[Relevant document: The Third Report of the Work and Pensions Committee on the Equality Bill: how disability equality fits within a Single Equality Act, HC 158-I.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
For us, equality matters because it is right as a question of principle, and it is necessary as a matter of practice. It is essential for every individual. Everyone has the right to be treated fairly, and everyone should enjoy the opportunity to fulfil their potential. No one should suffer the indignity of discrimination—to be told, “You’re old, so you’re past it,” to be overlooked because of a disability, to be excluded because of the colour of their skin, to face harassment because they are gay, or to be paid unfairly because they are a woman.
Equality is not just the birthright of every individual, but necessary for the economy: a competitive economy is one that draws on everyone’s talents and abilities and is not blinkered by prejudice. It is also necessary for society: a more equal society is more cohesive and at ease with itself than one marred by prejudice and discrimination. So this Labour Government are, like other Labour Governments before us, a champion of equality.
The Bill is not about turning back the clock—quite the opposite. It is looking to the future. It is backward societies that are marred by discrimination against lesbians and gay men, where women are expected to know their place and which are bound by rigid hierarchies. It is the modern and open society that can look to the future with confidence.
The point about a meritocracy is that only if we have fairness and equality will people really be considered on their individual merits, free from discrimination and unfairness. So this is not an argument against a meritocracy—quite the reverse: fairness and equality are necessary to underpin a meritocracy.
I will give way during my speech, but I am afraid that it is quite a long one; the hon. Gentlemen might have an opportunity to come back after dinner and intervene. I will try to press on with my speech.
Some people have said, “Why do this now? We know it was in your manifesto, but we’re in the middle of a global recession. Now’s not the time.” But we do not accept that. When times are hard, it is even more important that everyone feels that they have an equal chance and that we all pull together, because we are in the same boat.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have a very serious point to raise with her, and I hope that she can be of some help to me. I have come across a number of incidences of employers stipulating that it is a necessary condition for a job at the minimum wage that the applicants speak Polish. I consider that discrimination against the vast majority of my constituents who left school at 16 without being able to speak Polish. Will she take this opportunity to say very clearly to employers across the country that, where there is no genuine occupational requirement, it is illegal for them to stipulate that a foreign language is required to apply for a job at the minimum wage in this country at a time of rapidly rising unemployment?
If a job was to teach Polish, for example, that might well be why the employer needed to recruit such people, but that is not a question in the Bill, which, as I will say again as I get through it, deals with discrimination on grounds of race, gender and disability.
Just as we give real help to people now, we need to give real hope for the future, and that hope is a strong economy and a fair and more equal society, so I am proud to be bringing the Equality Bill to the House for its Second Reading.
There are many great champions of the equality movement in the House of Commons, and many, many more outside. I pay tribute to their efforts in the cause of equality. The Equality Bill is a Government Bill, but the campaign for equality is a great movement and we are proud to play our part in it.
Under the terms of the Bill, will it be possible for an employer to choose to employ a white woman rather than an equally well qualified black man?
I will get to the points about positive discrimination and positive action further on in my speech—[Hon. Members: “Ah.”]—if Members will bear with me. [Interruption.] Yes, the Bill includes positive action.
The Bill is in the great tradition of Labour Governments. The first equality laws were brought in by a Labour Government more than 40 years ago. First, in the 1960s came the pioneering race laws and then in the 1970s there were new laws on equal pay and sex discrimination. Then nothing was initiated by the Tory Government for 18 years. Then Labour returned to office and introduced a range of new laws—from recognising gay and lesbian partnerships, to protecting older people from discrimination at work.
Although progress has been made, the job is not yet done. While the most blatant forms of discrimination are just distant memories, inequality and discrimination persist, so we need the Equality Bill and the related action that I will outline to the House today to build on what we have already done. I shall now turn to the Bill’s provisions.
We have made it easier for women who work, with more child care and longer maternity leave, for example, but there is still entrenched pay discrimination. Despite women forming half the work force, men still earn on average 22 per cent. an hour more than women. We do not accept that that is because women work 22 per cent. less hard or are 22 per cent. less intelligent or 22 per cent. less qualified than men. It is pay discrimination, which is mostly a legacy of the idea that a woman’s job is less important than a man’s, because her main role is in the home. Although the lion’s share—
As ever, I am grateful to you for your advice, Mr. Speaker.
I am concerned that the Bill is not really about equality. There is a contradiction at the heart of Government policy: while the Leader of the House is setting out the Bill today, Muslim women up and down the country are suffering under the extension of the powers of sharia councils. Under matrimonial, child custody and financial settlements, Muslim women are being discriminated against, so the Government have to change their policy, otherwise the Bill is a complete mockery.
There is certainly discrimination, and the Bill provides more opportunity to tackle it. There is certainly nothing in our law that endorses, and allows for, discrimination in private contracts or private agreements that may purport to have been made under sharia law; they do not count as the law in this country if they are discriminatory. The hon. Gentleman knows that, because I have answered him on that point at business questions. I have now been deterred from answering questions—
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Does she agree that if the general public are watching the debate they will be surprised to see the Opposition so agitated at the prospect of equality legislation? The point about equality is not just that it offers fairness and justice for every group in society, but that in a globalised economy it will actually enable us to compete better and be a stronger and more effective society.
I could not agree more strongly with my hon. Friend. Although the lion’s share of caring for children and older relatives still falls to women, women’s income is now vital for their household, and their work is important to the economy, too. It is simply unfair that they should not be paid the same as men for the work that they do. Unequal pay is not the fault of the woman; it is the responsibility of the employer, yet in the past, it has been entirely down to the individual woman to complain, and never down to the employer to explain.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the Bill will finally ban secrecy or gagging clauses, used by firms and companies around the country, that allow and encourage firms to discriminate against women when setting their pay rates?
Yes, I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Bill will do exactly that. A veil of secrecy over pay allows discrimination to flourish. The Bill will change that by means of a power in clause 73 to require employers to make a gender pay report every year. Fair employers have nothing to fear, but unfair employers will have nowhere to hide. Knowledge is power for employees, their unions, consumers, and shareholders. I hope that employers will compete for the reputation of being fair to their women employees. It is not a burdensome requirement; employers know whom they employ, whether their employees are men or women, and what they pay them.
The public sector will lead the way, with the Bill providing a power in clause 147 to require all public sector employers with more than 150 employees to publish annually details of their gender pay gap. However, 80 per cent. of employees are in the private sector, and gender pay discrimination there is even greater. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will bring together employers and unions to work out how gender pay reporting will operate in practice. In July this year, it will begin to consult, and it will release the first of its annual reports before the end of this year.
Does the right hon. and learned Lady not see that if we require the measure to be consulted on in the summer, but the Bill is to go through the House before the summer, it will mean that we will have to agree to something the extent of which we do not know?
No, it will not. We would like to achieve our aim through voluntary action, but if we cannot, we must take a power in the Bill to make sure that we can force companies to be prepared to acknowledge their pay gap. In the first instance, we will ask private sector employers to report without a legal requirement, but because all employers must do so for the system to be fair, we will impose the legal requirement on all employers of more than 250 people in 2013 if sufficient progress on reporting has not been made. We hope that it will not be necessary to do so, but if there has not been sufficient openness, we will use that power.
Transparency is important in itself, and in every workplace where there is a yawning gap between the pay of men and the pay of women, it will spur employers to reflect on their practice and take action to change what they do. As a further measure for openness on gender pay discrimination, the Bill will ban secrecy clauses that prevent employees from discussing their pay with their colleagues, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) asked. An estimated one fifth of employers impose secrecy clauses; those clauses will all be banned.
I should like to turn to the equality duty.
I am extremely grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way, because she knows that I have been a long-term supporter of many of the aims that she mentions. Does she share my view that the Government should have done more to lead by example, and does she share my concern that the gender pay gap in a number of Government Departments is far too high? In fact, it is as high as 25 per cent. in five Departments. Surely the Government should have done more to lead by example and to put their own house in order.
That is why we have acted to bring transparency not only to the private sector but to the public sector. So long as the problem remains hidden and is swept under the carpet, everybody says, “We’re equal; it must be somebody else who is not,” and we cannot address it. I should be grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support not only on Second Reading but in Committee and throughout the Bill’s passage. I know that he is concerned about age discrimination, too, so I thank him for his support on that.
Equality for women is a public policy imperative, and that is why in 2006 we brought in the gender equality duty, which requires public bodies to tackle discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity. The duty has proved to be a lever for change, but the Bill makes it clear that the new public sector equality duty, which the Bill provides for, will apply when public bodies not only employ people or provide services, but use their £175 billion purchasing power. The duty will apply to public procurement, too. The provision will enable us to take the current duty further into those organisations and companies providing goods and services that are funded by the public purse.
I turn to the issue of positive action, which many Members have mentioned. We will allow employers to use positive action in recruitment and promotion. The purpose of the new power is to tackle the systemic and well-documented glass ceiling that stops women from going up the career ladder in organisations. That is why the Bill includes the power to take positive action. Sometimes a company has many women in its work force, but no women on its management team. Currently, if a vacancy arises and the employer is faced with two equally qualified candidates, one a man and one a woman, the employer cannot actually say, “Right, we’ve got two equally qualified people for this job, but I’m going to take you, because you’re a woman and I want to diversify my management team.” The provision, however, will allow employers to address under-representation where they so choose.
We have already legislated for positive action to increase women’s representation in Parliament, and, because we in the Labour party have used that power for all-women shortlists, we have gone from having only 13 Labour women MPs when I was first elected to having 95 now. However, the proportion of women MPs from all parts of the House is still only 19 per cent., and that is why clause 100 extends to 2030 permission for political parties to use women-only shortlists. The Government are proud to have three times more women MPs than all the other parties put together. That is because we have used all-women shortlists, and we will continue to do so. We urge others, if they are serious about improving representation, to follow suit.
The Bill also strengthens the powers of tribunals when dealing with systemic discrimination.
One thing that was so important and encouraging about Scotland was the formation of the Scottish Parliament and the good representation of Labour women, in particular, as Members of it. We have an excellent team of Scottish Labour MPs, but we need to make more progress in order to have more women Labour MPs in Scotland.
Clause 118 will allow tribunals to make recommendations that benefit the whole work force, not just the individual who won the claim. It will mean that we can stop the waste whereby many individuals in the same organisation take similar action against the same employer.
Labour has a proud record of backing mothers at work, but we also do everything that we can to support new mothers. That is why clause 16 will make it clear that it is unlawful to force breastfeeding mothers and their babies out of places such as coffee shops, public galleries and restaurants. That still happens. It will be banned.
I am sure that the whole House will agree that, in this day and age, it is not acceptable that places exist where women can be treated as second-class citizens. Part 7 will outlaw private members’ clubs discriminating against their women members. So, down at the golf club, every day will be “ladies day”.
I turn to how the Bill will tackle discrimination against older people. In 2007, pensioners outnumbered children for the first time, and in just 20 years’ time half the adult population will be over 50. Today we can expect to live a quarter of our lives in retirement. That is a seismic demographic change, and it demands action to tackle the prejudice that still constrains older people. Our ban on age discrimination in the workplace in 2006 was important, but we need to go further.
Older people are being discriminated against by those providing goods and services. We all know of examples of that from constituents’ complaints. For instance, a constituent of mine came to see me after he had booked a holiday to go and see his daughter in the United States. He had arranged travel insurance for £175 and then had to postpone the holiday for a fortnight because his daughter was ill. During that time, he had his 70th birthday and the insurance went up from £175 to £831. He simply could not afford to go.
The Bill will prohibit such unjustifiable age discrimination in the provision of goods and services. It will mean that an insurance company will not be able to discriminate arbitrarily against older people. We will outlaw the discrimination and unfairness that still persists against older people in social care and in the national health service. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has initiated a national review led by the South West strategic health authority to look at how to implement the ban on age discrimination in health and social care, so that we can be sure that, whether treatment for mental illness or back pain is involved, older people get care every bit as good as that for younger people.
As the Bill goes through the House, we will consult on how the measure will be put into practice. The new provision will not prevent the justifiable preferential treatment of older people, such as free bus passes or cheaper ticket prices for pensioners.
As one who opposes all forms of discrimination, I have a lot of sympathy with the right hon. and learned Lady’s point about age discrimination. However, will the Bill have any unintended consequences? Saga, for example, provides lots of great services for people over 50. Will its operations have to cease? Lots of older people get cheaper car insurance by virtue of the fact that they are older. Will that now end? There may be unintended consequences.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has asked that question, because it gives me the opportunity to reassure older people that justifiable, preferential treatment such as he has described will not be banned—far from it. Unjustifiable treatment and discrimination against older people will, however, be banned under the Bill. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on the point raised by Saga.
There are some concerns about the issues raised by Saga, which is keen for there to be exemptions in the Bill. Can my right hon. and learned Friend give the House an assurance that, as the Bill goes through Committee, it will be made absolutely transparent, by one means or another, that those exemptions will exist?
There will be a consultation, as my hon. Friend requests. There will be able to be exemptions, sector by sector, in the regulations that bring the measure into force. We all agree on the principle that unjustified, unfair treatment against older people is wrong. However, we all want some preferential treatment, such as free bus passes, to continue. The House will know that we will go forward on the basis of agreement.
The measure is indeed excellent. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, it continues the work of all the anti-discrimination Acts passed by Labour Governments, although never by Tory ones.
May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend about the injustice to people—not MPs, fortunately—who are forced to retire at 65? In Committee, could we not strengthen the approach to the issue of the national default retirement age? As it stands, all employers need to do in such cases is consider applications to continue working.
As my hon. Friend will know, when we outlawed discrimination against older people in employment, the default retirement age was set to one side. We undertook to review it in 2012; the issue is on its own separate track.
The public sector equality duties that already apply in relation to race, gender and disability will be extended under the Bill to ensure that public bodies will also have to take action to tackle discrimination and promote equality for people of different ages—for example, by offering free IT lessons to older people, as Dame Joan Bakewell and I saw today at Age Concern’s Great Croft resource centre in Camden.
It is important to consider not only those who are older but the position of the growing number of people who care for an older relative. For most people, the care they get from their family is every bit as important as the care they get from health or social services, if not more so. The Bill will outlaw discrimination against carers. Most people who are caring for a relative also go out to work. So the woman who applies for a promotion at work will no longer be allowed to be told, “Sorry—we’ve given the promotion to someone else because we know you have your hands full looking after your elderly mother.” We will back up people who are doing the important work of caring for children and older and disabled relatives as well as going out to work.
There is great support for what the Minister proposes, which is very positive. Can she confirm that after the passage of the legislation, it will not be possible for a person aged between, say, 50 and 65 to be discriminated against for employment or other purposes on the basis that they would have only a certain maximum number of employable years left? I understand what she said about the pension age, but pending that decision, can they be assured that they will be looked after and not indirectly discriminated against?
The Solicitor-General, who knows her onions on the law, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), have confirmed to me that that would already be unlawful discrimination against an older person in employment.
Next, I turn to race. Labour brought in the first race relations laws in the 1960s. We built on that when we brought in the first public sector equality duty—the race equality duty—in 2000, following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. We expect that the new public sector equality duty in the Bill will require public bodies with more than 150 employees to publish their ethnic minority employment rate. That will allow people to see how inclusive their public bodies are of the communities they serve and enable employers and the public to monitor progress.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. On the subject of disability, has she had time to reflect on the views of Mencap and others about people with learning disabilities? Some 65 per cent. of them want to work but only 17 per cent. get the opportunity to do so, as against 49 per cent. of other disabled people and 74 per cent. of the general population. Does she agree that we should recognise that problem in legislation?
The transparency that is provided will enable us to see the progress that is being made by public authorities, in particular, in their employment practices.
By extending the use of positive action in the workplace, the Bill will allow employers to take action to make their workforce more diverse and representative of the communities they serve when selecting between two equally suitable candidates. This positive action on race in recruitment and promotion will help to make organisations such as the police more effective.
One area where there is a great deal of hidden discrimination is in the employment recruitment process. We know that society discriminates against people with particular disabilities or long-term conditions such as mental illness or people with HIV. There is still provision for employers to ask in pre-employment questionnaires about a person’s medical condition, and that allows for discrimination. The Disability Rights Commission and the Work and Pensions Committee have recommended that such provision should be outlawed. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider that?
There is also discrimination in the heart of this Parliament, against people with mental illness. Under section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, any Member of Parliament who is detained in a mental health hospital for more than six months has to resign their seat. That sends a stigmatising message to all people with a mental illness, and I should like provision to be made in the Bill to withdraw that requirement.
Employers cannot ask questions such as my hon. Friend describes to discriminate against a person, but they sometimes ask questions with a view to making a reasonable adjustment, so that they are aware of the situation before employing somebody. Her point about people with mental health problems is important, and it might well need to be addressed in the Constitutional Renewal Bill.
The Minister will be aware that one of the biggest types of discrimination all around the world is by caste and descent, and that Dalit people suffer appalling discrimination, particularly but not exclusively in India. Is it possible that, under the Bill, such discrimination by caste and descent would be absolutely illegal?
The Speaker’s Conference, which considers the under-representation of minorities in this place and in wider public life, thankfully has a specific section that deals with the woefully low level of people with disabilities who are elected here and elsewhere. How will the Bill tie in with the Speaker’s Conference, and can my right hon. and learned Friend point to specific elements of it that will tackle the number of people with disabilities in wider public life?
