Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:33 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Lord Borrie Lord Borrie Labour 9:33 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, in the 1990s, my colleagues and I on the Commission on Social Justice, set up by the late John Smith, leader of the Labour Party, took it for granted that equality was an essential part of social justice and that discrimination on any ground was unacceptable. Of course, equality does not mean any equality or similarity necessarily of income, but my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws made an excellent point, because we on our social justice commission would have been shocked at the widening gap-not a reducing gap-between average earnings and those of board members. I am thinking not just of investment banks but of all sorts of firms where that is so. Recent years have not assisted. Social justice surely requires some reduction in that widening gap.

To us on the commission, equality meant equality of the worth of all citizens; that is, each individual is entitled to consideration, respect and certain basic fundamental rights: rights of citizenship, human rights, a fair chance to develop one's potential and a right not to be discriminated against. In our report of 1994, we said that rather than try to develop a series of separate anti-discrimination laws, government should consider the case for a single law, prohibiting unjustified discrimination, education et cetera. This omnibus approach would provide a legal framework which was both straightforward and flexible.

Both the setting up a few years ago of a single commission, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and this Bill are extremely welcome. I am bound to express in parentheses some regret at the dissent and recrimination within the Equality and Human Rights Commission and particularly over the resignation of the redoubtable Sir Bert Massie, the knowledgeable and expert guide to disablement problems. The detailed law that we have developed in this country over many years has improved things so far as discrimination is concerned. As other speakers in the debate have pointed out, however, there is far too much of a gender pay gap. Men on average earn 22 per cent an hour more than women. I am pleased to see in this Bill greater transparency in those differences. Lifting gagging orders will certainly assist so that secrecy orders in employment contracts will be banned.

I welcome this Bill in consolidating and harmonising our statute law against discrimination and I welcome the clarification of the law in many areas, including clarifying the differences-it may not be perfect and I am not sure how it could be perfect-between discrimination, which is unlawful, and positive action. When you think of examples such as those given by the Leader of the House at the beginning of this debate in relation to giving preference to male teachers in primary schools in certain circumstances so as to provide male role models, that is a good example of positive action. Similarly you could mention taxi cabs in relation to a preference for women because of the increasing demand by potential women passengers to have women drivers for their safety. Preferences the other way round there would equally be sound. Similarly, most people would agree that when a police force wants to make its force more representative of the area which it polices positive action in favour of ethnic minorities is again justified.

I was much impressed by the speech a short while ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, making the point that in the health service in particular there had been quite a lot of positive action which had often resulted in less qualified, less suitable people being appointed than had previously been the case. That is a worrying factor. This Bill will allow political parties to use positive action to reserve a specific number of places on electoral shortlists for black and Asian candidates, for example, when selecting a candidate. This would not be black-only shortlists but at least some deliberate attempt to enable the party and the electorate to choose minority ethnic candidates.

I counsel caution in the use of these powers. The Labour Party has used women-only shortlists in many constituencies. In 1997 there were 30 or 40 MPs elected on that basis. Sometimes it was not always done in the most sensitive way. I am saying not that it is bad but that it was not always done sensitively. Sometimes there was dissension and resentment among long-standing active male members, even losing the Labour Party the seat. I hope lessons have been learned from that. It should certainly be remembered that the Bill does not require positive action of this political party or that political party. It is voluntary. If you are going to have any preference of this kind, it must be done so as to carry the maximum number of members of the particular party. The Bill contains a sunset clause with a date that had been 2015 but that was raised to 2030. That strikes me as a rather pessimistic reflection on the advancement of women in political life at the present time.

There is a great deal in this Bill. I am afraid that it will be difficult to reconcile the Government's desire to have their Bill and the desire that we all have to ensure that it is a good Bill.