I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
There are two things that my Bill seeks to do. First, it seeks to prohibit affirmative or positive action by public authorities, and secondly, it seeks to repeal the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which removed the selection of candidates from the usual laws against discrimination, and legalised discrimination in the form of all-women shortlists.
I believe in equality of opportunity and fair chances for all, which is why I am very much opposed to the concept of equality of outcome, which means fixing a result before a process has begun. In the case of jobs, that can take the form of targets or quotas and, ironically, it means that there cannot be equality of opportunity. As a Conservative, and not a Marxist, that is something that I do not support. Without fair chances, there is no fair system, and someone will always be discriminated against. The Bill seeks to take away the obsession with equality of outcome, which has replaced equality of opportunity and meritocracy. Just like democracy, meritocracy has its imperfections, but it is by far the best option in the end. Social engineering and fixing processes are not right, as they have in-built, deliberate unfairnesses, and consequently, they are not only imperfect but unjust.
I should declare at the outset that I am the parliamentary spokesman for the Campaign Against Political Correctness, an organisation that I commend to everyone. I can only assume, Mr Speaker, it is only an oversight that so far you are not a member.
I think that I was given the position on merit, and I certainly was not given the job because I am a man. I do not think that I was given it because I am white. I would like to think that I was given the position on merit. Most Members know my views on political correctness.
It is unlike my hon. Friend to be so off the ball as not to know my views on political correctness, but for his benefit, I make it perfectly clear that I abhor all forms of political correctness, the restriction of free speech, and the way in which we try to rig jobs to get a particular outcome. I believe in merit, and that merit alone is the best form of action. Political correctness annoys the vast majority of the public, but it is not only the silly things. People concentrate on them, but it is the sinister side of political correctness that I do not like, including the erosion of free speech and people being made to feel that they are some kind of bigot or are xenophobic simply because they express opinions that other people do not hold. That is why it is time for the silent majority to stop being silent and stand up against the scourge of political correctness.
There is a genuinely serious and interesting debate here. For instance, 30 years ago, racist jokes were a staple for stand-up comics, and it was the early stages of political correctness that made that unacceptable. Would my hon. Friend like to see the return of the racist joke?
If the Minister would turn round and address the Chamber, we would be grateful.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that the return of the racist joke as a comedy staple would be unacceptable? He says that all forms of political correctness are unacceptable, but does he not think that that is pushing it a bit too far?
No, I do not. I do not accept that political correctness has helped with those things. I think that political correctness hinders the process of tolerance, as it builds up resentment that would not otherwise exist. I totally disagree with my hon. Friend, as I do not think that political correctness helps with tolerance: it breeds intolerance and resentment, which is why I oppose it in all its forms. I am not here to defend people who are intolerant of others, as that is unacceptable. Equally, I do not believe that people should be intolerant of people who happen to have a different opinion from them, which we often see in people who try to preach the language of tolerance.
It is not a question of my supporting intolerant or bigoted people, but I do believe in free speech. If we believe in free speech, we have to believe that people have a right to say things with which we disagree and which we may occasionally find offensive. That is the whole principle of free speech. Free speech does not mean that people are free to say only the things with which we agree—that is a nonsensical definition. The fact that I do not happen to agree with what somebody else says would not stop me defending their right to say it.
The Bill specifically tackles one of the worst forms of political correctness, which is institutionalised political correctness. The Bill prohibits the use of affirmative or positive action by local authorities. So-called equality and diversity measures have taken over where common sense used to prevail. The tick-box mentality has far-reaching tentacles in our schools, hospitals and emergency services. Everywhere we look there is evidence of this obsession.
My opposition to the whole equality and diversity agenda is, first, that it is total nonsense in its own right. The terms “equality” and “diversity” have no real meaning, and they do not necessarily sit comfortably together. Secondly, such measures are highly discriminatory and do not sit well with those being discriminated against or, perhaps less obviously, with those supposedly benefiting from the discrimination. Thirdly, they are responsible for increasing, not decreasing, racism and sexism, in my opinion. Fourthly, they are a total and utter waste of our money.
So-called equality and diversity is nonsense because we are told that it is all about being representative and that it is essential for organisations and businesses to reflect the community they serve. It is rather patronising to think that the rules have to be rigged to enable women or ethnic minorities to get a job. People from ethnic minorities and women are more than capable and are sufficiently talented to get a job in competition with people who are men and white, on a fair and transparent basis. They do not need to have the rules rigged in their favour in order to get jobs, and it is patronising to suggest that they do.
The people who are really racist and sexist in this country are the ones who see everything in terms of race and gender. I do not. The gender, religion and sexuality of the person applying for a job should be irrelevant.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to that later. He raises an important issue and I will tackle it directly. If he feels that I have not done so, I invite him to come back to me later and I will have another stab at it for him.
The idea of businesses and organisations reflecting the community they serve is nonsense. A certain proportion of our local communities are criminals. A certain proportion of people are sent to prison. Are we really saying that, because it is so important that all organisations and all businesses reflect the community they serve, a certain proportion of every organisation should be made up of criminals because they make up a certain proportion of the population? That is nonsense. Nobody seriously believes that every organisation should reflect the community it serves. That is just trite.
Nobody—and I mean nobody—who I know is remotely concerned when white men are under-represented, so the issue is not really one of equality and diversity at all. The aim is to make some people more equal than others. To illustrate the point, I note that there seem to be very few male midwives about, yet nobody, to my knowledge, has seriously suggested in the House that there should be positive action to try and ensure that 50% of midwives are male. Similarly, the number of white men, or indeed women, who work in Indian restaurants up and down the country is not an issue, nor should it be. The first thing that crosses my mind when I go into a south Asian restaurant is how good the chicken madras is and how well it has been cooked, not what sex or ethnicity the waiters and chef are. That is the way it should be.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I will deal with it later. One of the things that my Bill tries to repeal is the legislation providing for all-women shortlists. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might like to ask himself the same question when it comes to the number of women MPs—how many of those people put themselves forward to become MPs, against the number who are selected. He may find the answer to his own question in that conundrum.
Apart those whom one would expect to oppose equality and diversity measures, there are many others whom those who push political correctness would rather sweep under the carpet, as their views are inconvenient to the argument.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Political correctness is one of those things that is very difficult to define, but people know it when they see it. I will have a go for my hon. Friend. I would say that political correctness is the promotion of positive discrimination and the restriction of free speech carried out in the name of minorities, but usually initiated by white male middle-class lentil-eating sandal-wearing Guardian-reading do-gooders with too much time on their hands and a misguided guilt complex. My hon. Friend may have a better definition and I am happy for him to offer one. That is my initial stab at a definition of political correctness.
That is my experience. Most of these measures are not perpetrated by the people whom they are supposed to help. On many occasions the people in whose name it is supposedly done are the ones who feel most patronised by it and find it most unhelpful. I encourage my hon. Friend to go to the website www.capc.co.uk which gives some examples. There is a section there called “Not In My Name” where many people say how unhelpful such measures are for those in their situation, whether they are people who are gay, women, disabled or from an ethnic minority. There are countless such examples.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting argument. Does he believe that, in society, freedom of speech should allow anything to be said, or does he think there must be some limits—some restrictions—in order to ensure freedom?
My view about freedom of speech is that anything should be able to be said, except—the law is very good on this—for example, something encouraging someone to violence. That is unacceptable. It is clearly criminal. But people should be able to express an opinion, whether I happen to agree with it or not. If we go down the line of saying that there are certain things that people should not be allowed to say, we face the question who decides that. Who decides what people are allowed or not allowed to say? Whose values do we accept? The hon. Gentleman may be content that everything he says falls within the parameters of what is allowed, but what happens when he wants to say something that someone else has deemed not permissible?
When we have got to the stage, as we have in this country, where ordinary decent people are petrified about what they say in case some zealot somewhere down the line take offence at it, which is the situation that many of our constituents find themselves in, we have a problem. For the country that is for ever going round the world trying to promote freedom, we should be well aware that some of our constituents feel that freedom of speech is being eroded under our noses.
It is telling that we are very precious in the House about the fact that we are allowed to say anything in the House and we cannot be taken to a court of law on the basis of what we have said in the House. Our freedom of speech is totally and utterly protected. The hon. Gentleman can say something incredibly controversial and he cannot be taken to court on the basis of what he said. However, he seems to be suggesting that he should be able to say anything he wants in here but that everyone else, including his constituents, should be subject to some kind of state control over what they can and cannot say. That is not the kind of country I want to live in, even if it is the kind he wants to live in.
The hon. Gentleman slightly overestimates the value of freedom of speech in the House. It is true that a Member could, in theory, say absolutely anything, but you, Mr Speaker, would upbraid them if they misused or abused that freedom, as happened earlier this year with a Liberal Democrat Member. There are also things that we are simply not allowed to talk about in the House, most notably the royal family and their activities.
That is a separate issue, but the hon. Gentleman has made his point.
The point my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall made about how the people political correctness is supposed to benefit do not actually feel the benefit has also been made by Anjana Ahuja. Writing in The Times, she explains how her opinion was once sought by the newspaper’s executives on how to attract non-white writers. The paper planned to offer internships to ethnic minority candidates who had graduated in media studies. She says:
“It was well intentioned but misguided, I ventured, because I knew of no colleague whose passport to these venerable corridors had been secured by such questionable means. There were historians, linguists, lawyers, classicists, philosophers, biologists, physicists, even an Egyptologist—but no media studies graduates. My view was this: if a brown writer sails in on an easier ticket than a white wordsmith, The Times would be construed as patronising rather than progressive and the intern would struggle against whispers of lowered standards…which is why, in the miserable tale of Ali Dizaei, the Scotland Yard commander convicted of corruption, the fact that sticks out most is the continued, seemingly pointless and possibly harmful existence of the National Black Police Association. Substitute ‘black’ with ‘white’ and an outdated collective becomes an illegal organisation that is morally impossible to defend. Why partition members of the same profession along the lines of skin colour? I would not join an organisation for black journalists (or female ones) because its identity lies wholly in the exclusion of white hacks (or male ones).”
Batook Pandya, director of Bristol-based charity Support Against Racist Incidents, has said of a positive action scheme that meant that fire service open days were limited to ethnic minority recruits only:
“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.”
Roshan Doug, writing in the Birmingham Post, has stated:
“I don’t want people promoted purely on the basis of the colour of their skin—call it ‘positive discrimination’ or something else. To me that’s rather patronising—as if Asians and blacks are a little more than token staff to appease the CRE… I would like to see the best men and women for the job.”
I believe that people are appalled, and rightly so, when they hear that a white person has been turned down for a job because of the colour of their skin. The same people would be appalled if anyone, whatever their ethnicity, was turned down for a job simply because of the colour of their skin. When that happens, it inevitably leads some people wrongly to conclude that the benefiting group in question has asked for this special treatment. As I made clear earlier, that is not the case at all. Some politically correct do-gooder has tried to do the right thing or, as is increasingly the case and perhaps more worryingly, someone is trying to comply with equality law.
“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.”—[Hansard, 11 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 581.]
That is just the sort of thing that winds people up. If people want real equality, it must be just that, not some groups being more equal than others. What has a young, white male ever done to deserve being turned away from a dream career in the police force simply because he is the wrong colour and the wrong gender?
That is a very important point, because it seems to me that, where positive discrimination is being exercised, young, white males are today paying a price for the fact that their forefathers were not subject to those measures in years gone by. Why should that be so?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Perhaps we also ought to reflect on the fact that in many parts of the country the people who are finding it most difficult to get a job are young, white males from very poor and deprived backgrounds. They are among those who are finding it hardest to find employment. It must be a double kick in the teeth for them to find that they are denied the opportunity to attend a fire service open day simply because they happen to be white. I really do not know why on earth we should we have a Government who are prepared to sit and tolerate that kind of thing.
I am not sure about that, to be honest, because it is very difficult to know. As far as I am concerned, the riots were largely born out of opportunism and criminality. I would not like to provide any kind of excuse for the behaviour we saw, but I do not doubt that many people feel a resentment and frustration that would otherwise not exist. I do not know whether the riots had anything to do with it, but I certainly think that the worrying increase in support for the British National party in recent years was born out of such frustration. It is no good Members complaining about the rise of such wholly unacceptable parties and then pursuing policies that are meat and drink to those parties. If we are to stop people voting for the BNP, we must remove the frustrations that led them to do so in the first place.
