Equality Bill

Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 11th May 2009.

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[Relevant document: The Third Report of the Work and Pensions Committee on the Equality Bill: how disability equality fits within a Single Equality Act, HC 158-I.]

Second Reading

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party 3:50 pm, 11th May 2009

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

For us, equality matters because it is right as a question of principle, and it is necessary as a matter of practice. It is essential for every individual. Everyone has the right to be treated fairly, and everyone should enjoy the opportunity to fulfil their potential. No one should suffer the indignity of discrimination—to be told, "You're old, so you're past it," to be overlooked because of a disability, to be excluded because of the colour of their skin, to face harassment because they are gay, or to be paid unfairly because they are a woman.

Equality is not just the birthright of every individual, but necessary for the economy: a competitive economy is one that draws on everyone's talents and abilities and is not blinkered by prejudice. It is also necessary for society: a more equal society is more cohesive and at ease with itself than one marred by prejudice and discrimination. So this Labour Government are, like other Labour Governments before us, a champion of equality.

The Bill is not about turning back the clock—quite the opposite. It is looking to the future. It is backward societies that are marred by discrimination against lesbians and gay men, where women are expected to know their place and which are bound by rigid hierarchies. It is the modern and open society that can look to the future with confidence.

The point about a meritocracy is that only if we have fairness and equality will people really be considered on their individual merits, free from discrimination and unfairness. So this is not an argument against a meritocracy—quite the reverse: fairness and equality are necessary to underpin a meritocracy.

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What a pity Harriet Harman does not mean pensioners when she talks about equality. All pensioners have paid into the National Insurance Fund (NIF) in order to qualify for their pensions. If you live in the UK your state pension is increased each year for inflation. If you live in the USA, Switzerland, Israel, Turkey, US Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Barbados, Jamaica, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and all the EU countries, your pension is increased each year for inflation, just as if you lived in the UK. However if you live in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Malaysia, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and most other Commonwealth countries your state pension is frozen at the rate at which it is first paid, or the date on arrival in the overseas country. The basis for this? Lost in the mists of time. All state pensions are paid out of the NIF which currently has a huge surplus of over £50 billion in it. This surplus is loaned to the Government as they cannot use it directly under the rules of the NIF. The government pays the NIF annual interest of over £1.3...

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I will give way during my speech, but I am afraid that it is quite a long one; the hon. Gentlemen might have an opportunity to come back after dinner and intervene. I will try to press on with my speech.

Some people have said, "Why do this now? We know it was in your manifesto, but we're in the middle of a global recession. Now's not the time." But we do not accept that. When times are hard, it is even more important that everyone feels that they have an equal chance and that we all pull together, because we are in the same boat.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have a very serious point to raise with her, and I hope that she can be of some help to me. I have come across a number of incidences of employers stipulating that it is a necessary condition for a job at the minimum wage that the applicants speak Polish. I consider that discrimination against the vast majority of my constituents who left school at 16 without being able to speak Polish. Will she take this opportunity to say very clearly to employers across the country that, where there is no genuine occupational requirement, it is illegal for them to stipulate that a foreign language is required to apply for a job at the minimum wage in this country at a time of rapidly rising unemployment?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

If a job was to teach Polish, for example, that might well be why the employer needed to recruit such people, but that is not a question in the Bill, which, as I will say again as I get through it, deals with discrimination on grounds of race, gender and disability.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Just as we give real help to people now, we need to give real hope for the future, and that hope is a strong economy and a fair and more equal society, so I am proud to be bringing the Equality Bill to the House for its Second Reading.

There are many great champions of the equality movement in the House of Commons, and many, many more outside. I pay tribute to their efforts in the cause of equality. The Equality Bill is a Government Bill, but the campaign for equality is a great movement and we are proud to play our part in it.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

Under the terms of the Bill, will it be possible for an employer to choose to employ a white woman rather than an equally well qualified black man?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I will get to the points about positive discrimination and positive action further on in my speech—[Hon. Members: "Ah."]—if Members will bear with me. [ Interruption. ] Yes, the Bill includes positive action.

The Bill is in the great tradition of Labour Governments. The first equality laws were brought in by a Labour Government more than 40 years ago. First, in the 1960s came the pioneering race laws and then in the 1970s there were new laws on equal pay and sex discrimination. Then nothing was initiated by the Tory Government for 18 years. Then Labour returned to office and introduced a range of new laws—from recognising gay and lesbian partnerships, to protecting older people from discrimination at work.

Although progress has been made, the job is not yet done. While the most blatant forms of discrimination are just distant memories, inequality and discrimination persist, so we need the Equality Bill and the related action that I will outline to the House today to build on what we have already done. I shall now turn to the Bill's provisions.

We have made it easier for women who work, with more child care and longer maternity leave, for example, but there is still entrenched pay discrimination. Despite women forming half the work force, men still earn on average 22 per cent. an hour more than women. We do not accept that that is because women work 22 per cent. less hard or are 22 per cent. less intelligent or 22 per cent. less qualified than men. It is pay discrimination, which is mostly a legacy of the idea that a woman's job is less important than a man's, because her main role is in the home. Although the lion's share—

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving way. I think that there have been 15 attempts at an intervention since the last time she gave way, when she gave way on the 36th attempt, so perhaps she—

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

As ever, I am grateful to you for your advice, Mr. Speaker.

I am concerned that the Bill is not really about equality. There is a contradiction at the heart of Government policy: while the Leader of the House is setting out the Bill today, Muslim women up and down the country are suffering under the extension of the powers of sharia councils. Under matrimonial, child custody and financial settlements, Muslim women are being discriminated against, so the Government have to change their policy, otherwise the Bill is a complete mockery.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

There is certainly discrimination, and the Bill provides more opportunity to tackle it. There is certainly nothing in our law that endorses, and allows for, discrimination in private contracts or private agreements that may purport to have been made under sharia law; they do not count as the law in this country if they are discriminatory. The hon. Gentleman knows that, because I have answered him on that point at business questions. I have now been deterred from answering questions—

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

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Does she agree that if the general public are watching the debate they will be surprised to see the Opposition so agitated at the prospect of equality legislation? The point about equality is not just that it offers fairness and justice for every group in society, but that in a globalised economy it will actually enable us to compete better and be a stronger and more effective society.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I could not agree more strongly with my hon. Friend. Although the lion's share of caring for children and older relatives still falls to women, women's income is now vital for their household, and their work is important to the economy, too. It is simply unfair that they should not be paid the same as men for the work that they do. Unequal pay is not the fault of the woman; it is the responsibility of the employer, yet in the past, it has been entirely down to the individual woman to complain, and never down to the employer to explain.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Labour, West Ham

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the Bill will finally ban secrecy or gagging clauses, used by firms and companies around the country, that allow and encourage firms to discriminate against women when setting their pay rates?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Yes, I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Bill will do exactly that. A veil of secrecy over pay allows discrimination to flourish. The Bill will change that by means of a power in clause 73 to require employers to make a gender pay report every year. Fair employers have nothing to fear, but unfair employers will have nowhere to hide. Knowledge is power for employees, their unions, consumers, and shareholders. I hope that employers will compete for the reputation of being fair to their women employees. It is not a burdensome requirement; employers know whom they employ, whether their employees are men or women, and what they pay them.

The public sector will lead the way, with the Bill providing a power in clause 147 to require all public sector employers with more than 150 employees to publish annually details of their gender pay gap. However, 80 per cent. of employees are in the private sector, and gender pay discrimination there is even greater. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will bring together employers and unions to work out how gender pay reporting will operate in practice. In July this year, it will begin to consult, and it will release the first of its annual reports before the end of this year.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

Does the right hon. and learned Lady not see that if we require the measure to be consulted on in the summer, but the Bill is to go through the House before the summer, it will mean that we will have to agree to something the extent of which we do not know?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

No, it will not. We would like to achieve our aim through voluntary action, but if we cannot, we must take a power in the Bill to make sure that we can force companies to be prepared to acknowledge their pay gap. In the first instance, we will ask private sector employers to report without a legal requirement, but because all employers must do so for the system to be fair, we will impose the legal requirement on all employers of more than 250 people in 2013 if sufficient progress on reporting has not been made. We hope that it will not be necessary to do so, but if there has not been sufficient openness, we will use that power.

Transparency is important in itself, and in every workplace where there is a yawning gap between the pay of men and the pay of women, it will spur employers to reflect on their practice and take action to change what they do. As a further measure for openness on gender pay discrimination, the Bill will ban secrecy clauses that prevent employees from discussing their pay with their colleagues, as my hon. Friend Lyn Brown asked. An estimated one fifth of employers impose secrecy clauses; those clauses will all be banned.

I should like to turn to the equality duty.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am extremely grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way, because she knows that I have been a long-term supporter of many of the aims that she mentions. Does she share my view that the Government should have done more to lead by example, and does she share my concern that the gender pay gap in a number of Government Departments is far too high? In fact, it is as high as 25 per cent. in five Departments. Surely the Government should have done more to lead by example and to put their own house in order.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

That is why we have acted to bring transparency not only to the private sector but to the public sector. So long as the problem remains hidden and is swept under the carpet, everybody says, "We're equal; it must be somebody else who is not," and we cannot address it. I should be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support not only on Second Reading but in Committee and throughout the Bill's passage. I know that he is concerned about age discrimination, too, so I thank him for his support on that.

Equality for women is a public policy imperative, and that is why in 2006 we brought in the gender equality duty, which requires public bodies to tackle discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity. The duty has proved to be a lever for change, but the Bill makes it clear that the new public sector equality duty, which the Bill provides for, will apply when public bodies not only employ people or provide services, but use their £175 billion purchasing power. The duty will apply to public procurement, too. The provision will enable us to take the current duty further into those organisations and companies providing goods and services that are funded by the public purse.

I turn to the issue of positive action, which many Members have mentioned. We will allow employers to use positive action in recruitment and promotion. The purpose of the new power is to tackle the systemic and well-documented glass ceiling that stops women from going up the career ladder in organisations. That is why the Bill includes the power to take positive action. Sometimes a company has many women in its work force, but no women on its management team. Currently, if a vacancy arises and the employer is faced with two equally qualified candidates, one a man and one a woman, the employer cannot actually say, "Right, we've got two equally qualified people for this job, but I'm going to take you, because you're a woman and I want to diversify my management team." The provision, however, will allow employers to address under-representation where they so choose.

We have already legislated for positive action to increase women's representation in Parliament, and, because we in the Labour party have used that power for all-women shortlists, we have gone from having only 13 Labour women MPs when I was first elected to having 95 now. However, the proportion of women MPs from all parts of the House is still only 19 per cent., and that is why clause 100 extends to 2030 permission for political parties to use women-only shortlists. The Government are proud to have three times more women MPs than all the other parties put together. That is because we have used all-women shortlists, and we will continue to do so. We urge others, if they are serious about improving representation, to follow suit.

The Bill also strengthens the powers of tribunals when dealing with systemic discrimination.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

Does the Leader of the House agree that, although tremendous progress has been made through all-women shortlists, we have some work to do in Scotland, where we have fallen behind as a party? Things could do with much improvement.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

One thing that was so important and encouraging about Scotland was the formation of the Scottish Parliament and the good representation of Labour women, in particular, as Members of it. We have an excellent team of Scottish Labour MPs, but we need to make more progress in order to have more women Labour MPs in Scotland.

Clause 118 will allow tribunals to make recommendations that benefit the whole work force, not just the individual who won the claim. It will mean that we can stop the waste whereby many individuals in the same organisation take similar action against the same employer.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Okay.

Labour has a proud record of backing mothers at work, but we also do everything that we can to support new mothers. That is why clause 16 will make it clear that it is unlawful to force breastfeeding mothers and their babies out of places such as coffee shops, public galleries and restaurants. That still happens. It will be banned.

I am sure that the whole House will agree that, in this day and age, it is not acceptable that places exist where women can be treated as second-class citizens. Part 7 will outlaw private members' clubs discriminating against their women members. So, down at the golf club, every day will be "ladies day".

I turn to how the Bill will tackle discrimination against older people. In 2007, pensioners outnumbered children for the first time, and in just 20 years' time half the adult population will be over 50. Today we can expect to live a quarter of our lives in retirement. That is a seismic demographic change, and it demands action to tackle the prejudice that still constrains older people. Our ban on age discrimination in the workplace in 2006 was important, but we need to go further.

Older people are being discriminated against by those providing goods and services. We all know of examples of that from constituents' complaints. For instance, a constituent of mine came to see me after he had booked a holiday to go and see his daughter in the United States. He had arranged travel insurance for £175 and then had to postpone the holiday for a fortnight because his daughter was ill. During that time, he had his 70th birthday and the insurance went up from £175 to £831. He simply could not afford to go.

The Bill will prohibit such unjustifiable age discrimination in the provision of goods and services. It will mean that an insurance company will not be able to discriminate arbitrarily against older people. We will outlaw the discrimination and unfairness that still persists against older people in social care and in the national health service. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has initiated a national review led by the South West strategic health authority to look at how to implement the ban on age discrimination in health and social care, so that we can be sure that, whether treatment for mental illness or back pain is involved, older people get care every bit as good as that for younger people.

As the Bill goes through the House, we will consult on how the measure will be put into practice. The new provision will not prevent the justifiable preferential treatment of older people, such as free bus passes or cheaper ticket prices for pensioners.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

As one who opposes all forms of discrimination, I have a lot of sympathy with the right hon. and learned Lady's point about age discrimination. However, will the Bill have any unintended consequences? Saga, for example, provides lots of great services for people over 50. Will its operations have to cease? Lots of older people get cheaper car insurance by virtue of the fact that they are older. Will that now end? There may be unintended consequences.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has asked that question, because it gives me the opportunity to reassure older people that justifiable, preferential treatment such as he has described will not be banned—far from it. Unjustifiable treatment and discrimination against older people will, however, be banned under the Bill. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on the point raised by Saga.

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I quote Harriet Harman: "Unjustifiable treatment and discrimination against older people will, however, be banned under the Bill". What an amazing promise! That is quite wonderful! Thank you, Harriet! This means that at last British state...

Submitted by Dian Elvin Continue reading (and 1 more annotation)

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

There are some concerns about the issues raised by Saga, which is keen for there to be exemptions in the Bill. Can my right hon. and learned Friend give the House an assurance that, as the Bill goes through Committee, it will be made absolutely transparent, by one means or another, that those exemptions will exist?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

There will be a consultation, as my hon. Friend requests. There will be able to be exemptions, sector by sector, in the regulations that bring the measure into force. We all agree on the principle that unjustified, unfair treatment against older people is wrong. However, we all want some preferential treatment, such as free bus passes, to continue. The House will know that we will go forward on the basis of agreement.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

The measure is indeed excellent. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, it continues the work of all the anti-discrimination Acts passed by Labour Governments, although never by Tory ones.

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend about the injustice to people—not MPs, fortunately—who are forced to retire at 65? In Committee, could we not strengthen the approach to the issue of the national default retirement age? As it stands, all employers need to do in such cases is consider applications to continue working.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

As my hon. Friend will know, when we outlawed discrimination against older people in employment, the default retirement age was set to one side. We undertook to review it in 2012; the issue is on its own separate track.

The public sector equality duties that already apply in relation to race, gender and disability will be extended under the Bill to ensure that public bodies will also have to take action to tackle discrimination and promote equality for people of different ages—for example, by offering free IT lessons to older people, as Dame Joan Bakewell and I saw today at Age Concern's Great Croft resource centre in Camden.

It is important to consider not only those who are older but the position of the growing number of people who care for an older relative. For most people, the care they get from their family is every bit as important as the care they get from health or social services, if not more so. The Bill will outlaw discrimination against carers. Most people who are caring for a relative also go out to work. So the woman who applies for a promotion at work will no longer be allowed to be told, "Sorry—we've given the promotion to someone else because we know you have your hands full looking after your elderly mother." We will back up people who are doing the important work of caring for children and older and disabled relatives as well as going out to work.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

There is great support for what the Minister proposes, which is very positive. Can she confirm that after the passage of the legislation, it will not be possible for a person aged between, say, 50 and 65 to be discriminated against for employment or other purposes on the basis that they would have only a certain maximum number of employable years left? I understand what she said about the pension age, but pending that decision, can they be assured that they will be looked after and not indirectly discriminated against?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

The Solicitor-General, who knows her onions on the law, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, have confirmed to me that that would already be unlawful discrimination against an older person in employment.

Next, I turn to race. Labour brought in the first race relations laws in the 1960s. We built on that when we brought in the first public sector equality duty—the race equality duty—in 2000, following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. We expect that the new public sector equality duty in the Bill will require public bodies with more than 150 employees to publish their ethnic minority employment rate. That will allow people to see how inclusive their public bodies are of the communities they serve and enable employers and the public to monitor progress.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

The one thing that the Tories were able to do in all their years in government was to pick up the proposals that my right hon. Friend made on disability discrimination, so I am grateful to be able to allow him to intervene.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. On the subject of disability, has she had time to reflect on the views of Mencap and others about people with learning disabilities? Some 65 per cent. of them want to work but only 17 per cent. get the opportunity to do so, as against 49 per cent. of other disabled people and 74 per cent. of the general population. Does she agree that we should recognise that problem in legislation?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

The transparency that is provided will enable us to see the progress that is being made by public authorities, in particular, in their employment practices.

By extending the use of positive action in the workplace, the Bill will allow employers to take action to make their workforce more diverse and representative of the communities they serve when selecting between two equally suitable candidates. This positive action on race in recruitment and promotion will help to make organisations such as the police more effective.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

One area where there is a great deal of hidden discrimination is in the employment recruitment process. We know that society discriminates against people with particular disabilities or long-term conditions such as mental illness or people with HIV. There is still provision for employers to ask in pre-employment questionnaires about a person's medical condition, and that allows for discrimination. The Disability Rights Commission and the Work and Pensions Committee have recommended that such provision should be outlawed. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider that?

There is also discrimination in the heart of this Parliament, against people with mental illness. Under section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, any Member of Parliament who is detained in a mental health hospital for more than six months has to resign their seat. That sends a stigmatising message to all people with a mental illness, and I should like provision to be made in the Bill to withdraw that requirement.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Employers cannot ask questions such as my hon. Friend describes to discriminate against a person, but they sometimes ask questions with a view to making a reasonable adjustment, so that they are aware of the situation before employing somebody. Her point about people with mental health problems is important, and it might well need to be addressed in the Constitutional Renewal Bill.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way to allow me to make some further points?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The Minister will be aware that one of the biggest types of discrimination all around the world is by caste and descent, and that Dalit people suffer appalling discrimination, particularly but not exclusively in India. Is it possible that, under the Bill, such discrimination by caste and descent would be absolutely illegal?

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

The Speaker's Conference, which considers the under-representation of minorities in this place and in wider public life, thankfully has a specific section that deals with the woefully low level of people with disabilities who are elected here and elsewhere. How will the Bill tie in with the Speaker's Conference, and can my right hon. and learned Friend point to specific elements of it that will tackle the number of people with disabilities in wider public life?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I have already talked about increasing the representation of women in public life, and I am just about to turn to the question of black and Asian representation in public life. As my hon. Friend knows, the Speaker's Conference will play a role in considering all these issues, including disability.

The Bill will allow political parties to use positive action to address the lack of black and Asian representation in political life—for example, by reserving a specific number of places on every electoral shortlist for black and Asian candidates when a party is selecting a candidate. The Labour party has four times more black and Asian MPs than all other parties put together, but still not enough properly to reflect our community, so we want to do more. The Labour party will be using the new powers in the Bill, and we challenge the other parties to do the same.

We have already taken action to outlaw discrimination against disabled people, but prejudice still blights the lives of disabled people looking for work or a home or using services, so there are a number of new measures in the Bill. The new public sector equality duty will build on the disability equality duty that we introduced in 2005. We will use the powers under the new duty to require public bodies with more than 150 employees to publish annually the percentage of disabled people that they employ, so that we can build on good practice and see improvements year by year. It is a public policy imperative to include disabled people, so the public sector must lead the way.

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

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way on that point?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I have already given way to my hon. Friend, who made an excellent intervention, so I shall let her rest on that.

There is no place in 21st-century Britain for homophobic prejudice and discrimination. We have already taken steps such as recognising gay and lesbian partnerships and outlawing homophobic discrimination, and the Bill builds on that with a number of further steps. Because tackling homophobic discrimination is a public policy imperative, the Bill also imposes this new obligation on public bodies as part of the new equality duty.

In a diverse multicultural society, it is important to tackle discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, which we have already outlawed. Because that, too, is a public policy imperative, the Bill addresses disadvantage and responds to the needs of people of different religions and beliefs in the new public sector equality duty. We will also consult on whether we can outlaw multiple discrimination in the Bill, where the problem is not one characteristic—for instance, someone's gender, race or disability—but a combination of them.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

There is much in the Bill that I support, but is the right hon. and learned Lady aware that extending the public sector duty to religion is highly controversial, albeit not in respect of the elimination of discrimination or fostering good relations, but in respect of advancing equality of opportunity, because of the risk that that creates of people claiming that, because one religion does one thing, the local council must provide the same for another religion in a specified way? That means running the risk of balkanising services and entrenching resentment. Will she consider carefully whether the public sector duty in respect of religion could be modified slightly to avoid the sort of inter-religious conflict that the rest of the Bill seeks to avoid?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that I do not think that the Bill will have the effect that he describes. It will ensure that the needs of people of different religions and beliefs are addressed as part of a public sector duty. However, if he serves on the Public Bill Committee, he will have an opportunity to table amendments to the Bill, as he will on Report, too.

We all recognise that discrimination can happen not just because of someone's age, gender or race. It can also be rooted in someone's family background, socio-economic status or class. We know, for example, that less academically able but better-off children overtake more able, poorer children at school by the age of six. We know, too, that although women generally have a longer life expectancy than men, poorer women live less long than richer men.

An important aim of public policy is to reduce the gaps that still exist between rich and poor—to narrow the gap between the top and bottom of our society. Because we believe that to be a public policy imperative, the Bill places a legal duty on public sector organisations with strategic responsibilities—it applies to Ministers and Departments, as well as to health authorities, local councils and regional development agencies—to play their part in narrowing the gap between rich and poor in the strategic decisions that they make. Although there are various public service agreements and targets across government to that effect, the approach has been piecemeal, not comprehensive, as it will be now. We will be assisted in putting that into practice by the excellent work of the national equality panel, chaired by Professor John Hills.

Over the decades, our anti-discrimination laws have become wider and stronger, but because of that development over 40 years, the whole picture is now more complex. There are nine major pieces of anti-discrimination legislation, 100 statutory instruments and more than 2,500 pages of statutory codes of practice—I have an example of them here, on the Table of the House. That is what we have got so far. However, it is important for those who have rights to be able to know them and for those who have responsibilities to be able to understand them without having to pay a lawyer to interpret them. So as well as extending and strengthening equality legislation, the Bill will replace the thicket of legislation with a single Act. The Bill is therefore a simplification and codification measure.

Also, to ensure that it is completely understandable, the Bill is the first statute to have, running alongside it, clause-by-clause explanations of what the provisions mean that are written in plain English. I pay tribute to the Government Equalities Office officials, who have done a brilliant job on that. Not only do we have the legalese; we have the Bill in plain English.

We have also produced an easy-read version of the Bill, which is especially for people with learning difficulties, but I find it really useful myself and I recommend it to everyone including hon. Members. This is all aimed at making the law easier to understand and as a result easier to comply with.

To put this new law into practice, the Equality and Human Rights Commission will consult widely, including with voluntary groups, businesses and trade unions, in order to work out how it will be brought into force and to publish the guidance that will be useful.

This is a good, timely and strong Bill that will make our country a fairer and more prosperous place for all its people. We cannot afford in Britain in the 21st century to be hidebound by prejudice or blinkered by discrimination. This is a modern, forward-looking argument that will underpin our future success. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 4:30 pm, 11th May 2009

I beg to move,

That this House
declines to give a Second Reading to the Equality Bill because it fails to address the root causes of the reduction in social mobility in recent years, fails to address the disability pay gap, especially in the Civil Service, gives employment tribunals too many powers in areas where they are not best placed to judge, contains disproportionate and bureaucratic proposals on the gender pay gap which will impose unnecessary costs on business whilst failing to solve the problem, fails to implement proposals on compulsory pay audits for those organisations which are found guilty of discrimination by an employment tribunal, gives Ministers the power to amend the Act by order instead of leaving this to Parliament, and allows discrimination in recruitment and promotion decisions.

I thank the Minister for Women and Equality for bringing this Bill before the House, and we look forward to debating it with her and other hon. Members during the coming weeks and months. Indeed, I am tempted to say that this Bill has been so long in the making that I am sure I am not alone in the feeling of déjà vu that I have in speaking about it today.

I absolutely believe that fairness and equality of opportunity should be rights of every single individual in this country. Discrimination, unfair treatment and imposed disadvantage are wrong, and as politicians we should strive to stamp them out. However, the Bill and the Minister's speech have made it clear that we come at this issue from different perspectives, and that is why we have tabled our amendment today, on which I shall comment in detail later.

