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Commons Chamber

Volume 492: debated on Monday 11 May 2009

House of Commons

Monday 11 May 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Housing Allowance

2. What proportion of claimants in each local authority were classified as vulnerable for the purposes of paying local housing allowance in the past 12 months. (273484)

The information is not available for the past 12 months. However, evidence from the nine local housing allowance pathfinder evaluations indicated that payments of local housing allowance were made to landlords in 12 per cent. of cases where local authorities assessed the claimant as vulnerable.

There is a great deal of difference in the way that local authorities handle policies on vulnerability and rent arrears in their housing allocation. Many vulnerable people are left homeless and landlords are left with rent arrears. What mechanisms are there for making sure that local authorities apply their policies properly and are there any plans to change those mechanisms?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. The guidance to local authorities on how to implement the regulations, and in particular the safeguards for vulnerable claimants, has been set out clearly. Indeed, we have provided comprehensive training and guidance material to local authorities. Like my hon. Friend, I too have been concerned that some local authorities are implementing the regulations differently from other local authorities, so we shall be reissuing the guidance. I want to make it entirely clear, and on the record, that local authorities by no means have to wait for eight weeks before reinstating direct payments to landlords. They can set their own policies in that regard and make direct payments much sooner if they think there is a likelihood that the rent will not be paid by vulnerable claimants.

The Minister will know that the effectiveness of the local housing allowance scheme depends on the definition of “local”. If the local housing market is defined over a very large area, there will be parts where the rent is too high for anybody on benefit—no-go areas—and ghettoised areas where people on benefit have to live. Will the Minister commit to an early review of the definitions of local housing market areas to see whether that is happening and, if so, to redraw the local housing markets?

The hon. Gentleman needs to check his facts. In fact, 25 per cent. of the broad rental market areas are being reviewed this year; 14 of those reviews will be published quite soon and a further 18 in the next few months, and 25 per cent. a year will be looked at. I have asked the Rent Service to prioritise areas where there was less local consensus and encourage them to involve all local authorities and interested groups, including Members, to make sure that consensus can be reached, precisely to solve the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. However, I should also like to make it clear that local authorities have at their discretion a pot of money to ameliorate some of the effects case by case. In the vast majority of circumstances when Members have raised cases with me, the local authority has agreed the new boundaries, so the onus is on the local authority to ameliorate any unforeseen circumstances that follow.

Will my hon. Friend review housing benefit? Many of my constituents are trapped on benefit; they have been offered jobs but are afraid to take them because as a consequence they would lose their housing benefit, and then obviously their home. Will my hon. Friend look at that?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. It is precisely why shortly—in the next few months or so—we shall be starting a public consultation on what has so far been an internal review of housing benefit, designed to make sure that work incentives are at the core of the way we implement the benefit system.

May I press the Minister on the timing of the reviews she mentioned in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb)? In Cambridge, there are 800 claimants whose housing benefit is being reduced because the area was drawn far too wide. A review has been under way since last year. The Minister mentioned local authorities. Cambridge city council has made its submission, backed by Shelter. How much longer do those tenants have to wait for their review to be completed?

I mentioned in response to the earlier question that 14 reviews were being fast-tracked. Cambridge is one of those and I expect to have recommendations about what should change, if anything, in the next few weeks. Any changes will, we hope, be implemented from 1 July.

It is now clear from reports across the country that not only tenants but charities helping the homeless are being very poorly served by the local housing allowance, so will the Minister agree to urgent reform of that allowance, which, frankly, is failing the very people whom it was designed to help?

We always said that we would review the local housing allowance after two years, but the evidence so far does not bear out the hon. Gentleman’s points. In the pathfinder evaluations, it was shown that 96 per cent. of customers had a bank, building society or Post Office account, and a quarter of those had been opened in order for those customers to pay their rent. We are talking about an important policy, giving more choice to tenants. It is an important part of our plans for financial inclusion. We will, of course, listen to all interested parties, but we do not currently have the evidence that the hon. Gentleman needs to make his point.

There have been reports in the newspapers that the expenditure on local housing allowance has been greater than was forecast, and that as a result the Government are considering whether those whose local housing allowance is more than the rent that they pay and who therefore benefit will lose that benefit. Can my hon. Friend report on that?

My hon. Friend is right that the local housing allowance has proved quite generous. That is not a bad thing, particularly in the current economic circumstances, but it is right in looking across the whole of Government expenditure that people should not be able to claim in excess of what they pay for their rent. Once the economic circumstances improve, the issue is to be looked at again, and he is right to make that point. Every single person will have their rent paid if it is at or below the LHA level.

Incapacity Benefit Claimants

We are increasing the help available to incapacity benefit claimants, all of whom have access to back-to-work support through pathways to work. We are also taking forward the Gregg review vision that everyone should be expected to take active steps towards work in return for their benefits, except for those in the support group, who are most disabled. In the first instance, we will trial that approach for existing claimants through the invest to save funding model. We will also reassess everyone on incapacity benefit to make sure that they are on the right benefit.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that the best way to get people from incapacity benefit into work is to make it as easy and least burdensome as possible for employers to take on new people? Would not that be the best approach to take, rather than ridiculous politically correct initiatives such as the Equality Bill, which the British Chambers of Commerce says will discourage job creation in this country?

It is very important for us to provide people with help to get back into work, and to improve the incentives for getting back into work. That is why we are re-testing everybody on incapacity benefit to make sure that they are on the right benefit. That is why we have tightened the gateway to make sure that only the right people get on to the benefit, and that is why we will require everybody for whom it is appropriate to have back-to-work support. The one thing that we will not do is abolish the minimum wage, to which I think the hon. Gentleman is referring. He is the promoter of a Bill on the issue, which will come before the House on Friday. I hope that everyone, including Conservative Front Benchers, will oppose it, and make it clear that that is not the way that we should go.