The cost of all these equality and diversity plans, action points, schemes and training courses is immeasurable, but one thing we can be sure about is that they cost an awful lot of money. I would always oppose such needless expenditure, but at a time when people are losing their jobs, having to tighten their belts massively and fearing what the future holds, it is even more inconceivable that so much money is thrown down the drain each year in the public sector on the equality and diversity agenda. The Government Equalities Office spent a whopping £62 million in the year to March 2011, and other Government Department have their own equality budgets on top of that. That is before we get on to local police forces, hospitals, fire brigades and schools, which all have to spend their money on equality and diversity measures, taking it away from front-line services.
To give one example, the North East Ambulance Service NHS Trust is looking for an equality and diversity manager, with a salary of between £30,460 and £40,157 pro rata. The job description is “to act as a lead within the trust on the implementation of our equality strategy and action plan. The successful applicant will have a key role in developing the trust’s approach to the new NHS equality and delivery system.” Who in their right mind could think that an equality and diversity manager in an NHS ambulance service is a priority at this time, compared with a nurse or another ambulance driver? When someone dials 999, they want an ambulance, not an equality and diversity officer. What on earth is there to consider for the ambulance service? Surely if someone is injured they are looked after irrespective of their gender and race. It is all a load of nonsense.
There is another such vacancy, at the University of Greenwich, which is selecting someone to be its Equality and Diversity Champion, salary approximately £40,000—well, at least students now know where their tuition fees are going. The job description states:
“You will be responsible for promoting an integrated approach to equality and diversity issues across the university, and provide Schools and Offices with a point of expert reference and guidance on equality and diversity issues. You will work with other university offices to continue to improve our performance as an employer and further develop disability access for staff. You will be an experienced equality professional with an ability to develop and implement policy.”
Would my hon. Friend like to venture how anybody could become qualified as an “experienced equality professional”? It rather suggests that there must be a whole career path for equality officers.
My hon. Friend is right, and that is part of the problem we now face, because the equality and diversity industry—that is what is now is: an industry—is incredibly powerful. There is now a huge lobby, and so many people’s jobs depend on the industry, that it is difficult to tackle, because as soon as anybody tries to argue against the point of such things, those people descend on them. My hon. Friend may well find that, and I am sure I will at some point.
Those people descend on others like a ton of bricks, because, although they believe in equality and diversity, they do not believe in the equality or diversity of other people’s opinions; everyone has to agree with them on being against such things; otherwise, they are not entitled to that opinion at all. It always amazes me how such people, who always preach tolerance and diversity, are so intolerant of other people when they have an opinion that differs from theirs.
“Usual rubbish about equality, equal opportunities employer etc.”
That just about sums it up perfectly.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend, for reasons that I know not, opposed last week’s motion to allow electronic hand-held devices in the Chamber, but one great advantage of now being allowed such devices is that I was able immediately to follow his advice, go to www.capc.co.uk and access the website of the Campaign Against Political Correctness. On it, there can be found the “Not in my name” section, where Bolaji Alajija, a 42-year-old student nurse from north London, says:
“I don’t see why there is all the fuss. What’s the harm in having a black doll? It’s exactly the same as a white doll. People shouldn’t be so sensitive.”
Order. I remind Members that, although they are allowed to use iPads, they have to make a speech without continuously reading from them. I am sure Mr Nuttall will take that on board.
I am very grateful for your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker, particularly as someone who voted against allowing these wretched things to be used in debates. If anyone was ever going to convince me that I made the wrong decision in that vote, however, it is my hon. Friend, who has gone to an excellent website, and I certainly commend him for doing so.
The second part of my Bill tackles the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. I was not a Member when the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill was debated, but it will come as no surprise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to know that had I been I would have definitely opposed it. I have a great deal of time for many of my female Conservative colleagues, we have some extremely able MPs and, for the record, I have excellent female staff. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the greatest Prime Minister this country has ever had was, indeed, a woman, but I do not particularly care if the House is made up of 10% women or 90%. For me, that will never be an issue, so the fundamental premise of the 2002 Act will always be totally flawed.
The most important thing for me is not how many men or women are in Parliament, but how many Conservatives there are in Parliament, and I challenge anybody who is obsessed with the idea that the most important end in itself is that we have more women in Parliament. If, for example, a Conservative male fought a marginal seat against a Labour female, would any of my hon. Friends campaign for her on the basis that it was so important to get more women into Parliament, or would they campaign for him? I venture that they would campaign for him, because I am sure that for all Government Members, apart from of course the Liberal Democrats, it is far more important to have more Conservatives in Parliament than to be worried about how many MPs there are of a particular gender.
“I shall be honest with the House. There was a time when I never thought that I would stand up in the Chamber and support such a Bill.”—[Hansard, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 334.]
I wish she had stuck to her earlier opinion, as it would have been the more Conservative thing to do.
While my right hon. Friend supported the Bill, the former Member for Maidstone and the Weald, Ann Widdecombe, did not. In the debate, she said:
“The Bill is fundamentally wrong. I must ask this question; are all the men in this place sound asleep? Do they realise what the Bill means for them? Have they thought that positive discrimination for women can entail negative discrimination for men?”
The irony is that, as those in the House at the time were already Members, they did not need to worry about candidates, so the Bill was effectively about kicking away the ladder of opportunity from men who had not yet reached the House. I wonder how those Members would have felt if they had been told, “Sorry, I know you would make an excellent MP, but we’re going to stop you applying for the seat that you’ve lived in all your life, because you happen to be a man.” How would any men present today have felt if such a rule had applied to them?
Ann Widdecombe also hit the nail on the head, when during the debate she asked:
“What would that mean for a man in that constituency who had given to his local council the same lifelong service that
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is entirely right. People such as Helen Jackson made their way to Parliament on merit alone, and they should be commended for that. I am sure that they would not have wanted it any other way.
Ann Widdecombe went on to say:
“Let us say that the man had worked there and escaped from there, and that he wanted to apply for the seat when it fell vacant. He would not be able to represent the constituency if all-women shortlists were in operation.
“That would be the reality for men under this pernicious Bill, yet hon. Gentlemen welcome it as a great step forward. It is a massive step towards inequality for men, and the poor souls just let the women walk all over them. They do not appear to care what will happen to them.”
And Miss Widdecombe also said:
“I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when I entered a constituency selection committee and saw that most of the people there were women, my heart used to sink. We should not get the idea that discrimination against women is performed solely by men. It is not… If I had been in a selection committee anteroom with two men who had got there by beating off all the competition yet I was only there because a place had been reserved for a woman on the shortlist, I would not feel helped. I would feel humiliated, insulted and patronised. I am glad to say that my party never did that to me. —[
The fact of fewer women MPs is always blamed on discrimination, but in reality—certainly in the Conservative party—at the time of the Bill’s discussion roughly the same proportion of women who applied for seats were selected. The lack of women MPs is, therefore, much more to do with the fact that they do not put themselves forward.
As India Knight put it so well:
“I’ll tell you what the issue is with women in business or women and work”— and this deals with the point that Mr David made earlier—
“It is extremely simple. It is not to do with sexist dinosaur male bosses or with male-dominated industries crushing our genius. It is not to do with glass ceilings. It is to do, very straightforwardly, with the number of hours we are prepared to put in. If you’re happy to work a 16-hour day and never see your children, you too can become a master of the universe…. Few women are prepared to make that kind of sacrifice. This is entirely their right and good on them. However, it is surely both dishonest and intensely stupid to apportion blame—in the form of so-called corporate discrimination—to what is essentially a completely personal choice: power versus being there at bath time, conferences versus the park, business trips versus getting home in time for homework, giving ‘110%’ versus sleeping more than five hours a night.”
The 2002 Act was supposed to be temporary, and apparently was supported on that basis. I do not know many “temporary” things that have run for more than a decade. As things stand, the Act has a further two decades to go, it having been granted a massive “temporary” extension in the recent Equality Act.
Some people will say that we need more women MPs so that we can be more representative and so that women’s issues can be addressed better. That is utter rubbish. It is ridiculous to suggest that women are more likely to be better represented by women and that men are better represented by men. I am very proud of the fact that I represent all my constituents—men or women—equally and to the best of my ability. I suspect—although I do not know for sure—that just as many women voted for me at the general election in Shipley as did men.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that applies to all hon. Members. We treat all of our constituents equally and we represent all of them to the best of our ability, irrespective.
It is interesting that we keep hearing about “women’s issues” as this seems rather sexist and patronising. What are “women’s issues”? Many issues that are tagged as so-called women’s issues are also important to men. I have often heard that education is a women’s issue, but I would have thought that education was a family issue and was of just as much interest to men and fathers as to women and mothers.
I venture that the issues that a Conservative woman is concerned about are more closely aligned with the issues that a Conservative man is concerned about than they are with the issues that concern a Labour woman. The idea that certain issues are women’s issues is patronising and wrong.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that sex discrimination exists in our society, or does he think that somehow everybody exists in absolute equality?
I have clearly been speaking in Swahili for the past half an hour. Yes, there is still sex discrimination, and it exists in the Act that my Bill is attempting to repeal. My Bill would make it illegal to have any form of sex discrimination. If that is the hon. Gentleman’s agenda, I presume that he will support my Bill in the Lobby, because it would prevent any positive action or discrimination. It would guarantee that there would be no sex discrimination at all. Jobs would be given on merit alone. I therefore look forward to his support in the Lobby later.
The argument that all of this is optional, and that no party is forced to discriminate, is also nonsense. All parties in favour of bringing the law in were obviously highly likely to use it once it was passed. I am sad to say that on some occasions even the Conservative party appears to have fallen into this socialist trap.
Some people will say that it is all very well my giving my views on this issue, because—as a white male—I have had it really easy. But I agree with Kenan Malik who says:
“I reject identity-based representation not only because the idea that one should be represented only by one’s own kind is, and always has been, at the heart of the racist agenda, but also because such representation acts as an obstacle to what you call ‘a genuinely participatory democracy’.”
I always find it strange that people can say that they are not sexist and racist, but happily support measures and notions that are just that.
The public’s view of all-women shortlists is also clear. At the 2005 general election Labour lost one of its safest seats, Blaenau Gwent, because of the party’s politically correct obsession with all-women shortlists. Those who voted in the election were not just men: it was clearly offensive to women too. Where does it all end—quotas and targets for people based on their sexuality, their eyesight, their hair colour or their star sign? If not, why not? Why limit it to just gender and race? Why not go the whole hog and have discrimination based on people’s background or hair colour or any of these other things?
I wish to play my trump card against opponents of this part of my Bill, and that is Baroness Thatcher. No whingeing, relaying of statistics, bleating on about unfair treatment or complaining about sexism can explain away Margaret Thatcher. Not only did she get selected as a candidate, which is apparently so difficult for women without this House rigging the rules in their favour, but she managed to become a Minister and, as we all know, a long-serving and excellent Conservative Prime Minister.
The point is that women can—although not in his party or in the Labour party. In our party, almost 40 years ago, a woman was quite capable of getting to the top on merit alone. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman thinks that the women in his party have not been good enough to lead his party—
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that I am not of that view. I would also like to point out that in Wales the leader of the Liberal Democrats is a woman.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the women in his party are more than capable of being leader, why have they not become leader? Is he saying that his party is sexist and does not allow women to become leader even though they are good enough to be leader? If he is saying that, he should not tarnish the Conservatives’ reputation by trying to impose ridiculous laws. He should tackle the sexism in his own party instead, if that is why he supports this nonsense.
Margaret Thatcher was leader of the Conservative party—the very party that is constantly accused of sexism and appears to want to beat itself up about it—more than a third of a century ago. It gets even better, because she was clear, years after leaving office, that all-women shortlists should be avoided. In her book on statecraft she says that
“the use of quotas applying to the appointment or promotion of individuals because of their collective identity or background is an unacceptable incursion on freedom, however well-intentioned the motives. Nor does it help those who are its intended beneficiaries. Individuals from these groups may well feel patronised; their professional reputations in posts which they would anyway have attained on merit are diminished, because they are thought to occupy them by special privilege; and they are likely to become targets of resentment and possibly even ill-treatment.”
If any male Members are still in favour of all-women shortlists I say what I have always said to them—“Come on. Do the honourable thing and, instead of shafting other men who are trying hard to get into this place, put your money where your mouth is. If it is so important to you that you want to support legalised discrimination, go ahead, resign your seat so a woman can be selected in your place.” That is the best thing that proponents of this approach could do, but it is amazing how few of them are prepared to do it. They are not so keen that there should be more women in Parliament that they are prepared to make space themselves to allow a woman in—[ Interruption. ] Chris Bryant says that I am talking drivel, but I look forward to him resigning his seat the moment the House rises so that a woman can take his place. Or is it that women should represent only other constituencies, not his? Until hon. Gentlemen are prepared to take that step, I am afraid that people will see through it as gesture politics of the worst possible kind.
