Equality Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 8th December 2005.

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'In section 2A (1) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (discrimination on the grounds of gender reassignment) for paragraphs (b) and (c) substitute—

''(b) any provision of Part 3.''.'.—[Dr. Harris.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I do not seek to explore the need to protect transgender people from discrimination in the provision of goods and services, because most of what needs to be said about it was said in previous debates. However, one point not raised previously concerns the Gender Recognition Act 2004. During the passage through the House of that legislation—I was a member of the Committee that considered it—the Joint Committee on Human Rights clearly indicated that it was appropriate for transgender people to be protected in connection with the provision of goods and services and other areas. The Joint Committee said that that Bill could usefully fill an omission, although the Government chose not to take that opportunity to do so. The Government have decided on a number of occasions not to close that gap.  

The new clause explores how the Government have chosen to close the gap, which we believe could and should have been closed many years ago. The new clause would make it clear that part III of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 applies also to transgender people. Because trans people are currently excluded from most aspects of the gender duty in so far as it relates to goods and services, the new clause would bring them within the gender duty, because part III currently applies to trans people only for vocational training.

I recognise that the new clause is not a holistic way of dealing with the problem of trans people because it does not provide for exceptions to be made, although I would argue that the need for exceptions is limited, given that exceptions already exist for the provision of separate sex facilities in respect of goods and services, as we heard from the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). I understand that the Minister might not want to accept the new clause purely because it is not holistic enough to deal with the problem. However, it seeks to explore the way in which the Government seek to meet their obligations.

The Minister will be aware that Council directive 2004/113/EC of 13 December 2004 implements

''the principle of equal treatment between men and women in the access to and supply of goods and services''.

It requires protection to be provided for transgender people by 21 December 2007. My question is simple. Will the Government commit themselves to doing that, will they commit themselves to doing it by that deadline and, if so, how? Having failed to use the vehicle of the Bill, it is not clear whether they will be able to do so in the most appropriate manner by that deadline. It is a question of timing.

There are three approaches that the Government could take. First, they could use this Equality Bill, but by rejecting the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and myself, they have indicated that they do not wish to use the Bill, although I live in hope that before Report, the Government will have seen the wisdom and justice of doing so. The other two approaches are to use the single equality Act promised after the discrimination law review and the equalities law, or regulations under section 2(2)(a) of the European Communities Act 1972. As the Minister knows, the directive states that the provisions need to be brought in by 21 December 2007. In cases where there is no primary legislation, legislation exists under the European Communities Act for them to do that quite quickly.

On the possibility of using the single equality Act, in the Committee's debate last Thursday, the Minister promised a Green Paper on discrimination law in the spring of 2006. We all know how long some seasons can last, given not just climate change, but Government deadlines for publication. The worry is that it might not be spring. However, assuming that it is spring—the Minister said a few moments ago in a semi-ironic way that spring can last a long time in relation to the publication of the discrimination law review—in the normal course of events, that might   lead to a White Paper, following consultation, around six to nine months later. That brings us, at the earliest, to late 2006, and a Bill perhaps six months after that. We are talking about legislation that is likely to enter Parliament in mid–2007. Because such a Bill will involve various arrangements that will have an impact on other people, there may be delays in bringing in the legislation, and that would be seen as good government and good regulation.

The question is: if the Minister does not use new clause 17, can she be certain that the alternative—the single equality Act—will meet that 21 December 2007 deadline, which is only 107 weeks away? If she does not use the proposal in the new clause, the only alternative to meeting the deadline, other than the one that I have just described, is using the European Communities Act. As she will be aware, the problem is that the use of regulation would allow goods and services protection to extend only as far as the extent of the directive, and no further. It would not, for example, include education, which is a key issue for many transgender people who return to education following their change of gender, or the content of media and advertising, which are excluded under article 3(3) of the 2004 directive. Although the directive itself does not prevent Parliament from enacting more comprehensive provisions, use of the European Communities Act's regulation-making power reduces the scope. I do not believe—the Minister may agree, but I wait to see—that the use of the European Communities Act is a satisfactory alternative to bringing in this protection. I am seeking from her an indication of how she will meet the deadline if she does not use the Bill. If she cannot give that, my hon. Friends and I, and others, may wish to return to the matter on Report, to seek to draw her out further. I would be grateful for her response to my remarks.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality) 2:30 pm, 8th December 2005

