Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 7:15 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, I greatly welcome the Bill and see it as a tribute to the Government's commitment to equality. The Bill does a number of things that are long overdue. It comes as a climax to a long struggle for equality, which began nearly 45 years ago. As time is limited, I shall concentrate on those aspects of the Bill which puzzle me and where I would like some clarification and possibly some reinforcement. I have six points.

Given the provenance of the Bill and the fact that women constitute 51 per cent of our population, the Bill has much to say about gender equality. I welcome that, but I would have thought that measures similar to those proposed for gender equality might be introduced for other characteristics; for example, pay audits refer mainly to women and have nothing to say about the disabled or the ethnic minorities. There is a provision in the Bill for a women-only shortlist but no provision whatever for ethnic minorities or for the disabled or others. Women enjoy only 19 per cent of the representation in the House of Commons, which certainly needs to be rectified, but the representation of ethnic minorities is less than 2 per cent. I would have thought that the same arguments made about gender representation should also apply to ethnicity and other areas.

My second point is a simple one. As is widely acknowledged and was repeatedly emphasised by Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister, the ethnic minorities are inadequately represented in the higher echelons of the Civil Service, the judiciary, and among chief executives of NHS trusts and other public bodies. Many of us had hoped that the Bill would propose some way of rectifying that situation. So far I have seen nothing in the Bill that will do much to rectify that gross under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in the upper echelons of the Civil Service and the judiciary.

My third point concerns placing a positive duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity, to counter disadvantages and to foster good relations. The duty, as formulated in the Bill, remains rather vague. There is no provision to monitor public authorities. The Bill says that the Government will make proposals later for specific duties, possibly in the form of instructions or secondary legislation. I hope that they will bear in mind the need to give real bite to the general positive duty to promote equality of opportunity and to foster good race relations. However, it would greatly help if there were some kind of monitoring provision and provision for equality impact assessment in the Bill.

I have the same feeling concerning the need to tackle socio-economic disadvantage. Tackling that is a public policy issue and the law can only do so much but we should ensure that it does everything it can. Public authorities are required to show that they have taken into account the differential socio-economic impact of their policies and that the course of action they propose to take will deal with those differential impacts. Placing the duty is not enough. We also need to ensure that public authorities are required to publish alternative strategies by which they try to identify what impact different strategies will have and that those strategies deal with socio-economic disadvantages. There is no use simply putting the duty in formal terms, unless there is a backup mechanism of some kind.

My fourth point has to do with the fact that disadvantage and discrimination occur for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. There is direct and there is indirect discrimination, but as the Macpherson report pointed out, and as the report that I was privileged to chair on behalf of the Runnymede Commission pointed out, discrimination can also occur through the culture of an organisation, through the attitudes of its members, unwitting prejudices, thoughtlessness and stereotypes-in other words, a kind of sexism or racism which is built into the practices and procedures of the organisation, which shapes its culture and results in discriminatory or disadvantageous treatment. I should have liked the Bill to have moved beyond simple forms of direct and indirect discrimination and to tackle ways of organisational culture.

I want to move, briefly, but importantly, to the complicated notion of positive action and the situation where it can be regarded as lawful. Positive action, as it is defined in the Bill, is, in some form, already lawful and many organisations practise it. It seems to imply that, where people are equally qualified, you might take into account the fact that someone belongs to a particular gender or a particular race. However, there is a different way in which the problem can be conceptualised.

Take a hospital. The example given is of a school where all the teachers are women and we are thinking of a male teacher as a role model. Let me give a slightly different and less hackneyed example and a real one. Take a hospital whose obstetrics and gynaecology department is all-male. Many women would like to be seen by a female gynaecologist, but there is none. A vacancy occurs. We have two candidates, a male and a female, with equal medical or academic qualifications and equal professional experience. The woman doctor could be appointed, either as a form of positive action, or by simply saying that the needs of the organisation require that her gender is an important part of the qualification itself. In other words, what is called positive action here is not simply an add-on in a situation where there is equality of qualification or experience, rather it is built into the structure of the assessment criteria themselves, so that she is appointed because she has an additional qualification, by virtue of her gender, which others do not have.

My last point has already been made and has to do with the procurement policy of the Government. They somewhere between £175 billion and £220 billion per year on goods, facilities and services supplied by the private sector. This is a very powerful weapon by which to ensure equality. This is what the Americans did in the 1970s and 1980s in a very big way. This is what was also proposed here when the GLC was in swing, in the form of contract compliance. The Bill needs to provide clear guidelines as to how the procurement policy or contract compliance is to be executed, there should be rigorous monitoring so that the policy is not misused and it must be enforced as powerfully as it can be.

I have expressed some doubts and reservations about the Bill, but that was simply in the hope that we take them into account, and as and when another opportunity arises to propose a Bill, perhaps we might be able to go back and take these points into account. I have no wish to put down amendments on any of this, because the Bill is extremely important and nothing should be done to delay its passage through this wonderful House.