I have already talked about increasing the representation of women in public life, and I am just about to turn to the question of black and Asian representation in public life. As my hon. Friend knows, the Speaker’s Conference will play a role in considering all these issues, including disability.
The Bill will allow political parties to use positive action to address the lack of black and Asian representation in political life—for example, by reserving a specific number of places on every electoral shortlist for black and Asian candidates when a party is selecting a candidate. The Labour party has four times more black and Asian MPs than all other parties put together, but still not enough properly to reflect our community, so we want to do more. The Labour party will be using the new powers in the Bill, and we challenge the other parties to do the same.
We have already taken action to outlaw discrimination against disabled people, but prejudice still blights the lives of disabled people looking for work or a home or using services, so there are a number of new measures in the Bill. The new public sector equality duty will build on the disability equality duty that we introduced in 2005. We will use the powers under the new duty to require public bodies with more than 150 employees to publish annually the percentage of disabled people that they employ, so that we can build on good practice and see improvements year by year. It is a public policy imperative to include disabled people, so the public sector must lead the way.
I have already given way to my hon. Friend, who made an excellent intervention, so I shall let her rest on that.
There is no place in 21st-century Britain for homophobic prejudice and discrimination. We have already taken steps such as recognising gay and lesbian partnerships and outlawing homophobic discrimination, and the Bill builds on that with a number of further steps. Because tackling homophobic discrimination is a public policy imperative, the Bill also imposes this new obligation on public bodies as part of the new equality duty.
In a diverse multicultural society, it is important to tackle discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, which we have already outlawed. Because that, too, is a public policy imperative, the Bill addresses disadvantage and responds to the needs of people of different religions and beliefs in the new public sector equality duty. We will also consult on whether we can outlaw multiple discrimination in the Bill, where the problem is not one characteristic—for instance, someone’s gender, race or disability—but a combination of them.
There is much in the Bill that I support, but is the right hon. and learned Lady aware that extending the public sector duty to religion is highly controversial, albeit not in respect of the elimination of discrimination or fostering good relations, but in respect of advancing equality of opportunity, because of the risk that that creates of people claiming that, because one religion does one thing, the local council must provide the same for another religion in a specified way? That means running the risk of balkanising services and entrenching resentment. Will she consider carefully whether the public sector duty in respect of religion could be modified slightly to avoid the sort of inter-religious conflict that the rest of the Bill seeks to avoid?
Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that I do not think that the Bill will have the effect that he describes. It will ensure that the needs of people of different religions and beliefs are addressed as part of a public sector duty. However, if he serves on the Public Bill Committee, he will have an opportunity to table amendments to the Bill, as he will on Report, too.
We all recognise that discrimination can happen not just because of someone’s age, gender or race. It can also be rooted in someone’s family background, socio-economic status or class. We know, for example, that less academically able but better-off children overtake more able, poorer children at school by the age of six. We know, too, that although women generally have a longer life expectancy than men, poorer women live less long than richer men.
An important aim of public policy is to reduce the gaps that still exist between rich and poor—to narrow the gap between the top and bottom of our society. Because we believe that to be a public policy imperative, the Bill places a legal duty on public sector organisations with strategic responsibilities—it applies to Ministers and Departments, as well as to health authorities, local councils and regional development agencies—to play their part in narrowing the gap between rich and poor in the strategic decisions that they make. Although there are various public service agreements and targets across government to that effect, the approach has been piecemeal, not comprehensive, as it will be now. We will be assisted in putting that into practice by the excellent work of the national equality panel, chaired by Professor John Hills.
Over the decades, our anti-discrimination laws have become wider and stronger, but because of that development over 40 years, the whole picture is now more complex. There are nine major pieces of anti-discrimination legislation, 100 statutory instruments and more than 2,500 pages of statutory codes of practice—I have an example of them here, on the Table of the House. That is what we have got so far. However, it is important for those who have rights to be able to know them and for those who have responsibilities to be able to understand them without having to pay a lawyer to interpret them. So as well as extending and strengthening equality legislation, the Bill will replace the thicket of legislation with a single Act. The Bill is therefore a simplification and codification measure.
Also, to ensure that it is completely understandable, the Bill is the first statute to have, running alongside it, clause-by-clause explanations of what the provisions mean that are written in plain English. I pay tribute to the Government Equalities Office officials, who have done a brilliant job on that. Not only do we have the legalese; we have the Bill in plain English.
We have also produced an easy-read version of the Bill, which is especially for people with learning difficulties, but I find it really useful myself and I recommend it to everyone including hon. Members. This is all aimed at making the law easier to understand and as a result easier to comply with.
To put this new law into practice, the Equality and Human Rights Commission will consult widely, including with voluntary groups, businesses and trade unions, in order to work out how it will be brought into force and to publish the guidance that will be useful.
This is a good, timely and strong Bill that will make our country a fairer and more prosperous place for all its people. We cannot afford in Britain in the 21st century to be hidebound by prejudice or blinkered by discrimination. This is a modern, forward-looking argument that will underpin our future success. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move,
That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Equality Bill because it fails to address the root causes of the reduction in social mobility in recent years, fails to address the disability pay gap, especially in the Civil Service, gives employment tribunals too many powers in areas where they are not best placed to judge, contains disproportionate and bureaucratic proposals on the gender pay gap which will impose unnecessary costs on business whilst failing to solve the problem, fails to implement proposals on compulsory pay audits for those organisations which are found guilty of discrimination by an employment tribunal, gives Ministers the power to amend the Act by order instead of leaving this to Parliament, and allows discrimination in recruitment and promotion decisions.
I thank the Minister for Women and Equality for bringing this Bill before the House, and we look forward to debating it with her and other hon. Members during the coming weeks and months. Indeed, I am tempted to say that this Bill has been so long in the making that I am sure I am not alone in the feeling of déjà vu that I have in speaking about it today.
I absolutely believe that fairness and equality of opportunity should be rights of every single individual in this country. Discrimination, unfair treatment and imposed disadvantage are wrong, and as politicians we should strive to stamp them out. However, the Bill and the Minister’s speech have made it clear that we come at this issue from different perspectives, and that is why we have tabled our amendment today, on which I shall comment in detail later.
In the four years since the Government first pledged to introduce an Equality Bill in their 2005 manifesto, we have had false starts, empty announcements and more delays than I care to remember, so all credit to the Minister for having the staying power to stick with it. The Bill must be a labour of love for her and I am sure that hon. Members will agree that we can see her fingerprints over many of the provisions. When the right hon. and learned Lady made a statement to the House explaining the intention of the Bill, I welcomed it. We continue to welcome the fact of the Bill and I am pleased that the Government are using it to consolidate existing legislation and simplify the guidance given to businesses and other organisations. We welcome many parts of the Bill and we will be willing to work with the Government to ensure that they get on to the statute book.
I must confess that I had really high hopes for this Bill, but despite the fact that the Minister has had ample time to hone it to perfection, the overwhelming sense that one gets on reading it is of an enormous missed opportunity. The Government had the opportunity to put together a meaningful and significant piece of legislation with fairness and common sense at its heart, but by including unworkable and overly bureaucratic proposals, they have undermined the benefits of the Bill and caused us to have serious misgivings about its probable outcomes.
We must also address the fact that the environment in which we now find ourselves giving this Bill its Second Reading is vastly different from that in which it was first envisaged four years ago. The country is in deep recession, unemployment is soaring and businesses are struggling to stay afloat. I am on record as having said on many occasions that equality is not just something for the good times, but the Government have shown a complete lack of awareness of the changed conditions. Equality matters whatever the economic climate, but I am sure that Ministers would agree that we should be trying to work with business to develop equality policies that are not unnecessarily onerous or costly. I believe that there are ways we can champion fairness without penalising employers.
I can only assume that the hon. Lady was not listening to the third paragraph of my speech, in which I made exactly that point. One of the aspects of the Bill that we welcome is the fact that it simplifies existing legislation. That will, of course, benefit not only businesses but others operating within the Bill.
I apologise that I, too, missed the third paragraph of the right hon. Lady’s speech. I also apologise to the House, as I meant to be here earlier. However, I am confused about whether the right hon. Lady is going to support the Bill’s Second Reading or not.
I have read the Order Paper, and I note that the Opposition’s amendment
“declines to give a Second Reading to the Equality Bill”.
All the organisations that have contacted me about the Bill want to do the opposite. Could you tell me how many organisations have contacted you to say—
Order. I think the hon. Gentleman now recognises the mistake that he has made.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to listen to my speech; he will then learn exactly what our concerns about the Bill are. They are concerns that have been expressed outside the House. Indeed, if he was listening to earlier interventions, he will know that a Labour Member raised a concern about the Bill from an external organisation, and I will come to that later.
No; I did say that I wanted to make some progress.
The main problem with the Bill is that it has some really good intentions that have been muddled by ill-thought-out and, frankly, unworkable proposals that appear to have been tacked on at the last minute. I refer mainly to part 1, which deals with socio-economic inequalities. I know that this is one of the Minister’s favourite projects, but giving people a legal right to a better life will not magic up a better life for them. What the Government need to do, but have so far failed to do and show little sign of doing now, is to tackle the root causes of inequality: family breakdown, poor education, and worklessness. To push the responsibility on to local authorities is to duck the issue, and it will achieve nothing. People’s lives will not be changed by the provisions in the Bill, but Ministers will no doubt feel that they have fulfilled their obligations.
Last week’s poverty figures showed that the number of adults living in poverty had risen by 800,000 on this Government’s watch. Surely the Minister does not believe that the provisions in part 1 will change their lives by making new opportunities available to them and lifting them out of poverty. Sadly, in the past 12 years, this Government have failed to grasp the fundamental truth that just passing a law or setting a target will not change things. It takes more than that, as the 4 million children and 7.5 million adults living in poverty right now can tell them. I hope that the Government intend their forthcoming child poverty Bill to do rather more than this Bill does.
On the point about socio-economic groups, is it not terribly important that the next census has the necessary investment to get the right information? We are already having arguments about population issues in the last census. If such data are to inform part of the Bill, they must be accurate in order for us to have a debate on them.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the best way to deal with inequality in relation to wealth is not necessarily through the measures in the Bill—she has already expressed her concerns about those—but to have policies to improve equality of opportunity and the taxation policies to redistribute wealth? Will she comment on whether she has any tax proposals, other than that on inheritance tax, that would tackle the problem more effectively than the Government have done? As she has rightly said, things have become more unequal under this Government.
I did say that I was going to make some progress, and I am aware that many Members wish to speak. Moreover, the Leader of the House and Minister for Women and Equality said that her speech would be long—and, indeed, it was.
Equality of opportunity in the workplace is something on which I have campaigned for some time, particularly the gender pay gap. The Conservative party put forward proposals to tackle that gender pay gap more than a year ago, and my colleague in the other place, Baroness Morris of Bolton, has a private Member’s Bill in progress. After the comments made in the other place when that Bill was debated, I was hopeful that this Equality Bill would include our proposals to address the gender pay gap, which would mean that we could work with the Government. Sadly, however, the proposals in this Bill are clumsy and ill judged. In four years’ time, the Government will have the power to demand that every private sector company with more than 250 employees carries out a compulsory pay audit, regardless of whether or not it has a record of discrimination.
By the way, there is clearly one law for the public sector and another for the private sector. There are no provisions in the Bill that would have a similar effect on public sector bodies, even though the pay gap in the public sector is far from satisfactory. Our own policy, the Conservative party policy, would compel only companies found guilty of discrimination by an employment tribunal to carry out a pay audit—a punishment for those that have offended and a deterrent for those that might. Our proposal is fair and measured; the Government’s is heavy-handed and obstinate.
The Leader of the House and Minister for Women said last week:
“Fair employers have nothing to fear but unfair employers have nowhere to hide.”
I have to say to her that it seems she does not understand her own policy, because her proposals would do exactly the reverse of what she said—fair employers will have to bear just as much cost and inconvenience as unfair employers, and the result will be a bureaucratic nightmare that will set back the equal pay campaign. I think that this proposal shows the Minister’s complete lack of empathy for the situation in which many businesses find themselves. Adding another burden that will be costly and time consuming when many are struggling to stay afloat and keep people in jobs at all is completely insensitive. Even the Business Minister, the noble Baroness Vadera, has warned businesses not to be distracted by the Equality Bill, so I suggest that she, too, does not feel entirely comfortable with its proposals.
Surely what my right hon. Friend is saying makes a great deal of sense. What we should do is move towards a system of compulsory pay audits only if the situation does not improve. As she rightly points out, we need to change the culture, and placing oppressive burdens on all businesses at this stage would make no sense at all. Audits should be carried out only on companies that have broken the law.
May I respond to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) first? I entirely agree with him that it is right for companies found guilty of discrimination to pay a price for that—and I believe that the price should be having a compulsory pay audit.
I am extraordinarily grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. May I beg to differ with my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), and, indeed, with my right hon. Friend? I put it to her that unless there is universal transparency, as opposed to a selective policy, none of us in the House will be able confidently to say that there is not widespread undetected and unreported discrimination taking place.
I have to say to my hon. Friend that I believe a proportionate response is necessary, which is what we have proposed. I also say that it is not possible to be sure that the positive impact that my hon. Friend suggests will result from its clauses will indeed happen. We do not know exactly what information the companies are going to be publishing, as that will be a matter for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to determine in due course. The Bill may not therefore have the impact that my hon. Friend believes it will. I do not believe that company pay audits will have the desired impact. What is important is ensuring that we have a system under which people can take discrimination cases to a tribunal and if companies are found guilty of discrimination in individual cases, action will—unlike at the moment—be required of them. I think that those companies should be required to pay a price—effectively by having a pay audit.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I hope that she enjoys her drink of water.
I have been listening carefully to what the right hon. Lady has been saying. Her argument seems to be, “We can’t do this because it is too difficult and too technical, and businesses would suffer.” I put it to her that most fair-minded employers would support these changes. She is backing herself into the same corner as her party, as she will see if she reads the Hansard report of the debate on the minimum wage a few years ago.
The hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of what I said is not entirely accurate. What I want is a change in the equal pay legislation that is proportionate and requires companies that have been found guilty of discrimination to undergo a compulsory pay audit, which I believe will serve as a punishment for those who are found guilty and as a deterrent for those who may consider discrimination.
I want to finish this point. I did not say that the proposals in the Bill were impossible to implement for technical reasons. The technical aspects have not yet been agreed on, decided or discussed. What I did say was that requiring every company of a certain size to undergo a compulsory pay audit, regardless of whether it had been practising discrimination, would mean that fair employers would have to pay a price despite not having been guilty of discrimination.
Order. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has made it quite clear that she is not going to give way at this point.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I say to the Government once again that I hope they will consider our own proposals on equal pay, which I believe to be more measured and more workable. We also appreciate that the gender pay gap is about more complex issues than discrimination in the workplace. It is also about issues such as the careers advice given to young women and girls, and the choices that they make.
We will press the Government to look beyond the figures and think about how we can make workplaces more female and family-friendly—although I have to say that I suspect that the Minister for Women and Equality herself will have a view on how to help women to deal with overbearing male bosses who do not allow them to progress, and who force them to give up their promotion ambitions. We will also be pressing the Government to reconsider their wider proposals on employment tribunals. Giving tribunals vast, sweeping powers that affect all employees would place too much power in their hands. We do not know the exact nature of the powers or how stringent they will be—the Bill is very scant on detail in that regard—and we intend to press for more information in Committee.
Much has been made of the provisions on positive action, and the Minister paid a great deal of attention to it in her speech. She made a point that she has made many times before about the difference between the numbers of women on the Conservative and the Labour Benches in the House, and the importance of all-women shortlists in having delivered the current number of women Labour Members of Parliament. I repeat what I have said on many occasions in the past: we support the extension of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. [Interruption.] The Solicitor-General says, from a sedentary position, that we are not going to use it. That suggests that the Solicitor-General does not understand what the legislation does. What it does is enable political parties to use positive action of a variety of sorts. It is what has enabled us to introduce our priority list. It is not necessary for a political party to start imposing all-women shortlists under that legislation.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will make one further point, and then I will give way to my hon. Friend.
As I have said, on a number of occasions the Minister has referred to the discrepancy between the numbers of women on the Conservative and Labour Benches. Because of our use of positive action, we have selected a far higher proportion of women in winnable seats than we had previously.
As I was about to tell the House, if the Conservative party wins the next general election by only one seat, the number of women Conservative Members will increase from 17 to 55. The issue for the Labour party is that some of those women will have defeated Labour women. The issue for the House is that the overall number of women in this House may not rise as a result of that increase in the number of Conservative women Members.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Just for the record, is she aware—I suspect she is—that my own seat, from which I retire at the next general election, is to be split in two, and as a result of the well-conceived A-list system that we have come up with, there are to be two candidates who are both of very high quality, one of whom is a man, while the other, who will be my MP in the future, is a woman?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. They are, indeed, two very good candidates, and I am sure they will make a very positive contribution to this House when they are elected.
