Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:47 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Handsworth Lord Morris of Handsworth Labour 6:47 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, I, too, commend the Government for bringing forward another instalment on the long road to equality. It was some 44 years ago that this nation made a date with destiny with the 1965 Race Relations Act, which was followed by the 1976 Race Relations Act. Both Acts pledged the nation to the twin pillars of the elimination of discrimination and the promotion of equality of opportunity. Both Acts combined law enforcement on the one hand with community development on the other and set Britain on the road to equality. To coin a phrase, we sealed the deal with the British people. While the Explanatory Notes to this Bill are extensive, and my reading of it is incomplete, I cannot recall any reference in the Bill to contributing to the building of a strong, diverse and stable community. I support the call for an overall purpose clause to the Bill.

Today we consider a Bill that, we are told, is intended to bring together the various anti-discrimination laws and their subsequent amendments, which is to be welcomed. The Bill also promotes the notion of a socio-economic public duty, but these duties are not the panacea to all our social ills. For some time, public duty has already been provided in our anti-discrimination laws. Following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 imposed a number of proactive responsibilities on public authorities, which are commonly known as general race equality duties. We owe it to the legacy of Stephen Lawrence that, however inconvenient, we do not dilute or roll back these steps, which are positive tools in the struggle to eliminate discrimination and promote equality. The problem with this new section of the Bill is not a lack of public duty but a lack of enforcement of that duty, a lack of sanctions and a lack of real remedies.

That said, the principle of consolidation is welcome because the Bill raises a number of key issues, one or two of which I shall touch on as time permits. First, there is the interpretation of "equality". In the proposed legislation, Ministers embrace equality in the language of fairness, but one person's fair is another person's unfair. Fairness is a subjective concept and it has been used as a second-rate substitute for the one word that really matters in this debate-equality. We must build a society where we enjoy the right to be different and, just as important, the right to be equal.

The Race Relations Act 1965 and the legislation that followed it were described by one of the Act's architects as having real backbone. Underpinning those Acts was the recognition that victims of discrimination must be empowered to seek and pursue justice through remedies in the civil courts or, indeed, industrial tribunals. The new provisions of the Bill-I emphasise "new provisions"-lack real teeth. There is no clear route to equality or justice and some would say that that means very little credibility. Frankly, the new provisions, to coin a phrase that I have just used, lack a legal backbone. Individuals will not be able to pursue legal remedies for breaches of their statutory duty; they will have to seek judicial review proceedings if the authority does not deliver in respect of its strategic decisions. Equality and justice should be about simplicity of access to the law, not about scaling the hurdles of bureaucracy.

Digging deep for some positive strands in the new section of the Bill, I welcome the inclusion of age within the scope of the public sector duty. Sadly, the Bill does not outlaw the practice of enforced retirement at the arbitrary age of 65. Why do the Government not use the Bill to outlaw a practice that discriminates on those grounds? It is also to be regretted that there is a total absence of any protection for those under the age of 18, which could mean that children who suffer discrimination do not enjoy the Bill's protection.

Gender pay transparency is yet another concern. Only public sector employees, for whom there is a target figure, will enjoy the opportunity of annual detailed reporting. I cannot understand the distinction between the public and private sector obligations here. Eighty per cent of all employees are in the private sector-the vast majority in small and medium-sized enterprises-and their employers are asked to report only on a voluntary basis. However, it is at that level of employment where the growth in the number of women employees really exists. In my view, a voluntary reporting scheme will take us no further forward in the battle to get equality in respect of women's pay.

We are told that the procurement budget is some £220 billion. It seems to me that this gives us a real chance to make a difference in respect of discrimination on any of the grounds named in the Bill. I would take a blunt instrument to this: if you are found to discriminate, you should not enjoy the benefit of government contracts. The Americans take a simple view: it is called "contract compliance".

We need to recognise that, if we are to take the road to true and lasting equality, we must ensure that we have the tools to finish the job. Discrimination is not just another social evil; it is a disease that devalues its victim, corrupts its perpetrators and attacks the moral fabric of our society.