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Mr. Boswell: Yes, the short answer is that I agree with my hon. Friend on that, as I have when we have discussed the matter over several years. The issue must be considered properly in Committee. I say this neutrally without making a prediction about the general election. Over the years I have sometimes noticed that Ministers are unnecessarily timid, but can occasionally be encouraged to do the right thing with the assistance of a lively debate in Committee. Unfortunately, however, that is an unrealistic prospect today.

I have said this regarding disability discrimination, but I say it again now because it is still important. There is a need—I hope that the Minister's study of discrimination law will examine this—to consider the different forums under which redress can be obtained in law. Of course, there might be a single commission under the Bill, but there would still be different legal ways of obtaining redress depending on the nature of a
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case. The Minister will well know from our discussions on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 that even in education provision, special educational needs are dealt with by tribunals during the compulsory years, but anyone who complains of discrimination and is older than the compulsory age of education must have recourse to the county court. There are several examples from the past. A study by the Royal National Institute of the Blind showed the different results obtainable through employment tribunals under part 2 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1985 compared with those obtained under part 3 of the Act following discrimination in relation to goods and services. The Minister needs to examine carefully and critically how fairly people will be able to get their legal rights, even if those rights exist in legislation.

I must warn the House that special factors regarding disability do not apply to racial discrimination and arguably apply to a lesser extent to gender discrimination. I am thinking especially of the fact that questions of disability discrimination often hinge on the extent of adaptation and what represent reasonable adjustments. However, one can say quite simply that a person either is a racist or homophobe, or is not. There is not a question of accommodation, but whether people behave acceptably.

I welcome the interaction with the reviews about which the Secretary of State talked. I hope that they will go forward in a good spirit as promptly as possible. We all understand the point well made by the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) that we will need a single overarching legal framework in due course, which I readily concede. It may well be that the studies will coincide with the future reintroduction of the legislation, but, on reflection and partly stimulated by the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, I feel that it would be better to get on with establishing the commission now. There might be advantages in doing so—as a Conservative, I can see the argument for getting the commission up and running—but I say to Ministers, whoever they may be in future, that we must also make sure that the legislation that we enact now is fit for purpose and can be adapted to a new framework, and that ultimately we have a single, overarching, consolidated piece of legislation that everyone can understand and that can be explained in simple terms. At that point, we will have achieved what I believe is a common objective.

It is hardly surprising, given how much politics is in our mind at the moment, that we have discussed the various views and provisions in respect of human rights. Let me say neutrally and with no political intent that I want to see a little less political correctness and a little less legalism and a lot more delivery in terms of securing people's rights and avoiding discrimination. Before coming here, I gave a little thought to the questions what is discrimination and what are a person's rights to avoid it. It seems to me—here I emphasise the point that my hon. Friend made—that there is a proper place for legislation in terms of setting out people's rights, in part to punish defaulters and those who are not willing to play by the rules, and in part to drive good practice by giving management a reason, motive or excuse to do the right thing, while emphasising the strong business case for doing so.
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I have argued that case in the House before, but I shall do so again now. If one is a good diversity employer and if one has an enlightened attitude toward people of different sexual orientation—or whatever—one is more representative of society and one's customer base, and people will come to one's store, bank or service industry because they are more comfortable about doing so. I think that the business case aligns quite closely with what I call, in shorthand, the moral case for these provisions. As has already been said, it is therefore especially important to ensure that, as well as leaders of industry, small and medium-sized enterprises are given active encouragement and support to do the right thing.

I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) that there is scope for more serious analysis of the underlying issues. We are not here because we think that lawyers feel uncomfortable with discrimination or because there is a European directive, or even because the Minister is moving the Second Reading of this piece of legislation. We are here because many of us—perhaps we Conservatives have made less of our commitment in this respect—are aware of the history of under-representation, in effect a denial of full participation in society. Examples include the lagging remuneration of women and the huge unemployment among disabled people—much higher than the average, despite the fact that many want to work. People face obstacles to their career, denial of some of their life chances and, as the Disability Rights Commission is reviewing, functional discrimination in relation to access to medical services. All those things happen. They ought to be a concern of the united commission and of this House. It is not just a matter of passing a piece of legislation that says we are all equal now. It is a matter of asking how unequal are we and what are we going to do about it.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend educated me in these matters some five years ago and he is therefore responsible for a good deal of what has followed. I have always been grateful to him. May I put it to him that the essence of our argument is that legislation of this sort is to be viewed not as a threat to be minimised, but as an opportunity to be grasped, because for individuals and for the country as a whole it makes sense socially, culturally and, indeed, economically?

Mr. Boswell: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He leads me on to my third point by way of general argument. Apart from the need to consider rights as a positive way of driving forward good business practice and apart from having regard to the pockets of functional discrimination that continue in this country and blight it, there is a general national need to conduct our affairs with decency and respect. The word "respect" has appeared in a number of places and it is right that it has.

I believe firmly in the idea of one nation. I do not want to see anybody left out or put upon. I believe positively that our society is strengthened and empowered by diversity. We should all have moved on from the stage of saying that we should not be nasty to one another to asking, "Why wouldn't it be a good thing if we realised what tremendous assets we have in people and made the best use of them?" Surely that is a perfectly proper approach.
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If, in a sense, there is to be an overarching public duty, we could start profitably with clause 3, which provides general duties. Above all, however, public authorities collectively should treat citizens decently. That is what the European convention on human rights was meant to be about. I am not a lawyer but I understand that the convention was very much grounded in the British concepts, of which we are still proud, of common law and equity. It is about how we treat people properly. That is a great prize.

I am not sure how we can underwrite decency into public policy. I do know, however, as a constituency Member—I am sure that we have all had this experience—that people come to see us who have not been treated decently by the public system. There has been a distressing element of harshness, lack of communication, administrative failure or whatever. A Member often has to say, "I am sorry. The system has let you down. I shall try to rescue you from it." We can perhaps do something to improve both public law and public practice to make such an approach more a thing of the past.

Beyond that there are some private duties, which we have personally, in terms of our own moral ethic. There may be no way in practice that we can either achieve, or claim to have achieved, the removal of any discrimination or nastiness from our inner thoughts or our hearts. We cannot legislate for that. However, Government and public people can help both by their own example and the language that they use—for example in election campaigns—and by the way that they approach these issues. They can help also by achieving, encouraging and fostering a higher level of public debate and public education. It is clear that when people are educated, they behave better in relation to these issues than if they are not. If fear can be removed from the process, that is also positive.

I have spoken rather personally because I feel strongly about these matters. I welcome the Bill. I realise that it will not happen now but it paves the way for changes that are important and are already happening, and it reinforces those changes. The process is irreversible but so it should be. As this is part of a process in which we are engaged, I do not want to leave politics—I can assure the House that I am standing as a candidate at this election—unless and until our better instincts as a nation are fulfilled.

5.18 pm

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