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Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend is making an eloquent and powerful case and I would like his advice. Does he believe that we should await the findings of those two reviews before moving forward to one
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consolidated piece of legislation, or would that be a mistake and should we move forward and set up the commission in the first instance?

Mr. Bercow: My view is that we should proceed with the commission for equality and human rights. I do not believe that it is necessary to await the outcome of the reviews, because the proposal to introduce the Bill was decided on the powerful and compelling evidence of unsatisfactory practice before the decision to establish those reviews was taken.

The outcome of the reviews may be invaluable in informing the legislative framework and bolstering the effectiveness of the commission but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk and other right hon. and hon. Members know, there is a tendency to inertia under any Government or, alternatively and sometimes as well, there is a tendency to have too many pieces of legislation and too little time in which to introduce them. My strong preference is to press on with the Bill while we have the momentum.

Our support for the Bill should be unequivocal. I was extremely appreciative of what my hon. Friend said. He did not sit on the fence and there was no question of "on the one hand" and "on the other hand". He rightly expressed reservations from the Front Bench about specific clauses and asked sensible and proper questions, but his clarion call for decisive action could not be bettered by anyone in the House. I pay tribute to him for his commitment. Indeed, he and I have often talked about which of us is the modernising Conservative. I have always tended to say that I am and that I am seeking to persuade him to join me in that cause, but today he was superb. We are all modernisers now; we all want a modernised, successful Conservative party, in government after the election, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) as Prime Minister.

I want to conclude on an issue that has been touched on and which cannot be disregarded. It is business involvement—I use the term advisedly—with the new commission and business reaction to the legislation. There is a fine balance. Everybody these days talks about the importance of better regulation, light-touch regulation and sensitive regulation. I agree with that: my view is that regulation should be relatively light touch in the sense that it should not impede the successful operation of legitimate and fair-minded business. On the other hand, it cannot be so light touch as, frankly, to undermine the very purpose of, and rationale behind, the introduction of the Bill in the first place.

I started by saying, quite categorically, that I thought there was a problem and that it needed to be addressed. The notion, sometimes rather vulgarly popularised in the more down-market red-top tabloids, that prejudice does not really exist and is just the politically correct plaything of politicians of the left has to be decisively challenged and countered. That discrimination is there. Sometimes people suffer in silence because they do not know how they are to secure redress, do not think that they will be heard or do not know where to go. Discrimination and disadvantage exist, and we have to be prepared to tackle them.

What we cannot allow is a regime so minimalist that the noble aspirations of the Bill are not given effect in practice. It has to be light touch, but clear and firm. In
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the best spirit, I suggest to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, who, I hope, will occupy the Minister's post in a matter of weeks, that the principle that should guide public policy here is quite straightforward. The commission on equality and human rights, in dealing with businesses, should be the friend of the willing but uninitiated and the foe of the wilfully non-compliant and incorrigibly discriminatory. I cannot put it more simply than that.

I have often argued for exemptions from legislation for relatively small businesses. I do not think that that approach would work in this context. The point has been made, and rightly, that more than 99 per cent. of businesses in this country are small—more than 99 per cent. employ fewer than 100 people. They account for somewhat over 50 per cent. of the private sector work force, and last time I looked they generated well in excess of two fifths of our national output. In other words, most businesses are small. We cannot simply say in matters of equality, good practice and human rights that they are to be exempt from requirements that will apply to larger businesses and to public authorities.

We have a duty to try to ensure that we are sensitive, that we are not unduly adversarial, that we work with and try to bring the best out of agencies that are trying to do the right thing. But on the principles of equality, of respect and of human rights, there cannot and should not be a compromise.

I welcome the Bill, and I am pleased to have had an opportunity to speak in support of it. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk on his passionate and effective contribution to our proceedings.

4.49 pm

Linda Perham (Ilford, North) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who is the first and last of the great modernisers in the Conservative party.

I, too, welcome the Bill and I wish to focus on the measures aimed at tackling age discrimination, on which I have campaigned since I was elected in 1997. In fact, I was fortunate enough to be drawn ninth in my first private Member's Bill ballot and I introduced a Bill on age discrimination in employment advertisements. Unfortunately, the Government did not support it, but it did lead to the code of practice on age diversity, which has now become the Age Positive programme, so I am very pleased about that.

When I introduced that Bill in 1998, I remember the word "complex" being used about any issues to do with age. I also remember that when my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) was in the relevant position, she, too, used that word when speaking to the all-party group on ageing and older people—of which I have the honour of being secretary—about the Age Equality Commission Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) was trying to introduce in November 2001.

It is disappointing to me that age is the last strand of implementation of the EC directive on equality and employment; it is three years on from the other two strands that were required to be introduced under the directive. This Bill sets in motion the establishment of the commission, which will, at last, include age.
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I am delighted, as is the Equal Opportunities Commission, that the Bill proposes a duty for public bodies to promote gender equality. The EOC says that it is the

However, there is still no duty to promote age equality, when such a provision will now exist for gender, disability and race. The other main omission as far as the age focus is concerned is the protection against discrimination in goods, facilities and services, which I raised in an intervention with the Secretary of State. Part 2, which is quite extensive, extends the protection against discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. Why does the provision not extend to age? I know that the Bill cannot cover everything, but older people have even less time to wait than others.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a particular shortage of skills and expertise in several areas and that now is a good time to encourage older people back into work, to make use of the experience and expertise that they have? She has pursued the issue vigorously for many years. Does she agree that now is an opportune time, when unemployment is so low and there are so many job opportunities, to make a positive effort to get those people back into work?

Linda Perham: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments; he is a man after my own heart on this matter. There is a great cohort of people in their later years who have a big contribution to make and, in fact, they outnumber younger people. Employers would do well to recognise the talents of those older people.

As I was saying, part 2 extends the protection against discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. Clause 56 mentions discrimination in advertisements, which returns us to the Bill that I tried to introduce seven years ago—but I was addressing age discrimination. Older people are demonstrably discriminated against in financial services, including insurance of all sorts, in travel, in car hire, in civic life, where magistrates and jurors have to retire at 70, and in social care, where people who are disabled and over 65 cannot apply for mobility and independent living allowance. There is discrimination in health care. I campaigned with Age Concern to extend the invitation for breast cancer screening to those aged up to 70. I think that the statistics still show that women between the ages of 70 and 74 are most in danger of contracting and dying from breast cancer. Also, I know that we are not within the jurisdiction of the Holy See, but cardinals over the age of 80 are not allowed to vote in the papal elections.

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