Commission for Equality and Human Rights. The new Commission must be even more effective than the Disability Rights Commission is now, transforming the current inequalities into improved life chances".—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1246.]

He was specifically concerned about those with learning disabilities and mental and physical disabilities. So am I. I need reassurance that people with disabilities will not be marginalised in a much bigger commission, and that those with ASDs will not be marginalised either.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition 5:33 pm, 21st November 2005

It is always an enormous pleasure to follow Liz Blackman, who brings a particular expertise and a great deal of passion to the debate.

I wish to confine myself in the main to part 2 of the Bill. The definition of religion in clause 43 states that

"a reference to religion includes a reference to a lack of religion, and . . . a reference to belief includes a reference to lack of belief."

So all those who thought that they had no religion, or had explicitly decided to have no religion, are caught by the provisions of the Bill—they count as though they have a religion and will be treated as such. That might lend some scope to mischief-makers. Indeed, it might give some offence to those who take a position of believing in no God.

Religion is different from the other strands in the Bill. It differs from disability, race and sex because, by and large, in a free society, we still choose to adhere to a particular religion.

Although some people might find it profoundly shocking, most adherents of a religion believe it to be true. By and large, they do not treat life as a supermarket where one can choose any number of breakfast cereals from the shelves and find that they amount to the same thing. Most—not all—adherents of a religion believe passionately that their religion is true and that, of necessity, casts an aspersion on other religions. Indeed, the first commandment is:

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

Our Lord said that he would be followed by false prophets and that we were not to treat them with respect or tolerance but to judge them. That does not lend itself to the general principle that is set out in clause 44.

Clause 44(1) states:

"A person ("A") discriminates against another ("B") for the purposes of this Part if on grounds of the religion or belief of B . . . A treats B less favourably than he treats or would treat others".

That is a wide and dangerous principle to apply to religion. Religions rub together pretty well in this country, but introducing such a wide-ranging principle is dangerous. The danger relates to the zealot or the mischief maker and the provision could cause more harm than good.

N

Superbly put.

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Where does the hon. Gentleman's rather Old Testament view of religion leave the scope for ecumenical co-operation, of which the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are great exponents?

N

Since Desmond Swayne cited the first of the ten commandments (which is quoted in the New Testament) and then referred to...

Submitted by Neil Richardson Continue reading

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

The hon. Lady puts her finger exactly on the point. Religions are working together and rubbing along well without the Bill. Intruding with legislation provides scope for mischief and for zealots.

The Bill's principle is so broad that the remaining clauses of part 2 properly take every aspect of what one would normally understand to be religious practice and experience out of the measure's scope. So despite its size, clause 44 applies only to a narrow provision of goods and services. That is proper, but I am worried about the structure of the Bill because so many of the exemptions are potentially only temporary.

For example, clause 49 properly removes educational establishments from the scope of the Bill. Otherwise, it would be permissible for an evangelical Christian to demand access to a madrassa. I suggest that that would be done only to make mischief. Nevertheless, why is that proper exemption fatally weakened by clause 49(3)(a), which gives the Secretary of State the power to "amend or repeal" the provision? I do not believe that it is acceptable for a self-respecting legislature to give the Secretary of State the power to undermine a provision. That is nonsense and I hope that those who serve on the Committee will strike out the paragraph.

Clause 63 is a Henry VIII clause that gives the Secretary of State the power to amend any exemption in part 2. Again, that is unacceptable given the sensitivity of the matter and the need for the exemptions.

I have several questions that I hope will be tackled in the winding-up speech or at least in subsequent correspondence. Clause 44(3)(b) states:

"A person . . . discriminates against another . . . for the purposes of this Part if A applies to B a provision, criterion or practice . . . which puts persons of B's religion or belief at a disadvantage compared to some or all others".

Has the Minister taken any constitutional advice, given that clause 77 binds the Crown, on whether such a general principle is compatible with the coronation oath?

What is the meaning of clause 45(5), which states:

"For the purposes of subsection (1) it is immaterial whether or not a person charges for the provision of goods, facilities or services"?

I am sure that it cannot be the case, but the provision appears to suggest that, if I, as the provider of gardening services, for example, were to mow the lawns of the church of my own denomination for free, I would also be required to provide the same service to the local mosque. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain whether that is the case.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I appreciate that clause 44(3)(b) might be incompatible with the coronation oath. I am not certain about that, as I am not a lawyer—I say that with some pride—but if it were, may I suggest to my hon. Friend that a constructive way forward would be for him to join me in a campaign for the disestablishment of the Church of England?

N

For totally different reasons, I agree with Mr Bercow.

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

I shall have to disappoint my hon. Friend; I shall not be following him down that route. As in so many other areas of public policy, I disagree with him profoundly on that issue.

Clauses 46 and 47 deal with premises, and I would like the Minister to explain the difference in principle between taking a lodger and running a bed and breakfast. My reading of the provisions and the exemptions is that those who take in lodgers would be exempt from the provisions of the Bill—that is, they could discriminate on the ground of religion—while those who run bed-and-breakfast establishments would not be exempt. That might not be the case; these provisions are certainly ambiguous. Religious organisations have made representations to me on that basis, however, complaining that they would not want Satanists in their bed-and-breakfast establishments. For my own part, I should have thought that taking an adherent of another religion into one's house would present an opportunity for evangelisation. That would now be entirely appropriate given that the Minister has said that the provisions on harassment are not to be reintroduced in the Bill, which is most welcome.

Clause 59 deals with religious charities. Will the Minister tell me the significance of 18 May 2005?

N

I love this guy. Give the Satanist his bed, his breakfast, and then a Bible.

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

I congratulate my hon. Friend; he is looking very well on it.

Why is it that, prior to that date, membership of a religious charity can be confined lawfully on the basis of adherence to a particular religion, whereas that is not the case thereafter? What is the Minister saying about religious charities? Why should no such charities be able to discriminate in respect of their membership on the ground of religion in the future, if they were able to do so in the past?

We are already aware of the politically correct march towards an increasingly barmy Britain. Every day we see in the papers examples of organisations refusing to use the term "BC", or "before Christ", and substituting "BP", meaning "before the present". We see examples of Christmas lights having to be called "celebrity lights", of councils wanting to refer to Christmas as "the workers' winter festival", and of libraries refusing to advertise the local nativity play. The most worrying example relates to social partnerships. We hear of religious organisations that undertake a social function and are paid accordingly to provide services such as a hostel or a soup run, being bullied with regard to the religious aspects of their organisations. We have the absurdity of an organisation providing a hostel being told that if it continues to say grace before meals, its public funding will be withdrawn. The perfectly proper concern of those of us who are worried about such developments is that part 2 of the Bill, in designating such organisations as public bodies, will provide an increasingly whip hand to the zealots who wish to see these developments march forward, or indeed just to the timid in local authorities who want to avoid litigation of any kind. My hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack was right when he said earlier in our proceedings that there is a very great danger that we will become free from religion rather than free to practise religion.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

The absurd examples quoted by my hon. Friend are already happening. Could we not express the hope that during the Bill's passage the Minister will make it plain that she thinks that they are absurd, and that if the commission should be so stupid as to seek to endorse such bizarre practices, it would be acting unconstitutionally? I hope that by raising these matters and giving the Minister the opportunity to say how silly they are, we might have a rather better state of things in the future than we have at the moment.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

My hon. Friend is quite right. One of the advantages of Pepper v. Hart is that the Minister will be able to reassure the Committee on any number of such issues, and I hope that she will take the opportunity to do so. I notice that the Government sought to amend the harassment provisions that were originally in the Bill and achieved an amendment that prevented religious symbols from being taken out of hospitals and other such institutions. That was a positive development, albeit that it was obviated by the removal of the entire clause.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley

We seem to have strayed again into the territory of political correctness. Labour Members are interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman has a definition of political correctness, which Mrs. Laing was unable to give us earlier.

