Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 8:13 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Billingham Baroness Billingham Labour 8:13 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, my first thoughts when reading the Equality Bill were, "Haven't I been here before? Isn't this already the case?". On rereading the Bill, however, I became persuaded that readdressing the issue is not only necessary but overdue. One of the great dangers is assuming that checks and balances are not only in place but that they are working. They are not. More than that, the scope of inequality today is wider than ever and includes issues such as civil partnerships, race, sexual orientation and age. All have implications which are more complex than ever and which require further scrutiny.

I congratulate the Government on taking these issues further and making a Bill fit for the 21st century. Harriet Harman earns our praise for the dogged manner in which she seeks to counter discrimination. Incidentally, I also praise the outstanding version of the Bill-its "easy read" format. I was in the gallery of the other place when Harriet Harman presented the Bill. She, too, paid tribute to the easy read, saying that it made the Bill available to everyone, including those with learning difficulties. She added that she had found it useful and helpful. We all chuckled a bit at that. It was a lovely moment but we knew what she meant.

It is also right to look at the Bill with European eyes. Equality legislation owes much to the European Parliament and the Commission. While in the 1990s they tackled problems on a pan-European scale, we learnt from each other, copying the best practices, levelling up-not levelling down-and much of the work of the Bill before us today owes its starting point to its progress in Brussels.

What difficulties do we still have? Secrecy and opaqueness are the twin enemies of equality. As long as employers or authorities can hide behind the veil of secrecy, challenges are almost certainly impossible. We may think we are getting a raw deal but getting proof is a real obstacle. The Bill takes this on board and provides a framework which helps to overcome these problems.

In the short time allotted to me today, I wish to focus on what to some might seem an obscure area; namely, sport, where equal opportunities and participation are a far-off dream. Let me flag up some problems and in so doing acknowledge the help that I have received from Sport England, the Commission for the Future of Women's Sport and the Central Council for Physical Recreation.

Let us look at some facts. Only one in eight women take part in sport, while one in five men do. The gap is widening. Why so few women? The list of my reasons would include lack of confidence, lack of childcare, transport costs and a lack of friends to go with. It a great pleasure therefore to tell your Lordships that Sport England has set new targets for 1 million more people being active in sport by 2012. Within that, a new initiative called Active Women is targeting £10 million from the National Lottery. It aims to get more women into active sport from what it describes as disadvantaged communities where participation in sport is particularly low.

Alongside this, all the major governing bodies within the CCPR are responding to this priority area. My own chosen sport of tennis is particularly friendly to lifelong participation, both on court and off. I am living proof of that. Volunteers are essential in all sport and women can play a huge part in setting up the framework for sporting participation. We have thousands of junior players in tennis and thousands of active veteran players but we lack women between 16 and 35 for some pretty obvious reasons. We can do much better in coaxing them back to sport, which they played at school and then forgot. All sports are tackling this gap. It is a real gender gap and the Government have prioritised this as a target group. Getting mums off the touchline and into the game, into officialdom, into all areas that enhance sport are good and reasonable objectives.

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson recently headed a commission to look at the future of women's sport. She and her commission did an excellent job. She highlighted the fact that the dominance of men in the hierarchy of sports administration and leadership is nothing short of scandalous. Only one in five members of the boards of national governing bodies is a woman. Even worse, a quarter of all sports have no women at all on their board. There is still a macho culture in sport, and women's participation in national and local sport is almost totally ignored by the media. It is a disgrace.

Sport is at last waking up to its shortcomings, and you might ask why that is important. It is important simply because sport offers so much in health and happiness, and the role of the female in the family dictates so much the activities of her children. It is a fact that if the mother is involved in sport, the children are 80 per cent more likely to be involved, too.

I apologise for straying off piste, but I had to demonstrate that equality in all corners of our lives is imperative if we are to give all citizens a fair and full life without discrimination and unfairness. I wish the Bill good fortune. It has so much to commend it. It will serve to remind those in sport of their failings; it will at last offer men and women a proper chance to share equally in all aspects of sport; and it will help to challenge existing discrimination. As such, it is most welcome.