In the four years since the Government first pledged to introduce an Equality Bill in their 2005 manifesto, we have had false starts, empty announcements and more delays than I care to remember, so all credit to the Minister for having the staying power to stick with it. The Bill must be a labour of love for her and I am sure that hon. Members will agree that we can see her fingerprints over many of the provisions. When the right hon. and learned Lady made a statement to the House explaining the intention of the Bill, I welcomed it. We continue to welcome the fact of the Bill and I am pleased that the Government are using it to consolidate existing legislation and simplify the guidance given to businesses and other organisations. We welcome many parts of the Bill and we will be willing to work with the Government to ensure that they get on to the statute book.

I must confess that I had really high hopes for this Bill, but despite the fact that the Minister has had ample time to hone it to perfection, the overwhelming sense that one gets on reading it is of an enormous missed opportunity. The Government had the opportunity to put together a meaningful and significant piece of legislation with fairness and common sense at its heart, but by including unworkable and overly bureaucratic proposals, they have undermined the benefits of the Bill and caused us to have serious misgivings about its probable outcomes.

We must also address the fact that the environment in which we now find ourselves giving this Bill its Second Reading is vastly different from that in which it was first envisaged four years ago. The country is in deep recession, unemployment is soaring and businesses are struggling to stay afloat. I am on record as having said on many occasions that equality is not just something for the good times, but the Government have shown a complete lack of awareness of the changed conditions. Equality matters whatever the economic climate, but I am sure that Ministers would agree that we should be trying to work with business to develop equality policies that are not unnecessarily onerous or costly. I believe that there are ways we can champion fairness without penalising employers.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

Does the right hon. Lady not think that the simplification of the legislation is precisely what we need at this time, as was so visually illustrated by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister in her opening statement?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I can only assume that the hon. Lady was not listening to the third paragraph of my speech, in which I made exactly that point. One of the aspects of the Bill that we welcome is the fact that it simplifies existing legislation. That will, of course, benefit not only businesses but others operating within the Bill.

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

I apologise that I, too, missed the third paragraph of the right hon. Lady's speech. I also apologise to the House, as I meant to be here earlier. However, I am confused about whether the right hon. Lady is going to support the Bill's Second Reading or not.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Perhaps the hon. Lady's late arrival in the Chamber means that she has not read the Order Paper. I suggest that she do so.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

I have read the Order Paper, and I note that the Opposition's amendment

"declines to give a Second Reading to the Equality Bill".

All the organisations that have contacted me about the Bill want to do the opposite. Could you tell me how many organisations have contacted you to say—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I think the hon. Gentleman now recognises the mistake that he has made.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would the right hon. Lady care to name the organisations that have contacted her to urge that hon. Members should decline to give the Bill a Second Reading?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to listen to my speech; he will then learn exactly what our concerns about the Bill are. They are concerns that have been expressed outside the House. Indeed, if he was listening to earlier interventions, he will know that a Labour Member raised a concern about the Bill from an external organisation, and I will come to that later.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

No; I did say that I wanted to make some progress.

The main problem with the Bill is that it has some really good intentions that have been muddled by ill-thought-out and, frankly, unworkable proposals that appear to have been tacked on at the last minute. I refer mainly to part 1, which deals with socio-economic inequalities. I know that this is one of the Minister's favourite projects, but giving people a legal right to a better life will not magic up a better life for them. What the Government need to do, but have so far failed to do and show little sign of doing now, is to tackle the root causes of inequality: family breakdown, poor education, and worklessness. To push the responsibility on to local authorities is to duck the issue, and it will achieve nothing. People's lives will not be changed by the provisions in the Bill, but Ministers will no doubt feel that they have fulfilled their obligations.

Last week's poverty figures showed that the number of adults living in poverty had risen by 800,000 on this Government's watch. Surely the Minister does not believe that the provisions in part 1 will change their lives by making new opportunities available to them and lifting them out of poverty. Sadly, in the past 12 years, this Government have failed to grasp the fundamental truth that just passing a law or setting a target will not change things. It takes more than that, as the 4 million children and 7.5 million adults living in poverty right now can tell them. I hope that the Government intend their forthcoming child poverty Bill to do rather more than this Bill does.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Conservative, Poole

On the point about socio-economic groups, is it not terribly important that the next census has the necessary investment to get the right information? We are already having arguments about population issues in the last census. If such data are to inform part of the Bill, they must be accurate in order for us to have a debate on them.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend has made an extremely valid point, and I agree that we cannot make any moves unless the data are up to date and relevant, and are the correct data for making the necessary changes.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the best way to deal with inequality in relation to wealth is not necessarily through the measures in the Bill—she has already expressed her concerns about those—but to have policies to improve equality of opportunity and the taxation policies to redistribute wealth? Will she comment on whether she has any tax proposals, other than that on inheritance tax, that would tackle the problem more effectively than the Government have done? As she has rightly said, things have become more unequal under this Government.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am happy to mention one policy of ours that would tackle that issue: it is to change the working tax credit arrangements to get rid of the couples penalty. That policy would lift 300,000 children out of poverty, and I commend it to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I did say that I was going to make some progress, and I am aware that many Members wish to speak. Moreover, the Leader of the House and Minister for Women and Equality said that her speech would be long—and, indeed, it was.

Equality of opportunity in the workplace is something on which I have campaigned for some time, particularly the gender pay gap. The Conservative party put forward proposals to tackle that gender pay gap more than a year ago, and my colleague in the other place, Baroness Morris of Bolton, has a private Member's Bill in progress. After the comments made in the other place when that Bill was debated, I was hopeful that this Equality Bill would include our proposals to address the gender pay gap, which would mean that we could work with the Government. Sadly, however, the proposals in this Bill are clumsy and ill judged. In four years' time, the Government will have the power to demand that every private sector company with more than 250 employees carries out a compulsory pay audit, regardless of whether or not it has a record of discrimination.

By the way, there is clearly one law for the public sector and another for the private sector. There are no provisions in the Bill that would have a similar effect on public sector bodies, even though the pay gap in the public sector is far from satisfactory. Our own policy, the Conservative party policy, would compel only companies found guilty of discrimination by an employment tribunal to carry out a pay audit—a punishment for those that have offended and a deterrent for those that might. Our proposal is fair and measured; the Government's is heavy-handed and obstinate.

The Leader of the House and Minister for Women said last week:

"Fair employers have nothing to fear but unfair employers have nowhere to hide."

I have to say to her that it seems she does not understand her own policy, because her proposals would do exactly the reverse of what she said—fair employers will have to bear just as much cost and inconvenience as unfair employers, and the result will be a bureaucratic nightmare that will set back the equal pay campaign. I think that this proposal shows the Minister's complete lack of empathy for the situation in which many businesses find themselves. Adding another burden that will be costly and time consuming when many are struggling to stay afloat and keep people in jobs at all is completely insensitive. Even the Business Minister, the noble Baroness Vadera, has warned businesses not to be distracted by the Equality Bill, so I suggest that she, too, does not feel entirely comfortable with its proposals.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Surely what my right hon. Friend is saying makes a great deal of sense. What we should do is move towards a system of compulsory pay audits only if the situation does not improve. As she rightly points out, we need to change the culture, and placing oppressive burdens on all businesses at this stage would make no sense at all. Audits should be carried out only on companies that have broken the law.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Will my right hon. Friend allow me?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

May I respond to my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham first? I entirely agree with him that it is right for companies found guilty of discrimination to pay a price for that—and I believe that the price should be having a compulsory pay audit.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am extraordinarily grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. May I beg to differ with my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham, and, indeed, with my right hon. Friend? I put it to her that unless there is universal transparency, as opposed to a selective policy, none of us in the House will be able confidently to say that there is not widespread undetected and unreported discrimination taking place.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I have to say to my hon. Friend that I believe a proportionate response is necessary, which is what we have proposed. I also say that it is not possible to be sure that the positive impact that my hon. Friend suggests will result from its clauses will indeed happen. We do not know exactly what information the companies are going to be publishing, as that will be a matter for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to determine in due course. The Bill may not therefore have the impact that my hon. Friend believes it will. I do not believe that company pay audits will have the desired impact. What is important is ensuring that we have a system under which people can take discrimination cases to a tribunal and if companies are found guilty of discrimination in individual cases, action will—unlike at the moment—be required of them. I think that those companies should be required to pay a price—effectively by having a pay audit.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman so that I can have a drink of water.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I hope that she enjoys her drink of water.

I have been listening carefully to what the right hon. Lady has been saying. Her argument seems to be, "We can't do this because it is too difficult and too technical, and businesses would suffer." I put it to her that most fair-minded employers would support these changes. She is backing herself into the same corner as her party, as she will see if she reads the Hansard report of the debate on the minimum wage a few years ago.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman's interpretation of what I said is not entirely accurate. What I want is a change in the equal pay legislation that is proportionate and requires companies that have been found guilty of discrimination to undergo a compulsory pay audit, which I believe will serve as a punishment for those who are found guilty and as a deterrent for those who may consider discrimination.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I want to finish this point. I did not say that the proposals in the Bill were impossible to implement for technical reasons. The technical aspects have not yet been agreed on, decided or discussed. What I did say was that requiring every company of a certain size to undergo a compulsory pay audit, regardless of whether it had been practising discrimination, would mean that fair employers would have to pay a price despite not having been guilty of discrimination.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Mrs. May has made it quite clear that she is not going to give way at this point.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I say to the Government once again that I hope they will consider our own proposals on equal pay, which I believe to be more measured and more workable. We also appreciate that the gender pay gap is about more complex issues than discrimination in the workplace. It is also about issues such as the careers advice given to young women and girls, and the choices that they make.

We will press the Government to look beyond the figures and think about how we can make workplaces more female and family-friendly—although I have to say that I suspect that the Minister for Women and Equality herself will have a view on how to help women to deal with overbearing male bosses who do not allow them to progress, and who force them to give up their promotion ambitions. We will also be pressing the Government to reconsider their wider proposals on employment tribunals. Giving tribunals vast, sweeping powers that affect all employees would place too much power in their hands. We do not know the exact nature of the powers or how stringent they will be—the Bill is very scant on detail in that regard—and we intend to press for more information in Committee.

Much has been made of the provisions on positive action, and the Minister paid a great deal of attention to it in her speech. She made a point that she has made many times before about the difference between the numbers of women on the Conservative and the Labour Benches in the House, and the importance of all-women shortlists in having delivered the current number of women Labour Members of Parliament. I repeat what I have said on many occasions in the past: we support the extension of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. [Interruption.] The Solicitor-General says, from a sedentary position, that we are not going to use it. That suggests that the Solicitor-General does not understand what the legislation does. What it does is enable political parties to use positive action of a variety of sorts. It is what has enabled us to introduce our priority list. It is not necessary for a political party to start imposing all-women shortlists under that legislation.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will make one further point, and then I will give way to my hon. Friend.

As I have said, on a number of occasions the Minister has referred to the discrepancy between the numbers of women on the Conservative and Labour Benches. Because of our use of positive action, we have selected a far higher proportion of women in winnable seats than we had previously.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

As I was about to tell the House, if the Conservative party wins the next general election by only one seat, the number of women Conservative Members will increase from 17 to 55. The issue for the Labour party is that some of those women will have defeated Labour women. The issue for the House is that the overall number of women in this House may not rise as a result of that increase in the number of Conservative women Members.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Just for the record, is she aware—I suspect she is—that my own seat, from which I retire at the next general election, is to be split in two, and as a result of the well-conceived A-list system that we have come up with, there are to be two candidates who are both of very high quality, one of whom is a man, while the other, who will be my MP in the future, is a woman?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. They are, indeed, two very good candidates, and I am sure they will make a very positive contribution to this House when they are elected.

On positive action, I must say that there seems to be a discrepancy between what the Leader of the House has said in public and what the Bill was originally supposed to do. One example that is often given on the wider issue of positive action and its use is that in circumstances where a primary school that has only female teachers has a job vacancy for which there are two candidates of equal merit, one of whom is a man and the other a woman, the head teacher or school governors could be allowed to appoint the man in order to address the imbalance in the work force. That must only be allowed as a tie-breaker in situations where there are two genuinely equally qualified candidates. In such circumstances, I would be happy to support the proposal to allow companies to take into account the diversity of a work force when making appointments, so long as that applied only where there are two candidates of equal merit—although I suspect that it might be hard to find many circumstances in which the candidates were genuinely absolutely equally qualified.

However, that is not the approach that the right hon. and learned Lady has been taking when explaining the proposal, because last week we learned that she wants to use it to pack the boards of nationalised banks with women, saying:

"It is about saying, 'because you are a woman I'm going to put you in this promotion'."

That is precisely what this proposal should not be about. The right hon. and learned Lady has given the impression that this proposal will allow widespread positive discrimination, and if that is the effect, then we oppose it. Indeed, the explanatory notes to the Bill, prepared by the Government Equalities Office, state that this proposal might allow a police service to give preferential selection to candidates from an ethnic minority where there are

"a number of equally qualified candidates".

I am not sure that there would ever be a situation where there are "a number" of genuinely equally qualified candidates, but the note continues:

"This would not be unlawful, provided the comparative merits of other candidates were also taken into consideration."

Taking into consideration the merits of other candidates is not the same as allowing positive action only when there are two candidates of equal merit. The Government therefore seem to be confused about this proposal: either it is a limited measure to be used only as a tie-break in rare cases, or it will allow positive discrimination as a widespread recruitment policy. We therefore intend to examine this proposal further in Committee.

We also need more detail on the proposals relating to public sector procurement. I understand the Government's intention in this area, but the Bill is, again, worryingly vague. What exactly will be required of a company in order to demonstrate that it is meeting acceptable equality levels? Indeed, how are acceptable equality levels to be defined, and who will define them? We all agree that there needs to be fairness in the business world and that the public sector should always take care in procurement, but as the Government have spent so much time preparing the Bill, we expected more detail. Given the concerns raised by the Glover review about small businesses and procurement, we need to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck so that equality flourishes in our business sector, but without placing unfair burdens on small companies.

I welcome the inclusion in the Bill of age discrimination measures. Unfair discrimination on the basis of age should be as unacceptable as any other form of discrimination and we welcome the action to tackle it. However, I want to press the Government on a few points to ensure that there are no unintended consequences of the legislation. We all want to tackle age discrimination, but I am sure Members would accept that

"there will always be a need for age-specific facilities and services".

Those were the exact words of the Government's discrimination law review and that principle is maintained by the Government's correct decision to exclude under-18s from the age provisions of this Bill. The Minister for Women and Equality will be aware that there is concern that the Government have ignored that principle, particularly as regards insurance.

The discrimination law review stated that there was a need for the continuation of

"age-based concessions, whether in the private or public sector" as well as a need to allow

"insurance companies to design and provide products for specific market segments" and

"age limits on group holidays."

Ministers have been challenged on the issue of Saga Holidays by my hon. Friend Philip Davies and Linda Gilroy. Ministers have recognised these issues in the explanatory notes, but they have failed to come up with a satisfactory way of dealing with these issues in the Bill. What they have had to resort to in clause 190 is an unacceptable power for Ministers to amend primary legislation by order every time someone thinks up an example that Ministers want to permit. That will not be acceptable for businesses such as Saga and for other insurance businesses that need more clarity about the framework in which they are going to operate.

Although one of the understandable desires of the Government is to open up services for older people, there is a danger that the clause will damage the specialist services on which older people rely, in particular insurance services and specialist holidays, by requiring them to provide for younger people as well. Saga has said the following about the Bill:

"our insurance business, if forced to offer premiums to all age groups, would become less competitive for the over 50s because we would have to bear extra costs of quotation for the under 50s."

It says that without assurances from the Government, the following will occur:

"This will inevitably make business planning impossible for us, since we will not know whether our holidays will remain legal."

I am sure that the Government do not intend to damage specialist services in that way, but they must listen to the genuine concerns that have been expressed. Equally, they must ensure that insurance companies that use age assessment—where that is appropriate—are not damaged. The Government have failed to set out clearly where they are coming from on this, so I hope that when the Solicitor-General winds up the debate she will be able to assure us that age-based treatment, where appropriate, can continue.

I am glad that the Bill is bringing under one roof the vast array of existing equalities legislation, so that we have more coherence in this area of law. Over recent years, equality has been given a bad name—to many people, "equality" has become about bureaucracy and box-ticking—but it should never be the enemy of common sense, nor should it hamper business; it should help business to work better.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

No, I am coming to a—[Hon. Members: "Peroration."] My hon. Friends are flattering me by calling it a peroration. I had hoped that the Equality Bill would not just sweep away existing equality legislation, but improve on what we have. However, rather than instilling some simplicity and common sense, some of the measures in this Bill serve merely to overcomplicate and undermine. Fairness is a very straightforward concept, yet the Government have managed to turn it into a quagmire of regulation and recrimination. We shall be pressing them on many of their proposals and I hope that, where possible, we shall be able to work together to create some better legislation. But the Bill, as it stands, is littered with inconsistencies and obstacles to real fairness, and for that reason we need to start again. I urge hon. Members from all parts of the House to support the amendment, so we can work together to provide legislation that truly does deliver a fair society.

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West 4:58 pm, 11th May 2009

It is a pleasure to be able to participate so early in this debate. I very warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality on introducing this excellent Bill. She has been a stalwart and consistent champion for equality from well before it became a reasonably fashionable cause. I listened to Mrs. May and I was puzzled by her decision, and that of her party leader, to vote against Second Reading, given that she and her party profess, albeit perhaps a little late, to be converts to the cause of a fairer and more equal society. The points she was making would more appropriately have been reflected by trying to press amendments in Committee, rather than by deciding to oppose Second Reading completely.

I have been struck in recent weeks by the sheer number of briefings on the Bill that I have received—more than I can remember for any other recent Bill—and the range of organisations from which they have come. That reflects the way in which the debate about equality and diversity is increasingly a mainstream and not a minority issue. There are a few key points that I want to make, but I shall start with a quick reflection on just how far we have come.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

The right hon. Lady refers to the briefings that she had received, which gives me a chance to raise the matter that my right hon. Friend Mrs. May did not have time for me to raise.

The briefing from the Roman Catholic Bishops conference states:

"The Bill creates competing rights with no indication of how problems should be resolved."

I assume this is a reference to the competing claims of the so-called faith lobby and the so-called gay lobby. Does the right hon. Lady believe that the bishops conference has a point, and if so, how can these tensions be resolved?

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely interesting point. There is no doubt that there are occasions when there are competing rights. I dealt with that as Minister for Women when we were considering, for instance, the introduction of laws against religious discrimination and laws against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in employment. We arrived at, I believe, the right compromise in those two separate strands of legislation. I assume, although I have not checked the detail, that that is reflected in the new Bill.

That was one of the reasons I came to the view that we needed a single Equality and Human Rights Commission in place of the three predecessor bodies. Where there are conflicting rights—and sometimes there will be—a body is needed that can work within a broader framework, including the broader human rights framework, to help society as a whole, as well as the courts and the House, to resolve those conflicts.

To illustrate how far we have come, I recall, as another young campaigner for equality legislation 35 years ago, just how dismal the situation was. This morning I had the pleasure of joining an excellent organisation, Working Families. We were looking at which employers to include in our top 20 list of organisations that are helping families to balance work and caring responsibilities. What I found would have been unthinkable 35 years ago, and pretty extraordinary even 15 or 20 years ago—over and over again, organisations saying that more than 90 per cent. of women who take maternity leave, which is much longer than it was, say, 20 years ago, are returning to work, often with a change in their working arrangements.

Over and over again, organisations were saying that the right to request different working hours was not limited to those covered by our current laws, but had been extended to everybody, and even on that basis more than 90 per cent. of requests were granted. Those are just a few examples of the huge strides we have made.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

I hope the right hon. Lady will not be surprised to know that I agree with many of her comments, including her specific recommendation in favour of the single equality commission. On balance, I think that has been right, but will she concede that in these discussions—it has been rather under-represented in the debate so far—we need to be very sensitive to the needs of disabled people, because the nature of their position, the remedies for their position and any discrimination against them might be somewhat different in kind from the digital situation that exists as to whether there is racial discrimination or gender discrimination? Does she agree that it is very important that in Committee we take that factor into account?

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not think there would be much disagreement in any part of the House. We carefully considered that in setting up the single equality commission, and I know that the commission takes it extremely seriously.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I agree with everything that the right hon. Lady has said so far. Does not the example that she has so eloquently given about her meeting Working Families this morning suggest that the current situation is working well, based on the Equality Act 2006, and therefore does not require the micromanagement that the Government now propose?

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West

I disagree with the hon. Lady on that point for the reasons so eloquently expressed by the Minister for Women and Equality. The point that I wanted to make about the right to request flexible working and, more broadly, work-family balance is that the new challenge we face is how employers can make it much easier and more normal for men to vary their working hours so that they can play the full part in bringing up their children, or caring for elderly or disabled relatives, that so many would like to play but find difficult to achieve at the moment.

I especially welcome certain aspects of the Bill. The new public sector duty is part of a very welcome simplification of the law. My right hon. and learned Friend, in illustrating the need for simplification, could have mentioned the appalling number of volumes now required to deal with case law on all the different strands of legislation. Having a single public sector equality duty, rather than a series of separate duties, will allow the Department of Health—my old Department—and the NHS to take a single view of the challenges they face and the opportunities they have to combat inequality. For instance, Departments could look at the real challenge they still face in achieving the proper representation of women in more senior positions. They might consider advertising almost all jobs on a flexible rather than a full-time basis—a suggestion specifically made by Working Families.

I equally strongly support My right hon. and learned Friend on the measures on positive action. Clarity is badly needed in that area. When I was a governor of my children's primary school, we found it almost impossible to recruit men into the classrooms, even though we badly wanted more men to teach those young children, especially in a community in which so many children were growing up without the active presence of their father in their family.

I hope that the Bill will permit positive action not only at the point of making an appointment, but when a public sector body or private company—seeking greater diversity in its work force or on its board—solicits applications from well qualified people within the underrepresented group. Perhaps the Minister will address that point when she winds up.

The third aspect that I warmly welcome is the proposed new duty on public sector organisations to consider how they can narrow the gap between rich and poor. I referred to the work I had done as Minister for Women and as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in making proposals for a single Equality and Human Rights Commission. In the end, the factor that most led me to the conclusion that we needed a single body was the fact that—whatever the actual legal position—some groups felt completely left out of the law and the debate on diversity and equality. In particular, white men—especially white working class men—simply did not see themselves represented or reflected in the equality and diversity debate. Yet we all know very well—I certainly know this from my constituency—that school results, for example, show that white working-class boys are typically most likely to leave school without anything resembling the skills and competences that they need to open up opportunities in the modern world.

What I have also seen in my constituency and many other parts of the country is the powerful change that can come about when the Government and the public sector more generally get behind disadvantaged communities, as we have done, for instance, with the new deal for communities, certainly in my constituency, in the neighbourhood of Braunstone, where the public, private and not-for-profit sectors have come together to support local people in a desperately disadvantaged neighbourhood, to start to transform their own lives and their neighbours' lives.

I have no doubt at all that local councils, the local NHS, the police and so on will be helped in focusing their priorities by the new duty to consider how they can narrow the class gap, as well as taking into account the different needs of, for instance, men and women and of—to use another Leicester example—the south Asian community in respect of health care and so on. That is crucial. If that is one of the main reasons behind the Opposition's decision to oppose the Bill on Second Reading, it illustrates just how out of touch they are.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming that provision. Does she agree that it has proved very difficult to address those inequalities, that it takes a very long time to do so and that entrenching such things, as in the very good work of the Plymouth local strategic partnership, is very important indeed?

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—in fact, I recall getting some sense of the work of that local strategic partnership when I visited her constituency—about the concerted effort that is needed over a long period to address such deep-seated disadvantages, which are transmitted intergenerationally within extended families in a neighbourhood.

I want to raise two specific, more narrow issues, on which I hope my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will comment when she makes her winding-up speech. The first issue is discrimination against women who are pregnant or on maternity leave. It is truly shocking that 30 years, or whatever it is, since the introduction of paid maternity leave so many women still find themselves discriminated against by their employer when they are pregnant or on maternity leave. That includes utterly crass forms of discrimination, such as the woman who telephones or tells her employer that she is pregnant only to be told, practically in the next breath, that she has lost her job. The alliance against pregnancy discrimination has expressed concerns that clauses 16 and 17 will not be as strong as the existing law, and it would be helpful if my hon. and learned Friend reassured us on that point.

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

I speak as the chair of the all-party group on maternity, and I add my voice to the concerns being expressed about clauses 16 and 17. Perhaps we can seek some reassurance from the Minister on that point.

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support, because she has done outstanding work on the issue.