In response to what my right hon. Friend just said, before the national minimum wage came in, 17 per cent. of my constituents were on wage rates of £2 per hour or less; some were on 99p per hour. We need to push more worklessness projects that give people who are on incapacity benefit opportunities to move gradually from benefit into work. As my right hon. Friend will know, such an approach has been championed by the worklessness tsar, the leader of Barnsley metropolitan borough council, Steve Houghton, who is doing some great things in that respect.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we strongly welcome the Houghton review. He recommended that we invest money in helping local authorities to prevent the kind of worklessness that occurred in the past, and I am glad to say that that is exactly what we are doing.

Will not the Secretary of State deal with part of the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) put? Should we not seek to minimise the cost to employers of employing people? That is, should we not provide them with an incentive, particularly at this time, to employ people? Unemployment is rising dramatically. We want more people in work, even if they are from among those on incapacity benefit. Does he not think that the Government should give more thought to assisting employers and providing them with incentives to employ people?

Of course we should minimise regulation, but I do not think that there is a contradiction between supporting equality and helping more people into work whatever their background, and getting people into work. Knowing his views, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman does either. It is important to point out that the hon. Member for Shipley was talking about abolishing the minimum wage, showing that such views still obtain in some parts of the Conservative party today. [Interruption.] It is a Bill that comes before the House on Friday, and the hon. Gentleman is promoting it. It is important that people know about it.

My right hon. Friend will know that it is not only those people who suffer from incapacity but those who care for them who find it difficult to move back into work, not least because if they earn one penny more than £95 a week they lose their entire £55 carer’s allowance. When will my right hon. Friend remove that disincentive to work?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we are improving our help for carers to get back into work. Carer’s allowance is clearly supposed to be a replacement income for people who cannot work, and therefore it has never had that structure in the past. However, we said in the carer’s strategy review that we would keep on looking at the issue, and we will do so.

The Secretary of State referred to existing incapacity benefit claimants and the importance of getting them into work, and he will know that nearly 1.2 million incapacity benefit claimants are over the age of 50. Under his Government’s proposals, those people will be offered only one work-focused interview to help them get back into work, and that is clearly not going to be adequate. Significant numbers have been out of work for more than five years—

The right hon. Lady says, “The minimum wage”. No Opposition Member has mentioned the minimum wage, so why do we not just stick to the questions and the answers? Will the Secretary of State explain how one work-focused interview for those 1 million people over 50 will help them get back into work?

It is not surprising that the Opposition Front-Bench team do not want people to be reminded of their record on poverty wages. On the hon. Gentleman’s—[Interruption.] If he will just calm down for one second, he will hear that, on his question, he is wrong about the facts: people can volunteer for far more than that which he described. We are the first Government to require people to take part in work-focused activity, and that contrasts with the previous recession, when 1 million people went on to incapacity benefit. They were encouraged, sometimes forced, to go on to it by the Opposition, and they were trapped there, because they were offered no help to get back into work or back to health. It is a record that, frankly, he should be extremely embarrassed about, and I am therefore surprised that he wants to contrast his Government’s record with ours.

Local Housing Allowance

Local housing allowance is a simpler, fairer and more transparent system of help with rent for people on benefits or low wages. It is designed to promote personal responsibility over payment of rent and to ensure that people do not face disincentives to move back into work.

We are, as I said in an answer to a previous question, closely monitoring how the scheme works in practice and have committed to completing a full review over a two-year period from the commencement of the scheme’s roll-out in April 2008.

The Minister will have seen reports that about half of all landlords are considering getting out of the housing benefit market because they have lost complete confidence in the system, mainly through tenants who are unable to pay their rent on time. The situation has a significant impact on the finances of landlords’ businesses, and it could, in turn, have a significant impact on homelessness. What is the Minister prepared to do—further to the flexibility that she discussed earlier—to ensure that that drastic measure is not taken?

There are quite a lot of things going on in the housing market at the moment, and we do not have the evidence that those changes mean that landlords are withdrawing from the market. In fact, overall, there has been a slight increase in the number of rented properties in the market throughout the country. As I said, we are ensuring that local authorities completely understand that they have the flexibility to reinstate direct payments if they think that the tenant is vulnerable; the authority does not have to wait eight weeks to do so; and we will complete a full review at the two-year anniversary of the scheme. The review will include proper research and data collection, rather than simply the rumours that the hon. Gentleman is clearly trying to promulgate.

Does the Minister recall the time when her hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) was Minister and housing benefit local areas were expanded? Hazel Grove, a constituency with high property and rental values, was linked with inner Manchester, leading to “economic cleansing” of poor tenants in my constituency. Will she undertake to ensure that, in the review, Stockport will be restored as a separate local housing allowance areas, allowing the poorest in my community to remain in that community when they need to do so?

I will not, because I will take the advice of the Rent Service. However, as I said in response to a previous question, we will be reviewing 25 per cent. of broad rental market areas each year. I advise the hon. Gentleman to engage fully with the Rent Service in England, to make his points clearly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for there to be a wide range of organisations involved in the provision of training and support, developing skills and experiences for people with disabilities? I commend the Brighter Future Workshop and Midstream, two organisations in my local area that do a grand job with people of varying ranges of disability. I invite my hon. Friend to visit any time she can.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

5. What his most recent estimate is of the (a) number of claimants of and (b) percentage of the work force claiming jobseeker’s allowance in (i) Blaby constituency and (ii) the UK. (273487)

In March 2009, there were 1,662 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Blaby constituency and 1,523,482 such claimants in the UK. Those figures represent 2.7 per cent. and 4 per cent. of the working-age population respectively.

Behind those statistics can lie personal tragedy—not only for the person who has lost his or her job, but for their immediate family. We all recognise that. I understand that new statistics are to come out this week. Can the Minister estimate what the next monthly rise in unemployment will be, and what he expects the unemployment figure to be on 1 April next year, which will probably be just before the general election?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the statistics are owned by the Office for National Statistics; it is not for a Government Minister or anybody else to speculate before their arrival on Wednesday at 9.30.

