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Lynne Featherstone: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We Liberal Democrats are trying hard to support the measures in the Bill, but it is hard to see the legislation going through its stages without the detail that we need to be sure that we are doing the right thing. These are uncertain political times, and it causes
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me concern that future Ministers might be anti-equality. Powers left to a Minister in future will be powers for a Minister to undo what has been done today, if they should, by any chance, not share an equal conviction in the equality legislation.

Socio-economic inequality is the deepest and most intractable inequality. That is the one into which we are born, and we have very little chance of changing that. The Liberal Democrats have long argued, in this Chamber and elsewhere, that poverty and inequality are intrinsically linked. In nearly three decades of Thatcherite and new Labour Governments, Britain has steadily become a less equal and less fair society. Under this Labour Government, rates of social mobility have fallen. A person born into a poor family now is more likely to remain poor throughout their adult life than a person born 30 years ago. Educational chances are almost entirely correlated to social class, which means that children’s prospects are set before they even reach school.

The equality gap has widened, and as Ms Polly Toynbee wrote last week:

Even more importantly, in the five years before the crash, average incomes barely changed, and the poor became poorer. Inequality is at its highest level since records began—and that is under a Labour Government. The Government should have introduced measures to tackle stubborn, worsening inequality 10 years ago, and they should not have done so in a last-minute, throwaway clause, even though it has been put at the start of the Bill. It muddies the water; it has been jumbled into a Bill that was intended to unify, clarify and strengthen existing legislation.

The Government should have made legislative proposals to tackle socio-economic inequality in a Bill of its own, given the vital importance of narrowing the equality gap. It is the right aim, but the wrong vehicle and the wrong means. It is just a very weak measure. In some ways, the proposal in the Bill is no different from saying that when our taxes are spent by public bodies, those bodies should bear in mind whether they are damaging our environment in how they spend those taxes. It makes sense to think about the wider implications of how money should be spent. If we can use it to address and tackle more than one issue, and to achieve more than one goal, that is even better news, as it is more value for money in cash-strapped times, but the way in which the duty is laid out in the Bill is, I fear, simplistic and unfair. Its wording is broad enough to attract controversy, worry, and legal argument, but too weak to have much of a real impact or really address the equality gap, which is widening and damaging to all of us. That is the worst of all words.

I cannot express how disappointed I am with the Government’s overly patient approach to equal pay for women. I know that their heart is in the right place, but the idea that business is to be given another four years in which to change its ways is a cop-out. It would seem that the Minister for Women and Equality has forgotten that businesses were given five years to get their house in order after the original Equal Pay Act of 1970. Forty years later, we are about to repeat that same error. How much time do businesses need to get their house in
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order? I am sorry that the Government have backed away from mandatory pay audits. What the Government propose is not a pay audit at all, but simply a statement of average pay by gender, without any context to make it truly meaningful. My goodness, the Government clearly understand the benefits of openness and transparency, because they rightly seek to end the mystery that shrouds pay by prohibiting firms from issuing gagging orders that require a vow of silence from their staff. However, they fall short of requiring a real pay audit that would evaluate the quality and nature of the work being done and then be published.

Recently, off the back of a publication about pay at the university of Cambridge, I noticed an unhealthy preponderance of men at the top of the scales and women at the bottom. I referred the issue to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and blogged about it, and two very concerned gentleman from the university’s external relations department rushed down to Parliament to meet me and inform me of all that they were going to do to deal with that glaring challenge—exposed by meaningful figures that they had had to publish. That is the point: what is exposed to public scrutiny will concentrate the mind. The main benefit of such an audit, however, is that it becomes a tool for the individual who has no idea what the pay scales are and who gets what. In seeing what is what, the individual will be able to decide whether she or he is being discriminated against, and they will have the evidence and knowledge to take their case forward.

Conservative Members discussed the knock-on effect on a whole company, but how will an individual take forward a case to be examined by a tribunal in the first place if they do not have the evidence? The Government’s hand may be forced if businesses do not change their ways, but the Bill deals only with those private sector firms that have 250 staff or more, representing 0.5 per cent. of the whole sector. As the Leader of the House pointed out, 80 per cent. of people work in the private sector, so the Bill is unlikely to right many of the wrongs ensuring that, economically, women continue to be second-class citizens.

Moreover, the Government’s plan seems to require the Equality and Human Rights Commission to spend the summer consulting various bodies, but it is a bit rich for the commission to consider it after legislation has gone through the House, because we will have no idea of the extent of the measure. We are also disappointed that, on legal protection against pay discrimination, the Government have not introduced hypothetical comparators for equal pay claims, because that continues the disparity between the way in which different types of discrimination are dealt with. We will therefore push the Government in Committee to have the courage of their convictions.

