Clause 101

Equality Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 25th June 2009.

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Interpretation and exceptions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I will not detain the Committee too long. I am not entirely certain that this is the right time to raise the issues that I am about to raise—I am sure that you will tell me if it is not, Mr. Benton.

Before I go on, mention of outstanding women parliamentarians should not pass without referring to the Baroness Thatcher—the first female leader of a British political party. I am sure that she slipped the mind of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington while she was talking about great women of the past. That omission needed to be filled in.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Labour, Islington South and Finsbury

Can the hon. Gentleman recall how many women from the Conservative party were promoted by Margaret Thatcher into her Cabinet? Was she the only woman in her Cabinet?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Given that the Baroness became Prime Minister when I was only nine years old, I am not entirely familiar with all the people whom she promoted to the Cabinet. She certainly smashed through one barrier: whether one agreed with her or not, she showed beyond all doubt that a woman was eminently capable of being the Prime Minister of our country. That was an excellent example to set and it should have made it easier for women for two reasons: first, she demonstrated beyond peradventure that women could do the job; and secondly, she raised the aspirations of all those women who think that they can do the job to show that they can and should do it. Her example is remarkable.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Labour, Islington South and Finsbury

I am older than the hon. Gentleman —[Interruption.] It is true. I can assure him that photographs of the Cabinet of the time show only one woman, who is therefore not a feminist.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I did not say that Margaret Thatcher was a feminist; I said that she was the first female Prime Minister. She believed in people succeeding on merit. I shall finish on this point, Mr. Benton, because I see you growing restless in the Chair. I meant to make a small point at the beginning of my remarks, but I am afraid that I provoked the hon. Lady. The parliamentary party that Margaret Thatcher led was not diverse. I have already said in response to the Minister that the current Conservative leader wants the party to be more diverse, and we have taken measures to make that happen. I am confident that it will be more diverse after the next general election. I am pleased that the Minister said in her response that she was looking forward to that and, implicitly, to a Conservative Government.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Implicitly.

On the clause, I wanted to probe the Minister on what the existing law says on association and in which cases the Bill would actually change the law. During  business questions on 11 June, the Minister for Women and Equality, who was talking about the provision in the constitution of the British National party that people who are not white cannot be members, said:

“Under the Equality Bill that is passing through the House, that constitution will be made unlawful.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 935.]

She also made a slightly inaccurate reference and said that we voted against the Equality Bill—we did not; we tabled a reasoned amendment—and she added that she hoped that we would strongly support the Bill, which would prevent us from having an apartheid political party in this country.

We, of course, abhor the behaviour of the British National party more than anyone else, and it is not wise for the Minister for Women and Equality to try to score cheap points on a matter where all the mainstream parties in this country should be united. She implied that a party having a constitution that prohibited anyone who was not white from being a member was not currently unlawful but that the Equality Bill would make it so. I am not sure that that is entirely accurate. As the Solicitor-General will know, the Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote to the British National party on Tuesday of this week about possible breaches of existing anti-discrimination law.

I shall briefly set out to the Committee what the commission has done. It wrote to the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, to outline its concerns about the BNP’s compliance with the Race Relations Act 1976 and asked for undertakings that it will make the changes required by the commission by 20 July. Failure to do so would result in the commission issuing an application for a legal injunction against the BNP. The commission refers to its existing statutory duties to enforce the provisions under the Equality Act 2006. That Act will be partly subsumed by this one. The commission also refers to provisions on racial discrimination under the Race Relations Act 1976, which will be subsumed to some extent by this one.

It seems that the membership criteria under the British National party’s constitution, its recruitment and employment policies, practices and procedures, and the provision of services by its elected officers to constituency members of the public are already prohibited by existing legislation. First, will the Solicitor-General confirm that that is the case? If that is so, the Minister for Women and Equality should not really be implying that those things become unlawful only with the passage of the Bill.

Secondly, given that the British National party’s constitution prohibits membership by people who are not white and since that party has been around for a while, can the Solicitor-General explain why it is only now, when the BNP has succeeded in getting its members elected to the European Parliament, that the EHRC has taken action against such discriminatory practices? If the BNP’s constitution has been in place for a while and it has been behaving in such a way for a while, the EHRC and its predecessor organisations should have taken action earlier to nip it in the bud. However, despite the lateness of the EHRC’s action, I entirely welcome it.

If the BNP’s constitution violates the law, I hope that the EHRC will get those undertakings. If it does not receive them, I hope that the commission will take the proper legal action to ensure that the British National party behaves in a non-discriminatory way and conducts itself in accordance with the law of our country. That would be the best answer to its behaviour and a good response by the EHRC. It is a shame that that has taken so long if the BNP’s behaviour is prohibited under existing legislation.

I am sure that every member of the Committee is behind what the EHRC has been doing—the measured and precise way that it has been doing it sends a clear message that political parties should not discriminate against anyone in the way that they conduct themselves.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office 9:30 am, 25th June 2009

It is a cause of real regret that the hon. Gentleman wants to refer to Baroness Thatcher—the most abysmal, right-wing leader that this country has ever had, in any political party. She retarded the cause of feminine advance by years. He is clearly very ready to attach himself to her heritage.

What changes in the Tory party? Nothing whatever. We all know what to expect if the Tories get into power, and the more the hon. Gentleman talks, the less likely that becomes. It is extraordinary to say that he does not know how many women Baroness Thatcher had in her Cabinet because he was too young to know. I know how many women there were in Pitt the Younger’s and I was not born in 1790. I think he wanted to avoid the very pertinent and pointed question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. No talk of reasoned amendments takes away from the fact—totally obvious to the many thousands of stakeholders who support the Bill—that the Tory party voted against it on Second Reading. It wishes no advance in equality at all.

Which Tory party members complained to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to get it galvanised into action against the BNP? Did we hear from the Tory party? Did it make a complaint? It is cause for concern that late in the day, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, the EHRC is taking action. We would wait a long time for the Tory party to galvanise one of our institutions into chasing after that racist party. He misses the target every time. He also misses the target in relation to the Minister for Women and Equality, because what she said in Parliament was correct.

I do not want to say too much about the current situation with the EHRC, because I hope that the BNP will get the message before it has to be taken to court, but the EHRC takes a particular view of the current law, which is not universally held. The Bill will put it beyond peradventure that a political party cannot discriminate against an existing or potential member on the basis of their race, sex, religion or belief. The hon. Gentleman has no point to make, and I do not think there was anything else that he wanted to raise on the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 101 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.