Clause 77 — Employment equality regulations

Orders of the Day — Equality Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 16th January 2006.

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Amendment made: No. 14, in clause 77, page 46, line 27, at end add—

'(2) For regulation 3(1)(a) of the Regulations substitute—

"(a) on the grounds of the religion or belief of B or of any other person except A (whether or not it is also A's religion or belief) A treats B less favourably than he treats or would treat other persons;"

(3) Omit regulation 3(2) of the Regulations."'.—[Meg Munn.]

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I feel obliged to hope that you might point out to those in charge of the business of this House that it has become clear that the time available for considering the Bill on Report has been insufficient. No one has suggested during today's proceedings that there has been any delay or filibustering, but having concluded consideration on Report, there are one or two outstanding matters that ought to have been considered.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not something on which the Chair can adjudicate, but his words are on the record and will no doubt be noticed.

Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 9:01 pm, 16th January 2006

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

All parts of this House and the other place have adopted a positive and constructive approach to the Bill;
for that, I express my gratitude. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, who made her debut at the Dispatch Box, to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Paul Goggins, and to my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disability for their expert steering of the Bill through its parliamentary passage.

Nye Bevan said that his political motivation was to achieve serenity in people's lives. Many in this House will have direct experience of how homophobia, racism and discrimination can destroy lives, poison communities and weaken not just our society, but our economy. The Bill has at its heart the removal of fear. It will promote equality, tackle discrimination and widen opportunity. It is underpinned by our shared values of fairness, freedom and solidarity.

The Bill is not the end of the journey; it is a vital step on that journey. As we move forward, we will engage properly with all who have an interest in it—inside and outside of this House. The first part of the Bill creates the new commission for equality and human rights, which will play a crucial role in joining up the attack on discrimination. For the first time, it will tackle issues such as ageism and homophobia, and extend support to minority groups such as transsexual people.

Once the Bill is enacted, we will move swiftly to recruiting and appointing the new commissioners and their staff. We will ensure that the commissioners are the right people for the work, and that they have personal experience of the issues that they are dealing with. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality said, it would be inconceivable—for the benefit of my hon. Friend Keith Vaz, I should point out that the Oxford English dictionary definition of "inconceivable" is "cannot be imagined; unbelievable"—to have a commission with, for instance, no black or minority ethnic representatives on it.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

No.

The commission will assume its powers and functions in October 2007, with race folding in two years later. The debate on Report highlighted the need for the new commission to make a strong contribution to racial equality—a point that Trevor Phillips made when I met him in November. We have listened carefully to the points raised and will put in place the work needed to ensure that they are addressed.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

No, I will not.

Clause 10 emphasises in law the priority of ensuring good community relations and highlights race and faith in particular. The CRE will remain in existence until 2009. This will enable it to play a full role in discussions about how the commission works. The passing of the Bill does not determine how the commission will run, but it is the start of a new conversation and process in which black and minority ethnic communities will be fully involved. We are committed to an orderly transfer of the race agenda and, in co-operation with the Home Office, we will immediately initiate a work stream that will directly involve members of the black and minority ethnic community and others, in exploring how, for example, the race equality and good relations functions of the new commission could be framed, including its important focus on race and faith communities. In this way, we will strive to make sure that race and faith communities have full confidence in the new commission and that the commission's governance structures and strategic plan are designed in a way that reflects their concerns.

Part 2 of the Bill introduces a new protection against discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services and in other areas on the grounds of religion or belief. After concerns were expressed during the Bill's passage, we brought in additional powers to extend that to sexual orientation. We will issue a consultation document on that shortly and plan to exercise the power by October, at the same time as on religion and belief.

Going forward, we are committed to tackling similar discrimination in other areas, including on the grounds of age and transgender. Those issues will be tackled as part of the discrimination law review, which will lead to a single equality Bill in the life of this Parliament and will simplify 30 years of equality legislation, ironing out many of the anomalies that we know exist. We will issue a Green Paper on the review's findings before the summer, which will ensure that we can also give full consideration to emerging findings from Trevor Phillips's review into the fundamental causes of inequality.

The fourth part of the Bill places a duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between men and women. We are currently completing consultation on that and hope to bring forward regulations in April next year.