People can say I am misguided, that I am missing something, that I need to be educated on the benefits of positive action and positive discrimination—but what would they say to all the people I quoted, who are from the very groups that equality and diversity moves are supposed to help? Would they say that those people were wrong and that they just do not get it, either, whatever “it” is?
This is a case of the emperor having no clothes. Most Members want to be seen to be in favour of nice-sounding ideals, and many confuse political correctness with doing the right thing. They do not want to be the ones to say that they do not get the whole equality and diversity agenda or, worse still, that it is having a negative effect on race relations and good community cohesion. I, however, am prepared to say that the emperor has no clothes. The whole concept of equality and diversity is, at best, a mistaken attempt to pursue a fantastical idea of equality, but, at worst, a dangerous piece of social engineering that encourages and praises discrimination against certain groups of people based on things they cannot change.
I do not believe that this is the right thing, and I certainly do not believe that it is a fair thing—and I am not alone. There are many, many people who agree with me. In an ICM poll, a massive 80% of people in Britain said that they were fed up with political correctness. Members will be delighted to hear that the poll was completely representative and covered a very diverse range of people. The vast majority of people in all categories said they were fed up with political correctness, including women and people from all ethnic origins.
Britain can truly hold its head up and say that it is not racist or sexist only when people are given jobs on merit, and merit alone. People should be given jobs regardless of their sex, age, race or sexual orientation, not because of any of these factors. This Bill gives the House a chance to vote for something that can undo one of the biggest inequalities around. It can vote to reintroduce fairness, to remove the clear injustice of equality of outcome in the name of equality and diversity, and to promote real equal opportunities for all. I commend the Bill to the House.
I have been following the speech by Philip Davies very closely and taking a considerable number of notes. Unfortunately, I had to deal with something in my office but, alas, I could repeat almost word for word what he has said; however, I will not.
In my 17 years in the Commons, this is the most reactionary, right-wing, regressive Bill ever put to this House in a serious speech. The hon. Gentleman will probably take that as a compliment. However, there is something more profoundly serious at stake, because he represents a growing view within his party that the minor progress that we have made on equality in recent years has gone too far and should be reversed. The whole history of British legislation is precisely to use the power of Government and state to redress imbalances and unfairnesses, first, between those who did and did not have the vote—between the aristocracy and the non-noblemen in our communities—and, over time, through other positive action to ensure that there was full equality for all.
Some of the hon. Gentleman’s proposals are ridiculous. He suggests that there can be no “affirmative or positive action” in order to help people depending on their “sex”—I think he means gender. Presumably, that would outlaw the recruitment of women into convents because they were nuns and not men, or perhaps rugby players should now be hired not on the basis that they are trained, fit, male athletes, but that they are women.
The very first pamphlet I ever wrote as a political activist—
May I just make my points, and then I will give way? I do not mean to be discourteous, but I want to be brief because I am conscious that other people want to speak on other issues.
The very first political pamphlet I wrote in 1978 was an appeal to the BBC and other media organisations to hire journalists who were not white—at the time, we would say they were from the Asian or Afro-Caribbean community—because there was not a single byline reporter or presenter of that description on TV, despite the fact that by then we had hundreds of thousands, if not more, among our fellow British citizens and journalists I worked with, but in subordinate roles for which they had been able to offer themselves. I am glad, 30 years later, that that is not the case. We do not have a mono-coloured BBC or ITV or bylines in all our great newspapers evidently comprising only sturdy British citizens.
It appears that the right hon. Gentleman has form in this regard. He was a white journalist who was insistent that somebody else should have to give up their job in order to make way for somebody from an ethnic minority, but apparently he was not volunteering to fall on his own sword. Now he is advocating that we should have more women in Parliament, and yet he still refuses to fall on his sword to help to make that happen. If he feels so strongly about it, why does he not have the courage of his convictions, put his money where his mouth is, and start doing the right thing?
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. I did fall on my sword, in the sense that the BBC made me do so by liberating me from its employment at the time. Whether I was replaced by a journalist from the black and minority ethnic community, I do not know. The point is that we expanded journalism, and yes, we went in for positive discrimination in the sphere of broadcasting, and I am very glad about that. Certainly, when the time comes for me to leave my position as MP for Rotherham, I will be delighted if there is an all-women shortlist. The real question that the hon. Gentleman’s party has to ask is why, even with the all the people put on to the A-list, there are still so few women sitting on the Conservative Benches.
Women’s rugby and football, and other sports, are very popular. On the strict reading of the Bill, it would be illegal for Rotherham, Wasps or Harlequins not to entertain the notion of a woman rugby player, but I do not want to go too far down that road.
The notion that I find exceptionally offensive is that we make no efforts to help people with disabilities. We are facing thousands of people being fired from Remploy because of the wicked actions of the governing party. These are people who will find it incredibly difficult to get jobs elsewhere in the normal labour market. Quite rightly, in the 1940s, after the war, we honoured our war veterans by saying that those who came out of the war with particular disabilities could work in normal jobs and have the dignity of labour rather than living on handouts and the dole—but according to this wretched Bill, that, too, would be illegal.
On religion, we had an interesting discussion this week in Education questions about whether Cardinal Vaughan school in London can maintain its Catholic identity or, as some might wish, should no longer do so. I think that my many Jewish friends would find it very offensive, but oh so typical of the chauvinist, nationalist spirit that now reigns in the Conservative party, that they cannot define who comes into their schools on the basis of religion.
The whole balance of legislation, going back to the abolition of the slave trade and Lord Shaftesbury stopping children going up chimneys, was precisely to alter law to give particular protection to people who would otherwise be unfairly exploited on the grounds of their socio-economic status. I find it profoundly distressing that in October 2011 we are seriously being asked to rip up every decent parliamentary value that we and our predecessors have fought for over the years.
This is a Friday morning debate, and we all know that these Bills never go anywhere, but this Bill is symptomatic of the entire approach of the Conservative party. The Conservatives are refusing to support the International Labour Organisation convention on domestic workers because that, too, is aimed at giving a little bit of protection to people of a particular socio-economic and sex, or gender, status who are facing the most appalling exploitation in this and in other countries. Conservative Front Benchers have nothing to do with this Bill, of course, but the hon. Gentleman speaks for much of today’s Conservative party. That is why the quicker it is replaced in government by a party or parties that support the standards and best values of Britain, the better.
I have listened carefully to what has been said in the debate, because I knew that it would be enlightening. I will make a few short points.
Of course I agree that people should secure employment and be promoted on merit. Unfortunately, often that is not enough to secure equal opportunity. Some people, such as Baroness Thatcher, may be exceptions to the rule, but very few people are exceptions to rules.
On positive action, I think it is entirely appropriate that, over a number of years, the Metropolitan police have taken measures to try to ensure that the police force in London is representative of London’s communities. I think that that makes them more effective and more acceptable to the public as a whole.
On the point about midwives, Philip Davies needs to consider whether there is a significant number of men who apply to be midwives and are refused on the basis of their gender, or whether men simply do not apply for those positions because they prefer to apply for others.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Liberal Democrat party. Clearly, it is a source of some embarrassment to my party that we have failed to secure the election of any members of black and ethnic minority communities to Parliament.
In a minute; I will just finish my point.
It is also a source of embarrassment that the Liberal Democrat Benches do not have a more representative balance of men and women.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I would like to think that we have all arrived here on merit. The issue is that there are obstacles that often prevent others from arriving here on merit. He will know that, in politics, it is often helpful to have a network of people within a political party whom one knows and who are supportive. Often, women candidates or those from BME communities do not have the networks to help them progress in a political career. As he knows, there are other issues, such as financial issues. Anyone who wants to be a parliamentary candidate requires a certain amount of funding to support their political campaigning. That is not available to all.
I welcome the fact that the Liberal Democrat party has a leadership programme that aims to support women candidates and those from BME communities, to ensure that they are better prepared and better supported—financially, if necessary—so that they can compete on merit with other candidates.
I am grateful for that intervention, because the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to confirm that that support is available to the sort of person he describes. That is because we recognise that people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds struggle to get elected as Members of Parliament.
The right hon. Gentleman is hitting the nub of the issue. Does he think that the Conservative party, for example, would be much more diverse if it replaced Rupert from Kensington and Chelsea with
Jessica from Kensington and Chelsea, which is what the legislation he is defending seeks to do? Does he not think that it would make the party more diverse to replace Rupert from Kensington and Chelsea with George from Newcastle? That point is not addressed by the legislation that he is defending.
If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, I will allow him to push for the particular balance that he would like to see in the Conservative party.
The hon. Gentleman gave a description of people who worry about equality and diversity issues, which I thought was quite an accurate description in some respects of those who are obsessed with political correctness. He said that they tend to be white, male and have too much time on their hands. I would add that they mourn the loss of empire, are bitter at the loss of their undeserved supremacy and are stuck in the last century but one. That would be an accurate description of those who are obsessed with political correctness.
The Bill has one merit, in that it allows us to debate these issues. We should acknowledge that although merit is a fine thing, in practice there are many fields of life in which merit is not sufficient to ensure that people make the progress that they should be allowed to make. I therefore hope that the Bill will make no further progress.
It is a great joy to be here at such an exciting moment in the parliamentary calendar. I sort of congratulate Philip Davies on bringing forward the Bill, although it is a bit of a fib of a Bill because it is entitled the Equality and Diversity (Reform) Bill, whereas it should, of course, be called the Political Correctness Gone Mad (Abolition) Bill.
There is clearly significant prejudice against the hon. Gentleman in the Table Office. I should say that that prejudice is entirely shared by those on the Opposition Benches, and I suspect that it is shared a little by those on the Liberal Democrat Bench, which is a rather singular Bench today.
I start from the fundamental principle that we were all created equal. That comes from a religious position, although in my theology I am very heterodox—perhaps unusual for me. I believe that all human beings were created equal and that we, as politicians, should be seeking to ensure that that equality is reflected in the way that people are able to live their lives. I know humanists who come from a completely different perspective, but who end up at the same point of believing that we are all equal and that that equality should be matched in the way that we structure society.
The truth of the matter is that the world is not equal. There is inequality not only between rich people and poor people in a country, but between rich parts and poor parts of a country and between rich countries and poor countries. My fundamental assumption, therefore, is that it will always be a struggle to try to achieve equality, and not an easy one. One has always to try to match equality with fairness. Sometimes, when one is trying to achieve equality, which might be fairer in one regard, one ends up with another form of unfairness.
The hon. Gentleman, in the way that he styled his comments and in the way that he styles his politics, runs away too much from the desire for genuine equality in society. I will raise with him some work that was done a few years ago. It showed that if there are two five-year-olds with the same IQ, in so far as IQ can be measured at the age of five, and one is in a family where the household earns more than £50,000 and the other is in a household that earns less than £15,000, five years later—this is quite frightening—the two 10-year-olds will not have the same IQ; the child in the richer family will have a higher IQ. Labour Members are passionate about ensuring that the child in the household with an income of less than £15,000 has a chance of realising their genuine potential. They should be able to retain the IQ that they have at the age of five until they are 10, 15, 50, 65 or 75. That is one of the many problems that I have with the hon. Gentleman's Bill.
I am sure we can all identify with the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, and that we all feel equally exercised about it, but surely the way to tackle it is through the education system. We must ensure that it looks after people of all abilities. Surely the solution should not be to allow the education system to perpetuate the current situation, then rig the rules for selecting people for jobs at a later date.
Indeed, many of us who represent valley seats in south Wales, such as my hon. Friend Mr David, who is in his place, know the long history of people fighting for better education precisely as a means of trying to rebalance and recalibrate that inequality in society. People do not need to have seen the play or film “The Corn Is Green” to know the educational ambition that often exists in many valley constituencies or other areas in the country with very high levels of multiple deprivation. All too often, however, it does not seem that the same educational opportunity is afforded to somebody in the Rhondda as it is to somebody in Chelsea.
I see Greg Hands in his place—as a Whip, he is now unable to speak, so I can tease him remorselessly. Since he dispatched his close friend the former Defence Secretary from his post specifically so that he could become a Whip, I shall now enjoy teasing his silence. My point is simply that those in Chelsea, who have much greater financial resources, can ensure that they live in a good catchment area so that their child can go to a better school, or can afford to send their child to a private school. I was very fortunate that members of my family paid for me to go to a private school, but that is not available to the vast majority of my constituents or, I suspect, to any of them. That is why ensuring that the educational system genuinely provides equality of opportunity is vital.
