Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 8:34 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 8:34 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, I congratulate the Government and especially our talented Leader of the House and welcome the Equality Bill and its two main aims-to harmonise existing anti-discrimination laws in all human rights areas and to strengthen and extend the remit to further promote the whole equality process. In the 1970s both Houses campaigned together to pass the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and set up the EOC. I had the honour of being its first deputy chairman, under the skilful chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, who sadly is not in her place tonight. I little thought then that some 40 years later we would be debating a Bill to try and ensure that equal pay, the bedrock of that first piece of legislation, is finally achieved.

Today I want to concentrate on three aspects of the Bill: equal pay-surprise, surprise-age discrimination and pensions. First, however, I shall make a few general points. Clearly, it makes sense to try and ensure that government and other public authority policies that aim to reduce socio-economic disadvantage do not fall foul of this legislation. The Government have shown encouraging beginnings, for example in attempting to break the cycle of deprivation in early childhood-something that many of your Lordships have long campaigned for, and will continue to do so. However, we must make sure that these clauses do not have a counterproductive effect on these policies; I have heard doubts expressed already.

I welcome the additional disability clauses that have been mentioned-with the disadvantages that may exist-by my noble friends Lady Campbell and Lord Low. I am not going to say more about this, other than that I thoroughly agree, because they have covered the areas so completely. However, I want to say that I especially welcome the inclusion of carers of disabled people in positive action schemes which allow them, for example, to request flexible working. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, that indirect discrimination applies to carers as well.

On the political front, I have to admit that I have never been much in favour of women-only shortlists in a positive discrimination sense. However, as all parties now use this to see that more women candidates are selected, and if it ensures a more representative variety of views in the legislative process, then hopefully the proposed sunset clause will be redundant well before 2030.

I have one query about religion; the way it has dominated today's debate has rather surprised me. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, has already referred to the Church of England's debate about appointing women bishops-I must say this has my full support. WATCH points out that any measure passed by the General Synod concerning the appointment of bishops will eventually come to the House of Lords for approval, and asks whether the House could, let alone should, approve a measure that discriminates unfairly. Perhaps an even more pertinent question is whether it would be legal to do so once the Equality Bill is law. Cynically, I suspect that the answer is yes. I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate the Government's views on this when she replies-and not just whether the answer is yes, but whether that is actually what should be happening.

I turn to my three main topics. I have already mentioned equal pay. We should remember that the pay gap is not just the result of pay discrimination, but also differences in education and experience, gender stereotyping, occupational segregation and, crucially, the current lack of part-time and flexible work. This is increasingly of equal importance for male as well as female workers. Clearly, this Bill is an opportunity seriously to begin closing the gender pay gap. The pay gap between men and women is something like 16.4 per cent for full-time workers, and higher for part-time workers. The Women's National Commission notes that in the financial sector it reaches as high as 60 per cent.

As we have heard, the Bill contains powers that would allow the Secretary of State to require the reporting of the gender pay gap where a firm employed 250 or more workers, starting voluntarily. This clause would not come into effect until 2013 and only if insufficient progress on reporting had been made. As UNISON has pointed out, this would mean that 50 per cent of private sector workers would be excluded from these somewhat limited measures. Now we have this other series of press rumours, which say that only companies that employ 500 workers would be under pressure to produce data showing that they do not discriminate. Your Lordships will understand why I remain somewhat gloomy about the year by which equal pay for work of equal value will be achieved. We should constantly remind ourselves of the prediction made by the dissolving EOC that it would take until 2085, unless a far more proactive approach was taken.

Returning to how work is organised, it is vital that employers, too, recognise the right to flexible working as valuable for their own bottom line. The Co-operative's analysis of the pay gap shows that in most companies there is relative equality at junior levels, until it reaches a point where women's representation drops off markedly. That point is often where flexible working practices diminish.

I turn to age discrimination. Those of your Lordships who attended the All-Party Group on Patient Safety initiated last Tuesday by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and heard from relatives the horrendous accounts of inadequate care and treatment of elderly patients in NHS hospitals, will certainly welcome the Bill's extension of direct anti-discrimination rights in the provision of goods and services. The Bill will be important, too, for those reaching the current default retirement age who want and need to continue working. It is estimated that non-employment among older workers costs the economy between £19 billion and £31 billion a year. Correspondingly, by keeping the mind active, the years of dependency and cost to the NHS will be equally reduced. Thus, making the right decisions now about the default retirement age will be critical. We have all the results from the Heyday case, and so on. Like other noble Lords, Age Concern, Help the Aged and Business in the Community, I hope the noble Baroness will respond by saying that now, in the Bill, is the time for the default age to go.

Lastly and briefly, I come to pensions. In recent legislation the Government have certainly made progress, with the encouragement of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in seeing that women who play the major role in bringing up families-and either have no jobs or work part-time-are given some extra pension credit. However, the planned upward shift of the state retirement age to 66 or 67 over the next few years will mean that while men must wait an additional one to two years for their state pension, women will not be able to draw theirs for an extra six years.

I am not going to go on about annuities, which is my pet subject, but on this issue it is fairly important. Figures show that even today the majority of pensioners living in poverty are women. Could the situation that women pensioners face be construed as either direct or indirect discrimination under the Equality Bill? Given the considerable price of childcare, as my noble friend Lady Deech has already mentioned, whether provided by the state or privately, if women had received a salary for the role they played in bringing up children, their pension would be very different today.

In conclusion, I again applaud the Government on this legislation. There are clearly issues and problems that will need attention, and I fear that we will need more action on the issue of equal pay. As other noble Lords have said, it is the age discrimination clauses which will have the most important long-term value, especially if a decision is taken now to abolish the default retirement age.