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Lord Whitty: My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey promised us a galaxy of talent from outside and within this House, and we have certainly seen a range of support for the amendment from the two Front Benches, from London government, from the noble Lord, Lord Archer, and from one of our representatives for London in yet another place, in Strasbourg. I take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford.
Indeed, the Government and I have considerable sympathy with the proposal. The Government's commitment to this issue was clearly indicated in the White Paper. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, it is clear that we are pursuing social development in a population which has the most diverse ethnic and religious base of any city in Europe. London probably has the largest gay community in Britain and a large number of elderly and disabled people. Furthermore, a majority of women are still subject to a fair degree of discrimination in the capital, as elsewhere. Unless "social development" included a serious degree of commitment to the promotion of equal opportunities between all those groups, the term would be meaningless. It is also true that the way in which we pursue the other principal objectives on the environment and the economy must be non-discriminatory and promote measures which avoid discrimination.
In electoral and organisational structure and in its purposes, the Government intend the Greater London Authority to tackle discrimination and to take steps to avoid discriminatory action within the capital. We cannot escape that responsibility under the Bill as drafted, even if any mayor or assembly wished to do so. It is also true that the authority as described within the Bill is subject not only to the existing Race Relations Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act, but would be equally subject to any revised form of them.
Much of the Government's commitment to the social development purpose of the Bill includes the promotion of equal opportunities. However, there is a wide range of views in the Committee, and outside, which we need to take into account. I say at this stage that we need to
Lord Renton: Before the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, replies--and I make a serious point--will the Minister explain how he would eliminate unjustifiable discrimination with regard to age? In many situations, it is assumed that age gives rise to certain rights--pensions and so forth--and there is no legislation which grants people of any age, however doddery they may be, the same rights as those who are in the prime of life. Will the Minister explain how that should be dealt with or whether it should be omitted?
Lord Whitty: As we envisaged the purpose in the general drafting of the Bill, the social development dimension would involve tackling abuses against sections of the population, whatever their age. Therefore, if elderly elements of the population were being discriminated against in a certain way--for example, with regard to access to services--it would be the job of the authority to take action, or to facilitate action, to tackle that.
That is one of the reasons why one needs to look at the drafting of the new clause. Clearly, in custom and practice, there are a number of discriminations by age which, by and large, the population regard as justifiable. The terminology used by my noble friend Lord Harris is "unjustifiable discrimination" and that would require a degree of definition. Perhaps, therefore, it is for my noble friend to reply to the noble Lord's point at this stage. Nevertheless, there is an issue of age discrimination in the capital which we would expect the authority to address in the context of social development.
There are three points. First, existing legislation is already being questioned by the various equality organisations which deal with the mechanisms and the form of the law. Therefore, this is not the right place to rely on existing legislation. I am sure that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House would make a contribution on this issue, were she present, because she is the lead Member of the Government on gender equality.
Secondly, the advantage of such a clause is that it will encourage a wider application of equal opportunity. It suggests, for example, that the main lines of policy which the new authority will undertake should be tested for their equality aspects before they are put into action. That is a most valuable provision. The Minister is probably familiar with the word "mainstream", which is
Thirdly, we have discussed how to put equal access to transport into the Bill. A clause such as this right at the beginning of the most important part of the Bill would eliminate the need to say, "And this, and that" as every clause trickles through. The provision would be written into the duties of the Greater London Authority before we begin describing them in detail. I was delighted to hear the Minister's response to the noble Lord, Lord Harris--a well deserved response--and I hope that he will also bear those points in mind.
Lord Tope: I follow my noble friend in giving a slightly more qualified welcome to the Minister's response, partly because, with respect, I have heard it before from his honourable friend in another place, although I do not for one moment doubt the sincerity with which it was said.
The Minister recognised that support for the intentions behind the amendment has come from all sides of the Committee, from both Front Benches, and I am sure--and I mean that--that he recognises the seriousness of that.
However, I am aware that the Government have been considering the matter for some time. They are aware that it is serious and is likely to become one of the major issues during the progress of the Bill through your Lordships' House. I have said privately to the Minister, Mr Raynsford, and I repeat it here, that I should be surprised were the Bill not to leave this Chamber with some provision to cover the intentions behind the amendment. Therefore, I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to bringing back their own amendment on Report or perhaps, if they feel it appropriate, at a later part of the Committee stage.
It seems that the Minister is not able to give us a rather firmer commitment that the Government will do that. Therefore, I ask that they do not wait until Report stage, which is likely to be in the autumn, before signalling their intention to do so. By then, I believe that people will be very much more concerned that, while recognising the anxieties and listening to what is being said, the Government are not hearing what is being said and, more important, are not acting on what is said.
I hope that at an early stage the Government will give a firm commitment which will ensure that the Bill meets the intentions of the amendment, which has received such widespread support this evening.
In conclusion, I did not join in the earlier debate because all the points were made very well by other noble Lords in support of the amendment. I wish to respond briefly to one comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, who said that she suspected or feared that that may be intended as a way of either getting rid of or getting round Section 28 of the Local Government Act which relates to the so-called promotion of homosexuality. I hope that the Minister will confirm to the Committee that not only is that not
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: The noble Lord has raised that matter and that causes us to think about the wider issues. I mentioned it in passing when I said that I hoped that that was not to be the case, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has raised it as a major issue which would be of interest to the majority of the Members of this Chamber.
As an immigrant, I served on a local racial equality board for seven or eight years. No one is more in favour of opportunities for everyone in this country than I am. This country has been very good to me. However, if the Government bring forward an amendment, it is important that the wording should be considered carefully. What has been said here this evening should be taken on board and reflected in the Government's thinking. I object to the word "promoting" because I believe that it indicates positive discrimination and pushes those matters to an unfair degree.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, has said that no one is satisfied in those, let us call them, "industries" in relation to sex discrimination and that they are all unhappy about it. If that is so and our present laws on racial and sex discrimination are not adequate, the Government should be looking at them and perhaps revising them. However, I believe that it would be artificial to use this Bill as a back-door means of dealing with those issues. Therefore, I hope that the principle of the amendment will be incorporated in a diplomatic way which will be acceptable and allow sufficient flexibility for us all to be able to accept it.
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