The most distressing thing that I have come across in my time as an MP was early on. I bumped into a girl of 17 in Tonypandy and asked her what she wanted to do when she left school. She said she wanted to be a barrister, and I said, “Brilliant, how’s all that going? What are you going to study at university?” She said, “Well, I want to be a barrister, but I’ve been told by the careers service that girls from the Rhondda don’t get to be barristers.” All too often such depression of ambition can be self-perpetuating in communities, and that is why many of us believe in an aspirational form of socialism so that everybody has a chance to prosper.
Does that not actually reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend Philip Davies that the education system is at fault? The careers adviser should not have said that to someone who had that ambition. He should have encouraged her and provided her with the help and support she needed.
Absolutely—I agree with the second part of that intervention, although not with the bit where the hon. Gentleman encouraged me to agree with the hon. Member for Shipley. Incidentally, I prefer Chris Leslie, and I very much hope that he will have an opportunity to present his rather ludicrous Bill later.
I am sure the vast majority of my constituents also prefer the former Member for Shipley and regret the fact that they let him go when they had the opportunity to keep him.
I do not know whether Chris Bryant was watching “Daybreak” this morning, but if he was he will have seen my hon. Friend Esther McVey promoting her initiative called “If Chloe Can”, which is designed to raise the aspiration of young girls in particular who have the poverty of aspiration that the hon. Gentleman talks about. Surely that type of initiative, which the Prime Minister supported yesterday with a reception at No. 10 Downing street, is a more important way of dealing with the problem than rigging the selection rules for jobs.
There seem to be an awful lot of Ruperts and Jessicas and Chloes in the hon. Gentleman’s life. I think that the only Rupert who has ever crossed the border into the Rhondda constituency was Rupert Bear.
One of my experiences was as a curate in High Wycombe, a community that has a strong ethnic mix. A large community from St Vincent has been there since just after the second world war, and a large community from Kashmir and a large Polish community arrived in the middle of the second world war. I found that, all too often, in an unequal society the people who know how to shout the loudest get the best resources from national and local government. One of my problems with the educational system in this country, and for that matter with the national health service, is that all too often money has not followed need but has followed the loudest speeches. That is why I believe that we need equality legislation, and why I supported the legislation that the deputy leader of the Labour party brought forward in government.
I am following my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest, and I hope that it is only in its initial stages, because the Bill that follows really is a ghastly assault on privilege and fair play.
Is it not a paradox that, even with equality legislation, every single person currently in the Chamber is white, middle-aged and male? That is not the case with those slightly outside the Chamber in the civil servants’ box or the Serjeant at Arms’ seat, but it is—
Order. This is not relevant. We are dealing with the Bill, and Members should be speaking to the Bill. I am sure Chris Bryant does not want to get led all over the place. We have already seen that coming from the Government side, and I certainly do not want to see it coming from the Opposition side.
I think you are middle-aged, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am pretty much there as well.
The problem that I have with the contention made by the hon. Member for Shipley is that I still think there is a great deal of prejudice in British society. It is complex and arises in all sorts of ways. I have seen in my constituency problems at school for young black kids in a community that is almost entirely white, and sometimes black teachers have had a really rough time because of the kind of language that people use. Language that would no longer be heard in most other parts of the country, where there is a racial mix, is sometimes still used.
I would also point out that the suicide statistics for gay young men in particular are still quite phenomenal. A young gay lad is six times more likely to commit suicide than his heterosexual counterpart, and I would love to see the end of homophobic bullying in schools. It will be very difficult to achieve, because people are not born with a pink triangle on their forehead or whatever—it is something complicated that they have to discover for themselves, and children can be very cruel. Tackling such prejudice will always be one of the important things for Governments.
I absolutely accept that there is still discrimination in society, and I certainly did not say that there was not. The point of my Bill is to try to remove it. My question for the hon. Gentleman is this: how do we tackle that discrimination? Surely the solution cannot be reverse discrimination in favour of people who were discriminated against in the past. Surely it is to remove all forms of discrimination.
Well, no, not quite. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the ambulance service, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier, turned up at the household of a young Muslim woman who was in labour and having a difficult childbirth, and had absolutely no understanding of what was acceptable in a Muslim household. It would not be able to do its job properly. That is precisely why all public services need to be culturally sensitive not just to how Britain has always been but to how it is today.
When homosexuality was illegal—this era is fortunately long gone—and when David Maxwell Fyfe, as Home Secretary, ran a particularly nasty campaign of entrapment of gay men, some friends of mine, a couple who had lived together for many years, were burgled, but because they had only a one-bedroom flat, they were terrified of bringing the police round, because they knew that the police would investigate them for buggery rather than investigating the burglary.
I am afraid that there is a lack of understanding in far too many public services of how work could be improved by sensitivity to the ways other people live their lives—I would not say that there is deliberate prejudice, out-and-out racism, homophobia or sexism. In addition, many minority communities are simply forgotten by local authorities and the health service when they make their spending plans. That is one issue that needs to be addressed and one reason why the Bill is wrong.
Incidentally, there is significant cultural prejudice against the Catholic Church. I passionately disagree with the Pope on just about every issue, starting with transubstantiation. However, all too often prejudice against Catholics in society is quite marked and that is why it is not a good idea to ask people to give the name of their primary school when they are applying for public sector jobs. People will say, “Aha, this person went to the Cardinal Vaughan school! We’re not very keen on Catholics, so we won’t shortlist them.” It is illegal to do that, but it would be simpler and better if that element were taken out of the equation.
The hon. Member for Shipley said that he wanted a tolerant society. That phrase is very often used—I believe that an Archbishop of Canterbury started calls for a tolerant society in the 1960s. However, I dislike the concept of a tolerant society, because I think that a respectful society is far more important. “Tolerance” implies that although someone completely and utterly disapproves of someone who lives in a different style—
Order. I cannot see anything about tolerance in the Bill. I think we will stick with the Bill.
There is nothing in the Bill about tolerance. Indeed, one of the main problems with it is that it does not even aspire to tolerance, which is one of the many reasons why I oppose it.
The hon. Member for Shipley said—I am not paraphrasing, but accurately recording what he said—that women and ethnic minorities do not need the rules to be rigged in order to get jobs. He feels that the current legislation is patronising, because women and members of ethnic minorities are perfectly able to get jobs. I am not sure that that is true. In fact, the evidence shows that, all too often, the rules are effectively rigged so that women do not get jobs.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether Labour men who supported all-women shortlists were surrendering themselves and falling on their swords. I merely point out that we are all about to lay down on our swords, because we voted through the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I have no idea whether there will be a Rhondda seat or a Greater Rhondda seat, incorporating most of Caerphilly—that was my suggestion. I made no objection to all-women shortlists in the Labour party in 1997. I stood in High Wycombe, which was almost impossible for the party to win, and my election was not anticipated, although the Conservative party so completely destroyed itself in the 1997 election that I very nearly was elected.
All-women shortlists were then rendered illegal by court action. Interestingly, 10 Welsh Labour MPs stood down or retired before the 2001 election, and every single one was replaced by a Welsh Labour male MP—not a single woman was selected in any of those 10 historically safe Labour seats. I rejoiced that I was selected for the Rhondda in 2001, to many people’s surprise, not least my own, but it is none the less important that political parties have the power to retain all-women shortlists.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could explain why no women were selected. Is it the case that none of those women who applied for those seats was good enough to be selected, or is the Labour party in Wales riddled with sexism and so overlooked better-qualified women to select men? Perhaps he should sort out the problems in his own party and not impose those ridiculous laws on the rest of us.
No. Choosing all-women shortlists is entirely up to political parties. Labour chooses to use them.
The hon. Gentleman asked why men so often get selected for safe seats, which is a problem for the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour. There are all sorts of complex reasons. Part of the problem is how we do business in Parliament, and part of it is how politics is presented in the wider public domain. There could be other prejudices out there. However, the Welsh Labour party has been immeasurably improved by the fact that we have a large number of women representing not only seats in the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government, but heartland seats in Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman says that he does not care whether 10% or 90% of MPs are women, but I care. I want to strive to make Parliament as representative of the wider population as possible. That cannot be too narrowly arithmetical, but I want to see the full diversity of Britain in the Chamber. Otherwise, the work that we do is undermined. If people do not hear their voice expressed, there will be a problem. Incidentally, by way of another criticism of myself, there are probably too many MPs of a particular social background and too few of a manual working class background, unlike the position in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.
I will move on a little if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
We in the Labour party need to address those issues. Many Government Members criticise Labour’s relationship with the trade unions, but I make absolutely no apology for it. Many of the working class people who have come to the House have done so through the trade union route. They learned in the trade union movement how to do their politics and put their arguments, and they were financially supported so that they could put themselves forward for parliamentary nominations. They were selected on that basis, which is why I wholeheartedly support the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour party.
The hon. Member for Shipley seemed to suggest that there should be absolutely no limits to free speech. I mostly agree with him, and I believe in a free press. I worry sometimes about the direction of the Leveson inquiry. In my work in relation to the News of the World, my intention has never been to dismantle investigative journalism, which is an important part of how we do business and ensure our democratic rights. However, the hatred and the bigotry that some express sometimes goes beyond the pale. I want less hatred to be poured into the pool of hatred that is already out there. Some of the hon. Gentleman’s arguments are similar to those that Ann Widdecombe used when she was in the House. I found that they simply added to the sum total of bigotry rather than diminished it. We should all be striving to diminish it, and I am glad that we have laws that prevent the incitement of not only racial hatred but religious and homophobic hatred. As we have seen over recent years, that legislation has been all the more important in areas where there is a real social mix.
I also believe that Parliament has been immeasurably better for having had more women in it in recent years. I honestly think that were it not for the arrival of so many women some issues would not have been explored and addressed with anything like the seriousness with which they have been. One example is domestic violence. For centuries, a woman was regarded merely as a chattel or another household good for a man to do with as he pleased. Those laws were changed in the middle of the 20th century, but only in recent years did the police and the law start to take domestic violence seriously. I am certain that in my constituency and many others a large proportion of violent crime relates to what happens in people’s households or between domestic partners. I do not believe that the police would have the powers, will or resources to deal with that today had it not been for the arrival of significant numbers of women in Parliament.
I should note that today is the anniversary of the arrival of the first women peers in 1958. There were four of them, and they were a slightly strange lot. One was married to a viceroy, another was the daughter of a viceroy and another was a countess, so it was not exactly equality as we like to see it today. [Interruption.] Jacob Rees-Mogg, also known as the hon. Member for the 15th century and for “Question Time”, obviously likes that, however.
I am glad that the Government are moving forward with the issue of succession so that the prejudice—stemming originally from common law, not statute—that the succession should be subject to male-preference primogeniture should be changed. I also hope that the Government are moving—
Order. We are drifting well away from the Bill. We enjoy the history lesson, and it is good that a lot of history is coming out today. However, it is certainly not relevant to the Bill; we are certainly drifting way off course. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will bring us back on course.
I do apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is just that clause 2 is entitled “Definition of ‘affirmative or positive action’”. The Prime Minister is seeking to change the legislation at the meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government next week and I worry that that could be seen by the hon. Member for Shipley as positive discrimination on the grounds of sex, listed in paragraph (b), and religion, in paragraph (g). I would hope that the hon. Gentleman was in favour of equality in the succession.
I wonder whether it might be right to look at the matter the other way round. Is this actually a rather dangerous Bill that would impliedly repeal positive discrimination in favour of Protestants in the order of succession—and, of course, of men as well? Has the hon. Gentleman considered that point?
I do worry about the prejudice in favour of Protestants, although the issue is even more complicated. It is not quite in preference of Protestants, but in favour of somebody who is able to take communion in the Church of England and subscribe to its articles of religion, a difficult thing even for most Anglican clergy, as well as be a member of the Church of Scotland. That is quite a tall ask.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that clause 2(1)(g) might be problematic for true equality. Incidentally, I would not often say this but I support the striving for equality in the House of Lords advanced at present by Baron Fellowes, who is worried that his wife will not be able to inherit her title, because women in this country are not allowed to inherit titles.
There is still a problem in this country. Only 22% of Members are women. In the Labour party, all-women shortlists have played a significant role in trying to bring about a more equal and representative House of Commons. When we move forward to an elected second Chamber, I hope that we will be able to use the same legislation.
Does the hon. Gentleman not believe that in a democracy, whoever is in this House should be determined by the electorate—not by him, imposing quotas on who should be here and who should not and what the make-up of the House of Commons should be? Surely that should be decided by the electorate and the electorate alone.
The hon. Gentleman is then arguing for a system of primaries in every constituency at every election. I have not heard him call for that. I may have missed one of his speeches; I have tried to listen to all of them, although sometimes I wander off. That is not the parliamentary system that we have grown up with. Under our system, local political parties tend to choose their candidates and the candidates are then presented to the electorate. In the end, of course, it is up to the electorate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the situation in Blaenau Gwent. A rather more complex set of issues arose there in relation to why we lost the seat. I merely point out that we now have extremely fine new Members, both in the Welsh Assembly and here.