On the second issue, I want to return to the point made by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn about caste discrimination, because it is certainly the belief of Caste Watch UK that the current law does not adequately protect those in south Asian or, indeed, other communities who find themselves discriminated against on those grounds. I understand that the UN human rights convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination prohibits discrimination on five grounds: race, colour, national or ethnic origin, or descent. Of course, the UK ratified the convention in 1969, but I do not believe that our existing law, or indeed the Bill, is as explicit on that point as, for instance, the legislation in Australia. It would be helpful if the Minister addressed that issue.

The Bill is a landmark measure and it deserves the wholehearted support of the House. I certainly wish it well in Committee. I believe that in years to come it will be seen as another milestone on our long march to a fairer and more equal society.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families) 5:15 pm, 11th May 2009

The passion that drives and motivates Liberal Democrats—that beats in our hearts—is our quest for, and commitment to, a fairer and more open and equal world, so we very much welcome the Bill. It was too long in gestation and far too late in arriving but it is very much welcome nevertheless.

Fairness and equality are Liberal Democrat watchwords and we shall support outcomes in the Bill that genuinely further their cause, but where there is weakness or omission we shall challenge and probe and add improvements to deliver even fairer outcomes and even more equality. Our equalities pedigree is well known. Lord Lester, who will lead for us in the other place, has a long and impeccable track record in these matters—basically, he wrote the book. Equalities legislation reflects his pioneering and lifelong commitment to the cause.

Before I turn to the key issues in the Bill, I shall touch on a few overarching matters. We think the Government could have taken a more radical perspective and extended the commitment to equality beyond the Bill, with an overarching equality guarantee. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission said, that would ensure that equality was considered in every action of the state and in every future piece of legislation. Such a guarantee would be radical and would give us a constitutional right to fairness.

It is important to establish what we are trying to achieve through the Bill. How will we measure success? How much inequality will be eradicated? My overall sense is that the Bill does not go far enough and that the length of time it has taken to reach the Floor of the House does not seem adequately reflected in the final product or the urgency to be given to some of the provisions, given the scale of inequality that the Leader of the House briefly outlined.

Women in full-time work are paid 17 per cent. less than men, and 36 per cent. less if they work part-time. A disabled person is two and a half times more likely to be out of work. A person from an ethnic minority is 15.5 per cent. less able to find work. Sixty-two per cent. of over-50s believe they have been turned down for a job because of their age, and six in 10 lesbian or gay schoolchildren experience homophobic bullying. Will the Bill cure those horrific statistics? That must be the measure of how far it can go.

The simplification and unification of our equality laws will help. It will not be a panacea for eradicating inequality but it is a good start. There are 35 Acts, 52 statutory instruments, 13 codes of practice and 16 European directives—only lawyers will get rich from them.

As has been mentioned on both sides of the House, we are in the middle of one of the deepest recessions in history. Legislation does not exist in a vacuum, so we cannot completely ignore the plight of business and the impact of new laws. However, after 10 years of boom, when the Government did not act on equality issues—especially equal pay—it would not be acceptable if there was any weakening of equality legislation. I welcome the Leader of the House's assurance that the delivery of the law will not be affected. I shall argue some of those points when I speak about the gender pay gap.

We are rewriting 40 years of equality law, and it has to be fit for the next 40 years. I encourage the Government to have the courage of their convictions, and to believe their own analysis of the cost-benefits of the new law, which is that there would be a net gain for UK plc within three and a half years. I would like to address some concerns of a general nature. An awful lot of very important things will not be in the Bill. A lot of powers are being left to Ministers, and powers to amend decisions—on, for example, exceptions regarding age discrimination in the provision of goods and services, multiple discrimination and how equal pay should be measured—are being kicked into the long grass.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is most gracious. Does she accept that the lack of detail on some of those matters makes it difficult to compute the impact and compliance costs for business and others? We simply do not know at this stage.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We Liberal Democrats are trying hard to support the measures in the Bill, but it is hard to see the legislation going through its stages without the detail that we need to be sure that we are doing the right thing. These are uncertain political times, and it causes me concern that future Ministers might be anti-equality. Powers left to a Minister in future will be powers for a Minister to undo what has been done today, if they should, by any chance, not share an equal conviction in the equality legislation.

Socio-economic inequality is the deepest and most intractable inequality. That is the one into which we are born, and we have very little chance of changing that. The Liberal Democrats have long argued, in this Chamber and elsewhere, that poverty and inequality are intrinsically linked. In nearly three decades of Thatcherite and new Labour Governments, Britain has steadily become a less equal and less fair society. Under this Labour Government, rates of social mobility have fallen. A person born into a poor family now is more likely to remain poor throughout their adult life than a person born 30 years ago. Educational chances are almost entirely correlated to social class, which means that children's prospects are set before they even reach school.

The equality gap has widened, and as Ms Polly Toynbee wrote last week:

"in Labour's decade, billionaires' wealth quadrupled and three out of five of them paid no income tax."

Even more importantly, in the five years before the crash, average incomes barely changed, and the poor became poorer. Inequality is at its highest level since records began—and that is under a Labour Government. The Government should have introduced measures to tackle stubborn, worsening inequality 10 years ago, and they should not have done so in a last-minute, throwaway clause, even though it has been put at the start of the Bill. It muddies the water; it has been jumbled into a Bill that was intended to unify, clarify and strengthen existing legislation.

The Government should have made legislative proposals to tackle socio-economic inequality in a Bill of its own, given the vital importance of narrowing the equality gap. It is the right aim, but the wrong vehicle and the wrong means. It is just a very weak measure. In some ways, the proposal in the Bill is no different from saying that when our taxes are spent by public bodies, those bodies should bear in mind whether they are damaging our environment in how they spend those taxes. It makes sense to think about the wider implications of how money should be spent. If we can use it to address and tackle more than one issue, and to achieve more than one goal, that is even better news, as it is more value for money in cash-strapped times, but the way in which the duty is laid out in the Bill is, I fear, simplistic and unfair. Its wording is broad enough to attract controversy, worry, and legal argument, but too weak to have much of a real impact or really address the equality gap, which is widening and damaging to all of us. That is the worst of all words.

I cannot express how disappointed I am with the Government's overly patient approach to equal pay for women. I know that their heart is in the right place, but the idea that business is to be given another four years in which to change its ways is a cop-out. It would seem that the Minister for Women and Equality has forgotten that businesses were given five years to get their house in order after the original Equal Pay Act of 1970. Forty years later, we are about to repeat that same error. How much time do businesses need to get their house in order? I am sorry that the Government have backed away from mandatory pay audits. What the Government propose is not a pay audit at all, but simply a statement of average pay by gender, without any context to make it truly meaningful. My goodness, the Government clearly understand the benefits of openness and transparency, because they rightly seek to end the mystery that shrouds pay by prohibiting firms from issuing gagging orders that require a vow of silence from their staff. However, they fall short of requiring a real pay audit that would evaluate the quality and nature of the work being done and then be published.

Recently, off the back of a publication about pay at the university of Cambridge, I noticed an unhealthy preponderance of men at the top of the scales and women at the bottom. I referred the issue to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and blogged about it, and two very concerned gentleman from the university's external relations department rushed down to Parliament to meet me and inform me of all that they were going to do to deal with that glaring challenge—exposed by meaningful figures that they had had to publish. That is the point: what is exposed to public scrutiny will concentrate the mind. The main benefit of such an audit, however, is that it becomes a tool for the individual who has no idea what the pay scales are and who gets what. In seeing what is what, the individual will be able to decide whether she or he is being discriminated against, and they will have the evidence and knowledge to take their case forward.

Conservative Members discussed the knock-on effect on a whole company, but how will an individual take forward a case to be examined by a tribunal in the first place if they do not have the evidence? The Government's hand may be forced if businesses do not change their ways, but the Bill deals only with those private sector firms that have 250 staff or more, representing 0.5 per cent. of the whole sector. As the Leader of the House pointed out, 80 per cent. of people work in the private sector, so the Bill is unlikely to right many of the wrongs ensuring that, economically, women continue to be second-class citizens.

Moreover, the Government's plan seems to require the Equality and Human Rights Commission to spend the summer consulting various bodies, but it is a bit rich for the commission to consider it after legislation has gone through the House, because we will have no idea of the extent of the measure. We are also disappointed that, on legal protection against pay discrimination, the Government have not introduced hypothetical comparators for equal pay claims, because that continues the disparity between the way in which different types of discrimination are dealt with. We will therefore push the Government in Committee to have the courage of their convictions.

Much of the Bill deals with when one is in work, but I am concerned about the discrimination that takes place in respect of applications for work, because, even before the interview stage, there are barriers that eliminate those people from black or ethnic minority communities, women, those with disabilities and older applicants. Applicants must be given an equal chance of employment from the first moment that they apply for a job, whether private or public.

I once had two interns, one whose surname was Patel and one whose surname was Hussein. They were bright, able and talented, but, out of the many jobs that they had applied for before they came to work as interns, they had not qualified for a single interview. Obviously, after interning for a while in my office and being able to put on their CV that they had worked for an MP, which is, after all, the point for them, they both went off to good jobs, I am pleased to say—one in public relations and one at the Ministry of Defence. However, the situation got me thinking—it is not rocket science—that they might not have got past that first, application stage because of their surnames.

Nicola Brewer, the outgoing chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, gave voice not long ago to the fact that employers avoid employing women because they wish to avoid becoming liable for maternity benefits. We will table an amendment to introduce a name-blank application that would apply to all written applications to work. Just as children are given an exam number to put on their exam papers so that there is no recognition, prejudice or unfairness, job applicants should be required to submit, for example, only their national insurance number. No one would know whether they were female, male, black, brown, young or old, and that first, possibly subliminal, discard would be eliminated. Obviously, when one reached the interview stage, the employer would know one's background, but prejudice would be much harder, and personality and character come through at interview in a way that they do not on a piece of paper. I hope that the Government will look favourably on that suggestion. Financially, the cost would be almost nil.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

My hon. Friend has made a good suggestion, which I hope the Government will take on board. Does she agree that it is far better to explore such ways of solving the problem of discrimination against women than to agree—I do not know whether Ms Brewer was suggesting this—that we should somehow dilute the important benefits attracted in respect of maternity to meet what employers are doing? It is far better to tackle the discrimination than to dilute the benefits that they are concerned about.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

Absolutely. When Ms Brewer made her announcements, I felt that the message was rather along the lines of, "Well we mustn't do that then. We will have to tone down the magnitude of maternity benefits." That would be entirely the wrong approach.

While we are on the subject of work applications, a subject already discussed in this debate, I want to mention disability. At present, the onus is on the individual to state whether they have a disability. One hopes that it would not, but that might somehow allow the employer to reject disabled applicants at an early stage. If the employer had to state on a form what sort of disability would be a bar, it could be judged whether that was appropriate and the person concerned would be more likely to get to interview.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

In that context, does the hon. Lady agree that it is simply unacceptable that the Ministry of Defence has an exemption from the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005?

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

I agree.

I turn to positive action. It seems completely illogical that we should be allowed to fast-track the training of ethnic minority and women police, but not be allowed to fast-track their employment. The rebalancing of the workplace is hugely important, and I do not disagree with the Leader of the House's vision of the bank boardrooms of the future. When both the genders make a decision, it is likely to be more balanced.

I was chair of transport at the Greater London authority, and I noticed that decisions on budgets were often weighted towards the working world. Although I am a great supporter of Crossrail and I believe that the big infrastructure projects are vital, there was a bit of one type of issue being against another—who had the longest train and the biggest airport, for example, versus travel to school and soft measures on travel planning. The disparity between those budgets was irreconcilable. Both genders need to take part in the decision making so that they can argue the case fully. I look forward to seeing more women in the banks.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

Is the hon. Lady seriously making the worrying suggestion that if more women were on the boards of the large banks they would make decisions not in the commercial interests of the banks, but on other grounds?

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but banking is not going so well. If we brought other considerations into the boardroom, we would get better decisions and the country would not be in its current mess.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

No. The hon. Gentleman made a ridiculous point.

Let us move on to age. Three cheers for what the Government have proposed on age discrimination! I cannot say how glad I am that protection against age discrimination is being extended to goods and services. However, it is unacceptable for the exemptions to be handled through regulation; they should be in the Bill, and fully debated in Parliament. They are an intrinsic part of the package. I have a concern about the start date of the proposals on age discrimination; it is not satisfactory to leave it up to a Minister to decide at a later date when the measures should be introduced. For the avoidance of doubt, we will ask the Government to set a mandatory deadline.

My last point about age discrimination and matters mandatory is that I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government have retained a mandatory retirement age. It seems completely wrong. I am surprised, as it is clearly discriminatory to decide on an arbitrary age as a cut-off. I heard what the Leader of the House said about the default retirement age being on a separate track, but the issue should be included in the Bill.

I want briefly to touch on some of the good things in the Bill. We welcome the inclusion of sex and age in the positive duty. We also welcome what we hope is a move away from treating transsexualism as a medical condition. It is currently labelled gender reassignment under the protected characteristics. For a long time, those in the transgender community have had physically to change gender before qualifying for the same protection as other strands. To date, the transgender spectrum has not really been understood. While we understand the desire for clear definitions in the Bill, many people find themselves on that spectrum but do not necessarily want a sex change. This is about people who face discrimination because of how they express their gender but do not fit into neat boxes. As the Bill progresses, we will test the Government on exact definitions, because we are still concerned about the continued, fairly narrow definition whereby transgender is seen as part of a process on the way to a change of gender. That is only a slight advance on where we are now, and we would wish those anywhere on the spectrum to have the full protection of equality under the law.

We are pleased with the Government's proposals on carers and welcome the enshrining in law of the Coleman case and the protection that that affords. We also welcome the measures on breastfeeding, pregnancy and new mothers. However, there are some missing strands that we will probe in Committee: for example, castes are missing from discrimination protection; and there may be separate issues to do with children.

We have outstanding concerns about the proposed changes to restrictions on who can give blood. Obviously, the safety of the blood supply is paramount. However, prohibiting homosexuals as a group from giving blood, as has been the case, bears close examination. It is, without a doubt, discrimination to say, in blanket terms, that all homosexuals should not give blood because they pose such a tremendous risk. Surely we need some sort of risk-based system that assesses the risk posed by an individual, given that there will be overactive heterosexuals who practise unsafe sex and abstinent homosexuals.

Liberal Democrat Members understand the Government's motives in including religion and belief under the positive duty for equality. However, given the arduous and extensive arguments on the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill—on which the Government, I hate to remind them, were defeated—we hold to the view that religion and belief should not be a protected characteristic. Of course, we all believe that people should not face discrimination in their work because of their religion, and subscribe to promoting good relations to advance equality of opportunity and eliminate discrimination. However, religious views on matters such as abortion, alcohol, homosexuality and sex education in schools are varied and often at odds, and it would be absurd to require public authorities to accommodate all those views in public policies that affect us all. We are also worried that if exceptions for religious organisations in employment are too broad, there will be abuse of that protection. It is obviously acceptable to discriminate in some circumstances, such as advertising for a Catholic to fill the job of a Catholic priest—that makes complete theological sense—but it would be unacceptable if we then found it specified that only a Catholic caretaker could work in a religious school. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend Dr. Harris will spend many hours in Committee happily arguing our case, particularly in relation to harassment, where there is a balance to be struck between protection from harassment and free speech.

We are somewhat disappointed that the Bill proposes to continue the medical model of defining disability and that greater consideration has not been given to the social model. We also believe that there is a lack of clarity about the extension to the reasonable adjustment requirement for common areas in rented accommodation. Is that proposal workable? Where liability for costs is shared, who will bear those costs? Such details matter if a Bill is not to come into disrepute. The intention is very good, but the proposal has to work.

We welcome the correction of judgments that have seriously undermined protection from disability discrimination, but we are seriously concerned that the remedy proposed in the Bill will not undo the Malcolm case. I shall pursue that issue in detail in Committee.

I draw my remarks to a close by saying that the Liberal Democrats will challenge, and seek to improve, what is on offer in the Bill. It would be easy to knock the proposed measures, as we heard to some degree from the Conservatives. However, legislation in the equalities field has been the advance guard of change.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

Absolutely right. We have to change the culture.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

Absolutely, and the Bill is an important foot solider in that regard. It sends out a clear and determined message about how the world will have to change. However, legislation must will the means, not just the ends, and we have to ensure that what we put down in law is matched by the will and resources to ensure its delivery. That will come into play when procurement is considered. Equality has advanced, but there is still a long way to go. If we do not continue to advance the cause and deliver a much fairer and more equal world, the cost to us as individuals and collectively as a country will be huge. A fairer and more equal world will mean that all of us fare much better, and I look forward to the battles ahead.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North 5:41 pm, 11th May 2009

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this very important debate.

I know that we have all been waiting for a long time for the Bill to come to the House, and I strongly welcome it. It is a flagship Bill that will affect everybody in the country in some way or other. We all know that unequal societies are unhappy societies, and the Bill represents a great effort to address the discrimination and the barriers that exist throughout the UK. I congratulate the Government on getting it to Second Reading, and I totally support the direction in which they are going.

The Bill is the culmination of many years of hard work and struggle by many different movements. The women's movement, the movement of disabled people fighting for their rights and many others throughout the country have fought for such a Bill for many years. The test will be in making the words on the page become reality, but the right words mean that we are getting there.

I am absolutely amazed that the Opposition are voting against the Bill and have tabled their amendment. I am surprised that they wish to send the message that they are sending against equality measures.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My right hon. Friend Mrs. May made it clear that we welcome many measures in the Bill, such as simplification of the law and the extension of legislation on age discrimination. However, there is a lot in the Bill that we do not support. We have laid out our concerns in our reasoned amendment, and that is why, when I wind up the debate, I shall ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

I think that everybody will see where the Opposition—the Conservative party—are coming from.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making it clear that it is not all Opposition Members who will oppose the Bill's Second Reading, but the Conservative party. My understanding is that if one opposes certain things in a Bill—I understand the sincere reasons that Mr. Harper has for doing so—one should give it a Second Reading and try to amend it in Committee and on Report. If one is still not happy on balance, one should vote against it on Third Reading. I would have thought that the Conservatives had that alternative.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and urge the Conservative party to support the Bill today so that the whole House is united in its proposals for equality.

As the Bill is so wide ranging and there are so many aspects that could be raised in this debate—I am sure that, like me, other Members have received many briefings, showing the extent of interest in the Bill from so many different sectors of the community—I want to use this opportunity to raise some of the issues that have been brought to my attention that I hope can be considered further in Committee.

As an MP from Wales, I have been approached by many Welsh organisations about different aspects of the Bill. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in Wales recently produced a document about the road to equality for women in Wales, which it says is too slow. That report showed the huge inequalities that still exist for women in Wales. When the Welsh Assembly was set up, the balance of women and men was nearly 50:50, which was a huge achievement. In her opening remarks, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality said that the positive action that Labour has taken has made a huge difference to the number of women MPs in this place and the number of Labour representatives in the devolved bodies. In 2003, the Assembly was the only body in the world to have parity—a 50:50 balance—between women and men. That was a huge achievement. I welcome the fact that the permission to have mechanisms such as the twinning mechanism that we used in the Welsh Assembly and all-women shortlists will be extended for a further period.

However, in other parts of life in Wales, outside the political sphere of the Assembly, there is still a huge way to go. For example, 74 per cent. of all teachers in Wales are women, but only 16 per cent. of secondary school head teachers and heads of further education colleges are women. That is a huge disparity, and it cannot be a good model for pupils or students. It is very important to address that. Also, 73 per cent. of all staff in local authorities are women, but only 21 per cent. of local authority chief executives are women, which again is a huge disparity. It is important to do what we can to address those issues. In Wales's top 100 private companies there are no women chief executives. Achieving a more equal society in Wales has been a very slow process, despite the fact that we have such a good gender balance in the Assembly. I welcome the measures in the Bill that will tackle those issues.

One of the biggest issues in Wales, as elsewhere in the UK, is the pay gap. In some areas of work, the pay gap is particularly stark. My right hon. and learned Friend has drawn attention to the huge gender pay gaps—up to 60 per cent.—in the finance sector. Research into the finance sector has shown that women are overwhelmingly concentrated in lower-paid administrative jobs. In Wales, the latest available figures show that the pay gap has widened to 12 per cent. The pay gap has always been somewhat narrower in Wales, but that is because more men there are on low pay than the British average.

We need to tackle the pay gap, not only, as has been said, for reasons of equality and fairness, but for strong economic reasons. The women and work commission's report of 2006 concluded that removing the barriers to women working in occupations traditionally undertaken by men and increasing women's participation in the labour market would be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion. The gap is wider in the private sector than in the public sector. I therefore welcome the proposals in the Bill to tackle the pay gap. We have been trying to do that for a long time, but progress has been slow; indeed, the pay gap has recently risen in Wales, although it is still lower than in the UK as a whole.

Unison in Wales reckons that, putting together all its members with claims in all branches, there are now 9,000 outstanding claims, many of which are equal value claims. There are huge issues in respect of such claims, because there is a shortage of ACAS-approved independent experts in Wales, which means that huge legal bills are being built up. I understand that about six months ago, Cardiff council, whose area I represent, had paid out £160,000 in legal fees to just one firm of solicitors—something that will be reflected all over the country. The pay gap in local authorities is a problem. The money that local authorities are having to pay out to solicitors is causing a huge problem, when really that money should go on services. We need to do something to try to speed the process up and sort it out.

Unison and the Fawcett Society have made some proposals in their briefings. They both strongly support the Bill, but believe that it should be strengthened in some ways. They believe that as well as mandatory pay audits there should be representative actions so that individuals can make a claim as a group, which would cut the costs and perhaps the delay. I wonder whether that could be considered during the passage of the Bill.

The Bill requires private sector companies that employ 250 or more people to report on their gender pay gap, and public authorities with 150 employees will also have to report on equality issues. I think that that will be consulted on this summer, which would be a good opportunity to consider what issues will be raised. Will the Minister confirm the position in Wales as regards the list of public bodies that will be included? What role will the Welsh Assembly Government play in deciding which bodies are included?

I strongly support the socio-economic duty; it is absolutely great that it has been brought into the Bill. It is a huge challenge to try to reduce the inequalities that have come about as a result of the division between the rich and the poor, but I feel that the Government and the Labour party are determined to address it. It is very important. Will the Minister say who will make decisions about which public bodies in Wales are included in the list? I also have some concerns about the exception in that clause of people who are subject to immigration control. Will she expand on the thinking behind that?

Another issue that has been raised constantly with me by voluntary bodies and children's groups is age discrimination and young people. I know that children and young people need to be treated in an age-appropriate way, but many of the young people who have spoken to me feel that they are discriminated against and not listened to just because they are young. The last Children's Commissioner for Wales, Peter Clarke, said that one of the most common complaints that he received from young people was that they were not listened to. The Young Equals campaign highlighted the fact that 43 per cent. of those under 18 felt that they had been treated unfairly because of their age. I have been in correspondence with the Minister about that issue and have asked why age discrimination against those aged under 18 is not included as part of the Bill. I hope that we can explore that issue a bit more, because the young people and children who speak to me and the bodies that represent them do not understand the logic of why they are not part of this Bill with the appropriate exceptions built in.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Treasury Minister

I agree very much with the hon. Lady's last few remarks. Does she agree that that issue is particularly important when young people are subject to residency orders? Their parents might be going through difficulties so that residency is an issue, and too often the courts and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service do not take into account the views of the children and young people who are involved.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

The general feedback that I have received from many bodies is that children and young people's views are not given enough due attention. Those children who are active in such movements see it as a slight that they are not included in the Bill. I understand the reasons behind that decision, because of the many exceptions that would have to be made, but the bodies and young people involved do not understand. We need to discuss that subject at greater length.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

I know that there is an issue to discuss about age discrimination and the under-18s, but I hope that my hon. Friend is not under the misapprehension that the Bill does not apply at all to those aged under 18. Of course, in every other strand, it does.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

Yes. I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention.

One issue that young people complain about in particular is inappropriate health care provision. Let me take this opportunity to welcome initiatives in my constituency, particularly the Skypad unit, which is based at the University hospital of Wales. It has special age-appropriate facilities for teenage cancer sufferers. The rooms are geared towards teenagers and there is a chill-out zone as well as computer games. That sort of development is exactly what we should be encouraging, because it is appropriate for the age of those young people. They are not children, and they are not adults, but in the health service in general about two thirds of those who are at that in-between age are not in appropriate accommodation. Those are the sorts of issues that have been brought to me by young people.

Another point made to me by the Young Equals campaign in particular—I have met a lot of these groups—was that research has shown that children do not expect the police necessarily to take them seriously when they make serious points. Sometimes, groups of young people are not allowed access to leisure facilities and shops. A shop near my office allowed in only two young people at any one time. That is labelling all young people as potentially disruptive, and I wonder how young people who feel very deeply about such issues can be protected from such discrimination. How will such issues be addressed under the Bill? That is an important point, and I hope that we can have a further discussion so that it can become clear to young people, who often feel strongly about such issues, that the Government are considering their role.