Does the Minister have any estimate of how many of the figures for the UK relate to Eddie Stobart Ltd? That company has been abusing the TUPE legislation across the country to make large numbers of people redundant in small groups. It has failed to consult properly or pay for proper consultancy, including in my constituency.

I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but I do not have to hand the figures to which he alluded at the start of his question.

How many constituencies now have a higher number of people out of work and claiming benefit than they did in February 1997?

Again—an interesting point, and a fair one. The House of Commons Library issues such data regularly. I do not have them about my person, but I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman gets a copy of the very latest after Wednesday’s figures.

In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), the Minister refused to speculate about this week’s unemployment figures. Today, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has said that the labour market will deteriorate further in the next 12 months and that unemployment will inevitably rise to more than 3 million by spring next year. Does the Minister agree?

As the right hon. Lady will know, under the established statistics arrangements it is not my place to speculate about Wednesday’s figures. The CIPD always brings out its forecast at around this time. I know one thing for certain: unless the right hon. Lady signs up in total to the nearly £5 billion of extra support that we are putting into Jobcentre Plus and assorted other employment interventions, unemployment will be a lot higher than it is otherwise likely to be.

I suggest that the Minister speaks to his Treasury colleagues; the figures that they put in the Budget—in the Red Book—suggest that unemployment will reach more than 3 million in 2010.

The Minister talks about the steps taken by the Government. The economy has not been growing for a year, yet most of the Government’s measures to help businesses are only just coming into operation. Unemployment has been growing for well over a year, yet contracts for the flexible new deal have been postponed and the guarantee for young people under the future jobs fund will not come into operation until next January. Today the CIPD says that 40 per cent. of organisations have made contingency plans to make more redundancies over the next 12 months. The Government continuously claimed that Britain was well placed to weather the recession. Are we not now paying for their complacency in lost jobs?

Quite the opposite. It has been estimated that many of the macroeconomic interventions made over the past year have saved the best part of half a million jobs. The right hon. Lady is entirely wrong to suggest that the flexible new deal has been postponed in any way, shape or form. The Budget put more money into the flexible new deal, rather than otherwise. I repeat: none of these things would happen under her Government, because she cannot commit to the extra £5 billion that is put in through the rapid response service, at pre-redundancy stage, all the way through to what we are doing for people at 12 months. She should listen to her Conservative colleague, the leader of Bradford council, Margaret Eaton, who welcomed the jobs guarantee fulsomely, to the point of embarrassment. I welcome that. I hope that the right hon. Lady’s local council, as well as that of every other hon. Member, will be bidding for the future jobs fund and the guarantee.

Women Pensioners

7. What recent assessment he has made of levels of poverty among women pensioners aged over 74; and if he will make a statement. (273489)

Through targeted support, and more than £13 billion-worth of extra funding, the number of pensioners in relative low income has fallen by 900,000 since 1997. Since 1997, the number of female pensioners aged 75 and over in relative low income has fallen by 300,000.

I thank the Minister for that answer. However, she will be aware that there is a great deal of poverty among older pensioners, particularly women. For example, Age Concern and Help the Aged estimate that only 30 per cent. of women retire with a full basic state pension. I am aware of the other things that they can claim for, but the fact that they are a lot older often means that they do not do so, and that they live in poverty, particularly the older they get. Is there anything else that the Government can do to address that particular issue?

We have made changes in reducing the number of qualifying years for women so that they will be able to get easier entitlement to state pension. We are also bringing in carers credits and grandparents credits so that they can claim national insurance credit. As a result of those changes, by 2025 more than 90 per cent. of women reaching state pension age will be entitled to the full basic state pension compared with under half today. At the same time, it is important that we ensure that people take up their full entitlements to things such as pension credit.

I thank my right hon. Friend, on behalf of my 92-year-old mother and all the Yorkshire pensioners, for the advances that have been made since 1997. Unfortunately, we had one of the worst records, but now we have had the greatest decrease in pensioner poverty throughout the whole of the English regions. I thank the Government on behalf of all the pensioners of Yorkshire.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, once again, to say that in 1997 some 32 per cent. of pensioners in Yorkshire and the Humber were living in poverty. The most recent figures show that that has fallen by 14 percentage points, which is the biggest percentage decrease of all the regions. At the same time, I am sure that he will look to the future and endorse what has been said from the Government Front Bench—that the implications of abolishing the national minimum wage would be enormous for future pensioners, who would then be reduced to poverty.

Numerous pensioners aged 74 and over caught up in the Equitable Life disaster would wish to have their pensions at a fair and reasonable level. Since Ann Abraham concluded last week that the scheme that the Government have set up is not what she had in mind, will they now consider fairly compensating those pensioners so that they do not find themselves with low incomes?

As the hon. Lady will know, the Government have responded to this matter. The most recent announcements were made by the Treasury, and she will know about the ex gratia payments with regard to the Equitable Life pensioners.

We have certainly made enormous progress in this Government’s first 11 years, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported last year on the higher inflation rates that affected the poorest pensioners, with a higher average impact than on the rest of the population. As a result, 800 pensioners per day were passing unseen and unheard into the official definition of poverty, making the total number 2.5 million. What does the Minister project will happen in April 2010, when the basic state pension will go up by £2.40 a week but the prices of food and fuel, two of the core items of expenditure for the poorest pensioners, will no doubt be soaring away at a rate much greater than that?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point to the IFS report, which also stated that in the longer term pensioners were no more likely than other sections of the population to be affected by the increases in food and fuel prices. However, those rises are exactly why this year we have increased winter fuel payments, increased the Christmas bonus allowance by £60 and tripled cold weather payments. There were also a number of measures in the Budget—for example, to take pensioners out of paying tax. In the round, we have certainly made an effort to respond to rising food and fuel prices. As some of those prices decrease, pensioners will feel the effect to their benefit.