I still think that we will need measures to ensure that the House is more representative than it has been thus far. The hon. Gentleman referred to what he called his “trump card”—Mrs Thatcher. I think that that was deliberate incitement; he was trying to get the Opposition to rise to the bait, and I am happy to do so. Unfortunately, Mrs Thatcher did remarkably little for women. If anything, she is the rule that proves that the exception proves the rule.
In Mrs Thatcher’s period of government, the effect on women and household incomes, especially among the poorest, was devastating. Many communities that might have hoped for an opportunity to rise on the ladder of prosperity at the time were cast into the outer darkness. What she brought about was not, as she proclaimed, in the words of Francis of Assisi, peace, unity and concord, but division and discord. For many of us in the Opposition, she is not a trump card at all; if anything, she is a joker.
We believe that the equality legislation that we put in place was important and has enabled Parliament to be more representative than it was and to address issues that it would not otherwise have done. In the end, however, hon. Members will have to make a decision. Do they believe that the equality of humanity should simply be left to the market or do we need intervention before breakfast, before lunch and before dinner? I fall into the latter category.
We have heard that the great lady, the noble Lady, the Lady of the Garter, Baroness Thatcher, is not to be called upon in this debate, so let us call upon Queen Elizabeth I instead. As she so memorably said, though her body might be weak, she had the heart of a king—and a King of England at that. She did not need special measures, advancement and protection to get her going; she did it through her own vim and vigour, her force of character and her great and noble ability that set the path for this great country for centuries to come.
I merely make the point that had the genetics fallen in a different way, she would never have become Queen, because of discrimination within the system of primogeniture.
But she did become Queen. That is the point—that she was able to become queen because our constitution has always evolved gently and happily so that more and more people become included in it without necessarily being given a helping hand or a lift up. This is the key point to the Bill: we want to have equality of opportunity as an objective, but not equality of outcome. I think that is what has always divided the Conservative—the Tory—from the socialist: the socialist always wants equality of outcome. Socialists want to meddle and muddle; they want to socially engineer—or perhaps to engineer socially for the benefit of
Hansard who do not like their infinitives to be split—and they want to make sure that they direct and control so that everybody should be made into a neat little machine. We have had this terrible socialist proposition recently that the elderly should sell their homes so that they can be put into properties that have fewer rooms. That is what it is all about; it is about controlling people, guiding their lives and taking away their freedoms.
When it comes to this Equality Act, to which my hon. Friend’s Bill would make splendid improvements, with some caveats that I may come to, it is desperately condescending to women. They do not want to be looked down upon as if they cannot cope. I am going to speak of the example of my younger sister Annunziata Rees-Mogg, who was the candidate for Somerton and Frome, where she fought a noble campaign. I discussed this with her and I said, “Actually, for the political advantage of the Conservative party,”—I am all in favour of the political advantage of the Conservative party—“perhaps we should have all-women shortlists.” It might not have helped me but it would have helped her and it might have answered a political problem for the party. She could not have been more strongly against it because she viewed it as condescending. She wanted to get the nomination for a seat on her own great merits—and very considerable her merits are, too. She did not want to be told she was a poor little thing: that is the sort of line an elder brother can use to a sister but it is not the sort of line that should be used by political parties or by the state. [ Interruption. ] Chris Bryant points out, from a sedentary position, that she lost. Well, she did because the Labour vote went down to 4%. Labour lost its deposit and that was to its horror when it discovered that the Lib Dems then supported us, so the aim to keep the beastly Tories out by voting Lib Dem failed miserably. Without that, she would have won by a landslide and I expect that next time around that will be the happy occurrence.
It is condescending to women to assume that they cannot cope without special measures and to people from what are genuinely minorities, because of course women are not a minority. Some of the time they are in the majority, although not at birth. There are more live births of boys than of girls, but women tend to live longer and therefore can easily be a majority of the population.
We have discussed Catholicism. The hon. Member for Rhondda said that he disagreed with the Holy Father on transubstantiation, but I cannot think why. It is clearly a very sensible and right doctrine. However, I do not think, as a Catholic, that I have any fear of discrimination, nor ever have had, although it did happen once to my father—my noble kinsman, as I ought to call him. He was going for a Conservative selection many years ago and was asked by one of the members of the committee if he would be able to go to the lord lieutenant’s funeral as he was a Catholic, at which point another member of the committee pointed out that actually the lord lieutenant was the Duke of Norfolk, so there would be absolutely no difficulty in my father’s attending his funeral. But he did not need special measures to help him. He had to get on and, if there was discrimination in those days, to overcome it, to strive and move forward—as, of course, Margaret Thatcher did and Nancy Astor too.
We have seen in the development and evolution of this House that it has become broader based. One might think that the days when it was simply knights of the shires, when the borough Members had not been let in, were glorious days when the knights of the shires could come in wearing spurs, as I believe we still can, to indicate that they represented a county.
Order. I do not think we are going to have an argument and a history lesson across the Chamber. I am sure Chris Bryant will either intervene or be slightly more quiet.
That probably takes the biscuit for lèse majesté—“We let the borough Members in”! I know that the hon. Gentleman has been here for a very long time in some shape or form, but to suggest that we have now become representative when he himself is the son of a peer seems a little odd.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his typically helpful intervention. Of course sons of peers should be represented, and they are a minority too. Perhaps as a son of a peer I should be given special help and intervention to help me to get through all the prejudice there is against sons of peers—not that I would ask for it or that I have ever noticed a particular prejudice against sons of peers. Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that such prejudices never fall upon so distinguished a figure as yourself either.
Well, I do not really like change as a general rule, and I would be very nervous about intervening in the line of succession to the throne. I think that the line of succession to the throne works very well and changing the Canadian constitution is a particularly difficult thing to do. With Her Majesty’s fantastically successful visit to Australia, we want everything to have a settled continuity of that succession. However, I think that the world has changed and that it may not be unreasonable to allow hereditary titles to pass through the female line, particularly if they are in danger of becoming extinct, because it would be a great sadness for titles to die out over succeeding generations with no new hereditary peerages being awarded. I must briefly declare an interest, because my mother-in-law would be able to resurrect a title if this law were to be changed.
Order. I think we are getting into too much detail about one’s relatives and we are also drifting, once again, away from the Bill. As much we are all enjoying it I think we had better come back to the Bill.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for bringing me back on track. I remember that there was a wonderful slogan of the Conservatives at one point, “Britain’s on the right track. Don’t turn back.” That is really what we want in speeches from this side—we want to stay on this right, Conservative track. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is very much on the right Conservative track with his Bill about looking at opportunity, not outcome, and to place on public authorities a duty of fairness to behave properly and not to pick winners. We know that the state has tried picking winners in the past and it is not a good policy, because the state is not going to do that well. It wants to do things on merit.
I agree very much with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley on political candidates as well. They ought to be the ones the local parties want and not people sent down from on high. If the local parties want a man, that is up to them, and if they want a woman, that should equally be up to them. Of course we want to ensure that there is a very fine list of the best possible candidates that they can choose from, but they should have the ultimate choice and the ultimate authority. Those of us who believe in localism would like the law repealed so that it is unlawful to discriminate in that way. In safe seats, such as Rhondda, discrimination could give somebody a seat for life, with a significant income, which would be unfair to people who might have done the job equally well and may have been more wanted by the electorate to whom they were accountable. Parties need to be conscious of their power in safe seats.
There is, as always, a but. I was concerned about the point made by Mr MacShane who said that the Bill would outlaw nunneries because they could represent discrimination by a public authority in favour of women. I am not sure that point is right, because if Her Majesty’s Government or any other public authority—the Charity Commission, for example—were to support nunneries and monasteries equally, there would be a balance, and as there may be more monks than nuns in this country it might be positive discrimination in favour of men, if it were any discrimination at all. I do not think that criticism of the Bill actually holds. [ Interruption. ] Does the hon. Member for Rhondda want to speak? It is very difficult to pick up all these sedentary interruptions, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Your guidance is helpful to the nth degree. I am greatly appreciative of it and I shall now make sure that I imitate the deaf adder: charm the hon. Member for Rhondda ever so nicely, I shall not be able to hear. We remember the deaf adder from our scripture lessons; as the hon. Gentleman is a former vicar, he will no doubt be able to call it to mind.
I am slightly concerned that the succession to the Crown could be affected, but I think the Bill could be amended to make it absolutely clear that there will be no effect on the succession and that the discrimination that remains is germane until such time as it is settled on its own in a different way—if ever it is to be changed. As a Catholic, I do not think it is a good idea to open the succession to Catholics; it would make no sense to have a Catholic as the head of the Church of England and it would be a pity to disestablish the Church of England by accident.
I am broadly in support of the Bill. The real principle is that we must not be condescending to people who can do it for themselves. We must embrace freedom and liberty. We must let people have every conceivable opportunity and then let them strive, go forward and work to achieve what they can and what they will. We must not say that we have to make sure that the number fits the box. We must not take the broad principle, to quote a former Labour Cabinet Minister, that the man in Whitehall really does know best, because the man in Whitehall does not know best, and even if he becomes a woman she still does not know best. It should be left to individuals, and we should avoid this socialistic tendency to try to get equality of outcome, which we will in fact never achieve.
It is always a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, who spoke with such authority on the matter. I am a sponsor of the Bill and am obviously rising to support it.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Philip Davies for bringing us the Bill. Millions of people across the country will be saying, “Hooray” this morning because at last somebody has started to roll back the tide of political correctness. I am pleased to be joined in support for the Bill by my right hon. Friends the Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) and for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), and my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone).
I want to follow up one or two of the points made by earlier speakers. The first is about racist jokes. Over the years, the nature of comedy in this country has changed, but we must not think that because we have changed it means that racist jokes were restricted only to this country. I understand that in Canada jokes were often told about the Newfoundlanders—the Newfies. No one took offence. It was part and parcel of their way of life—their culture—just as we have Irish jokes. It is not demeaning in any way.
Like the Bill’s promoter, I am a Yorkshireman and we also have jokes about Yorkshiremen. Jokes about sections of the community are common. I have often heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs tell jokes about Lancashire, and, indeed, I have heard him telling jokes about people from Sheffield and Rotherham. Nobody took offence at that.
They may not have taken offence, but as we both know, there is nothing about jokes on the face of the Bill. I know that an argument is being built, but I think we can move on from the jokes now—much as I am tempted by the mention of Yorkshire.
Earlier in the debate the question was asked: can we take equality too far? Does it mean changing the nature of our society? Can we take free speech too far? In the same way, when I was young—
Thank you. We always used to talk of lollipop ladies. Nobody ever suggested that there ought to be a recruitment drive for lollipop men and nobody thought it was demeaning in any way that there were lollipop ladies and not—as far as I was aware at that time—any lollipop men.
The Bill has only two main parts. The first two clauses relate to the prohibition of positive action by public authorities and the third clause repeals the legislation allowing for all-women shortlists, which I shall come to later. Clause 1 sets out the details of the prohibition of positive action and clause 2 contains the definition of the action that would be outlawed. Positive action, as it is often called, differs from positive discrimination in that it is actively intended to increase the representation in a work force where monitoring has shown a particular group to be under-represented in proportion to the profile of either the total work force or the local or national population.
Positive action permitted by the present anti-discrimination legislation allows a person to provide facilities to meet the special needs of people from particular groups in society in relation to their training, education or welfare and to target job training at people from certain groups that are under-represented in a particular area of work or to encourage such groups to apply for such work. That raises some interesting and difficult questions. What is the area in question that should be considered? If a business or a public authority is situated in the south of England in a predominantly ethnically white area, should they be exempt from the legislation? Well, of course they are not exempt, and it must be difficult for some public authorities in certain areas to meet the quota because it is impossible for them to decide what area they cover. Does one look at the town in question, or the county, or the country, and if so, which country? Does one look at the United Kingdom as a whole or just the make-up of England? Of course, many areas covered by the present legislation are not easy to determine.
An example is sex or gender, to which Chris Bryant referred. Very often, it might not be possible to know whether one has a certain number of gay or heterosexual people in one’s work force. Indeed, I would submit that the information is of absolutely no consequence or relevance whatever.
I should perhaps declare that before I entered this House, I was for many years an employer, so I know all about the rules and regulations that were imposed on my practice as a result of equality legislation. Before any of the legislation was in place, just off our own bat, I had a work force who were 95% female, so in fact, in my work force, men were not equally represented. No one suggested to me that when I came to employ another secretary, legal assistant or solicitor, I should start to select men; I always selected the best person for the job.
