Equality Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 11th May 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

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.