On positive action, I must say that there seems to be a discrepancy between what the Leader of the House has said in public and what the Bill was originally supposed to do. One example that is often given on the wider issue of positive action and its use is that in circumstances where a primary school that has only female teachers has a job vacancy for which there are two candidates of equal merit, one of whom is a man and the other a woman, the head teacher or school governors could be allowed to appoint the man in order to address the imbalance in the work force. That must only be allowed as a tie-breaker in situations where there are two genuinely equally qualified candidates. In such circumstances, I would be happy to support the proposal to allow companies to take into account the diversity of a work force when making appointments, so long as that applied only where there are two candidates of equal merit—although I suspect that it might be hard to find many circumstances in which the candidates were genuinely absolutely equally qualified.
However, that is not the approach that the right hon. and learned Lady has been taking when explaining the proposal, because last week we learned that she wants to use it to pack the boards of nationalised banks with women, saying:
“It is about saying, ‘because you are a woman I’m going to put you in this promotion’.”
That is precisely what this proposal should not be about. The right hon. and learned Lady has given the impression that this proposal will allow widespread positive discrimination, and if that is the effect, then we oppose it. Indeed, the explanatory notes to the Bill, prepared by the Government Equalities Office, state that this proposal might allow a police service to give preferential selection to candidates from an ethnic minority where there are
“a number of equally qualified candidates”.
I am not sure that there would ever be a situation where there are “a number” of genuinely equally qualified candidates, but the note continues:
“This would not be unlawful, provided the comparative merits of other candidates were also taken into consideration.”
Taking into consideration the merits of other candidates is not the same as allowing positive action only when there are two candidates of equal merit. The Government therefore seem to be confused about this proposal: either it is a limited measure to be used only as a tie-break in rare cases, or it will allow positive discrimination as a widespread recruitment policy. We therefore intend to examine this proposal further in Committee.
We also need more detail on the proposals relating to public sector procurement. I understand the Government’s intention in this area, but the Bill is, again, worryingly vague. What exactly will be required of a company in order to demonstrate that it is meeting acceptable equality levels? Indeed, how are acceptable equality levels to be defined, and who will define them? We all agree that there needs to be fairness in the business world and that the public sector should always take care in procurement, but as the Government have spent so much time preparing the Bill, we expected more detail. Given the concerns raised by the Glover review about small businesses and procurement, we need to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck so that equality flourishes in our business sector, but without placing unfair burdens on small companies.
I welcome the inclusion in the Bill of age discrimination measures. Unfair discrimination on the basis of age should be as unacceptable as any other form of discrimination and we welcome the action to tackle it. However, I want to press the Government on a few points to ensure that there are no unintended consequences of the legislation. We all want to tackle age discrimination, but I am sure Members would accept that
“there will always be a need for age-specific facilities and services”.
Those were the exact words of the Government’s discrimination law review and that principle is maintained by the Government’s correct decision to exclude under-18s from the age provisions of this Bill. The Minister for Women and Equality will be aware that there is concern that the Government have ignored that principle, particularly as regards insurance.
The discrimination law review stated that there was a need for the continuation of
“age-based concessions, whether in the private or public sector”
as well as a need to allow
“insurance companies to design and provide products for specific market segments”
“age limits on group holidays.”
Ministers have been challenged on the issue of Saga Holidays by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). Ministers have recognised these issues in the explanatory notes, but they have failed to come up with a satisfactory way of dealing with these issues in the Bill. What they have had to resort to in clause 190 is an unacceptable power for Ministers to amend primary legislation by order every time someone thinks up an example that Ministers want to permit. That will not be acceptable for businesses such as Saga and for other insurance businesses that need more clarity about the framework in which they are going to operate.
Although one of the understandable desires of the Government is to open up services for older people, there is a danger that the clause will damage the specialist services on which older people rely, in particular insurance services and specialist holidays, by requiring them to provide for younger people as well. Saga has said the following about the Bill:
“our insurance business, if forced to offer premiums to all age groups, would become less competitive for the over 50s because we would have to bear extra costs of quotation for the under 50s.”
It says that without assurances from the Government, the following will occur:
“This will inevitably make business planning impossible for us, since we will not know whether our holidays will remain legal.”
I am sure that the Government do not intend to damage specialist services in that way, but they must listen to the genuine concerns that have been expressed. Equally, they must ensure that insurance companies that use age assessment—where that is appropriate—are not damaged. The Government have failed to set out clearly where they are coming from on this, so I hope that when the Solicitor-General winds up the debate she will be able to assure us that age-based treatment, where appropriate, can continue.
I am glad that the Bill is bringing under one roof the vast array of existing equalities legislation, so that we have more coherence in this area of law. Over recent years, equality has been given a bad name—to many people, “equality” has become about bureaucracy and box-ticking—but it should never be the enemy of common sense, nor should it hamper business; it should help business to work better.
No, I am coming to a—[Hon. Members: “Peroration.”] My hon. Friends are flattering me by calling it a peroration. I had hoped that the Equality Bill would not just sweep away existing equality legislation, but improve on what we have. However, rather than instilling some simplicity and common sense, some of the measures in this Bill serve merely to overcomplicate and undermine. Fairness is a very straightforward concept, yet the Government have managed to turn it into a quagmire of regulation and recrimination. We shall be pressing them on many of their proposals and I hope that, where possible, we shall be able to work together to create some better legislation. But the Bill, as it stands, is littered with inconsistencies and obstacles to real fairness, and for that reason we need to start again. I urge hon. Members from all parts of the House to support the amendment, so we can work together to provide legislation that truly does deliver a fair society.
It is a pleasure to be able to participate so early in this debate. I very warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality on introducing this excellent Bill. She has been a stalwart and consistent champion for equality from well before it became a reasonably fashionable cause. I listened to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and I was puzzled by her decision, and that of her party leader, to vote against Second Reading, given that she and her party profess, albeit perhaps a little late, to be converts to the cause of a fairer and more equal society. The points she was making would more appropriately have been reflected by trying to press amendments in Committee, rather than by deciding to oppose Second Reading completely.
I have been struck in recent weeks by the sheer number of briefings on the Bill that I have received—more than I can remember for any other recent Bill—and the range of organisations from which they have come. That reflects the way in which the debate about equality and diversity is increasingly a mainstream and not a minority issue. There are a few key points that I want to make, but I shall start with a quick reflection on just how far we have come.
The right hon. Lady refers to the briefings that she had received, which gives me a chance to raise the matter that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) did not have time for me to raise.
The briefing from the Roman Catholic Bishops conference states:
“The Bill creates competing rights with no indication of how problems should be resolved.”
I assume this is a reference to the competing claims of the so-called faith lobby and the so-called gay lobby. Does the right hon. Lady believe that the bishops conference has a point, and if so, how can these tensions be resolved?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely interesting point. There is no doubt that there are occasions when there are competing rights. I dealt with that as Minister for Women when we were considering, for instance, the introduction of laws against religious discrimination and laws against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in employment. We arrived at, I believe, the right compromise in those two separate strands of legislation. I assume, although I have not checked the detail, that that is reflected in the new Bill.
That was one of the reasons I came to the view that we needed a single Equality and Human Rights Commission in place of the three predecessor bodies. Where there are conflicting rights—and sometimes there will be—a body is needed that can work within a broader framework, including the broader human rights framework, to help society as a whole, as well as the courts and the House, to resolve those conflicts.
To illustrate how far we have come, I recall, as another young campaigner for equality legislation 35 years ago, just how dismal the situation was. This morning I had the pleasure of joining an excellent organisation, Working Families. We were looking at which employers to include in our top 20 list of organisations that are helping families to balance work and caring responsibilities. What I found would have been unthinkable 35 years ago, and pretty extraordinary even 15 or 20 years ago—over and over again, organisations saying that more than 90 per cent. of women who take maternity leave, which is much longer than it was, say, 20 years ago, are returning to work, often with a change in their working arrangements.
Over and over again, organisations were saying that the right to request different working hours was not limited to those covered by our current laws, but had been extended to everybody, and even on that basis more than 90 per cent. of requests were granted. Those are just a few examples of the huge strides we have made.
I hope the right hon. Lady will not be surprised to know that I agree with many of her comments, including her specific recommendation in favour of the single equality commission. On balance, I think that has been right, but will she concede that in these discussions—it has been rather under-represented in the debate so far—we need to be very sensitive to the needs of disabled people, because the nature of their position, the remedies for their position and any discrimination against them might be somewhat different in kind from the digital situation that exists as to whether there is racial discrimination or gender discrimination? Does she agree that it is very important that in Committee we take that factor into account?
I agree with everything that the right hon. Lady has said so far. Does not the example that she has so eloquently given about her meeting Working Families this morning suggest that the current situation is working well, based on the Equality Act 2006, and therefore does not require the micromanagement that the Government now propose?
I disagree with the hon. Lady on that point for the reasons so eloquently expressed by the Minister for Women and Equality. The point that I wanted to make about the right to request flexible working and, more broadly, work-family balance is that the new challenge we face is how employers can make it much easier and more normal for men to vary their working hours so that they can play the full part in bringing up their children, or caring for elderly or disabled relatives, that so many would like to play but find difficult to achieve at the moment.
I especially welcome certain aspects of the Bill. The new public sector duty is part of a very welcome simplification of the law. My right hon. and learned Friend, in illustrating the need for simplification, could have mentioned the appalling number of volumes now required to deal with case law on all the different strands of legislation. Having a single public sector equality duty, rather than a series of separate duties, will allow the Department of Health—my old Department—and the NHS to take a single view of the challenges they face and the opportunities they have to combat inequality. For instance, Departments could look at the real challenge they still face in achieving the proper representation of women in more senior positions. They might consider advertising almost all jobs on a flexible rather than a full-time basis—a suggestion specifically made by Working Families.
I equally strongly support My right hon. and learned Friend on the measures on positive action. Clarity is badly needed in that area. When I was a governor of my children’s primary school, we found it almost impossible to recruit men into the classrooms, even though we badly wanted more men to teach those young children, especially in a community in which so many children were growing up without the active presence of their father in their family.
I hope that the Bill will permit positive action not only at the point of making an appointment, but when a public sector body or private company—seeking greater diversity in its work force or on its board—solicits applications from well qualified people within the underrepresented group. Perhaps the Minister will address that point when she winds up.
The third aspect that I warmly welcome is the proposed new duty on public sector organisations to consider how they can narrow the gap between rich and poor. I referred to the work I had done as Minister for Women and as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in making proposals for a single Equality and Human Rights Commission. In the end, the factor that most led me to the conclusion that we needed a single body was the fact that—whatever the actual legal position—some groups felt completely left out of the law and the debate on diversity and equality. In particular, white men—especially white working class men—simply did not see themselves represented or reflected in the equality and diversity debate. Yet we all know very well—I certainly know this from my constituency—that school results, for example, show that white working-class boys are typically most likely to leave school without anything resembling the skills and competences that they need to open up opportunities in the modern world.
What I have also seen in my constituency and many other parts of the country is the powerful change that can come about when the Government and the public sector more generally get behind disadvantaged communities, as we have done, for instance, with the new deal for communities, certainly in my constituency, in the neighbourhood of Braunstone, where the public, private and not-for-profit sectors have come together to support local people in a desperately disadvantaged neighbourhood, to start to transform their own lives and their neighbours’ lives.
I have no doubt at all that local councils, the local NHS, the police and so on will be helped in focusing their priorities by the new duty to consider how they can narrow the class gap, as well as taking into account the different needs of, for instance, men and women and of—to use another Leicester example—the south Asian community in respect of health care and so on. That is crucial. If that is one of the main reasons behind the Opposition’s decision to oppose the Bill on Second Reading, it illustrates just how out of touch they are.
I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming that provision. Does she agree that it has proved very difficult to address those inequalities, that it takes a very long time to do so and that entrenching such things, as in the very good work of the Plymouth local strategic partnership, is very important indeed?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—in fact, I recall getting some sense of the work of that local strategic partnership when I visited her constituency—about the concerted effort that is needed over a long period to address such deep-seated disadvantages, which are transmitted intergenerationally within extended families in a neighbourhood.
I want to raise two specific, more narrow issues, on which I hope my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will comment when she makes her winding-up speech. The first issue is discrimination against women who are pregnant or on maternity leave. It is truly shocking that 30 years, or whatever it is, since the introduction of paid maternity leave so many women still find themselves discriminated against by their employer when they are pregnant or on maternity leave. That includes utterly crass forms of discrimination, such as the woman who telephones or tells her employer that she is pregnant only to be told, practically in the next breath, that she has lost her job. The alliance against pregnancy discrimination has expressed concerns that clauses 16 and 17 will not be as strong as the existing law, and it would be helpful if my hon. and learned Friend reassured us on that point.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support, because she has done outstanding work on the issue.
On the second issue, I want to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) about caste discrimination, because it is certainly the belief of Caste Watch UK that the current law does not adequately protect those in south Asian or, indeed, other communities who find themselves discriminated against on those grounds. I understand that the UN human rights convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination prohibits discrimination on five grounds: race, colour, national or ethnic origin, or descent. Of course, the UK ratified the convention in 1969, but I do not believe that our existing law, or indeed the Bill, is as explicit on that point as, for instance, the legislation in Australia. It would be helpful if the Minister addressed that issue.
The Bill is a landmark measure and it deserves the wholehearted support of the House. I certainly wish it well in Committee. I believe that in years to come it will be seen as another milestone on our long march to a fairer and more equal society.
The passion that drives and motivates Liberal Democrats—that beats in our hearts—is our quest for, and commitment to, a fairer and more open and equal world, so we very much welcome the Bill. It was too long in gestation and far too late in arriving but it is very much welcome nevertheless.
Fairness and equality are Liberal Democrat watchwords and we shall support outcomes in the Bill that genuinely further their cause, but where there is weakness or omission we shall challenge and probe and add improvements to deliver even fairer outcomes and even more equality. Our equalities pedigree is well known. Lord Lester, who will lead for us in the other place, has a long and impeccable track record in these matters—basically, he wrote the book. Equalities legislation reflects his pioneering and lifelong commitment to the cause.
Before I turn to the key issues in the Bill, I shall touch on a few overarching matters. We think the Government could have taken a more radical perspective and extended the commitment to equality beyond the Bill, with an overarching equality guarantee. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission said, that would ensure that equality was considered in every action of the state and in every future piece of legislation. Such a guarantee would be radical and would give us a constitutional right to fairness.
It is important to establish what we are trying to achieve through the Bill. How will we measure success? How much inequality will be eradicated? My overall sense is that the Bill does not go far enough and that the length of time it has taken to reach the Floor of the House does not seem adequately reflected in the final product or the urgency to be given to some of the provisions, given the scale of inequality that the Leader of the House briefly outlined.
Women in full-time work are paid 17 per cent. less than men, and 36 per cent. less if they work part-time. A disabled person is two and a half times more likely to be out of work. A person from an ethnic minority is 15.5 per cent. less able to find work. Sixty-two per cent. of over-50s believe they have been turned down for a job because of their age, and six in 10 lesbian or gay schoolchildren experience homophobic bullying. Will the Bill cure those horrific statistics? That must be the measure of how far it can go.
The simplification and unification of our equality laws will help. It will not be a panacea for eradicating inequality but it is a good start. There are 35 Acts, 52 statutory instruments, 13 codes of practice and 16 European directives—only lawyers will get rich from them.
As has been mentioned on both sides of the House, we are in the middle of one of the deepest recessions in history. Legislation does not exist in a vacuum, so we cannot completely ignore the plight of business and the impact of new laws. However, after 10 years of boom, when the Government did not act on equality issues—especially equal pay—it would not be acceptable if there was any weakening of equality legislation. I welcome the Leader of the House’s assurance that the delivery of the law will not be affected. I shall argue some of those points when I speak about the gender pay gap.
We are rewriting 40 years of equality law, and it has to be fit for the next 40 years. I encourage the Government to have the courage of their convictions, and to believe their own analysis of the cost-benefits of the new law, which is that there would be a net gain for UK plc within three and a half years. I would like to address some concerns of a general nature. An awful lot of very important things will not be in the Bill. A lot of powers are being left to Ministers, and powers to amend decisions—on, for example, exceptions regarding age discrimination in the provision of goods and services, multiple discrimination and how equal pay should be measured—are being kicked into the long grass.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is most gracious. Does she accept that the lack of detail on some of those matters makes it difficult to compute the impact and compliance costs for business and others? We simply do not know at this stage.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We Liberal Democrats are trying hard to support the measures in the Bill, but it is hard to see the legislation going through its stages without the detail that we need to be sure that we are doing the right thing. These are uncertain political times, and it causes me concern that future Ministers might be anti-equality. Powers left to a Minister in future will be powers for a Minister to undo what has been done today, if they should, by any chance, not share an equal conviction in the equality legislation.
Socio-economic inequality is the deepest and most intractable inequality. That is the one into which we are born, and we have very little chance of changing that. The Liberal Democrats have long argued, in this Chamber and elsewhere, that poverty and inequality are intrinsically linked. In nearly three decades of Thatcherite and new Labour Governments, Britain has steadily become a less equal and less fair society. Under this Labour Government, rates of social mobility have fallen. A person born into a poor family now is more likely to remain poor throughout their adult life than a person born 30 years ago. Educational chances are almost entirely correlated to social class, which means that children’s prospects are set before they even reach school.
The equality gap has widened, and as Ms Polly Toynbee wrote last week:
“in Labour’s decade, billionaires’ wealth quadrupled and three out of five of them paid no income tax.”