The Bill is about replacing privilege with opportunity, discrimination with equality, and fear with serenity. Those are noble ambitions, which I know Members on both sides of the House support. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality) 9:07 pm, 16th January 2006

For once, I can say yes to the Secretary of State. He hopes that we will all support the Bill. He commends it to the House, and so do I. We have supported it from the beginning, and indeed since before the general election. I support it because its main cause is freedom—the freedom of every individual in our society to live their life as they choose or, indeed, as they have to, for it is not always a matter of choice, regardless of their circumstances, whatever they may be.

Throughout the Bill's passage, we have spoken about the six strands of equality. It is not, in fact, about just six strands. The principle of the Bill is an integrated approach against discrimination for any reason, and not just for the six strands we refer to technically. It is therefore essential that the new commission should command confidence. I hope that the cross-party support that the Bill has received this evening and throughout its passage will give the project a good start. I look forward to the outcome of the equality review, to which the Secretary of State referred, and to our taking the whole matter of achieving further equality another step forward at some time in future.

I pay tribute to all the bodies that have been involved for a long time in the preparation of the Bill and in discussion of its content. Those bodies include statutory bodies, pressure groups and charities, which have contributed over a long period to our debates. Their knowledge and experience have been brought to bear on the Bill through Members of this House and of the other place and that is why we have had such constructive and informed debates. I hope that everyone who has urged the introduction of this legislation will feel that an enormous step forward has been taken when we give this Bill its Third Reading this evening.

At the end of a long process, I also wish to pay tribute to several people, including the many Ministers involved in the Bill. In particular, I pay tribute to the Minister for Women and Equality, who has been reasonable and polite and displayed considerable forbearance during the consideration of the Bill. I also pay tribute to the passionate Back Benchers on both sides of the House who have contributed to the debate and to the Liberal Democrat and other party spokesmen, who have been amazingly constructive. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Grieve, who has contributed considerably to the Bill, but has not been able to give us the benefit of his wise arguments this evening, except for some 50 seconds a short time ago. The debate this evening has been the poorer—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

We have been short-changed.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

My hon. Friend is right and I hope that we will hear more from my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield at some other time.

I also wish to mention my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell, who has been committed to this issue for many years, and my hon. Friends the Members for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) and for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who served on the Committee. I also pay tribute to all the officials who have worked so hard on the Bill. They are often forgotten.

I must place on the record the fact that I remain concerned about four areas. I hope that my fears will be proved wrong, but I am still worried about, first, unnecessary bureaucracy. I hope that that will be avoided. Secondly, I am concerned about extra burdens on small businesses, which must not be allowed, because that would undermine employment and the economy. Thirdly, I am also concerned about the risk of excessive and dogmatic adherence to political correctness. It has not happened during the passage of the Bill and I hope that it does not happen when the Bill becomes law. Fourthly, I remain, of course, concerned about costs. However, I have said enough about taxpayers this evening and I do not need to repeat my arguments.

I hope that my fears are not realised. We all want these measures to succeed. I do not believe that it is possible to achieve equality, because every individual is unique. I was brought up to believe that "You should do unto others as you would have them do unto you." That is what this Bill is about and I give it our unqualified support.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 9:13 pm, 16th January 2006

I welcome the principle of a unified commission and I congratulate Ministers on introducing this important legislation. I also wish to congratulate those groups in the black and minority ethnic communities—Operation Black Vote, the 1990 Trust and the race advisers to the Mayor of London—who have worked so hard to put race on the agenda in the context of these debates.

On Second Reading, there was little discussion about race, and this evening we have managed to put that right. I welcome the unified commission in principle, and I think that the Bill—and the thinking behind it—represents an advance for all our communities. However, I remain concerned about the position of issues of race in the new commission, the finances available for work on race in the new commission, the law enforcement work of the new commission and, perhaps above all, the support that will be available for local race equality councils. As I said on Report, some of the most valuable work funded by the CRE was carried out by local and regional equalities committees.

With those caveats, I welcome the Bill. We have listened carefully to what Ministers said about race and we shall follow how things unfold as we build the new commission, but it would be a mistake for Ministers to believe that the debate about race and the commission is over: for my hon. Friends and I, that debate, and the debate on how the commission does not simply do what the CRE did but improves on it, has only just begun.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities 9:15 pm, 16th January 2006

My hon. Friend Sandra Gidley wanted to be here, but has been called away to another engagement. She has asked me to pass on her thanks to those who have worked on the Bill. She subscribes to the views that I am about to set out.

