Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:19 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Afshar Baroness Afshar Crossbench 6:19 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for introducing the Bill. I declare an interest as a commissioner of the Women's National Commission, which agrees wholeheartedly that the Bill is necessary, although it may not be sufficient.

Much has been said about tackling the root causes of gender inequality. There is a vast amount of academic literature which already addresses the root causes of gender inequality. I have previously put its ideas forward in this House. The root cause is the fact that women are seen as inferior bearers of labour. That is because they offer domestic labour free of charge and therefore, when they offer the same labour in the marketplace, it is considered to be unskilled. I am well aware that the consideration of wages for housework is not likely to be acceptable, so perhaps we should move on from root causes to giving women rights. If we do not have rights, we cannot exercise those rights. It may be that when we have rights, their exercising is complicated, but without them we are nowhere. I am very grateful that we are at least being given the opportunity to be treated equally by employers, and that the responsibility for transparency rests with employers, and not necessarily with employees.

I particularly welcome the inclusion of religious discrimination in the Bill. I declare an interest as the honorary president of the Muslim Women's Network UK. The difficulty so far has been that religions-that is, the adherents of a faith-have been discriminated against without fear of prosecution. The reason for that is that particular categories of people are classified by their faith. I was born a Muslim and do not see Islam as a jacket that I can change every day; it is what I was born with and probably what I will die with. Therefore, it is not a choice that I make consciously.

However, I have lived, very sadly, through an intense period of Islamophobia. More than once I have been asked to choose between being a Muslim and being British. I did not choose to be a Muslim; I was born a Muslim. I chose to be a British person. I regard it as a huge privilege to have been allowed to be a British individual. Had I lived in Iran, I think my faith would have been rather different at this stage of my life. I am grateful to be British but I cannot be British by choosing not to be a Muslim. Therefore, when the adherents of a faith are, as a category, unprotected by the law, perhaps we need to take action. This bridging action is most welcomed by Muslim women who, as has been repeated, are the group that is least likely to access equality.

It is important to bear in mind that, for those who practise their religions, the provision of facilities such as a prayer room or clean washing spaces is not an unusual requirement. It will not particularly hurt the employers, and it would help Muslim women to see themselves as welcomed in the workplace as Muslim women. I very much welcome this inclusion.

I would like to see these provisions extended more to the informal labour market, particularly part-time workers. Given the welfare provisions as they stand, most mothers of children under the age of three do not have easy access to full-time free childcare. Therefore, they cannot offer full-time employment. They can only work for the hours when their children are being looked after. The majority of women who are suffering are part-time workers in the informal sector. They are, as yet, not included. However, I heed the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and I would not press this. I hope that, at some point, these views will also be considered.