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Mr. Burstow: Some Members will be disappointed to hear that goods and services are not to be included in the process at an early stage—not least because the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 offers such a good template. Will the Minister tell us why the EU directive requires delivery of legislation in respect of sexual orientation and religion by 2004, but age by 2006? Would it not make more sense to introduce the provisions at the same time, so that Parliament could debate a comprehensive measure in the round, thereby addressing all the issues—including goods and services—sooner rather than later?

Alan Johnson: The date for the other two issues is 2003, not 2004. The feeling was that age discrimination is particularly difficult to deal with—indeed, we are further behind in relation to age than in relation to the other areas. That is one of the essential points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne, which I shall come on later, and it is the reason for the different time scale. I shall deal with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes in a second.

In our view, the problems that I have outlined reinforce the importance of focusing first on getting things right in relation to employment and building firm understanding and support for the necessary changes. Of course, hon. Members and others will say that legislation should be all-embracing in its scope and that having to wait until 2006 is too long. The Americans, for example, have had their Age Discrimination in Employment Act since 1967, with subsequent laws extending and amending the scope of the legislation. However, even now, US federal law does not extend to goods and services.

Although the American experience can provide us with useful lessons, experience from abroad also suggests that there are no easy off-the-peg solutions. The path to legislation, and the legislation itself, differs from country to country. Overseas experience suggests that age

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discrimination law evolves over time. Another clear message from overseas is that solutions that fit particular experiences need to be found. That view is reflected in the EU directive. Recital 25 of the directive refers to the fact that provisions on age discrimination may vary in accordance with the situation in member states, and that is our view.

This is a complicated issue and we need to get it right. As I have already said, we have to tackle hearts and minds while developing proposals for legislation. It is not a question of persuasion or legislation; an effective strategy requires both. That is why we propose to consult widely, and why we aim to raise awareness and promote understanding of the issues throughout the period leading up to implementation.

As a first step, therefore, we shall shortly launch a consultation on how discrimination in the workplace on grounds of age, religion and sexual orientation can be made unlawful. The current plan is to publish the consultation document on 13 December—just a few weeks away. Those involved in that consultation will consider whether goods and services should be covered and whether we should have a separate age commission. We shall seek the views of employers, employees, organisations and expert groups.

We do not expect to resolve everything to do with age all in one go. The difficulties and questions that we have to consider—for example, redundancy, recruitment, promotion, training and retirement—cannot be resolved quickly. We shall, therefore, consult again on further age proposals next year, when we have evaluated the responses to the first consultation.

Of course, we have already had the benefit of the age advisory group's valuable expertise. The group includes representatives from industry, unions, employers organisations and key interested parties. I cannot mention them all, but they include the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, Age Concern, the Institute of Management, the Employers Forum on Age and the Society of Chief Personnel Officers.

Mr. Burstow rose

Alan Johnson: Let me turn now to the issue at the heart of the debate: the provision of advice and support on age discrimination and the proposal to establish a new equality commission to help tackle age discrimination. That might cover the point about which the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene.

As we implement the directive, we shall certainly need to consider how advice, support, and guidance in respect of all three new equality strands—religion and sexual orientation, as well as age—should be delivered to those who need it. It will have to be delivered in a way that people find easy to use; it has to be accessible and coherent.

The Government accept that age is behind the starting line in respect of measures that already tackle discrimination. In respect of race, sex and disability, we have the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equality Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission, which perform a key role in the provision of advice and support. It does not follow, however, that—as we introduce new laws giving protection from discrimination on the three new grounds of age, religion

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and sexual orientation—we should set up another three commissions, making six in all. That is an option, which has been powerfully argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne, but it is not the only one.

The EU employment directive does not require new commissions for any of the new grounds. We will need to weigh the merits of calls for a single commission to cover all grounds of discrimination, as in the United States where the enforcement of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act rests with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Rev. Martin Smyth rose

Alan Johnson: This might be a good time for the hon. Gentleman to intervene, because we can also learn from our experience of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. That single body was created to exercise functions formerly carried out by three commission bodies and the Northern Ireland Disability Council.

Rev. Martin Smyth: What evaluation is now taking place of the outworking of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland? Even though it may have different offices dealing with different aspects, it is much more reasonable to have just the one commission.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We shall use that pertinent example in our deliberations.

A single commission could provide a number of benefits. It would be a single point of contact for employers and employees as well as for members of the public. It would be also able to tackle multiple discrimination such as might have been experienced by an elderly black women or a disabled young man. It would help to create cohesion and aid compliance with co-ordinated enforcement action across all areas of discrimination and it could provide a more effective use of resources and expertise.

As the debate has demonstrated, however, the arguments are not one-sided. To what areas of discrimination should a single commission give priority? For example, those such as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne and others who want an age commission would argue that a single commission would lose focus, with age being only one of a number of issues that a commission would tackle. We could also argue that the Disability Rights Commission is bedding down and that it is the wrong time to include it in an overall commission. We recognise those finely balanced arguments. That is why we want to consult.

Although I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend and the age lobby, it would not be right for us to commit to an age commission now and in isolation. We are just about to embark on a major consultation exercise on the implementation of new legislation. We need first to examine the requirements of all equality grounds in the round and to consult widely and to come up with proposals in the light of that consultation. That does not rule out special arrangements for age. We recognise that special factors are unique to this particular strand, but the decision should not be taken at this time and with sole reference to the issues surrounding age discrimination.

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The Government do not want the Bill to go to Committee because we cannot commit ourselves to establishing an age commission—let alone one that does not cover young cover people in the way that we are obliged to by the European directive—or any other arrangements for commissions until full and proper consultation has been carried out and all the options have been considered in the round.

Our age discrimination legislation, which will be developed in consultation with all the interested parties, will cover people in employment and training—young and old. We shall take into account the views expressed in the debate and we shall continue to consult and listen to what organisations, such as Age Concern, the TUC, the CBI and others, say about the commissions.

The age advisory committee will also have a role. The Government cannot, however, make a commitment to establish an age commission or provide other arrangements for commissions at this stage. I hope that on the basis of my remarks my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne will withdraw the motion and focus her considerable expertise and strong and passionate advocacy on the consultation that is due to commence within the next few weeks.

1.35 pm

Ms Atherton: With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the debate, which has been excellent.

I welcome the support that the Bill has received from hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is clear that there is much support for action to be taken and I thank hon. Members for contributing to the debate. I also thank the Minister for the powerful case that he made on why I should not proceed with the Bill. I am pleased that the Government are making strides forward and I urge further strides in the future. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

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