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Equality Bill

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

We are making good progress in preparing the Bill. It is a significant challenge to simplify all the existing legislation and to strengthen protection in the ways that we are proposing. I therefore cannot give a precise answer as to the timing of the Bill’s introduction, but the House can rest assured that we are getting on with it and that the Bill will be introduced when it is ready.

I am grateful for that response, and wish the Parliamentary Secretary no insult when I say that I hope that the Minister for Women and Equality will be back with us shortly and in time for business questions on Thursday. I am interested in the Parliamentary Secretary’s answer, as the director general of the Government Equalities Office suggested in an interview in Whitehall and Westminster World on 27 August that the Bill would be introduced to the House at the end of February or in early March. I received a written answer from the Parliamentary Secretary’s predecessor on 6 October that simply committed to it happening sometime during this Parliament. Perhaps she cannot give us an exact answer, but will she give us some idea as to whether the director general’s suggestion about February or March is accurate, or whether the Bill will be introduced later? That would be very helpful to all the organisations that wish to lobby us about the contents of the Bill.

When preparing legislation, I am a great one for pressing for it to be brought forward as soon as possible, but I am also keen to make sure that it is in a fit state to be dealt with properly by this House. I think that that is desirable, but I have been doing this particular job for only a week and a half and I do not wish to commit myself to a precise date. [Interruption.] No, the Bill is in a fit state, but I and my officials will be pressing to make sure that it is introduced in the best possible state and as soon as possible.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the measures in the Equality Bill should apply in good times and in bad, and that progressive policies that address inequality, such as the right to request flexible working, should not be the first to go when there is a downturn in the economy?

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. I also agree with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said yesterday that we will carry on supporting flexible working, because a whole load of people need it. That is absolutely true, and it is important that fairness is at the forefront of our employment practices at times of economic downturn as well in the good times. We intend to make sure that it remains that way.

The timetable for the Equality Bill has slipped already, and we now hear that the Government are seriously considering scrapping their commitment to the right to an extension of flexible working and paid maternity leave. Given that, and the importance that the Minister for Women and Equality places on the Bill, will the Parliamentary Secretary give a firm commitment that the Bill will be on the statute books before the next general election?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is overreacting to coverage in the newspapers that has gone a bit too far. His own party has also had coverage in the newspapers. On the Sunday before last, The Observer suggested that the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was saying that flexibility should be scrapped immediately and that there should be less regulation of businesses, by which he meant less employment protection. There are different signals coming out of the hon. Gentleman’s party. At the same time, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is proposing a private Member’s Bill—

Order. I must say to the Minister that she should be speaking about the responsibilities of her Department. We will leave it at that.

In reviewing the equality legislation, will my hon. Friend take full account of last week’s debate on the report on women and work by the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, including its recommendations on flexible working, introducing clarification on the use of public procurement to promote such policies, and ensuring that businesses meet their requirements to promote equality?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. As she is aware, public procurement is worth up to £160 billion of business in any particular year. It is sensible that the Government’s commitment to closing the gender pay gap and promoting equality should make use of that purchasing power. When the new Bill gets on to the statute book, which will be as soon as possible, it will ensure that the purchasing power of public procurement can be used to promote these desirable objectives.