N

The entire Bill is one ginormous trespass into the rickety castle of PC.

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

The examples that I have given are eloquent testimony to what I mean and what is commonly understood by political correctness.

Part 3 of the Bill is completely unacceptable, although I accept entirely the thrust of its intention. I do not believe that people should be discriminated against at all in the provision of goods and services in respect of their sexual orientation. But to achieve that by an order-making power is quite unacceptable. There are some 36 clauses dealing with and constraining that power with respect to religious discrimination. To provide one clause and say that the Minister shall have power by regulation to make all those measures available on the basis of sexual orientation is for us, as a self-respecting legislature, simply to abandon our proper responsibility for the legislative process.

This will be a controversial issue, not least because, for so many religions, sexual orientation itself provides some difficulty. It is therefore nonsense simply to hand over the power to the Minister to make the law, without parliamentary scrutiny, the importance of which we have seen in regard to religious matters. It is also nonsense because the Minister quite rightly came to the Dispatch Box and explained why she would not seek to return the Bill to the status quo ante in respect of religious harassment. She properly set out the reasons for which it was judged to be too sensitive to proceed, explaining that more consultation was required. All those arguments apply to harassment and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Yet, owing to a single phrase in clause 80—with all its implications for sexual orientation—the issue will be dealt with entirely by the Secretary of State, without the benefit of parliamentary scrutiny. That is unacceptable in any institution that continues to call itself a Parliament.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown 5:50 pm, 21st November 2005

I take a slightly different view from Mr. Swayne. He is right to say that it is unfortunate that protection against discrimination in terms of goods and services was introduced as an enabling power rather than being set out fully, as is religious and faith discrimination in part 2. Part 3 should have been equally comprehensive. Nevertheless, it is better to have a provision to deal with discrimination in regard to goods and services on grounds of sexual orientation than to have no such provision, which is what was on offer.

I congratulate the Government on having listened to what was said in the House of Lords, which is where the Bill started out with no reference to discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. In an equality Bill, that was a grave omission, and I am very glad that that vital correction has been made. It will be appreciated by thousands of my constituents, and it represents almost the last step taken over the past eight years towards fulfilling the political agenda of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community—the removal of elements of discrimination from our law. That began with the repeal of section 28—an example of pure homophobia left to us by the last Government—and continued with equalisation of the age of consent, access to the armed forces for gays and lesbians and the Civil Partnership Act 2004. Now the Government have dealt with goods and services, the one outstanding area of discrimination and prejudice.

One issue is still to be dealt with, but the Bill is not the right vehicle. We need to deal with homophobia, and incitement to hatred on the basis of sexual orientation. I am glad that we are not faced with that complication, because it is difficult enough for us to deal with incitement to religious hatred. We need to get that straight before we approach the subject of homophobia.

Let me return to what was said by the hon. Member for New Forest, West. I agree with him that we must be careful to avoid an internal inequality. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that the orders for which part 3 provides will be no less rigorous than part 3 itself, and that they will be implemented at the same time as part 2. Otherwise, there would be discrimination. It worries me slightly that the Bill contains no commencement date, and I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of the Government's thinking. The Bill is, after all, an interim measure pending a single equalities Bill that will have all the bells and whistles and will represent legislative perfection. Until that Bill is before us, we need protection on the statute book, and we need it as quickly as possible.

Having listened to the hon. Member for New Forest, West, I am sure that there will be a desire for many exceptions in some quarters, especially faith-based organisations. That is to be expected. I agree with Stonewall, however, that there is no case for any exemptions under part 3.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it sticks in the throat of some Conservative Members when the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends say that there should be no exceptions in measures such as this? His party made a clear exception when it excluded one sex from shortlists for parliamentary seats. It strikes some of us that the Labour party is very keen to allow exceptions from gender discrimination provisions in the selection of candidates, but does not want to allow anyone else any exceptions.

N

hear, hear. New Labour are NEVER about equality in its true sense, only about their social re-engineering programme.

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the Labour party's practice in regard to all-women shortlists is a measure of positive discrimination. It is not discrimination against men. We still have far more men than women in the parliamentary Labour party, and our ideal is equal numbers. I am sorry, but I do not buy that objection.

N

So if a hotelier positively discriminates in favour of heterosexual married couples, is that OK?

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Labour, Livingston

Nor do the electorate.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler PPS (Rt Hon Jane Kennedy, Minister of State), Department of Health

Is it not a well-known fact that the public would like Parliament to be more representative of society as a whole? Surely the Labour party is to be congratulated on trying to ensure, through all-women shortlists, that we have more equality on this side of the House.

N

Does this mean that a black woman cannot represent me because I am a white man? Surely it is not the gender or skin colour that makes an MP representative, but their...

Submitted by Neil Richardson Continue reading (and 3 more annotations)

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

My hon. Friend is right—but, as a Labour Member, I would say that.

I see no justification for any significant exemptions under part 3. I hope the Minister will assure us that, if there are any, they will be extremely limited. There is a risk that if we allow too many, protection against discrimination will be undermined.

The Bill performs a useful function. We have seen a sea change, a cultural change, since the war, especially in regard to sexual orientation. It has been refreshing to see, over the past year or so, a similar change on the green Benches opposite—at least on the front four; I cannot speak for the back row. Legislation has gone hand in hand with the change in public attitudes over the past 50 years, but it is important to underpin this cultural change with legislation.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. In my case, it dates back five years, nine months and 11 days.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

I can only congratulate the hon. Gentleman.

I welcome the Government's acceptance of the need to legislate in respect of sexual orientation. I reiterate the three main areas of concern: the provisions in part 3 should be as firm as those in part 2; exceptions under part 3 should be minimal; and the provisions should be implemented on the same date. Equality should be consistent throughout the Bill.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence) 6:00 pm, 21st November 2005

I wish to confine my remarks to a small number of issues relating to the Bill. The first is cost, to which several hon. Members alluded. I am concerned that, despite the fact that this measure should have been cost-effective, the overall cost will be about 42 per cent. greater than the combined cost of the three existing organisations.

I caution Ministers about the escalating costs of non-departmental public bodies, from which we in Northern Ireland suffer to a mega-degree. Only last week, I uncovered the fact that last year the total cost of all the non-departmental public bodies in Northern Ireland was more than £2 billion. That is one issue to which the Minister responded when she indicated the extent of the increase.