Even more importantly, in the five years before the crash, average incomes barely changed, and the poor became poorer. Inequality is at its highest level since records began—and that is under a Labour Government. The Government should have introduced measures to tackle stubborn, worsening inequality 10 years ago, and they should not have done so in a last-minute, throwaway clause, even though it has been put at the start of the Bill. It muddies the water; it has been jumbled into a Bill that was intended to unify, clarify and strengthen existing legislation.
The Government should have made legislative proposals to tackle socio-economic inequality in a Bill of its own, given the vital importance of narrowing the equality gap. It is the right aim, but the wrong vehicle and the wrong means. It is just a very weak measure. In some ways, the proposal in the Bill is no different from saying that when our taxes are spent by public bodies, those bodies should bear in mind whether they are damaging our environment in how they spend those taxes. It makes sense to think about the wider implications of how money should be spent. If we can use it to address and tackle more than one issue, and to achieve more than one goal, that is even better news, as it is more value for money in cash-strapped times, but the way in which the duty is laid out in the Bill is, I fear, simplistic and unfair. Its wording is broad enough to attract controversy, worry, and legal argument, but too weak to have much of a real impact or really address the equality gap, which is widening and damaging to all of us. That is the worst of all words.
I cannot express how disappointed I am with the Government’s overly patient approach to equal pay for women. I know that their heart is in the right place, but the idea that business is to be given another four years in which to change its ways is a cop-out. It would seem that the Minister for Women and Equality has forgotten that businesses were given five years to get their house in order after the original Equal Pay Act of 1970. Forty years later, we are about to repeat that same error. How much time do businesses need to get their house in order? I am sorry that the Government have backed away from mandatory pay audits. What the Government propose is not a pay audit at all, but simply a statement of average pay by gender, without any context to make it truly meaningful. My goodness, the Government clearly understand the benefits of openness and transparency, because they rightly seek to end the mystery that shrouds pay by prohibiting firms from issuing gagging orders that require a vow of silence from their staff. However, they fall short of requiring a real pay audit that would evaluate the quality and nature of the work being done and then be published.
Recently, off the back of a publication about pay at the university of Cambridge, I noticed an unhealthy preponderance of men at the top of the scales and women at the bottom. I referred the issue to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and blogged about it, and two very concerned gentleman from the university’s external relations department rushed down to Parliament to meet me and inform me of all that they were going to do to deal with that glaring challenge—exposed by meaningful figures that they had had to publish. That is the point: what is exposed to public scrutiny will concentrate the mind. The main benefit of such an audit, however, is that it becomes a tool for the individual who has no idea what the pay scales are and who gets what. In seeing what is what, the individual will be able to decide whether she or he is being discriminated against, and they will have the evidence and knowledge to take their case forward.
Conservative Members discussed the knock-on effect on a whole company, but how will an individual take forward a case to be examined by a tribunal in the first place if they do not have the evidence? The Government’s hand may be forced if businesses do not change their ways, but the Bill deals only with those private sector firms that have 250 staff or more, representing 0.5 per cent. of the whole sector. As the Leader of the House pointed out, 80 per cent. of people work in the private sector, so the Bill is unlikely to right many of the wrongs ensuring that, economically, women continue to be second-class citizens.
Moreover, the Government’s plan seems to require the Equality and Human Rights Commission to spend the summer consulting various bodies, but it is a bit rich for the commission to consider it after legislation has gone through the House, because we will have no idea of the extent of the measure. We are also disappointed that, on legal protection against pay discrimination, the Government have not introduced hypothetical comparators for equal pay claims, because that continues the disparity between the way in which different types of discrimination are dealt with. We will therefore push the Government in Committee to have the courage of their convictions.
Much of the Bill deals with when one is in work, but I am concerned about the discrimination that takes place in respect of applications for work, because, even before the interview stage, there are barriers that eliminate those people from black or ethnic minority communities, women, those with disabilities and older applicants. Applicants must be given an equal chance of employment from the first moment that they apply for a job, whether private or public.
I once had two interns, one whose surname was Patel and one whose surname was Hussein. They were bright, able and talented, but, out of the many jobs that they had applied for before they came to work as interns, they had not qualified for a single interview. Obviously, after interning for a while in my office and being able to put on their CV that they had worked for an MP, which is, after all, the point for them, they both went off to good jobs, I am pleased to say—one in public relations and one at the Ministry of Defence. However, the situation got me thinking—it is not rocket science—that they might not have got past that first, application stage because of their surnames.
Nicola Brewer, the outgoing chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, gave voice not long ago to the fact that employers avoid employing women because they wish to avoid becoming liable for maternity benefits. We will table an amendment to introduce a name-blank application that would apply to all written applications to work. Just as children are given an exam number to put on their exam papers so that there is no recognition, prejudice or unfairness, job applicants should be required to submit, for example, only their national insurance number. No one would know whether they were female, male, black, brown, young or old, and that first, possibly subliminal, discard would be eliminated. Obviously, when one reached the interview stage, the employer would know one’s background, but prejudice would be much harder, and personality and character come through at interview in a way that they do not on a piece of paper. I hope that the Government will look favourably on that suggestion. Financially, the cost would be almost nil.
My hon. Friend has made a good suggestion, which I hope the Government will take on board. Does she agree that it is far better to explore such ways of solving the problem of discrimination against women than to agree—I do not know whether Ms Brewer was suggesting this—that we should somehow dilute the important benefits attracted in respect of maternity to meet what employers are doing? It is far better to tackle the discrimination than to dilute the benefits that they are concerned about.
Absolutely. When Ms Brewer made her announcements, I felt that the message was rather along the lines of, “Well we mustn’t do that then. We will have to tone down the magnitude of maternity benefits.” That would be entirely the wrong approach.
While we are on the subject of work applications, a subject already discussed in this debate, I want to mention disability. At present, the onus is on the individual to state whether they have a disability. One hopes that it would not, but that might somehow allow the employer to reject disabled applicants at an early stage. If the employer had to state on a form what sort of disability would be a bar, it could be judged whether that was appropriate and the person concerned would be more likely to get to interview.
I turn to positive action. It seems completely illogical that we should be allowed to fast-track the training of ethnic minority and women police, but not be allowed to fast-track their employment. The rebalancing of the workplace is hugely important, and I do not disagree with the Leader of the House’s vision of the bank boardrooms of the future. When both the genders make a decision, it is likely to be more balanced.
I was chair of transport at the Greater London authority, and I noticed that decisions on budgets were often weighted towards the working world. Although I am a great supporter of Crossrail and I believe that the big infrastructure projects are vital, there was a bit of one type of issue being against another—who had the longest train and the biggest airport, for example, versus travel to school and soft measures on travel planning. The disparity between those budgets was irreconcilable. Both genders need to take part in the decision making so that they can argue the case fully. I look forward to seeing more women in the banks.
No. The hon. Gentleman made a ridiculous point.
Let us move on to age. Three cheers for what the Government have proposed on age discrimination! I cannot say how glad I am that protection against age discrimination is being extended to goods and services. However, it is unacceptable for the exemptions to be handled through regulation; they should be in the Bill, and fully debated in Parliament. They are an intrinsic part of the package. I have a concern about the start date of the proposals on age discrimination; it is not satisfactory to leave it up to a Minister to decide at a later date when the measures should be introduced. For the avoidance of doubt, we will ask the Government to set a mandatory deadline.
My last point about age discrimination and matters mandatory is that I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government have retained a mandatory retirement age. It seems completely wrong. I am surprised, as it is clearly discriminatory to decide on an arbitrary age as a cut-off. I heard what the Leader of the House said about the default retirement age being on a separate track, but the issue should be included in the Bill.
I want briefly to touch on some of the good things in the Bill. We welcome the inclusion of sex and age in the positive duty. We also welcome what we hope is a move away from treating transsexualism as a medical condition. It is currently labelled gender reassignment under the protected characteristics. For a long time, those in the transgender community have had physically to change gender before qualifying for the same protection as other strands. To date, the transgender spectrum has not really been understood. While we understand the desire for clear definitions in the Bill, many people find themselves on that spectrum but do not necessarily want a sex change. This is about people who face discrimination because of how they express their gender but do not fit into neat boxes. As the Bill progresses, we will test the Government on exact definitions, because we are still concerned about the continued, fairly narrow definition whereby transgender is seen as part of a process on the way to a change of gender. That is only a slight advance on where we are now, and we would wish those anywhere on the spectrum to have the full protection of equality under the law.
We are pleased with the Government’s proposals on carers and welcome the enshrining in law of the Coleman case and the protection that that affords. We also welcome the measures on breastfeeding, pregnancy and new mothers. However, there are some missing strands that we will probe in Committee: for example, castes are missing from discrimination protection; and there may be separate issues to do with children.
We have outstanding concerns about the proposed changes to restrictions on who can give blood. Obviously, the safety of the blood supply is paramount. However, prohibiting homosexuals as a group from giving blood, as has been the case, bears close examination. It is, without a doubt, discrimination to say, in blanket terms, that all homosexuals should not give blood because they pose such a tremendous risk. Surely we need some sort of risk-based system that assesses the risk posed by an individual, given that there will be overactive heterosexuals who practise unsafe sex and abstinent homosexuals.
Liberal Democrat Members understand the Government’s motives in including religion and belief under the positive duty for equality. However, given the arduous and extensive arguments on the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill—on which the Government, I hate to remind them, were defeated—we hold to the view that religion and belief should not be a protected characteristic. Of course, we all believe that people should not face discrimination in their work because of their religion, and subscribe to promoting good relations to advance equality of opportunity and eliminate discrimination. However, religious views on matters such as abortion, alcohol, homosexuality and sex education in schools are varied and often at odds, and it would be absurd to require public authorities to accommodate all those views in public policies that affect us all. We are also worried that if exceptions for religious organisations in employment are too broad, there will be abuse of that protection. It is obviously acceptable to discriminate in some circumstances, such as advertising for a Catholic to fill the job of a Catholic priest—that makes complete theological sense—but it would be unacceptable if we then found it specified that only a Catholic caretaker could work in a religious school. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) will spend many hours in Committee happily arguing our case, particularly in relation to harassment, where there is a balance to be struck between protection from harassment and free speech.
We are somewhat disappointed that the Bill proposes to continue the medical model of defining disability and that greater consideration has not been given to the social model. We also believe that there is a lack of clarity about the extension to the reasonable adjustment requirement for common areas in rented accommodation. Is that proposal workable? Where liability for costs is shared, who will bear those costs? Such details matter if a Bill is not to come into disrepute. The intention is very good, but the proposal has to work.
We welcome the correction of judgments that have seriously undermined protection from disability discrimination, but we are seriously concerned that the remedy proposed in the Bill will not undo the Malcolm case. I shall pursue that issue in detail in Committee.
I draw my remarks to a close by saying that the Liberal Democrats will challenge, and seek to improve, what is on offer in the Bill. It would be easy to knock the proposed measures, as we heard to some degree from the Conservatives. However, legislation in the equalities field has been the advance guard of change.
Absolutely, and the Bill is an important foot solider in that regard. It sends out a clear and determined message about how the world will have to change. However, legislation must will the means, not just the ends, and we have to ensure that what we put down in law is matched by the will and resources to ensure its delivery. That will come into play when procurement is considered. Equality has advanced, but there is still a long way to go. If we do not continue to advance the cause and deliver a much fairer and more equal world, the cost to us as individuals and collectively as a country will be huge. A fairer and more equal world will mean that all of us fare much better, and I look forward to the battles ahead.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this very important debate.
I know that we have all been waiting for a long time for the Bill to come to the House, and I strongly welcome it. It is a flagship Bill that will affect everybody in the country in some way or other. We all know that unequal societies are unhappy societies, and the Bill represents a great effort to address the discrimination and the barriers that exist throughout the UK. I congratulate the Government on getting it to Second Reading, and I totally support the direction in which they are going.
The Bill is the culmination of many years of hard work and struggle by many different movements. The women’s movement, the movement of disabled people fighting for their rights and many others throughout the country have fought for such a Bill for many years. The test will be in making the words on the page become reality, but the right words mean that we are getting there.
I am absolutely amazed that the Opposition are voting against the Bill and have tabled their amendment. I am surprised that they wish to send the message that they are sending against equality measures.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made it clear that we welcome many measures in the Bill, such as simplification of the law and the extension of legislation on age discrimination. However, there is a lot in the Bill that we do not support. We have laid out our concerns in our reasoned amendment, and that is why, when I wind up the debate, I shall ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making it clear that it is not all Opposition Members who will oppose the Bill’s Second Reading, but the Conservative party. My understanding is that if one opposes certain things in a Bill—I understand the sincere reasons that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) has for doing so—one should give it a Second Reading and try to amend it in Committee and on Report. If one is still not happy on balance, one should vote against it on Third Reading. I would have thought that the Conservatives had that alternative.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and urge the Conservative party to support the Bill today so that the whole House is united in its proposals for equality.
As the Bill is so wide ranging and there are so many aspects that could be raised in this debate—I am sure that, like me, other Members have received many briefings, showing the extent of interest in the Bill from so many different sectors of the community—I want to use this opportunity to raise some of the issues that have been brought to my attention that I hope can be considered further in Committee.
As an MP from Wales, I have been approached by many Welsh organisations about different aspects of the Bill. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in Wales recently produced a document about the road to equality for women in Wales, which it says is too slow. That report showed the huge inequalities that still exist for women in Wales. When the Welsh Assembly was set up, the balance of women and men was nearly 50:50, which was a huge achievement. In her opening remarks, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality said that the positive action that Labour has taken has made a huge difference to the number of women MPs in this place and the number of Labour representatives in the devolved bodies. In 2003, the Assembly was the only body in the world to have parity—a 50:50 balance—between women and men. That was a huge achievement. I welcome the fact that the permission to have mechanisms such as the twinning mechanism that we used in the Welsh Assembly and all-women shortlists will be extended for a further period.
However, in other parts of life in Wales, outside the political sphere of the Assembly, there is still a huge way to go. For example, 74 per cent. of all teachers in Wales are women, but only 16 per cent. of secondary school head teachers and heads of further education colleges are women. That is a huge disparity, and it cannot be a good model for pupils or students. It is very important to address that. Also, 73 per cent. of all staff in local authorities are women, but only 21 per cent. of local authority chief executives are women, which again is a huge disparity. It is important to do what we can to address those issues. In Wales’s top 100 private companies there are no women chief executives. Achieving a more equal society in Wales has been a very slow process, despite the fact that we have such a good gender balance in the Assembly. I welcome the measures in the Bill that will tackle those issues.
One of the biggest issues in Wales, as elsewhere in the UK, is the pay gap. In some areas of work, the pay gap is particularly stark. My right hon. and learned Friend has drawn attention to the huge gender pay gaps—up to 60 per cent.—in the finance sector. Research into the finance sector has shown that women are overwhelmingly concentrated in lower-paid administrative jobs. In Wales, the latest available figures show that the pay gap has widened to 12 per cent. The pay gap has always been somewhat narrower in Wales, but that is because more men there are on low pay than the British average.
We need to tackle the pay gap, not only, as has been said, for reasons of equality and fairness, but for strong economic reasons. The women and work commission’s report of 2006 concluded that removing the barriers to women working in occupations traditionally undertaken by men and increasing women’s participation in the labour market would be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion. The gap is wider in the private sector than in the public sector. I therefore welcome the proposals in the Bill to tackle the pay gap. We have been trying to do that for a long time, but progress has been slow; indeed, the pay gap has recently risen in Wales, although it is still lower than in the UK as a whole.
Unison in Wales reckons that, putting together all its members with claims in all branches, there are now 9,000 outstanding claims, many of which are equal value claims. There are huge issues in respect of such claims, because there is a shortage of ACAS-approved independent experts in Wales, which means that huge legal bills are being built up. I understand that about six months ago, Cardiff council, whose area I represent, had paid out £160,000 in legal fees to just one firm of solicitors—something that will be reflected all over the country. The pay gap in local authorities is a problem. The money that local authorities are having to pay out to solicitors is causing a huge problem, when really that money should go on services. We need to do something to try to speed the process up and sort it out.
Unison and the Fawcett Society have made some proposals in their briefings. They both strongly support the Bill, but believe that it should be strengthened in some ways. They believe that as well as mandatory pay audits there should be representative actions so that individuals can make a claim as a group, which would cut the costs and perhaps the delay. I wonder whether that could be considered during the passage of the Bill.
The Bill requires private sector companies that employ 250 or more people to report on their gender pay gap, and public authorities with 150 employees will also have to report on equality issues. I think that that will be consulted on this summer, which would be a good opportunity to consider what issues will be raised. Will the Minister confirm the position in Wales as regards the list of public bodies that will be included? What role will the Welsh Assembly Government play in deciding which bodies are included?
I strongly support the socio-economic duty; it is absolutely great that it has been brought into the Bill. It is a huge challenge to try to reduce the inequalities that have come about as a result of the division between the rich and the poor, but I feel that the Government and the Labour party are determined to address it. It is very important. Will the Minister say who will make decisions about which public bodies in Wales are included in the list? I also have some concerns about the exception in that clause of people who are subject to immigration control. Will she expand on the thinking behind that?
