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Linda Perham (Ilford, North) (Lab): I understand that the Bill provides for a duty to promote gender equality, which we all welcome, but not age equality. Will my right hon. Friend look at the question of discrimination on the ground of age in the context of this Bill?

Ms Hewitt: I am sure that we will return to this extremely important issue, but in any case, we will be considering it in the wider review of anti-discrimination law, on which I will have a little more to say later.
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This Bill is a major plank in the Government's strategy to ensure that every individual can fulfil their potential, and that discrimination and prejudice have no place in our society. It will herald a transformation in the way that Britain tackles discrimination and disadvantage, and it will do so in three ways. First, it will establish a powerful new commission to champion equality and human rights for all. Secondly, it will extend the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief beyond employment and into goods, facilities and services, the management and disposal of premises and the exercise of public functions. Thirdly, it will create a duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between men and women.

Much progress has been made over many decades towards a more equal society, not least through the achievements of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission. I pay tribute to the pioneering work that those three bodies have done over the years, and to the impact that they continue to make in tackling discrimination and inequality. But I think it true that if we were starting afresh—if we were creating for the first time a framework of law and institutions to tackle discrimination and disadvantage—we would not set up separate bodies. Until now, responsibility for challenging discrimination has been sectionalised. Problems have too often been seen as the responsibility of the groups and people who experience them, rather than of society as a whole. Instead of putting people in a box—saying, "You're a woman. You're black. You're disabled."—we need to understand that in modern Britain, people's identities are multiple and complex.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I thoroughly agree with the Secretary of State on the points that she is making, but does she agree that the new commission will stand or fall in relation to its perceived service to its users and whether it is able adequately to represent the specific interests of people who may feel that they have suffered from specific elements of discrimination that require vigorous and effective pursuit?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who raises an extremely important point. The new commission will need to promote an ethic of equality and human rights that applies to everyone in our society—an ethic of respect for every individual and every community. Within that, we well know that some individuals and groups suffer from particular prejudice, stereotyping and sometimes violence because of particular characteristics of their identity. The commission must be a powerful voice for every group and able to act when there is discrimination against particular individuals. Instead of arguing about which group suffers the most from prejudice, as sometimes happens, we need to understand that all prejudice and discrimination is unacceptable.

Let me deal with some examples of acts of violence against different groups. Last October, a man called David Morley was savagely beaten to death on the south bank of London in an entirely unprovoked attack. He was targeted, it appears, because he was gay. Just as abhorrent is the murder, on average, of two women a week by their partners, husbands or former partners simply because they are the less powerful partner in the
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relationship. Just as abhorrent again is violence directed against members of black and minority ethnic communities, against Muslim women who wear the hejab or against fellow human beings who happen to be, for instance, in a wheelchair. All acts of violence provoked by prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping are abhorrent and all must be dealt with. In other words, the creation of a truly equal society is not a minority issue, but an issue for us all.

The Bill is critical to achieving that goal. It establishes a new commission for equality and human rights, which will bring together the work of the existing commissions with the new equality strands of age, religion and belief, and sexual orientation, alongside human rights. The new commission will be a powerful and authoritative champion for change. It will help individuals by providing them with more accessible and coherent advice and support. It will help communities by promoting good relations and increasing understanding between different groups. In that respect, it builds particularly on the work of the Commission for Racial Equality.

The new commission will also help the organisations of civil society—employers, service providers, public and voluntary bodies—by delivering a single source of help and advice on the law and spreading awareness of best practice. It will also help society as a whole, including the Government and both Houses of Parliament, by tracking Britain's progress on equality and human rights.

In drawing up our proposals, we have listened carefully to the views of a wide range of stakeholders, including members of the existing equalities commissions. In December 2003, we set up a taskforce to advise us on our proposals. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the members of that taskforce for their hard work and commitment in helping us develop our plans. It is fair to say that we could not have reached this stage without them.

In May last year, we published our White Paper, "Fairness for All". We received more than 440 responses from a wide range of organisations and individuals and we listened carefully to the issues and concerns that were raised. As a result, our response to the consultation, which was published last November, outlined a number of important changes to our proposals to ensure that the new commission effectively tackles the root causes of discrimination and successfully promotes equality and human rights.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I warmly endorse the thrust of what the Secretary of State has said thus far. However, given the importance of practising what we preach, can she explain why, in respect of the duty to promote gender equality, the relevant clause appears to provide an exemption for the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the Scottish Parliament, the Church of England and the intelligence services? That is not very good, is it?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point, and I am grateful for his support of the Bill in principle. My understanding is that the drafting of that clause closely follows the existing duties, particularly regarding race, but I am sure that we can return to the issue in greater detail in Committee—if not in the present Parliament, in the next.
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I want to turn now to the detail of the Bill. Part 1 establishes the commission for equality and human rights and defines its purpose and functions. The fundamental duty of the new commission is to work towards a society in which everyone can achieve their potential, free from prejudice and discrimination, and where there is respect for the dignity and worth of each individual. It will achieve that goal by promoting awareness of discrimination and human rights law, spreading good practice and enforcing anti-discrimination legislation. Clauses 22 to 34 set out the range of powers that the commission will be able to use to enforce such legislation. Those build on the enforcement powers of the existing equality commissions, but also provide new and more flexible powers in a number of important areas.

The commission will have a new power to assess how public bodies are complying with their equality duties and also a power—available for the first time across all discrimination law—to enter into binding agreements with bodies as an alternative to an investigation. It will be able to arrange conciliation in disputes in areas where conciliation services are not already available through ACAS and it will have explicit powers to seek leave to intervene in legal proceedings as a third party, allowing it strategic influence in key cases. It will have new powers to conduct inquiries into sectors or named bodies on multiple discrimination and human rights issues. Unlike the current commissions, there will be no statutory constraints on the discrimination cases that the new commission can support and no requirement to seek the permission of the Secretary of State to summon witnesses and obtain papers for discrimination cases, inquiries or investigations.

As well as its work to promote and enforce equalities legislation, the new commission will bring together human rights and equality issues for the first time. That is a hugely significant step, which will help to build a culture in which the rights and equal worth of every individual is truly understood and honoured. The new commission will raise awareness of the importance of human rights and encourage compliance and good practice by public authorities with Human Rights Act obligations.

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