I want to dwell on part 2, which deals with religion and belief. I ask the Minister to clarify the matter beyond any doubt. Let us take the example a small bed and breakfast or guest house run by a husband and wife, the name of which clearly indicates that it is a Christian establishment—for example, the Bethany Christian guest house. I know of many such establishments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England. A confirmed, avowed homosexual activist might deliberately want to book a night there in order to be refused accommodation and take the case to court. What would be the position of such a guest house? We are talking about not a Marriott or Hilton but a small, family-run establishment with a Christian ethos.

Let us suppose that someone arrives at a guest house and sees either a New Testament on the desk or a small text above the check-in area that says, "This is God's house"—a clear sign that it is a Christian establishment. Under the Bill, who would be pursued? Would it be the person who makes the booking in the knowledge that the establishment is of a particular religious disposition, or would it be the husband and wife who have firmly held religious views that they believe preclude them from offering accommodation to someone who is deliberately trying to ensure that they fall foul of the legislation? I would be pleased if the Minister explained exactly what would happen in such a circumstance, because I have read in the press of at least two similar examples.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that matter should be considered in great detail in Committee and must not be forgotten.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I hope that it will indeed be considered.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Labour, Islington South and Finsbury

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a proper Christian will understand that one can be gay and be Christian as well? If someone is to close their doors to a gay couple coming to their bed and breakfast, should not the answer simply be that they should be prosecuted, as we should not discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality?

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Absolutely mind-boggling. In one fell swoop, New Labour are seeking to rewrite the entire Bible. "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually...

Submitted by Neil Richardson Continue reading (and 5 more annotations)

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I indicated in my analogy that the person may arrive at the establishment and see a New Testament on the desk, and the person working there may be reading the part of the New Testament that precludes some of the activities to which she alludes. That is the person's view and they are entitled to hold it, but do they thereby fall foul of the legislation?

N

See above.

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting

Is not there a difference between having an attitude and a view and practising that by one's behaviour? Is not this a classic example of a Bill that will lead to legislation that outlaws behaviour? I hope that, over time, it may change attitudes, but even if it does not the impact will be that people will not be treated differently because of their sexual orientation or religion.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I think that the hon. Gentleman has to think the situation through. Let us say that the position is as I have outlined—a couple who are Christian have a sincerely held view about sexual orientation, particularly about homosexuals. Are they to be told, courtesy of the Bill, that they cannot run their guest house and hold those views, which would preclude them from giving a room to persons who are openly homosexual and who appear to want to make the booking in order that they fall foul of the legislation?

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Does the hon. Gentleman think that someone who has a sincerely held view of repugnance towards people who are gay should be allowed to flout existing Northern Ireland employment legislation preventing discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation? Does he support that legislation? Would he support people who wished to flout the law in Northern Ireland?

N

Sometimes the law is an ass.

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

The short answer is that I do support the law in Northern Ireland, but deliberately flouting the law takes us into a different realm. I am still unclear as to who would be more likely to fall foul of this legislation.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

The answer to my hon. Friend's question is that the Bill does nothing in that respect but gives the Minister the power to make regulations, which we would be denied the opportunity of discussing in a debate such as this. The Bill attempts to deal with one difficulty by properly drawing a distinction in respect of a lodger—someone living in your own house, sleeping in your own bed between your sheets—but does not make the same distinction in respect of bed and breakfasts.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

That is part of the difficulty. The issue remains unclear, and I agree that we need a definitive response.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The hon. Gentleman mentioned sincerely held beliefs. The whole House respects sincerely held beliefs. Does he accept that, in the recent past, people sincerely believed that black people were inferior and based their beliefs on biblical text, but this House says that it is wrong to discriminate on grounds of race? However sincerely people believe that homosexuality is repugnant, the House, through the Bill, is saying that it is wrong to discriminate on grounds of sexuality.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

It is clearly wrong to discriminate against someone because of their sexual outlook, their race or their religion, but the legislative process must prevent people from being put out of business because of their sincerely held views.

I wish to move on to the unintended consequences of the Bill. An earlier contribution lauded Northern Ireland legislation on religious and gender discrimination. There is absolutely no question but that we require such legislation in Northern Ireland and that it was intended to address a particular problem. It has addressed that problem for 20 years, but a problem has now emerged that it was never intended to address. The Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission are now responsible for ensuring that all sections of the community can avail themselves of the relevant legislation, but they are finding it very difficult to ensure that the intent of legislation is observed. I hope that the Bill will not lead to such unintended consequences in 12 months or 10 years from now. I welcome the Bill as a whole, but I have very serious reservations about the aspects that I have outlined this evening.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North 6:12 pm, 21st November 2005

I am grateful to be called to speak in this important Second Reading debate. I also took part in the Second Reading debate on 5 April in the dying days of the last Parliament before the general election and I recall that the atmosphere was different then. Then, a much more consensual approach was taken by those on the Conservative Back Benches. I have been surprised by the antagonism shown by them today, but I welcome the support of the Conservative Front Benchers.

I am proud that, after the last Second Reading debate, Labour went into the general election with a commitment to equality and human rights. Changing the law to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to fulfil their potential is a slow process and it is obvious that there is still a long way to go. However, I agree with other hon. Members that we have made tremendous progress since Labour came to office in 1997. My hon. Friend Dr. Turner rightly referred to the abolition of the notorious section 28, to which we could add the introduction of civil partnerships, the equalising of the age of consent, new laws on adoption, bans on discrimination in the workplace based on sexuality and the ending of the ban on gay men serving in the armed forces. They all show what progress has been made for lesbians and gay men since 1997. I am very proud that the Labour Government led the way in making those changes.

In Wales, the Assembly works closely with and funds the Stonewall Forum as part of the duty placed on the National Assembly for Wales in the Government of Wales Act 1998. Under that legislation, the Assembly has to

"make appropriate arrangements to secure that its functions are exercised with due regard to the principle that there should be equality of opportunity for all people".

I recall that when that legislation was passed in this Parliament, we were very proud that that duty was placed on the Assembly—and it has made a tremendous difference. The setting up of Stonewall Cymru was a big step in attempting to reduce discrimination and it has achieved a great deal, including working with employers to tackle workplace discrimination. "Counted Out" was the first ever survey of lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Wales. I am very pleased that Wales has been able to lead the way in tackling some of these equality issues.

Since 1997, the position of women has certainly improved, with greater recognition by all political parties of the need for women to be involved in decision making. All the parties now recognise the need to have more women candidates, although we sometimes disagree on the best way to achieve that. I was pleased to participate in debates on equality and sex discrimination legislation, which was not opposed by any of the Opposition parties. The Welsh Assembly has equal numbers of women and men—the only legislature in the world where that applies, which is something to be very proud of. In some of the professions, women are now overtaking men—there are more women in the medical profession, for example, and more women medical students—but there is still a long way to go.