I want to mention other welcome provisions. Many of us have campaigned for a ban on discrimination in private clubs for years, and have even stood outside such clubs making our views known, so it is great that that is now happening. I also welcome the measures to protect pregnant women and new mothers, and to make it illegal to eject breastfeeding mothers from cafés, restaurants and public places—I know that that has happened. Many of us have suffered from such discrimination.

The Bill will reinforce some of the good initiatives that are already happening. In Cardiff, there is a "Breastfeeding Welcome" scheme. Businesses put up a sign saying, "Breastfeeding mothers are welcome." The scheme has spread all over Cardiff and is particularly strong in the Cardiff Bay area, which is a tourist area. The Bill will strengthen the scheme. We can make the legislation, but we also need efforts to encourage women and to say, "We are pleased that you are breastfeeding here. We think that breastfeeding is good for you and good for the children and we want to do all we can to help you feel welcome." We have the legislation to back up that approach, but we still need the schemes to reinforce the message and to make people feel welcome.

I congratulate the Government on this wide-ranging Bill, and I am sure that it will make a huge difference to individuals in this country. I want to conclude by mentioning one particular group. I am chair of the all-party group on Gypsy and Traveller law reform and I know that Gypsies and Travellers are among the most discriminated-against groups in this society. I hope that the Bill will help them to achieve their rightful place in society and that they will play a major future role in their communities with its help.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry 5:59 pm, 11th May 2009

It is a personal pleasure to follow Julie Morgan, for two reasons. First, as she will be aware, I, too, have some interest in Wales. Secondly, I am an officer of the all-party Gypsy and Traveller law reform group to which she has just referred. I strongly confirm her impression that the situation for Gypsies and Travellers in education and health, for example, is deplorable and a clear example of discrimination.

It will already be clear from an intervention that I made earlier—I ought perhaps to declare an interest—that I am now safely past the state retirement age and, as the Americans would say, am slated for retirement from this House at the next general election, whenever it might come. This subtle passage of time might have led me to take a progressively greater interest in ageism, although I do not intend to say much about that tonight. I have had the rather sobering thought that, given the way things are going, this could well be the last time that I participate in the Second Reading debate on a major, substantive Bill. I am proud and pleased to be able to do so on this occasion.

For a variety of reasons, I have developed an interest in equality issues over the past 10 years, and I hope that I can display what I might call a progressive Conservative position on them across the piece. My main experience has been on disability issues, and I still chair my party's disability group. For other reasons, I have an interest in race relations and community cohesion, and I have a further interest given the gender make-up of my own family. When listening to the speech of the Minister for Women and Equality, I vividly remembered her tabling an amendment to national health service legislation some 20 years ago, in which she called for a gender quota of at least 40 per cent. women in the membership of NHS bodies. I countered at that point by saying that, as I was the only male in my own family, the gender ratio was already 4:1.

I found the right hon. and learned Lady's speech interesting, and I am not against the Bill in principle, for reasons that I shall deploy, but I felt that it was a little deficient in historic sensitivity. It required an intervention to get her to concede, somewhat grudgingly, that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was Conservative legislation. In my view, that legislation was path-breaking.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

Would the hon. Gentleman care to remind the House of the circumstances that led to the introduction of that legislation?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

Not in detail, but I think we got to the right outcome in the end.

I felt that there was a certain naiveté on the part of the right hon. and learned Lady in assuming that legislation could somehow automatically eliminate any difficulties. At one point I was moved to intervene on her—I aborted the attempt—to ask whether the absence of a public sector duty was somehow directly responsible for the fact that inequalities in this country had increased over the past 10 years.

We should be looking for agreement where we can find it, however, and I certainly broadly welcome the concept of the Bill, and many of its provisions. We are not going to get into the business of abolishing inequalities overnight, but almost everyone in the Chamber would accept the principles of equality under the law and of equality of opportunity as being important for a healthy society. I am happy to say that I believe there is a moral case for greater equality, because we all deserve decent treatment. There is also a social case, because a society that is not frustrated by inequalities is more likely to be a happy and cohesive one. There is also an economic case, although the evidence for that is not conclusive, because gross income inequalities are likely to depress national output and competitiveness.

I go on from that to support the broad approach to the single Bill and the body of law that bridges the various strands of discrimination. I admire the work led by Trevor Phillips in his equalities review, not least because it brought the question of outcomes—to which I have already referred in relation to the Gypsy and Traveller population—to the fore, and the careful, painstaking, parallel review of equality law that took place. Both reviews have informed this legislation.

It is surely sensible to unite concepts and process in a piece of overarching legislation. I would add for consideration, possibly in Committee, that we need to give some attention to equality of access, and I can mention two areas in which there have been difficulties historically. The first is educational discrimination in relation to special educational needs. When there is a special educational needs and disability—SEND—tribunal in the compulsory years, access is much more likely to take place than it is in further or higher education, where there might have to be recourse to the county court.

Secondly, disability discrimination duties are expressed in part II of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in relation to employment and, in part III, in relation to goods and services. I am not saying that a tribunal is always the right approach, but the fact is that more people use them than go to the courts. All these points should be subject to detailed scrutiny in Committee, and I am particularly anxious that there should be no perceived dilution of the Bill's coverage of disability, which is a more complex case.

Having said that, I am happy to have a single codification of the law, and I do not rule that out as an important factor in driving social progress. It is, to some extent, a lever of desirable change. However, given the experience with equal pay—the relevant legislation is now more than 30 years old—very few people would argue that the law itself will achieve an immediate or conclusive result. I hope that we will have a common aim of equality and that we will use the law appropriately, and not unduly puff its ability to deliver. At the same time, for moral reasons, neither direct nor indirect discrimination should be acceptable.

I shall move on from the body of law—important though that is—to examine some wider and more positive concepts, some vision matters and some matters of culture, where things can be a little more difficult to deliver. My unease—such as it is—about the detailed provisions of the Bill echoes some of the concerns set out by my right hon. Friend Mrs. May in her speech and in the reasoned amendment. The Bill is sometimes waffly and unspecific on public duties, which are not yet adequately defined or costed in regard to compliance. At the same time, however, it is unduly intrusive on the private sector. This is not a good time to introduce further costs, not least those involved in familiarising industry with the legislation. There are likely to be substantial one-off costs and continuing compliance costs, at a time when industry already has considerable burdens of its own.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

I am quite sure that there will be cost savings in the long run, and that the situation will settle down. There is a difficulty in the short term, however.

I want to turn to public sector bodies. Even if we drop the argument that the pursuit, in one clause, of socio-economic equality amounts to socialism, as I have heard it described, it does provide a charter for politically motivated interference. In some cases, it could even threaten equality under the law. For example, should we wind up the public library service because it is allegedly used by middle-class people rather than by the population as a whole? Worse, the public sector duty could become a cop-out from doing the real work that is needed in other parts of the public sector.

In some respects, the public sector and the civil service, of which I have some knowledge, are good employers and meet many of the requirements in the Bill. I know a bit about job share in the civil service, for example. Nevertheless, there is still a gender pay gap in the public service. A recent issue of Westminster & Whitehall World highlighted a problem in recruitment advertising that could deter a substantial amount of part-time applicants from applying for certain jobs—I think that the estimate was that 25 per cent. of jobs were not open to job sharers or part-timers. That would mean that many women with family responsibilities could not apply for those jobs. There also continues to be a lack of gender balance in public board appointments, although positive discrimination is perhaps not the right way to address the problem.

Yet the Government are somehow exempting themselves from many of the duties relating to publishing information on the gender pay gap. Characteristically, however, they go on to impose mandatory gender pay audits across the private sector, not on a targeted basis, and such an imposition on hard-pressed businesses is particularly difficult in present circumstances.

We also need to remember the social implications of the Bill. Not to put too fine a point on it, people will know that I do not go along with what is sometimes unfairly implied about the white working class. In a very interesting speech, Ms Hewitt spoke about the interests of the white working class. However, wherever we come from in this debate, we have to understand that there is a very fine line to tread between the social progress most of us—nearly everybody in this Chamber—would want and the risk of a backlash from grass-roots opinion. It is not always racist to protest if people feel that they are being treated unfairly because of a body of law or how it is interpreted; if that happens, we could have social unrest, particularly at a time of economic difficulty and unemployment.

At the same time as the Bill focuses on one or two headline-catching initiatives, which are obviously part of the particular Minister's agenda, it does not go far enough or give a sufficient lead in other directions. In respect of the private sector, there is, of course, no direct lever that Parliament or Ministers can pull other than setting out particular legal provisions. In terms of example, however, I have always felt that the best results come from the private sector when the moral and social case for equality and inclusion coincides with the business case. I have shared platforms with the Institute of Directors and other such bodies and argued that that coincidence of interest is the best way of guaranteeing social progress.

Employers need every sensible encouragement to good practice in equality. If one were to go into a bank in Leicester, it would hardly be surprising—or, to put it the other way, it would be extremely surprising if it did not happen—if one saw two or three Asian cashiers. Of course that will be the case, because that is the characteristic and make-up of the population.

We do not have enough disabled prospective parliamentary candidates, but we are beginning to address the problem.

In the public sector, there is also the question of principles and people debate whether the Bill should have a principles clause. I tend to agree with the Equality and Human Rights Commission that we should have such a clause. It is a "King Charles' Head" issue for me, so I was delighted that the Mental Capacity Act 2005 kept such a principles clause in, and I have drafted them for other Bills. I did not have much success with them, but I believe that there is a strength to having such clauses. I can understand exactly why Government lawyers are uncomfortable about principles-based laws; they think that they are somehow a foreign invention that could create a clash between specific requirements and wider principles of good behaviour. Actually, however, these clauses enable tribunals or courts of law to look behind the fulfilment of box-ticking and to move towards compliance with the underlying principles, meeting the challenges that the legislation is designed to address.

We have seen similar sorts of problems with our own expenses, when MPs have said that they complied with the rules, but we all know that that is not a sufficient response. If we are going to make real social progress, whether it be in the private or the public sector, it does mean a change of culture and it means that people have to go the extra mile beyond what is specifically written down in the law.

In truth, my personal vision of equality is, in a sense, motivated less by discrimination—I am not, however, a lawyer—than by an approach informed by human rights. I believe that employers should have to treat all their staff—and, of course, job applicants, too—decently. Equally, for those offering public services, we know that they are difficult to resource and to join up, but what should motivate all public officials is the offering of considerate, personal, holistic and decent treatment. Doing that properly in the interests of the person concerned should transcend the mere letter of the law. Passing this Bill, notwithstanding its many virtues, is at best a step towards that wider social advance.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown 6:15 pm, 11th May 2009

When the Bill was published, I really thought that we would be conducting not so much a debate as a mutual appreciation afternoon, but it has turned out quite surprisingly differently in view of what can only be described as the curmudgeonly response from the Conservative Opposition. Given that the Bill is largely a consolidation measure and that hon. Members of all parties agree that there is much virtue in consolidating all the legislation on equalities in one Bill, thus simplifying the law, it is remarkable that the Tories oppose it.

We have fought tooth and nail over equalities issues since 1997 and the Opposition seemed progressively, to their credit, to have come round on the whole, especially on sexuality legislation. They accepted it, so I thought that we had secured a large degree of consensus in the House on equalities.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

We do have a large degree of consensus, but why is it wrong for us to debate the parts of the Bill on which we do not have a consensus? Is that not what we are here for—to hold the Government to account?

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

I am happy that areas of disagreement can be debated, but that is different from throwing the whole Bill out, which is what the Conservative Opposition are suggesting. That seems to me to be a total negation of what the hon. Lady has just said. By all means let us fight in Committee on all the issues that are worrying, but anyone seriously in favour of equality should back the Bill so that there is a vehicle in place to argue about. That seems to me to be simple logic, but I have problems understanding the Opposition.

Although the Bill is, as I say, mainly a consolidation, it introduces some new principles and points, many of which are essentially philosophical. In bringing all equality strands into one Bill, it creates, if I may put it this way, an equality of inequalities. In other words, whatever the inequality is, "We're agin it, and we are agin it to the same degree." I think that that is an entirely healthy development of a kind that will lead to the cultural change that several Members have mentioned. That is what we really need at the end of the day. Yes, we set legal frameworks, and it is important to do so; but unless those legal frameworks end up creating a culture change in society or are met by such a change, the overall outcome will not be the one that we wish to see. I believe that the legal framework is at least one half of that broader picture.

I am pleased that the Bill places an equal duty on public sector and private sector bodies in respect of equalities in the delivery of services. At this point, I must advise my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General that I shall introduce what I hope will be regarded as a helpful amendment because there seems to be a small oversight in clause 1, which specifies a list of public bodies. Unfortunately, it leaves out unitary councils while including the council of the Isles of Scilly. I think that rather more people are represented by unitary councils than by the council of the Isles of Scilly. Similarly, when it comes to the health service the Bill specifies primary care trusts, but I think it would be much wiser for it to cover all NHS trusts. It should be made clear that any arm of the NHS that deals with patients and the public in general must observe the equalities duty.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

If my hon. Friend is right and we have left some things out, of course we will put them in. I am grateful to him for being so observant.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

And assiduous, as the hon. Gentleman says.

In addition to the list of public authorities, there is a definition of a public authority as any authority or organisation delivering a public function. So probably everything will be covered in any event, but we will box up the list, because it would certainly look better if all the organisations were included.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her helpful response. As she says, it is possible to infer that all such bodies are covered, but it is always good to have things spelt out clearly. Otherwise, members of the profession that she so lately graced will always be trying to find loopholes.

Among the new provisions, the socio-economic strand represents a legislative breakthrough. Given that since 1997 we have placed attempts to achieve socio-economic equality at the top of our agenda, it is disappointing that, in some respects, the gap seems to be widening. That tells us two things. It tells us that socio-economic equality of opportunity is extremely hard to achieve, and it tells us that there can be confusion between absolute poverty and relative poverty. There has undoubtedly been an increase in relative poverty, but examination of the figures will almost certainly demonstrate a decrease in absolute poverty.

This problem is very difficult to define and very, very difficult to tackle. In that context, public sector bodies have a vital role to play. Councils, for instance, can deliver education. The Bill provides for positive bias and discrimination, and I believe that we need local authorities to exercise more of it towards people from socio-economic backgrounds that are deprived not only financially but in terms of parental aspirations, and all the other factors involved in the complex mix that we are discussing. The Bill gives local authorities an opportunity to do more than they do now. The extent to which they take their duty seriously is variable at present, and we need to make them all recognise that it is a prime duty.

Age has always been with us, and I am very pleased about the advances that the Bill makes in tackling age discrimination. I am pleased about the emphasis on goods and services, and I am pleased that while wrinklies will not lose the advantages provided by Saga Holidays, older members of our society may also be given greater opportunities. I have always believed that, in some respects, we could learn quite a few lessons from the United States, where people are not automatically disregarded or discriminated against on the basis of age. If they are still up to the job and can still deliver, people in the States are able to operate until they are in their eighties, and I see nothing wrong with that.

I hate to say it, but I agreed with the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Lynne Featherstone, on the subject of the compulsory retirement age, which strikes me as a discrimination in itself. I wish that it had been covered by the Bill, but there is still an opportunity for that to happen. Certainly it should be dealt with in the near future. The existence of a range of compulsory retirement ages defies logic. In the armed services, the police and the fire services the retirement age is about 50, while the general retirement age of 65 is enforced, in my view inappropriately, by many institutions.

That sits ill with our problem with funding pensions for the future, and the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions is considering an eventual raising of the retirement age from 65 towards 70. The two strands are in conflict. I believe that we should think about changing the current compulsory retirement ages to pension qualification ages, enabling those reaching the relevant age to claim a pension and retire or, if they choose, continue to work, provided that they can satisfy the requirements of their occupations. That would give us true equality, and would also give society the benefit of all the experience and wisdom which, at present, are being foolishly discarded.

If there were a compulsory retirement age in this place, there would be a very heavy cull straight away. Governments, including this one, could perhaps look to the age discrimination requirements when it comes to Front-Bench appointments—but I will say no more about that, because I do not want to embarrass my hon. Friends.

Positive action will be essential. It is the only way we can finally achieve results, because there will always be resistance. Talking of resistance, I wonder if the nub of the attitude of Conservative Front Benchers can be traced back to the CBI's briefing paper, which, while welcoming the Bill in principle, devoted its entire length to opposing and criticising the measures on gender-related pay discrimination. It claims that business will always say, "You can't do that; it will ruin us." However, if we had listened to that argument, we would never have made any social progress in this country. It is the old story of the roads to ruin. It applies to the minimum wage—you name it.

Gender-related pay discrimination will only be truly eliminated if the requirement to report is universal. If reporting is carried out selectively after the event, it will take so long to eliminate such discrimination that we will all be 6 ft under long before it happens. This is therefore vital.

The Bill clears up some matters that should have been dealt with previously. The insurance provisions are a particular case in point. Insurance companies have been allowed to discriminate too freely for too long, such as through age discrimination in insurance. When someone reaches 70, they are normally immediately rejected by the insurance industry for travel insurance. One day they are perfectly healthy, the next day they are thought to be a calamitous risk; that is clearly nonsense. Unless insurance companies are required to undertake a proper assessment of the insured's risks instead of simply having an arbitrary age descriptor, this discrimination will continue and that is totally unjustifiable. Travel insurance becoming unavailable at 70 is also ridiculous. People who are 70 nowadays are like the 50-year-olds of 50 years ago, and preventing them from travelling is dreadful discrimination. I am very glad we are putting a stop to that.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Treasury Minister

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Would he apply the same logic to people trying to get driving licences over a certain age?

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

Yes, I would, and, in fact, that is the current situation: when someone reaches 70, they just have to satisfy the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency that they are still fit to drive. I do not mind that. The licence is not being withdrawn from them; indeed, there are people aged over 100 who are still driving.

There is another loophole in the excellent legislation that we have passed. In dealing with discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexuality, the last equality legislation omitted insurance, and this Bill fills that gap.

I have used up almost all my allotted time. I simply want to give this Bill broadly a very hearty welcome and assert that it is something of a groundbreaking Bill; it will lead to a quantum change in the whole national approach to equalities and in the outcomes for equalities.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice) 6:32 pm, 11th May 2009

I am a committed campaigner for equality—I always have been, and I always will be—and I welcome most of this Bill. It is a pleasure to follow Dr. Turner, who gave a balanced analysis of the Bill and pointed out many of its good aspects. I particularly welcome the parts of the Bill that simplify and consolidate previous equality legislation, the main principles of which we Conservatives have wholeheartedly supported. I also very much welcome the positive equality duty imposed on public authorities; that will go a long way towards changing the cultural attitudes to equality in all its manifestations and in all walks of life in our country. That is right, because equality of opportunity is a basic moral imperative. As the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, there is general consensus in favour of that principle in all parts of the House.

The difficulty with the Bill, however, lies in the extra bits that have been added to it. I am not against the drive for equality—not at all. Labour Members have frequently peppered their speeches and interventions with attacks on Opposition Members for doing our job of holding the Government to account. It is extremely important that we dissect the Bill, and look at its outcomes as well as its good intentions. I do not agree with every proposal in it, because no political system—neither the most liberal, nor the most totalitarian—can make people equal by passing laws that say that equality is desirable. Therefore, the good parts of the Bill are, sadly, undermined and diminished by the unworthy parts, which revert to the worst excesses of old-fashioned unreconstructed socialism. [Interruption.]

I am particularly concerned that— [Interruption.] As usual, the Solicitor-General laughs. She cannot bear to be identified as a left-wing activist; she wishes to come before this House and— [Interruption.] She continues to laugh, but she does not actually make a positive contribution to the debate. She expects us all to bow down and agree with what she says because she says it, but that is not what we are here for. I am particularly concerned about the effects of these measures on the employment prospects— [Interruption.] If the Solicitor-General wishes to intervene, I will give way to her, but she should not speak from a sedentary position.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

I am not sure what the matter is with the hon. Lady—but I have given her a chance to calm down now, so I shall sit down again.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Well, that was a very helpful contribution to the debate!

I am particularly concerned about the effects of these measures on the employment prospects of women, disabled people, gay people, religious and racial minorities and older people, because if employers are forced to act in a way that they perceive to be against the best interests of their businesses, they will, in a normal, practical way, find a way of not employing a person who might in future bring a case against them. Therefore, there is a danger that parts of this Bill will reduce, rather than increase, equality in the workplace, and I want equality in the workplace to become universal. There is, of course, a delicate balance to be struck, especially at times of economic downturn such as now. If too great a burden is put on businesses, businesses will fail and not only the employer, but the employees, will become jobless. That is surely not the Government's intention.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

We have heard a lot about the costs to business, but does the hon. Lady think that business might support the introduction of compulsory pay audit measures in the first quarter following the economy having returned to growth—or might businesses welcome such measures after two quarters of growth, perhaps?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I think that the hon. Lady has a reasonable point; I cannot imagine quite how it would work in practice, but, in principle, it is quite a good point. My concern, however, is that if the measures go too far, not only will that damage the economy itself and hinder growth, but it will damage the prospects for individuals, who might not be given the chance of employment that they would otherwise have had. If the pendulum swings too far in the direction of protection of employment rights, the potential employee will lose the opportunity for the job, and therefore for the right, because the reality is that most businesses do not exist to act altruistically; they exist to make money, keep their businesses going, pay their employees and satisfy their customers. Statistics show that companies that have good equality practices benefit in terms of business success. Ms Hewitt made that point extremely well at the beginning of her speech. The Government should encourage all employers to do what good employers have been doing for years. That is what the previous equality Act did very successfully and, as she showed in the very good examples that she gave, we are succeeding to that extent. I am concerned that if the pendulum swings too far, people will lose the rights we want to give them.

I am also concerned about the imposition of targets, especially those on the gender pay gap. We all want sensible measures to be taken to close that gap, which remains a scandal in this country. It is particularly bad in respect of how it affects women who earn least and, often, work the hardest: part-time casual employees. They suffer most and they are the ones whom I want to benefit, but I am concerned that the Bill will require a focus on just one indicator and thus risk ignoring the underlying causes of inequality. Those causes have to be remedied to create the equality and the economy of the future that we wish to see. Proper growth will come back to our country only if we have the right conditions in which business and industry can flourish and thereby benefit everyone who works in them, employer and employee alike.

Instead of producing reams and reams of rules and regulations, the Government should be making the business case. As my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell said, the "coincidence of interest" between the moral case and the business case for equality is the way to encourage genuine cultural shift. That approach is far more effective than centrally imposed political imperatives—history has shown, throughout the ages, that they simply do not work.

There is good evidence to suggest that flexible working benefits everyone. It has been introduced step by step, and that is what the Government should be doing; they should be understanding how business and employers work. By proving the business case step by step, we will take employers and businesses with us in the quest for equality, instead of imposing top-down conditions that they may have difficulty meeting. We can build on that business case to try not only to achieve the equality that we all wish to achieve, but to rebuild our shattered economy—more than a decade of Labour's good ideas has destroyed it.

I dare mention, just for a moment, the difficult issue of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a private matter. I entirely agree that, of course, it should be encouraged, as all the medical professionals tell us but, like all these matters, it should be dealt with in a reasonable way and with discretion. In some places it is appropriate to breastfeed one's child and in some places it is not, yet the measures in this Bill outlaw someone's ability to suggest reasonably that breastfeeding should not occur in one place or another. In matters such as this, we should proceed with discretion, reason and respect for everybody concerned, including, of course, the mother and the baby. This is not a matter where the Government can dictate that mothers should be allowed to breastfeed everywhere and anywhere without having due consideration to those around them and the circumstances in which they find themselves. We have all managed it, Madam Deputy Speaker, even in this building and the matter can easily be dealt with by discretion; we do not need primary legislation in a Bill such as this in order to bring this about. The reason this makes me angry is that the measures on breastfeeding are just one example of where the Bill goes too far.

I do not want this Bill to fail. I want it to succeed, which is why I would like the Government to concentrate on the basic issues that will actually make a difference to people in Britain today, who deserve equality of opportunity and currently do not have it. By adding on all these extra conditions, the Government make it much more difficult for this Bill to be supported and for it to work in practice were it to become law—it would be so much better to concentrate on what really needs to be done. It is very sad that, after 12 years of a Labour Government, the gap between rich and poor in Britain is greater than it has been for decades; opportunities, particularly educational ones for young people from disadvantaged families, are worse than they have been for decades; and social mobility is very much reduced compared with what it was 40 years ago, when a young person from a poorer background had a far greater chance of succeeding in whatever they set out to do than such a person would today—the Government know that. They have failed, and they are not going to put their record straight by introducing all the extra rules and regulations in this Bill. What a condemnation that is of 12 years of a Labour Government.