Much of the Bill deals with when one is in work, but I am concerned about the discrimination that takes place in respect of applications for work, because, even before the interview stage, there are barriers that eliminate those people from black or ethnic minority communities, women, those with disabilities and older applicants. Applicants must be given an equal chance of employment from the first moment that they apply for a job, whether private or public.

I once had two interns, one whose surname was Patel and one whose surname was Hussein. They were bright, able and talented, but, out of the many jobs that they
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had applied for before they came to work as interns, they had not qualified for a single interview. Obviously, after interning for a while in my office and being able to put on their CV that they had worked for an MP, which is, after all, the point for them, they both went off to good jobs, I am pleased to say—one in public relations and one at the Ministry of Defence. However, the situation got me thinking—it is not rocket science—that they might not have got past that first, application stage because of their surnames.

Nicola Brewer, the outgoing chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, gave voice not long ago to the fact that employers avoid employing women because they wish to avoid becoming liable for maternity benefits. We will table an amendment to introduce a name-blank application that would apply to all written applications to work. Just as children are given an exam number to put on their exam papers so that there is no recognition, prejudice or unfairness, job applicants should be required to submit, for example, only their national insurance number. No one would know whether they were female, male, black, brown, young or old, and that first, possibly subliminal, discard would be eliminated. Obviously, when one reached the interview stage, the employer would know one’s background, but prejudice would be much harder, and personality and character come through at interview in a way that they do not on a piece of paper. I hope that the Government will look favourably on that suggestion. Financially, the cost would be almost nil.

Dr. Evan Harris: My hon. Friend has made a good suggestion, which I hope the Government will take on board. Does she agree that it is far better to explore such ways of solving the problem of discrimination against women than to agree—I do not know whether Ms Brewer was suggesting this—that we should somehow dilute the important benefits attracted in respect of maternity to meet what employers are doing? It is far better to tackle the discrimination than to dilute the benefits that they are concerned about.

Lynne Featherstone: Absolutely. When Ms Brewer made her announcements, I felt that the message was rather along the lines of, “Well we mustn’t do that then. We will have to tone down the magnitude of maternity benefits.” That would be entirely the wrong approach.

While we are on the subject of work applications, a subject already discussed in this debate, I want to mention disability. At present, the onus is on the individual to state whether they have a disability. One hopes that it would not, but that might somehow allow the employer to reject disabled applicants at an early stage. If the employer had to state on a form what sort of disability would be a bar, it could be judged whether that was appropriate and the person concerned would be more likely to get to interview.

Roger Berry: In that context, does the hon. Lady agree that it is simply unacceptable that the Ministry of Defence has an exemption from the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005?

Lynne Featherstone: I agree.

I turn to positive action. It seems completely illogical that we should be allowed to fast-track the training of ethnic minority and women police, but not be allowed
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to fast-track their employment. The rebalancing of the workplace is hugely important, and I do not disagree with the Leader of the House’s vision of the bank boardrooms of the future. When both the genders make a decision, it is likely to be more balanced.

I was chair of transport at the Greater London authority, and I noticed that decisions on budgets were often weighted towards the working world. Although I am a great supporter of Crossrail and I believe that the big infrastructure projects are vital, there was a bit of one type of issue being against another—who had the longest train and the biggest airport, for example, versus travel to school and soft measures on travel planning. The disparity between those budgets was irreconcilable. Both genders need to take part in the decision making so that they can argue the case fully. I look forward to seeing more women in the banks.

Mr. Brady: Is the hon. Lady seriously making the worrying suggestion that if more women were on the boards of the large banks they would make decisions not in the commercial interests of the banks, but on other grounds?

Lynne Featherstone: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but banking is not going so well. If we brought other considerations into the boardroom, we would get better decisions and the country would not be in its current mess.

Mr. Brady: Will the hon. Lady give way again?

Lynne Featherstone: No. The hon. Gentleman made a ridiculous point.

Let us move on to age. Three cheers for what the Government have proposed on age discrimination! I cannot say how glad I am that protection against age discrimination is being extended to goods and services. However, it is unacceptable for the exemptions to be handled through regulation; they should be in the Bill, and fully debated in Parliament. They are an intrinsic part of the package. I have a concern about the start date of the proposals on age discrimination; it is not satisfactory to leave it up to a Minister to decide at a later date when the measures should be introduced. For the avoidance of doubt, we will ask the Government to set a mandatory deadline.

My last point about age discrimination and matters mandatory is that I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government have retained a mandatory retirement age. It seems completely wrong. I am surprised, as it is clearly discriminatory to decide on an arbitrary age as a cut-off. I heard what the Leader of the House said about the default retirement age being on a separate track, but the issue should be included in the Bill.