Whether a large proportion of the people the hon. Gentleman employed were men or women is neither here nor there. If, in putting together his pension package, he made provision for people to inherit only the pension of a spouse, rather than the pension of a civil partner or a person of the same gender, he would have been advancing a prejudice.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I believe that it should be up to the pension-holder to determine to whom their pension should go; it should not be anyone else’s decision. No question of prejudice should arise, as it should be up to the individual to determine. I do not see that there is anything wrong with that. It is perfectly all right, and it does not need any legislation to allow that to happen.
But it has needed legislation to make sure that the vast majority of company pensions operate in that way. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right to say that it should be for the individual to decide to whom their pension goes, but in the vast majority of cases, the old assumption was that it went only to a spouse, and not to anyone else. It required legislation to change that.
That is a slightly different point. The hon. Gentleman’s point about pensions could easily have been dealt with by the individuals concerned dealing with the trustees of the pension scheme, and explaining to them that they wanted to change the rules of the scheme to allow their pension to go to a certain other individual. Of course, very often, there was no one forcing people to join the pension scheme; if they chose to join it, so be it. We now have a free market in pension schemes, so in the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes, there would have been a gap in the market and, in a free market, someone would have sprung up to provide pensions for people in exactly that position.
It could have happened.
My previous comments related to positive action. Positive discrimination, affirmative action or discrimination generally means choosing someone solely on the grounds of their gender or racial group, or for any other factor, and not for their ability. We are now at the crux of the matter. I believe that, by definition, as soon as one positively discriminates in respect of any given group in society, one is automatically discriminating against another group. That cannot be right. The Bill makes a good start in tackling the problem, but it is just the first step on the long road to ridding this country of the culture of political correctness and dismantling the whole industry of diversity and equality.
There could be no better time, given the economic situation, for that to gather pace. I know from my experience as a practising solicitor that many small and medium-sized enterprises struggle under the burden of the legislation. We are not there yet—there is a long way to go—but if we could begin to remove the legislation that applies to public authorities, that would be a step in the right direction. All our public services are looking for savings but, because of the way in which the law is framed, the one area in which they are not allowed to look for them is diversity and equality legislation. They have to keep their army of officers to comply with the law and the tick-box legislation.
Under the Disability Discrimination Acts, positive discrimination in favour of disabled people is not unlawful, and if disabled people meet the minimum criteria for a job, they are guaranteed an interview. The only other exemption relates to the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which the Bill seeks to abolish. The Equality Act 2010 includes a provision giving employers the option, when faced with two or more candidates of equal merit, of choosing one from a group that is under-represented in the work force. There is a whole Government Department—the Government Equalities Office—that exists solely for the purpose of issuing and enforcing guidance, red tape and regulations on that legislation. It has published guidance for employers on how to make those changes and use them in everyday life. The provisions on positive action in recruitment are, I am pleased to say, entirely voluntary but, as we all know, the public sector has seized on them with great glee. There is no requirement for an employer to use either the general provisions or those relating to recruitment and promotion.
Positive action in that regard will be used in cases in which an employer reasonably thinks that people with a protected characteristic are under-represented in the work force or suffer a disadvantage connected to that protected characteristic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley made clear, the problem is where we draw the line. Why not, for example, protect and give help to those who are particularly tall?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend is interested in this matter. If someone, for the sake of argument, is 7 feet tall—there are people of that stature in society—an employer might secretly think that they had better not take on such an employee, because they might complain about the size of the company’s doorways and it would have to spend a fortune going round the building and enlarging all the doors. One can easily see how an argument could be made for heightist, stoutist or shortist legislation to be introduced—
Order. I am sure doors matter to people who are over 2 meters—usually it is 6 feet 6 inches—but I cannot see the connection between the Bill and where we are being led, so I am sure the hon. Gentleman would like to bring us back now to the Bill.
I entirely accept that, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I will leave that point there.
The new positive action provisions make it clear that employers must not adopt policies or practices designed routinely to favour candidates with a certain protected characteristic of whatever nature, even where there is evidence of under-representation or disadvantage. All suitably qualified candidates must be considered on their individual merits for the post in question. Current positive action provisions in employment relate only to training or encouragement—for example, mentoring schemes for ethnic minority staff where they are under-represented in senior roles, or open days to encourage women applicants in male-dominated sectors. This merely serves to upset and discriminate against all those who are not allowed to take part in such training. Why should they not receive the same training just because of their racial background, sex or particular individual characteristics?
The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 was originally presented on
There were many examples, and there continue to be many examples in the Conservative party, of women who have succeeded on their merits. I know from Mrs Nuttall that she feels extremely patronised whenever there is any talk of special treatment being given to women.
Mrs Nuttall does not mind special treatment of her from me—I think she expects it—but as a general rule that reflects the view of many women. If they are given special treatment, they feel that they are being patronised and that they can make it on their own merit without it. That applies equally to those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Many Members of this House have made it on their own strength without special treatment.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Given the changes that his leader has instituted in his party, is he saying that there are Members on the Conservative Benches—women or members of ethnic minorities—who have not got here purely on merit?
I am not saying that at all. There is a risk that others might regard the winner from an all-women shortlist as not having succeeded against the whole field of candidates, which is self-evidently true.
As far as I am concerned, all Members on the Government side of the House have got here on merit, but there are plenty of Members who succeeded in their applications as a direct result of the all-women shortlists that the Labour party introduced.
I believe that all selections should be open to all candidates, regardless of their race, sexual gender or any other merits, that political parties, wherever they are in the country, should be free to choose who they want on merit and that the 2002 Act should be repealed, which the Bill seeks to do. The key objective of that Act was to enable a political party, if it so wished, to adopt measures to regulate the selection of candidates, but I do not believe that that is the right way forward. According to the explanatory notes that accompanied the Act, in the 1996 case of Jepson v. the Labour party an employment tribunal held that section 13 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 covered the selection of candidates by political parties, which therefore constrained their ability to take positive action to increase the number of women elected to this House.
For the avoidance of doubt, given the interventions from the Opposition, I am happy to confirm that the Conservative party has never used all-women shortlists and that they fell into disrepair in the Labour party after an all-women shortlist produced a male candidate who happened to be the leader of a trade union.
I am most grateful to the Minister for that intervention. The Opposition say that they support all-women shortlists, but as Members on both sides of the House will be aware, Jack Dromey was selected as a candidate despite his gender. It is perhaps one of the biggest ironies that he was selected even though his wife, Ms Harman, seems so keen to have all-women shortlists in all constituencies.
Is it not also ironic that the Labour party has brought in all these massively talented women, apparently, through the use of all-women shortlists, but when it wanted to select a new leader it seemed to bypass all that talent that had been brought into the House and plumped for a man?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and perhaps the Labour party will consider selecting its leader on a rotational basis, with a male leader being followed by a female. As far as I am aware, the Labour party, unlike our party, has never had a female leader; perhaps it is time for half a dozen consecutive female leaders.
We have actually had two women leaders: my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett was briefly leader after John Smith died; and we had an interim leader in the form of my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, the current deputy leader. More to the point, however, considering the trump card to which Philip Davies referred—Baroness Thatcher—is it not surprising that not a single other woman has chosen to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party since?
That is not surprising; it is just a matter of fact. The two examples to which the hon. Gentleman refers from the Labour party were of course simply temporary leaders, who held the post until they could be replaced by a man. We should read nothing into the fact that, since the great lady ceased to be leader of our party, we have not produced a further female applicant for the leadership. I am sure that in years to come females will apply and be candidates in such elections.
I will leave that there. We do not want to go into “Strictly Come Dancing”. I will not be tempted down that road.
It has been suggested that the most effective way to attract female parliamentary candidates is to introduce a new system of flexible parental leave, so that aspiring female politicians do not have to choose between a career and family life. But, as we know from experience, Margaret Thatcher entered Parliament when her two children, Carol and Mark, were just six years old. That did not put off Margaret Thatcher, and there is no reason why it should put off anyone else some 50 years later.
Those who consider putting themselves forward to become a Member of Parliament have to make a choice, as we all do, men or women, and it would be sexist if that choice did not apply to men, too. Hon. Members, surely on both sides of the House, recognise that participating in running our country is no ordinary job.
What started in the 2002 Act as a temporary measure that would last only until 2015 has been extended by an enormous 15 years, so the use of all-women shortlists will be permitted right up to 2030. It has been suggested that this debate provides a suitable opportunity for the House to consider whether all-women shortlists have been effective, and perhaps it is time for us to do so. They have produced women MPs, but that is quite obvious. What we do not know is how many good male candidates have been prevented from getting to this House as a result of the application of the Act.
The Leader of the Opposition, on the subject of all-women shortlists, recently said:
“People were sceptical about all-women shortlists but I think they have actually made an enormous difference to the numbers of women in Parliament.”
If that is not a statement of the blindingly obvious, I do not know what is. If all-women shortlists are employed, by definition that can have no other effect than to produce more women candidates and, if applied across the board, that would inevitably lead to an increase in the number of women MPs. That is hardly a great achievement to cite.
It has also been suggested that we need to take action to increase female representation on boards of companies, but it should be up to companies themselves to determine whom they have on their boards. I have no reason to believe that they do not choose the best person for the job. I read the other day that there has been an enormous increase in the number of women directors in the City of London. However, the percentage of the total has hardly increased at all, because what tends to happen is that companies appoint female directors to tick a box. We have almost reached “token woman syndrome” again.
The positive action in recruitment provisions in the Equality Act 2010 are entirely voluntary. There is no requirement for an employer to use either the general provisions or those relating to recruitment and promotion. I may not want to see any legislation to ban discrimination, but equally I would not wish to legislate to encourage discrimination. The Bill would even things up. It is not clear that we have seen any improvement in how companies operate, but at a time of increased difficulty for public spending we have to look at ways of cutting back, and pruning the whole area of equality and diversity legislation would be a good starting point.
Mention was made earlier of the “Not In My Name” section of the Campaign Against Political Correctness website, and I have one or two other quotes from people who do not feel that the whole equality industry has helped them. Mark Grohen said:
“As a gay man I’ve always thought myself rather lucky...I do not need to be told by politicians and do-gooders that I’m either vulnerable or incapable of looking after myself. I really dislike people’s obsession with what I do in the bedroom: I prefer it not to be the reason why I’m hired for a job.”
But unfortunately people are still murdered for their sexuality, as happened in public only a couple of years ago in Trafalgar square. That is why we need to ensure that the police services ensure that everyone is protected, not just the mainstream and the majority.
The shadow Minister makes a perfectly valid point. I entirely agree that the police have to protect everyone equally, regardless of the colour of their skin, whether they are gay or straight, wherever they come from in the world, male or female. However, the existence of all the equality and diversity legislation runs the risk of upsetting those sections of society who feel alienated and discriminated against by that legislation. It does not help—in fact, it is counter-productive—for the Act to remain in place.
A lady—a female—who is half Chinese, said:
“For those of us who have pursued equality for so many years, it is disheartening to see how little has been achieved. Equality is not political correctness. In a truly equal country, the best candidate gets the job even if it is the Anglo-Saxon chap. There is a still long way to go.”
Paolo Fragale, who is a gay man of mixed race, said:
“As a gay man of mixed race I vehemently oppose positive discrimination and quotas. Apart from the fact that I find them patronising, I feel they are counter productive and only serve to further segregate people.”
Rachel Watts summed up the feeling of many women when she said:
“The majority of women in favour of ‘helping hands’ and special treatment are the ones who will gain the most from them.”
Perhaps the most difficult and sensitive area is those who are disabled. Frederick Bird said:
“As someone registered disabled, I would not object to not being given a job that I was not able to do due to my disability. Being realistic there are things that I cannot do and no p.c. rubbish can alter the fact.”
Mention was made earlier of the help that disabled people need. I am pleased to say that the Government, under the Work programme, are dealing with this as it should be dealt with—on an individual basis. It is simply not right to write off great sections of the community, whether they are blind or disabled in any other way, and say, “I’m sorry—you’re not able to work because of your disability.” We should do all we can for those who have a disability to give them tailored, specialised, individual help to get them back into the workplace, but that cause will not be helped by some artificial means of employing quotas.
My final quote comes from Denise O’Brien, a disabled female person who is also a lesbian. She said:
“Political correctness is making artificial differences between people unnecessarily. Special treatment for minority groups in a lot of cases breeds resentment from those not included who have genuine need of help.”