Some hon. Members have already referred to the pay gap and even with the Government's best efforts, we have not managed to close it. I too welcome the work of the women and work commission, and I am coming to believe that we shall have to move towards compulsory pay audits if we are to ascertain the exact position, not least because we will need that knowledge in order to reduce the pay gap. Women also continue to suffer from pregnancy discrimination—about 43 per cent. of calls to the Equal Opportunities Commission helpline in Wales are pregnancy and maternity-related. The Government have introduced more maternity rights for women, but pregnancy discrimination continues to exist. It is shocking in this day and age to read articles about how pregnant women still suffer in that respect and I hope that the Bill will help to improve their position.

I welcome the Bill, which has improved considerably during its passage through the other place. I welcome the fact that there will now be an end to discrimination in the provision of goods and services for lesbians and gay men. As Ben Summerskill, the director of Stonewall, has said:

"Thankfully, signs saying 'No blacks' or 'No Irish' have become a thing of the past. It's shocking that hotels can still put up signs in 2005 saying 'No gays' and we look forward to the early implementation of the new law".

The sooner those laws are implemented, the better. One of the most shocking instances of discrimination that I know of was when a woman in Wales was refused a smear test on the basis that she was a lesbian. There was widespread publicity about that—a shocking example of the persistence of discrimination. As hon. Members have already mentioned, councillors in Bromley wanted to use the law as it stands to deny gay couples the chance to celebrate their civil partnerships in the same way that heterosexual couples celebrate their weddings. That must be wrong, and I am glad that the Government are moving to outlaw that.

I also welcome the two reviews—the equality review and the discrimination law review—that will lead to a new single equality Act. In debates before the election, many of us called for that Act to be introduced before the new commission for equality and human rights was set up. I am glad, however, that the current process has started, and we should now have a good look into the fundamental causes of inequality. I accept the need to set up the commission quickly because of the new anti-discrimination strands—age, sexual orientation and religion—that are being introduced, but it is essential that we move towards a single equality Act as quickly as we can and get rid of all the existing legal anomalies. I understand why the commission is to be set up, but it would have been preferable if the single equality Act had been introduced first. In the circumstances, I hope that we will move towards that as soon as we can.

I want to make some particular comments about how the Bill will affect Wales. I am glad that there will be a Welsh commissioner and a Welsh committee, and that that committee will be a decision-making committee. I hope that it will have grant-giving, as well as decision-making powers. It is also important that those decisions about grant-giving powers are made at a local level—on the basis of real knowledge about local circumstances. As my noble Friend Baroness Gale said in the other place:

"Everything in Wales runs from east to west. There are difficulties when one travels from north to south. If the commission in Wales is to be effective there will need to be a presence not just in Cardiff but also in north Wales and possibly west Wales."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1282.]

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on the possibility of having regional offices in Wales.

I also hope that the Welsh Assembly will be involved in the appointment of the commission and the commissioner, and I urge early appointment of the Welsh commissioner. It is important to recognise the low capacity for advice-giving in Wales; there is only one law centre in Wales, so the commissioner must get into post soon to address such issues.

It is also important that the use of the Welsh language is recognised, and that it is understood to be a cause of discrimination. Welsh-speaking elderly people can go into hospital and be unable to receive services in Welsh. That happened to a relative of mine in Carmarthen. He was suffering from mental health problems, and he was unable to receive a service in his first language.

The particular geography of Wales needs to be recognised. As Baroness Gale said, it is important that there is a presence in north Wales. The Commission for Racial Equality has an office in north Wales, and it is important that the new commission's representation there is as strong as it is in south Wales.

The Minister mentioned the relationship between the new commission and the Children's Commissioner for Wales, and there has been some debate about whether children should be specifically mentioned as a separate group. The Children's Commissioner for Wales has now been in post for five years. One of his most important findings is that children do not think that anyone listens to them, and that they do not expect to be heard. I hope that the legislation will address discrimination against children—discrimination on the grounds of age should cover children—and that the new commission will work closely with the Children's Commissioner for Wales.

I know that the Children's Commissioner is also very concerned about the language we use when we talk about children and young people, and particularly when we talk about antisocial behaviour. He has expressed concern about how the debate on that is conducted, especially here in Westminster. I hope that a code will be worked out for how the commission relates to the Children's Commissioner for Wales.

The House of Lords is considering a Bill that will establish a commissioner for older people in Wales. That is a new post, and we are told that it is one of the first of its kind in the world. I do not know if that is true, but it is essential that a way is worked out for the commission to relate to the older person's commissioner for Wales, who is likely to be appointed next year.

The older person's commissioner will have a key role to play in addressing the issue of access to services for older people. We all know that older people are often denied the access to health services that they should have. The commissioner will be important, as that person will speak up for older people, but it is also essential that that person's activities are linked to those of the commission.

Some staff of existing bodies have expressed concern about what will happen to pay rates when the various bodies are brought together. Sandra Gidley pointed out that the Equal Opportunities Commission rates of pay are lower than those of the other two commissions. I hope that that issue will be addressed.

I also support the call for a commissioner to represent the trade unions, because there is a tradition in the existing commission bodies of having a trade union commissioner. The trade unions probably deal with many more cases of inequality than any of the existing commissions.

I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill. We have a long way to go to achieve what we would all call an equal society, but this is a step in the right direction. The Bill has been improved enormously in the House of Lords, and I am sure that it will continue to be improved in the House of Commons and that, in the end, we will set up a commission that we are very proud of, and which will work for those people who suffer most from discrimination in this country.

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The genius of equating 'no gays' with 'no blacks' is almost complete in its insidious work.

Does this mean we can normalise any previously unacceptable behaviour, say stealing, by saying that to be opposed to stealing is an old prejudice we need to overcome.

"Ah, I can remember those dark old days in the past, when there used be signs over stores reading 'Thieves will be prosecuted.' Now we all realise thieves can't do anything about their light-fingered orientation, and that we should learn to celebrate them nicking our stuff instead."

Submitted by Neil Richardson Read 4 more annotations

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons) 6:25 pm, 21st November 2005

It is a pleasure to follow the contribution of Julie Morgan, who speaks on this subject with a lot of passion. I should also declare my interests, which are stated in the Register of Members' Interests.

I had the privilege of leading for the Opposition on this Bill before the general election. On 5 April, I made the Opposition opening speech, in response to the speech of the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Ms Hewitt. Since then, she has been awarded a remarkable promotion—she is now the Secretary of State for Health—whereas I have moved into the obscurity of the Whips Office. That might be something to do with the speech I made at that time. It received the support of my hon. Friend John Bercow, but I do not know if it was read by my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth, and my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), and for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)

I support the broad principles of the Bill. It must make sense to bring the different commissions together into one body, and to add the additional strands of sexual orientation, religion or belief, and age. My party has had grave reservations about the legislation on human rights, but given that no body is charged with the promotion of human rights, it must make sense for that to go to this new commission.

I would like the Minister to address clause 13 on monitoring progress. I understand that 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. Is that sufficient scrutiny, or does the Minister feel that the report should be produced more regularly?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best forum for the exercise of scrutiny is this House? Therefore, would it be a helpful indication of the Government's good intent if the Minister were to suggest a willingness to consider an annual parliamentary debate on the progress made by the commission?

