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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 Thomas of Walliswood Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Women and Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities 11:35 am, 25th November 2004

My Lords, my main purpose in speaking today is to respond to the Government's legislative ambitions in the field of equality. That should not surprise anyone. Before doing so, I welcome the three maiden speeches to which I was fortunate enough to be able to listen. They certainly confirmed that three extremely varied, interesting and able people have been added to our Benches, and they will all be able to contribute in their own way to our discussions in this House. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Broers, that I was not able to be present during his speech.

I also want to say a few words about the consumer credit Bill which will come before us at some point. As my noble friend Lord Newby indicated, we welcome such a Bill. The present Act is very old, personal debt has reached more than £1 trillion, and the ratio of debt to income is also at unprecedented heights. In recent weeks, we have seen very vivid examples of the way in which a relatively small debt can be escalated until it acquires monumental proportions with which virtually no family could be expected to deal due to the combined circumstances of occasional inability to pay interest and the claims of the lending company.

The Bill will be very important and it has been welcomed by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. That is not surprising because sorting out debt problems has become the single biggest job of citizens advice bureaux. That is certainly the case in my part of the world and I should not be at all surprised if it were true countrywide. We should like to see the financial institutions give just a small percentage of their profits to the citizens advice bureaux so that they are better equipped to deal with the very large numbers of clients coming before them in such circumstances.

I was amused by Martin Hall, director general of the Finance & Leasing Association, which represents the big lenders in the credit industry. He said:

"New requirements for fairness in lending practices will undermine the enforceability of agreements and make lenders more cautious in whom they lend to".

I discovered that quite what that means depends entirely on the tone of voice in which one reads it out, but I shall not experiment in your Lordships' House. However, I think that I can describe the welcome as lukewarm at best.

I turn to the question of the equality Bills which will shortly be before us. I start by drawing attention, once again, to the fact that equality is nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with the success of this country in all its aspects. I shall restrict myself to what I know on the subject of equality for women.

Seven out of 10 employers agree that recruiting more young people of the non-traditional sex would help to solve the skills shortage. Yet only 15 per cent of girls and boys receive any advice on work placements in areas dominated by the other sex. At least 36 per cent of girls would like to try a work placement more traditionally carried out by boys, and 67 per cent of them would have considered a wider range of career options had they realised that there is a different rate of pay in jobs usually filled by men as opposed to those usually filled by women.

In the construction industry—an important industry, especially in recent years—38 per cent of current vacancies are the result of skills shortages, but only 1 per cent of employees are female. The best employers achieve return rates of over 90 per cent as regards women returning after maternity leave, yet only 47 per cent of women actually return to the same employer after giving birth. Many of those who return to employment return at a lower level. I could go on and on.

We are talking about a catastrophic waste of human resources which our economy, even after the glowing words spent on it by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, who introduced the debate, can hardly afford to lose and continue to lose. In fact, some of the indications to which I have referred suggest that, were there to be more equal employment of men, productivity, which has been extremely reluctant to grow now, as in the past, might actually be increased. Added productivity is one way of combating low costs in other people's economies.

Turning to the matter of equality and human rights legislation, in March 1997—I quote this because it shows quite a long gestation process—the Labour and Liberal Democrat Joint Consultative Committee on constitutional reform published a report looking forward to a human rights commission to advise and to assist people seeking protection under the European Convention on Human Rights. That was in 1997. Over the years that suggestion has been elided into the present proposal for a new commission to deal with both equality and human rights—equality issues as defined by legislation and the wider area of human rights. That is the commission with which the legislation will deal.

That combination has in itself been controversial because many practitioners and onlookers have pointed out that there is a difference between human rights in their broad sense and how they affect our ability to pursue our interests in the courts and the specific rights given to various groups and people through legislation. In many countries, including Ireland, separate institutions have been established for those two, separate matters. However, that is not what has been done here. It seems to me that the rights movement appears resigned to welcome the new CEHR—the combined rights body—in the form determined by government. We must hope that the modus operandi determined by the new commission will give the right weight and value to each of its major new responsibilities.

Another source of concern in recent years has been the worries of some of the existing equality strands that their particular concern will be swallowed up in a single equality commission. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, told us about the large number of different pieces of legislation that play their part in equality issues. I shall not go through that again, but if one looks at the different rights provided by these different pieces of legislation, it is understandable that people should have such concerns. The quite recently established Disability Rights Commission was perhaps particularly concerned about being rapidly integrated into a different body. At least some members of the Commission for Racial Equality were worried about the impact on their ability to serve their clients as effectively as before.

However, after a long period of government consultation, response and reconsultation, it seems to me that those anxieties have gradually abated. Perhaps the very process of joint discussion itself has helped to break down mutual suspicions and to allay concerns. Certainly the same thing happened within the All-Party Group on Sex Equality when it considered these matters some years ago. Gradually, just talking, listening and thinking together over a series of meetings, changed our attitude from at least partial hostility to acceptance and even welcome.

I hope that a particular problem will have been solved by the Government's expected legislation. The extension of a duty to promote equal treatment from its current application on the race equality strand to the sex equality strand is greatly to be welcomed.

The Disability Discrimination Bill will introduce a similar duty to promote equality for disabled people. So the duty to promote is now becoming more widespread and more equally distributed between the major strands of equality. That Bill will also cover the extension of protection on religious grounds to include the provision of goods, facilities and services. In another part of the forest, age discrimination will also be addressed.

There are still concerns that a single commission will be administering a jumble of legislation dating from 1975 to the present day. Many of us would wish to see the creation of a new single equality commission within the context of a single equality law. On these Benches we welcome that legislation. No doubt, when the time comes for it to be presented to Parliament, we shall have constructive criticisms to make, but that is for the future. For today, I merely ask the noble Lord when he hopes to introduce those Bills to Parliament.