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Mr. Willetts : We all look back fondly to the time when the hon. Lady spoke on disability issues, or at least benefits, from the Front Bench. In his remarks earlier today, the Chancellor said that he will announce changes in the rules for incapacity benefit tomorrow. Can I take it that she supports those changes?
Many things can be done to help those who have been stuck on incapacity benefit to get back into the labour market and make their contribution. It is important that the Disability Discrimination Bill accompanies any effort in that direction, because it is no good expecting people with disabilities to be reasonable and try to get back into work if barriers in the workplace prevent them from doing so. We must sort out both sides of the equation. When the measures are unveiled, we can all judge whether they are practical and whether we support them.
I welcome the equality Bill, which will put together the current commissions for disability, gender and race and add other duties in order to create a more user-friendly organisation. I welcome the idea that different types of discrimination are not in competition with one another. If we can get anti-discrimination work right in one area, it strengthens the argument for promoting it in another.
I disagree with the Commission for Racial Equality's worries. A single commission for equality and human rights will strengthen the drive in our society to deal with some all-too-persistent discriminations, which are still around 30 years after some of the pioneering legislation in that area was put on the statute book.
Rob Marris: Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that, having signed up to the Amsterdam treaty in 2000, it will take the UK Government until December 2006 to introduce age discrimination legislation, which will have taken six years to get on the statute book? The situation is ridiculous.
Angela Eagle: I am slightly more patient that my hon. Friend and am happy to see the Government getting on with it. On age discrimination, many knotty and thorny issues must be worked through, and the exemption until 2006 was implemented for a specific and good reason. However, I would like to see the work being done as quickly as possible as that date approaches.
I particularly welcome the positive duty to promote equality on gender grounds in the equality Bill, because I had a ten-minute Bill on that subject not long ago. Although I am sure that the Government have been listening to me, I suspect that the process went on behind the scenes for quite a while.
The Government have delivered on their commitment, which was made in 1999, and the legislation will help to shift the structure of our battles against discrimination in our society on to a preventive footing. The older legislation protects people and gives them compensation after they have been discriminated against. The new positive duties will prevent discrimination from happening in the first place and will
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enable us to create a cultureinitially in the public sector, and in due course in the private sectorof prevention, which will enable employees to know that they have rights, and employers to know that they have responsibilities to ensure that unthinking and illegal discrimination does not happen. I welcome that move.
I welcome the equality Bill's extension to goods and services of protection on the grounds of religious belief. I should like that to include sexual orientation and age, which are the only two strands of employment protection that have not had goods and services protection extended to them. This important Bill will change the equality delivery infrastructure.
The UK's existing anti-discrimination legislation needs to be updated, as it is inconsistent, piecemeal and complex. Since the enactment of the first such legislation by Harold Wilson's Labour Governmentthe formidable and fantastic Barbara Castle piloted it through this House more than 25 years agoit has developed into a package of 30 Acts, 38 statutory instruments, 11 codes of practice and 12 EC directives and recommendations. I am not surprised that even those employers who wish to do right find the increasingly complex and sometimes inconsistent regulations facing them to be a bit much. It is about time that we had a Bill to simplify, harmonise, consolidate and extend our legislation to make it much easier for employers and employees to comprehend.
Unless that is done, the Government's plan to combine the three different commissions, welcome as it is, will be flawed. It is important that employers who wish to do right know exactly what is expected of them and that employees who are subject to unlawful discrimination realise that they have been discriminated against and know that they can have redress. It is even more important that employers and employees can work together to eliminate from the labour market and from the provision of goods or services any unlawful discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, religious belief, disability and, I hope very soon, sexual orientation and age. Then, as our economy develops in the choppy waters that our Chancellor has managed to navigate so well, we can make certain that opportunities that have not been available in practice in the past are opened up to all our citizens regardless of their gender, race, creed, colour, disability, age or sexual orientation.
Extending and consolidating that approach will make our economy more efficient and enable us to use the undoubted skills and talents of our citizens, many of which are grossly underused, much more effectively. That will put us in a position to continue to make our way in the world and to enjoy the ever rising standards of living that we have experienced. It will also, crucially, help us to fight inequality, poverty and disadvantage, which we still find in all too many parts of our communities where discrimination has been suffered.
With the Bills in this Queen's Speech, the continuing work to ensure that we preserve our economic stability and the equality Bill to consolidate anti-discrimination legislation, we truly look forward to a much fairer and more progressive future.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con):
I apologise to the House for my absence for a large proportion of the afternoon owing to another engagement, after being present for the opening speeches.
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The commitment of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) to dealing with discrimination and to disability issues is undoubted and it is hard to disagree with much that she says. However, I would counsel that, although many of the initiatives are worthy and desirable, they have an impact on business, especially the operation of small businesses. That must be carefully considered and I shall say a little more about it later.
I have heard the Chancellor make similar speeches on several occasions. Today, he simply made one of his typical speeches. He comes to the Chamber and is surrounded by Brownite Members. It is interesting to see who sits behind the Chancellor; we shall keep a little note of that. He approached the Dispatch Box with a fistful of press cuttings and extracts from broadcasts. He spoke for about 40 minutes and said little apart from reading comments that Conservative Members and Liberal Democrat Members had made to the newspapers. We witnessed a bit of a record today because, if I heard the right hon. Gentleman correctly, he quoted from the Lincolnshire Echo. He must have been scratching around for press cuttings to reach that level.
As always with the Chancellor, what he did not say was notable. We expected some sort of trailer for tomorrow, but there was nothing. He said little, if anything, about pensions, almost nothing about borrowing and the attendant problems that he faces, and nothing about the golden rule. We are determined to hear what he has to say about that tomorrow but we expected him to give us a bit of a clue to what it is all about. If he had taken an intervention from me, I would have asked about the rules of the golden rule, which get more mysterious as the days pass.
Mr. Atkinson: That is a good point. Given that the Chancellor's borrowing requirement is predicated on the golden rule, he should give the House his interpretation of it. We think that we know when it started because the Treasury tells us that, but we do not know when it finishes because we do not know when the right hon. Gentleman believes that the economic cycle will finish. Will that happen in 200506 or next year? The Governor of the Bank of England more or less hinted that it could be in a few months. It is difficult for anyone to make a substantial judgment on our position and that of the Chancellor's borrowing requirements without knowing the basis for the golden rule.
In 2002, the Chancellor predicted a borrowing requirement of £13 billion; a year later, he predicted a figure of £27 billion and now, if we are to believe PricewaterhouseCoopers and others, he predicts a borrowing requirement of £36 billion. That shows that he is on a rake's progress for borrowing. I hope that tomorrow will shed some light on the country's true financial state so that people can make decisions that affect their future.
The Chancellor said little about pensions, whereas many hon. Members have said a lot about them. They constitute the big crisis that confronts the country. I do
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not need to rehearse all the comments about specific problems, but one of the Government's most shameful acts has been to reduce a world-class pension system to a third world pension system, leaving many people in serious doubt about their future.
The boom in house prices is one result of the uncertainty about pensions. If people are faced with the prospect of their pension being of less value than they expected, the safe alternative is to pour money into bricks and mortar. That has driven up house prices recently as people have baled out of pension funds and gone into property. The consequent increase in interest rates becomes a serious problem for many people who have chosen that form of investment. Although there has been a softening in recent weeks and we have heard predictions that interest rates will not increase, it is alarming to read in the papers today that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development believes that we should have four more interest rate rises in the near future. Other predictions are that interest rates should go beyond 5 per cent. next year. That is alarming news for many people who have invested in property.
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