In the round, as the Minister puts it, Help the Aged states that 4.5 million pensioners who are entitled to means-tested benefit are not getting it, simply because it is so complicated to apply for it. What can the Government do to ensure that people who are not entitled to benefits do not get them, while at the same time ensuring that weak, elderly, vulnerable people who are entitled to such benefits can receive them easily and promptly?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. As I said, we are now spending £13 billion more than we would have been spending had we pursued the policies of the previous Administration, and we are particularly targeting that extra spending on the most vulnerable pensioners. Problems with the take-up of benefits apply often not just to pension credit but to housing and council tax benefits, for which people do not necessarily apply, and that is why we have made a key change so that, from October, by making one telephone call pensioners will be able to get not only their basic state pension credit but council tax and housing benefits. That will make things simpler in exactly the way that the hon. Gentleman outlines.

Jobcentre Plus (Staffing)

8. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of staffing levels in Jobcentre Plus; and if he will make a statement. (273490)

We recognise that Jobcentre Plus is facing an increased work load as a result of the economic downturn. Thanks to the funding assigned in the Budget, Jobcentre Plus will be able to recruit 10,000 more staff in addition to the 6,000 new staff already provided for in the pre-Budget report. The increase in resources will enable Jobcentre Plus to maintain the provision of flexible, responsive and targeted support to help move people into work as quickly as possible.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. May I tell him that Derbyshire Jobcentre Plus is well on target to meet the Department’s required recruitment levels at both clerical and executive grades? The capacity and expertise are therefore already in place at local level. However, what are my right hon. Friend’s contingency plans should further demand on Jobcentre Plus become evident?

Clearly, we will look at that at each pre-Budget report and Budget, but we believe that we have put in place the right number of people for the situation that we face. I am sure that my hon. Friend would join me in taking this opportunity to pay tribute to Jobcentre Plus staff, who are doing a fantastic job. They are coping with almost twice the number of claims of two years ago, but processing benefits three days quicker. We should recognise that in the House.

I recently held a series of surgeries with Jobcentre Plus in my constituency. About a third of those who attended gained work within six weeks. Is there any flexibility in the Jobcentre Plus budget to ensure that more such community-based activities can take place, so that we can utilise the good practice of action teams and pathways to work?

Absolutely. We would be very happy to help any hon. Member from any part of the House who wanted to provide such a service to their constituents. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the initiative he has taken, and in particular on bringing together a number of agencies to help people who will be worried about how quickly they can get back into work. It is an excellent initiative that we are happy to support.

May I make a suggestion to the Secretary of State on behalf of those of our constituents who have worked all their lives and who now find themselves unemployed? They are often horrified by the treatment they receive from Jobcentre Plus. They accept that in the past, there have been people who were not all that keen to work. Jobcentre Plus has been geared to trying to make the transition from benefit to work easier for those people. However, those who have worked all their lives feel that the mechanical way of interviewing them, with interviews over very short periods, means that they do not get a fair share of the Department’s resources. I know that those on the Treasury Bench have to say, “It’s all hunky-dory; everything’s working brilliantly,” and I do not expect my right hon. Friend to depart from that line, but might I ask him to take—

I do take my right hon. Friend’s point, but I am sure he recognises that coping with nearly twice as many people coming through has been a significant challenge. The fact that people’s benefits are being paid and that we are maintaining the active labour market regime is an achievement for Jobcentre Plus. He is right, however, to say that we need to put more resources into ensuring that everybody gets a good service, not just certain groups of the population. He knows, for example, that we have worked with more than 300 private sector recruitment agencies to provide a service specifically for professionals who are signing on for the first time, but we want to ensure that we support everybody who claims in getting back into work. My right hon. Friend will be glad to know that more than 1 million people have left JSA over the past four months, which shows that the active regime we have put in place is working.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are constraints on Jobcentre Plus managers? We ought to give them more flexibility and a budget that they can use with individuals for training. A job can come up, but managers do not have the flexibility to say, “Yes, you can go on that training scheme, which will ensure that you get a job in future.” Can my right hon. Friend give more flexibility and devolve a budget to each Jobcentre Plus office?

My hon. Friend will be glad to know that that is exactly what we propose to do with the adviser discretionary fund—we always take his suggestions very seriously. We are increasing the adviser discretionary fund, which will pay for costs that need to be borne to get people back into work, such as the cost of buying a suit for an interview, or of getting qualifications in order to get people into vacancies in their areas. I am sure that all parties in the House will support that.

Jobseeker's Allowance

9. How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) March 2008 and (b) March 2009 in (i) the UK and (ii) North-East Bedfordshire constituency. (273491)

In March 2008, there were 842,827 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the UK and 686 in North-East Bedfordshire. In March 2009, there were 1,523,482 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the UK and 1,812 in North-East Bedfordshire.

The Minister will appreciate that he has announced in his figures an increase in unemployment in my constituency over a year of 164 per cent. Is he concerned about the number of reports from local businesses that have failed to get information from the Government about schemes that have been announced that might help their businesses? Those businesses’ failure to access that information is costing jobs. Is he concerned that his efforts to reduce unemployment are undermined by a failure of joined-up government and a failure on the part of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to get that information to companies that might find it helpful in keeping jobs?

The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point. I would have shared some of that concern in the past, but I know that, certainly over recent months, more and more of both the information and the delivery of those programmes and interventions are getting through to businesses and making a difference to local initiatives and local employment opportunities.

What are the Government doing to help former members of the armed forces—particularly those who have been injured or wounded as a result of their service—to get jobs, and has there been any special advice from, or linkages with, the Ministry of Defence on that?

I can tell my hon. Friend that I have had a couple of meetings with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on precisely that point. We are looking at trying to do something specific, especially for longer-term leavers, around Catterick and other departure points from the armed services. It is more difficult in the case of those who are in the services for only three or four weeks, decide they do not want to do it and come out. We are looking to get armed services advisers in at least the key Jobcentre Plus offices close to facilities where the armed services are. I will write to my hon. Friend in more detail about the specifics regarding those who leave wounded or incapacitated and who cannot go back into the armed services. He makes a very strong point all round.

