Second Reading (Continued)

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

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Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Labour 9:15 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, before the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, goes, I want to start by congratulating her on her speech and saying how wonderful it is to have her back in the House being well after her accident. She is greatly loved in this House, and her speech reminded us all of how we have missed her.

I, too, wish to congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill. I pay special tribute to the Ministers who have championed its introduction: Harriet Harman and our Front Bench in this House. It is a visionary, progressive and long-overdue piece of legislation. Social justice requires the eradication of all discrimination. Although I would have liked to speak about the many hurdles still facing women in fulfilling their aspirations-a part of my life's work-I would also have liked to speak about the continuing problems about race and Islamophobia and, like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and my noble friend Lord Warner, about religion. I would also have liked to speak about the obstacles that still exist to educational equity, but I am mindful of time constraints, and I am going to confine myself to what I consider a very pressing problem: inequality of income or the gap between rich and poor. It underpins so many of the other disadvantages that people face in our society.

Too much time was spent in the 1970s and 1980s debating which forms of inequity were worse: gender, class or race. The truth is that combinations of inequality are often the hardest to overcome. Lack of resources is so often the killer blow. So I congratulate the Government on the socio-economic duty, which is a brave inclusion in the Bill. It is highly symbolic, but one of the functions of antidiscrimination legislation is to be symbolic, so I hope that the Front Bench will not listen to the sceptical pragmatists in our midst. It has been my lifelong belief that greater equality is the material foundation on which a better society is built. In recent years, that became a very subversive thing to believe and certainly a subversive thing to say. I was never intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, although some people within my own party took a different view. The prevailing neoliberal fundamentalism over the past two decades saw financial inequality as an irrelevance at best and, at worst, something to be encouraged.

However, we now have impressive empirical evidence that shows that many of our social ills are directly linked to levels of inequality: from health and mortality through to mental illness, obesity, homicide and other crime. The research of Wilkinson and Pickett, which was published earlier this year in The Spirit Level, says it all. Almost all social problems that are more common at the bottom end of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies. The reason is that in societies where there is greater inequality, people are more inclined to feel inferior and less respected, and that in turn leads to all forms of social pain. We see it expressed in lack of trust in others, mental anguish, comfort eating, binge drinking, crime and antisocial behaviour. In more unequal societies, there is less sense of community and more depression, social isolation and loneliness. It is not just the poor who suffer from inequality; the rich do too because they suffer feelings of angst, insecurity and pressure. They too have mental illness and eating disorders and feed their fears with more consumption of material goods, which depletes our planet's resources, and constantly finding ways to cocoon themselves and their children from people who are not like themselves.

I am afraid that unequal societies breed anxiety and fear of the other, and fear of the other is what leads to discrimination. So what is the answer? It is a reduction in social inequality. The good society means the creation of a different, more egalitarian society. It means greater fairness as between the better off and the poorer. Talk of equal opportunities is not enough. I say this to my liberal friends. All the rhetoric about meritocracy is a nonsense if people cannot get off the starting blocks. It has to be recognised that there is a link between income inequality and the availability of opportunities.

The National Equality Panel, which has been working on a report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is finding that larger income differences tend to reduce social mobility. Greater equality of income should be a national objective and a central focus of national policy because the social effects of inequality have truly profound implications.

It is to the credit of the Government that they are now legislating for change. I shall be supporting this Bill and I just hope that there is time to get it through. This is Labour at its boldest. This is Labour at its best.