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Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:35 am on 25th November 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Hornsey Baroness Young of Hornsey Crossbench 11:35 am, 25th November 2004

My Lords, first of all I would like to echo the comments made in earlier maiden speeches and thank noble Lords and the staff here who have done so much to make me feel so welcome and to reassure me that I am not the only one having difficulty in finding my way around this magnificent building. It is indeed a privilege to be admitted into this Chamber and to be given the opportunity to work for the citizens of this country. It is also, of course, a great responsibility, of which I am keenly aware.

In addressing the Government's intention to establish a new body to ensure that fairness, equity and respect form the bedrock on which our society is based, I am particularly pleased to be able to address your Lordships for the first time on a subject about which I feel strongly, and which concerns us all. However, I will do my best not to stray into controversy, as is the convention with maiden speeches.

I work in the cultural sector and have done for many years. There is often a perception that those who work in culture and the arts are somehow detached from the "real world". I can assure your Lordships that that is not the case. For example—especially relevant in the context of this subject—many people in the cultural sector continue to work very hard to lessen the damaging effects of discrimination that lead to the scarring of so many lives.

Although it happens less and less these days, I am still occasionally asked where I am from. I often reply that I am a Londoner—born and brought up in this great world city. People talk proudly of the capital's diversity and, increasingly, that of Britain as a whole, but I can clearly remember the time when having a rich mix of different communities, ethnicities and lifestyles was not seen as an asset at all.

Some of your Lordships will recall the sign in the windows of houses with a room to let in the 1950s and 1960s stating "No blacks, no Irish, no children, no dogs". Women were called upon simply to make the tea in the office as "Girl Fridays" and would lose their job should they become pregnant. Terms such as "access" and "rights" were largely meaningless to people with disabilities, and to be an active, consenting adult homosexual was to be subjected to criminal prosecution. Differing religious practices were unrecognised, and people over 45 were virtually written off.

Successive legislation has ensured that racial discrimination is now widely seen as unacceptable. It is an offence to discriminate against women in the workplace, and the Disability Discrimination Act at last recognises that people are disabled by structures and barriers erected by society, and that these can and should be dismantled. Homosexuality has been largely decriminalised, and the passing of the Civil Partnership Act represents a landmark for same-sex couples.

However, those legislative advances should not lull us into a false sense of security about how far we have progressed. Racist, misogynist and homophobic acts of discrimination and physical violence; the denial of the right to practise deeply held faith; the denial of the right to live as full a life as possible, no matter how old you are or what level of physical or mental ability you have—these negative actions and behaviours blight the lives of us all because they compromise our integrity as a society. We need structures and laws to protect those who are most vulnerable to discrimination.

It is proposed that the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission merge and join with those equality strands relating to age, sexuality and religion and human rights to form a new body: the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). The stated core aims of the CEHR are to build and nurture respect for equality, diversity and human rights; to work towards compliance with equality and human rights legislation; and to promote good relations between communities.

The CEHR holds the promise that it will enable a more cross-cutting approach to combatting, documenting and monitoring unlawful discriminatory practices. That is potentially very good news.

There is widespread support for the CEHR among agencies and organisations whose role it is to progress the interests of people represented by the six strands. The business sector has expressed strong support for the proposed organisation because of the advantages of a single agency with which to work to clarify legal obligations and responsibilities. Many are keen to realise the potential of a single point of reference across all the equality strands, but although there is overall support, many also have considerable reservations.

Those who have the greatest interest in, and commitment to, the issues to be dealt with by the new body must feel confident that it has enough resources—human and financial—to tackle unlawful discrimination in a rigorous, robust manner. This confidence is not yet there. Significant numbers of those who responded to the White Paper, Fairness for All: A New Commission for Equality and Human Rights, expressed concerns about the balance between the CEHR's enforcement and promotional activities. Many organisations that represent black communities are concerned that the ability of the new organisation actively to address the specifics of racism and the structures that perpetuate it will not match that of the existing Commission for Racial Equality.

Importantly, virtually all the organisations that participated in the consultation on the White Paper commented on the inconsistency of the various existing areas of legislation. Current laws regarding the different strands of discrimination vary considerably. For example, there is a positive duty for public bodies to eliminate racism and promote equality of opportunity, but that is not yet the case for gender or disability, although the Government are committed to extending the duty to those areas. Similarly, there is a legal protection from discrimination on grounds of gender and disability in the delivery of goods and services, whereas the protection to be offered on religious, sexual orientation and age grounds is restricted to employment and training under the EU employment directive.

Without legislative harmonisation, the confusion about who has what rights in which contexts will exacerbate anxieties about hierarchies of rights across the various communities concerned. An appropriate level of resources will be key to the success of the CEHR; otherwise, it will be viewed as a cost-cutting exercise and a talking shop. That would seriously undermine the support it needs in order to have credibility with national and local stakeholders. All those are major challenges.

I am pleased to note that, in response to submissions during the consultation process, the Government have strengthened enforcement powers and made some other changes. None the less, concerns remain.

With continuing open dialogue between Ministers and stakeholders, I hope that it will be possible to form an effective organisation that will serve 21st-century Britain well. I look forward to contributing to the forthcoming discussions on this important Bill. I thank noble Lords for their kind attention.