The Bill is a good start on a very long road that we have to go down. It perhaps says something about where we are with the equality and diversity agenda that in the recently published new edition of “The Solicitor’s Handbook”, chapter 2 is on equality and diversity, and it comes before the chapters on client confidentiality and conflicts of interest. I am sure that when someone goes to consult their solicitor they are more interested to know that their business is being dealt with confidentially and that there is no conflict of interest than whether the company in question has the right sort of tick-box approach to equality and diversity. This is a burden on small and medium-sized enterprises. It is no business of the Government to interfere in this way in how businesses are run. It provides an unnecessary burden in terms of the training that they have to do on a yearly basis in order to be able to demonstrate that they are complying with the diversity agenda.
“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
It cannot be right that we need this legislation in the 21st century. Everybody should be treated with respect and tolerance. I have no objection to using the word tolerance. If it is used in its normal, everyday meaning, everybody knows that it means tolerating people and treating people from different backgrounds with respect. By starting along the road of removing some of the politically correct nonsense legislation, we would be doing our constituents a great service. I warmly commend the Bill to the House. I trust that it will receive resounding support on Second Reading, have a smooth passage through this House and the other place, and reach the statute book, much to the delight of my constituents.
This debate has been even more educational, informative and entertaining than I had hoped and expected when I learned that I would be responding to it. I apologise to my hon. Friend Philip Davies for the absence of my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities, who is a greater expert on these matters than I am.
This debate has stimulated a discussion on the use of positive action in our society, particularly by public authorities and political parties. It provides me with an opportunity to explain the principles and the practice of positive action as it is used by the Government, and to clarify how it can be lawfully and helpfully used in different situations by public and private organisations, service providers, and political parties, which are specifically raised in the Bill.
I will start by correcting two small errors that have crept into the debate. First, my hon. Friend said that no one cares about any form of apparent discrimination against men. He raised the interesting and relevant subject of midwives. However, there is currently a debate about the paucity of male teachers in primary schools and that is a serious issue. I am sure that many hon. Members from all parts of the House have had the experience that I have had of going into a small primary school in their constituency and finding themselves the only adult male on the premises apart, usually, from the caretaker. We all recognise that that does not necessarily contribute to the quality of education. My colleagues in the Department for Education are concerned about this issue. It gets to the nub of the debate, because if a head teacher in such a primary school were faced with two candidates of equal merit, one of whom was male and one female, a lot of us would think it sensible for them to pick the male candidate. No doubt, the female candidate would feel that that was unfair and unnecessary discrimination, but in many ways it would be common sense.
The second correction is, again, purely factual.
I thought that the Minister might be about to do that.
I remember on one occasion a bishop saying to me that he was very worried because he had to appoint a clergyman in a deanery where all the clergy were gay, and he thought that it might be discriminatory if he did not appoint a gay vicar to the parish just because all the other vicars were gay.
I think that it would be foolish to enter into Church politics in that way from this Dispatch Box, so I will merely note what the hon. Gentleman has said. I wanted to correct him on a point that was perhaps not central to his argument. In referring to my former neighbouring MP for Maidstone and the Weald, Ann Widdecombe, he said that she had been voted off “Strictly” very early. That is not true. She went a very long way in “Strictly”, and indeed the BBC was panicking that she was going to win.
Order. Not being an entrant of “Strictly”, I can be strictly authoritarian on this—we are going to stick to the Bill.
You did. I will very happily return to the Bill, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The aim of the Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is to prohibit the use of positive action by public authorities in recruitment and appointment processes, and to repeal the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. I shall start with the principles behind what the Government do.
Our approach to equality is built on two principles—equal treatment and equality of opportunity. I entirely share my hon. Friend’s dislike of equality of outcome as a political project. He said that it was misguided, and I certainly agree. However, the Government’s approach is built on the principles of equality of opportunity and equal treatment. That means building a society in which no one is held back because of who they are or where they come from. It means not uniformity but, rather, giving everyone an equal right to be treated fairly as an individual.
In our society, people can face discrimination and disadvantage because of who they are and where they come from. The Government need specific action to deal with such problems. However, the key to taking forward our equality strategy is to demonstrate that equality is for everyone by making it a part of everyday life. It is about changing culture and attitudes and tackling the causes of inequality rather than introducing more legislation. That is why we are working with business, local communities and citizens to promote good practice, transparency and accountability.
We can look at the history and concept of positive action. It is, of course, not new in UK legislation. The general positive action provisions have been in use for more than 30 years, having first been introduced in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976. Those provisions, which are sometimes called the training and encouragement provisions, have ever since allowed employers, both public and private sector, to take a range of voluntary—I cannot emphasise that word strongly enough—positive action measures to address disadvantage and under-representation in the work force.
There are many examples of such training and encouragement measures by employers, including the provision of mentoring and shadowing opportunities, the targeting of advertisements at particular groups by encouraging them to apply for advertised jobs, and the holding of open days solely for people with a particular protected characteristic that is under-represented in the workplace, in order to offer them an insight into the selection process that they would have to go through when applying for employment with that employer.
Over the decades since those provisions were first introduced, they have become both well understood and well used. The Equality Act 2010 simplifies and harmonises them, so that unlike previous legislation, under which positive action applied in slightly different ways to different protected characteristics, it now applies in the same way to all of them as long as the relevant criteria for their use are adequately met. For those who are confused by the jargon, a reference to “protected characteristics” means a reference to someone’s age, disability, marital or civil partnership status, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation or gender reassignment if applicable. What is new under the 2010 Act is that it extends positive action provisions to the limits permissible under EU directives, which allow member states to adopt specific measures to prevent or compensate for disadvantages linked to any of those protected characteristics. It introduces new provisions specifically related to recruitment and promotion, not recruitment and appointment as suggested in my hon. Friend’s Bill. He is slightly off the mark with that.
There is a real need to tackle under-representation and ensure that everyone takes part in key areas of our society, in civil, economic and political life. One could cite a range of statistics to show why positive action can be helpful in tackling the under-representation and disadvantage that are suffered across the board in some of the more desirable strata in our society. For example, there are only three ethnic minority High Court judges. There was much discussion this morning about the composition of Parliament and how the political parties approach it. Only 22% of MPs are women, but more than half the population are women, so that is a huge disparity. More widely, only one third of public appointments are held by women, and only 0.8% of local councillors in England are black and minority ethnic women, which is an extraordinarily low figure. In terms of active discrimination, one in five lesbian, gay and bisexual people say that they have been harassed at work because of their sexual orientation. Although progress has been made—[ Interruption. ] I will not respond to that sedentary intervention from Chris Bryant, the shadow Minister, for his sake. Although progress has been made, clearly more needs to be made in future.
Positive action can also be used to support the delivery of the equality duty, which requires public authorities to consider the needs of people with various protected characteristics, some of whom may be at a considerable disadvantage. In a bid to address such needs, public bodies could choose—I emphasise choose—to use the positive action measures to target those disadvantaged groups.
Before I respond further to my hon. Friend’s Bill, it might be useful to set out what positive action is, what it can be used for, how it can be legally used in different scenarios, and most importantly, what it is not. In this morning’s interesting debate, many hon. Members were sliding between attacks on specific legislation and examples of positive action, and a general dislike of political correctness. There is an interesting and genuine debate to be had both on the meaning of political correctness and on what it has meant in practice, and we could ask whether it has gone too far in some ways and not far enough in others, but that does not have much to do with my hon. Friend’s Bill—I will therefore stick to the terms of the Bill.
Positive action is a term used to describe a range of measures that organisations can use when people who share a protected characteristic—I have listed them—experience some form of disadvantage because of that characteristic; have particular needs linked to that characteristic; or are disproportionately under-represented in a particular activity. In the second scenario, the Bill would make it illegal for people to install a wheelchair ramp, because that would be positive action to help a particular group. I do not believe that my hon. Friend intends that, but as I understand it, that would be the effect of one of the clauses. It is important to look at the detail of what positive action can involve when we assess whether the Bill should make further progress.
When any of the three conditions apply, proportionate action can be taken to overcome that disadvantage—I again emphasise that the action must be proportionate, and that action “can” rather than “must” be taken. Action can be taken to overcome a disadvantage, to meet particular needs, or to encourage and increase participation in the related activity.
Positive action can be taken in relation to a wide range of activities covered by the Act as well as employment, such as education, training, service delivery and activities undertaken by associations and other organisations. Positive action is not about woolly-minded thinking, political correctness, reverse discrimination or sidelining men. My hon. Friend was both entertaining and in large part correct in attacking what he described as lentil eating, woolly minded, Guardian reading characteristics.
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I really do not eat lentils—nor do I own a pair of sandals, nor do I for pleasure read most of The Guardian. I find The Guardian extremely useful for one thing. If I ever wake up and feel my political energy flagging, I read the letters page of The Guardian and that reminds me why I am a Conservative and why there needs to be a Conservative Government in this country—if only to keep people such as that out of power. So The Guardian serves a tremendously useful purpose in my life.
Positive action is about counteracting the effects of historical discrimination and disadvantage by providing opportunities for those who are disadvantaged or under-represented to gain skills that would enable them to compete fairly and openly for jobs and to reach their potential. There are practical benefits for businesses attached to the use of those measures and I shall return to them later. However, I very much take the point made by my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall; we need to consider the needs of businesses, particularly small and medium-sized ones, although as I say there are the practical benefits.
A common misconception confuses positive action and positive discrimination; some people talk about the two interchangeably. It is important to establish that there is a clear distinction between them. Positive discrimination is treatment that favours a person solely because they have a particular protected characteristic, irrespective of whether there are special circumstances. In other words, the treatment discriminates in their favour whether or not they experience a disadvantage connected to that protected characteristic or have particular needs that are different from those of people without that protected characteristic.
Positive discrimination is generally unlawful in this country and will remain unlawful in most cases, although we should note that it is not unlawful to give more favourable treatment to a disabled person than to a non-disabled person. The intention behind that is to provide a level playing field for disabled people, who have been widely recognised to be disadvantaged in the field of employment, in society and in accessing services, without being open to legal challenge by non-disabled people.
Positive action, as I outlined, is about ensuring that any action taken has to be a proportionate means of achieving the aim of tackling or addressing disadvantage, encouraging participation in activities and meeting the specific needs of people with protected characteristics. It is essential for any organisation using positive action to ensure that the measures being taken do not unlawfully discriminate against people outside the group that they are seeking to help. The provisions in the Equality Act 2010 that relate to positive action make that very clear.
I am sure that my hon. Friends who have spoken in favour of the Bill would agree that many in our society have experienced historical disadvantage and under-representation in numerous sectors and professions, including in economic and political life, and many still do. Of course, significant progress has been made in recent decades to improve things.
No doubt what my hon. Friend said about historical disadvantage is true, but does he think that just because black people, for example, have been discriminated against in the past, white people should be discriminated against now as some kind of reparation? Channel 4 has training courses that are open only for people from ethnic minorities. Why should somebody who happens to be from a white working class background and wants to get into the industry be deprived of doing so just because of discrimination that took place in the past?
I return to the point I have been making for the past couple of minutes about the distinction between positive action and positive discrimination. Specifically on the training courses my hon. Friend mentions, if a job were open only to people with a particular characteristic, that would be discrimination and would be unlawful. However, saying that one is finding it very difficult to attract a particular group of people even to think about applying for a job, and perhaps having an open day or some training aimed specifically at those people is positive action. At the relevant point—at the point of offering a job—everyone should be treated equally and there should not be any discrimination. Positive action is about trying to ensure that nobody is excluded from operating on their own merits or from applying for a particular job or position.
There was a debate a few minutes ago about the different measures used by different political parties in attempting to encourage more women to come into the House of Commons. I think there was a very neat dichotomy in that the Conservative party adopted measures short of all-women shortlists such as encouraging, mentoring and training, which resulted in a large number of new women colleagues for my hon. Friend and I in this Parliament, which we both welcome. The Conservatives did not go down the very crude route of the all-women shortlist that the Labour party introduced in the late 1990s, so there are different ways of achieving what is a desirable thing—equality of opportunity. Some ways are discriminatory and some are not, and the Government’s policy seeks to ensure that we maintain that very important distinction and continue to have positive action so that everyone can be treated equally, but that we do not inadvertently fall into the trap that my hon. Friend rightly warns us about of discriminating against those who do not have the particular protected characteristics. In many ways, that is at the heart of the debate: we need to maintain that distinction.
One of the Government’s aims is to speed up the rate of progress in achieving gender equality in various sectors, particularly by promoting gender equality on the boards of listed companies and by increasing female representation in politics. Progress on those fronts can be attained using the wide range of measures that are available to companies and other institutions under positive action. My hon. Friend and others will have heard the Prime Minister recently acknowledge in the House that the use of positive action is necessary on occasions to redress gender disparities in boardrooms and in politics.