Another issue that has been raised constantly with me by voluntary bodies and children’s groups is age discrimination and young people. I know that children and young people need to be treated in an age-appropriate way, but many of the young people who have spoken to me feel that they are discriminated against and not listened to just because they are young. The last Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Peter Clarke, said that one of the most common complaints that he received from young people was that they were not listened to. The Young Equals campaign highlighted the fact that 43 per cent. of those under 18 felt that they had been treated unfairly because of their age. I have been in correspondence with the Minister about that issue and have asked why age discrimination against those aged under 18 is not included as part of the Bill. I hope that we can explore that issue a bit more, because the young people and children who speak to me and the bodies that represent them do not understand the logic of why they are not part of this Bill with the appropriate exceptions built in.
I agree very much with the hon. Lady’s last few remarks. Does she agree that that issue is particularly important when young people are subject to residency orders? Their parents might be going through difficulties so that residency is an issue, and too often the courts and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service do not take into account the views of the children and young people who are involved.
The general feedback that I have received from many bodies is that children and young people’s views are not given enough due attention. Those children who are active in such movements see it as a slight that they are not included in the Bill. I understand the reasons behind that decision, because of the many exceptions that would have to be made, but the bodies and young people involved do not understand. We need to discuss that subject at greater length.
I know that there is an issue to discuss about age discrimination and the under-18s, but I hope that my hon. Friend is not under the misapprehension that the Bill does not apply at all to those aged under 18. Of course, in every other strand, it does.
Yes. I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention.
One issue that young people complain about in particular is inappropriate health care provision. Let me take this opportunity to welcome initiatives in my constituency, particularly the Skypad unit, which is based at the University hospital of Wales. It has special age-appropriate facilities for teenage cancer sufferers. The rooms are geared towards teenagers and there is a chill-out zone as well as computer games. That sort of development is exactly what we should be encouraging, because it is appropriate for the age of those young people. They are not children, and they are not adults, but in the health service in general about two thirds of those who are at that in-between age are not in appropriate accommodation. Those are the sorts of issues that have been brought to me by young people.
Another point made to me by the Young Equals campaign in particular—I have met a lot of these groups—was that research has shown that children do not expect the police necessarily to take them seriously when they make serious points. Sometimes, groups of young people are not allowed access to leisure facilities and shops. A shop near my office allowed in only two young people at any one time. That is labelling all young people as potentially disruptive, and I wonder how young people who feel very deeply about such issues can be protected from such discrimination. How will such issues be addressed under the Bill? That is an important point, and I hope that we can have a further discussion so that it can become clear to young people, who often feel strongly about such issues, that the Government are considering their role.
I want to mention other welcome provisions. Many of us have campaigned for a ban on discrimination in private clubs for years, and have even stood outside such clubs making our views known, so it is great that that is now happening. I also welcome the measures to protect pregnant women and new mothers, and to make it illegal to eject breastfeeding mothers from cafés, restaurants and public places—I know that that has happened. Many of us have suffered from such discrimination.
The Bill will reinforce some of the good initiatives that are already happening. In Cardiff, there is a “Breastfeeding Welcome” scheme. Businesses put up a sign saying, “Breastfeeding mothers are welcome.” The scheme has spread all over Cardiff and is particularly strong in the Cardiff Bay area, which is a tourist area. The Bill will strengthen the scheme. We can make the legislation, but we also need efforts to encourage women and to say, “We are pleased that you are breastfeeding here. We think that breastfeeding is good for you and good for the children and we want to do all we can to help you feel welcome.” We have the legislation to back up that approach, but we still need the schemes to reinforce the message and to make people feel welcome.
I congratulate the Government on this wide-ranging Bill, and I am sure that it will make a huge difference to individuals in this country. I want to conclude by mentioning one particular group. I am chair of the all-party group on Gypsy and Traveller law reform and I know that Gypsies and Travellers are among the most discriminated-against groups in this society. I hope that the Bill will help them to achieve their rightful place in society and that they will play a major future role in their communities with its help.
It is a personal pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), for two reasons. First, as she will be aware, I, too, have some interest in Wales. Secondly, I am an officer of the all-party Gypsy and Traveller law reform group to which she has just referred. I strongly confirm her impression that the situation for Gypsies and Travellers in education and health, for example, is deplorable and a clear example of discrimination.
It will already be clear from an intervention that I made earlier—I ought perhaps to declare an interest—that I am now safely past the state retirement age and, as the Americans would say, am slated for retirement from this House at the next general election, whenever it might come. This subtle passage of time might have led me to take a progressively greater interest in ageism, although I do not intend to say much about that tonight. I have had the rather sobering thought that, given the way things are going, this could well be the last time that I participate in the Second Reading debate on a major, substantive Bill. I am proud and pleased to be able to do so on this occasion.
For a variety of reasons, I have developed an interest in equality issues over the past 10 years, and I hope that I can display what I might call a progressive Conservative position on them across the piece. My main experience has been on disability issues, and I still chair my party’s disability group. For other reasons, I have an interest in race relations and community cohesion, and I have a further interest given the gender make-up of my own family. When listening to the speech of the Minister for Women and Equality, I vividly remembered her tabling an amendment to national health service legislation some 20 years ago, in which she called for a gender quota of at least 40 per cent. women in the membership of NHS bodies. I countered at that point by saying that, as I was the only male in my own family, the gender ratio was already 4:1.
I found the right hon. and learned Lady’s speech interesting, and I am not against the Bill in principle, for reasons that I shall deploy, but I felt that it was a little deficient in historic sensitivity. It required an intervention to get her to concede, somewhat grudgingly, that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was Conservative legislation. In my view, that legislation was path-breaking.
Not in detail, but I think we got to the right outcome in the end.
I felt that there was a certain naiveté on the part of the right hon. and learned Lady in assuming that legislation could somehow automatically eliminate any difficulties. At one point I was moved to intervene on her—I aborted the attempt—to ask whether the absence of a public sector duty was somehow directly responsible for the fact that inequalities in this country had increased over the past 10 years.
We should be looking for agreement where we can find it, however, and I certainly broadly welcome the concept of the Bill, and many of its provisions. We are not going to get into the business of abolishing inequalities overnight, but almost everyone in the Chamber would accept the principles of equality under the law and of equality of opportunity as being important for a healthy society. I am happy to say that I believe there is a moral case for greater equality, because we all deserve decent treatment. There is also a social case, because a society that is not frustrated by inequalities is more likely to be a happy and cohesive one. There is also an economic case, although the evidence for that is not conclusive, because gross income inequalities are likely to depress national output and competitiveness.
I go on from that to support the broad approach to the single Bill and the body of law that bridges the various strands of discrimination. I admire the work led by Trevor Phillips in his equalities review, not least because it brought the question of outcomes—to which I have already referred in relation to the Gypsy and Traveller population—to the fore, and the careful, painstaking, parallel review of equality law that took place. Both reviews have informed this legislation.
It is surely sensible to unite concepts and process in a piece of overarching legislation. I would add for consideration, possibly in Committee, that we need to give some attention to equality of access, and I can mention two areas in which there have been difficulties historically. The first is educational discrimination in relation to special educational needs. When there is a special educational needs and disability—SEND—tribunal in the compulsory years, access is much more likely to take place than it is in further or higher education, where there might have to be recourse to the county court.
Secondly, disability discrimination duties are expressed in part II of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in relation to employment and, in part III, in relation to goods and services. I am not saying that a tribunal is always the right approach, but the fact is that more people use them than go to the courts. All these points should be subject to detailed scrutiny in Committee, and I am particularly anxious that there should be no perceived dilution of the Bill’s coverage of disability, which is a more complex case.
Having said that, I am happy to have a single codification of the law, and I do not rule that out as an important factor in driving social progress. It is, to some extent, a lever of desirable change. However, given the experience with equal pay—the relevant legislation is now more than 30 years old—very few people would argue that the law itself will achieve an immediate or conclusive result. I hope that we will have a common aim of equality and that we will use the law appropriately, and not unduly puff its ability to deliver. At the same time, for moral reasons, neither direct nor indirect discrimination should be acceptable.
I shall move on from the body of law—important though that is—to examine some wider and more positive concepts, some vision matters and some matters of culture, where things can be a little more difficult to deliver. My unease—such as it is—about the detailed provisions of the Bill echoes some of the concerns set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in her speech and in the reasoned amendment. The Bill is sometimes waffly and unspecific on public duties, which are not yet adequately defined or costed in regard to compliance. At the same time, however, it is unduly intrusive on the private sector. This is not a good time to introduce further costs, not least those involved in familiarising industry with the legislation. There are likely to be substantial one-off costs and continuing compliance costs, at a time when industry already has considerable burdens of its own.
I am quite sure that there will be cost savings in the long run, and that the situation will settle down. There is a difficulty in the short term, however.
I want to turn to public sector bodies. Even if we drop the argument that the pursuit, in one clause, of socio-economic equality amounts to socialism, as I have heard it described, it does provide a charter for politically motivated interference. In some cases, it could even threaten equality under the law. For example, should we wind up the public library service because it is allegedly used by middle-class people rather than by the population as a whole? Worse, the public sector duty could become a cop-out from doing the real work that is needed in other parts of the public sector.
In some respects, the public sector and the civil service, of which I have some knowledge, are good employers and meet many of the requirements in the Bill. I know a bit about job share in the civil service, for example. Nevertheless, there is still a gender pay gap in the public service. A recent issue of Westminster & Whitehall World highlighted a problem in recruitment advertising that could deter a substantial amount of part-time applicants from applying for certain jobs—I think that the estimate was that 25 per cent. of jobs were not open to job sharers or part-timers. That would mean that many women with family responsibilities could not apply for those jobs. There also continues to be a lack of gender balance in public board appointments, although positive discrimination is perhaps not the right way to address the problem.
Yet the Government are somehow exempting themselves from many of the duties relating to publishing information on the gender pay gap. Characteristically, however, they go on to impose mandatory gender pay audits across the private sector, not on a targeted basis, and such an imposition on hard-pressed businesses is particularly difficult in present circumstances.
We also need to remember the social implications of the Bill. Not to put too fine a point on it, people will know that I do not go along with what is sometimes unfairly implied about the white working class. In a very interesting speech, the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) spoke about the interests of the white working class. However, wherever we come from in this debate, we have to understand that there is a very fine line to tread between the social progress most of us—nearly everybody in this Chamber—would want and the risk of a backlash from grass-roots opinion. It is not always racist to protest if people feel that they are being treated unfairly because of a body of law or how it is interpreted; if that happens, we could have social unrest, particularly at a time of economic difficulty and unemployment.
At the same time as the Bill focuses on one or two headline-catching initiatives, which are obviously part of the particular Minister’s agenda, it does not go far enough or give a sufficient lead in other directions. In respect of the private sector, there is, of course, no direct lever that Parliament or Ministers can pull other than setting out particular legal provisions. In terms of example, however, I have always felt that the best results come from the private sector when the moral and social case for equality and inclusion coincides with the business case. I have shared platforms with the Institute of Directors and other such bodies and argued that that coincidence of interest is the best way of guaranteeing social progress.
Employers need every sensible encouragement to good practice in equality. If one were to go into a bank in Leicester, it would hardly be surprising—or, to put it the other way, it would be extremely surprising if it did not happen—if one saw two or three Asian cashiers. Of course that will be the case, because that is the characteristic and make-up of the population.
We do not have enough disabled prospective parliamentary candidates, but we are beginning to address the problem.
In the public sector, there is also the question of principles and people debate whether the Bill should have a principles clause. I tend to agree with the Equality and Human Rights Commission that we should have such a clause. It is a “King Charles’ Head” issue for me, so I was delighted that the Mental Capacity Act 2005 kept such a principles clause in, and I have drafted them for other Bills. I did not have much success with them, but I believe that there is a strength to having such clauses. I can understand exactly why Government lawyers are uncomfortable about principles-based laws; they think that they are somehow a foreign invention that could create a clash between specific requirements and wider principles of good behaviour. Actually, however, these clauses enable tribunals or courts of law to look behind the fulfilment of box-ticking and to move towards compliance with the underlying principles, meeting the challenges that the legislation is designed to address.
We have seen similar sorts of problems with our own expenses, when MPs have said that they complied with the rules, but we all know that that is not a sufficient response. If we are going to make real social progress, whether it be in the private or the public sector, it does mean a change of culture and it means that people have to go the extra mile beyond what is specifically written down in the law.
In truth, my personal vision of equality is, in a sense, motivated less by discrimination—I am not, however, a lawyer—than by an approach informed by human rights. I believe that employers should have to treat all their staff—and, of course, job applicants, too—decently. Equally, for those offering public services, we know that they are difficult to resource and to join up, but what should motivate all public officials is the offering of considerate, personal, holistic and decent treatment. Doing that properly in the interests of the person concerned should transcend the mere letter of the law. Passing this Bill, notwithstanding its many virtues, is at best a step towards that wider social advance.
When the Bill was published, I really thought that we would be conducting not so much a debate as a mutual appreciation afternoon, but it has turned out quite surprisingly differently in view of what can only be described as the curmudgeonly response from the Conservative Opposition. Given that the Bill is largely a consolidation measure and that hon. Members of all parties agree that there is much virtue in consolidating all the legislation on equalities in one Bill, thus simplifying the law, it is remarkable that the Tories oppose it.
We have fought tooth and nail over equalities issues since 1997 and the Opposition seemed progressively, to their credit, to have come round on the whole, especially on sexuality legislation. They accepted it, so I thought that we had secured a large degree of consensus in the House on equalities.
I am happy that areas of disagreement can be debated, but that is different from throwing the whole Bill out, which is what the Conservative Opposition are suggesting. That seems to me to be a total negation of what the hon. Lady has just said. By all means let us fight in Committee on all the issues that are worrying, but anyone seriously in favour of equality should back the Bill so that there is a vehicle in place to argue about. That seems to me to be simple logic, but I have problems understanding the Opposition.
Although the Bill is, as I say, mainly a consolidation, it introduces some new principles and points, many of which are essentially philosophical. In bringing all equality strands into one Bill, it creates, if I may put it this way, an equality of inequalities. In other words, whatever the inequality is, “We’re agin it, and we are agin it to the same degree.” I think that that is an entirely healthy development of a kind that will lead to the cultural change that several Members have mentioned. That is what we really need at the end of the day. Yes, we set legal frameworks, and it is important to do so; but unless those legal frameworks end up creating a culture change in society or are met by such a change, the overall outcome will not be the one that we wish to see. I believe that the legal framework is at least one half of that broader picture.
I am pleased that the Bill places an equal duty on public sector and private sector bodies in respect of equalities in the delivery of services. At this point, I must advise my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General that I shall introduce what I hope will be regarded as a helpful amendment because there seems to be a small oversight in clause 1, which specifies a list of public bodies. Unfortunately, it leaves out unitary councils while including the council of the Isles of Scilly. I think that rather more people are represented by unitary councils than by the council of the Isles of Scilly. Similarly, when it comes to the health service the Bill specifies primary care trusts, but I think it would be much wiser for it to cover all NHS trusts. It should be made clear that any arm of the NHS that deals with patients and the public in general must observe the equalities duty.
And assiduous, as the hon. Gentleman says.
In addition to the list of public authorities, there is a definition of a public authority as any authority or organisation delivering a public function. So probably everything will be covered in any event, but we will box up the list, because it would certainly look better if all the organisations were included.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her helpful response. As she says, it is possible to infer that all such bodies are covered, but it is always good to have things spelt out clearly. Otherwise, members of the profession that she so lately graced will always be trying to find loopholes.
Among the new provisions, the socio-economic strand represents a legislative breakthrough. Given that since 1997 we have placed attempts to achieve socio-economic equality at the top of our agenda, it is disappointing that, in some respects, the gap seems to be widening. That tells us two things. It tells us that socio-economic equality of opportunity is extremely hard to achieve, and it tells us that there can be confusion between absolute poverty and relative poverty. There has undoubtedly been an increase in relative poverty, but examination of the figures will almost certainly demonstrate a decrease in absolute poverty.
This problem is very difficult to define and very, very difficult to tackle. In that context, public sector bodies have a vital role to play. Councils, for instance, can deliver education. The Bill provides for positive bias and discrimination, and I believe that we need local authorities to exercise more of it towards people from socio-economic backgrounds that are deprived not only financially but in terms of parental aspirations, and all the other factors involved in the complex mix that we are discussing. The Bill gives local authorities an opportunity to do more than they do now. The extent to which they take their duty seriously is variable at present, and we need to make them all recognise that it is a prime duty.
Age has always been with us, and I am very pleased about the advances that the Bill makes in tackling age discrimination. I am pleased about the emphasis on goods and services, and I am pleased that while wrinklies will not lose the advantages provided by Saga Holidays, older members of our society may also be given greater opportunities. I have always believed that, in some respects, we could learn quite a few lessons from the United States, where people are not automatically disregarded or discriminated against on the basis of age. If they are still up to the job and can still deliver, people in the States are able to operate until they are in their eighties, and I see nothing wrong with that.
I hate to say it, but I agreed with the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), on the subject of the compulsory retirement age, which strikes me as a discrimination in itself. I wish that it had been covered by the Bill, but there is still an opportunity for that to happen. Certainly it should be dealt with in the near future. The existence of a range of compulsory retirement ages defies logic. In the armed services, the police and the fire services the retirement age is about 50, while the general retirement age of 65 is enforced, in my view inappropriately, by many institutions.
