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Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), whose record of campaigning on disability issues, especially, is perhaps unrivalled in the House. I have been happy to support him on several occasions. He gave an eloquent testimony to the reasons why he supports the Bill and how he has come to arrive at that point.
Before I go into the details of our support for the Bill, may I apologise, especially to the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, for the fact that I will have to leave just before the end of the debate, although no discourtesy is intended? I am pleased to say that she will know that although I have several comments to make about the Bill, my party certainly supports it and regrets, in one sense, that our debate is only a rehearsal for proceedings that will presumably take place in the fairly near future and follow through to the Bill's enactment.
The very title of the Bill seems to encapsulate how we have turned round 180° in our approach to these issues. It is not an anti-discrimination Bill, but an equality Bill, which represents a fundamental change of approach. Indeed, although I noticed that the Joint Committee described clause 3 as being more like a party manifesto than a piece of legislation, the provision nevertheless makes it clear that the Bill is hugely aspirational, with the intention of promoting equality rather than giving people the means of dealing with discrimination. After all, the opportunity to deal with discrimination comes only after the event if the law gives one rights to protest against it. The Bill is an attempt to give people legal rights so that they are equal in the first place. That is a fundamentally different approach.
Reading through the submissions that we have received, I was interested to see that, whatever their initial reaction, the overwhelming majority of organisations are now pretty well on board, although some have made supplementary comments on what is necessary. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the legislation's application in Scotland. Even those of us who represent Scottish constituencies appreciate the fact that the Bill addresses the differences between the roles of the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament, but I hope that when the Bill is enacted and the commission is established some clarification will be made available, otherwise people in Scotland might be confused about where to turn for support. I am sure that that can be done.
In an intervention on the Secretary of State, I raised what will be the main thrust of my speech, which is my hope that a single equality Act will deal effectively with the hierarchy of equality, which the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned. In the past, we have addressed different aspects of equality in a piecemeal fashion through different pieces of legislation, with the result that the various aspects are perceived to be of different degrees of importance. That is why the disability rights organisations, for example, were concerned and suggested thatin a sense as a gesturethe Bill should provide for a person who is or has been disabled to be on the commission. In reality, it is inconceivable that the commission will not represent and promote the interests of disabled people. The issue
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will not be whether a person has been disabled, but what is done to ensure that disabled people's rights and opportunities are promoted to the full.
At this point, let me make a small special plea, as I tend to do on occasions such as this, as chairman of the all-party group on deafness, which has been established in the past year. There is a range of disabilities, each of which brings different needs. We have not set up the all-party group on deafness to detach ourselves from the general campaign on disability rights. We simply acknowledge that there are discrete issues of particular concern to deaf people that need to be addressed separately, while continuing to support and to work in full co-operation with other groups.
I welcomed the Department for Work and Pensions' recognition of sign language, which took place within the past couple of years. It was nicely publicised as the Government giving official recognition to British sign language; in fact, it was the Department doing so and I have not seen anything comparable from other Departments, such as the Department for Education and Skills. My serious point is that the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is determining what type of legal instrument can be added to the European convention on human rights to give sign language users the recognition that has been given to users of other minority languages. It is worth putting on record the fact that in the UK there are more users of British or Irish sign language than speakers of Welsh or Gaelic, yet the resources that the latter two languages attract are probably 50 times as great as those that go to sign language. Although I welcome the DWP initiative, it is only a drop in the ocean of what is needed to enable sign language users to use their language fully in the wide range of circumstances to which clause 3 refers. I hope that the commission recognises that it should take a proactive approach to that issue.
Having put that on the record, I shall get down from my soapbox and address the mechanics of the Bill and its proposals. Several of the groups that made representations have argued the case for a single equality Act. The Equal Opportunities Commission supported that case particularly well, saying that if the new body is to be effective, it must be backed up by a consistent legal framework, be able to fulfil a full range of roles, be organised and resourced to work effectively in Scotland and Wales as well as in England and Great Britain, and be able to deal effectively with each of the equality strands and with human rights. It also has to be properly resourced.