The Bill is a liberal one; the capital L could apply to the Equality Bill introduced in the House of Lords by my colleague, Lord Lester. I understand that the Government will try to bring it forward soon, but that is a debate for another day. The Bill is liberal because it provides for a mechanism whereby the human rights of individuals can be if not guaranteed, at least looked after and promoted by the commission. It is also liberal, as it attempts to end certain aspects discrimination in a reasonable and balanced way.

One of the joyous things in the experience of those of us who have worked on the Bill is that we have not heard the negative charges, previously made in the House, that there is an equality industry or a discrimination lobby. I am grateful to Members on both sides of the House that we have confined the debate to the issues, without straying into those areas.

The Government are generally to be commended on the Bill, especially in its present form, as it has been significantly amended in both Houses. The commission to be set up under part 1 is a good structure; it does not include everything that the Liberal Democrats wanted, but it scores well in comparison with the ideal set out in the Paris principles. Government amendments, especially in the House of Lords, have improved the Bill, particularly part 1. It is appropriate to recognise that and to pay tribute to Ministers. The fact that there were no Divisions in the Standing Committee and only one on Report—not on a principle, but on the timing and speed of the promotion of transgender equality and non-discrimination—shows a spirit of collegiality and a shared sense of purpose in bringing the Bill to the statute book.

Much of the credit must go to the Ministers who steered the Bill through the House. I echo the views of the Secretary of State about the way in which the Minister for Women and Equality handled the complexities of the legislation. It was not straightforward and, as we saw today, sometimes she had to deal with points and concerns expressed by Members on both sides of the House, which is never easy. She carried it off commendably.

The Home Office is stocked with Jekyll and Hyde-type characters. I hope that it does not upset the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Paul Goggins, when I say that he is an effective Jekyll; I will not flatter the Hydes by telling him who I think they are. It was certainly a pleasure to work with him, and the fact that the Government were willing to listen and to make changes—albeit not all that we wanted—made it a productive experience.

As Mrs. Laing said, we have benefited from Back-Bench contributions, especially from Vera Baird in Committee and her equivalent—if I do not offend both of them by describing him thus—John Bercow. He was not a member of the Committee but he has always had concerns about these matters and puts them clearly.

We still have concerns about part 2, but the fact that the House of Lords removed harassment issues from the Bill left a core in part 2 that we could all generally support. As Ministers will know, there are concerns about the existing width of the exemptions under clauses 57, 58 and 59 and, indeed, about whether clause 60 is strictly needed, given that organisations that seek to use a test should have an ethos that requires that test. Nevertheless, the Bill is much better than before, and credit is due to the Government, as well as Opposition parties, for reaching this point.

It was a pleasure to serve on the Committee with the hon. Members for Epping Forest and, of course, for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), both of whom are forensic yet charming—a rare combination in lawyers, unless someone is paying them a great amount of money.

Part 3 is a crucial and welcome addition to the Bill, because we all know the problems that people face with discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. However, the fact that pressure needed to be applied to provide part 3 hints at the hierarchy of discrimination and inequalities. We therefore wish good speed to the discrimination law review, to produce a single Equality Bill and then an Act, which will end the debate about hierarchies once and for all. Of course, part 4 is key, because we will not achieve full equality for men and women until public authorities have a positive duty to promote such equality.

In conclusion, we are still in the early days of the era post the Human Rights Act 1998. A great deal needs to be done to raise public awareness about people's rights and, in particular, about public authorities' duties to ensure that they do not discriminate against people or breach human rights—but we hope that, one day, they will have a duty to promote human rights. It is with great pleasure that I wish the Bill well. I hope that it receives Royal Assent and look forward to its enactment. I hope that the whole country benefits from the measures that will be set out in statute that we have debated these past few weeks and months.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman PPS (Rt Hon Geoff Hoon, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons 9:22 pm, 16th January 2006

I endorse all the compliments that have been given in the Chamber this evening. I served on the Standing Committee and spoke on Second Reading, and it has been a hugely positive process. It was a pleasure to sit and simply listen to the debates prior to Third Reading, and I will keep my remarks extremely brief.