We all want equality in the workplace. We all want equality across all strands of life in Britain today. We all want equality of opportunity, for it benefits not only the individual, but our society as a whole. The way in which the Government have drafted parts of this Bill will not bring about what we all want to see, which is why it is necessary that sensible people examine the reasoned amendment tabled by my right hon. Friends and support it this evening.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood 6:47 pm, 11th May 2009

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I welcome the Bill most warmly, and I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, and her colleagues, on producing this measure after what have clearly been Herculean efforts. Bringing together a lot of the existing equality legislation, with harmonisation, in part, into a comprehensible whole is clearly challenging. There have been debates along the way and many people have expressed reservations from time to time about the direction in which things might be going, such as in respect of public sector duty. It takes time for Ministers to consider comments that have been made, for example after the Green Paper, and return with a good document.

This is an excellent Bill, which is why it has been almost universally welcomed. It has been welcomed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission; by a massive number of voluntary organisations such as Age Concern, Carers UK, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—RADAR—and so on; by the Royal College of Psychiatrists; by the TUC; and by the British Medical Association. In fact, I could find only one organisation that has not welcomed the Bill: the Conservative Opposition. When I intervened to ask Mrs. May, who spoke for the Opposition, whether she could name a single organisation, nay individual, who had expressed concern and opposition to this Bill, no example was forthcoming. Reference has been made to the CBI and its concern about the proposal for gender pay gap reports. In fact, the CBI's document starts by saying:

"The CBI supports the clarity and simplification that the Equality Bill should achieve in bringing together forty years' worth of discrimination legislation. Having a single Act as a reference point will help compliance for employers and give them the confidence to address diversity within their companies."

That is exactly what Mrs. Laing wants—she is nodding. The CBI spends half of its submission explaining why

"Business welcomes new clarity in discrimination legislation".

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Of course everybody welcomes the parts of the Bill that consolidate previous legislation and do exactly what the hon. Gentleman has just quoted. We all welcome that part. It is the other parts of the Bill that we question.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

I looked carefully for advice from the CBI on how I should vote today, as I always do. I listen to everyone. I cannot find in the CBI's submission any suggestion that I should vote for a motion to decline agreement on Second Reading. I see the CBI welcoming the

"new clarity in discrimination legislation".

If the CBI welcomes something, I get the impression that it is saying I should support it, which I do. I have yet to find—I am happy to take interventions—any organisation that is openly opposed to the Bill.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

May I commend to the hon. Gentleman a marvellous organisation, of which I am proud to be a member, called the Campaign Against Political Correctness? If he looks at its website, he will find that it is wholly opposed to the Bill, as am I.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

I am so grateful for that most welcome intervention. The only organisation that any Member in the House has been able to put forward as opposing the Bill is the Campaign Against Political Correctness. [Interruption.] Age Concern supports it, but forget Age Concern—listen to the Campaign Against Political Correctness; I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will inform his constituents, who may be active supporters of Age Concern, that he dismisses their support in that rather scornful way— [Interruption.]

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Philip Davies knows the correct way to conduct himself in parliamentary debates.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

I am well aware that there are Members in all parts of the House, including Mr. Boswell and one or two others who I hope will speak soon, who support improvements in equality legislation. I must, however, comment on the one or two Members who, from a sedentary position, in response to the comment from the Minister for Women and Equality that it was the Labour Government who introduced the Race Relations Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and so on, objected to the idea that nothing at all had been introduced by the previous Conservative Government.

It is correct to say that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was introduced by a Conservative Government. I remember it well. It is well documented. I will not detain the House, other than to say that the only reason why the DDA was introduced in 1995, with all the loopholes—it was like a string vest—was that various hon. Members, with support from all parties, had on several occasions tried to introduce the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Following the way in which the then Conservative Government blocked that Bill, when I happened to be the promoter that year, and how three Members of the House had to apologise to the House for using tactics that were misleading, the Government were so embarrassed by the public opposition that they introduced the DDA.

Like my colleagues, I genuinely thought we had got past that. We have had cross-party support for almost all the equalities legislation since. We had support for the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act 2001, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, and the Equality Act 2006. Those are only the disabilities measures that spring to mind. Therefore I was hoping that we would get cross-party support this evening, and I am sure we will, but the official Opposition will not be with us.

Despite comments to the effect that there are lots of wonderful things in the Bill—the hon. Member for Epping Forest said that she supported most of it—we will be urged by the official Opposition to vote for an amendment that kills the Bill in its tracks. The only organisation that will be happy about that is the Campaign Against Political Correctness—not Age Concern, RADAR, the BMA or anybody who has taken a serious interest in these issues.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

May I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has the support of this party, even though this party is a one-man band as an independent in this place? Nevertheless, I support the Bill, which has some wonderful things in it. Does he agree that we need to examine it carefully in Committee to strengthen it if we can? For instance, public bodies are told by the Bill that they may take into account the impediments of disabled people. There are many disabled people with serious impediments who think that public authorities should always take those impediments into account.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

I agree that we need to look at all these matters carefully, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

I shall focus on the disability provisions, but there are three general issues that I want to raise. First, I strongly support the extension of the rights of older people facing discrimination in goods and services. That is good news for older people, which of course means it is good news for many disabled people and many carers as well. It is terrible news for the organisation referred to earlier, but good news for such people. Secondly, the more effective use of public procurement for delivering equality is to be welcomed. Thirdly, the empowerment of employment tribunals to make wider recommendations to stop future discrimination in employment is also welcome. I may say a little more about that in a moment.

In relation to disability, there has been significant progress in recent years. Ten per cent. more disabled people are in employment than 10 years ago. Many service providers now provide a more accessible environment, but sadly it is still the case that disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, twice as likely to lack qualifications as non-disabled people, and twice as likely to live in poverty. There has been progress, but there is still a long way to go.

In relation to disability issues, the Bill should be tested against three criteria. The first, as I said, is that the Bill is in large measure about harmonisation, but it must ensure that the distinctive aspects of the DDA are not lost, in particular the fundamental principle that equality for disabled people is emphatically not about equal treatment. It is about different treatment to produce equal opportunity.

Secondly, gaps in existing legislation must be plugged. There are still areas where discriminatory legislation is condoned, such as, yet again, the Ministry of Defence's exemption from the employment provisions of the DDA. Goodness gracious me. The third point is that enforcement is a real issue. Hon. Members are right when they say that passing legislation itself is not enough. There are important questions that need to be asked about the best ways to enforce that legislation.

Let me say a few words about each of those things. As the hon. Member for Daventry said, the DDA differs fundamentally from other forms of anti-discrimination legislation. It is asymmetric. It creates rights for disabled people to be protected against discrimination, without a corresponding right for non-disabled people. Treating disabled people the same as non-disabled people will not deliver equality. Wheelchair users do not experience equal opportunities by being treated the same way as non-wheelchair uses. Women with learning disabilities are less likely to use breast-screening services. That is a matter of fact. This is likely to arise not as a result of direct discrimination, but as a result of the provision of information in exactly the same way as it is provided for those without learning disabilities.

That is why the public sector duty, introduced in effect in December 2006, required health authorities as public authorities to do something about such situations. If it is observed that some patients are not accessing a service equally, questions need to be asked about what can be done to give them equal access. The fundamental distinction in disability discrimination legislation is the recognition of the need for more favourable treatment—in specific ways—for disabled people. As I read the Bill, I think that it contains a recognition of the importance of more favourable treatment, but I would like an assurance from Ministers that the new public sector duty indeed addresses that issue and would in no way dilute the provision in the DDA.

I welcome the many areas where the Bill will extend rights for disabled people. For example, it will extend protection against direct discrimination and harassment to people who are perceived to have a disability and to those associated with someone who has a disability. Some of us remember the debates about the DDA in 1995 and the Americans with Disabilities Act— a wonderful piece of legislation that we aspired to emulate. It made specific reference to protection from discrimination for those perceived as having a disability. The argument is obvious: if someone is discriminated against by, for example, an employer, because he or she thinks that that person has a disability, and the person turns out not to have a disability, the employer has done nothing wrong. That is a bit daft. Similarly, if a carer for someone with a disability is discriminated against by an employer or a service provider for that reason, that is surely wrong—that was the issue in the Sharon Coleman case. I therefore welcome those improvements.

I welcome the fact that the provisions on age discrimination in relation to access to goods and services will help older people and therefore many disabled people. I also welcome the duty on landlords and management companies to make reasonable adjustments in relation to communal areas, such as hallways and stairs. I also welcome the fact that political parties will be allowed to do more to enable disabled people and others to seek selection as candidates. I congratulate Mr. Speaker on the Speaker's Conference on these issues. Indeed, the vice chair of the conference is in her place

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that recognition of the work of the Speaker's Conference. I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, but we have been in Manchester for a very useful evidence-taking session, where we spoke to many disabled people and people from ethnic minorities.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she and others are doing.

Lynne Featherstone suggested that the Bill should take a more thorough look at the definition of disability. While that is in many ways an elephant trap, we still have the medical model and the DDA definition and I am concerned about, for example, people with severe depression that lasts for less than 12 months but who cannot show that it is likely to recur. They have no rights under the law because disabled people have to show that they have an impairment that has a long-term—at least 12 months—substantial and adverse impact on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. That is too restrictive a definition and I hope that the Government will at least consider reducing the time to six months.

The Conservative amendment suggests that employment tribunals are given too many powers in the Bill. That is not the case, and they should have the power to reinstate in the DDA and other employment cases.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West 7:05 pm, 11th May 2009

I am pleased to follow Roger Berry, who is a sincere man who has achieved much in this area. I pay tribute to him for that. However, at one or two points in his remarks, he fell into the great paradox of this issue in that some of the most fervent advocates of equality exhibit a degree of intolerance of the views of others. He and Dr. Turner both appeared to be slightly bemused that others could take a different view of this Bill. I hope to help them with my remarks.

I believe passionately in equality, especially in equality of opportunity. I do not like the way in which the issue is addressed in this Bill, but I believe perhaps more in social mobility—as one of the factors that has brought me to this House—than in anything else. However, I profoundly reject the Bill. My right hon. Friend Mrs. May spoke about the difference between now and the time when the Bill was first conceived some four years ago. She said that equality matters, whatever the economic climate, and I agree. But competitiveness also matters. This would have been a bad Bill four years ago and it is a bad Bill now, for a variety of reasons.

One reason—and by no means the most important—is the cost and bureaucracy that it will pile on to businesses at a time when so many of them are unable to bear the additional cost.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said that the Bill was about consolidation and asked how anybody could object to it if they agreed with its constituent parts. Well, I agree with most if not all of the constituent parts, but the hon. Gentleman also said that some philosophical changes are at stake in the Bill. Some of those are quite worrying. Some of the concerns are about bizarre definitions, and some people may not understand why they are a necessary part of the Bill—I have struggled with them. Clause 11 states that

"a reference to a person who has a particular protected characteristic is a reference to a man or to a woman".

I would have thought that that was axiomatic. However, it continues:

"a reference to persons who share a protected characteristic is a reference to persons of the same sex."

That is bizarre and it is difficult to follow the logic of it.

The explanatory notes on clause 13 state that

"it is not discrimination to treat a disabled person more favourably than a person who is not disabled", but it then claims that

"racial segregation is always discriminatory".

Earlier, the issue of a hierarchy of equalities was raised, with some types of equality seeming to rank as more important than others. That brings me to the point that I raised with the Leader of the House earlier of the example in the explanatory notes. They state:

"If an employer advertising a vacancy makes it clear in the advert that Roma need not apply, this would amount to direct race discrimination against a Roma who might reasonably have considered applying".

We might all think that that makes perfect sense—except that my reading of the Bill suggests that, if the Roma were already statistically over-represented in the place of employment, it would become legal for the employer to advertise saying, "Roma need not apply," because it would establish a right for the employer to seek to give preference to another under-represented group.

As I put it to the Minister for Women and Equality, is it not the case that, under these proposals, an employer could choose to employ a white woman in preference to an equally well-qualified black man? She did not directly answer the question, because the answer is yes. So we are actually setting out a hierarchy of different, competing equalities. My hon. Friend John Bercow was laughing earlier, when he saw me scribbling down the phrase, "Equality disappearing up its own backside." This is becoming so complicated that, in seeking to protect some groups quite properly from discrimination, there is a risk of inflicting discrimination on others.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

I see the cause of the hon. Gentleman's worry, but it would not be right to say that the Bill will allow the phrase, "Romany need not apply" to be put into an advertisement, as that would discriminate against the Roma because they were Roma. If everyone applied—we would want them to do so—and there were two equally well-qualified candidates, the person from the under-represented community could be picked. That is the size of it. The Roma would probably be picked, because they would be under-represented. It is a telling, nice notion that the Roma might be over-represented, but that is not all that likely to happen right now. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that the provision is totally voluntary; it is up to the business to decide whether it wants to rebalance the community.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

Absolutely. I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for that clarification. My concern is that, in the example that I gave earlier to the Minister, if a business chose to avoid employing people from an ethnic minority, for example, and its work force were therefore 100 per cent. white, it might be that employer's preference to retain a 100 per cent. white work force. We are giving that employer the choice, as the Solicitor-General puts it—not the requirement or the obligation—to continue to discriminate against ethnic minorities, by choosing to tackle the under-representation of women in that work place.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I am happy to take a further intervention if the Solicitor-General thinks that I have got the wrong end of the stick. As far as I can see from the Bill, if an employer chooses to say that women are under-represented in his work force, he may choose to employ the woman, rather than the man from an ethnic minority.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is finding the discussion fruitful, which is what it is intended to be. The Bill is intended to try to redress the balance in under-represented communities, and he is beginning to grasp that point. It is totally voluntary for the person running the business to do that. So I am not quite sure what the source of the hon. Gentleman's concern continues to be. He seems to regard it as possible to use the provision in a racist way to maintain all-white representation, but that is completely at variance with its purpose, which is to redress the balance of the community, so it could not be used in that way.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I think that the Solicitor-General is mistaken. Clearly, the provision could be used in that way, given that it is also possible to discriminate in favour of women to rebalance the work force on gender grounds. That would be entirely possible, and she seems to have a misplaced confidence that that could never happen. Either she must believe that no employer would ever want to discriminate against ethnic minorities, in which case the Bill would be clearly unnecessary, or she must believe that some people wish to discriminate on those grounds, in which case she is giving them a tool by which they can do so if they wish.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I will give way, because I am keen that we move towards a better understanding of a complicated Bill.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

My understanding from business is that that is done already. For instance, if someone has an all-white sales force and wants to market to an ethnic minority area, they will want to be free to choose from two equally qualified people the ethnic minority person to sell in the community where they will feel at home and where they are likely to be welcome. The trouble is that, if someone does that now, it could be discriminatory. The Bill will protect businesses that want to do that, but it will not compel anyone to do so.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for that, but I do not think that it detracts from my fundamental point that the Bill provides the tool for discrimination if one wished to use it in that way.

Those are the problems, and the big philosophical change, which I assume that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown was alluding to, is the move towards positive discrimination, which is a completely different approach to tackling equality issues from the one that we have generally used in this country, and it is one that I reject utterly. I believe in merit and that people should be judged on who they are—on their own abilities and efforts—and not on what they are. The move to positive discrimination risks negating that approach. It is damaging to the principle of merit, and it is damaging to democracy. I particularly object to the use of these provisions in relation to candidate selection, as that interferes with the rights of free choice that our constituents should have in deciding whom they want to represent them.

In the few minutes that remain to me, I want to mention some significant points of detail, which will doubtless be thrashed out in Committee and on Report—for example, age discrimination and whether Saga will no longer be able to provide insurance targeted at the over-50s. I take it from the response of the Leader of the House that arbitrary discrimination will be illegal under these provisions. Surely, targeting the over-50s is arbitrary, whereas charging a higher health insurance premium for older people may well be justified, according to the balance of risks that the insurance company must consider.

I believe passionately in social mobility, but I reject the means that are being taken. On health, according to the instances given in the explanatory notes, the Bill sets out what is already done but does it differently. Clearly, in guidelines and through the allocation of resources, there is a recognition of social inequality in the way that the national health service is funded.

On education, the Bill is more worrying, because it seeks to enshrine the damaging and absurd approach that has been taken in recent years, in seeking to improve the prospects of people from less affluent backgrounds and communities getting to university by making the process easier and lowering the threshold for them. The really worrying thing about that and the reason that this is such a damaging approach is that it removes the pressure from the point in the system where it should operate. Schools in our less affluent, typically urban, areas have more excuses to underperform if we say that because children who go to such schools cannot be expected to have the best exam results, we should lower the threshold for them to get into university. Instead, we should say that failure is not acceptable in the provision of education in any community. We should be raising the standard—raising the bar—for everybody, but the approach of the proposals in the Bill works in the opposite direction.

I believe passionately in equality and in equality of opportunity. More than anything, I believe that whatever their background, wherever they come from and whatever their race or religion, people should be treated equally and given the same opportunities in life. I am very concerned that the Bill will create more complexity and problems, and will fundamentally damage the process of equality.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North 7:20 pm, 11th May 2009

Mr. Brady has put his views quite honestly and I imagine they reflect those of a number of Opposition Members, certainly those on the Back Benches. His speech was almost word for word the same as the speeches I have heard from Conservatives for so many years: "Yes, we're in favour of progress in dealing with race discrimination and sex discrimination, but not just now. Legislation would be counter-productive and there are other ways to do it."

If we had listened to such voices 40 years ago when the Labour Government introduced measures to outlaw race discrimination, open discrimination on the grounds of colour or racial origin would have continued. It is precisely because of legislation that we made progress, as we have done over the years.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

Either I expressed myself badly or the hon. Gentleman was not listening to my remarks. I made it clear that I agree with the constituent items of legislation that are being consolidated. My concern is that consolidating them will put them into a competing hierarchy of equalities, which may lead to perverse outcomes.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I was listening to the hon. Gentleman, who expressed himself clearly, but I stand by every word I have just said. There is no need for him to apologise. He represents a strong point of view held by some Tory Members and certainly by Tories outside, who have always been suspicious, to say the least, about legislation dealing with discrimination. It goes without saying that I am all in favour of it. One would not expect otherwise from a Labour Member of Parliament. We should combat the remaining discrimination against women. There is certainly a need for equal pay and there are many necessary measures that society has yet to take.

One or two of my hon. Friends have already talked about the aspects of the Bill that deal with age discrimination. The Bill's provisions on age discrimination are certain to be most welcome. Elderly people, and some of the not so elderly, remain of the view that they are subject to less equal treatment in the health service, for instance. Clearly, that must be tackled.

I am not suggesting that only legislation can deal with such matters. In the 1960s, one of the arguments made about race discrimination was that major organisations—certainly in the media—could give a lead. For example, non-white people could present programmes to make it clear that they were all part of our society. To some degree, the same thing applies to women nowadays. I find it difficult to understand why women television presenters who are getting older—I am taking great care with my words—are considered no longer the right people to read the news or front programmes when they reach a certain age. That does not apply to men. Obviously, I am pleased that there is no such problem for men in their 50s or 60s. They continue to do their job and do it very well, yet the story is different for females. Progress could be made if the BBC in particular took a somewhat different attitude.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned race, age, and now sex discrimination. Does he believe that the Bill could be strengthened by including in chapter 2 a provision that courts and tribunals could consider multiple discrimination cases? Such matters could be put before the courts together, so that the court could make a more rounded decision.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

That is a good suggestion for the Committee, which I am sure will be very interesting.

To be subject to age discrimination is probably not as painful or humiliating as being subject to race prejudice. Nevertheless, age discrimination is undesirable, unjust and deeply resented—rightly so. The Bill includes measures to deal with age discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services. As people grow older, it is important that they are not made to feel like second-class citizens. However, I have some criticism because clause 190 gives wide-ranging powers of exemption and I hope that will be looked at in Committee. It is all very well to set out anti-discriminatory legislation on goods, facilities and services, but that is no good if the Government have wide-ranging powers of exemption from such provisions in future.

A number of Members want to speak, so I shall deal briefly first with employment. As they grow older—in their 40s and certainly in their 50s—men and women alike face difficulties in gaining employment. Anyone with illusions about that should talk to some of their constituents. At a time of high unemployment, the problems become all the more acute. Even when we had near full employment, employers took the view that once a person had reached a certain age there was no particular reason to take them on in preference to younger people. Of course I am against any form of discrimination on age grounds, but the situation seems much more unfortunate for someone made redundant at the age of 50, 52 or 53—even more so, if they are trying to find a job against great competition.

As I look around the Chamber, I can see some Members who are under 50 but also a good number who have not reached my advanced age—I shall not name them. They are certainly in an age range where they would have trouble finding employment in normal occupations—if I can use that description.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. Sadly, he is right about age discrimination. My father was made redundant in his early 50s and I remember him then going to interview after interview. It seemed that it was only the age on his birth certificate that was holding him back. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that age discrimination in employment cuts both ways? Invidious discrimination still exists against younger people who receive a lower rate of minimum wage despite doing exactly the same job as older workers.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Are we speaking for our respective age groups? As I said a moment ago, I am against discrimination on age grounds for all groups. Like my hon. Friend Julie Morgan, I do not want to see discrimination against young people, but I think that to a large extent the problems are greater for people who are getting on in years, as I have suggested.

Another issue arises in respect of those in employment who are forced to retire at 65. There is what is called the national default retirement age; in practice, it means that if a person reaches 65 and wants to consider carrying on working, the employer is under an obligation to review the matter, but that is all. I see no reason why that should be so. Let us imagine that that applied to Members of Parliament. Does anyone really think it would be appropriate to close Parliament to people trying for the first time to get here, or those already here, because they had reached 65? If it is all right for us to continue to work past 65—and no one has suggested otherwise, fortunately as far as I am concerned—why should we deny such rights to our constituents?

Moreover, very often, those who make the decision in industry—the leading people, managing directors, chairs of companies and so on—are, in many instances, over 65. They would not dream of retiring simply because they had reached a certain age. I therefore feel that the default retirement age should go, as I said in an intervention on my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality. The Government's position was established a few years ago and is clear: it was to be reviewed within five years—that would bring us to 2011—but that is all. The default retirement age is being challenged in the courts. We shall see the outcome, but of course we would not have to wait to see the outcome if the Bill were so amended in Committee that the default retirement were abolished.

In a recent YouGov poll, 67 per cent. of those who retired at 65 said that they were forced to do so when they were not ready. Of course, there are certain occupations—it would not be difficult to name them—where a person is only too pleased to go. I am not suggesting for one moment that someone should be forced to go on working beyond 65. I am saying that if someone wants to do so, and unless there is a very strong case against it—on health grounds, or because of the nature of the occupation or whatever—that person should be allowed to continue working, at least until 70.

The measure before us is certainly a substantial step in the right direction. I am pleased to be associated with it, as I am sure all my right hon. and hon. Friends are. I hope that, with some amendments in Committee, it will soon pass into law.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development) 7:32 pm, 11th May 2009

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Winnick, who made an interesting speech. Unfortunately, I may possibly repeat one or two of his points, although I shall make them slightly differently.

The Bill is very much welcomed by Members on the Plaid Cymru Bench. Ensuring fairness, regardless of race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief, is right and likely to be effective in the long term in developing our countries' economies. In respect of my particular concern, age discrimination, banning ageism in the provision of goods, facilities and services is a significant step forward. However, I have two reservations that I should like to outline briefly. They might be addressed in Committee.

First, and unsurprisingly to some Members, I am concerned about the fact that discrimination on the basis of language is not included. Earlier, we heard complaints from a Conservative Member, Andrew Selous, about a requirement to speak Polish. He was dismayed at a requirement to speak Polish for a certain job, but if speaking Polish is a legitimate occupational qualification, that is no problem whatever. I cannot see why he is so exercised about it.

My concern is both broader, in a sense, because it concerns all of society, and more specific, because it is about my country, Wales. It is about the treatment of the Welsh language and the fact that the subject does not appear in the Bill. The Bill does not reflect the social, economic and legal reality in Wales, where both Welsh and English are used widely and are, to quote the Welsh Language Act 1993,

"on a basis of equality".

"Equality" is the important word here. That Act treats the Welsh and English languages on a basis of equality, yet the Equality Bill makes no reference to Welsh, and that might lead to problems.

To go back to my earlier remarks about the Polish language, or any other language, for that matter, Welsh is different, in that it has a certain legal status—a status that clearly does not seem to have impressed itself sufficiently on the people who drew up the Bill, despite the attempted persuasion of the Welsh Language Board; I know that there was some correspondence. On the legal status of the language, as I said earlier, the 1993 Act says that English and Welsh are to be treated on a basis of equality, and there are various ways in which that should be achieved. Historically, there have been separate arrangements for Wales, in respect of the language, for a very long time, starting with the official ban on the use of Welsh in the early 16th century under the Acts of Union. That was nearly 500 years ago, so we in this place have a bit of experience of dealing with that language issue, whatever complexities might arise with regard to Polish, or any other of the 60, 70 or 80 languages that might be heard outside this place.