Ministers continually talk about the extra money they say they are spending, but they consistently fail to put in place the help that people need at the time when they need it. Given the figures that the Minister has just revealed, which show a significant increase in the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance—it is now up to 1.5 million—it is sadly very likely that there will be an increase in the number of long-term unemployed people by next summer. We have learned that existing contracts to help the long-term unemployed run out at the end of June, while the flexible new deal, apparently, does not begin until October. First, will the Minister assure us that a system of referrals will be in place to help the long-term unemployed throughout the whole country from June until this October? Secondly, will he give a guarantee that the flexible new deal will start as planned this October? We want a guarantee, please.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s starting premise is entirely wrong. We are deliberately ensuring that the almost £5 billion we are investing in Jobcentre Plus and employment opportunities goes across the piece. It is helping before redundancies, with our rapid response services. It is helping people who, unfortunately, find themselves unemployed and for whom the experience is brand new. It is helping people through the more enhanced packages for those with three months’ unemployment, six months’ unemployment—packages to which all long-term unemployed people will be referred from June and October and beyond—and 12 months’ unemployment.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to imply that we have had to adjust things. After 10, 11 or 12 very fruitful years for the labour market and employment, when the focus has been on the longer-term unemployed, we have had to bring much of that support forward to much earlier in the process. That is precisely what is happening. There is no reason at all to suggest that the FND will be introduced at any time other than in October, as planned.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

10. What proportion of the population in (a) the UK and (b) North-West Cambridgeshire constituency is claiming jobseeker’s allowance. (273493)

In March 2009 the proportion of the population in the UK claiming jobseeker’s allowance was 4 per cent.; in North-West Cambridgeshire it was 3.8 per cent.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, he will be aware that 288,000 new unemployed claimants appeared on the register in the first quarter of 2009—a rapid rise, and the fastest of any quarter. Is that what the Minister meant when he talked of light being at the end of the tunnel?

The direct reference to light at the end of a tunnel came in a rather long-winded and tortuous sentence. It started with, “These are very bad figures and I fear that they are going to get worse.” In the middle came something like, “But recession is not the default mode of the British economy,” as I recall, and then, “And there will be light at the end of the tunnel.” Plenty in the media scrunched all that down to: “Village idiot Minister says that there is light at the end of the tunnel because the figures are so bad.” The hon. Gentleman needs to go back to the original quotation, rather than relying on the selectivity of parts of the media.

Unemployment in Wellingborough, unfortunately, is more than two thirds higher now than it was under the last Conservative Government. I wondered whether that was unique, so I checked. On average, in all Conservative-held constituencies in the country, unemployment is higher now under Labour than it was under the Conservatives. Does the Minister agree that Labour still is not working?

No, and nor would I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s support—I have not heard that he feels otherwise—for those Conservative Front Benchers who do not support the £5 billion package that will help in his area, as it will elsewhere. I certainly would not agree with him, given that he is, I think, a signatory to the outrageous little Bill that will seek to abolish the national minimum wage this Friday.

Pensioner Poverty

11. What steps his Department is taking to alleviate pensioner poverty; and if he will make a statement. (273494)

Compared with 1997, we are now spending £13 billion more per year on pensioners, particularly those on the lowest incomes. As a result, we have lifted 900,000 pensioners out of relative poverty.

When I was manning a stall in Bracknell town centre recently and asking people to sign a petition on pensioner poverty, a large number of pensioners asked me why the Chancellor had not zero-rated or stopped taxing their unearned income, given that they were on the basic rate of tax. I could not answer that, and I cannot believe that he has not done so. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain why that has not happened.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will have taken the opportunity, when discussing these matters with pensioners, to point out that we are spending £13 billion extra on pensioners this year, and that, over the term of this Government, we are spending £96 billion more than we would have spent had we followed the policies of his Government when we came to power. I am sure he is also aware that the changes to personal allowances in the recent Budget mean that almost half of pensioners do not pay tax at all.

Topical Questions

We want people to have the support they need to get back to work quickly. That is why, last month, we extended our local employment partnership programme to help newly unemployed people as well as disadvantaged jobseekers. I am pleased to confirm that, in the last financial year, these local employment partnerships have been highly successful. More than 20,000 employers have recruited more than 146,000 people, which is 40 per cent. more than expected for the year. The number of people moving into work through local employment partnerships continues to grow, increasing by almost 500 a week over the last quarter, proving that, even in these difficult times, we are still helping disadvantaged customers into jobs in significant numbers.

During the 1980s, very little support was available to help young people to find work or training. I am conscious that the Government want to put together partnerships with local government, training providers and local employers to ensure that young people have the opportunity to enter work quickly. What advice can my right hon. Friend give to local MPs on helping to put together those partnerships? Is it not important that local authorities of all political persuasions come forward and play the game?

I am sure that they will. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform mentioned, the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association has strongly welcomed this scheme, and I urge all Members to work with local authorities, charities and social enterprises to bid for the future jobs fund, to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, when a generation was left on the scrap heap. Instead, we can guarantee to find young people work or training within a year, and hopefully much faster than that.

The Secretary of State will know that many elderly people in private residential homes are struggling to pay their fees. Why are those living in such homes not able to receive the winter fuel allowance, when they could if they were living in their own homes and paying for fuel and lighting?

The first reason is that, in many instances, the cost of the fuel is covered by the fees that are paid by, for example, a local authority. The second reason is that if fees are paid to the home privately, the energy costs are considered to be taken within the payments made. I have looked at this issue closely, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we feel that this cost is covered by the fees that are often paid by the local authority.

T2. Carers week, in early June, will celebrate and recognise the role of the United Kingdom’s 6 million carers. What measures are Ministers taking to assist carers, whether they are in work or not? (273508)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of carers. He will be aware that the Government are investing more than £255 million to support carers in the short term. That includes £150 million to allow carers to have planned breaks, £38 million from my Department to help carers re-enter the job market and, importantly, £6 million from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to support young carers in the work they do. We have set out our carers strategy and are looking at reforming the benefit system, so as to avoid some of the complexities that carers complain about.

