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Angela Eagle: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point entirely. Is he aware that that message is going through many people's letter boxes in direct mailings from the Conservatives even as we speak, despite the fact that their Front-Bench spokesman feels uncomfortable about it? What does the hon. Gentleman make of that phenomenon?

Malcolm Bruce: The Conservatives' entire campaign is dishonest. I am glad to say that I do not believe that they have any intention of withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. I am not even sure that they seriously intend to repeal the Human Rights Act. However, they want to lead people to believe that they could do so, without confronting the real issues. Indeed, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk made a reasoned and considered case for his party's supporting this Bill.

This is a British piece of legislation that the Government have introduced after consultation to put in place a much more detailed development of human rights and equality which will, I hope, go substantially beyond the basics of the European convention on human rights. Indeed, the Joint Committee, while expressing some concern that there might be areas of conflict or uncertainty, was quite clear that the general objective was to develop and enhance equality and human rights in the United Kingdom, above and beyond the provisions of the European convention, to meet the needs of our own societies.

Reservations were expressed by many of the organisations that will be affected by the creation of the equality commission. Perhaps a climate of vested interests is created when people have worked with their own equality commission. They might have reservations about its being merged with a greater organisation. However, to be fair to the Government, they have clearly persuaded people that the added weight and value of combining all these aspects will be beneficial.
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Speaking as a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, I can say that that organisation certainly welcomes the single commission approach.

I reiterate my party's view, which has been much more eloquently argued by my noble friend Lord Lester, who, regardless of politics, is regarded as one of the finest human rights lawyers in the country. He has attempted to introduce his own Bill on a single equality commission, and I hope that that was seen as a serious endeavour to put a framework in place. The Government have suggested that their own review is designed to lead in that direction. I do not concur with the view that we should delay the setting up of a single commission, and I would emphasise the urgency involved. We must not rush into this, but we must ensure that a single equality Act is introduced sooner rather than later. If not, the single commission will spend an awful lot of time dealing with an inadequate collection of piecemeal laws. Those could quickly be put to one side once we had clearer, simpler legislation.

I commend the Bill. As I said earlier, a fundamental approach to promoting equality rather than dealing with discrimination represents a radical and welcome shift that should greatly enhance the quality of life of every minority—we are all minorities at some stage or another—that could conceivably be discriminated against, and give them the backing and resources to create, as the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston said, a civilised society that is tolerant and inclusive.

4.4 pm

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): It gives me great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). I especially appreciated his important reference to deafness, which made the point that the political will to move strongly on equality makes a difference to every form of discrimination on the ground of disability.

It also gives me great pleasure to contribute to the debate on the day that the general election has been called. I am proud to be a member of a political party that has had equality and fairness at the core of its constitution and principles since the day that it was founded more than 100 years ago. Despite some people's grumbles, equality remains at its core. Every Labour Government have made significant progress on equality and this Government have made huge progress, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spelled out in her speech. Although I do not expect the Bill to go through all its stages in the next two days, I hope that it becomes the centrepiece of the third term of a Labour Government.

I praise the way in which consultation prior to the Bill's publication has been managed to gain the backing of all the relevant organisations. I pay tribute to Ministers and their team on undertaking careful consultation and gathering support so that our discussion is consensual on this important day. However, I want to utter some words of caution. In my experience, when one mentions equality and human rights, it is easy to get uncontroversial support—there is no problem. It is also easy to urge public and private bodies to make progress. It gets harder and controversy begins when we move towards insisting that public and
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private bodies implement standards of equality and human rights. It becomes harder still and more controversial when we pass legislation that insists that public and private bodies and individuals respect specific standards of equality and human rights. It becomes even harder and much more controversial when we start to penalise public authorities or private bodies for not conforming to the standards that we have set.

At the heart of taking any of those actions is the first step of establishing a system whereby we know what is happening and progress is monitored. That aspect becomes controversial and difficult with the realisation that it will be effective only with the support of sufficient resources, teeth, clout, legislation and political determination. The system has to be clear and firm and have resources. With the greatest respect for both Opposition spokesmen, when they were pressed on financial aspects, the response was woolly. I have absolute confidence that the Labour party is determined to put the resources behind this important legislation.

The Bill is on the right track because it recognises the need for legislation, encompasses the entire breadth of disability and sets out a system for implementation. When I was active on Sheffield city council and, in the mid-1980s, we reached the first stage of controversy by appointing our first equalities officer, we were told that it was a great waste of money by our then opposition. They were even more horrified when that equalities officer recommended that there should be a women's training workshop on information technology. There was a huge fuss and enormous opposition. How on earth did we know, as a council, that there was any call for a women's training workshop on information technology? Bizarrely, we did know, but even more bizarrely, by the end of the week when this was on the front page of the newspapers, the relevant council department had had 2,000 applications for the women's information technology workshop, which was only a subject for council debate at that stage. Often, therefore, it is important to be ahead of the game, in each area of disability, to recognise the need to move to legislation. We then find that such a move was crucial for a large number of people or a minority.