There have been further legislative moves. The Welsh Courts Act 1942 and the Welsh Language Acts of 1967 and 1993 were passed by a national Government, a Labour Government and a Conservative Government respectively, so the issue is not party political. Of course, the Conservative 1993 Act set up the Welsh Language Board. On the language issue and the law, the Welsh Affairs Committee is currently considering a legislative competence order that would transfer the right to pass laws on the Welsh language to the National Assembly for Wales. Eventually, laws will be passed in the Welsh Assembly on the Welsh language, but the Bill is silent on any relationship or possible clash between such laws passed in the Assembly and any other laws passed in this place. The legislative competence order would transfer most, but not all, language legislation to the Welsh Assembly Government.

One intention of the Welsh Assembly Government is to create a language commissioner. Such a commissioner might pass judgment on employment issues. Conservative Members have voiced concerns about a clash, or a hierarchy of discrimination; the concern is that some sorts of discrimination might be viewed more seriously than others. We might have a clash between the Welsh Assembly Government's intentions for the Welsh language and any provision passed in the Bill.

Unfortunately, there is a long history of discrimination on the basis of language in Wales in modern times, from the infamous Brewer Spinks case of the early 1960s, in which an entire work force were banned from speaking Welsh in a factory, until the owner changed his mind, to the recent case of Thomas Cook, which tried to ban its workers from speaking Welsh in the workplace. Again, it later overturned its decision. The Welsh Assembly Government intend to establish a right to speak Welsh; they have told us that. That measure relating to the Welsh language might—I do not know—in some way clash with the intentions of the Bill. That is why I am slightly concerned about the fact that the Bill is silent on the issue.

Another question that came to mind was how the post of language commissioner would work. Hon. Members might not know that we already have two other sorts of commissioners in Wales. We have a Commissioner for Older People in Wales, and a Children's Commissioner for Wales, who have powers. Of course, there is a Children's Commissioner for England, too. The interrelationship worries me, and I would be interested to hear the Solicitor-General's response on that subject in her winding-up speech.

The second issue to do with the Bill that causes me concern is that of age discrimination, which the hon. Member for Walsall, North mentioned. I have a long-standing interest in the matter; in fact, the first amendment that I ever moved in Committee was on the Employment Bill in 2002. It was aimed at extending protection from unfair dismissal to people who are over retirement age. I was helped then, as I am now, by Age Concern. The amendment was unsuccessful, and we waited until 2006, when the Government acted—albeit only partially. My concern, which Members from all parts of the House share, is that the Bill fails to remove compulsory retirement—the so-called mandatory or default retirement age.

However, as Members might expect, I commend the proposed steps to outlaw age discrimination. Age discrimination is the most common discrimination of all and, alas, one that we are all in danger of facing, some sooner rather than later. Any steps that are taken to combat age discrimination are therefore very welcome. There has been a long-standing call to make age discrimination illegal, and it is a live and important issue for many of our constituents, particularly those in my part of the world, north Wales, where we have a higher than average proportion of older people. It is a particularly salient issue there, but it is an issue throughout the UK.

I understand that the Government will look separately at the mandatory retirement age, as the Minister for Women and Equality said earlier, but that we will apparently have to wait until 2012. In the context of the current political situation, however, who knows who will be in power in 2012, or whether they will be inclined to implement any change?

I am also concerned that the omission of action on the mandatory retirement age may contribute both to some people's false impression that such age discrimination is acceptable in this particular circumstance—albeit in the short term—and to a climate of opinion. Most Members will know someone who has been the victim of age discrimination, as will most of our constituents, because, in the real world of work, older employees, who may be valued by enlightened employers for their commitment, skills and experience, may be undervalued by other employers who see their age as a proxy for many undesirable qualities, from an inability to turn up in the morning to the likelihood of being ill, in poor health or inflexible. All those negative connotations might lead a bad employer, at a time of redundancies, to select older people for redundancy. That proxy is unfortunate and misplaced, but the assumptions, which are not based on the individual's health or qualities, may be very influential in their future employment.

The age discrimination that many workers face often leads them to feel that their right to work is less certain, but it is not limited to people who are 64 and a half, as was mentioned earlier in the debate; it affects people in their 50s and, even, late 40s. They look to the future with some trepidation, concerned that a climate of opinion has not been fostered, because the Bill fails to address the mandatory retirement age.

Many people find retirement to be a time of freedom and opportunity, and their right to choose to retire should be protected. Others, however, want to work into later life, and it is an entirely laudable desire. They may want to maintain their network of colleagues and friends, and they may want and need to maintain their incomes by earning money for work that they have done. As has been said, it is ironic that this House, which legislates on matters such as mandatory retirement age, benefits from the contribution of Members who have long passed their retirement age but still have a great contribution to make. It is even more ironic in respect of the other place. I have often been impressed by the clarity, incisiveness and, indeed, sheer trouble-making genius of people in the other place—people who might, in other situations, be regarded as beyond working age or on the scrap heap.

Those are my concerns about the mandatory retirement age, and I hope to see them addressed in Committee. There is a great deal to welcome in the Bill. I have reservations, but Plaid Cymru Members will not support the Conservative amendment tonight.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley 7:44 pm, 11th May 2009

I welcome the Bill and am pleased to speak in the debate. It is very important to bring together in a single Act those measures that have accumulated over many years, and I am delighted that we are extending protection to a number of groups, such as disabled people, carers and older people. On the consolidation of those measures, however, I contest totally what the Tory Opposition say. The Bill will make it easier, not more difficult, for individuals and businesses to understand and to use the legislation.

I was very sorry to miss the opening speeches, because an accident closed the motorway and I got caught by the Tamils, delaying me by three hours. I was particularly disappointed, because I wanted to intervene on the right hon. Member for Maidstone—[Hon. Members: "Maidenhead."] I got the wrong one. I will return later to the questions that I wanted to ask Mrs. May, because I am astonished that the Conservative Opposition are opposed to giving the Bill a Second Reading.

I understand the considered arguments of Mr. Brady, who obviously had considered views about why he opposed the Bill, although I in turn oppose them. He said that he supported very strongly equality of opportunity, but because of the discrimination that there has been over many years against a number of groups, it is discriminatory not to redress the balance if one is going to not have discrimination now—if that tortuous wording makes any sense to people.

The hon. Gentleman had a considered view against the legislation, but I was surprised by the desire of a number of Conservative Members to jump up and say, "But we welcome large parts of this Bill." They then really struggled to explain why they want, in the words of the reasoned amendment, to decline

"to give a Second Reading to the Equality Bill".

They almost spoke as if they did not support the amendment.

Mrs. Laing blamed the Solicitor-General for not allowing Opposition Members to hold the Government to account, but the hon. Lady wanted not to dissect the Bill but to chuck it out, which would be a grave mistake and a missed opportunity. I appreciate many points in the Conservative amendment, but I do not agree with most of them. They are all worthy of debate, but I cannot see that they are sufficient to chuck out the whole works. My hon. Friend Roger Berry gave a long list of the organisations that support the Bill, and I really hope that the Opposition will change their mind, keep the cross-party view about support for advancing equality and enter into a detailed debate about their concerns.

The promotion of equality has been central to my work since I became involved in politics—indeed, in thinking about anything. Part of the motivating force for my becoming involved was to try to promote equality in all its facets, but the first time that I became involved in this place in its promotion was when we were trying to incorporate the provisions of the Good Friday agreement into what became the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Astonishingly, that legislation and agreement was way ahead of any that we had for England, Wales and Scotland. Interestingly, too, many groups in Northern Ireland, which were at the extremes of the political divide at the time, understood the power of tackling equality to undermine some of the worst things that were happening in society. It was a powerful tool for dealing with the disadvantaged and the causes of their suffering in that country, in respect of religion and other areas of equality. They strongly supported trying through the Good Friday agreement and then the 1998 Act to promote a view of equality that was way in advance of what we had on this side of the water.

I shall not repeat too much of what everyone else has said, because I support many areas of the Bill. I shall, however, read out the first sentence of our briefing from Age Concern and Help the Aged:

"The Equality Bill represents a milestone in achieving equality for older people and should be welcomed by politicians of all parties."

I say this to Opposition Members: please do not throw it out. Let us welcome it and then deal with the items of concern.

It is worth citing a couple of examples of age discrimination from Age Concern and Help the Aged. As I, and all of us, get older, the issue hits home more clearly. The mother of a woman who called Age Concern was buying something for £150 at a leading department store. At the till, she was asked whether she wanted to apply for a charge card so that she could get a 10 per cent. discount. As soon as she said that she was 65, however, the cashier apologised and said that she could not have the card because she was too old. Why? Her money was good enough. I cannot get my head around why she should not have been entitled to the card just because she was older. If she had been about to get ill and drop dead, she would not have been able to buy the next item and get the 10 per cent. off. What was the problem?

An older man, a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists who flies aeroplanes every week, tried to hire a car at Edinburgh airport. He was 70, so he had to agree to pay the first £500 of any claim, including for theft. Did the insurer think that he would not be able to run quickly enough to stop a thief getting in the car? That is another bizarre example, and I am pleased that the Bill will tackle such issues.

Age Concern and Help the Aged said that the opportunity to abolish forced retirement had been missed. My hon. Friend Mr. Winnick and Lynne Featherstone commented on that. My hon. Friend Dr. Turner made an interesting contribution on how we might address the issue. I hope that those points will be looked at further.

Some employers really welcome older employees. The management at the B&Q in my area go out of their way to get older employees. The last thing that they want is a young whippersnapper who has never done any work on houses pretending that he knows how to advise customers on how to do things in the home; they want the person who has been doing the work for the past 40 years and knows what people want and need and knows what did not work when they were doing work on their house. That B&Q goes out of its way to employ older people, so it is not all doom and gloom when it comes to ageism. The Bill provides a welcome move in the right direction.

On addressing socio-economic inequalities, I should say that the Conservative amendment misses the point. One of the party's reasons for not wanting the Bill to have a Second Reading is thatthe Bill

"fails to address the root causes of the reduction in social mobility in recent years".

The whole point of placing a new duty on Ministers, Departments and public bodies to consider what action they can take to reduce inequalities on socio-economic grounds is that there will be a mechanism to consider issues such as why we are not dealing with social mobility and why there are still socio-economic inequalities. That will be able to be done systematically across Departments. The Bill gives the precise mechanism that would address one of the criticisms in the Conservative motion.

I hope that the Conservative party will consider the issue again; it is valuable that at last we are saying that we need to address inequality in relation to class and socio-economic advantage. According to how I read it, the Bill is careful to say that that will not mean that a front-line decision by a service provider will suddenly be dealt with in that way; we will not suddenly find a doctor saying, "I'm not treating you because you come from too advantaged an area and you're too rich." However, it will require my primary care trust and local authority to consider health disparities and inequalities and how we can deal with them.

The Bill makes positive inroads into one area of health inequality: it promotes women's ability to breastfeed in public. I was astonished by the bizarre intervention made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest; I am sorry that she is not still here. One would hardly know that most women whom I see breastfeeding in public are doing it; they are so discreet that they would not offend anybody. I do not know why it would, however. If it does, the problem belongs to the person being offended and not to the woman and child who are doing something that makes a vital contribution to reducing health inequalities. The World Health Organisation says that mothers should breastfeed.

It would not normally have occurred to me to pick up on this issue in this debate, but I have had e-mails from constituents who are concerned to promote this aspect of the Bill. One thing that came across is that lower socio-economic groups and younger mothers are less likely to breastfeed, certainly in public places—partly because they find doing so embarrassing and unacceptable. That puts them off doing it at all. If when they are out and about they find it difficult to breastfeed, they will lack confidence and worry about the reaction of other people.

I am delighted at the BEARS groups in my local area, at which mothers provide breastfeeding support to other women. There is one in the Langley Mill Sure Start centre, recently visited by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, and in other Sure Start centres. In the run-up to the elections, I am worried in case Derbyshire county council stops being Labour and our wonderful Sure Start centres are closed. They provide fantastic help, including on this issue, to less advantaged families to make sure that the kids have a good start in life. That would be threatened if we ended up with a Tory county council and a Tory Government; I just throw in that comment in passing. The breastfeeding element of the Bill is valuable.

It is good that we are to make it clear that public bodies can use public procurement in the drive to equality. When I served on the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee and we were writing the report on public procurement and the one entitled "Jobs for the Girls", which was about trying to address the gender pay gap and inequalities, we heard public organisations say that public procurement could not be used in this context. We argued, however, that if public authorities have a duty to promote gender equality, they will fail if they do not ensure that those to whom they give contracts take suitable steps to try to address inequality in their employment and service practices. We saw a number of positive examples of how the £175 billion of public procurement can be used to promote equality, and I am pleased at that.

Equal pay is the issue on which there has been most opposition, with people saying that some provisions would be a burden on business; at least that is how I interpreted what was being said when we were told that the issue was difficult. There is the issue of gender pay reports. Transparency is absolutely vital; there is still a massive pay gap. I find it hard to understand how hon. Members can say that the gap is a scandal but also that they do not want to do anything about it.

I wanted to raise questions with the right hon. Member for Maidstone—[Hon. Members: "Maidenhead!"] Why do I always get it wrong? I wanted to raise with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead arguments related to some parliamentary questions that I tabled today. Inthe amendment, and in a private Member's Bill put forward by the right hon. Lady, is a proposal for the implementation of

"compulsory pay audits for those organisations...found guilty of discrimination by an employment tribunal".

I assume that the right hon. Lady has done her research, but the problem is that her proposal would have hardly any effect. I do not know whether she has worked out how many employers have been found guilty in tribunals. Unison, my union, has 40,000 outstanding equal pay cases before tribunals. The tribunals are clogged up. In 2007-08, 62,000 equal pay claims were brought, but the tribunals dealt with only 9,000 of them and only 678 were successful at tribunal. Many of those cases would have been multiple ones relating to the same employer. Do the Conservative Opposition even know how many employers would be caught by the provision?

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

There is such a backlog, but there are no measures in the Bill to deal with it. Should we not have had representative action?

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

I was going to make the point that I would like further consideration of certain issues. They include some of the proposals put forward by Unison, working jointly with the Fawcett Society. The proposals were also in the report on equal pay produced by the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee. I hope that the issue will be considered again. We could not agree in the Committee on whether we should go forward with compulsory pay audits. However, we did say that if in future there was still limited progress on eliminating the gap, we should consider either introducing compulsory pay audits or imposing the equality duty on the private as well as the public sector. I hope that the Government will return to and reconsider representative actions and hypothetical comparators. I argued for hypothetical comparators when we were introducing the provisions on part-time workers.

I am conscious that the Conservative Opposition are still saying that even rather mild "We will do something in future if we don't get anywhere" proposals are regarded, for some reason, as a terrible burden on business. Are they saying now that introducing the minimum wage or the right to flexible working was a burden on business? They have come around to those measures, and I have every hope that there will be the same volte face and Damascene conversion and that they will support us on these proposals as well.

I welcome the Bill, but I hope that we will look at further ways of improving it as it makes its progress through Parliament.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 8:00 pm, 11th May 2009

It is a pleasure to follow Judy Mallaber, to whose candid contribution I listened, as always, with interest and respect.

I begin by declaring an interest as a member of the Speaker's Conference that is committed to securing greater representation in this House from women, members of the ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and, as far as I am concerned, people from the LGBT—lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—community, which has historically been hugely unrepresented in this House.

I should also say at the outset, for the avoidance of doubt, that I strongly support the Bill. It is a good, progressive, visionary and overdue Bill, and, I would argue, a Bill that manifestly and incontrovertibly deserves a Second Reading. In the course of my contribution, I shall seek to explain to the House the rationale for my view.

As other right hon. and hon. Members have acknowledged, there are two elements to the Bill—the consolidatory feature, on the one hand, and the feature of extension, on the other. It is pretty much unarguable that we need to consolidate the law. A sprawling and complex mosaic of enactments has grown like Topsy over a period of 40 years, and it is high time that that was consolidated and distilled into one readily intelligible and accessible piece of legislation. It is a considerable tribute to the parliamentary draftspeople, intellectually and administratively, that they have accomplished that task.

We should not then say, "Well, it ends there", because consolidation is necessary but, frankly, not sufficient. Those who admire only the consolidatory features of the Bill are, in a sense, resting content with exiguous achievements. We need to go rather further than that. Let us look at the context and background to the unveiling of new and further measures. As the Minister for Women and Equality pointed out, it is 40 years next year since the passage of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and, despite all that has been achieved, the pay gap, though on a lesser scale, nevertheless stubbornly persists. People with disabilities are twice as likely to be out of work. Members of the ethnic minorities are 13 per cent. less likely to get a job. In schools, despite all the changes in legislation and, to a degree, in culture, children who are, or who are wrongly thought to be, lesbian, gay or bisexual are harassed and bullied on a monumental scale. Therefore, we cannot be self-satisfied. I am always suspicious of people who say, "I'm all in favour of equality, but it isn't really necessary to do anything about it", or, "We're all in favour of equality"—end of argument, no requirement for legislation, and by the way, would it not be socially desirable to talk about some other subject altogether?

The fact is that much remains to be done. I want, if I may, to focus on a number of features of the Bill that seem to lie at its heart. I mentioned some of the disadvantage that persists, but in a sense the biggest single problem with which we are confronted in all parties in this House is that social mobility, which is palpably a good after which we should all strive, has stalled at best and regressed at worse. That has happened under successive Governments, with attempts to do good here and there. It is a long-standing phenomenon, and we have to seek to arrest and reverse that trend. Hence the introduction of clause 1, with its imposition of the socio-economic duty. If one believed some of the more hysterical headlines and articles beneath them in the newspapers, one would think that this heralded the emergence of the vanguard of the revolution, and that truly one had to be a Marxist-Leninist, a Trotskyist or a workerist to believe in the imposition of such a clause. In fact, it simply entails an acknowledgment and a recognition that leaving things entirely to the market and the free play of those forces is not enough—one must have some action from Government and Parliament of a protective and enabling character.

Let me consider what attempts to reduce inequalities of outcome by the imposition of the socio-economic duty on public sector bodies might mean in practical terms. It might mean that in a particular area of notable disadvantage a health trust decides to focus its anti-smoking policy, or its smoking cessation service, on a disadvantaged community, in which there might be evidence to show that the incidence of nicotine addiction was much greater than elsewhere. That is an extremely good thing in the name of reducing health inequalities and encouraging and making more likely decent longevity in that community.

What else might the socio-economic duty mean? It might mean that in a particular area where there is a concentration of disadvantage and where children face great difficulty in getting into some of the better-performing schools, the parents are given advice on the school's application process by professionals, experts and well-wishers to better the chances of those otherwise disadvantaged children. It might even mean—I would favour this; it was practised in Brighton under the Conservatives and by one school, very briefly, in Hammersmith and Fulham—the adoption of a lottery system. I know that that is politically unpopular, but I continue to believe that it is thoroughly right and fair.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman's remarks so far, but I want to correct him on a point of accuracy. The so-called lottery in Brighton was introduced by a Labour council in the face of determined Tory opposition, but the Tories now holding the council have realised its virtues.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am happy to accept that remonstrance and correction. It was a belated conversion, but it was nevertheless the right thing to do.

It might also be the case that in a particular area where there is poor public transport and a low rate of car ownership, it is decided to put on a free or subsidised shuttle service to enable people to get to hospital when they would not otherwise be able to do so.

Through my work on the subject of speech and language services, I have been continually and forcefully reminded, in visiting pre-schools, primary schools, secondary schools and post-16 facilities across the country, of something that all right hon. and hon. Members know to be true. Someone who is educated, articulate, capable of writing a decent letter, willing to joust with authority, and unperturbed by the thought of having to appear in front of some sort of tribunal to argue the case for their child can probably get more or less what their child needs, and sometimes more than he or she needs. On the other hand, someone who is uneducated, inarticulate, unaccustomed to expressing themselves in writing, fearful of appearing in front of some sort of formal panel or hearing, or simply weighed down by the multiplicity of other problems with which in their life they must daily contend will probably not get what their child needs. There is therefore a powerful case for saying "Let's have the duty." My own Front Benchers are committed to a pupil premium, which is a form of positive action, and I cannot see what the great terror of this clause is. It seems to me that if we look at the evidence, we see that class tends to trump everything. It was said earlier that less able but more fortunate children could overtake more able but less fortunate children by the age of six, so a correction to the balance is needed.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

The hon. Gentleman is giving useful examples of the many advantages that the socio-economic duty will provide to disadvantaged people. Is he aware that at the moment the duty does not extend to devolved areas? In Scotland, we are depending on the Scottish Government to co-operate and take this on board. Does he agree that if that does not happen and we do not get that co-operation, many people in Scotland will be greatly disadvantaged?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

They would, and I hope that that will not arise and that there will be an opportunity in the course of the Bill's passage to make certain that it does not.

Positive action has been the subject of some debate, which I think has become excessively convoluted. Some of my hon. Friends have fears about it that are wholly unrealistic. My hon. Friend Mr. Brady is an admirable parliamentarian, but his sense that there will be a competitive hierarchy of disadvantage, or alternatively of cases of positive action, will probably not be realised in practice. My view is that if a primary school has real difficulty in getting male teachers, and there are two candidates of equal merit, it should be permitted—not prescribed—for the school to opt for the man. Similarly, if there is a bank with an all-male, besuited board and not a woman in sight, and there is a strong woman candidate on the shortlist, it should be open to the bank to say, "We will have the woman in the name of the diversity of the work force that will thereby result."

What is more, it is a question not just of decency to the individual but of benefit to the business and potentially the wider economy. Research by the Catalyst organisation shows that when Fortune 500 companies recruit and promote on that basis, they do better on sales by about 42 per cent., on return on capital invested by about 66 per cent. and on equity return by about 53 per cent. The provision will ordinarily be used as a tie-breaker. I do not need to labour the point, but it seems to me that it is an example of an active assertion of the need for change. Just leaving things as they are will not lead to progress.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Rt Hon Keith Vaz Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Rt Hon Keith Vaz Committee

The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent speech. Wearing his other hat as someone who sits on the Speaker's Conference, does he not agree that we should consider measures to adopt positive action on representation in this house for black and Asian people as well as for women?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Yes. I gave the example of women, but the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to challenge me more widely. I certainly do think so, and in principle I am sympathetic to the idea of black and minority ethnic shortlists. However, the world does not change in a day. I have been doing my best since January 2003, unsuccessfully thus far, to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to accept the principle and practice of all-women shortlists. I am happy to take that on board as part of my list of demands with which I go to my colleagues to lobby, with some expectation of eventual but not immediate success.

The gender pay gap is a huge issue, and I can see why my right hon. Friend Mrs. May believes that her idea of compulsory pay audits for demonstrably errant companies is valid. The Government should seriously consider that, as it is a practical and sensible idea. However, I do not agree with the thesis that we should simply pursue a selective policy and eschew the idea of a universal requirement. All that is involved in the clauses on this subject is, first, the ban on secrecy clauses—that is very sensible, because information is power, and if people do not know what others are getting they are in less of a position to argue, lobby and seek better treatment for themselves—and secondly, the requirement from 2013, in the event of inadequate progress in the interim, that companies with 250 or more employees should publish an annual statement of the gender pay gap in their organisation.

That requirement is extraordinarily modest and a long way in the coming. The Government certainly cannot be accused of being excessively hasty or unreasonable about it, as they are looking to see what progress will be made. Of course, it will apply only to approximately 0.5 per cent. of all businesses, so the idea that the decimation of the industrial or commercial base of the country and mass unemployment will result from this relatively modest and well-overdue provision seems somewhat far fetched. If we look at the evidence, we find that when companies behave well, on the whole they do better with a more diverse work force.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the plans whereby it would be very easy to do a pay audit of a company? It does not take a great deal of incomprehensible bureaucracy to do that, and it goes beyond just asking what is the pay gap, as it analyses the causes of that gap. Many proposals have been put forward that could provide a toolkit for being able to do that within a company. It really is not a complex process at all.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I rather agree with that, and actually I think that that is true both of large companies and, to some extent, of small. In the case of large companies, it is probably relatively easy to collate and publish the material, because there will be an in-house personnel department. In the case of some smaller businesses, although not all, the number of people involved is relatively small by definition and the material can be quite easily made available. The idea that there is some sort of Herculean obstacle to doing that is not true.

I wish to finish by saying that I am genuinely saddened by the stance that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have taken. The general tenor of the debate has been, "Well, the Conservative Opposition are opposing a Second Reading", and certainly the terms of the reasoned amendment rather suggest that. Actually, there are people who strongly support the Bill—mainly on the Labour and Liberal Democrats Benches, and certainly myself—as well as some who are strongly opposed to it. On the whole, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead seems to be strongly undecided about the Bill, which is a pity.

If the Opposition Front Benchers are not in favour of the Bill but actually against it, the honourable, upright, bold thing to do would be to vote against Second Reading. I think that that position would be wrong, but everybody could understand it. I cannot help but be called to mind of Churchill's verdict on Baldwin in 1936—that he was

"decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent."—[ Hansard, 12 November 1936; Vol. 317, c. 1107.]

