Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:31 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Greengross Baroness Greengross Crossbench 5:31 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, I apologise. I mistook the timing and I am sorry.

I declare in interest as a commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

This Bill is extremely important. It merits the all-party support which has been demonstrated very clearly. It is part of a journey towards ensuring that we live in a fair society where everyone can feel good about themselves and have an opportunity to participate on equal terms and feel they can reach their potential. They should not face barriers over which they have no control-barriers due to prejudice and discrimination. In the United Kingdom, we have made some good progress in tackling many of the most blatant examples of discrimination; individuals and organisations now know that those who perpetuate this type of discrimination can be brought to account. However, chronic disadvantage and inequality persist, as we have heard. Half of disabled people are out of work and a Bangladeshi woman is six times as likely to be unemployed as a white woman. A child's postcode at birth is a reasonable predictor for their lot in life as an adult and our choices and chances in life are still to a great extent determined by our origins. This is not simply the product of ill will on the part of either individuals or organisations; it is a systemic bias and, while people may win individual victories here and there, progress will be slow at best and will depend upon those who make great sacrifices in order to take their cases through the courts.

The real challenge is to achieve a wholesale shift in attitudes, looking at how to improve our systems and structures in order to give everyone a fair chance. This is what the Equality Bill will enable us to do. That is why the duty on the public sector is of such importance. The Bill spells out that organisations must look at the evidence and examine their processes, finding ways of delivering for everyone, regardless of race, gender and the other strands of fairness in which they can live equally.

I turn to age discrimination. I welcome the measures outlined in the Bill to ensure that providers of goods, facilities and services-such as high-street shops, sports clubs, holiday resorts and doctors-treat older people fairly and equally. One example is that it is currently legal and normal practice for insurance companies to refuse to quote based solely on a person's age. This means that some healthy and active older people find it difficult or impossible to travel abroad to visit relatives, regardless of what might be justifiable estimates of risk or experience. There are examples in other sectors of discrimination against young adults. Older people are also denied access to some health services, such as mental health care. One in four people over 64 has a diagnosable and serious mental illness and half of those will suffer from depression. Of those with depression, 2.5 million receive no treatment whatever. One in three of us who reaches 65 will die of dementia. The Bill will ensure that dementia is recognised as a health issue as well as requiring social care.

Some issues, however, remain outstanding. For example, the mandatory retirement age will put age discrimination legislation on an equal footing with the other equality strands and make the law simpler and clearer for both employee and employers. We need this to be achieved in the lifetime of this Parliament. Being forced to stand down from a job because of your age rather than your ability is one of the most blatant forms of discrimination that older people face.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that homophobic bullying in schools must also be addressed and be part of this Bill. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, that the Bill must address the real causes of inequality and ensure real and genuine outcomes. It is your Lordships' role to ensure that that is built into the Bill.

I am anxious that this Bill, which is so important, does not get lost. We could try to make it perfect by debating it for a long time. It was subject to a lot of consultation in the discrimination law review. If we lose this Bill, whatever Government are elected at the next election, it will take several years before we get another opportunity like this. Measures in the Bill, which is better than some of us feared, have also been subject to amendment, particularly regarding disability. It is key therefore to ensure that the measures pass, subject to your Lordships' careful scrutiny, but not at the risk of running out of time.

The Bill will help us to celebrate differences and to value others, both for themselves and for the contribution they can make to society. We all need to pull together at a time of great economic difficulties. The Bill deserves our wholehearted support.