Like everyone else, I think that creating a single commission is an extremely good move forward, because of all the advantages that a single commission ought to have. We talk about a single, unified body being accessible and coherent, which is a great concept, but we must get it right in practice. So what do we mean by the word "accessible"? We mean that the messages sent from the new body must be extremely clear, and an awful lot of proactive work must be done to inform people about the new commission, especially those who may wish to use it. The word "coherent" means a shared culture, consistent ways of working, shared good practice and an ability to deal with multi-stranded, complex cases. All that is not easy to deliver, and the key to doing so is the appointment of an extremely talented and able chief executive, as well as the commission under that person. I am sure that the Government will pay particular attention to the appointment of the chief executive, because that is critical to the success of the commission.

I welcome the provisions in the schedules to the Bill that make it necessary for the commission to work towards developing a strategic plan through consultation and preparation. It will be required to set out the activities that it will cover, the timetable that it will use and to set priorities. I also welcome the duty imposed on the commission to review and revise its strategic plan as it moves forward. That is extremely important but, as important, is the link between that process and Parliament and the fact that the strategic plan and its revision will be laid before Parliament. Only through such a transparent process will this accountable body of Parliament have a regular opportunity to scrutinise in detail the work of the commission. If we cannot do that, there is no point in having a commission. It must be made accountable.

Similarly, all the commission's processes of monitoring the law and the progress made must be examined. Again, there must be a link with Parliament and reports must be laid before us. There is also a connection between the consultation that all those processes demand and the absolute necessity for having the strong regional footprints to which the Minister has referred throughout the debate.

People who know me know that I have a particular interest in disability issues. I am very pleased with the proposals to integrate more closely the commission's duties and functions in relation to disabled people with its duties and functions in relation to other groups. Nevertheless, the Disability Rights Commission is a very junior member when compared with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. I am therefore pleased that disability issues are recognised in statute by the fact they will have their own committee, albeit with a sunset clause, which is right.

My hon. Friend Ms Abbott spoke about how difficult it is for people from black and Asian groups to get through the door into employment. May I drew to her attention how very difficult it is for people with disabilities, particular those with mental disabilities, to get through that door let alone access all the other services that we take for granted? When the commission is set up, I shall look at how it makes a difference to the lives of all the people in the various strands or groups, but particularly at the progress that is made for people with disabilities.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 9:27 pm, 16th January 2006

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak after Liz Blackman. Like me, she has concerns about the impact of the battle against discrimination on people with disabilities. There are fundamental opportunities for the disability agenda, and I wish to direct my comments at that.

Some hon. Members may have read the story on the BBC website last week about the disabled man who was left stranded at Euston. He had arrived 20 minutes early to catch a Virgin west coast train to Liverpool. He had booked help but, when he arrived at Euston, he was told that no help was available and that station staff were too busy. He called three times before eventually being told by someone from Network Rail that it was just one of those things. Sometimes one misses a train. The person who missed the train happened to be Bert Massie, the head of the DRC, but it is an example of the discrimination and difficulties that disabled people face every day of every week.

The story illustrates the fundamental role of the DRC. It is not just a body that campaigns for appropriate legislation and for the implementation of that legislation; it is also a body that must highlight abuses of the system and use the power of publicity to highlight the problems. It is vital that that campaigning role is not compromised in the new much larger body, and that is why I very much support the amendments eloquently proposed by Keith Vaz.

There have been huge advances on the disability agenda in the past 10 years, starting with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was piloted through the House by the shadow Foreign Secretary and former leader of the Conservative party, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague. The National Disability Council and the Disability Rights Commission were established. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 got rid of discrimination involving access to education, and EU regulations in 2003 ended exemptions for certain categories of employers. Of course, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 was passed last year. Running through all that legislation has been an understanding that when dealing with discrimination against disabled people, the issues are different from those involved in other types of discrimination.

There is a need for an element of positive discrimination for disabled people. Most legislation on race, sexuality and gender makes no mention of a specific gender, race or sexuality. We must give people with disabilities proactive help if they are to enjoy the opportunities that the rest of society enjoys. An element of judgment must be applied when implementing disability legislation. We require employers to make "reasonable adjustments" and public authorities must have "due regard" to promoting equality of opportunity. Such judgment is required because significant costs are attached to disability legislation. It is right to spend that money—for example, the rail industry will spend £142 million on upgrading rail carriages between now and 2020—and the costs must be carefully thought through.

It is not enough for people with disabilities for us simply to eliminate negative attitudes and stereotypes among those who do not have disabilities. We can be as progressive, enlightened and compassionate as we like, but that alone will not solve the problem of the old lady who is stuck in her flat because of her disability. That is why we must realise that different measures are necessary if we are to deal with the problems faced by people with disabilities.