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

As always, my hon. Friend comes up with an intelligent and sensible suggestion, but surely the debate in Parliament would have more impact if it were to debate a report by the commission. That is something that we can discuss in Committee, although that is not an offer to serve at this stage.

Clause 28 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 could it be funded by the Legal Services Commission, and what will be the relationship between the two?

Clauses 36 to 38 refer to dissolution, 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. What is the Minister's view on that, and can she perhaps suggest that at least those particular points will be taken care of?

The then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry wrote to several MPs in February, announcing the Government's equalities review, which will run in tandem with the Department of Trade and Industry's discrimination law review. The equalities review will be chaired by Trevor Phillips and will report in 2006 at the earliest. It will review all equality legislation, so is it sensible—a point made well by my hon. Friend Tony Baldry—to go ahead with the Bill before we see the findings of those reviews? I and my Front-Bench colleagues support the broad outlines of the Bill, but it is vital to get it right in every respect, so it would be sensible to await the findings of the review.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend is being exceedingly generous in giving way, so may I gently remind him that on 5 April he was so kind and gracious from the Front Bench as to seek my advice on that point? I was not expecting him to do so but he did. He asked: should we or should we not wait? I advised him that as the decision to bring forward the Bill setting up the commission was based on substantial existing evidence acquired before the decision to initiate the inquiries, it would indeed make sense to proceed. At that point, although Hansard will not record it, I think that my hon. Friend nodded.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

I certainly did: I remember the exchange very well. However, I am concerned that we shall have to come back with further legislation at some point in the future. DTI Ministers will have to look at that point extremely carefully.

I recently held a useful meeting on disability rights and the work of the Disability Rights Commission 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 would not have the same focus, bite and detailed expert knowledge as the existing DRC. We discussed at some length how the disability rights functions of the new commission will work. They do much important work in my constituency and, like me, feel strongly that the new commission must reflect the unique and complex nature of disability, as well as the distinctive legislative provisions on disability. I congratulate them on their work in my constituency, representing individuals and explaining to local businesses exactly what the law says, and helping people with problems in a way that is constructive and invariably sensitive to the needs of business and wealth creation while supporting people with legitimate concerns. Will the Minister comment on that?

I support the concept of a one-stop shop and the idea of bringing together the different bodies so that not only individuals but business organisations know exactly whom to approach. The CBI 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."

I support that point of view, but like the CBI I am concerned about a point that has been made eloquently from our Front-Bench colleagues and by several of my hon. Friends. Yes, there will be substantial start-up costs for the new body; I understand that Ministers are looking at a figure of £24 million. Obviously, the transfer of undertakings—TUPE—will be expensive. New IT systems will need to be set up. Whenever a new organisation is created and various commissions and bodies are moved into a new quango, there will be requirements for updating facilities, such as moving into a new building and so on. Those are the one-off costs, but even bearing in mind the fact that, as the Minister argued, we shall be bringing into the commission additional strands and human rights responsibilities, it should not be necessary for the existing budget of £43 million a year for the combined commissions almost to double to £70 million. Some changes will be needed, but will there really be a need for so many extra staff? A large organisation need have only one IT department, rather than the existing IT departments of the various commissions. It will need only one public relations department and one human resources department. Consolidating all those facilities and departments should bring substantial savings and economies of scale. The DTI can do better than simply saying that the new body will cost more, that there will be many more staff and the budget will be almost twice as big as the combined budgets. The Minister shakes her head, but perhaps she could focus on that question in her reply.

The Minister should look at other examples of the Government creating new consolidated regulatory bodies. The Financial Services Authority's 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 its predecessor bodies such as the Investment Management Regulatory Organisation, the Life Assurance and Unit Trust Regulatory Organisation and the many other bodies that formed the FSA? The DTI can set a better example; it is after all the Department of wealth creation and of business. If the Department really wants to show business that it is serious about offering the taxpayer value for money, it should look at the costs of the new organisation and the number of staff to be employed in it.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

My hon. Friend is making a good point. Although the organisation may need only one HR department, does he agree that given the history of the existing bodies trying to regulate against discrimination and the number of discrimination cases brought against them by their own employees, it will probably need to be a large one?

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend gives a good reason why the new body will have to be a first-class example of how to treat employees.

On the subject of the DTI setting a good example, the Minister did not really reply to my question about the gender gap in the Department. Why is there still a 16 per cent. difference between male and female salaries at the DTI? That figure is only marginally better than the national average. That is a disgrace. Why 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."?

Sixty per cent. did not agree with that statement, so as my hon. Friend suggested, the DTI and organisations that come under its remit should set the best possible example of any Department.

I want to look in more detail at the provisions relating to religious discrimination and legal aid. There is no provision either in the Bill or in existing legal aid legislation for individuals or organisations to be given legal aid if they are being investigated by the commission or being sued by, or with the backing of, the commission. Nor is there any provision for a person or organisation to recover legal costs in defending themselves from investigation, or in fighting a legal claim backed by the commission. In another place, Lady O'Cathain made the point more eloquently than I could when she said that

"in a legal action over a controversial issue of religious liberties, the enormous financial and legal resources of the commission could be ranged on one side of the legal dispute, leaving a defendant on the other side with limited financial resources at a considerable disadvantage. A church or religious charity being sued would then be left passing round the offering plate to raise money to pay lawyers. In these circumstances, even a bad case could make a lot of progress. It could even succeed. The inequality of resources could result in a miscarriage of justice."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 9 November 2005; Vol. 675, c. 641.]

That sums up the point very well indeed, and I hope that the Minister will consider it when she replies to the debate.

We have heard several good speeches this afternoon that referred to religious discrimination. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West talked about political correctness, although I shall not go down that route. However, religious groups by their very nature discriminate on religious grounds the whole time. Several colleagues have given examples of over-zealous interpretation of the existing law and the removal of public references to Christianity. Recently, the Home Office threatened to stop the funding for a carol service for the victims of crime because it was too Christian. Waveney council in East Anglia is planning to scrap grants for Christmas lights because they conflict with its core values of equality and diversity—total nonsense.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

I will not give way. I have only three and a half minutes to go before I must conclude.

Earlier this year, the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust considered banning Bibles from bedside lockers to avoid offending other faiths. Torbay council removed a wooden cross from the wall of a crematorium chapel to cater for everyone in our diverse, multi-faith society. Yes, of course those organisations are acting in good faith, but what concerns me very simply is that, very soon in my judgment, any Christian organisation that receives public money could be told to drop all its religious content or lose public funding. That would be extremely unfortunate and regrettable.

