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Angela Eagle: Disgraceful.

Linda Perham: My hon. Friend says, "disgraceful". I just threw that in as a topical example of age discrimination, although not one in this country.

I hope that the discrimination law review, which is being mentioned by the Secretary of State and others, will assess how anti-discrimination legislation can be modernised to fit the needs of Britain in the 21st century and that it will examine those injustices.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) alluded to the number of older people who could make a contribution. More than a third of our population is over 50, including many Members of this place and even more in the other place. Age discrimination in all its forms could affect all of us. The Bill takes a huge step in raising awareness of the need to challenge inequality and to promote human rights for older people.

My support for and belief in fairness and opportunity for all motivate me to serve my constituents and represent them in this place. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned basic moral beliefs as a defining principle. I am proud to agree, and I am proud that a Labour Government are introducing the Bill.

4.55 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Like every Member who has spoken in the debate so far, the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) made a helpful and thoughtful contribution to our proceedings. As she has done throughout her parliamentary career, she emphasised the particular concerns of older people. When one considers only the political merits of the measure, as some of us will be doing in the weeks to come, it is interesting that the emphasis has been not so much on older people as on some other aspects of discrimination. I make no qualitative judgment about that, I merely mention it.

What has struck me about the debate is that we are talking about an argument whose time has come. Its consequences are irreversible and that is much to be welcomed. It will be reflected on the slate of candidates that my party is putting forward, some in very winnable seats, at the general election. There will be much greater diversity on our Benches, which may translate to the other side of the House when we come back. I am delighted about that diversity. It is an index not merely of a party that has changed its views and habits but of a much wider national commitment to changes that need to take place. We all welcome them.

It would be difficult for a Member to come into the Chamber and say that they were against equality. I can certainly tell the House that I am not against equality, but we need to flesh out why we support it and the nature of our enthusiasm, as well as any qualifications that we may have. I am glad that the Bill has received universal support. A strong argument in its favour is that it has been highly consultative and there will inevitably, due to the election timetable, be more consultation to come. Had the Bill been introduced on the back of a bright idea from the Institute of Public Policy Research two or three years ago and rushed through as some legislation has been, it would not have commanded the same degree of authoritative support.

The Bill's support is also due to the considerable work that has been done in a process of dialogue with various stakeholders, including the three equality commissions. I think particularly of my experience with the DRC, to which the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) was kind enough to refer earlier. I began as a sceptic about the DRC, but I leave this Parliament as an enthusiast for its achievements. Conscious of its special role, the DRC was undoubtedly sceptical about the move to a single equality commission, but those difficulties have been largely
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overcome. The EOC has expressed active and enthusiastic support for the Bill, as have many other non-governmental organisations that have written to us.

There is a further need to adjust our legislative base to incorporate all the unfinished business from the European directive, and to make effective and reasonably comprehensive—I stress the word "reasonably"—provision for the new strands of ageism, sexual preference and religious or other belief commitments.

There is also a need, although it is not wholly met by the Bill, to begin to set up the stakes for moving in an evolutionary style towards a harmonisation of the various approaches to discrimination in all its forms and to deal with the problems that have been mentioned about double, triple or quadruple jeopardy for people who may be discriminated against in a number of ways. Finally, and in no sense least in my book, there is a need to move the public debate on to give some teeth and force to the human rights agenda in its widest sense.

Those are all strong arguments in principle for the Bill, and I will say in a moment where I stand in relation to the introduction and timing of the Bill measured against other issues, but I must enter a degree of caution about overselling it. Indeed, I usually need to advise the Government against overselling their legislation generally. The Bill looks good. As I said, it would be a brave man or woman who came to the House this afternoon and said that they were against equality or against legislation to promote it, but the Bill is more about machinery than concept. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in introducing it was heavy on the concept—I genuinely agreed with her in an intervention—but, in fact, the Bill is about machinery.

Frankly, before the consultation process, Ministers initially ran into difficulties even with their own statutory bodies. I can remember some pretty blistering initial comments from the Commission for Racial Equality, and the DRC had familiar reservations. Those reservations have been largely resolved in the process to date, but the Bill is, of course, by definition, given the timing, only a demonstration of commitment. That is what we are hearing this afternoon. We all know that the real business is to come, and that there must be further examination, input, consultation and, of course, the parallel process of the studies to which Ministers have referred.

The questions rightly put by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) from the Conservative Front Bench are always reasonable ones. Are the resources sufficient and appropriate? Is the new structure adequate to carry the weight for all the various strains and to represent the interests of those who are within those strains? Equally, is it possible to put together what has been an historic legacy of different commissions in a way that is as economic and cost-saving as possible, while providing equal convenience and service for users?

For example, the DRC has an excellent helpline. It is terribly important that that is continued and that the help is provided by people who are disability specialists. I am not too interested in one sense in the tokenism of the membership of the commission, although it is often useful in practice to include those who have direct
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experience of the difficulties and discrimination that people face. I am absolutely concerned that there should be a proper underpinning of expertise. Indeed, there was some historic concern from Northern Ireland, when the single commission was created, about whether those pockets of expertise were continuing. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston was right to remind us, as he so often does, about the importance of advocacy and supporting people in their concerns.

Much reference has been made already—in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), magnificently from his own memory—to the very clear briefing provided by Stonewall about the ramshackle nature of the existing law. With all the different bits of law that apply—I think that he totalled them at 119—it is rather like a kind of Austro-Hungarian empire that has built up and is now applicable. Ministers are conscious of that; they have commissioned their own review of discrimination law, and a parallel study of equalities is being carried out under Trevor Phillips, and I welcome both of those.

I follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Ilford, North in thinking that there must be concern not just about the different bits of law, but about the fact that, even after the Bill, their application will still be very uneven. There will not be positive duties relating to age or sexual preference. Again, we must return to the fact that enforceability measures on human rights are weaker than those on discrimination. I did not think that the Secretary of State's explanation that addressing that might be rather bothersome and go too far was entirely convincing.

Mr. Bercow: Leaving aside the issue of the duty on public authorities and focusing for a moment on the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the provision of goods, services and facilities, does my hon. Friend think that it is unfortunate that the cases of gay and lesbian people are not advanced in any way under the terms of that aspect of the Bill, given that considerable publicity has been given to the example last year of a gay couple who were denied the right to stay in a Scottish hotel—if I remember rightly—because of a bigoted and prejudiced proprietor? It is unfortunate that that aspect of the matter cannot be dealt with now, although perhaps it could be by amendment in Committee.

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