I welcome the Bill from the perspective of the disability agenda, but I urge the Secretary of State to consider two vital roles that the new commission must have when it is set up. First, it must carefully monitor the implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, especially in respect of transport. I have mentioned the upgrading of rail carriages, but there is a question whether audio-visual facilities are needed on buses so that people can hear and see when they reach the right bus stop more easily than they can at present. There is also a question whether the legislation should be extended to aviation and shipping. For example, there have been well-publicised cases of disabled people who have tried to get Ryanair flights, but have been treated in a way that most hon. Members would find utterly appalling. The sooner the Act can have teeth to stop such incidents from happening, the better for thousands of people with disabilities.

Secondly, I hope that the new commission will look beyond the DDA to new areas in which it might have a role. I hope that it will examine whether disabled people should have a right to independent living and whether elements of the DDA should be extended to schools and communal areas, which are not covered at the moment. I hope that the commission will consider whether there should be a more generous interpretation of mental illness rather than the current fairly strict one. I hope that it will examine whether the Act should apply to volunteering, which is a vital way back into independent living and the world of work for a number of people with disabilities. I hope that it will consider whether something should be done for carers, who are vital to improving the life chances of many people with disabilities, but are not especially helped by legislation as it stands.

I hope that the commission will examine the link between disability and poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that the percentage of people of working age with disabilities who live in income poverty is double that of people who do not have disabilities. It also found that that number is rising, while the percentage of children and pensioners living in income poverty is falling.

Finally, I hope that the new commission will consider bold measures to eliminate discrimination in areas such as health care, housing, benefits and social services, in all of which there are substantial battles that must be won if we are to secure equality of opportunity and equality of esteem for people with disabilities.

Disability is not something that affects only a small minority: one in seven people in this country have disabilities and one in 10 care for someone with disabilities. I will turn 40 this year; by the time I am 85, there will be four times as many 85-year-olds as there are now, and many of them will have disabilities. I therefore hope that as we move forward with the new commission we will continue to make progress for people with disabilities. We must be vigilant against losing the focus that to date has been so successful for people with disabilities and others. We need to recognise that we are at the start of a journey in relation to tackling discrimination and improving the life chances of people with disabilities and we must match the legislative progress that we have made in the House with practical progress on the ground. Only by doing that will we achieve equality of opportunity and equality of esteem for disabled people and ensure that they become not just aspirations for those who seek to eliminate prejudice, but realities for those who suffer it.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley 9:36 pm, 16th January 2006

We can see that there is genuine consensus on the Bill both inside and outside the House. My hon. Friend the Minister and the Government are to be congratulated on bringing the work on the legislation to this stage with that level of consensus. That is good.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister that there is no real need for the Bill to create a separate committee for London. As the MP for a Greater Manchester constituency, I think it is important that we all support the basing of the commission in Greater Manchester and acknowledge that doing that in no way downgrades any of its functions. Manchester is a great area in which to live and work, and the Worsley constituency is a very convenient place from which to travel if one is based in Manchester.

The public sector duty to promote gender equality is vital and I hope that we will see public authorities in their role as employers taking proactive steps to improve the position of women in employment. As I noted on Second Reading, there are a great many issues for them to concentrate on. The duty to promote equality will help to deal with the way in which caring affects people's ability to work. That has just been mentioned by Mr. Hunt. As we know, carers are a key group in our society, accounting for 10 per cent. of our population, and in some age groups, carers' ability to work is affected by their caring responsibilities. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has a separate strand to promote equality between those with dependants and those without. Although there is to be no separate strand on caring responsibilities in the work of the new CEHR, I hope that it will become a priority for the new commission, as it is for the Government.

The Bill is the biggest step forward in the law on equality in many years. There is vital work for the new commission to do and it is important that it can be done in an integrated way, encompassing equality, diversity, human rights and work to promote good relations. I hope that in doing that work in an integrated way, the commission will also be able to take a broad view of equality in ways that will help other groups who suffer discrimination in employment—for example, people who face the difficulties of balancing work and caring responsibilities. Among the many things that we can do for carers, it is key to ensure that they can look forward to some of the serenity to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred. Serenity is a quality that we could all use a bit more of in our lives.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 9:39 pm, 16th January 2006

The fifth of April 2005 witnessed the first of the two Second Reading debates on the Bill that this House has had. On that occasion I had the privilege of expressing my strong and vociferous support for the Bill, and in a thinly attended Chamber I took 25 minutes to do so. Tonight, I shall be much briefer because I am conscious that others wish to contribute to the debate.