Certainly, the vast majority of my colleagues in the Conservative party feel very strongly that everyone should be given fair treatment. I feel very strongly that discrimination of any kind is morally wrong. It destroys lives. It can break up families and ruin health. It can destroy wealth, because the most valuable asset of any business is obviously 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 maximum fulfilment of their lives, free of any kind of discrimination. We would not necessarily have introduced legislation in the exact form of the Bill if we had won the last election, but I believe that it has many good points, and some weaknesses. If we can address those weaknesses, we might at least have legislation that will meet not only the objectives that the Government have set for it, but the aspirations of the people who will be affected and, very importantly, of those wealth creators without whose wealth and the taxes that they pay we would not have public services in this country.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting 6:42 pm, 21st November 2005

I thank Back-Bench Members of Her Majesty's official Opposition for the honesty and candour that they have shown in the debate today. I grateful to them for their honesty and candour because there is a danger, when watching the two Conservative party leadership contenders, that we may believe that their party is modern and pragmatic. At least we now know where they stand.

We have heard from colleagues who took part in the debate five months ago. We have heard about a calm consensus one month before a general election, and now, five months after that election, we see the Conservative party showing its true colours. I am sure that the honesty and candour exhibited by Conservative Members will be shown in Liberal Democrat "Focus" leaflets and Labour rose leaflets throughout the country over the next three or four years.

I am also grateful to the Minister with responsibility for women and equality for the way that she began the debate. I congratulate her and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Mrs. McGuire on their stewardship of the Bill in recent weeks and months and on the way that they have genuinely listened to the concerns sincerely raised by stakeholders who are keen to try to improve the Bill even more. I declare an interest: in my previous life, I played a small role, along with many others, in trying get to the stage we have reached today. Frankly, it is quite exciting to be speaking as a parliamentarian in the debate on the Bill's Second Reading. I have no doubt that the Bill will lead to real improvements in the lives of ordinary residents in Tooting and all parts of the UK.

I also pay tribute to the previous Minister for Women and Equality—now the Secretary of State for Health—and her deputy, who is now the Minister for Schools, both of whom persevered over the past couple of years to get where we are today. Over that period, many solicitors, non-governmental organisations, voluntary groups and other experts have been involved along the path, and friendships have been made, broken and remade to get to this stage. Many people deserve credit for the fact that we are debating the Bill on Second Reading.

I hope that the Bill will attract support from all parts of the House, for it is not just about what Labour Governments have been doing for their citizens over the past 40 years. The first legislative example of that is the Race Relations Act 1965, which was passed 40 years ago this month. It is worth reminding ourselves that the objections now being made by Back-Bench Members of the official Opposition are not dissimilar to those made in 1965, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1976 and 2001, when Labour Governments have passed legislation to try to fight inequality and discrimination.

The Bill shows what a modern Parliament should be doing for its citizens in the 21st century: passing legislation that will improve the quality of life of the most vulnerable in our society—the elderly, the disabled and minority communities—and ending the inconsistency in anti-discrimination legislation that leads to a hierarchy of protection in equality legislation. I hope that the hierarchy of rights that we have in the UK will be ended by the single equality Act, which the new commission will help to draft. That comprehensive Act will protect all, replacing the patchwork, piecemeal approach that we have had until now.

One commission will represent all—rather than the two, three, four, five, six or seven bodies that we could have if it were not for the Bill—thus ending the ridiculous situation whereby someone who suffers from discrimination on a number of levels is forced to go to two or three commissions for help, using several Acts to get protection and being shunted from pillar to post. It will end the situation where it is lawful for a hospital or council to discriminate against a user of the services provided on the grounds of his or her religion or beliefs, or where it is apparently lawful for Conservative-run Bromley council to deny couples, citizens of the borough, the chance to celebrate civil partnerships.

I could go on to give more examples of the sort of indignities our fellow citizens face because of their age, religion, beliefs, or sexual orientation that will be made unlawful. I hope that that will lead to a change in attitudes and behaviour in this country.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The hon. Gentleman talks about sexual orientation. Does he think that if a gay couple wish to get married in a church, the Church should be allowed to refuse to marry them?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because it is a good example of the scaremongering in which official Opposition Back Benchers are engaged. He refers to the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which is not about marriage. I suggest that he read that Act. I should be happy to pass to him correspondence and the Library research paper that explains what that Act is about and what the Bill is about.

For the first time, the Bill will give our citizens who face discrimination on the grounds of age, sexuality or religion a single body to champion their rights—a single body better placed to tackle double discrimination than its predecessors and better placed to provide businesses and public bodies with a single point of reference for advice and support.

Mrs. Laing, who led for the Opposition, gave four conditions that must be met before she could support the Bill. The first point was the body's cost-effectiveness, but she gave evidence that the body was a good idea. According to her figures, GDP would increase by 3 per cent. if women were allowed to work to the full extent of their abilities. She also made the point that GDP would increase if other minorities contributed to the full. Clearly, this is a classic example of the cost-benefit analysis being satisfied, thus showing that the body makes good sense.

N

If they are scaremongering, is what they are saying scary?

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

My hon. Friend rightly highlights a very important point. Does he agree that the 250,000 people over 50 in London who are willing, able and qualified to work, but who are not in the workplace would contribute in that respect?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting

Absolutely. We should consider not just people of that age, but the 1.4 million disabled people in London who will benefit from the new commission.

As is evident, I hope, from my contribution so far, I believe that the Bill is a key building block in constructing a society where all our citizens have an equal chance to achieve their potential. It is noteworthy that those Opposition Members who have intervened in the debate have been one dimensional and of one type—some would say that they are middle-aged, white Members of Parliament—while those Labour Members who have contributed represent the diverse and fantastic society in which we live.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

My hon. Friend will be aware that everyone in the House—on both sides, really—supports the aims of the Bill. However, is he also aware that although there is obviously support within the black community for dealing with the hierarchy of discrimination, there is great concern about the need to ensure that the Bill and the establishment of a single commission do not mean that there will be a reduction in the ability to fight racial discrimination, which is as bitter and savage now as it was in the 1960s, when the very first race relations Act came about?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting

Anyone who has read press reports on the criminal case surrounding the murder of Anthony Walker will need no further evidence that there are problems in the UK regarding race. My hon. Friend makes an important point, but the Minister has given reassurances in public and private discussions that there will be no levelling down of the gains made by the Commission for Racial Equality and others over the past 30 years. We must emphasise the importance of those assurances and the fact that a concession was made to allow the CRE to carry on until 2009. The commission for equality and human rights will run in parallel with the CRE from 2007, so best practice will hopefully be taken across to the CEHR.

I hope that during her winding-up speech, or in Committee if that is more appropriate, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will address several of the small points that I wish to make. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for women and equality mentioned the removal of the harassment protection from the Bill in the House of Lords, although civil servants, stakeholders and other experts thought the provision was necessary. Although I do not want to go into detail about technicalities now, I thank her for confirming that the discrimination law review will examine the matter again to try to determine whether there are sensible ways of reinserting the provision into legislation. She will be aware of the anomalies that exist. For example, it is possible for victims of harassment on the grounds of race to receive the protection of the law, but people who are harassed because of their religion, belief or sexual orientation will not receive protection, even after the Bill is passed.