That sits ill with our problem with funding pensions for the future, and the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions is considering an eventual raising of the retirement age from 65 towards 70. The two strands are in conflict. I believe that we should think about changing the current compulsory retirement ages to pension qualification ages, enabling those reaching the relevant age to claim a pension and retire or, if they choose, continue to work, provided that they can satisfy the requirements of their occupations. That would give us true equality, and would also give society the benefit of all the experience and wisdom which, at present, are being foolishly discarded.
If there were a compulsory retirement age in this place, there would be a very heavy cull straight away. Governments, including this one, could perhaps look to the age discrimination requirements when it comes to Front-Bench appointments—but I will say no more about that, because I do not want to embarrass my hon. Friends.
Positive action will be essential. It is the only way we can finally achieve results, because there will always be resistance. Talking of resistance, I wonder if the nub of the attitude of Conservative Front Benchers can be traced back to the CBI’s briefing paper, which, while welcoming the Bill in principle, devoted its entire length to opposing and criticising the measures on gender-related pay discrimination. It claims that business will always say, “You can’t do that; it will ruin us.” However, if we had listened to that argument, we would never have made any social progress in this country. It is the old story of the roads to ruin. It applies to the minimum wage—you name it.
Gender-related pay discrimination will only be truly eliminated if the requirement to report is universal. If reporting is carried out selectively after the event, it will take so long to eliminate such discrimination that we will all be 6 ft under long before it happens. This is therefore vital.
The Bill clears up some matters that should have been dealt with previously. The insurance provisions are a particular case in point. Insurance companies have been allowed to discriminate too freely for too long, such as through age discrimination in insurance. When someone reaches 70, they are normally immediately rejected by the insurance industry for travel insurance. One day they are perfectly healthy, the next day they are thought to be a calamitous risk; that is clearly nonsense. Unless insurance companies are required to undertake a proper assessment of the insured’s risks instead of simply having an arbitrary age descriptor, this discrimination will continue and that is totally unjustifiable. Travel insurance becoming unavailable at 70 is also ridiculous. People who are 70 nowadays are like the 50-year-olds of 50 years ago, and preventing them from travelling is dreadful discrimination. I am very glad we are putting a stop to that.
Yes, I would, and, in fact, that is the current situation: when someone reaches 70, they just have to satisfy the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency that they are still fit to drive. I do not mind that. The licence is not being withdrawn from them; indeed, there are people aged over 100 who are still driving.
There is another loophole in the excellent legislation that we have passed. In dealing with discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexuality, the last equality legislation omitted insurance, and this Bill fills that gap.
I have used up almost all my allotted time. I simply want to give this Bill broadly a very hearty welcome and assert that it is something of a groundbreaking Bill; it will lead to a quantum change in the whole national approach to equalities and in the outcomes for equalities.
I am a committed campaigner for equality—I always have been, and I always will be—and I welcome most of this Bill. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), who gave a balanced analysis of the Bill and pointed out many of its good aspects. I particularly welcome the parts of the Bill that simplify and consolidate previous equality legislation, the main principles of which we Conservatives have wholeheartedly supported. I also very much welcome the positive equality duty imposed on public authorities; that will go a long way towards changing the cultural attitudes to equality in all its manifestations and in all walks of life in our country. That is right, because equality of opportunity is a basic moral imperative. As the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, there is general consensus in favour of that principle in all parts of the House.
The difficulty with the Bill, however, lies in the extra bits that have been added to it. I am not against the drive for equality—not at all. Labour Members have frequently peppered their speeches and interventions with attacks on Opposition Members for doing our job of holding the Government to account. It is extremely important that we dissect the Bill, and look at its outcomes as well as its good intentions. I do not agree with every proposal in it, because no political system—neither the most liberal, nor the most totalitarian—can make people equal by passing laws that say that equality is desirable. Therefore, the good parts of the Bill are, sadly, undermined and diminished by the unworthy parts, which revert to the worst excesses of old-fashioned unreconstructed socialism. [Interruption.]
I am particularly concerned that—[Interruption.] As usual, the Solicitor-General laughs. She cannot bear to be identified as a left-wing activist; she wishes to come before this House and—[Interruption.] She continues to laugh, but she does not actually make a positive contribution to the debate. She expects us all to bow down and agree with what she says because she says it, but that is not what we are here for. I am particularly concerned about the effects of these measures on the employment prospects—[Interruption.] If the Solicitor-General wishes to intervene, I will give way to her, but she should not speak from a sedentary position.
Well, that was a very helpful contribution to the debate!
I am particularly concerned about the effects of these measures on the employment prospects of women, disabled people, gay people, religious and racial minorities and older people, because if employers are forced to act in a way that they perceive to be against the best interests of their businesses, they will, in a normal, practical way, find a way of not employing a person who might in future bring a case against them. Therefore, there is a danger that parts of this Bill will reduce, rather than increase, equality in the workplace, and I want equality in the workplace to become universal. There is, of course, a delicate balance to be struck, especially at times of economic downturn such as now. If too great a burden is put on businesses, businesses will fail and not only the employer, but the employees, will become jobless. That is surely not the Government’s intention.
We have heard a lot about the costs to business, but does the hon. Lady think that business might support the introduction of compulsory pay audit measures in the first quarter following the economy having returned to growth—or might businesses welcome such measures after two quarters of growth, perhaps?
I think that the hon. Lady has a reasonable point; I cannot imagine quite how it would work in practice, but, in principle, it is quite a good point. My concern, however, is that if the measures go too far, not only will that damage the economy itself and hinder growth, but it will damage the prospects for individuals, who might not be given the chance of employment that they would otherwise have had. If the pendulum swings too far in the direction of protection of employment rights, the potential employee will lose the opportunity for the job, and therefore for the right, because the reality is that most businesses do not exist to act altruistically; they exist to make money, keep their businesses going, pay their employees and satisfy their customers. Statistics show that companies that have good equality practices benefit in terms of business success. The right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) made that point extremely well at the beginning of her speech. The Government should encourage all employers to do what good employers have been doing for years. That is what the previous equality Act did very successfully and, as she showed in the very good examples that she gave, we are succeeding to that extent. I am concerned that if the pendulum swings too far, people will lose the rights we want to give them.
I am also concerned about the imposition of targets, especially those on the gender pay gap. We all want sensible measures to be taken to close that gap, which remains a scandal in this country. It is particularly bad in respect of how it affects women who earn least and, often, work the hardest: part-time casual employees. They suffer most and they are the ones whom I want to benefit, but I am concerned that the Bill will require a focus on just one indicator and thus risk ignoring the underlying causes of inequality. Those causes have to be remedied to create the equality and the economy of the future that we wish to see. Proper growth will come back to our country only if we have the right conditions in which business and industry can flourish and thereby benefit everyone who works in them, employer and employee alike.
Instead of producing reams and reams of rules and regulations, the Government should be making the business case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, the “coincidence of interest” between the moral case and the business case for equality is the way to encourage genuine cultural shift. That approach is far more effective than centrally imposed political imperatives—history has shown, throughout the ages, that they simply do not work.
There is good evidence to suggest that flexible working benefits everyone. It has been introduced step by step, and that is what the Government should be doing; they should be understanding how business and employers work. By proving the business case step by step, we will take employers and businesses with us in the quest for equality, instead of imposing top-down conditions that they may have difficulty meeting. We can build on that business case to try not only to achieve the equality that we all wish to achieve, but to rebuild our shattered economy—more than a decade of Labour’s good ideas has destroyed it.
I dare mention, just for a moment, the difficult issue of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a private matter. I entirely agree that, of course, it should be encouraged, as all the medical professionals tell us but, like all these matters, it should be dealt with in a reasonable way and with discretion. In some places it is appropriate to breastfeed one’s child and in some places it is not, yet the measures in this Bill outlaw someone’s ability to suggest reasonably that breastfeeding should not occur in one place or another. In matters such as this, we should proceed with discretion, reason and respect for everybody concerned, including, of course, the mother and the baby. This is not a matter where the Government can dictate that mothers should be allowed to breastfeed everywhere and anywhere without having due consideration to those around them and the circumstances in which they find themselves. We have all managed it, Madam Deputy Speaker, even in this building and the matter can easily be dealt with by discretion; we do not need primary legislation in a Bill such as this in order to bring this about. The reason this makes me angry is that the measures on breastfeeding are just one example of where the Bill goes too far.
I do not want this Bill to fail. I want it to succeed, which is why I would like the Government to concentrate on the basic issues that will actually make a difference to people in Britain today, who deserve equality of opportunity and currently do not have it. By adding on all these extra conditions, the Government make it much more difficult for this Bill to be supported and for it to work in practice were it to become law—it would be so much better to concentrate on what really needs to be done. It is very sad that, after 12 years of a Labour Government, the gap between rich and poor in Britain is greater than it has been for decades; opportunities, particularly educational ones for young people from disadvantaged families, are worse than they have been for decades; and social mobility is very much reduced compared with what it was 40 years ago, when a young person from a poorer background had a far greater chance of succeeding in whatever they set out to do than such a person would today—the Government know that. They have failed, and they are not going to put their record straight by introducing all the extra rules and regulations in this Bill. What a condemnation that is of 12 years of a Labour Government.
We all want equality in the workplace. We all want equality across all strands of life in Britain today. We all want equality of opportunity, for it benefits not only the individual, but our society as a whole. The way in which the Government have drafted parts of this Bill will not bring about what we all want to see, which is why it is necessary that sensible people examine the reasoned amendment tabled by my right hon. Friends and support it this evening.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I welcome the Bill most warmly, and I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, and her colleagues, on producing this measure after what have clearly been Herculean efforts. Bringing together a lot of the existing equality legislation, with harmonisation, in part, into a comprehensible whole is clearly challenging. There have been debates along the way and many people have expressed reservations from time to time about the direction in which things might be going, such as in respect of public sector duty. It takes time for Ministers to consider comments that have been made, for example after the Green Paper, and return with a good document.
This is an excellent Bill, which is why it has been almost universally welcomed. It has been welcomed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission; by a massive number of voluntary organisations such as Age Concern, Carers UK, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—RADAR—and so on; by the Royal College of Psychiatrists; by the TUC; and by the British Medical Association. In fact, I could find only one organisation that has not welcomed the Bill: the Conservative Opposition. When I intervened to ask the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who spoke for the Opposition, whether she could name a single organisation, nay individual, who had expressed concern and opposition to this Bill, no example was forthcoming. Reference has been made to the CBI and its concern about the proposal for gender pay gap reports. In fact, the CBI’s document starts by saying:
“The CBI supports the clarity and simplification that the Equality Bill should achieve in bringing together forty years’ worth of discrimination legislation. Having a single Act as a reference point will help compliance for employers and give them the confidence to address diversity within their companies.”
That is exactly what the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) wants—she is nodding. The CBI spends half of its submission explaining why
“Business welcomes new clarity in discrimination legislation”.
I looked carefully for advice from the CBI on how I should vote today, as I always do. I listen to everyone. I cannot find in the CBI’s submission any suggestion that I should vote for a motion to decline agreement on Second Reading. I see the CBI welcoming the
“new clarity in discrimination legislation”.
If the CBI welcomes something, I get the impression that it is saying I should support it, which I do. I have yet to find—I am happy to take interventions—any organisation that is openly opposed to the Bill.
I am so grateful for that most welcome intervention. The only organisation that any Member in the House has been able to put forward as opposing the Bill is the Campaign Against Political Correctness. [Interruption.] Age Concern supports it, but forget Age Concern—listen to the Campaign Against Political Correctness; I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will inform his constituents, who may be active supporters of Age Concern, that he dismisses their support in that rather scornful way—[Interruption.]
I am well aware that there are Members in all parts of the House, including the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and one or two others who I hope will speak soon, who support improvements in equality legislation. I must, however, comment on the one or two Members who, from a sedentary position, in response to the comment from the Minister for Women and Equality that it was the Labour Government who introduced the Race Relations Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and so on, objected to the idea that nothing at all had been introduced by the previous Conservative Government.
It is correct to say that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was introduced by a Conservative Government. I remember it well. It is well documented. I will not detain the House, other than to say that the only reason why the DDA was introduced in 1995, with all the loopholes—it was like a string vest—was that various hon. Members, with support from all parties, had on several occasions tried to introduce the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Following the way in which the then Conservative Government blocked that Bill, when I happened to be the promoter that year, and how three Members of the House had to apologise to the House for using tactics that were misleading, the Government were so embarrassed by the public opposition that they introduced the DDA.
Like my colleagues, I genuinely thought we had got past that. We have had cross-party support for almost all the equalities legislation since. We had support for the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act 2001, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, and the Equality Act 2006. Those are only the disabilities measures that spring to mind. Therefore I was hoping that we would get cross-party support this evening, and I am sure we will, but the official Opposition will not be with us.
Despite comments to the effect that there are lots of wonderful things in the Bill—the hon. Member for Epping Forest said that she supported most of it—we will be urged by the official Opposition to vote for an amendment that kills the Bill in its tracks. The only organisation that will be happy about that is the Campaign Against Political Correctness—not Age Concern, RADAR, the BMA or anybody who has taken a serious interest in these issues.
May I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has the support of this party, even though this party is a one-man band as an independent in this place? Nevertheless, I support the Bill, which has some wonderful things in it. Does he agree that we need to examine it carefully in Committee to strengthen it if we can? For instance, public bodies are told by the Bill that they may take into account the impediments of disabled people. There are many disabled people with serious impediments who think that public authorities should always take those impediments into account.
I agree that we need to look at all these matters carefully, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
I shall focus on the disability provisions, but there are three general issues that I want to raise. First, I strongly support the extension of the rights of older people facing discrimination in goods and services. That is good news for older people, which of course means it is good news for many disabled people and many carers as well. It is terrible news for the organisation referred to earlier, but good news for such people. Secondly, the more effective use of public procurement for delivering equality is to be welcomed. Thirdly, the empowerment of employment tribunals to make wider recommendations to stop future discrimination in employment is also welcome. I may say a little more about that in a moment.
In relation to disability, there has been significant progress in recent years. Ten per cent. more disabled people are in employment than 10 years ago. Many service providers now provide a more accessible environment, but sadly it is still the case that disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, twice as likely to lack qualifications as non-disabled people, and twice as likely to live in poverty. There has been progress, but there is still a long way to go.
In relation to disability issues, the Bill should be tested against three criteria. The first, as I said, is that the Bill is in large measure about harmonisation, but it must ensure that the distinctive aspects of the DDA are not lost, in particular the fundamental principle that equality for disabled people is emphatically not about equal treatment. It is about different treatment to produce equal opportunity.
Secondly, gaps in existing legislation must be plugged. There are still areas where discriminatory legislation is condoned, such as, yet again, the Ministry of Defence’s exemption from the employment provisions of the DDA. Goodness gracious me. The third point is that enforcement is a real issue. Hon. Members are right when they say that passing legislation itself is not enough. There are important questions that need to be asked about the best ways to enforce that legislation.
Let me say a few words about each of those things. As the hon. Member for Daventry said, the DDA differs fundamentally from other forms of anti-discrimination legislation. It is asymmetric. It creates rights for disabled people to be protected against discrimination, without a corresponding right for non-disabled people. Treating disabled people the same as non-disabled people will not deliver equality. Wheelchair users do not experience equal opportunities by being treated the same way as non-wheelchair uses. Women with learning disabilities are less likely to use breast-screening services. That is a matter of fact. This is likely to arise not as a result of direct discrimination, but as a result of the provision of information in exactly the same way as it is provided for those without learning disabilities.
That is why the public sector duty, introduced in effect in December 2006, required health authorities as public authorities to do something about such situations. If it is observed that some patients are not accessing a service equally, questions need to be asked about what can be done to give them equal access. The fundamental distinction in disability discrimination legislation is the recognition of the need for more favourable treatment—in specific ways—for disabled people. As I read the Bill, I think that it contains a recognition of the importance of more favourable treatment, but I would like an assurance from Ministers that the new public sector duty indeed addresses that issue and would in no way dilute the provision in the DDA.
I welcome the many areas where the Bill will extend rights for disabled people. For example, it will extend protection against direct discrimination and harassment to people who are perceived to have a disability and to those associated with someone who has a disability. Some of us remember the debates about the DDA in 1995 and the Americans with Disabilities Act— a wonderful piece of legislation that we aspired to emulate. It made specific reference to protection from discrimination for those perceived as having a disability. The argument is obvious: if someone is discriminated against by, for example, an employer, because he or she thinks that that person has a disability, and the person turns out not to have a disability, the employer has done nothing wrong. That is a bit daft. Similarly, if a carer for someone with a disability is discriminated against by an employer or a service provider for that reason, that is surely wrong—that was the issue in the Sharon Coleman case. I therefore welcome those improvements.
I welcome the fact that the provisions on age discrimination in relation to access to goods and services will help older people and therefore many disabled people. I also welcome the duty on landlords and management companies to make reasonable adjustments in relation to communal areas, such as hallways and stairs. I also welcome the fact that political parties will be allowed to do more to enable disabled people and others to seek selection as candidates. I congratulate Mr. Speaker on the Speaker’s Conference on these issues. Indeed, the vice chair of the conference is in her place—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that recognition of the work of the Speaker’s Conference. I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, but we have been in Manchester for a very useful evidence-taking session, where we spoke to many disabled people and people from ethnic minorities.