This is a first-class Bill. It was given an extremely pithy and eloquent recommendation to the House by the Secretary of State about half an hour ago. It will establish the commission for equality and human rights. It will legislate to prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods, services and facilities on grounds of religion, belief or sexual orientation, and it will impose a duty on public authorities to promote gender equality. These provisions are all extremely welcome, and in two specific senses. First, they are welcome in the sense that they are not merely aspirational or the expression of a theory. They will make a concrete difference in terms of improving people's lives, which has to be the ultimate test of the appropriateness of a particular piece of legislation. Secondly—this is not insignificant either—they send out a signal as to the type of society in which the House believes, and I believe that the legislation is good.

In all courtesy to the Minister, whose stewardship of the Bill I greatly respect, I think that she would be unwise—and she is not—if she were not fully to heed and reflect on two of the most powerful, impassioned and convincing speeches that I have heard in the House in a long time, namely those from the hon. Members for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Their speeches gave a real meaning to the idea, old-fashioned though it might be, that one comes into the Chamber and listens open-mindedly to a contribution with no preconceptions and is influenced in one judgment by that speech. That is the best tribute that I can give to those two hon. Members. My thinking was influenced as they spoke.

The Bill was good before and, as a result of amendments in the course of legislative scrutiny, it is better now. I think that it is unlikely that the House will be divided tonight, but if there are people who are genuinely opposed in principle to the Bill, they might wish to test their opinion in the Lobby. However, I strongly support the Bill and, if there is a Division, I shall express that support by going, with pride, through the Aye Lobby.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East 9:42 pm, 16th January 2006

I begin by thanking John Bercow for his kind comments about both me and my hon. Friend Ms Abbott. We are not used to having such nice things said about us. I return the compliment because the hon. Gentleman always makes thoughtful and impassioned speeches from the Opposition Benches.

I shall be brief. What is good about the Bill is that it has the support of both sides of the House. Many speeches today were based on the experience of so many Members. I shall concentrate on the issue of race, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, because it is obviously of constituency interest to me. Forty-nine per cent. of my constituents are of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin, so it is an issue that I have followed during the 19 years that I have been in Parliament. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree when I say that I cannot remember a time when there has been such a consensus over an issue of this sort. It is so good to see such a consensus.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for going to such an extent to meet the objections that we expressed in the amendments that we tabled. It is good to hear from the Secretary of State, because he is the man who will be making the appointments to the new commission. His statements tonight about it being inconceivable that the commission could be formed without proper representation of the black and Asian communities is something that we warmly welcome. I look forward to seeing those appointments when they are made. I am sure that a number of the groups that have been involved in putting forward views on the Bill, such as the CRE, the 1990 Trust and the Greater London authority, will want to put forward their representations as well.

I was pleased by the points made by the Minister when she said clearly that if the structures were not put in place the Government would have to think about what they needed to do to ensure that objections were met. As I have said, that is a clear statement. I know that she fell short of a commitment to me to bring forward legislation, but there are many Members in the Chamber—I see my hon. Friends the Members for Tooting (Mr. Khan) and for Brent, South (Ms Butler) and others—who would be prepared to bring forward a private Member's Bill to ensure that the commitments that have been made from the Government Dispatch Box are adhered to by the new commission. I hope, however, that we will not need to do so. I share the optimism of my hon. Friend the Minister, who performs her duties with enthusiasm. I remind her that it is high time that she joined the payroll vote after her sterling efforts on the Bill.

I end by thanking two Ministers who are not in the Chamber, but who have had an important say in the progress of the Bill. I am grateful to my near neighbour, my right hon. Friend Ms Hewitt, the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and to Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, who has always taken a strong interest in these issues. He was excellent when the Bill was in the Lords, and in his ministerial capacity he has gone out of his way to make sure that he uses the power of appointment—one of the most important powers available to Ministers—to ensure that a number of black and Asian people have been appointed to positions in his portfolio. Ministers should remember that when they exercise power, but I wish the Bill and the commission well.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence) 9:45 pm, 16th January 2006

I strongly support the observations made by my neighbour and hon. Friend Mr. Hunt. If the Bill achieves what he hopes it will achieve it will serve some useful purpose, but I have reservations about it. I do not wish to rain on anyone's parade, but it is important that such concerns, which extend beyond the House, are expressed.