I know that the Minister is aware of the concern that has been articulated to me by stakeholders about the narrow definition of "public authority". They are worried that that could lead to a protection gap for vulnerable people, such as elderly citizens in private care homes. In Committee, if not today, I hope that we can consider how we can close that loophole so that such discrimination does not continue even after the Bill is passed.

My third point relates to the period between 2007 and 2009, when the CRE will still be in existence and the CEHR will begin its life. I want to ensure that the CRE's expertise will not be lost while those commissions are running in parallel. Clearly, all the jobs in the CEHR might be taken up by the time that the CRE is abolished, so all the people in the CRE who have gained experience might have no job to go to. We must ensure that best practice is carried over.

I know that the Minister is aware of my fourth point from the discussions that we have had. It relates to the argument about the commission having a race committee, as there is a disability committee, and a London committee, as there is a Scotland committee and a Wales committee. I hope that she will confirm that the commission will be able to set up a London committee and a race committee at an early stage if it and the experts deem it fit. Other points that I wished to raise have been made by other hon. Members, so I will be interested to hear the response to them.

Finally, I come to arguably the most controversial part of my speech. Hon. Members might be aware that a decision on the location of the headquarters of the commission for equality and human rights is imminent—[Interruption.] The London mafia has arrived to give me the moral support that I need. I will not suggest at this stage that the commission should be in Tooting, although I could make a good case for that and hope that the location study will take evidence from me about where the commission should be. There are strong grounds for arguing that the commission's headquarters should be in London because of the city's unique composition, size, demographics, diversity and experience in developing and delivering equality policies.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting

I will, even though my hon. Friend does not have a London accent.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley

Surely all the experience in equality has been gained in Manchester and the commission should thus be based in Manchester, or even Salford.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting

My hon. Friend makes a good argument for why one of the regional offices should be in Manchester—I will certainly support her if she lobbies for that.

If the commission is to be powerful and influential, I believe, as do my London colleagues and the Mayor of London—he would, would he not?—that it should be located where the majority of our decision makers are. Our diversity means that more than 300 different languages are spoken in our capital and more than 14 faiths are practised. More than 50 per cent. of Londoners are women and more than 1.4 million Londoners are disabled.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

My hon. Friend makes important points. Does he agree that as 80 per cent. of black Africans in the UK live in London, the city is a centre that understands those people's needs and the discrimination from which many of those highly-qualified individuals suffer in the workplace?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's point about the high percentage of people with African heritage in London. People from ethnic minorities make up one third of the population of the city, and 39 per cent. of all Muslims in the UK are based in London. Some 48 per cent. of all people throughout the country from ethnic minorities are in London. I could go on and on about why London should be chosen.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Labour, Islington South and Finsbury

Is my hon. Friend aware that the highest percentage of gay couples live in Islington, which is another reason why the commission should be in London?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting

I know that the Minister is being persuaded by the strength of the argument made by London Members. As I am sure that the case has been made, and because I fear a lynching from my friends in the north, I shall stop. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to speak in the debate.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point 6:57 pm, 21st November 2005

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Khan. I congratulate him on his bid for the commission to be based in Tooting. However, I hope that he will carry out his threat and distribute copies of what I have to say in Castle Point because I honestly believe that I speak for the people. British people believe in fair play. We instinctively support measures that prevent people from being treated unfairly, and an equality Bill thus seems perfectly reasonable.

I accept that the Bill has good intentions. I can support many of its aims, but that said, I wish to make several important points. We are still a Christian country. More than three quarters of people declared in the 2001 census that they considered themselves to be Christians. Our strong Christian heritage is a key part of our charm and strength as a nation. It has engendered our tolerance and our fight for the human rights, freedom and democracy that have helped to shape a better world.

We are not multicultural. Our culture and traditions are British with a Christian basis. That has served us and the rest of the world well over the centuries. Our Christian traditions guide how we relate to fellow men and give us a strong belief in the dignity and worth of every individual human being, regardless of background, race, sex, or who they are. Those values and traditions are sadly missing in some of the cultures that we are being driven to assimilate into our society. I need make no apology for stating that people who come to this country to live should respect our culture and our time-honoured standards.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

My hon. Friend has intervened 10 or 12 times. We will have a detailed debate in Committee, and I hope that he will hold his interventions until that time. Many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, some of whom will be disappointed.

The House should protect our British interests. It should not destroy our traditions of decency, but that is what the Bill could do, in the extreme, if it is not tidied up and improved.

The Bill creates a commission to enforce all laws on discrimination, including those on race, sex and disability, taking over from the existing commissions. It will also cover sexual orientation, age, and religion or belief. Part 2 creates free-standing religious discrimination rights for the first time. I hope that combining all those areas in one commission will work, but it could result in a very large and possibly oppressive bureaucratic body that has unprecedented powers and that costs a lot more than the existing arrangements.

The other place, with characteristic wisdom, expressed great concern about the original clause 3, which charged the commission with the "creation of a society" in which there is no discrimination. Who will define and interpret discrimination, and who in this unelected and unaccountable quango will make the complex and controversial decisions between the groups? Let us take the case of Travellers, for instance. Some claim that it is discriminating for a community to expect Travellers to respect the same laws and regulations that the rest of society has to respect. I disagree with that, but I will not be asked to join the commission, because I am much too un-PC, as the House will by now have gathered.

If experience is anything to go by, the commission will comprise some very PC people who push their marginal agendas on society. One has just to look at another quango—the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Its gatekeepers are drawn in a very biased manner from the pro-choice side, neglecting the pro-life stance. Thus the HFEA is grossly out of step with society, but it thinks that it knows better than ordinary people and is pushing its agenda, fast and furious, against the stream of public opinion.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

I have explained; no.

Do we really want to hand over to an unrepresentative and unaccountable body the job of changing our society, putting our traditions and tolerant British way of life at risk? I believe that this Bill could create a backlash that will boost extremist groups in this country. We must stop that. Like so many Government initiatives, the Bill has good intentions behind it but falls foul of the law of unintended consequences. What business is it of unelected, possibly biased and PC bureaucrats to decide what sort of society we should live in? Why are the Government promoting that? Is it a mistake? Do they not understand the dangers, or do they have designs on our British traditions, as they have on the destruction of the other place, our police forces, our counties, our sovereignty, and now, it seems, society itself?

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Conservative, Braintree

Does my hon. Friend not understand that our society has changed over the years? Does he not agree that there is indeed discrimination against blacks, against Muslims and against people of all sort of races, and that we need a body to keep an eye on such bigotry in our country?

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

I agree, of course, that we must tackle discrimination in all its evil forms. I want to do that and I think that we can do that without creating a single body made up of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who push their biased agendas on society. Society has changed over the years and will continue to do so, but it must change organically. It is not for some bureaucratic body to force that change through against the wishes of the people.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

No, I will not.

The other place amended clause 3 so that it reads:

"encouraging and supporting the development of a society" but those weasel words do not resolve the problem. The Bill still tells this band of commissioners that changing our society is their responsibility. That is dangerous and it is wrong. Legislation should be about limiting the powers of state bodies. I believe that, and that is why I am on the Conservative Benches. We need smaller, less intrusive government. The clause is about giving the commission unprecedented powers over society, and my theory is that in time the commissioners will take even more powers for themselves, just as the HFEA has done and is still doing. People who already fear the nanny state will find this abhorrent. Good souls such as Littlejohn, Hitchens and other celebrity defenders of our way of life must stop the country sleepwalking into this one.

