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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), whoaside from the triumphalism towards the end of her speechspoke authoritatively and movingly from her own experience in family terms and her experience culled from her work in Northern Ireland. I respect her passionate commitment to equality. Knowing that the hon. Lady is not seeking re-election to the House, I wish her every success and happiness in what she goes on to do.
I welcome the Bill. I believe that it is a good measure that deserves support. Let the background to the Bill's introduction be clearly understood. Inequality before
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the law, prejudice and discrimination are still commonplace features of our society and we have the responsibility not to look the other way, but to seek to attack those inequalities, that discrimination and that prejudice. The Bill is by no means the only way of achieving that. Everything cannot be achieved through legislation, but legislation has an important contribution to make in tackling the prevalent negative attitudes and stereotypes, tackling tendencies to caricature people to disadvantage and in conducing to an atmosphere and culture in which we respect each other.
What it is really about is equality before the law and the principle of social justice. As far as I am concerned, that means that every individual, irrespective of race, sex, disability or sexual orientation, is entitled to be treated by his or her fellows with respect and to be granted equal protection by the law. That is a statement that I confidently make on the Floor of the House today, and it is a point that I shall reiterate time and again in the period lying immediately ahead. Each and every one of us can do only his or her bit in trying to tackle discrimination, to undermine the causes of prejudice and to promote social justice. In the course of this Parliament, I have attempted to promote what I believe to be the right course, with my voice and my voteand I intend to go on doing so.
I welcome the opening speech of the Secretary of State and I would like to focus on a number of the Bill's aspects. First, on the major proposal to establish a commission for equality and human rights, the background was rehearsed by the Secretary of State and by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). The case for it is compelling, indeed.
At the moment and of long standing, we have had three commissions to address particular types of discrimination: the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission. Each draws its powers and exercises its functions courtesy of a number of different pieces of legislation. I believe that the intended creation of the new body should in no way suggestMinisters will not allow it to do sothat the record of those three organisations is anything other than excellent.
The reality is, however, that those bodies have had responsibilities to deal with sex discrimination, race discrimination and disability discrimination. In discharging their responsibilities, they have had a budget of something in the order of £45 million a year. When I last looked into it, the figures for 2002 showed that those bodies were undertaking about 4,400 cases and the respective websites of the three anti-discrimination bodies were taking about 75,000 hits per month. They have been extremely busy; they have had a great deal to do; they have done exceptionally well.
It is important to recognise that those bodies' responsibility was to deal with only three, albeit three very important, types of discrimination. The Government are proposing, consistent with the findings of the review and with consultation held over a long period, that new strands be introduced. If they are to be introduced and if we are to attack religious discrimination or discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and if we are to afford equal protection to transgendered people as well, the casestrong in any casefor a merger of those anti-discrimination bodies
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becomes, frankly, overwhelming. The creation of three more commissions will mean that six different commissions will exist. The potential for overlap in their strands of work, and for duplication, waste of resources, misunderstanding and conflict, would be preposterous, so the Government's proposals in the Bill make obvious sense. I also very much welcome the robust and supportive terms with which the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk, greeted the Government's proposal to establish the commission for equality and human rights.
However, the argument for the new commission is not simply about minimising duplication. It is stronger than that, as the commission has multiple merits. It will have the opportunity to work as a champion for equality and human rights, and to provide a single focus for the articulation of the important message that we must change our society's values and culture.Moreover, the commission will be able to tackle the multiple discrimination suffered by many people. The tendency has been to think that people who suffer discrimination are, for instance, women, members of ethnic minorities or disabled, or that they have a gay sexual orientation. In fact, it is possible that a person might suffer from several different forms of discrimination and inequality. That person should be able to turn to what will prove to be a one-stop shop. The establishment of the commission will streamline the service and provide a single and unified source of information, advice and guidance.
That one-stop shop will be good for individuals, and that is important, but it will also be good for public authorities and private businesses. They will not have to consult a multiplicity of different pieces of legislation but will be able to take advice from one body. In due course, I shall say something about having a single piece of legislation in this area, but the commission will have the virtue of being the only body offering guidance. That seems to me to make a great deal of sense, and the argument for the establishment of the commission is therefore positive and powerful.
Secondly, I want to say something about the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. I welcome that, but it does not apply to discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. That is regrettable, but I suspect that the Government would argue that they cannot be expected to do everything in one Bill.
The Government may also take the view that such legislation should be adopted on the basis of slowly, slowly, catchee monkee. After all, outposts of prejudice, discrimination and diehard neanderthal resistance remain, and must be countered over a period. Everything cannot be done at once, but I believe that we need to get our ducks in order in respect of equality.
Stonewall has made the case for a similar prohibition of discrimination in the provision of goods and services to gay people. That is an intelligent argument, and I believe that the same case will be made again and again. I welcome what has been said about religion and belief, but we should look at extending the provisions. I am sure that my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk and for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) will echo
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that commitment. I look forward to the next Conservative Government having the opportunity to introduce a robust piece of legislation along those lines.
