Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:56 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Labour 7:56 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill and I believe that it was changed for the better in the other place. I am among those in the Chamber who have been campaigning to combine the many discrimination laws into a single act for more years than I care to remember. As a former trade union official, I know how this harmonisation will make life simpler and strengthen protection for those relying on the Bill to improve the lot of some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Like other noble Lords, certain parts of the Bill are more important to me than others, but I shall not outline these tonight because of the time. Rather, I shall concentrate on queries and comments that I have about the Bill. My first comment is about the approach to gender discrimination in pay and contractual terms-vital issues for trade unions and their members. The Bill replicates the existing provisions of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and this for me is extremely disappointing. The Government are missing a great opportunity to improve on the Equal Pay Act. They could have overhauled what is currently a complex, time-consuming and costly legal process to close the gap between men's and women's pay by allowing a hypothetical competitor to be used. Secondly, in relation to the new public sector duty proposals, I would welcome more details of these in the Bill, most especially the inclusion of the requirement for public bodies to consult their recognised trade unions on these issues. This would certainly pave the way for better industrial relations.

My two most important queries relate to women bishops and to equality representatives. I will start with women bishops and I place on record my thanks for my briefing from the Women and the Church task force. WATCH has anxieties about the Bill. It believes that within the Equality Bill, the Church of England may need to claim exemptions under Schedule 9, concerning gender, for two reasons. First, some Episcopal appointments may only be open to men who do not ordain women. Secondly, does Paragraph 2(6) of Schedule 9 mean that those opposed to female bishops and/or opposed to male bishops who consecrate them may be exempt from the Act under this non-conflict clause? When I read the clause, it made me wonder if it really should be removed from the Bill altogether because it appears to give a licence to any group that wishes to hold the Church, or indeed any other religious body, to ransom when such a body is considering changing its stance on issues of gender, sexuality, et cetera. I would welcome the Minister's response.

I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify these issues, because WATCH believes that the best future for the Church of England will include women and men as bishops without any discrimination between them in terms of functions, responsibilities for care or geographical territory. As a member of the Church of England, I support this view, hence my raising these points today.

I know that the TUC and the Government have fairly recently discussed equality representatives. The Government have identified a clear business case for promoting equality and diversity in the workplace, including enhanced profitability, attracting and retaining talented staff to fill skills gaps and, importantly, more productive employees who are selected, trained and promoted because they are the best people for the jobs. I am surprised, therefore, that the Government have not sought to recognise the valuable contribution already made by union equality representatives by using this Bill to place them on the same statutory footing as other union representatives.

Equality reps are trained to advise and inform union members about equality matters in the workplace, such as the right to request flexible working, equal pay and protection from discrimination, which are all relevant to this Bill. They complement and enhance employers' efforts to engage with workers by fostering a shared level of trust between workers and between workers and managers, supporting the efforts of the employer to deal more effectively with issues that individual workers may find difficult to discuss. At present, equality reps often operate outside the collective bargaining process and, although there is no obligation on an employer to consult with equality representatives, many employers do, because it helps them to deal with sensitive matters; for example, between special interest groups. Working with employers, equality representatives can assist in monitoring and assessing the impact of employment policies on different groups to ensure that measures are put in place to avoid discrimination. Avoiding discrimination reduces the employer's exposure to costly and time-consuming employment tribunal claims while encouraging healthier, happier and more productive employees.

Representatives already receive considerable support from unions to perform their role in the workplace. However, those who are not given paid time off to perform their role are not able to be nearly as effective. Paid time off means time off that is "reasonable in all the circumstances" in order to undertake training relevant to their role and to perform their functions, in line with the ACAS code of practice on time off for trade union duties and activities. Once the Equality Bill comes into force, the pressure on equality reps to give advice and support to employees who fall into one or more of the equality strands protected under the new Act will dramatically increase. Without a right to statutory facility time, the burden of managing workplace disputes between competing interest groups will fall squarely on existing human resources teams and managers.

The TUC would like included in the Bill proposals to give equality reps the same rights to paid time off for training and carrying out their duties as those currently enjoyed by shop stewards, and union learning and health and safety representatives in workplaces where the union is recognised for collective bargaining purposes. The TUC will publish a full report in early January 2010, illustrating the important contribution made by equality reps and why statutory backing should be incorporated in the Bill. I give due notice that I shall place an amendment to include equality reps in the Bill. I look forward to the debates ahead.