How can the commissioners reconcile the competing and conflicting interests of different groups?

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Evangelical Christian groups want the freedom to proclaim the gospel wherever they go, and I have no problem with that. Secularist groups cannot bear to be preached at; they find all religion abhorrent—so be it—but how will the commission decide which interests come first?

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

I assume that the hon. Gentleman would accept that one English tradition that he would think very good would be that of morris men. I can guarantee that if I went to see Ripley morris men, with whom I am very friendly, I would get 100 per cent. support for a desire to end bigotry, discrimination, and so on. I am interested to hear how the hon. Gentleman intends to end bigotry, discrimination and prejudice in Castle Point, or does it not exist there?

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

The hon. Lady makes a very fair point. We have got bigotry, we have got discrimination, and we have to tackle that. My thesis is that, given some of the problems with some of the clauses, this Bill will boost the emergence of more fundamentalism and more extremist groups and parties, which will engender a backlash in society that could be counter-productive.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

No, not at the moment.

Then there is the clash between homosexual rights and religion. The six main faiths still believe that homosexual practice is sinful. Homosexual rights advocates deny that there is any moral component to homosexuality, and that clash of views is irreconcilable.

N

Perfectly put.

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Action by the commission would be deeply controversial. If an actively homosexual person wanted to be a youth worker in a mosque, a temple, a synagogue or a church—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Will my hon. Friend allow me to intervene in what is supposed to be a debate?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. [Hon. Members: "Ladies first?"] My hon. Friend said that the United Kingdom is a Christian country. May I simply put to him in all courtesy that neither the enjoyment of religious belief nor the status of that belief in society depends in any way on discriminating against, repressing or vilifying someone of a different religious faith or a different sexual orientation? If my hon. Friend cannot grasp that, he has a bit of learning to do.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently, of course. He should wait until we are in Committee to bring forward all those points and to argue his case. His views and mine are as reconcilable as those of homosexual rights activists and the six major religions.

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Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Bercow!

Submitted by Neil Richardson

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

No. The hon. Gentleman has just walked back into the Chamber, so I will desist. [Hon. Members: "Give way."] Other Members wish to speak.

Under the Bill, the commission may help to take away the right of religions to insist that their teaching staff can uphold basic ethical teachings of their faith. Surely those religions should retain that right. The commission must enforce regulation 33 of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. Those regulations contain exceptions for religious groups, but gay rights groups loathe those exceptions and will litigate for the narrowest possible interpretation of them.

Clause 28 empowers the proposed new commission to provide legal assistance for an individual case. That will be paid for by our constituents who, frankly, can think of better uses for their hard-earned money than promoting gay rights at the expense of our Christian traditions. Let me make it absolutely clear: this Government Bill will be a recruiting sergeant for nasty fundamentalism and extremist groups.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Clause 80 empowers the Secretary of State to legislate by statutory instrument for sexual orientation discrimination outside the workplace—for instance, in goods and services. The result will be laws that mirror the religious discrimination provisions in part 2, but what protection will there be? Will the Government allow exceptions for religious groups? There is no surprise, as the line taken by Stonewall is that exceptions will not be allowed. Of course, Angela Mason, the former director of Stonewall, which is a homosexual pressure group, now leads on this issue in the Department of Trade and Industry. I shall wait to see what the Government do on that one.

The Christian Institute said:

"To legislate in a way which effectively forces religious believers to go against their ethical teaching would be grossly offensive."

It calls for

"wide-ranging and robust exemptions".

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

If they are not included, a church could be sued over its stance on sexual morality, and a Catholic newspaper could be sued for refusing to carry a gay rights advert attacking the Vatican's teaching on homosexuality.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

The Bill outlaws harassment by public authorities— [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. The hon. Gentleman has indicated on several occasions that he is not going to give way, and that he wishes to continue with his speech.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Many Members want to speak in this debate. Some of them may be disappointed, which is the main reason why I am not giving way.

I am delighted that the Government will not press for the creation of a religious harassment offence, which represented a threat to free speech comparable to that contained in the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. The Equality Bill outlaws harassment by public authorities. Such harassment is defined as violating a person's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for a person. None of this sounds very nice and I would not advocate it, but to try to make it illegal is quite another thing. A person may feel that a council has created a hostile environment for him merely by using a church as a polling station. Indeed, this example was suggested by a MinisterLady Scotland.

Many local authority-owned places are used for street preaching and the free expression of contentious views on religion, as Lord Lyell, the former Attorney-General, pointed out. He took the view that we need to fear not just court cases, but

"the much wider risk of what public officials will believe it is their duty to do to restrict free speech and free activity."

He surely has a point. We all know of stories—we have heard them again today—of politically correct officials banning Christmas and Christmas lights, and withdrawing support for Christian charities. Local authorities may refuse to fund Christian hostels that say grace at meal times because of the threat posed by the harassment clause. Earlier this year, I raised in this House one such case on behalf of the very good people of Thundersley congregational church, in my constituency.

The simple fact is that there is too much legislation in this place. Few, if any, MPs were asked for this Bill during the last election, and there was a good reason why. We have better things to do with our time in this House—things that people actually want and need, and which will help to develop a better and more tolerant society that respects human rights and individual freedoms. The Bill as drafted could boost extremist groups. It could drive society against sensible and good human rights, and against the respect for the individual and the tolerance that we broadly enjoy now by common consent, as a result of our traditions and Christian heritage. Let us not put all that at risk through the badly thought-out clauses in this rambling and patchwork Bill, which is steeped in PC and will become a charter for lawyers, even though it is based on some good intentions and has some good parts.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley 7:13 pm, 21st November 2005

[Interruption.] Follow that indeed. As I recall, it was Conservative Members who, in arguing that there was too much legislation, managed to prevent us for a long time from getting legislation to ban some of the worst excesses of those using large fireworks and bangers. I find it hard to know how to respond to the last contribution; it is tempting to do so, but it would be much too entertaining.

One point that does need challenging, however, is the continual repetition of the phrase "political correctness". My favourite phrase of the afternoon was, "The politically correct march of an increasingly barmy Britain." As a student I was taught that one needs to be able to define one's terms before scattering them all over the place. Opposition Members should define the phrase "politically correct" before scattering it around like a swearword. To do so is ridiculous and is the refuge of the ignorant and unthinking.

The very estimable hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) made an excellent speech, but I was disappointed when she, too, fell into using such language. Members who do so should be very sure of their ground. After a good start and a not bad ending, Mr. Bellingham hit a purple patch that included a large number of examples of "political correctness". I remember vividly that when I lived in Haringey, black bin liners and children singing "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" were banned. That seemed very odd, because I still had black bin liners and I knew of many children who were still singing that nursery rhyme in nurseries. So before people start scattering such terms around, they should be sure of their ground.