T3. Many benefit claimants are going to experience real hardship when their payments are moved from weekly to fortnightly in arrears, and they have been told that the answer is to take out a loan to repay the weekly amount. How will this change benefit recipients, rather than just the bureaucrats? (273509)

The reason why we are making these changes is, in a sense, to simplify the overall system. At the moment, some benefits are paid in arrears and some are paid in advance, which has caused confusion for recipients. On the loan, the idea is to give people a payment up front, so that they will still have the money and nobody will lose out as a result of the changes. The loan will ensure that people do not face difficulties in the transition period.

T4. The reduction in interest rates is clearly having a serious impact on pensioners’ income from savings, but the problem is aggravated for those on pension credit as a result of the official assumption that for every £500 over the threshold, a pound a week in interest is generated. That works out in the calculations as an annual rate of 10.4 per cent., which is clearly well detached from reality. Is there nothing we can do in these particularly difficult times to reform that assumption, which has essentially been inherited from previous Administrations—in the plural? (273510)

First, the assumption made in respect of the tariff income has never had anything to do with interest rates. It was laid down in legislation. We changed the position so that instead of assuming a pound for every £250 of savings, which was the case under the previous Administration, we make that assumption for every £500. We reduced the upper limit so that people could go much higher up the scale before they started to pay. In the recent Budget, following representations from hon. Members and a number of charities and organisations representing older people, we have changed the amount at which people have to start making a contribution from £6,000 to £10, 000.

T6. When in opposition, the present Prime Minister said that he wanted to see the end of means-testing for elderly people, and I think he was right to do so because means-testing penalises people who have done the right thing, worked hard, been thrifty and tried to save a bit for their old age. Given that the Government have expanded means-testing by an astronomical amount, will the Minister explain why the Prime Minister was wrong? (273513)

When we came into power, we said we would make the system for claiming extra benefits simpler. If the hon. Gentleman wants to abolish means-testing altogether, that will, of course, benefit the wealthiest people more. What we have done is to target money on the most vulnerable people. As I have said, overall, £96 billion more has been spent on pensioners under this Government, but what we have not done is to take away means-testing entirely, because that would have the greatest effect on the poorest people in our society.

T9. Ministers will be aware that Labour Members, particularly those in London, have been campaigning hard for changes in the housing benefit regime, particularly with regard to high-rent and low-wage areas and the phenomenon known colloquially as the “cliff-edge”, which disincentivises work. What progress has been made on this issue? (273516)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and I am indeed extremely aware of the campaign that she and other hon. Friends have run, which has been very effective. I am particularly concerned, as she is, about work incentives for people in low-income areas who face high rents. That is a real problem in her constituency and in a number of others, quite a few of which are in London. That is one reason why we are looking at the whole operation of housing benefit, and I hope to publish a consultation paper on this very point in the next few months.

May I pick up a point made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)? Given the current background of large increases in the number of redundancies and the lowest number of job vacancies coming on to the market since records began in 2001, will the Minister ensure that the newly unemployed receive the maximum possible assistance, that they are treated sensitively, that they are encouraged to widen their choice of jobs, and that it is pointed out to them very firmly that it is easier to improve one’s position when one is in employment—that is, to move from one job to another—than to obtain one’s first job from a position of unemployment?

All that is rooted in precisely what we are doing with the £5 billion of extra investment. As I said earlier, we have had to change the model slightly to offer much, much more both pre-redundancy with the rapid response service and when a person is first made unemployed, and then again after three and six months of unemployment. However, the hon. Lady has made a fair point, and I take it seriously. Given the present downturn, we are ensuring that Jobcentre Plus is learning all the time, and that it treats people differently if, for instance, they have a history of 15 or 20 years’ successful employment or come from backgrounds or professions that make them unaccustomed to using its services.

T7. What is the Department’s attitude to access to vouchers for food banks? Social services, the probation service and health visitors all provide such vouchers, but when charities want to provide them at Jobcentre Plus offices many refuse to issue them, saying that it is wrong and that according to the Department’s guidance they should not be issued. Why are the Jobcentre Plus offices doing that, and is it right? (273514)

I will certainly take the matter up further for the hon. Gentleman, but his starting premise is correct: the advice is not to disseminate information or procedures of that kind for the use of third parties, at least those in the public sector. However, the matter has been raised with me before, and I will take it up and get back to the hon. Gentleman.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that when the Conservatives were in power, high unemployment was a price worth paying, if it wasn’t hurting it wasn’t working, and a whole generation was abandoned to poverty and benefits? Is it not the case that we are trying to stop—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should ask a question. We have heard that statement and that speech before.

Given that the Secretary of State has talked about helping the disadvantaged and given that these are topical questions, may I ask what message he has for the disadvantaged victims of Equitable Life, who are the subject of repeated pleas by the ombudsman in unprecedented critical reports?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have said we will make ex gratia payments and also apologise where appropriate. As he also knows, the problem happened under both Governments and we have taken steps to put it right. If he has further proposals, he should say how he would fund them.

T8. The Building Societies Association has suggested that the Equality Bill could outlaw “silver saver” accounts for over-50s, which would mean diminishing returns on savings for many hard-pressed senior citizens in Southend, West. What are the Government going to do about that? (273515)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not believe that the Equality Bill would have the effect that has been alleged on “silver savers”. I should add, however, that we shall be consulting on some of the detail in the coming weeks to ensure that there is no such detrimental effect, and that it is possible to make available products aimed at particular age groups.

Will my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench consider introducing a short-time working subsidy in order to keep people in employment, rather than paying them to be unemployed? That would be a way of ensuring that people are in the right place when we move forward and the economy picks up. Rather than trying to find the skills afterwards, we could keep the skills and allow people to be trained in the workplace.

I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that, thanks to tax credits, more than 300,000 people are getting an extra £35 a week to soften the blows from the current recession. He will also welcome the fact that people who are working short-time can claim JSA for a short period, and he may want to make that known to his constituents. What is most important, however, is that we take the necessary action to get the economy going again and to support confidence. We believe the actions we have taken have saved 500,000 jobs so far, and we will continue to do more.