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she and others are doing.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) suggested that the Bill should take a more thorough look at the definition of disability. While that is in many ways an elephant trap, we still have the medical model and the DDA definition and I am concerned about, for example, people with severe depression that lasts for less than 12 months but who cannot show that it is likely to recur. They have no rights under the law because disabled people have to show that they have an impairment that has a long-term—at least 12 months—substantial and adverse impact on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. That is too restrictive a definition and I hope that the Government will at least consider reducing the time to six months.
The Conservative amendment suggests that employment tribunals are given too many powers in the Bill. That is not the case, and they should have the power to reinstate in the DDA and other employment cases.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who is a sincere man who has achieved much in this area. I pay tribute to him for that. However, at one or two points in his remarks, he fell into the great paradox of this issue in that some of the most fervent advocates of equality exhibit a degree of intolerance of the views of others. He and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) both appeared to be slightly bemused that others could take a different view of this Bill. I hope to help them with my remarks.
I believe passionately in equality, especially in equality of opportunity. I do not like the way in which the issue is addressed in this Bill, but I believe perhaps more in social mobility—as one of the factors that has brought me to this House—than in anything else. However, I profoundly reject the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) spoke about the difference between now and the time when the Bill was first conceived some four years ago. She said that equality matters, whatever the economic climate, and I agree. But competitiveness also matters. This would have been a bad Bill four years ago and it is a bad Bill now, for a variety of reasons.
One reason—and by no means the most important—is the cost and bureaucracy that it will pile on to businesses at a time when so many of them are unable to bear the additional cost.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said that the Bill was about consolidation and asked how anybody could object to it if they agreed with its constituent parts. Well, I agree with most if not all of the constituent parts, but the hon. Gentleman also said that some philosophical changes are at stake in the Bill. Some of those are quite worrying. Some of the concerns are about bizarre definitions, and some people may not understand why they are a necessary part of the Bill—I have struggled with them. Clause 11 states that
“a reference to a person who has a particular protected characteristic is a reference to a man or to a woman”.
I would have thought that that was axiomatic. However, it continues:
“a reference to persons who share a protected characteristic is a reference to persons of the same sex.”
That is bizarre and it is difficult to follow the logic of it.
The explanatory notes on clause 13 state that
“it is not discrimination to treat a disabled person more favourably than a person who is not disabled”,
but it then claims that
“racial segregation is always discriminatory”.
Earlier, the issue of a hierarchy of equalities was raised, with some types of equality seeming to rank as more important than others. That brings me to the point that I raised with the Leader of the House earlier of the example in the explanatory notes. They state:
“If an employer advertising a vacancy makes it clear in the advert that Roma need not apply, this would amount to direct race discrimination against a Roma who might reasonably have considered applying”.
We might all think that that makes perfect sense—except that my reading of the Bill suggests that, if the Roma were already statistically over-represented in the place of employment, it would become legal for the employer to advertise saying, “Roma need not apply,” because it would establish a right for the employer to seek to give preference to another under-represented group.
As I put it to the Minister for Women and Equality, is it not the case that, under these proposals, an employer could choose to employ a white woman in preference to an equally well-qualified black man? She did not directly answer the question, because the answer is yes. So we are actually setting out a hierarchy of different, competing equalities. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) was laughing earlier, when he saw me scribbling down the phrase, “Equality disappearing up its own backside.” This is becoming so complicated that, in seeking to protect some groups quite properly from discrimination, there is a risk of inflicting discrimination on others.
I see the cause of the hon. Gentleman’s worry, but it would not be right to say that the Bill will allow the phrase, “Romany need not apply” to be put into an advertisement, as that would discriminate against the Roma because they were Roma. If everyone applied—we would want them to do so—and there were two equally well-qualified candidates, the person from the under-represented community could be picked. That is the size of it. The Roma would probably be picked, because they would be under-represented. It is a telling, nice notion that the Roma might be over-represented, but that is not all that likely to happen right now. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that the provision is totally voluntary; it is up to the business to decide whether it wants to rebalance the community.
Absolutely. I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for that clarification. My concern is that, in the example that I gave earlier to the Minister, if a business chose to avoid employing people from an ethnic minority, for example, and its work force were therefore 100 per cent. white, it might be that employer’s preference to retain a 100 per cent. white work force. We are giving that employer the choice, as the Solicitor-General puts it—not the requirement or the obligation—to continue to discriminate against ethnic minorities, by choosing to tackle the under-representation of women in that work place.
I am happy to take a further intervention if the Solicitor-General thinks that I have got the wrong end of the stick. As far as I can see from the Bill, if an employer chooses to say that women are under-represented in his work force, he may choose to employ the woman, rather than the man from an ethnic minority.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is finding the discussion fruitful, which is what it is intended to be. The Bill is intended to try to redress the balance in under-represented communities, and he is beginning to grasp that point. It is totally voluntary for the person running the business to do that. So I am not quite sure what the source of the hon. Gentleman’s concern continues to be. He seems to regard it as possible to use the provision in a racist way to maintain all-white representation, but that is completely at variance with its purpose, which is to redress the balance of the community, so it could not be used in that way.
I think that the Solicitor-General is mistaken. Clearly, the provision could be used in that way, given that it is also possible to discriminate in favour of women to rebalance the work force on gender grounds. That would be entirely possible, and she seems to have a misplaced confidence that that could never happen. Either she must believe that no employer would ever want to discriminate against ethnic minorities, in which case the Bill would be clearly unnecessary, or she must believe that some people wish to discriminate on those grounds, in which case she is giving them a tool by which they can do so if they wish.
My understanding from business is that that is done already. For instance, if someone has an all-white sales force and wants to market to an ethnic minority area, they will want to be free to choose from two equally qualified people the ethnic minority person to sell in the community where they will feel at home and where they are likely to be welcome. The trouble is that, if someone does that now, it could be discriminatory. The Bill will protect businesses that want to do that, but it will not compel anyone to do so.
I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for that, but I do not think that it detracts from my fundamental point that the Bill provides the tool for discrimination if one wished to use it in that way.
Those are the problems, and the big philosophical change, which I assume that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown was alluding to, is the move towards positive discrimination, which is a completely different approach to tackling equality issues from the one that we have generally used in this country, and it is one that I reject utterly. I believe in merit and that people should be judged on who they are—on their own abilities and efforts—and not on what they are. The move to positive discrimination risks negating that approach. It is damaging to the principle of merit, and it is damaging to democracy. I particularly object to the use of these provisions in relation to candidate selection, as that interferes with the rights of free choice that our constituents should have in deciding whom they want to represent them.
In the few minutes that remain to me, I want to mention some significant points of detail, which will doubtless be thrashed out in Committee and on Report—for example, age discrimination and whether Saga will no longer be able to provide insurance targeted at the over-50s. I take it from the response of the Leader of the House that arbitrary discrimination will be illegal under these provisions. Surely, targeting the over-50s is arbitrary, whereas charging a higher health insurance premium for older people may well be justified, according to the balance of risks that the insurance company must consider.
I believe passionately in social mobility, but I reject the means that are being taken. On health, according to the instances given in the explanatory notes, the Bill sets out what is already done but does it differently. Clearly, in guidelines and through the allocation of resources, there is a recognition of social inequality in the way that the national health service is funded.
On education, the Bill is more worrying, because it seeks to enshrine the damaging and absurd approach that has been taken in recent years, in seeking to improve the prospects of people from less affluent backgrounds and communities getting to university by making the process easier and lowering the threshold for them. The really worrying thing about that and the reason that this is such a damaging approach is that it removes the pressure from the point in the system where it should operate. Schools in our less affluent, typically urban, areas have more excuses to underperform if we say that because children who go to such schools cannot be expected to have the best exam results, we should lower the threshold for them to get into university. Instead, we should say that failure is not acceptable in the provision of education in any community. We should be raising the standard—raising the bar—for everybody, but the approach of the proposals in the Bill works in the opposite direction.
I believe passionately in equality and in equality of opportunity. More than anything, I believe that whatever their background, wherever they come from and whatever their race or religion, people should be treated equally and given the same opportunities in life. I am very concerned that the Bill will create more complexity and problems, and will fundamentally damage the process of equality.
The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) has put his views quite honestly and I imagine they reflect those of a number of Opposition Members, certainly those on the Back Benches. His speech was almost word for word the same as the speeches I have heard from Conservatives for so many years: “Yes, we’re in favour of progress in dealing with race discrimination and sex discrimination, but not just now. Legislation would be counter-productive and there are other ways to do it.”
If we had listened to such voices 40 years ago when the Labour Government introduced measures to outlaw race discrimination, open discrimination on the grounds of colour or racial origin would have continued. It is precisely because of legislation that we made progress, as we have done over the years.
Either I expressed myself badly or the hon. Gentleman was not listening to my remarks. I made it clear that I agree with the constituent items of legislation that are being consolidated. My concern is that consolidating them will put them into a competing hierarchy of equalities, which may lead to perverse outcomes.
I was listening to the hon. Gentleman, who expressed himself clearly, but I stand by every word I have just said. There is no need for him to apologise. He represents a strong point of view held by some Tory Members and certainly by Tories outside, who have always been suspicious, to say the least, about legislation dealing with discrimination. It goes without saying that I am all in favour of it. One would not expect otherwise from a Labour Member of Parliament. We should combat the remaining discrimination against women. There is certainly a need for equal pay and there are many necessary measures that society has yet to take.
One or two of my hon. Friends have already talked about the aspects of the Bill that deal with age discrimination. The Bill’s provisions on age discrimination are certain to be most welcome. Elderly people, and some of the not so elderly, remain of the view that they are subject to less equal treatment in the health service, for instance. Clearly, that must be tackled.
I am not suggesting that only legislation can deal with such matters. In the 1960s, one of the arguments made about race discrimination was that major organisations—certainly in the media—could give a lead. For example, non-white people could present programmes to make it clear that they were all part of our society. To some degree, the same thing applies to women nowadays. I find it difficult to understand why women television presenters who are getting older—I am taking great care with my words—are considered no longer the right people to read the news or front programmes when they reach a certain age. That does not apply to men. Obviously, I am pleased that there is no such problem for men in their 50s or 60s. They continue to do their job and do it very well, yet the story is different for females. Progress could be made if the BBC in particular took a somewhat different attitude.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned race, age, and now sex discrimination. Does he believe that the Bill could be strengthened by including in chapter 2 a provision that courts and tribunals could consider multiple discrimination cases? Such matters could be put before the courts together, so that the court could make a more rounded decision.
That is a good suggestion for the Committee, which I am sure will be very interesting.
To be subject to age discrimination is probably not as painful or humiliating as being subject to race prejudice. Nevertheless, age discrimination is undesirable, unjust and deeply resented—rightly so. The Bill includes measures to deal with age discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services. As people grow older, it is important that they are not made to feel like second-class citizens. However, I have some criticism because clause 190 gives wide-ranging powers of exemption and I hope that will be looked at in Committee. It is all very well to set out anti-discriminatory legislation on goods, facilities and services, but that is no good if the Government have wide-ranging powers of exemption from such provisions in future.
A number of Members want to speak, so I shall deal briefly first with employment. As they grow older—in their 40s and certainly in their 50s—men and women alike face difficulties in gaining employment. Anyone with illusions about that should talk to some of their constituents. At a time of high unemployment, the problems become all the more acute. Even when we had near full employment, employers took the view that once a person had reached a certain age there was no particular reason to take them on in preference to younger people. Of course I am against any form of discrimination on age grounds, but the situation seems much more unfortunate for someone made redundant at the age of 50, 52 or 53—even more so, if they are trying to find a job against great competition.
As I look around the Chamber, I can see some Members who are under 50 but also a good number who have not reached my advanced age—I shall not name them. They are certainly in an age range where they would have trouble finding employment in normal occupations—if I can use that description.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. Sadly, he is right about age discrimination. My father was made redundant in his early 50s and I remember him then going to interview after interview. It seemed that it was only the age on his birth certificate that was holding him back. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that age discrimination in employment cuts both ways? Invidious discrimination still exists against younger people who receive a lower rate of minimum wage despite doing exactly the same job as older workers.
Are we speaking for our respective age groups? As I said a moment ago, I am against discrimination on age grounds for all groups. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), I do not want to see discrimination against young people, but I think that to a large extent the problems are greater for people who are getting on in years, as I have suggested.
Another issue arises in respect of those in employment who are forced to retire at 65. There is what is called the national default retirement age; in practice, it means that if a person reaches 65 and wants to consider carrying on working, the employer is under an obligation to review the matter, but that is all. I see no reason why that should be so. Let us imagine that that applied to Members of Parliament. Does anyone really think it would be appropriate to close Parliament to people trying for the first time to get here, or those already here, because they had reached 65? If it is all right for us to continue to work past 65—and no one has suggested otherwise, fortunately as far as I am concerned—why should we deny such rights to our constituents?
Moreover, very often, those who make the decision in industry—the leading people, managing directors, chairs of companies and so on—are, in many instances, over 65. They would not dream of retiring simply because they had reached a certain age. I therefore feel that the default retirement age should go, as I said in an intervention on my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality. The Government’s position was established a few years ago and is clear: it was to be reviewed within five years—that would bring us to 2011—but that is all. The default retirement age is being challenged in the courts. We shall see the outcome, but of course we would not have to wait to see the outcome if the Bill were so amended in Committee that the default retirement were abolished.
In a recent YouGov poll, 67 per cent. of those who retired at 65 said that they were forced to do so when they were not ready. Of course, there are certain occupations—it would not be difficult to name them—where a person is only too pleased to go. I am not suggesting for one moment that someone should be forced to go on working beyond 65. I am saying that if someone wants to do so, and unless there is a very strong case against it—on health grounds, or because of the nature of the occupation or whatever—that person should be allowed to continue working, at least until 70.
The measure before us is certainly a substantial step in the right direction. I am pleased to be associated with it, as I am sure all my right hon. and hon. Friends are. I hope that, with some amendments in Committee, it will soon pass into law.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who made an interesting speech. Unfortunately, I may possibly repeat one or two of his points, although I shall make them slightly differently.
The Bill is very much welcomed by Members on the Plaid Cymru Bench. Ensuring fairness, regardless of race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief, is right and likely to be effective in the long term in developing our countries’ economies. In respect of my particular concern, age discrimination, banning ageism in the provision of goods, facilities and services is a significant step forward. However, I have two reservations that I should like to outline briefly. They might be addressed in Committee.
First, and unsurprisingly to some Members, I am concerned about the fact that discrimination on the basis of language is not included. Earlier, we heard complaints from a Conservative Member, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), about a requirement to speak Polish. He was dismayed at a requirement to speak Polish for a certain job, but if speaking Polish is a legitimate occupational qualification, that is no problem whatever. I cannot see why he is so exercised about it.
My concern is both broader, in a sense, because it concerns all of society, and more specific, because it is about my country, Wales. It is about the treatment of the Welsh language and the fact that the subject does not appear in the Bill. The Bill does not reflect the social, economic and legal reality in Wales, where both Welsh and English are used widely and are, to quote the Welsh Language Act 1993,
“on a basis of equality”.
“Equality” is the important word here. That Act treats the Welsh and English languages on a basis of equality, yet the Equality Bill makes no reference to Welsh, and that might lead to problems.
To go back to my earlier remarks about the Polish language, or any other language, for that matter, Welsh is different, in that it has a certain legal status—a status that clearly does not seem to have impressed itself sufficiently on the people who drew up the Bill, despite the attempted persuasion of the Welsh Language Board; I know that there was some correspondence. On the legal status of the language, as I said earlier, the 1993 Act says that English and Welsh are to be treated on a basis of equality, and there are various ways in which that should be achieved. Historically, there have been separate arrangements for Wales, in respect of the language, for a very long time, starting with the official ban on the use of Welsh in the early 16th century under the Acts of Union. That was nearly 500 years ago, so we in this place have a bit of experience of dealing with that language issue, whatever complexities might arise with regard to Polish, or any other of the 60, 70 or 80 languages that might be heard outside this place.
There have been further legislative moves. The Welsh Courts Act 1942 and the Welsh Language Acts of 1967 and 1993 were passed by a national Government, a Labour Government and a Conservative Government respectively, so the issue is not party political. Of course, the Conservative 1993 Act set up the Welsh Language Board. On the language issue and the law, the Welsh Affairs Committee is currently considering a legislative competence order that would transfer the right to pass laws on the Welsh language to the National Assembly for Wales. Eventually, laws will be passed in the Welsh Assembly on the Welsh language, but the Bill is silent on any relationship or possible clash between such laws passed in the Assembly and any other laws passed in this place. The legislative competence order would transfer most, but not all, language legislation to the Welsh Assembly Government.
One intention of the Welsh Assembly Government is to create a language commissioner. Such a commissioner might pass judgment on employment issues. Conservative Members have voiced concerns about a clash, or a hierarchy of discrimination; the concern is that some sorts of discrimination might be viewed more seriously than others. We might have a clash between the Welsh Assembly Government’s intentions for the Welsh language and any provision passed in the Bill.
Unfortunately, there is a long history of discrimination on the basis of language in Wales in modern times, from the infamous Brewer Spinks case of the early 1960s, in which an entire work force were banned from speaking Welsh in a factory, until the owner changed his mind, to the recent case of Thomas Cook, which tried to ban its workers from speaking Welsh in the workplace. Again, it later overturned its decision. The Welsh Assembly Government intend to establish a right to speak Welsh; they have told us that. That measure relating to the Welsh language might—I do not know—in some way clash with the intentions of the Bill. That is why I am slightly concerned about the fact that the Bill is silent on the issue.