We must recognise, of course, that equality is a dream, a goal or target that we never reach. We say that every baby is born equal, but of course that is not the case. The life chances and expectancies of all of us are grossly unequal. We must also recognise the international dimension, which was brought home to my family recently when one of my grandsons was born with a defective heart. After intensive surgery at one week old, which was successful, he is now at home, six weeks old and quite well. He is probably among the 1 per cent. of the world's population for whom such intensive surgery at seven days old can be successful. The idea, therefore, that equality for every individual can be easily achieved is nonsense. Nobody would approach the international context without recognising that.

That brings me to my next point, as the only reason that baby Seamus is still with us is that we have a national health service that is free, open and accessible to every individual, at least in this country. Having a public service that is open, free, accessible and of world-class standards is one of the most important pieces of equality legislation that any Government can pass. That
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is the same in every area. Everyone recognises that we cannot even start to get near achieving the millennium development goal of every child in the world achieving equal access to education unless there is free primary education. That is a law of equality in itself.

I was pleased to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggest in the run-up to the election that each and every pensioner will have free bus travel, which is particularly relevant to me, as I am shortly to enjoy that, in good measure.

Every area of legislation has an equality aspect, whether in relation to housing, transport, education or health. In relation to housing, the equality aspect might be accessibility or ease of getting around the house. It is impressive that this Bill has been put together with the co-operation of and contributions from every Department. We talk a great deal about Governments being too parcelled up when it comes to legislation, but this is a good example of legislation to which that does not apply.

Breadth and scope are important, and I want to say more about the Northern Ireland experience. An important aspect of the peace process was the funding regime from Brussels, the European peace and reconciliation programme. The then Commissioner Wulff-Matthies included in that programme criteria according to which every penny of the money had to be spent. It was a partnership action for fair treatment: every item of expenditure had to meet standards of equality, or the money would not be released from Brussels. The partnership boards did not just include people on both sides of the sectarian divide—there was an equality balance in terms of gender, of race where appropriate, and of disability. The whole range of equality was encompassed to defuse the specific inequality issue about which people in Northern Ireland felt so strongly.

There was considerable debate in Northern Ireland about the proposal for a single equality commission. People naturally feared that it would weaken the individual commissions dealing with gender, race and other aspects of inequality. In fact, the emphasis on a single commission strengthens each inequality issue and strengthens the anti-discrimination agenda in each area.

We have seen that closer to home in our party. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the Representation of the People Act 2000, which we produced after a huge amount of discussion in our party—and a very important piece of legislation it is, applying as it does to all political parties. Now the issue of racial imbalance in this Parliament is being raised in the party far more strongly than ever before and we are considering action to redress that imbalance. Once progress has been made in one respect, we can raise our sights in the case of all the other aspects of inequality. I would say that the equality agenda in the last Parliament led to pressure for successful legislation on, for instance, same-sex couples.

As was said earlier, the Bill's establishment of a single commission will make further legislation urgent and essential. I should be very surprised, and a little disappointed, if the legislation that follows is not a little controversial, and does not push the boat further than every Member may wish.
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I finish by giving three warnings. First, everything in the Bill is about individuals. Clause 8(2) defines equality as being "equality between individuals". That is the right way to go, but it is sometimes in conflict with people being defined not as individuals but as part of a household. The future role of pensioners and pensions is an issue that many of us have been concerned to pursue in the House, and I believe that important legislation on it will be introduced in the next Parliament. For far too long, women pensioners in particular have been seen as part of a household or a couple and, therefore, as being more dependent than men, who are assumed to have been in full-time employment, and not as worthy of financial reward for the effort and work—of whatever type—that they have put in during their lives. I hope that the Bill will set the scene for women pensioners and potential pensioners being given that status in their own right, so that women's work will be valued and women pensioners will get a better balance of income. At the moment, it is appallingly unbalanced.

My second warning to Ministers concerns universal legislation and choice. I have mentioned those areas of universal legislation that in my view form part of inequality legislation because they apply to everyone. The issue of choice must be carefully considered, as must league tables that encourage us to say, "Are we up here or down there? Is ours a very good school or not? Are we doing well or not? Is this a hospital in which people might die more easily than in another?" In considering such choices, we must be careful that we do not undermine some of the basic principles of equality that we want to pursue.

My third warning is that we must make sure that the commission and the legislation arising from it have strong, sharp, powerful teeth. When controversial issues arise that challenge accepted norms and assumptions of behaviour, there must be a strong recognition of the need to be absolutely clear that the equality agenda leads many other important agendas that any Government might want to pursue to produce a better society. I hope that, when our political leaders go out campaigning today and in the weeks ahead, they ensure equality is up there with the economy, education and the other big issues. I say that unashamedly, because Labour has a superb record on equality. If that record is presented frequently, powerfully and consistently, there is no doubt that we will have not just a third term of government, but a fourth, a fifth and perhaps many more. So let us put the Bill in the Queen's Speech and make it the No. 1 priority for the next election and the essential flagship of Labour's third term.

4.24 pm

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