I make no such suggestion in respect either of my hon. Friend Mr. Harper or of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, but I do think that there is a certain wobble on the subject, and a degree of robust candour would be respected so that we could have an honourable difference of opinion. Most people conclude that at the moment the Opposition are against the Bill, and I am sorry about that, because there is much good in the Bill.

I am forced to conclude by saying that when it was said earlier that the Bill was a missed opportunity, I could not help but think, "No; the real missed opportunity in 2009 is the unwillingness of my own party's Front Benchers to give the Bill a Second Reading." Even now at this, the 59th minute after the eleventh hour, I appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean for a change of heart on the part of our party.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West 8:18 pm, 11th May 2009

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your understanding and grace in giving me time to leave the Chamber for an urgent matter. I appreciate it.

I am delighted to speak in support of the Bill, which I believe to be a landmark piece of legislation that will help to improve the lives and life chances of millions of people across Britain. It is a great honour to follow John Bercow—I would call him a friend, because he is a friend on many issues that are important to Labour Members, and he has been a great support to me in my work on special educational needs. I am always thrilled to follow him.

The Bill is, at heart, a truly Labour Bill. It comes as no surprise to me that the majority of the Conservative party, although not my friend from Buckingham, have chosen to oppose it. I noted from a Front-Bench intervention that they like parts of it, so I suppose they are happy for society to be only part equal—no change there, then.

One of the great strengths of the Bill is that, despite its legal complexity, it is in fact very simple. Even those who may be put off by the Bill's technicalities will no doubt be impressed to know that as we have heard—and as we can see—it will simplify or replace 100 pieces of legislation. Those who bemoan bureaucracy and red tape will do well to take note of that fact. The Bill's true simplicity, however, is that its only intended consequence is fairness—that is, that everyone should have an equal chance of achieving their aspirations and fulfilling their ambitions. There will be no more "Too old," or "Too young," no more faces or accents that do not fit and no more excuses.

With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to give a couple of examples from my life's journey to illustrate that point. Because of my accent, which I am sure all hon. Members can hear, I was turned down for promotion at Northern Rock no less.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

It may have been the making of my career, but I leave that to hon. Members to wonder at.

At the time, I was a young personnel clerk and I had applied to be a training officer. I got down to the last two, but I did not get the job. During feedback, I was told that the reason—it was not the main reason; it was the only reason—I did not get the job was that my accent was thought to be too strong for the branch staff in the south, who would not be able to understand me. Well, I am pleased to say that my accent has not stopped me being selected for my party or, I am glad to say, being elected to this place by the people of my constituency, thank you very much. I hope that everyone here this evening can understand what I am saying.

That happened more than 20 years ago and I would like to think that things are a little different now. I would also go so far as to say that that may be due in no small part to Ant and Dec. People seem to like the north-east accent now. The legislation will mean that neither I nor anyone else will ever again be discriminated against solely because of our accents. However, I knew then, and I still know, that it was not my accent that cost me that promotion; it was what the accent stood for—that is, my class and my background. The Bill will ensure, as much as we can, that employers and even educators will never be able to cite someone's accent as a reason for turning them down for a job or anything else.

In many ways, I am one of the lucky ones. I never wanted to be an MP when I was younger, because—well, I would never have dreamed it was possible, coming from my background and with my life circumstances, and especially not because I am a woman. Working-class men from the north-east had made it here for generations, but not many working-class women had, if any. I am not totally sure, but I think I may have been the first working-class woman born and bred in the north-east to make it here to represent a north-east constituency, or any other type of constituency for that matter.

I have come a long way from doing the accounts and payroll at Tyneside Safety Glass. I left school at 16 to get a job, in order to help my mam financially with my two younger brothers, as she was on her own. That was at a time when the north-east was being ravaged by the consequences of the Conservative party's assault on industry, our communities and the way of life in the north-east. My breaks in life came through hard work, aspiration, determination and workplace education, which this Government have widened and enshrined in statute, through union learning reps and return to learn programmes, which have given hundreds of thousands of people, especially those from my generation—the Thatcher generation—a second chance in life.

Through membership of the Labour party, I found a passion for politics and a way to make a difference by trying to redress the balance and make life fairer for people like me across the country. Just as we cannot help the family circumstances we are born into, we cannot help where in the country we are born. However, when I was growing up, being born in the north-east made such a difference to my life opportunities and those of everyone around me. Some might say that it still does, but I believe that, thankfully, it does to a much lesser extent. The injustice of the north-south divide was—and still is—a huge driving force in my politics.

In the Labour party, I was part of an organisation that promoted fair rules and fair chances. My eventual selection came from an all-woman shortlist. I am currently the only woman MP in Tyne and Wear—there is me and 12 men—although hopefully that will change quite a bit at the next election, as my party has continued with that policy and selected more women to contest safe seats. That is the difference: women have to contest winnable seats, not just be allowed to stand in the marginals. However, none of that would have been possible had it not been for the determination of a few to create chances for the many. Those people were Labour people. I believe that this Bill, more than many others that I have seen in this House, reflects those deeply held values of fairness and equality.

I want to take just a minute to reflect on why we need to keep pressing the case for improved gender equality in both Parliament and the workplace. Just under 20 per cent. of our MPs are women. When we look to other countries, such as Sweden and Rwanda, where women account for nearly half of all members of Parliament, we are surely urged to action. I am one of only 291 women MPs ever. There are currently more than 520 men or thereabouts in this Parliament. I do not know the total for all Parliaments ever, but a rough calculation suggests that it must be many thousands, if not tens of thousands. Two-hundred and ninety-one women and 120 still here makes 170 women MPs or thereabouts—I might be a few out—who have gone before us. Indeed, there are a few women MPs—just a few though—here now.

Being part of a chosen few makes me feel very special, but I am also very sad that so few women have had the chance to sit on these Green Benches and make a difference and improve the country's legislation. That is why the Bill is doing just that. It is thanks to women on our Front Bench, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality in particular, that we are in this position.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am listening with great respect to the hon. Lady's speech. I accept that the Bill is fundamentally a social democratic or new Labour piece of legislation—that is pretty unarguable—but that does not mean that we should not support it when it is fundamentally right. I put it to the hon. Lady that although the Bill can be honourably opposed, some of the people out there in the country who oppose it do so because they are so comfortable with either their prejudices or their privileges that they do not want them to be disturbed.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Indeed, I think that those on our Front Bench agreed with it too.

Most of us are agreed that the number of women in this place needs to rise substantially over the years to come. I wholeheartedly support the measures in the Bill to extend permission for all-women shortlists to 2030. The discrepancies that we see between the numbers of men and women in Parliament are still played out in society as a whole. Although the minimum wage has decreased the gender pay gap by 5 per cent., the gulf between male and female wage packets is still an unbelievable 21 per cent. In an enlightened society, where we women work just as hard as men, that is simply inexcusable. I congratulate the Minister on bringing an end to the tired excuses that we have heard so many times before.

We also need to bolster skills among women. That is why the public sector equality duty will be so vital in continuing to unlock talent. According to the women and work commission, closing the gender skills gap could increase GDP by between £15 billion and £23 billion a year. I cannot imagine the naysayers sniffing at that, especially not during such difficult times.

In our current economic climate, we sometimes find that women are harder hit than men. In the north-east, figures show that female unemployment increased three months before men had to face the same problems. Although those figures have begun to level off, it just goes to show how much variety exists between the typical "male" job market and the typical "female" job market, which is more often than not part time and low paid.

We know that legislation is not a catch-all solution. To achieve the vision behind the Bill we must change attitudes and break down barriers. One example would be those clauses that support a woman's right to breastfeed. I am ever so pleased that my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney is in the Chamber and will speak, too. He has led a fantastic campaign on this matter. I am really pleased, as I am sure he will be, that that has been recognised and that provision has been made in the Bill.

It is a well-established fact that wherever possible, breast is best. I breastfed both my children, my second until 18 months—she was very eager, and it took some work to bring it to an end—and I evangelise on the merits of doing so, as does Bosom Buddies, which runs schemes at Sure Starts units and children's centres in my constituency and, I am sure, across the country. Bosom Buddies is a project where breastfeeding mums partner and mentor pregnant mums and new mums. They encourage and help them to start to breastfeed and to continue to do so. It is a very good project and I fully endorse it.

In numerous studies, breastfeeding has been shown to be the healthiest way to feed babies. In addition to providing the essential nutrients and sustenance, it greatly reduces the risk of babies developing health problems such as gastroenteritis, asthma, diabetes and obesity and helps to protect women from breast and ovarian cancer. In comparison with a formula-fed baby, a breastfed baby is five times less likely to be hospitalised with gastroenteritis. It is estimated that if all babies were breastfed the NHS would save up to £50 million a year in dealing with such illnesses. I know that that is just one example, but it is a real example of how this Bill will make small changes that will have a big impact on individual lives as well as on the fabric of our nation.

One group of people for whom the Bill can have a transformative impact are carers. I was pleased to receive a briefing from Carers UK that sets out its support for the Bill and in particular welcomes the provisions that extend protection against discrimination and harassment to someone who is associated with caring for a disabled person, in effect giving carers new rights in the workplace and in the provision of services.

We need to look more closely in the Committee—on which I hope to be able to serve—at the true effect of a handful of provisions. The right to request adjustments and flexible working practices is one of the significant steps taken by the Government to boost workplace opportunities for all. As the Bill stands, those rights will be created for disabled people but not for carers, many of whom would benefit hugely from receiving the same rights. Given the already ambitious nature of the Bill, I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality might be willing to go that one extra step for the carers who already save the economy billions of pounds a year.

We also need to ensure that appropriate mechanisms are in place so that the duties and rights set out in the Bill are properly enforced. In short, we should be wary of missing a trick. There remains a real difficulty for disabled passengers travelling by air. I have had to table early-day motions in the past to draw the House's attention to the less than exemplary practice of one airline that insists on disabled customers telephoning premium rate telephone numbers to secure seats, incurring extortionate extra costs.

The broader provisions in the Bill will enable campaigners to keep an eye on progress in both the public sector and the private sector. The end of the gagging clauses and the introduction of a duty to report on the gender pay balance will ensure that inequality can no longer hide anywhere in Britain from the boardroom to the tea room.

The old saying says that you should never judge a book by its cover. That has certainly been true of me over the years, and of a lot of people I have met, too. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that there is plenty of wisdom in that phrase and I believe there to be plenty of wisdom in the Bill. It sets out a message of equals not elites and that is a message that I am delighted to support.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister 8:33 pm, 11th May 2009

I would certainly agree that the Labour party had a very good record on equality up to the 1997 general election. Indeed, I think that it was John Bercow, who has contributed enormously well to the debate on a number of occasions, who pointed out that it was a social democratic approach—I would say that it is also liberal. It is no surprise, therefore, that Roy Jenkins was so heavily involved in the Labour party in the moves to provide equality in certain areas at a time when it was less popular to do so and less acceptable than it is now.

The Government will get this Bill through—I hope that they do—and it is hardly opposed in this House. That is a sign that the Government are pushing against an extremely open door in a way that the Labour party could not when it introduced earlier legislative proposals to provide for equality. The Government are implementing, quite rightly, their manifesto commitment to abolish unjustified discrimination wherever it exists. My regret is that that was a 1997 election manifesto commitment. Over the 12 years for which I have been a Member of this House, I have questioned why it has taken so long for the Government and the House to do some of the things that could have been done many years previously.

My party's record is pretty good. We opposed section 28 when it was introduced, for example, and pressed for an early end to discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. We first tabled amendments to the criminal law in 1998 to bring in laws on sexual offences that treated people equally, regardless of sexual orientation. That legislation was enacted in 2003. The Government were forced by European judgments to bring in equality on the ground of sexual orientation in the armed forces, but they should have done so before. We also urged them to introduce civil partnerships legislation, which they have now done, and supported them to the hilt when they introduced the controversial—for some—regulations on the provision of goods and services without discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation.

On age discrimination, I remember urging my colleagues through the Lobby to vote on an amendment to the Employment Relations Bill in the late 1990s, to end age discrimination in employment. We have also argued that that could and should have been brought in as part of the Equality Act 2006. Nevertheless, we are where we are now, and I welcome the fact that the Government are introducing these provisions.

I want to discuss three topics: the balance to be struck between free speech and harassment; the exemptions on discrimination, particularly on the grounds of religion and sexual orientation, where another tension obviously exists; and the proposed public sector duty, every aspect of which is to include a duty to promote equal opportunities in respect of religion.

I ought to declare a couple of interests. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has performed significant scrutiny of previous equality legislation and proposes to do much more on this Bill. We have already had a very useful and mutually beneficial meeting with officials from the equalities team. I also hold honorary positions with the British Humanist Association, the Liberal Democrat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender campaign, and the National Secular Society.

Before I start on my three topics, I want to point out that inequality is a vital issue in this country. It is terrible that the gap between the rich and the poor has got wider. The rich, even in this recession, are far richer than they were 12 years ago, and, even before the recession, the poor were relatively poorer than they were before. Radical action is needed, and my hon. Friend Lynne Featherstone has already said that she does not think that the provisions in the Bill represent that radical action. It is policies that will bring about the end of inequality, including policies on taxation. I am still astounded about what has happened on tax policy over the last three Parliaments. The fair taxes have not been increased, but the regressive ones have. For the Conservative party to say that it wants to do something about the inequality in wealth between the rich and the poor while its flagship policy is to cut the tax payable by the richest estates in the country is simply astonishing.

Philip Davies intervened on Roger Berry to make a point about political correctness, and I should like to say to him that the Campaign Against Political Correctness might be against the Bill, but political correctness can work both ways. If it is politically correct to say that it is not acceptable—I mean socially acceptable; I am not arguing about criminality here—to call people "cripples" or "spastics", then I support political correctness. If supporting political correctness means that it becomes unacceptable—even in private, where it would not be against the law—to call people "sooty" or "Paki", then I support political correctness. The hon. Gentleman needs to define what he means by political correctness. If he defines it very narrowly, I might agree with him, but it is not enough just to talk about it as the tabloids do.

My first topic is the balance between free speech and laws that protect people. What kind of protection are we talking about in anti-harassment provisions? We are talking about the freedom from being offended, or worse. I certainly accept that this is not just about being offended. This can occur in public, in employment and in the provision of goods and services, including a special case involving public services and the delivery of public functions.

In public, the Government have rightly accepted that there is a difference between homophobic or religious hatred and, for example, racial hatred, because the offence involved is very narrow. They have recognised that free speech can be impeded. I am sure that I would not agree with most of that speech, but I recognise that some religious organisations, for example, need to be able to explain their views on sexual orientation or the religious beliefs of others. Similarly, I have argued for amendment of section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which criminalises the use of insult as being likely to cause distress, goes too far and could lead to bizarre prosecutions or investigations by the police. I hope the Government will recognise the point. They have made an exception in cases of religion and homophobia, and they are right to do so.

In employment, there is protection against harassment, and employment probably provides the strongest case for it because one has to be secure at work, but our harassment provisions are pretty wide. Indeed, the human rights memorandum on the Joint Committee on Human Rights website, probably also to be found on the Government Equalities Office website, accepts the point, stating that harassment laws

"have been controversial in respect of certain protected characteristics (namely, religion or belief, sexual orientation and gender reassignment) and opponents have been concerned that applying the broader domestic definition of harassment to these characteristics could infringe Article 9 and Article 10 Convention rights."

I hope that question will be dealt with in Committee. It is not simply a matter of defining harassment as engaging in

"unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of... creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment", because also relevant is

"the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity".

Because it is non-intentional and because the views of the victim are important, this can be cast very widely.

I worry when I hear about cases such as the Christian night-shift worker who was having a conversation with a fellow worker about his views on homosexuality; apparently, although we have only his side of the story, he said in moderate terms that he thought it was wrong. Even if there were no prosecution under harassment law, as it were, I think it would be wrong if employers decided to take a strong view simply because someone felt that their dignity was violated because they were gay or knew someone who was gay and could not accept anyone sincerely disagreeing with them and using non-abusive language. I believe that that is going too far; we should not have to read that sort of press story or hear about that sort of activity. Here, I stand four-square with religious people who feel that they are not allowed to say those sorts of things. I do not recommend it, of course, but if they avoid abusive language, that is acceptable.

With goods and services, the Government are right not to include harassment provisions relating to sexual orientation or religion. It was right that the Northern Ireland provisions were essentially struck down and have not been reintroduced in the Bill. It is impossible to restrict people's ability to explain their point of view when not providing goods and services. When it comes to the provision of public services and public functions, the question remains whether there might be scope for introducing some protection from harassment; gross harassment, of course, is discrimination.

I was pleased to support the Equality Act 2006, which finally and rightly protected religious people—people with religion or belief—from discrimination. Indeed, as hon. Members may know, my private Member's Bill goes further to protect Catholics, in particular, from unjustified discrimination in our constitution. My Bill received support from all political parties, but it was talked out by the Lord Chancellor, no less, on Second Reading. I think that religious organisations, however, show too great a willingness to want to discriminate against other people. They accept the protections that they have been given, but want the scope to discriminate against other people—for example, on grounds of sexual orientation or religion.

Schedule 9 deals with exemptions for religions in respect of employment. I recognise that the drafting here is better than it was in the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. The import of the Amicus case has been included, where the provision states that a post with a sexual orientation test has to be one clearly involved in proselytising and not another. The subsequent provisions on page 182 of the Bill are, sadly, weaker, allowing organisations with a religious ethos not to have to justify the discrimination that they may wish to indulge in on grounds of religion, for example. Nevertheless, even that is better than the coach and horses run through the spirit of the Bill by the Schools Standards and Frameworks Act 1998, particularly sections 68, 69 and 70. As I was told by a maths teacher working in a state school funded 100 per cent. by the taxpayer, those provisions allow schools to tell teachers—regardless of whether they are teaching religious education—that they must have "Jesus in your heart". Is that really necessary for someone teaching maths in a primary school? What is going on? I find it regrettable that the Government have not taken the opportunity to recognise that organisations with a certain ethos can, if necessary, be governed by provisions that already operate in relation to a religious test, as opposed to a broad exception involving many other posts.

As for the provision of goods and services, the problem still exists that schools are allowed to discriminate and segregate on the basis of religion. In an area containing, say, four schools, where one has a religious intake and can segregate and discriminate, children or families adhering to the religion concerned can choose any of those four schools, while everyone else has a choice of only three. If that is coupled with the public duty to provide equality of opportunity, a huge amount of pressure will be exerted for everyone to have their own school that discriminates, and I do not think that that is a good idea.

The provision of public services involves a key question. Should there be a right to discriminate on grounds of religion, or indeed sexual orientation? I hope that, in Committee, the Government will recognise that the Employment Appeal Tribunal was correct in saying, in the case of the Islington registrar Lillian Ladele, that it was wrong for someone providing a public service to be allowed to discriminate, and that the council was right to say that everyone doing that job must not treat people differently according to their sexual orientation.

We have read of a dentist who wants to require his women patients to wear a hijab before being able to access health care either on the NHS or privately. That cannot be right. Reasonable adjustment may be possible. For example, a cook may not want to cook pork. That does not involve discriminating against human beings, at least in respect of what they are doing, and it does not necessarily involve a public function.

Finally, let me say something about the positive duty in regard to religion. Religion is different from the other strands. For example, it is not essential or immutable in the same way as race or gender. Religious beliefs give rise to policies and practices that are highly contested, unlike the other strands. Representatives of religions —rightly, in many cases—feel the need to proselytise in order to secure new followers, unlike representatives of other strands. Some religions campaign actively against equal treatment in relation to other strands, as they have a right to do. They are unique in that respect.

For that reason, I think that, while we should ensure that there is a public duty to end discrimination on religious grounds and promote social cohesion, tackling inequality relating to religion may actually increase religious sensitivities. People may feel that they are not being given what someone else is being given because of historic service provision in that area, and may want the same for themselves. An example is the demand for it to be considered that sharia law might be given more status in relation to other religious laws.

Those are the issues that I hope to raise in Committee.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham 8:48 pm, 11th May 2009

I, too, apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate. That was because of difficulties that I encountered in travelling to the House today. I am delighted to have been able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As my right hon. Friend Ms Hewitt, who is not here at the moment, said in her excellent speech, hon. Members have received a number of excellent briefings. I want to begin by quoting from the TUC briefing, because it sums up what I think about the Bill:

"The TUC welcomes the introduction of a single Equality Bill. It has long campaigned for a single Act to bring together the numerous discrimination laws that have developed over many decades. It also welcomes the fact that the Government has used this opportunity to harmonise upwards and to strengthen protection in some areas", most notably age and carers.

I also want to begin by thanking my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General for steering this Bill through to its Second Reading. They have both long championed equalities issues when it was not necessarily fashionable to do so, and all Labour Members owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their excellent legislation, which we now have on the statute book because of their efforts.

The Bill is very much about developing Labour's fairness agenda. One of its most important aspects is the new duty on public bodies to consider how to reduce socio-economic inequalities. That is important in two key respects. First, imposing that duty on public bodies and Ministers may ensure that, across government, we get much closer attention to how policies and policy development will reduce socio-economic inequalities. That has been some time in coming. Labour has had an important agenda to tackle inequalities, but we must recognise that we need to do more, in particular to foster the cause of social mobility. I hope that this duty helps us to continue to develop policies to support social mobility. Secondly, the duty will enable all of us in society to have a stronger look at what is happening in local government and other public sector bodies. It has long been my contention that sometimes local government and other bodies have managed to subvert Labour's equality agenda and not implement policies effectively locally.

I am truly sorry that Lynne Featherstone is not present at the moment. She gave a very thoughtful and well-considered speech, and I agreed with a great deal of it. I must say, however, that my own local authority of Durham City had a truly appalling record on tackling inequality. In fact, its policies achieved the opposite end. When the authority in question was in power, by selling off land in some of our most disadvantaged communities and reinvesting the capital gain from that land not in the local villages, but in city centre projects mostly used by the very affluent or upper middle class, it ensured that a transfer of resources did, indeed, take place, but it was from disadvantaged areas to the more advantaged areas. Similarly, the authority did not use the considerable house building that was taking place through planning law to enable it to build more affordable housing. It did exactly the opposite: where possible, it gave planning permission without any requirement to produce any affordable housing either within the development concerned or anywhere else in the city. I therefore want to check with my hon. Friends on the Labour Front Bench that this duty would require local authorities to explain why they wanted to implement policies that would exacerbate inequalities rather than attempt to reduce them.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

To ensure that the House is aware of this, will my hon. Friend clarify that Durham City was a Liberal Democrat council?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

I can clarify that easily for my hon. Friend; when Durham City was in existence, for the last six years it was a Liberal Democrat council.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Lynne Featherstone has returned to the Chamber now, so Dr. Blackman-Woods can repeat what she was saying.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

The hon. Lady can read that in Hansard tomorrow, but I would be very grateful if the question I have just asked is answered.

The key point that I wish to make this evening is that it is very important that local government and other public sector bodies, such as primary care trusts, seek in their overall strategic frameworks to address inequality issues.

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

Is my hon. Friend aware that since 2002 Pride in Canterbury has been lobbying for Canterbury city council to promote gay culture in Canterbury and has been fobbed off, so it took the matter to the local government ombudsman, only to be told that no regulations could be used to criticise the council for not supporting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community? This Bill will change that.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which demonstrates that we need to take further action with regard to local authorities.

Other measures that I wish specifically to mention are those banning age discrimination outside the workplace and, importantly, those removing discrimination against carers. I cannot understand why the Conservative party is going to vote against the Bill, because it is so important that we continue to support carers and to remove discrimination against them. I had to re-read the first sentence of the Conservatives' reasoned amendment a few times, because I thought that they had missed something. Obviously the Bill seeks to address

"the root causes of the reduction in social mobility".

The Bill does attempt to address the root causes of social inequality. If the socio-economic duty been provided for at the back end of clause 194, I might have understood the Conservatives' missing it, but of course the duty falls within the first clause. Labour Members may find it interesting to be given further explanation by the Conservative party as to why it is not supporting the Bill this evening.

Other key features of the Bill are equally important, and for some of us they have, as I said, been a long time coming. They include the further action to promote equal pay. As we know, public sector bodies will have to produce a gender pay report—the Government are going to consult the public bodies on how they might do that—and for private sector companies with more than 250 employees this will not be compulsory until after 2015. That is an important step forward in gaining a fuller understanding of why we still have the gender pay gap.

There are two areas that we might wish to examine further, however, and discuss in Committee. The first is what we need to do to get rid of occupational segregation. It remains a problem and it is one of the reasons why women continue to have lower earnings than men. We must examine our education policies and our learning and skills policies across the board to see what more we can do to attract both men and women into a wider range of occupations.

