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6 Mar 2003 : Column 1020—continued

4.36 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): It is a great pleasure, as it always is, to participate in a debate that is dominated by women. I want to start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women, who is a great role model for us—not just in her role as Minister for Women, to which she has brought a great deal of

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enthusiasm and energy, but by being the head of a substantial Government Department. As she said, only 18 women have found themselves in that position.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who spoke for the Conservatives, is also a role model, for her party, although her role may not be as appreciated as that of the Minister. All the women here today have, undoubtedly, been important in our society by becoming MPs and contributing as they have done.

The international dimension to this debate has been striking and appropriate—it is, after all, international women's day. In the past year, I have spoken on international issues more frequently than on other issues. I will therefore touch on them only briefly today. My right hon. Friend on the Front Bench referred to the Minister in Afghanistan who is responsible for women's affairs, Habiba Sorabi. I too have spent quite some time with Habiba and her colleagues. I was in Kabul but a few months ago. I urge my right hon. Friend that she and her colleagues should fund directly some of the projects that the women's ministry in Afghanistan has identified as essential if there is to be income generation for the women of Afghanistan, and the reconstruction of the country.

I can confirm all that was said by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) about continuing injustices and the way in which women are constantly discriminated against and harassed. Outside the capital Kabul, there is no security for women or men, although women are especially affected—Afghan women and the many international aid workers who strive to serve them. In the past year, funds from the international community for the reconstruction of Afghanistan have been equivalent to but two thirds of the funds that this country alone has set aside for the war in Iraq. Much more needs to be done, particularly if we are to use Afghanistan's reconstruction as a model for the post-conflict situation in Iraq. My sympathies and sentiments on Iraq are very much like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), so I shall say no more about that.

I wish to speak about the wider equality agenda in this country, about the legal structures and about the way in which our laws are supervised by the existing equality commissions. The Government have a long list of achievements in extending equalities. I will not list them all, but they include the equalisation of the age of consent, the setting up of the Disability Rights Commission, the extension of the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976 to introduce a duty on public bodies to promote race equality, the extended protection against discrimination in employment on the ground of sexual orientation, religion, belief and age, on which consultation is currently taking place, the consultation on the future of the statutory equality commissions, and much more.

All these issues significantly affect women. It would be churlish to suggest that we want much more, but this is a case of where more is less. At present, the equality commissions are made up of the Equal Opportunities Commission that deals with women, the Commission for Racial Equality which covers race, and the Disability Rights Commission, which is rather new. In considering

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how we supervise the new equality provisions that will be introduced for faith and other issues, we should examine the strong case for having a single equality Act rather than building on the diverse provisions that exist today.

The Government have recognised that, in needing to comply with the European Union directive on sexuality, age and religion by 2006, they have to consider whether they should set up three new commissions that would act in parallel with the existing three commissions or whether they should create a new single equality body. The consultation undertaken by my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women has resulted in many contributions, not least those from the Women's National Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission and other bodies.

My initial position was one of concern at—indeed, probable opposition to—the idea of a single commission. Like many women and the partner organisations of the WNC, I believed that there was a real danger that a single equality body might result in the position of women not being recognised in the way that it is through the EOC. The EOC has done fantastic work over the years but, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women pointed out, huge gaps remain despite the fact that we have had equality laws for 30 years. The pay gap itself is testament to the fact that, even with the EOC, we have not been able to achieve all that we might. It is not as though we have got it and can therefore move on. We still have an enormous amount to do.

Women form a majority in this country. Minority groups face specific and different types of discrimination, but women suffer systemic discrimination arising from gendered roles, a gendered labour market and gendered wealth. A different approach is therefore needed to dealing with a majority and such conditions from one dealing with minority discriminations. I have always found it odd that the budget of the CRE is two and a half times that of the EOC.

There is concern that, in a single equality body, women might be marginalised and that there would be a hierarchy of disadvantage, to the detriment of women. That is of particular concern because the EOC recently became reinvigorated and more visible. The consultation undertaken by the WNC, a body charged with bringing women's views to the attention of the Government, has not been concluded, but I know from its discussions with women's groups that there is great concern among women's organisations that a single equality body may not be the way forward. However, the EOC is now on record as supporting a single equality body, and I have to remain open to persuasion; but as I said at the outset, only with a single equality Act can we properly underpin the work of a single equality body.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is not persuaded that a single equality Act is necessary, but if there is a logic in bringing together in a single body the existing work of the commissions and adding to it the new discriminations that have to be addressed, there must be a similar logic in bringing together the body of existing law and the new laws that have to be put in place. I stress that I do not argue simply for consolidation, however. At present, equal rights are stronger for some groups than for others. Devolution has created additional anomalies. The Scottish

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Parliament and Executive have a power to promote equality. In Wales, as part of the Government of Wales Act 1998, equality is represented as an absolute duty. A single equality body already exists in Northern Ireland. While the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended, UK Ministers are developing a single equality Bill for Northern Ireland.

Any planned legislation on religion, sexual orientation or age is only linked to employment. The protection against discrimination in goods and services will not be extended to those groups. To do so would require the Government to introduce primary legislation, but the plan is to create the new rights in regulation. That is unsatisfactory, and I urge my hon. Friend and her colleagues to consider what Lord Lester has proposed in the other place. In introducing his Equality Bill last Friday, he set out the consequences of not having primary legislation in the form of a single equality Act. Lord Lester said:

those people will mostly be women—

I appreciate that my hon. Friend has been considering those matters for much longer than I have, and I am sure that she will get a consensus on developing a single equality body, but I will be surprised if that consensus does not also call for an underpinning of a single equality body with a single equality Act.

The Equal Opportunities Commission issued a press release in which it welcomed various aspects of Lord Lester's Equality Bill, including the fact that it is

The EOC went on to welcome


I wholeheartedly endorse the view of the EOC. Again, I ask my hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women to follow matters in the other place with care. We will need to adopt such a single equality Bill, and it would be appropriate for the Government to introduce it, rather than a private Member.

Between 1997 and 1998 my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham, now the Solicitor-General, and I served in the Government as Ministers for Women. We put in place much of the machinery that has underpinned the equalities work of the Government. I take this opportunity to seek from my hon. Friend the assurance that whatever development there is in terms of a single equality body, the women and equality unit of Government will remain in place. It will undoubtedly need to be further funded

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in order to cope with an increased work load. I also seek her assurance that the Women's National Commission, which has gained vigour and a louder voice than ever under our Government, and which is so valued by women's organisations in this country, will have a certain future.

One of the proposals that we were unable to get accepted six years ago was the idea that there should be a Select Committee on gender. I hope that Ministers will now accept that a Select Committee on equalities is an idea whose time has come. I hope that Ministers will consider the proposal carefully and in doing so will study the excellent work undertaken by the Scottish Equal Opportunities Committee and the Equality of Opportunity Committee of the Welsh Assembly.

If a single equality body is to be put in place as a means of rightly providing joined-up thinking and operation for equalities right across the agenda, and if that body is to oversee real equality for all groups in this country for the first time, a single equality Act, in which existing legislation is levelled up and equalised and new provisions made, will be essential to future equality, particularly the equality of women in this country.

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