Speaker’s Statement

Members will be aware of the unauthorised disclosure of material relating to their allowances, which has appeared in the press on Friday and over the weekend. This has caused great public concern.

Leaving aside the legal aspect, to which I shall return in a moment, the House has to make serious change to the system of allowances. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that we have been working to new rules from 1 April. We also know that there will be further changes, with proper, independent audit assurance. But working to the rules and the rules alone is not what is expected of any hon. Member; it is important that the spirit of what is right must be brought in now. We are also setting up an operational assurance unit with independent oversight to secure the proper handling of claims. This will be operating very shortly.

To return to the legal aspect, the Clerk of the House immediately sought advice. He was advised that there was no real basis for seeking an injunction but that there was some basis for considering that a criminal offence or offences may have been committed. As right hon. and hon. Members will know from a communication that they received on Friday afternoon, he accordingly referred the matter to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police. I can understand hon. Members’ concerns about the revealing of details of bank accounts, style of signature and verbal passwords and their concern that an individual who may have sold the data is also capable of selling this information further. That is why the police have been informed. I am also writing to the publisher of the newspaper, drawing this fact to their attention and reminding them of the serious security implications if personal data that might expose Members and others to risks to their safety were to be published. The letter will be copied to all national newspapers.

I turn to the matter of what action on publication, originally scheduled for July, should now be taken, I can tell the House that the House of Commons Commission will be meeting this evening to give this matter its immediate attention.

Order. I will take some points of order, but I remind Members that I cannot reveal every piece of information, or every action that the Commission and Officers of the House will take.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I say something of a more positive nature about this matter? I was pleased to see that, in publishing some of the material, The Daily Telegraph has been careful to black out such information as Members’ home addresses. That is reassuring given that The Sunday Telegraph has been the newspaper that has been arguing for so long that Members’ private home addresses should be published to all and sundry. I have communicated with the editors’ office of The Daily Telegraph and I have their permission to say what their position is on this. I have just received the following from the consulting editor, Mr. Wynn Davies, who says:

“We have taken exceptional steps to ensure that home addresses, private telephone numbers, bank account details, signatures and so forth are not published…We have responsibly withheld such information so far and you may rest assured we shall continue to do so.”

Would it be possible, Mr. Speaker, for you to consider making public the advice that this House received from the security advisor to Parliament as to what bits of data really must be withheld under such circumstances? For example, while withholding addresses, they have released the tradesmen’s details.

I cannot discuss security matters on the Floor of this House, but I have heard what the hon. Member has to say, as has every other hon. Member.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order to point out that many of us—I hope from all parts of the House—feel that bringing in the Metropolitan police, who have a huge job to do in London at the moment in dealing with all sorts of problems, to try to find out who has leaked something, when, as has been pointed out, the newspapers have handled the personal details very responsibly by blanking them out, is an awful waste of resources? Will the public not see this, whatever the intention, as a way of hiding—

Let me answer the hon. Lady. I listen to her often when I turn on the television at midnight, and I hear her public utterances and pearls of wisdom on Sky News—it is easy to talk then. Let me put this to the hon. Lady and to every hon. Member in this House: is it the case than an employee of this House should be able to hand over any private data to any organisation of his or her choosing? The allegations—I emphasise that they are allegations—are that that information was handed over to a third party in order to find the highest bidder for private information. If I do not ask, or rather if the Clerk of the House does not ask, for the police to be brought in, we are saying that that employee should be left in situ with all the personal information of every hon. Member, including the hon. Lady’s own information and that of her employees. Let me say that anyone who has looked at their own un-redacted information can see that the signatures of employees are exposed, that private ex-directory numbers are exposed and that passwords—telephone passwords—are exposed. I just say to the hon. Lady that it is easy to say to the press, “This should not happen,” but it is a wee bit more difficult when you have to do more than just give quotes to the Express—or the press, rather—and do nothing else; some of us in this House have other responsibilities, other than just talking to the press.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am all in favour of owning up and apologising when we are in the wrong, but would it be in order to inquire whether the House authorities should be a little more robust in responding to the many falsehoods that have been written about our use of the allowances? On 4 April, a Mr. Ian Cowie wrote an article in the financial section of The Daily Telegraph in which he falsely suggested that we were all pocketing the office costs allowance, that we are subject to special tax treatment and that, on average, each of us owes the Inland Revenue £54,000 in tax a year. He elaborated on this thesis over more than two pages, he has repeated the claim on other occasions and other newspapers have made similar allegations. After Mr. Cowie’s article appeared, I contacted a senior official of the House and suggested that he issue a rebuttal, only to be told that it is not your policy to respond to falsehoods of this nature. Is that the case, Mr. Speaker? If so, would you reconsider, because we are in a climate now where any nonsense can be written about anybody, and it is dragging us all down?

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that I will make sure that that matter, and how these things can be rebutted, is raised at the Commission’s meeting this evening.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you, as part of a clarification of your statement, indicate whether the House of Commons Commission will tonight be considering the early release of all information, which I believe to be in all Members’ interests, as opposed to dragging this matter out until July? And will—

Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I did say that in the statement? Perhaps he was reading the statement. Another individual Member who is keen to say to the press whatever the press want to hear has said that the House of Commons Commission has done nothing. Just remember that it was less than a year ago—on 3 July—that the House of Commons Commission put a report before this House, in which some of the problems that we have got today were examined and rejected, so it is wrong for him to say that the House of Commons has done nothing, but I answered his point in my statement in any case.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the Commission is looking at the possible earlier release of the information, can I be assured that we will all keep our heads and recognise that at present hon. Members are going through many thousands of sheets of paper? I have today sent to the Fees Office many sheets, asking for corrections which consist of nothing more esoteric than the removal of a credit card number or private individuals’ names and addresses, making it clear where something has not been claimed. I have done that today. If that is multiplied across the House, there is a huge task. May I ask that we keep our heads and not be driven by what is happening?