I have grave concerns about the Bill because of its likely impact on freedom of choice and expression. It is likely to reinforce the situation in which certain minorities no longer command equality but are, indeed, placed in a position of superiority. Anyone who expresses a contrary view will then be exposed to the threat of prosecution. There are genuine fears about the Bill. The Secretary of State has tried to assure us that the Bill removes fear, but in many quarters ordinary decent and reasonable people fear that it will serve not to remove fear, but to increase it. That is not an off-the-cuff assertion, but is backed up by facts.

Mr. Ed Greening, for example, has been removed from Wiltshire's adoption panel because he believes that children thrive better in a normal home, with a man and a woman as adoptive parents, than in a homosexual household. The Labour Government have gone further and in "Supporting Families" they state that marriage is the

"surest foundation for raising children".

However, a man has been removed from a job that he has undertaken for five years not because he believes that homosexual adoption is wrong, but because his first preference would always be

"for a child to be reared by a heterosexual couple."

He says:

"There is now a lot of pressure to give equal status to same-sex partners, who in some cases are not going to be as appropriate as heterosexual married couples."

To most normal people in this country, that will be a statement of the bleeding obvious, but in the current climate, which has been reinforced by the Bill, it is likely to attract a police interview.

Indeed, that is what happened to Lynette Burrowes, who said in a Radio 5 Live interview that she did not think homosexuals should be allowed to adopt. PC Plod was dispatched because, according to a Scotland Yard spokesman,

"it is policy for community safety units"— ominously reminiscent of Robespierre's committee of public safety—to investigate homophobic, racist and domestic incidents because they were "priority crimes". My son is a young solicitor, and I suggest we ask the parents of the young solicitor who was killed last week whether that should be a priority crime, rather than some of the things to which the police must now devote their time.

New Labour's new thought police were soon pursuing the chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sir Iqbal Sacranie. He, too, was investigated for expressing a view that is a central tenet of his faith. The same thing happened two years ago to the Bishop of Chester. When I complained to the chief constable of Cheshire, he told me:

"I do feel that all community leaders need to be careful that their views however carefully crafted are not misinterpreted through headlines in the media or used by disturbed individuals as an excuse to target particular individuals."

That is simply unbelievable. For the expression of a deeply held Christian view by a bishop of the established Church, of which Her Majesty the Queen is supreme governor, to be subject to a police caution is a measure of the depth to which we have sunk.

As we read in yesterday's The Mail on Sunday, the Association of Chief Police Officers has issued a guidance note, which states:

"if a complainant feels his allegation is not being taken seriously—even if it isn't true—he will have been 'victimised' by police . . . The onus falls entirely on the police to manage the interaction to ensure that the victim has no residual feelings of secondary victimisation."

The police are in a no-win situation—it does not matter how careful they are because they will be judged on how the alleged victim views their attitude.

I fear that the Bill will accelerate the process of intolerance against Christian views. I am pleased to say that no action was ever going to be taken against Sir Iqbal, but the lack of prosecution resulted from the public authorities' burning desire not to be seen to offend Muslim opinion. By contrast, Christian views can be offended with impunity: "Jerry SpringerThe Opera" was deeply offensive to many Christians, but their concerns were loftily dismissed by Michael Grade and the BBC.

The padre of my church, to whom I was speaking yesterday, has recently returned from operations in Iraq. Over Christmas, he protested to Channel 4 about the trailer for a programme called, "The Magic of Jesus", but the operator to whom he spoke simply put the phone down on him. Would either Channel 4 or the BBC have dared to stage a play making fun of the Prophet Mohammed? I suggest not. However, it is true that a play that offended a minority group in Birmingham, and which caused it to react violently, was abandoned.

Tonight's Evening Standard carries a report entitled, "Gay police want ban on Christian association":

"Leaders of the Gay Police Association (GPA) have made a formal complaint to Met chiefs demanding that they bar members of the Christian Police Association from the force as they do members of the BNP."

It is deeply offensive to associate the Christian Church with the British National party.

If the Bill is enacted, I fear that there will be pressure on some of our ancient towns to abandon public support for Christmas celebrations.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

That has happened in plenty of cases where the decision was changed under public protest. There was a proposal to rename the Christmas festival "Winterval", for the express reason that Christmas might be offensive to Muslims. All the Muslims whom I know find it deeply offensive that Christians are not prepared to stand up and say, "This is an ancient festival and part of our national life." Departments are falling over themselves to be seen to celebrate minority religious festivals, often spending thousands of pounds of public money.

