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Linda Perham : With reference to goods, facilities and services, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a cause of great grievance among older people when they are discriminated against—for example, when somebody over 70 tries to hire a car? Although part 2 concentrates on religion and belief, there are older people who believe that the anomalies affecting them should be addressed.

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which we will certainly address in the review of equalities legislation, to which I shall return shortly. It is an important point, but it was simply not possible to address all the implications of that in the Bill.

With regard to part 2, I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), for the
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enormous efforts that she and her officials have made to ensure that we could have the relevant provisions in the Bill. That is an important step forward.

Part 3 brings sex discrimination legislation into step with race and disability legislation. We have already introduced a duty on the public sector to promote race equality, and we plan to enact a duty to promote equality between disabled and non-disabled people. The Bill ensures similar provisions in relation to gender, so public authorities will be prohibited from sex discrimination in carrying out their public functions, and will have a new duty to promote equality of opportunity between men and women when carrying out those functions, and to tackle unlawful discrimination.

Mr. Boswell : Does that mean that for the new strands—the ones not historically represented by commissions—that duty will not be written into the provisions? What is the thinking behind that apparent discrimination? There seems to be a functional distinction between those who are reinforced by their traditional position, and those who come new to the issue.

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, to which I alluded when responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) on the question of age discrimination. It is simply not possible in the Bill to deal with every aspect of the inconsistencies in the legislative treatment of different groups.

In closing, I should like to put the Bill into the broader context of the other steps that we as a Government are taking to deal with discrimination and to promote equality. The Bill will, as I have indicated, take three important steps—the gender duty, the extension of discrimination law on grounds of religion or belief, and above all, the establishment of the single equality and human rights commission. But we are taking two other hugely important steps. We have already established an equalities review, which is being led by Trevor Phillips, who is also the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, to look at the long-term and underlying causes of inequality and disadvantage. That much wider review will inform the work of the single commission and provide practical recommendations on key policy priorities for the Government, but not only for the Government—also for the public sector, employers, trade unions, the voluntary sector and civil society as a whole.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Ms Hewitt: Let me, if I may, finish the point.

We have also launched a review of equality legislation to correct the inconsistencies and inequalities in our discrimination law. That work, which will seek to simplify and modernise the law, will move towards the establishment of a single equality Act, for which equality organisations and many of my hon. Friends have been campaigning for many years. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

Chris Bryant: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am grateful also for the way that she continued her
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sentence. Perhaps it would have been better if I had not intervened on her. She seems to have answered the point made by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) by suggesting that once the two reviews are finished, it should be possible for us to have a Bill that would require the new organisation to adopt the duty across the piece, so that equality is not atomised, but dealt with as a whole.

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is precisely the scope not only of the duty on public authorities, but of various other aspects of anti-discrimination law that we will be able to examine in the review of equalities legislation—a review that my Department is leading and on which we have already started. It might be helpful if I say that there will be a full consultation and a properly inclusive process as we look at the various aspects of anti-discrimination law.

The Bill, and more broadly our strategy to counter inequality and discrimination, is a product of work right across Government. I am very grateful indeed to all my right hon. and hon. Friends who have worked as a single team not only to promote the Bill, but to put in place the two other reviews that I mentioned. We also have the cross-Government strategy to promote racial equality and social cohesion, which is being led by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary; the work to take forward the national employment panel's recommendations for increasing employment and business growth for ethnic minorities, which is led by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; and the work on improving the life chances for people with disabilities and the recently published strategy on age diversity, led my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

As I said, we in the Government believe that equality and human rights are not minority concerns. They are the cornerstones of a strong and fair society, and of a strong and prosperous society. They are the foundations of the mutual trust and respect that we all wish to see in our country. Earlier today my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the date of the next general election, so in a few days we will be leaving the House for our constituencies and the election campaign. I hope that all of us who have had the privilege of serving as Members of the House and all who aspire to do so will avoid doing anything to arouse or exploit prejudice against any group in our society.

In the election campaign, there will of course be sharp disagreements and passionate debate. That is as it should be, and it is a tribute to our democracy and to the freedom of speech and political expression that we cherish, and which is entrenched in our Human Rights Act, that it should be so. But let us exercise that freedom of speech in a way that reflects the best traditions of the House, rather than the worst elements of some of our media. I trust that once we have had the verdict of the British people, the Bill will proceed to full enactment. I believe that it is good for individuals, good for our communities and good for the social and economic strength of our country, and I commend it to the House.
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3.8 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I begin by declaring my interests, as set out in the register.

I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), whose middle son had quite a big heart operation a couple of days ago. My hon. Friend felt that he should be with his family at this time. His boy is making good progress, I am pleased to say.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the clear way in which she explained the Bill. Whatever our concerns about the Bill—we have a number of them—she has worked hard on the agenda with her right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality. In 2002 she published the consultation paper, "Equality and Diversity: Making it Happen". We then had the statement of intent in October 2003 and the White Paper in 2004, followed by the Bill. Whatever our disagreements with the Secretary of State about red tape, regulation and many other themes that we have pursued, she can be proud that what she has worked so hard on is coming to fruition. All Conservative Members praise the work that she and her team have done, but there will soon be an election and everything is now riddled with uncertainty.

I offer our broad support for the Bill, particularly clause 3 on the fundamental duties of the commission. The Opposition sign up to those aspirations. We support the principle of bringing the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission together and adding the new strands of sexual orientation, religion or belief and age. Given that no statutory body is charged with promoting human rights, it makes sense to give that duty to the new commission for equality and human rights.

Mr. Boswell: I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend's authoritative welcome for the Bill's principles. In heaping justified praise on the Government for their changes following consultation, does he agree that that is an object lesson to the House and the country in the formulation of public policy? We have already made many improvements in the initial process that drives us forward to the need for careful consideration. The Secretary of State referred to the commission and we want the correct final outcome, which we have not yet reached.

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