I understand why the hon. Gentleman continues to raise the matter, and I should like to reassure him that the Government support the intention that underpins his amendment. Indeed, we have already started the work that is needed to extend protection against discrimination for transsexual people to areas beyond the employment field. The hon. Gentleman has proposed that we can achieve our shared objective of ending discrimination against transsexual people by simply extending part III of the Sex Discrimination Act to cover gender re-assignment. Before I explain the reasons why we do not support the new clause, it would be helpful to set out what its effect would be. Part III makes discrimination lawful in the fields of education and the provision of goods, facilities and services in the management and disposal of premises. Provisions in the Bill will also bring the functions of public authorities within part III.

Part III contains a number of exceptions. Those are narrowly drawn and refer specifically to situations where it is clearly sensible that the principle of equal treatment between women and men is not an absolute requirement—at least, that was what was considered to be the case when the Sex Discrimination Act   became law in 1975. We are committed to providing that protection and a key strand of our work in the discrimination law review is to make discrimination against transsexual people unlawful.

However, we must look at what that will mean in practice for transsexual people and all the parties to whom the law will extend. To do that, we need to consult on the issues faced by all who would be affected and hear views on our proposals. We are taking forward the necessary preparatory work for legal change through the discrimination law review. We will consult on our proposals in a Green Paper in the spring of 2006 and we want to hear the views of all interested parties on the proposals. We believe that this is the best way to ensure that transsexual people get legal protection against discrimination and that the law is clear and workable for those who will have responsibilities under it. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

Given that the Minister seems keen to pursue the route of the Green Paper and consultation, what assurances can she give us that protection for transsexual people will be in place by the deadline of 21 December 2007? As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has already outlined, the time scales for the Green Paper and a possible Bill in 2007—at the earliest—mean that there will be a gap in provision. It seems that we are unlikely to meet those deadlines.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

We are aware of the deadline. We are considering the range of options and our overall aim is to provide comprehensive protection. At this stage it is not possible for me to say anything more than that, other than that we want to ensure that we get the issue right and that we have covered it properly. That is why, as I have said many times, the Bill was never intended to deal with a whole range of equality issues. The discrimination law review is enormously important and is considering matters in a detailed way. That is the correct way to proceed and I trust that hon. Members will be reassured on that basis.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

I see that the Minister was not keen to take an intervention before her last three words, but I hope that she might be able to give me an assurance. I wanted to ask her about something—it might be the fourth time I have mentioned this point. Will she assure us that she will implement protection for trans-people from discrimination in the provision of goods and services, in line with what the direction states—not just about goods and services—by the deadline of 21 December 2007? Is she able to give a categorical assurance that she will meet that deadline? It is a yes or no question. She is not rising to her feet. That is probably why she did not want to take my intervention, which shows that she is a consummate parliamentary performer, as we would expect.

The Minister has not given us the assurance that we required about the time scales. I want to put on record that I do not doubt her intention to provide this protection eventually. I am not seeking to take issue with that; the question is whether it can be done on time. The Bill is a vehicle that would enable us to guarantee doing that because it will be enacted before the deadline.  

Although I shall withdraw the motion in a moment, in the light of what the Minister said we may have to return to the matter on Report and ask the Government to think again. In the absence of the Minister's assurance that she can meet the deadline required, they might have to use this Bill to do so after all. Until that time, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality)

I thank you, Mr. Gale, for your excellent chairing of the Committee, which enabled us to get through the Bill at a good pace, and on behalf of the Committee I thank your co-Chair, Mrs. Anderson.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for his assistance, as he took the Committee through a significant part of the Bill. I am also grateful to Committee members from all parties for their contributions. In particular, I thank the hon. Members for Epping Forest and for Romsey for their well-informed comments and questions. Support was given to them by the hon. Members for Beaconsfield and for Oxford, West and Abingdon.