Over Christmas, Mr. Paxman could not bring himself to use BC—before Christ—and had to resort to something called, "BCE". I wonder whether you know what that means, Mr. Speaker. I understand that it means—

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

That encompasses the entire history of the world, and we face a new, exciting era.

It is significant that this place, the other place and GCHQ are exempt from the Bill. Why are we exempt when the Bill is being forced on the rest of the British public? Such are the inroads being made by the politically correct in Britain today that this Chamber will be the only place where genuine freedom of expression will be permitted, thanks not to any modernising by this lot, but to an ancient Act of Parliament dating to 1689—the Bill of Rights. If I had made this speech outside this House, I dare say that PC Plod would have called me up and asked me to explain my views.

All hon. Members enjoy special protection, which we are seeking to take away from many of our citizens by imposing draconian legislation. We need to ensure that we are protected as hon. Members and able to speak our minds. There now appears to be so little difference between the parties that often those who have a genuinely held conviction get more interest from the public because although they are saying something that they may not necessarily agree with, they want to hear Members of this House speaking their minds, which is what we were elected to do. I have constituents who are not in the powerful position that we are in and who are living in fear of their lives because they may have said something out of place or at which somebody has taken offence. [Interruption.] It is no good Labour Members tut-tutting. In my constituency somebody working in the NHS was dismissed from her job because she said something that was taken by somebody else to be offensive, although that was not her intention.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey said about disability. I hope that the Bill will achieve some of those objectives, but we need to be careful in ensuring that it does not have unforeseen adverse effects on the people of this country.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird PPS (Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Secretary of State), Home Office 9:55 pm, 16th January 2006

Oh dear—I am afraid that there are still little patches of the nasty party around.

I was on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which recommended that there should be a human rights commissioner. I am proud that we worked to produce a good report and proud that it was heeded. The commission would otherwise have been an inevitable outcome of our obligation to meet various Europe-imposed duties of equality on age, sexual orientation, religion or belief. The presence of human rights has helped to pull the commission, with all its faults—I am aware of my hon. Friends' concerns—out of being a minimal pull-together and helped to make it look like a new venture with wider dimensions, involving complex problems with philosophical implications and an opportunity to drive equalities and human rights through a society that is still very unequal.

When we talk about the respect agenda, we are talking about the need to regroup people around the common rights and responsibilities that we all share. The human rights in the European convention on human rights are a reasonable representation of those rights and responsibilities. Save those that we would all want to be absolute—life, freedom from torture, the prohibition on slavery and the right to a fair trial rights—the rights are conditional. They carry with them internally the rationale for the responsibilities that are required as a result of having them. For instance, in a democratic society the right to respect for the family can be interfered with if there is a necessity to do so in the interests of security, public safety, economic well-being, crime prevention, health, morals or the rights and freedoms of others. Set out in the convention is the concept that rights are available only in so far as they are compatible with corresponding duties or respect. No one can rely on their right to family life in their home if they are using it to blast music at others, perpetually playing it so loud that it is terrifying in itself because the defying of all decencies is so blatant. It will be necessary, in the interests of a democratic society, to protect the rights and freedoms of others by dealing with that.

There is, of course, an overwhelming test of proportionality, but the values implicit in human rights are good, because otherwise, however we do it, we are imposing our own values on the disrespectful person. The validity of those values is contestable. Someone might say, "Who is the judge to decide that my music is too loud?", or "Who is the prosecutor who brings the case to impose his values on me?", or "What right has the neighbour to complain just because she does not like my music?" If we balance people's mutual rights to a private life, taking into account the broader interests of society, we find that we have, at the very least, a rationale for what we impose that is grounded in values that run well with democratic society. Those values are demonstrable and explicable and can become a currency by which we all interact with each other, but they cannot become so if they are not promoted. That cannot be achieved by court cases on narrow legal points. The commission has a duty to drive human rights with the bite of legal powers, but the job of promoting them is a key part of that.

There is much left to do. Good personnel must be appointed. We must equalise the law on equalities, redefine public authorities and ensure that none of the strands is weakened by their unity. There will be another Bill, but I congratulate my Government on this step towards equality, harmony and more respect.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.