Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:06 pm on 15 December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Murphy Baroness Murphy Crossbench 9:06, 15 December 2009

My Lords, the fundamental principles underlying the Bill cannot be challenged and, in general, I give the Bill my support. For me, the most pressing area of need in the Bill is the intent to ban age discrimination in the provision of goods and services. I note that there will be further consultation on how that is to be achieved. I have belonged to a number of organisations which have decided to subject their people to diversity training-I guess most of us have been through it at some stage-and Members will probably know that the most common outright prejudice is not sexism or racism but common or garden ageism. All my professional life as a psychiatrist for older people, I have had to struggle against NHS and local authority ageism. We desperately need legislation in this area.

The Government's calculations on the possible impact of implementing equality of access to care in mental health services, in general medical and surgical services and in cancer services, will prove extremely costly but it is well worth the investment. I understand the complexity of implementing these provisions and the need for further consultation but I am worried about the proposed delay. There is no timetable outlined and I hope that the Minister will give us some kind of timetable for implementing these vital age-equality provisions.

There are some very disappointing areas in the Bill. From discussions while the Bill was zooming through the other place, I had thought that Vera Baird, the Solicitor-General, had indicated her support for prohibiting the use of pre-employment health-related questions which are not directly relevant to a candidate's ability to do a job. Disappointingly, the Bill arrives unchanged in this respect. People with HIV, mental health problems and many disabilities find themselves asked in application forms about medical conditions, disability and medication. In the United States and a number of EU partners, such questions are unlawful.

We know that 60 per cent of employers will not knowingly employ a person who admits to having had mental health problems and over 40 per cent of mental health service users are put off even applying for a job because of such discriminating questions. A half of those who decide to apply for a job hide their history and I have to admit to colluding with some patients who decided to do this in the past by not seeking to intervene in the process. It is, of course, permissible and necessary to ask a person who has been offered a job about any disabilities which might impact on their ability to do the job. I feel there must be a middle way to ensure that employers feel encouraged to take on people who fall into these groups that is just and fair for both employers and job seekers. I hope we can work on this as the Bill progresses.

A further concern is the impact of a public authority's duty in respect of religion or belief. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, said everything I wanted to say about that and so did the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald. I will add only that I see a real danger of creating parallel, separate services for different religious groups, which lead to further divisions in society and to unfair employment practices. I remember my great shock, at my first visit to Northern Ireland services to older people about 35 years ago, on realising that, when you went into an institution in Northern Ireland, you either went to a Catholic one or a Protestant one, and there was no choice.

Here, we already have separate charitable institutions run by various religious groups and some of them are exemplary. Methodist Homes for the Aged, for example, are rigidly-and blessedly, in my view-an organisation which is an equal opportunities employer of the very best kind and accepts residents of all faiths and none. There are others, such as Jewish Care, which, for understandable historical reasons, have developed along separate lines and take people who wish to go into a particular sort of care, because they are Jewish. This I find perfectly okay, particularly as Jewish Care is also a very clear equal opportunities employer and its care staff, again, are of all faiths and none.

I have also served on a Christian housing association where we had a truly ecumenical board running it. We also had very good, strong equal opportunities policies. I am concerned, however, that the provisions in the Bill will make it possible for religious organisations to discriminate in employment. We already know that this goes on in some providers of public services. People who provide care services at home, where people do not have a choice, because the contract is let by a local authority or primary care trust, need to know that those who are employed will have employee status which is truly equal, as you would expect. We are truly setting up problems for the future if we allow this to happen.

My last area of concern is the clauses on positive action. In general, I do not have a problem with Clause 154, it seems fine to me. However, I have a strong objection to Clause 155, on recruitment and promotion, where it is permissible, the Bill says,

"where two candidates are equally qualified", to discriminate in favour of an individual with protected characteristics. In practice, it does not work, mainly because there never are two equally qualified candidates for a job, there is either someone with protected characteristics who is the best fit and properly qualified, or there is someone who is not and who is given the job and somebody else who will be directly discriminated against as a result of the choice.

I am astonished to see Clause 155 in the Bill, because we have had ample evidence of the misguided application of positive action in local authorities, such as Lambeth in the 1980s, and in the NHS, which did not appoint executive trust and PCT executive board members in this way, but has quite often appointed non-executives directors in this way, which, frankly, has led to PCTs and many trust boards becoming white-male-free zones. I remember when many white male chairs were sacked from trust boards in 1987 and 1988. Many women and some ethnic minority candidates came in instead. Too few of them, at that time, had real experience of running large corporate organisations or had serious financial skills-there might have been women who did, but they did not. They were said to be bringing community knowledge and skills. We were creating corporate incompetence on a massive scale, which, I fear, continues to this day.

Positive action in employment is profoundly discriminatory because of this lack of candidates being equal and does nothing to establish confidence in women or people from ethnic minorities being able to do the job. This is usually a matter for allowing time so that those who have had educational opportunities and experience can catch up. Of course, we need to provide special development opportunities for people to be able to make the best of their talents, but we women and ethnic minorities should oppose anything that detracts from our being appointed wholly on merit. I look forward to the Committee stage of this valuable Bill and to some robust debate.


Alix Cull
Posted on 18 Dec 2009 11:21 am (Report this annotation)

I am pleased to note that Baroness Murphy refers to the mentally ill who are very much stigmatised in society. My particular interest and concern is for those with schizophrenia. They have a severe and often lif-long illness, which renders them unable to work in the open market. Many are not unintelligent, but the structure of the brain has rendered it difficult to process their thoughts in this fast moving world.
Although treatment for this condition has improved greatly in recent years it does not seem to be accepted that many require sheltered employment with people who understand the illness. I have met some sufferers who have tried their best to hold down a job, but on dismissal, because of the demands of the open market, have fallen back to an acute state of illness which has added to their suffering by the depression which this has also brought to them because of the lack of acceptance they have received when in employment. The human race can at times be cruel to one another.
When the asylums were open there was opportunity for the patients to work in sheltered work attached to the hospital, where their condition was understood, and no pressure was put upon them. I am not suggesting that the asylums are re-opened, as that would be a backward step. But it is necessary that people with this condition are understood by their family and the public in general, who through reports in the media of the "failed cases" who have been discharged from care too soon, or refused their need for care, due to lack of insight.