I want briefly to touch on some of the good things in the Bill. We welcome the inclusion of sex and age in the positive duty. We also welcome what we hope is a move away from treating transsexualism as a medical condition. It is currently labelled gender reassignment under the protected characteristics. For a long time, those in the transgender community have had physically to change gender before qualifying for the same protection as other strands. To date, the transgender spectrum has not really been understood. While we understand the desire for clear definitions in the Bill, many people find
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themselves on that spectrum but do not necessarily want a sex change. This is about people who face discrimination because of how they express their gender but do not fit into neat boxes. As the Bill progresses, we will test the Government on exact definitions, because we are still concerned about the continued, fairly narrow definition whereby transgender is seen as part of a process on the way to a change of gender. That is only a slight advance on where we are now, and we would wish those anywhere on the spectrum to have the full protection of equality under the law.

We are pleased with the Government’s proposals on carers and welcome the enshrining in law of the Coleman case and the protection that that affords. We also welcome the measures on breastfeeding, pregnancy and new mothers. However, there are some missing strands that we will probe in Committee: for example, castes are missing from discrimination protection; and there may be separate issues to do with children.

We have outstanding concerns about the proposed changes to restrictions on who can give blood. Obviously, the safety of the blood supply is paramount. However, prohibiting homosexuals as a group from giving blood, as has been the case, bears close examination. It is, without a doubt, discrimination to say, in blanket terms, that all homosexuals should not give blood because they pose such a tremendous risk. Surely we need some sort of risk-based system that assesses the risk posed by an individual, given that there will be overactive heterosexuals who practise unsafe sex and abstinent homosexuals.

Liberal Democrat Members understand the Government’s motives in including religion and belief under the positive duty for equality. However, given the arduous and extensive arguments on the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill—on which the Government, I hate to remind them, were defeated—we hold to the view that religion and belief should not be a protected characteristic. Of course, we all believe that people should not face discrimination in their work because of their religion, and subscribe to promoting good relations to advance equality of opportunity and eliminate discrimination. However, religious views on matters such as abortion, alcohol, homosexuality and sex education in schools are varied and often at odds, and it would be absurd to require public authorities to accommodate all those views in public policies that affect us all. We are also worried that if exceptions for religious organisations in employment are too broad, there will be abuse of that protection. It is obviously acceptable to discriminate in some circumstances, such as advertising for a Catholic to fill the job of a Catholic priest—that makes complete theological sense—but it would be unacceptable if we then found it specified that only a Catholic caretaker could work in a religious school. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) will spend many hours in Committee happily arguing our case, particularly in relation to harassment, where there is a balance to be struck between protection from harassment and free speech.

We are somewhat disappointed that the Bill proposes to continue the medical model of defining disability and that greater consideration has not been given to the social model. We also believe that there is a lack of
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clarity about the extension to the reasonable adjustment requirement for common areas in rented accommodation. Is that proposal workable? Where liability for costs is shared, who will bear those costs? Such details matter if a Bill is not to come into disrepute. The intention is very good, but the proposal has to work.

We welcome the correction of judgments that have seriously undermined protection from disability discrimination, but we are seriously concerned that the remedy proposed in the Bill will not undo the Malcolm case. I shall pursue that issue in detail in Committee.

I draw my remarks to a close by saying that the Liberal Democrats will challenge, and seek to improve, what is on offer in the Bill. It would be easy to knock the proposed measures, as we heard to some degree from the Conservatives. However, legislation in the equalities field has been the advance guard of change.

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): Absolutely right. We have to change the culture.

Lynne Featherstone: Absolutely, and the Bill is an important foot solider in that regard. It sends out a clear and determined message about how the world will have to change. However, legislation must will the means, not just the ends, and we have to ensure that what we put down in law is matched by the will and resources to ensure its delivery. That will come into play when procurement is considered. Equality has advanced, but there is still a long way to go. If we do not continue to advance the cause and deliver a much fairer and more equal world, the cost to us as individuals and collectively as a country will be huge. A fairer and more equal world will mean that all of us fare much better, and I look forward to the battles ahead.

5.41 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this very important debate.

I know that we have all been waiting for a long time for the Bill to come to the House, and I strongly welcome it. It is a flagship Bill that will affect everybody in the country in some way or other. We all know that unequal societies are unhappy societies, and the Bill represents a great effort to address the discrimination and the barriers that exist throughout the UK. I congratulate the Government on getting it to Second Reading, and I totally support the direction in which they are going.

The Bill is the culmination of many years of hard work and struggle by many different movements. The women’s movement, the movement of disabled people fighting for their rights and many others throughout the country have fought for such a Bill for many years. The test will be in making the words on the page become reality, but the right words mean that we are getting there.

I am absolutely amazed that the Opposition are voting against the Bill and have tabled their amendment. I am surprised that they wish to send the message that they are sending against equality measures.

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