I do not disagree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), in that it is legitimate for the following question to be asked and for the Government to spell out the answer. They do not have to do so today. It is: why will the new body cost £70 million as opposed to the current cost of £43 million? I hope that there are good reasons for this, because the aspiration is to do a great deal more. A little more information about why this will be the case and how the distribution will take place would give us some comfort that the extra cost will be because of the reach of the new legislation and not because of an expanding bureaucracy.
The Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) and I recently spoke at a CBI conference on diversity. It is worth noting that at that
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conference Sir Digby Jones of the CBI said that the organisation supported the Bill and the representations that had given support to the Bill, but then expressed many reservations about the detailed application and regulations that may flow from it. I hope that the Government will recognise that a single equality Act should reassure the likes of the CBI that it would bring together and simplify legislation and regulation rather than make it more complicated. That, fundamentally, is the objective.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I agree with so much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, I understand that his party has undertaken completely to get rid of the Department of Trade and Industry. If the Liberal Democrats are in Government in six weeks' time, how will he administer the very good points that he is making now?
Malcolm Bruce: The mechanisms for delivering policy and particular Ministers are matters for judgment. Our view is that it is perfectly possible for this matter to be dealt with in another Departmentfor example, the Home Office. I understand that the DTI, partly because of the second nature of the Secretary of State, is also the Department for equality, but it is slightly odd that the Bill has been promoted by the DTI. People might worry that it was more narrowly drafted because of that and confined to economic issues when, I am glad to say, it was not. The Bill runs much more widely than the DTI. It reaches throughout society, as it rightly and properly should. It is just a convenience of current Government organisation that it happens to be coming from the DTI.
I reinforce another point made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk. On the impact of the proposed legislation on businessI reiterate that it has a much wider impact than businessit is important that the needs of small and medium-sized businesses be particularly represented. With the greatest respect to the Government, there is sometimes a tendency to think that if they have spoken to the CBI, they have the voice of business. Big business has an agenda and a capacity to respond that are different from small and medium-sized businesses'. I hope that that will be taken firmly on board.
The main case is for a single equality Act. Current legislation has grown up piecemeal over the years. I am advised that there are currently 30 Acts, 38 statutory instruments, 11 codes of practice and 12 EC directives and recommendations relevant to the areas and activities of the proposed new commission. That is a difficult mix of areas for people to take account of. As has been said, there are anomalies within the existing system. If someone is being discriminated against because they are Jewish or a Sikh, they can have recourse to the law. If, however, that is happening to someone and they are Muslim, currently they do not have that recourse. An equality Act can deal with that simply and straightforwardly.
The bringing together of equality and human rights is absolutely right in principle and in practice. It is often forgotten that the UK is not only an early signatory to the European convention on human rights, but that largely we wrote it. It is not some form of alien European
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imposition. The convention was drawn up largely by British lawyers in the aftermath of the war and the Nazi occupation to create a framework of fundamental rights to which all countries that had been engaged in the war could sign up. We might tend to think that we were providing the convention to the occupied, defeated and liberated nations of Europe out of magnanimity, and that it somehow did not apply to us. However, we wrote it in our own terms and we signed up to it.
The Conservatives talk glibly about the possibility of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998. I saw the Leader of the Opposition looking somewhat uncomfortable when challenged on this point recently. When he was asked whether he was going to renege on our commitment to the European convention on human rights, he said no. I should remind the Conservatives that when we signed up to the convention in 1953, we also undertook to incorporate it in our domestic law, although it took us nearly 50 years to do so. It is really disconcerting to hear the Conservatives suggesting that they might go back on that fundamental part of our treaty obligations. The Human Rights Act gave British citizens the right to take human rights cases to the domestic courts, rather than having to incur the expense and delay of taking them to Strasbourg.
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