Previous Section Index Home Page

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): 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
11 May 2009 : Column 561
about the pension age, but pending that decision, can they be assured that they will be looked after and not indirectly discriminated against?

Ms Harman: 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.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab) rose—

Ms Harman: 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.

Mr. Clarke: 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?

Ms Harman: 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.

Lynne Jones: 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
11 May 2009 : Column 562
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.

Ms Harman: 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.

Lynne Jones: Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way to allow me to make some further points?

Ms Harman: I shall press on and then come back to my hon. Friend in a moment.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): 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?

Ms Harman: I think that such discrimination is already outwith the law.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): 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?

Ms Harman: 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
11 May 2009 : Column 563
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.

Ms Abbott: Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way on that point?

Ms Harman: 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.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): 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?

Ms Harman: 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.


11 May 2009 : Column 564

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.

4.30 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I beg to move,

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 déj 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.


11 May 2009 : Column 566

Linda Gilroy: 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?

Mrs. May: 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.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): I apologise that I, too, missed the third paragraph of the right hon. Lady’s speech. I also apologise to the House, as I meant to be here earlier. However, I am confused about whether the right hon. Lady is going to support the Bill’s Second Reading or not.

Mrs. May: Perhaps the hon. Lady’s late arrival in the Chamber means that she has not read the Order Paper. I suggest that she do so.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab) rose—

Mrs. May: I will give way for a third time, then I must make some progress.

Roger Berry: I have read the Order Paper, and I note that the Opposition’s amendment

All the organisations that have contacted me about the Bill want to do the opposite. Could you tell me how many organisations have contacted you to say—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I think the hon. Gentleman now recognises the mistake that he has made.

Roger Berry: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would the right hon. Lady care to name the organisations that have contacted her to urge that hon. Members should decline to give the Bill a Second Reading?

Mrs. May: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to listen to my speech; he will then learn exactly what our concerns about the Bill are. They are concerns that have been expressed outside the House. Indeed, if he was listening to earlier interventions, he will know that a Labour Member raised a concern about the Bill from an external organisation, and I will come to that later.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: No; I did say that I wanted to make some progress.


Next Section Index Home Page