I say to the right hon. Lady that I am very aware that at present hon. Members are looking at the information that is on those documents, and they have a right to protect not only themselves, but their staff and their families. Matters such as bank accounts and cheques have sometimes been involved, and those items been replicated in the so-called disk that is doing the rounds.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 3 July last year the House unanimously passed a resolution relating to capital gains tax and second homes. Will the Commission tonight be looking at what has happened to enact that resolution?

On a point of order on another matter, Mr. Speaker. Yet again, the centre of our capital city has been brought to a standstill—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Deplorable though it is that private information relating to hon. Members and our staff has been offered as a leak or possibly for sale to members of the press, we clearly cannot blame the media for the situation in which we find ourselves. I wonder whether, when the House of Commons Commission meets this evening, you would consider adding to what you are already doing a rather different approach. Because it is the public who elect us and pay for us, would you and the Commission consider establishing citizens juries, as they are called, perhaps one for each region, to consider the matter both of our salaries and of—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I clear up a different point that emerges from your statement? It has been suggested in some quarters that the use of an outside body to check the receipts and the auditing, which seems to me a desirable thing, would in some way exempt those from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. My assumption is that that is simply not the case. Have you been advised accordingly, and can you confirm that?

There is no intention that any action that we take will, inadvertently or otherwise, allow the freedom of information to be restricted. I hope that is of help to the right hon. Gentleman.

I move on. Does the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) now wish to raise a point of order?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yet again, our capital city has been brought to a standstill by a bunch of demonstrators who have, in effect, occupied Parliament square for about six weeks. I have raised the matter with you before. Although it is true that Members have had access, albeit not to the main entrance of the House—we have had restricted access—there are nevertheless hundreds of thousands of people out there going about their business, who have had their business lives and their personal lives disrupted by the demonstration, at enormous cost to them and their businesses, as well as inconvenience. I know that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has had added to his list of things to do that which you asked him over the weekend to do, but I have raised the matter with you before. It is surely unacceptable that these people should be allowed to take over Parliament square and disrupt the entire centre of our capital city. I wonder what on earth the Metropolitan Police Commissioner is doing about it, bearing in mind that every police officer to whom I have spoken has made it clear to me that it is his view that the Commissioner will take no action, because after the G20 they are completely frit of doing anything for fear of ending up in court themselves.

If hon. Members allow me to answer, perhaps they will not need to make their points.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the case that the hon. Gentleman makes. Perhaps later on this week I will make a statement after I have brought people into the House to try to resolve the matter. Many of us were involved in demonstrations before we came into the House, because demonstrating is part of a democracy, but we would have those demonstrations and then leave. No one has ever expected a demonstration to hijack Parliament square and the roads, and thereby stop others performing their democratic duties. I will be able to give the hon. Gentleman more information later in the week.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am pleased by what you have just said, but will you assure us that demonstrations and the right to demonstrate will not be impeded? Could we all not have some sympathy for the Tamil people out there who are desperate to do something to achieve safety for their families back home? Can we not recognise, at a human level, that people want their voice to be heard and for this House and our Government to do what they can to bring about a ceasefire in Sri Lanka?

I can understand that people have issues on which they wish to be heard, but to hijack an important part of this city—with hunger strikers, tents and food stalls, but no toilet facilities—is not the proper way to conduct a demonstration. I will say something further on the situation later this week.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you have your discussions later this week, will you please discuss with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner the advisability of bringing in an implement that would be used in virtually every other capital city—the water cannon?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your advice, because I was personally involved in Parliament square this morning? I was coming in by car and I was almost at Chancellor’s Gate when the Tamil demonstrators burst out of Parliament square and occupied the road. I was delayed in attending a meeting in the House. Indeed, I was held up for an hour and 10 minutes, until the police were able to sort out the traffic. Is it not the case that Members of Parliament and those associated with the House should have unimpeded access, and the police and the authorities should seek to guarantee that?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not condone people going on to the streets, but I wish to place it on record that I know for a certain fact that the demonstration in the square was applied for lawfully and granted permission for at least the last four weeks, and it will be able to continue lawfully for some weeks to come. I hope that colleagues will understand that there are laws, passed by this House, governing these matters, and the applicants for the demonstration have complied with those laws.

I know that I might be in a bit of a bad mood today, but let me say that when authorisation is given for 50 people to demonstrate, it means 50 people. It does not mean tents or food stalls, or texts being sent to supporters to tell them to bring little children along. That is not part of the authorisation of the demonstration. As a former trade union officer, I know that when somebody co-operates with the authorities to obtain permission for a demonstration, they comply with the rules that they lay down. No one can say that that happened in this case.

Let me add a further thing, because it relates to what Sir Nicholas has said. People, including me, who have had to drive around the square have been put into a dangerous situation—the roads have been blocked off, because police officers have had to put their vans in the filter lane. So when anyone tells me that permission was given, I say that it was given for a limited number of people, not a mob.

Order. I think that we must move on. We have got something called the main business, and we had better get that dealt with.

Equality Bill

[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.]

Second Reading

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.

I am going to press on.

We really must make the most of every individual’s talents and potential, whatever their age, sex or race—[Interruption.]

Order. Let the Leader of the House speak for a while. Perhaps then she will take interventions.

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—

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving way. I think that there have been 15 attempts at an intervention since the last time she gave way, when she gave way on the 36th attempt, so perhaps she—

Order. The Leader of the House has given way now, so let us hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

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.

Does the Leader of the House agree that, although tremendous progress has been made through all-women shortlists, we have some work to do in Scotland, where we have fallen behind as a party? Things could do with much improvement.

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.

I am about to address the question of breastfeeding. Would the hon. Gentleman like to intervene on that point?

Okay.

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.

The one thing that the Tories were able to do in all their years in government was to pick up the proposals that my right hon. Friend made on disability discrimination, so I am grateful to be able to allow him to intervene.

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.

Does the right hon. Lady not think that the simplification of the legislation is precisely what we need at this time, as was so visually illustrated by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister in her opening statement?

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.