In any case, lest we forget and think that using positive action places huge regulatory or financial burdens on bodies—my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North made that point—the use of any positive action measure is entirely voluntary and there is no mandatory requirement for any organisation to use positive action. If an organisation thinks there will be no real benefits to it from taking positive action measures, it does not have to do so. The voluntary nature of positive action means there are no associated mandatory burdens on organisations if they do not take such measures. That point is significant but is often missed in these debates.
Before I address the use of positive action in matters of recruitment and promotion, I should like to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to clause 2 of his Bill, which would make it unlawful to use positive action for any of the listed protected characteristics as well as for socio-economic status. The current positive action provisions do not permit measures to be taken to address issues solely relating to the socio-economic inequality. He might be aware that the Government were not persuaded by the arguments for a public sector duty relating to socio-economic inequalities in the 2010 Act and that they have already decided not to commence those provisions, which will be repealed at a future date. I hope that he and I can agree on that point if on no other.
I turn specifically to the effect of the Bill, the aim of which is to prohibit the use of positive action by public authorities in recruitment and appointment processes. The Bill would, as drafted, create a two-tier system under which it would be lawful for private organisations to continue to use positive action measures in recruitment and appointment processes, but not for public authorities. That would mean that public authorities would not have the same benefits of opportunity open to them in recruitment as private sector organisations. Not only does this disparity seem unfair, but it could be confusing for employers, especially private organisations that deliver services under contract to or on behalf of a public authority, but which may not normally be considered public authorities themselves.
I make it clear that the provisions in the Equality Act 2010 contain explicit built-in safeguards to ensure that they are not misused. The provisions allow the use of positive action specifically in the process of recruitment and promotion in limited circumstances. Positive action can therefore only be used in the process of recruitment and promotion for specific purposes: to overcome or minimise a disadvantage, or to increase participation in activities, or where the candidates are as qualified as each other to carry out the job under consideration, or where the action is a proportionate means of addressing the particular disadvantage or under-representation, and where the employer does not have an automatic policy of treating people who share a protected characteristic more favourably than those who do not have protected characteristics.
To help employers who want to use positive action to do so lawfully, a step-by-step practical guide to using positive action when making appointments is available on the Government Equalities Office website. It will help an employer to ask all the relevant questions and ensure transparency at every stage of the recruitment and appointment process.
Remedies are available to possible victims of positive action. Any participant who deems that the positive action measures used by an organisation in its recruitment and promotion process have not been fair to them, or a person who believes they have been deterred from taking part in such a process, could bring a claim against the organisation. It would ultimately be up to any employer using positive action in recruitment to ensure that the assessment process is proportionate to achieving the aim of addressing a disadvantage or under-representation, that it is transparent and that they can sufficiently justify how they make a choice between candidates.
It cannot be too strongly emphasised that the principle of merit should always apply in any recruitment or promotion process that uses positive action measures. As I have already said, under these measures, a person cannot be appointed solely because they possess a certain protected characteristic that is disadvantaged or under-represented in the workplace. That would constitute unlawful discrimination.
An employer faced with making a choice between two or more candidates who are as qualified as each other to undertake the post in question can take into consideration whether any of the candidates possesses a protected characteristic that is disadvantaged or disproportionately under-represented in the work force. However, this does not mean that the candidates under consideration have to be identical in every respect. Any consideration of merit should take into account the relevant facts of their competence, ability, experience and any formal qualifications that may be relevant to the particular job.
Among other things, the Bill would put a stop to the setting and pursuit of targets in relation to recruitment and promotion. Targets are not quotas, nor are they the same as positive action. Targets are the end that an organisation wishes to achieve, while positive action is, essentially, the measures that an organisation can take in order to achieve its aim. Targets allow organisations to direct a range of programmes, initiatives, products and services at particular groups of people who are under-represented in certain activities, or because of poor take-up of services or activities. Such action would enable these groups to acquire the necessary skills to compete for jobs or to access services tailored to their specific needs. It is perfectly permissible in the UK to set targets that are intended to provide an incentive for people to improve and achieve certain goals.
Of course, targets are not limitless; they either evolve as an organisation’s priorities change over the years, or they come to their natural end. I think there is a fear that this is an endless path going in one direction. Clearly, an organisation may decide that it has done what it needs to do to meet a target that it has set itself for representation within its work force, or its boardroom, or its parliamentary party or whatever, and at that point the existing legislative framework entirely permits the organisation to get off the track and continue its normal business as it would have done if it had never introduced those measures.
As I mentioned, an important priority for the Government is to increase the number of women in the boardroom and in civic and public life. The key to achieving that is not through the setting of strict employment quotas such as reserving a number of posts only for women, which would in any case be unlawful—I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and the House that the Government have absolutely no intention of changing that position—but through the use of voluntary measures and initiatives.
The difference between the targets that I have been talking about and the quotas that my hon. Friend is rightly sceptical about is that the target can be worked towards naturally over a period spent developing people in order that the organisation can hit the target, whereas a quota must be filled whether or not there are suitable people available to fill it. That is the absolutely crucial practical distinction. If we tried to force organisations to fill quotas, less qualified people would be appointed to positions, which would be unfair on those who were better qualified, and in the long term damaging for the institution concerned. If the legislation currently in place had that effect, or indeed that intention, I would share all my hon. Friend’s worries about it, but it does not, and just as the distinction between positive discrimination and positive action is key, the difference between targets and quotas is absolutely key. We have a sensible, practical set of measures that can allows organisations to improve themselves, not something that is over-burdensome.
I am interested in what the Minister has to say. Will he clarify this point? I understood from what I have read in the media—I concede that one should not always believe everything one reads in the papers—that the Government have let it be known that if boardrooms do not hit the target set by Lord Davies, if they do not go themselves voluntarily to hit that target, the Government will act. Can the Minister assure the House now that if they do not hit the artificial, arbitrary targets that Lord Davies set in his report, the Government will not act?
I do not accept that the targets are necessarily arbitrary or artificial. We are very keen that organisations should hit their targets for women in boardrooms; the Government strongly welcomed the Lord Davies report and we are now at the stage of working with business and others to ensure that the recommendations are implemented effectively without recourse to some of the measures that my hon. Friend would regard as draconian.
I am happy to report to the House that good progress has been made in implementing the recommendations. In May, the Financial Reporting Council launched its consultation on changes to the UK corporate governance code. The headhunting industry has agreed a voluntary code on diversity, which was launched in July 2011. The Association of Executive Search Consultants will champion the code to its members, and there is an increasing and strong sense of ownership and action in FTSE 100 businesses, including company secretaries, who will in many cases be the key figure in the organisation.
I really must press the Minister on this, because some things are more voluntary than others. If the Government say to organisations, “This is what we expect of you; if you don’t do it, we will force you to do it,” and the Government then start reporting progress, that is not voluntary—at least not in my eyes. It is a very curious definition of “voluntary”. If businesses do not hit the artificial target in Lord Davies’s report, will the Government act? From what the Minister says, it sounds as if the Government will not act and force businesses to take action if they do not do so themselves.
What I am saying is that the bodies are already acting themselves, so the undesirable outcome of which my hon. Friend is fearful will not happen. I have talked about various organisations; let me mention specific companies. Centrica, BT and Barclays have all provided programmes or initiatives to assist in the recruitment, retention, development and advancement of women and persons from other protected groups in the workplace, and to broaden their career aspirations. That makes the point that I alluded to earlier: good and constructive use of positive action is not woolly-minded, or political correctness gone mad, or whatever the cliché du jour is; it has practical benefits for the organisations that voluntarily opt for it.
I refer my hon. Friend to a report published in 2008 by the CBI, the TUC and the Equality and Human Rights Commission entitled “Talent not Tokenism: the business benefits of workforce diversity”. It showed that diversity in an organisation promotes productivity and efficiency, and increases market opportunities. Several UK employers recognise the benefits of positive action; it fills skill gaps while generating a more diverse work force. That added diversity in turn gives employers a better understanding of customers’ needs, opening up new markets and attracting new business.
More businesses than ever, including FTSE companies at all levels—those in the FTSE 100, FTSE 250 and FTSE 350—are using voluntary positive action measures to improve the diversity of their top management and boards of executive and non-executive directors. Lord Davies’s report, to which my hon. Friend referred, acknowledged that corporate boards perform better when they comprise experienced people with a greater range of skills, perspectives and backgrounds. His report indicated that there is a business case for increasing the diversity of corporate boards, and especially for gender-diverse boards, so that businesses can draw on the full range of available talent and achieve effective governance and performance.
To address my hon. Friend’s point directly, Lord Davies’s report ruled out the setting of mandatory quotas to compel businesses to appoint female directors to their boards, so my hon. Friend is right not to believe everything that he reads in the media. The statistics are stark. The proportion of women on FTSE 100 company boards is 14.2%, and the figure is 8.9% for FTSE 250 companies. Previously, almost half the FTSE 250 companies had no women director on their board. A recently published report by the Cranfield School of Management on the progress made on some of the recommendations outlined in the Davies report shows that, for the first time, a minority of FTSE 250 companies have all-male boards. Moving down the size scale, FTSE 350 companies face an even greater challenge in increasing female representation on their boards.
My hon. Friend may have heard of the 30% Club, which comprises a group of UK company chairmen, if I am allowed to use that word, who are voluntarily committed to bringing more women on to UK corporate boards. The 30% Club supports a voluntary target to ensure that every UK corporate board has at least 30% female representation by 2015.
I shall certainly drag it back to public authorities, and indeed specifically to the proposal by my hon. Friend
What remain extant of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act are provisions that relate solely to Northern Ireland. The 2002 Act amends the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, permitting political parties to adopt single-sex shortlists when selecting candidates for elections to certain bodies. Repealing the 2002 Act would only create further confusion and disparity, as the provisions relating to electoral shortlists could continue to be used in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland.
In any case, we consider that the provisions relating to the selection of election candidates remain a legitimate tool for parties that wish to use them. The provisions enable registered political parties to take action to address any disparity in their representation of men and women in elected office, including the use of women-only shortlists.
We have had a great deal of discussion about the under-representation of women elected to the House—only 144 of 650 Members are women, equating to about 22% of MPs—and it is widely agreed across the House that although progress has been made, it is not yet complete and there is a need for political parties to make the House more representative of the diverse population in this country, because that will enable us to deliver better governance.
I should point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and to the House as a whole that the use of those provisions is time-limited, as they are due to expire in 2030 when, we hope, the representation of women in political or other elected office will have increased significantly. The provisions do, however, contain a power to allow a Minister to extend their use beyond 2030 if insufficient progress has been made in increasing female representation. Given the fact that we have given ourselves two decades to achieve that aim, I hope that we can do so without requiring that extension.
By attempting to prevent the use of positive action under what I hope I have persuaded hon. Members are entirely appropriate circumstances, the aims of the Bill contradict government policy to promote fairness, equality and diversity and to tackle under-representation in targeted areas such as “women on company boards” and “elected office”. Many public authorities have long used forms of positive action in relation to matters connected to recruitment and promotion, and they strongly support the continued use of those provisions. Some registered political parties have successfully used these measures in recent years and, as far as I am aware, there is no opposition from any of the major political parties to using positive action to redress gender representation.
The key thing to remember is that the use of any form of positive action in our country is entirely voluntary, whether it is in providing services, in employment-related matters, in increasing participation in particular activities, or in politics. Organisations will use the provisions only if there is a real benefit for them in doing so. Without the use of positive action, it would not be possible to develop the initiatives outlined in the coalition programme for government to tackle the numerous barriers to social mobility and equal opportunities that exist in our society in relation to age, gender, race, religion and sexual orientation. It is not possible to build a fairer society without being able to take the necessary measures to end discrimination in the workplace; to promote gender equality on the boards of listed companies; to promote improved community relations and opportunities for people of black and minority ethnic backgrounds; to provide internships for under-represented groups; and to fund targeted mentoring schemes to help under-represented groups to start businesses. It is clear that my hon. Friend’s Bill would remove this voluntary but important opportunity for organisations and political parties to make strides in tackling the continued disadvantage and under-representation experienced by persons with protected characteristics in work forces and in civic, public and political life across the UK. To stop the use of positive action would cause a major setback in the progress already made in addressing disadvantage or under-representation in our society. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to withdraw his Bill.
With the leave of the House, may I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate, those who supported my Bill—I particularly thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) for their typically robust comments on my behalf—and those who contributed to the debate even though they did not agree with me?
It is sad that in this age it is so difficult to persuade Members of the merits of the principle that people should be given jobs on merit, and merit alone. It is like pushing water uphill to try and make the case for that basic and, I should have thought, obvious proposition. On that note I shall conclude the debate and press the motion to a Division.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The House proceeded to a Division.