Thirdly, I want to say something about the duty to promote equality. As I understand it, that duty is to promote equality between men and women. It is extremely welcome, but it does not apply to people who suffer discrimination on grounds of age or sexual orientation. Therefore, if we are not careful and delay for too long, another injustice will be created. I warmly welcome the duty to promote gender equality. It is fair to say that some concerns have been expressed, not so much about what the Bill says on the subject, but about areas that are still uncovered and questions that remain unanswered. Specifically, I should like to elicit from the Government a comment on the harassment suffered by women. I know that the Equal Opportunities Commission has raised the matter. The elimination of harassment seems a fairly basic and prosaic demand. To my knowledgeI am not a lawyer, and I say that as a matter of prideit is not provided for in the terms of the Bill. I do not know whether the Minister would be open to amendments on this front in Standing Committee, but we ought to be told.
Other issues related to the promotion of gender equality need to be addressed. I remember taking part in a stimulating debate in Westminster Hall on 25 June 2003 with the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) on the subject of the gender pay gap. That gap is real. The Government are doing what they can to tackle it, but I think the Minister would admit that a great deal of work remains to be done. Studying the terms of the Bill, I am not clear whether the provisions on the promotion of gender equality will allow for or, better still, require public authorities to conduct pay reviews and tackle pay discrimination when it is clear from those reviews that such discrimination exists. It is not referred to, so far as I can tell, in the Bill. It is a genuine concern of the Equal Opportunities Commission.
Incidentally, in this context, tributes have rightly been paid to people responsible for the introduction of the legislation. Those tributes should properly be paid to members of the Government and officials who have assisted in the drafting of the Bill. At the EOC I pay particular tribute to Julie Mellor and Sam Smethers, who have done magnificent work in championing the cause over a long period. Some right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that I have taken a particular interest in the issue of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. In that context, I cannot think of two more persistent and effective lobbyists in any organisation in Britain than Ben Summerskill and Alan Wardle. Their work ought to be acknowledged and I hope it will be eloquently championed by Members in all parts of the House. The EOC has raised important issues, which I hope the Minister will address in her winding-up speech.
There is some concern in the EOC that sections 55 and 73 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 are not replicated in the Bill. There are specific powers under those sections that allow the EOC to review health and safety requirements as they can affect, for example, cases of pregnant women in employment. Similarly, I think I am
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right in saying from memory that section 73 of the Sex Discrimination Act gives powers to the EOC to pursue strategic cases against recalcitrant employers who persistently behave badly and then typically, as a commercial tactic, settle out of court before the heat in the kitchen becomes unbearable.
As I understand it, under present law, relying on the 1975 Act, the EOC has been emboldened over a long period to pursue cases. There is a concern that that power might not exist under the Bill. If that were so, notwithstanding the commitment that the Government have made to ensure a direct transfer of powers and functions, it would necessarily follow that the EOC would be in a relatively diminished position. I very much hope that that is not the case. The Minister might well be able to reassure me. She knows very well that I approach these matters in a non-partisan spirit, and I would go so far as to say that I would dance round the mulberry bush in celebration if she were able to tell me that my concern was unfounded. However, on the basis of a cursory perusal of the terms of the Bill, I think my concerns have some grounds.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench repeatedly and powerfully made the case for a single equality Act, and I welcome his comments. We cannot entirely anticipateit would be premature to do sothe findings of the equalities review and the discrimination law review. That said, we have a lot of evidence to study. There is a good intellectual argument for saying that if the work of a number of commissions is to be brought together into one commission, there is a certain logical coherence, if not inevitability, about having a single equality Act from which the powers, functions and, dare I say it, the comportment, culture and language of the new body should flow. I use those terms advisedly and with some force. The terms of the Bill are one thing; the way in which they are applied, the enthusiasm with which the tasks are embraced and the sense of understanding and rapprochement between the different equality strands are of the essence in translating aspiration into reality.
The hon. Member for Gordon made the point with some passion; I shall do so slightly differently. If memory serves me correctly, we currently have in equality and anti-discrimination legislation no fewer than 35 Acts, 52 statutory instruments, 13 codes of practice, three codes of guidance and 16 European directives and recommendations. I was not a competent mathematician at school, but I believe that that adds up to no fewer than 119 pieces of legislation or guidance flowing from this House or the European Union appertaining to equality and anti-discrimination. Given that an important part of the thrust of the motivation behind the Bill is to ensure that there is coherence, intelligibility, simplicity and focus in public policy, it seems that it is not wildly prescient but merely averagely discerning to suspect that the outcome of the equalities review and discrimination law review will be a commitment from the Government, whatever party that may be, to introduce a single equality Act.
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