The second issue, which the Bill goes some way towards addressing, is the need to get rid of secrecy in respect of people's pay. Unless we have a full understanding of what people are paid, we will not be fully able to develop policies to address the issue. I know that there are key areas that we could cite—I hate to say it, but academia is one—where it is not always clear what people are earning. We know that in private sector companies it is also not clear and transparent what people are earning. We need to take further action on this matter.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the importance of measures to protect women who are breastfeeding from being removed from places such as restaurants and public galleries. The measures in the Bill are greatly to be welcomed. It is disgraceful that in the 21st century we have to legislate to ensure that women will not be discriminated against because they are breastfeeding. Hon. Friends stressed earlier how important breastfeeding is in reducing inequalities right from day one of a child's life. We know that it is women from socially disadvantaged backgrounds who are less likely to breastfeed their children.

I have experience of working in a project for Save the Children many years ago in Sunderland, where a community health project was working with local women and desperately trying to support them in breastfeeding. It was very difficult. We had many cultural hurdles to overcome, and years of work were undone in an instant by somebody going into one of the shops in the city centre and being asked to leave. That spread around the local community and rendered useless much of the work that had been done. We know that Sure Start projects are doing a great deal of work to encourage breastfeeding and we do not want that work to be undermined by women being excluded or made to feel uncomfortable. As was said earlier, most women who breastfeed in public manage to do it discreetly and should be encouraged.

I turn to public sector procurement. Public sector contracts account for about £175 billion-worth of expenditure. It is important that when contracts are awarded by the public sector, they are given to companies that are exemplars of good industrial relations across the board and have excellent equal opportunities policies. I also want to make sure that public sector procurement is used to support the green agenda, and I am sure it is possible to marry the two.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

I welcome the whole of the procurement chain being used in that way, but my concern is that there may not be the means to ensure proper monitoring of that chain. I am anxious lest it become a tick-box exercise, rather than a real force for change.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. She makes a valuable point.

I am pleased to see that discrimination in private clubs is to be made unlawful. I know that this is a minor or a side issue, but I am pleased that the Government are addressing it. I remember a teatime conversation many years ago at home with my brothers and some of their friends, who are all golf enthusiasts. They were talking about a motion that was coming before their committee from the women, asking if they could play one of the days at the weekend.

My brothers were discussing what they would do about that. They were probably sorry that they asked for my opinion. I asked, "Why wouldn't women be able to play at weekends?" They said, "The issue is that women can play during the week, but men can't because they are at work." This was the early 1980s, and I gave them a mini-lecture on the percentage of women who were employed outside the home. That proportion has continued to rise since the early 1980s, so the rationale for restricting women's playing time, which was ridiculous then, is even more so now. I am pleased that, thanks to the Bill, a golf club will not be able to prohibit its female members from playing on certain days, while allowing men to play whenever they like. It might be a peripheral issue in some ways, but I am pleased that we have got there. It is about time, too.

Finally, I come to the issue of the representation in this House of women and people from ethnic minority communities. Some hon. Members were saying earlier how surprised they were by the reaction of the official Opposition to the legislation, but given their record of getting women to represent the Tory party in this House we should not be so surprised. Their progress has been very slow—much slower than ours—mainly because they have not taken the difficult decisions, such as introducing all-women shortlists, to increase women's representation. We know that informal mechanisms are important and we all need to do more to encourage women, young people and those from ethnic minorities to come forward and think about entering formal politics, but without formal mechanisms progress is too slow.

We know that of the 125 women MPs in Parliament, 98 are Labour—and many of them are here because of all-women shortlists. International comparisons show us that of the 17 countries with the highest percentage of women MPs, 14 have some sort of quota, so we know that concerted action is needed and that voluntarism does not work. Action is needed not only to get more women into Parliament, but to make this Chamber more representative of the society in which we live. So we also need a more ethnically diverse group of politicians.

I hope that the measures in the Bill are accepted. I hope to be on the Committee and I look forward to some interesting debates. I welcome the Bill.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 9:07 pm, 11th May 2009

If the Government decide to call something the Equality Bill, they expect everyone to support it because we are, of course, all in favour of equality. But this is the most incredibly misleadingly titled Bill, as one of its central planks is not to enshrine equality in law but to reintroduce discrimination into the workplace. We heard earlier how 40 years ago Labour Governments banned race and sex discrimination in the workplace, but this Bill tries to bring it back via the back door and—unbelievably—in the name of equality.

The Bill has nothing to do with equality. It is all about the politically correct extremism of the Leader of the House and her trendy, left-wing prejudices. Most people who support the concept of equality support the concept of equality of opportunity, but this Bill is not interested in that. It is about a socialist, 1980s Labour party agenda of equality of outcome. Indeed, page 1 of this long-winded Bill explicitly says that it is

"designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage".

To be honest, I do not know how this Government dare talk about reducing socio-economic disadvantage. They have the nerve in their explanatory notes to give the example that this would lead to a duty on local education authorities to ensure that children from deprived areas have a better chance of securing a place at their school of choice. This from the Government who hate grammar schools, which probably did more than anything else to enable kids from the poorest backgrounds to access the best schools, and who scrapped the assisted places scheme, which paid for the brightest kids from the poorest backgrounds to get the best education at top private schools. Perhaps the Solicitor-General will make it clear when she winds up that this provision will mean that many of the parents in my constituency, who live in villages close to popular primary schools such as Eldwick, Burley-in-Wharfedale and Bingley, will be unable to send their children to their local school as pupils from poorer areas will be bussed in to take their place. Is that really what the Bill proposes?

The Bill is massive—250 pages, including the schedules, and nearly 250 pages of explanatory notes—but if it were truly about equality, we would not need 250 pages of politically correct gobbledegook: it would be a very short Bill, which would simply enshrine in law the fact that people who seek jobs should be selected on merit alone and that they should be given jobs irrespective of their gender, race, age or disability—

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Indeed. What on earth would be wrong with that? It seems to me that the people who are truly racist and sexism see everything in terms of race and gender, rather than those of us who just wish people to be recruited entirely on merit. Batook Pandya, the director of Bristol-based charity Support Against Racist Incidents, put it perfectly when he said on the subject of fire service open days aimed at only ethnic minority recruits:

"None of these open days should have been closed to white communities. I couldn't give two hoots if they are white, black, Asian, male or female—they should simply be the best person for the job."

The Bill introduces the concept of protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex and sexual orientation. "Why stop there?" someone might ask. There are other people and possible items for such categories. Lots of people say that they are discriminated against in the workplace because of their weight, hair colour or the fact that they are bald—that has not always been a problem in my party. If people are discriminated against for all those factors, why are they not included in the Bill? Why not just go for a simplistic kind of equality?

Perhaps the Solicitor-General in summing up will explain how much of the population is not covered by the protected groups. If in broad, estimated terms, 50 per cent. of the population are women, 10 per cent. are not white, 10 per cent. are homosexual, 20 per cent. are over 65, and 17 per cent. are disabled—I admit that a few of them will have more than one characteristic—there will not be many people who are not covered by the Bill. In fact, we will have a new minority: white, heterosexual men with no disability at all. That will be the only minority left that is not covered by the Bill.

The Bill allows positive action in recruitment where any two candidates are as qualified as each other. That is complete nonsense. First, no two candidates are ever exactly the same, and the Bill therefore tries to introduce a scenario that we would only usually expect to hear in a primary school playground. Indeed, my six-year-old son is the only person who ever raises impossible hypotheticals with me, but I can now tell him that the Leader of the House has joined him in that quest. However, for the purposes of the argument, I will humour the Government and accept that that impossible scenario could happen.

The Leader of the House claimed that positive action provision could be invoked only if two candidates were both equally the best. If the person—perhaps a woman, someone from an ethnic minority, or a male going for a job at a primary school, as in the case raised by my hon. Friend John Bercow—is genuinely the equal-best candidate, given that the employer has got to pick one or the other, perhaps the Government can explain which law currently in place prevents them from picking the one who is from the minority group. If they are genuinely joint-best candidates, one or other of them will be picked. This is a pointless solution.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Other hon. Members want to speak. I wish that this was a Friday and that I could take as many interventions as possible and talk the Bill out, but I am afraid that time is limited.

At worst, the Bill's real purpose is to introduce positive discrimination by the back door. Its most likely outcome is that it will have a chilling effect on employers, who will feel pressured into taking someone from an under-represented group who is not the best or the equal-best candidate for the job. It is also likely that we will see an increase in employment tribunals for employers to defend, thus wasting their time and money.

Hon. Members need not just take my word for that; the Government claim in the explanatory notes that the Bill will cost the private sector a one-off sum of £211 million—just what it needs in a recession—and recurring costs of between £11 million and £17 million a year, consisting mainly of additional court and tribunal cases and compensation awards. That is actually in the Bill. The British Chambers of Commerce says it sends a poor message about UK businesses and that it will discourage job creation, which is all we need as unemployment surges towards 3 million. Companies will be loth to take on more employees so it will take longer to get out of the recession.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

As I have explained to the right hon. Gentleman, time is limited and other Members want to speak.

If the Government really want more people to be employed, they must stop making employment more hassle and more costly. They clearly believe that if something is more expensive, less of it will happen, which is why they increase taxes on alcohol and tobacco and why they want the climate change levy. The same is true of employment; the more expensive it is, the less of it there will be.

I commend an article by Minette Marrin in The Times over the weekend. She wrote:

"Here we have a spectacle that is about as bad for women as it gets. Female politicians, many promoted above their ability, seek to promote another woman above her democratic entitlement and against their own principles and meanwhile legislate to promote working women over men. With supporters like Harman and her crew, we women do not need enemies."

The Government should look at the old Equal Opportunities Commission's research, which found that women had clear views on these matters. Some of the commission's findings included the following:

"Measures such as positive discrimination are particularly disliked. They are seen as discriminatory, to be artificially engineering outcomes...There was little support for the idea that women, as a group, are unequal in society today...Another strong theme to emerge was that attempts to redress inequalities have become too politically incorrect."

There are many similar comments in the commission's research.

Another issue is the gender pay gap. Both the BCC and the CBI oppose the concept as they believe either that it is meaningless or that it could lead to mandatory gender pay audits. The pay gap exists for a host of reasons. Sometimes, women choose to take time out of work. That is one of the reasons why there is a gender pay gap.

It is possible that if we equalise everything, it will all be equalled down. In Sheffield, employees have been threatening strike action over the single-status legislation because wages have been levelled downwards. Are Labour Members saying that they will be happy for pay to go down as long as it is equal? Are they saying that does not matter because equal pay is the most important thing? Women have husbands, boyfriends and fathers, and I am not sure they would be too happy about pay being levelled down.

Who will manage the process? Would you believe it, Mr. Deputy Speaker? The Equality and Human Rights Commission is to administer the process. That is the same Equality and Human Rights Commission that I discovered from a recent parliamentary answer paid men more than women, white people more than black and ethnic minority people and non-disabled people more than disabled people. We expect that commission to go round lecturing organisations about equal pay. If it was not so ridiculous, it would be quite amusing.

The Bill also maintains the concept of positive discrimination for parliamentary candidates.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I have already dealt with the right hon. Gentleman, who has not been in the Chamber for the whole debate.

Why will the Labour party not allow people to be selected simply on merit? As Labour seems to need all-women shortlists, it must mean either that the party picks women who are not the best candidates or that the local Labour party is full of people who are so sexist that they would not select a woman even if she was clearly the best candidate. When the Solicitor-General sums up, perhaps she will explain which it is. Given that we Conservatives elected a woman leader of our party 34 years ago, we shall take no lectures from Labour. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher said:

"I owe nothing to Women's lib."

What the public think of all-women shortlists is clear. One has only to look at what happened in Blaenau Gwent. One of the safest Labour seats was lost because of the party's politically correct obsession with all-women shortlists, yet Labour still continues to ignore public opinion and press on with them. My question to all those Labour Members who say, "It's so important that we have more women in Parliament" is: will they support Conservative women candidates who stand against Labour men in marginal seats? If it is so important to have more women in Parliament, come what may, I might presume that they would. However, I suspect that they will not, because deep down they know that people's views are more important than their gender. I also want to know how many of those male MPs who bang on about wanting there to be more women MPs did so before they were elected to Parliament themselves. Frankly, I would have much more respect for many of them if they offered to give up their seat so that a woman could replace them, but of course very few of them ever do that.

Many other measures in the Bill are either revolting or ridiculous; I do not have time to go through all of them now. However, there is one marvellous thing in the Bill that I must commend. Page E9 of the explanatory notes, which is about direct discrimination, says that "racial segregation is always" wrong. I could not agree more. I hope that that will lead to the Government making sure that people who come to this country integrate into a British way of life. I hope that it will mean an end to organisations such as the Black Police Associations, to competitions just for ethnic minorities such as the decibel Penguin prize, and to information being published in dozens of languages.

It is not often that I quote Edwina Currie, but she summed up my attitude perfectly well when she wrote in the Daily Mail:

"Has she"— that is, the Leader of the House

"noticed, in her little Westminster cocoon, how many small companies, strangled by this Government's obsession with red tape, are going bust; how many ordinary men and women are losing their jobs; how many individual bankruptcies have been declared; how many homes repossessed?

And she's wittering on about equality?

Predictably, her fellow feminists have lined up to offer their support. In The Guardian, the headline for Polly Toynbee's column trumpeted 'Harman's Law is Labour's biggest idea in 11 years'—which just about sums up this miserable administration."

I could not have put it better myself.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Conservative, Poole 9:22 pm, 11th May 2009

I enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend Philip Davies, but did not entirely agree with it. I think that it is good to consolidate all the legislation that we can see on the Table in front of us. My concern, of course, is that a lot of follow-up legislation and statutory instruments will come in its wake, so that pile by the Dispatch Box will grow. I am concerned about where we go with that.

Generally speaking, the reason our nation has been successful economically is the people in it. How we treat people and whether we are fair to them are very important if we are to get the best out of people and to be a productive, modern economy that grows. We cannot afford to lose people; we cannot afford not to engage people in what goes on, so it is broadly important that we support the Bill.

On social economic policy, it is clear that in this nation, if a person grows up in an area of deprivation or poverty, their chances in education, health and a range of other areas are less good. We will not remain a rich, productive economy unless we get the most out of the human potential of our nation. That means using what resources we have to target some of the most disadvantaged, so as to get the best out of them and so that they can become productive citizens and have a worthwhile, productive life.

To do that, of course, we need data. We need good census data, and we have to drill down. Of course, the census tends to depend on ward size, which varies from 1,500 in some areas to 22,000 or 23,000 in places such as Birmingham. Good public sector authorities, such as local councils and health authorities, do consider and map deprivation and poverty, and try to focus policy on the most disadvantaged to get the best out of the area. They certainly do so in Poole, and the Bournemouth and Poole teaching primary care trust certainly does so. There is an awful lot that can be done.

The second point that I would like to make is on age discrimination. It is quite clear that we live in an age in which one of the principal problems is longevity. People—particularly men—are pretty fit and able to go on working at 65. We need to take a radical look at the issue. I know that there are all sorts of problems to do with the national insurance system and the benefit system. I have recently dealt with cases in which people who have become disabled before 65 could claim all sorts of things, but those who become disabled after 65 could not do so. We must think creatively about how we can keep people productively in the economy, if that is what they wish. We know that there is a major pension problem, and, if people wish to work longer not only to enhance their retirement, public policy should try to do everything to make it possible.

I, like many Members, have surgeries, and it is not unusual to see people who are in their 70s come in, sit down and, in reply to my question, "What's the problem?", say, "It's my mother," or, "My father." People are living into their 90s these days, so it is not too bad if people want to continue work into their 70s. Some of the problems with employing 50-year-olds may go if we get used to employing people at older ages.

Age discrimination is a major problem, and Members have already made the point about a possible loss of services, but the Bill will be a lost opportunity if we do not creatively consider how we can get people to remain engaged in work, if that is what they want to do, and if we can construct a social security and benefits system that allows that to happen.

I should have liked to have said other things. I agree with the Front-Bench team that it is our job as the Opposition to test propositions and table amendments. I have concerns about the cost on business, and the Public Bill Committee will no doubt look into the matter. However, broadly speaking, I think that the Bill is to be welcomed, and I look forward to the return of an improved version when we consider it on the Floor of the House again.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford 9:26 pm, 11th May 2009

I am very grateful to Mr. Syms for leaving me time to speak. It is a pleasure to follow him.

I welcome the Bill and praise the Government. I am particularly pleased that we are going to outlaw age discrimination in the provision of services and goods. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is a good thing that more of us are living longer, confounding the actuaries, and long that may continue. However, it means that the injustice that occurs when people are discriminated against simply because of age is becoming more acute, and that is why we must act: no more refusing the store card, travel insurance or the hire car simply because of age. I agree with him that other big issues must be confronted, too, such as why carer's allowance stops when a person reaches the state retirement and pension age. We must tackle all those things.

The briefing from Age Concern and Help the Aged—soon to be Age UK—says that we should have gone further and ended compulsory retirement, and we can debate that in Committee, too. One of my constituents, Richard Ellison, a justice of the peace, is campaigning as he nears the age of 70 against the compulsory retirement of magistrates at 70.

I welcome also the provisions promoting breastfeeding. As breastfeeding is so healthy for mothers and children, it is a scandal that this country performs so much worse than others in enabling mothers to feel comfortable breastfeeding, and in helping them to breastfeed at work and in public places. I welcome the Bill's measures to help with that, and to place a duty on the public sector to help mothers to feel confident enough to breastfeed—something that is good for them and their babies.

In the health context, I praise UNICEF and its Baby Friendly Initiative for making such a change to the circumstances of many mothers by encouraging them to breastfeed. I also say a big thank you to the Breastfeeding Manifesto coalition, the National Childbirth Trust and the all-party group on maternity. They have combined to push for the measure, which, I hope, will be enacted.

In future, as youngsters at school study citizenship and learn about moral and ethical codes of behaviour, community involvement, volunteering, political literacy and the diversity of our society, I hope that they will learn what we are doing through the Bill to contribute from the top to our society, taking important and bold steps, such as stopping bullying in childhood, abolishing the pay gap for women and ethnic minorities and stopping age discrimination against people in health care and financial services, and on goods and services generally. We will make an important contribution to the well-being of our society if we enact the Bill in something like its current form.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 9:29 pm, 11th May 2009

We have had a good debate in which many Back Benchers from both sides have spoken. Many drew attention to the fact that the Bill has been a long time coming, and no one in the House would demur from that. We have finally received the Bill in its finished form, although it looks as if quite a bit of it has been rushed to get it finished.

As my right hon. Friend Mrs. May said in her opening remarks, we support the Government's aim of consolidating and simplifying the current raft of equality legislation, although I fear that if the Bill makes it into law and there is all the secondary legislation, the Equality and Human Rights Commission will have a job of work to make sure that its guidance will be as simple and straightforward as we hope it will be. I am sure that, like me, the Minister for Women and Equality has had conversations with the commission to that effect. I do not think the guidance will be short and snappy, but it will be a huge improvement on the thousands of pages of guidance that have come before, and it should make it easier for business and other organisations to interpret and enact it.

"Equality" has become a loaded word in recent years; every year, we hear stories in the media about councils banning Christmas in the name of equality legislation. If the Bill is enacted, a measure of its success will be whether it can put a stop to that sort of nonsense and encourage fairness, which is what equality should be about. As my hon. Friend Mr. Syms said, it should be about success being based on merit and making sure that we have access to the talents of everyone in our country. We should judge people on their merit and not on characteristics that have no bearing on the content of their characters.

Other measures in the Bill that we welcome are the extension of the laws to ban age discrimination. However, the Government have not addressed some of the concerns. A number of hon. Members mentioned the concerns of insurance businesses and those with marketing models based on age. There is no detail in the Bill on that, just a very broad power enabling Ministers to amend the primary legislation by order. I do not think the House should support that solution; one of the things that Ministers need to do—it is one of the reasons for our reasoned amendment—is to go away and think again about that element of the Bill. With the parliamentary draftsmen, they should draft a clause that will be of comfort to businesses such as Saga and the others that have been mentioned so that those companies can have confidence in their business models. That clause should also mean that Ministers will not be required to amend primary legislation every time somebody dreams up a new business model.

In clauses 190, 191, 56 and 2, Ministers take powers to amend primary legislation by order; they take powers away from the House and place them with the Executive. If the Bill makes it to Committee, we will suggest amendments to all those areas.

Many Members have spoken about the gender pay gap. According to the Government's own "Framework for a Fairer Future" White Paper, the gender pay gap is 12.6 per cent. in respect of full-time earnings. However, hon. Members may not be aware that there is also a disability pay gap in many businesses—and, indeed, in the Government. The pay gap between disabled and non-disabled employees in the civil service is larger than the gender pay gap. In some Departments, such as the Home Office, disabled employees are paid 30 per cent. less on average than non-disabled employees. There is a way to go on that issue. In its Second Reading brief, RADAR said that the disability pay gap had been sorely neglected and it demanded that it be given a higher priority. That neglect is not fair, and it backs up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole about being able to hire the best talent and enabling people to be successful in organisations through promotion.

Another key test for the Bill will be whether it makes it easier rather than more difficult for the public sector and businesses to promote equality. The single public sector duty in the Bill will replace the three existing ones. It is important that the new duty should focus on outcomes, not processes. We need to see more fairness in the delivery of public services, not just an obligation for them to comply with ever more bureaucracy.

We have a difference with the Government on pay audits. We think that their proposal is bureaucratic and burdensome and that there is no guarantee that the issues will be addressed. I also note that the audits are not to apply to the public sector. Ministers have said that they plan to use regulation-making powers in the Bill to impose similar burdens on the public sector, but those specific proposals are not in the Bill. If they are saying that the private sector should have to comply with certain requirements, then exactly the same ones should apply to the public sector: there should not be one law for one and another law for the other. Our proposals for having compulsory pay audits in force when tribunals have found employees guilty of discrimination are a more proportionate solution.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Has the hon. Gentleman done any research on exactly how many employers have been found guilty? We know how many cases there have been, but has he done any analysis of how many employers are in that position compared with the far larger number of cases that have been settled and the infinitely larger number of cases that have not even got through the tribunals? How much research has been done on whether the Conservative proposal would be in any way effective?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

It is for the Government to prove their case. Clearly, the hon. Lady has concerns about the way the Government run the tribunals service, which is not effective. It may be for Ministers in the Ministry of Justice to look at how that is working and how effective it is before she complains about our reasonable and proportionate proposals.

On positive action—or positive discrimination, as the Minister perhaps more accurately, albeit inadvertently, called it in her opening remarks—the Bill's proposals seem to allow employers to discriminate in favour of candidates who are not the most qualified for the job. The argument that has been advanced, and is indeed supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, concerns the example of a primary school where there are two equally qualified candidates and it was wished to hire one rather than the other because of the diversity of the work force. It seems to me that if those candidates are truly equally qualified, and it genuinely is a tie-break situation, there is nothing in the existing law that would stop that happening. If, however, the Bill allows organisations to go further and have a wholesale choosing of candidates when they are not the most qualified for the job, that would be discrimination. It could give rise to situations such as that which recently occurred in my own county of Gloucestershire when our police force was actively discriminating against white people; that was found to be unlawful, and it had to stop it. That had a very negative effect on diversity and gave fairness and diversity a bad name. We should not be promoting that sort of behaviour, and if that is what the Bill allows, as I fear it does, we should not be in favour of these proposals.

Let me turn to disability. Roger Berry is right to say that we must recognise that disability discrimination needs to be approached differently. Indeed, that was the conclusion of the Work and Pensions Committee in its report. As he said, in order to create a level playing field and have genuine equality of opportunity, it is often necessary to take positive steps to ensure that disabled people are treated fairly. We are glad that that has been recognised in the Bill and that the Government have responded to the judgment in the Malcolm case, and we will be testing to see how their proposals work in practice.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to improvements in disabled people getting into work. I have checked the official figures, and some progress has been made; I pay tribute to the Government for that. In 1999, the employment rate for disabled people stood at 46 per cent., and it has now risen to about 50 per cent. There has been some progress, but there is a considerable way to go. We have come up with some ambitious welfare reform proposals because we want that to go further and faster.

The socio-economic part of the Bill—part 1—is the biggest disappointment. No one will disagree that the widening gap between the rich and poor and declining social mobility under this Government need to be addressed. Indeed, a recent study from the London School of Economics showed that in Britain social mobility had declined and that the gap between rich and poor was getting wider. A careful comparison of several countries revealed that the United States and Britain were at the bottom, with the lowest social mobility, but in Britain it was getting worse. Those problems clearly need to be tackled: we cannot just wish them away or legislate them away. The Government thought they had legislated away fuel poverty, but it still exists. They plan to pass a Bill to eliminate child poverty, but last week it rose, yet again, by 100,000. It is going in the wrong direction, and simply passing a Bill will not solve the problem. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said at the start of the debate, if we are to tackle these problems we need to tackle the root causes—family breakdown, poor education and worklessness. Real action will solve them, such as our proposals to give parents more power and allow good schools to expand and new schools to open where there is demand.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

How would blocking the Bill by voting for the Opposition amendment solve the problem?