I am also grateful to the Clerks, the attendants, the police and the Hansard staff, and I thank the staff of the Departments concerned for their work. I am pleased that we have been able to take forward our debates in such a constructive and positive way, and look forward to a similar tone of debate on Report. I hope that the Bill will be reported, as is appropriate.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality), Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I echo the Minister's thanks to everyone involved in the background—that is, to the Clerks and the officials who worked on the Bill. I also thank you, Mr. Gale, and Mrs. Anderson for your incredible forbearance and patience in chairing this Committee. We did not discover consensus only yesterday; we have supported the general intention of the Bill since it was first debated in the previous Parliament, last April. Indeed, there have been no Divisions in this Committee, because we have managed to have proper discussion of a constructive nature on every single point that has come forward. Our proceedings have been constructive and pleasant, and I thank everyone in the Committee, particularly the hon. Member for Romsey, for that.

I pay particular homage to the Minister. This is her first Bill as a Minister, and she has taken us through it with courtesy and diligence. I am sure that every Committee member appreciates that. Nevertheless, despite the consensus and the fact that there were no Divisions, we reserve our position on the need to examine some of our concerns—particularly, of course, those about the use of taxpayers' money and there being too many regulations—on Report.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

I add my comments to those of the two previous speakers. I commend you, Mr. Gale, and your co-Chair for your vigorous chairing; I do not think I have ever heard so many recommendations that letters be written in a Committee. I would recommend that approach to other Chairs, because it seems on occasion to curtail unnecessary debate. I pay   tribute to the way in which our consideration of the Bill was arranged. It was particularly helpful that there were no knives, and we were able to have a fairly free-ranging discussion on every part of the Bill. I thank the Minister and the Whips for that.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Epping Forest. On the whole, the Committee has been good-natured. There have been points of disagreement, but generally they have been about the use of public funds, an issue on which the hon. Lady is diligent—as are we all, although we perhaps have different priorities for spending that money. I also thank the Clerks, the police and the Hansard staff.

Although our considerations have been consensual, I echo the thoughts of the hon. Lady: some points will be brought back again on Report, because although we had answers to our questions, opportunities are being missed under the Bill. It is a shame that some issues are being carried forward, always with good intent and, in some cases—but not in others—for the good reason that they are complex issues that need resolving. We will return to those points later.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

Before my hon. Friend sits down I wanted to mention that I have been struck by the promptness with which letters that were promised were written. I am sure that my hon. Friend would, like me, want to thank the ministerial team who must have had a hand in writing the Ministers' letters for the speed with which they did that, so that we could consider them in our work on the Bill.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

I wholeheartedly associate myself with my hon. Friend's comments.

Finally, it has been a matter of particular note that the gender balance of the Committee, on the Government Benches in particular, has been somewhat unbalanced. I wonder if our male colleagues object to being left out, for once.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I must be going soft in my old age. Not only were the previous five minutes entirely out of order, but I allowed one hon. Member to raise a constituency matter in a wholly inappropriate context, and allowed the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon to intervene on a point of order, which is also completely out of order. While we are out of order, I thank the Committee for the courtesy and good humour with which it has conducted business. I know that Janet Anderson would want to express appreciation of the thanks that have been given, and to thank the Committee for the extremely amicable conduct of the business.

I thank the Officers of the House, also. We could not do the job that we are required to do, sometimes in difficult circumstances, without their assistance, and we are most grateful. It is slightly premature, but this will be my last chance to do it, so I wish all members of the Committee a happy Christmas and a highly politically consensual new year. [Interruption.] Don't go yet! We have not finished.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at thirteen minutes to Three o'clock.