Another question that came to mind was how the post of language commissioner would work. Hon. Members might not know that we already have two other sorts of commissioners in Wales. We have a Commissioner for Older People in Wales, and a Children’s Commissioner for Wales, who have powers. Of course, there is a Children’s Commissioner for England, too. The interrelationship worries me, and I would be interested to hear the Solicitor-General’s response on that subject in her winding-up speech.
The second issue to do with the Bill that causes me concern is that of age discrimination, which the hon. Member for Walsall, North mentioned. I have a long-standing interest in the matter; in fact, the first amendment that I ever moved in Committee was on the Employment Bill in 2002. It was aimed at extending protection from unfair dismissal to people who are over retirement age. I was helped then, as I am now, by Age Concern. The amendment was unsuccessful, and we waited until 2006, when the Government acted—albeit only partially. My concern, which Members from all parts of the House share, is that the Bill fails to remove compulsory retirement—the so-called mandatory or default retirement age.
However, as Members might expect, I commend the proposed steps to outlaw age discrimination. Age discrimination is the most common discrimination of all and, alas, one that we are all in danger of facing, some sooner rather than later. Any steps that are taken to combat age discrimination are therefore very welcome. There has been a long-standing call to make age discrimination illegal, and it is a live and important issue for many of our constituents, particularly those in my part of the world, north Wales, where we have a higher than average proportion of older people. It is a particularly salient issue there, but it is an issue throughout the UK.
I understand that the Government will look separately at the mandatory retirement age, as the Minister for Women and Equality said earlier, but that we will apparently have to wait until 2012. In the context of the current political situation, however, who knows who will be in power in 2012, or whether they will be inclined to implement any change?
I am also concerned that the omission of action on the mandatory retirement age may contribute both to some people’s false impression that such age discrimination is acceptable in this particular circumstance—albeit in the short term—and to a climate of opinion. Most Members will know someone who has been the victim of age discrimination, as will most of our constituents, because, in the real world of work, older employees, who may be valued by enlightened employers for their commitment, skills and experience, may be undervalued by other employers who see their age as a proxy for many undesirable qualities, from an inability to turn up in the morning to the likelihood of being ill, in poor health or inflexible. All those negative connotations might lead a bad employer, at a time of redundancies, to select older people for redundancy. That proxy is unfortunate and misplaced, but the assumptions, which are not based on the individual’s health or qualities, may be very influential in their future employment.
The age discrimination that many workers face often leads them to feel that their right to work is less certain, but it is not limited to people who are 64 and a half, as was mentioned earlier in the debate; it affects people in their 50s and, even, late 40s. They look to the future with some trepidation, concerned that a climate of opinion has not been fostered, because the Bill fails to address the mandatory retirement age.
Many people find retirement to be a time of freedom and opportunity, and their right to choose to retire should be protected. Others, however, want to work into later life, and it is an entirely laudable desire. They may want to maintain their network of colleagues and friends, and they may want and need to maintain their incomes by earning money for work that they have done. As has been said, it is ironic that this House, which legislates on matters such as mandatory retirement age, benefits from the contribution of Members who have long passed their retirement age but still have a great contribution to make. It is even more ironic in respect of the other place. I have often been impressed by the clarity, incisiveness and, indeed, sheer trouble-making genius of people in the other place—people who might, in other situations, be regarded as beyond working age or on the scrap heap.
Those are my concerns about the mandatory retirement age, and I hope to see them addressed in Committee. There is a great deal to welcome in the Bill. I have reservations, but Plaid Cymru Members will not support the Conservative amendment tonight.
I welcome the Bill and am pleased to speak in the debate. It is very important to bring together in a single Act those measures that have accumulated over many years, and I am delighted that we are extending protection to a number of groups, such as disabled people, carers and older people. On the consolidation of those measures, however, I contest totally what the Tory Opposition say. The Bill will make it easier, not more difficult, for individuals and businesses to understand and to use the legislation.
I was very sorry to miss the opening speeches, because an accident closed the motorway and I got caught by the Tamils, delaying me by three hours. I was particularly disappointed, because I wanted to intervene on the right hon. Member for Maidstone—[Hon. Members: “Maidenhead.”] I got the wrong one. I will return later to the questions that I wanted to ask the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), because I am astonished that the Conservative Opposition are opposed to giving the Bill a Second Reading.
I understand the considered arguments of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who obviously had considered views about why he opposed the Bill, although I in turn oppose them. He said that he supported very strongly equality of opportunity, but because of the discrimination that there has been over many years against a number of groups, it is discriminatory not to redress the balance if one is going to not have discrimination now—if that tortuous wording makes any sense to people.
The hon. Gentleman had a considered view against the legislation, but I was surprised by the desire of a number of Conservative Members to jump up and say, “But we welcome large parts of this Bill.” They then really struggled to explain why they want, in the words of the reasoned amendment, to decline
“to give a Second Reading to the Equality Bill”.
They almost spoke as if they did not support the amendment.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) blamed the Solicitor-General for not allowing Opposition Members to hold the Government to account, but the hon. Lady wanted not to dissect the Bill but to chuck it out, which would be a grave mistake and a missed opportunity. I appreciate many points in the Conservative amendment, but I do not agree with most of them. They are all worthy of debate, but I cannot see that they are sufficient to chuck out the whole works. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) gave a long list of the organisations that support the Bill, and I really hope that the Opposition will change their mind, keep the cross-party view about support for advancing equality and enter into a detailed debate about their concerns.
The promotion of equality has been central to my work since I became involved in politics—indeed, in thinking about anything. Part of the motivating force for my becoming involved was to try to promote equality in all its facets, but the first time that I became involved in this place in its promotion was when we were trying to incorporate the provisions of the Good Friday agreement into what became the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Astonishingly, that legislation and agreement was way ahead of any that we had for England, Wales and Scotland. Interestingly, too, many groups in Northern Ireland, which were at the extremes of the political divide at the time, understood the power of tackling equality to undermine some of the worst things that were happening in society. It was a powerful tool for dealing with the disadvantaged and the causes of their suffering in that country, in respect of religion and other areas of equality. They strongly supported trying through the Good Friday agreement and then the 1998 Act to promote a view of equality that was way in advance of what we had on this side of the water.
I shall not repeat too much of what everyone else has said, because I support many areas of the Bill. I shall, however, read out the first sentence of our briefing from Age Concern and Help the Aged:
“The Equality Bill represents a milestone in achieving equality for older people and should be welcomed by politicians of all parties.”
I say this to Opposition Members: please do not throw it out. Let us welcome it and then deal with the items of concern.
It is worth citing a couple of examples of age discrimination from Age Concern and Help the Aged. As I, and all of us, get older, the issue hits home more clearly. The mother of a woman who called Age Concern was buying something for £150 at a leading department store. At the till, she was asked whether she wanted to apply for a charge card so that she could get a 10 per cent. discount. As soon as she said that she was 65, however, the cashier apologised and said that she could not have the card because she was too old. Why? Her money was good enough. I cannot get my head around why she should not have been entitled to the card just because she was older. If she had been about to get ill and drop dead, she would not have been able to buy the next item and get the 10 per cent. off. What was the problem?
An older man, a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists who flies aeroplanes every week, tried to hire a car at Edinburgh airport. He was 70, so he had to agree to pay the first £500 of any claim, including for theft. Did the insurer think that he would not be able to run quickly enough to stop a thief getting in the car? That is another bizarre example, and I am pleased that the Bill will tackle such issues.
Age Concern and Help the Aged said that the opportunity to abolish forced retirement had been missed. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) commented on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) made an interesting contribution on how we might address the issue. I hope that those points will be looked at further.
Some employers really welcome older employees. The management at the B&Q in my area go out of their way to get older employees. The last thing that they want is a young whippersnapper who has never done any work on houses pretending that he knows how to advise customers on how to do things in the home; they want the person who has been doing the work for the past 40 years and knows what people want and need and knows what did not work when they were doing work on their house. That B&Q goes out of its way to employ older people, so it is not all doom and gloom when it comes to ageism. The Bill provides a welcome move in the right direction.
On addressing socio-economic inequalities, I should say that the Conservative amendment misses the point. One of the party’s reasons for not wanting the Bill to have a Second Reading is thatthe Bill
“fails to address the root causes of the reduction in social mobility in recent years”.
The whole point of placing a new duty on Ministers, Departments and public bodies to consider what action they can take to reduce inequalities on socio-economic grounds is that there will be a mechanism to consider issues such as why we are not dealing with social mobility and why there are still socio-economic inequalities. That will be able to be done systematically across Departments. The Bill gives the precise mechanism that would address one of the criticisms in the Conservative motion.
I hope that the Conservative party will consider the issue again; it is valuable that at last we are saying that we need to address inequality in relation to class and socio-economic advantage. According to how I read it, the Bill is careful to say that that will not mean that a front-line decision by a service provider will suddenly be dealt with in that way; we will not suddenly find a doctor saying, “I’m not treating you because you come from too advantaged an area and you’re too rich.” However, it will require my primary care trust and local authority to consider health disparities and inequalities and how we can deal with them.
The Bill makes positive inroads into one area of health inequality: it promotes women’s ability to breastfeed in public. I was astonished by the bizarre intervention made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest; I am sorry that she is not still here. One would hardly know that most women whom I see breastfeeding in public are doing it; they are so discreet that they would not offend anybody. I do not know why it would, however. If it does, the problem belongs to the person being offended and not to the woman and child who are doing something that makes a vital contribution to reducing health inequalities. The World Health Organisation says that mothers should breastfeed.
It would not normally have occurred to me to pick up on this issue in this debate, but I have had e-mails from constituents who are concerned to promote this aspect of the Bill. One thing that came across is that lower socio-economic groups and younger mothers are less likely to breastfeed, certainly in public places—partly because they find doing so embarrassing and unacceptable. That puts them off doing it at all. If when they are out and about they find it difficult to breastfeed, they will lack confidence and worry about the reaction of other people.
I am delighted at the BEARS groups in my local area, at which mothers provide breastfeeding support to other women. There is one in the Langley Mill Sure Start centre, recently visited by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, and in other Sure Start centres. In the run-up to the elections, I am worried in case Derbyshire county council stops being Labour and our wonderful Sure Start centres are closed. They provide fantastic help, including on this issue, to less advantaged families to make sure that the kids have a good start in life. That would be threatened if we ended up with a Tory county council and a Tory Government; I just throw in that comment in passing. The breastfeeding element of the Bill is valuable.
It is good that we are to make it clear that public bodies can use public procurement in the drive to equality. When I served on the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee and we were writing the report on public procurement and the one entitled “Jobs for the Girls”, which was about trying to address the gender pay gap and inequalities, we heard public organisations say that public procurement could not be used in this context. We argued, however, that if public authorities have a duty to promote gender equality, they will fail if they do not ensure that those to whom they give contracts take suitable steps to try to address inequality in their employment and service practices. We saw a number of positive examples of how the £175 billion of public procurement can be used to promote equality, and I am pleased at that.
Equal pay is the issue on which there has been most opposition, with people saying that some provisions would be a burden on business; at least that is how I interpreted what was being said when we were told that the issue was difficult. There is the issue of gender pay reports. Transparency is absolutely vital; there is still a massive pay gap. I find it hard to understand how hon. Members can say that the gap is a scandal but also that they do not want to do anything about it.
I wanted to raise questions with the right hon. Member for Maidstone—[Hon. Members: “Maidenhead!”] Why do I always get it wrong? I wanted to raise with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead arguments related to some parliamentary questions that I tabled today. Inthe amendment, and in a private Member’s Bill put forward by the right hon. Lady, is a proposal for the implementation of
“compulsory pay audits for those organisations…found guilty of discrimination by an employment tribunal”.
I assume that the right hon. Lady has done her research, but the problem is that her proposal would have hardly any effect. I do not know whether she has worked out how many employers have been found guilty in tribunals. Unison, my union, has 40,000 outstanding equal pay cases before tribunals. The tribunals are clogged up. In 2007-08, 62,000 equal pay claims were brought, but the tribunals dealt with only 9,000 of them and only 678 were successful at tribunal. Many of those cases would have been multiple ones relating to the same employer. Do the Conservative Opposition even know how many employers would be caught by the provision?
I was going to make the point that I would like further consideration of certain issues. They include some of the proposals put forward by Unison, working jointly with the Fawcett Society. The proposals were also in the report on equal pay produced by the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee. I hope that the issue will be considered again. We could not agree in the Committee on whether we should go forward with compulsory pay audits. However, we did say that if in future there was still limited progress on eliminating the gap, we should consider either introducing compulsory pay audits or imposing the equality duty on the private as well as the public sector. I hope that the Government will return to and reconsider representative actions and hypothetical comparators. I argued for hypothetical comparators when we were introducing the provisions on part-time workers.
I am conscious that the Conservative Opposition are still saying that even rather mild “We will do something in future if we don’t get anywhere” proposals are regarded, for some reason, as a terrible burden on business. Are they saying now that introducing the minimum wage or the right to flexible working was a burden on business? They have come around to those measures, and I have every hope that there will be the same volte face and Damascene conversion and that they will support us on these proposals as well.
I welcome the Bill, but I hope that we will look at further ways of improving it as it makes its progress through Parliament.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), to whose candid contribution I listened, as always, with interest and respect.
I begin by declaring an interest as a member of the Speaker’s Conference that is committed to securing greater representation in this House from women, members of the ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and, as far as I am concerned, people from the LGBT—lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—community, which has historically been hugely unrepresented in this House.
I should also say at the outset, for the avoidance of doubt, that I strongly support the Bill. It is a good, progressive, visionary and overdue Bill, and, I would argue, a Bill that manifestly and incontrovertibly deserves a Second Reading. In the course of my contribution, I shall seek to explain to the House the rationale for my view.
As other right hon. and hon. Members have acknowledged, there are two elements to the Bill—the consolidatory feature, on the one hand, and the feature of extension, on the other. It is pretty much unarguable that we need to consolidate the law. A sprawling and complex mosaic of enactments has grown like Topsy over a period of 40 years, and it is high time that that was consolidated and distilled into one readily intelligible and accessible piece of legislation. It is a considerable tribute to the parliamentary draftspeople, intellectually and administratively, that they have accomplished that task.
We should not then say, “Well, it ends there”, because consolidation is necessary but, frankly, not sufficient. Those who admire only the consolidatory features of the Bill are, in a sense, resting content with exiguous achievements. We need to go rather further than that. Let us look at the context and background to the unveiling of new and further measures. As the Minister for Women and Equality pointed out, it is 40 years next year since the passage of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and, despite all that has been achieved, the pay gap, though on a lesser scale, nevertheless stubbornly persists. People with disabilities are twice as likely to be out of work. Members of the ethnic minorities are 13 per cent. less likely to get a job. In schools, despite all the changes in legislation and, to a degree, in culture, children who are, or who are wrongly thought to be, lesbian, gay or bisexual are harassed and bullied on a monumental scale. Therefore, we cannot be self-satisfied. I am always suspicious of people who say, “I’m all in favour of equality, but it isn’t really necessary to do anything about it”, or, “We’re all in favour of equality”—end of argument, no requirement for legislation, and by the way, would it not be socially desirable to talk about some other subject altogether?
The fact is that much remains to be done. I want, if I may, to focus on a number of features of the Bill that seem to lie at its heart. I mentioned some of the disadvantage that persists, but in a sense the biggest single problem with which we are confronted in all parties in this House is that social mobility, which is palpably a good after which we should all strive, has stalled at best and regressed at worse. That has happened under successive Governments, with attempts to do good here and there. It is a long-standing phenomenon, and we have to seek to arrest and reverse that trend. Hence the introduction of clause 1, with its imposition of the socio-economic duty. If one believed some of the more hysterical headlines and articles beneath them in the newspapers, one would think that this heralded the emergence of the vanguard of the revolution, and that truly one had to be a Marxist-Leninist, a Trotskyist or a workerist to believe in the imposition of such a clause. In fact, it simply entails an acknowledgment and a recognition that leaving things entirely to the market and the free play of those forces is not enough—one must have some action from Government and Parliament of a protective and enabling character.
Let me consider what attempts to reduce inequalities of outcome by the imposition of the socio-economic duty on public sector bodies might mean in practical terms. It might mean that in a particular area of notable disadvantage a health trust decides to focus its anti-smoking policy, or its smoking cessation service, on a disadvantaged community, in which there might be evidence to show that the incidence of nicotine addiction was much greater than elsewhere. That is an extremely good thing in the name of reducing health inequalities and encouraging and making more likely decent longevity in that community.
What else might the socio-economic duty mean? It might mean that in a particular area where there is a concentration of disadvantage and where children face great difficulty in getting into some of the better-performing schools, the parents are given advice on the school’s application process by professionals, experts and well-wishers to better the chances of those otherwise disadvantaged children. It might even mean—I would favour this; it was practised in Brighton under the Conservatives and by one school, very briefly, in Hammersmith and Fulham—the adoption of a lottery system. I know that that is politically unpopular, but I continue to believe that it is thoroughly right and fair.
I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman’s remarks so far, but I want to correct him on a point of accuracy. The so-called lottery in Brighton was introduced by a Labour council in the face of determined Tory opposition, but the Tories now holding the council have realised its virtues.