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Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). I note with interest that the modernising tendency of the Conservative party is in great evidence, but the massively empty green Benches around the hon. Gentleman demonstrate that the enemy, if I might put it that way, in internal Conservative party terms has not really made an appearance today, which is a pity. It would have been interesting to hear from those Members and learn of their thoughts on a radical and welcome Bill. I am sure that those of us who are fortunate enough to be back in this place after the election will hear from them.

I congratulate the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality on introducing the Bill, and on the great deal of work on it that she has personally undertaken. I
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congratulate her and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the work that they have done as Ministers with responsibility for women and equality. Who knows what position anyone will hold when we get back after the election, but I would like to pay tribute to them now. Baroness Morgan initiated the move towards a single commission, and those of us who agree with that approach will want to put on record our thanks to her for that. The measures are now close to fruition, although this is perhaps more of a dress rehearsal than the opening night of a play. However, we shall just have to enjoy it for what it is, and anticipate the debates to come in the next Parliament.

I welcome the approach taken by the Bill. It has been commented on by many of those who have spoken today. It represents the modernisation of the way in which we regard equality legislation, and a move forward from the approach introduced by a great heroine of mine, Barbara Castle, who put a great swathe of anti-discrimination protections on to the statute book in the 1970s, ranging from the Equal Pay Act 1970 to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and by the former Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, to whom moving tributes were paid yesterday, who was responsible for the race relations legislation that accompanied that first generation of laws. Those laws made a big difference in what had been an area of great worry and narrowed life opportunities, in which people who were being subjected to prejudices and discrimination through no fault of their own found themselves without legal redress.

I am encouraged by the debate that we have had today. The time is now right to move on to a different generation of anti-discrimination legislation that seeks to prevent discrimination from happening in the first place—rather than offering redress after it has happened, important though that is—and to promote equality. That is a much more proactive approach which will prevent a great deal of distress and alleviate a lot of suffering by ensuring that the discrimination does not happen. That is what we all, as legislators, wish to see in Britain. We must move this legislation on to the front foot, so that it can prevent discrimination from happening rather than arriving after the mess has been made. That is not to say that redress after the event is unimportant, and when the Bill finally reaches its Committee stage, we shall look carefully at the enforcement powers of the new, and very welcome, single commission, to ensure that none of its teeth are lost in the transition.

It is also important to welcome clause 3, which sets out in very eloquent terms the fundamental duties of the commission for equality and human rights. I shall read out its provisions, because they really do say it all. It requires the commission to work towards the

That is an important aspiration, which has been shared across the House in today's debate. Clause 3 also requires the commission to ensure that

and that

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I could not have put it better myself. I would be pleased to see such an aspiration and duty on the face of British legislation. It marks a shift away from trying to clear up the mess after the event through redress to trying to forge a different sort of society, in which mutual tolerance and respect is almost taken for granted, and is promoted and expected in all walks of life. I hope that that will apply equally in the private sector, where we have a little more to do.

Mr. Bercow: I agree with the hon. Lady's point about prevention rather than redress whenever possible. However, given that there has been widespread flouting of the law on the minimum wage—an important Government policy—does she agree that one way in which to concentrate ministerial minds would be for the Government to give a commitment, which Conservative Front Benchers would echo, to an annual debate on equality issues on the Floor of the House so that evidence of breaches could be highlighted?

Angela Eagle: All attempts to raise the issues in Parliament, whether in Government time or in other ways, are welcome. When we ultimately reach a Committee stage, we might want to re-examine the Bill to ascertain whether to include further mechanisms in it. Given the good will in the House, at least today, I hope that we can find reasonable ways of realising that ambition.

Despite 30-odd years of anti-discrimination legislation, serious problems remain. The gender pay gap is approximately 18 per cent. on average, and is grossly higher in some sectors of the economy, especially financial services, where it is about 60 per cent. Members of ethnic minorities suffer from a similar gap, for which only their ethnicity can account, and it is as unacceptable as the gender pay gap. The House will consider the Disability Discrimination Bill tomorrow—thank goodness that will reach the statute book. However, people with disabilities are not even at the starting gate because many are denied the practical right to get to work, participate fully in society and make the undoubted contribution that their many talents would bring to it. We want the new single commission to assist us in dealing with those formidable problems.

I especially welcome the extension in part 2 of the goods and services protection on the ground of race. However, I echo the impatience that has been expressed in the Chamber today at the exclusion of what I call the orphan strands—sexual orientation, age and religious belief—which currently have no primary legislation. I suspect that we can put that right only through a rapid move to a single equality Act. My right hon. Friend the Minister knows that I have been pushing for that in the party—it is now official party policy—and in any other way that I can, including involvement in the all-party group and working with Lord Lester, who is a doughty campaigner on such issues. I promoted his private Member's Bill in this House after he managed to carry it in the other place. It is important to get on with this matter quickly.

I especially welcome the duty in the Bill to promote equality on the ground of gender. The Government promised to do that in 1998, but used the ominous
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phrase, "when legislative time is available". Some of us have fought since then to ensure that legislative time would be made available. We have not quite made it under the gate as it closes on this Parliament, but I hope that we will revert to it as a matter of great urgency in the next. I am encouraged by the response to my question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East—[Hon. Members: "West."] How could I confuse the Members for Leicester, West and for Leicester, East? I must be having a tiring day. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I was encouraged by the Secretary of State's answer that we would proceed rapidly from dress rehearsal to the real thing at the earliest opportunity in the next Parliament.

It is interesting that the Joint Committee on Human Rights described the Bill in uncharacteristically enthusiastic terms as

I am encouraged that there is enthusiasm for creating a mechanism to ensure that the rights of British citizens under the Human Rights Act are effectively safeguarded without the need for extremely expensive and cumbersome constant recourse to the courts. I know that other Members want to concentrate on that issue, so I will not pursue it. The fundamental duty of the single commission, however, is very welcome.

I agree with many of those who have said that we need a robust legal framework for the commission for equality and human rights to enforce. That brings us back inexorably to the case for a single equality Act, and the importance of ensuring that such an Act reaches the statute book as quickly as possible in the next Parliament, consistent with doing a good job on the drafting. To that end, I am extremely encouraged that the discrimination law review has been set up, with the equality review working in tandem with it, to begin to do the work on what the single equality Act will look like. It is important that that proceeds as quickly as possible so that the single commission has a coherent set of legislation to enforce once it is up and running.

It has been said that the existing anti-discrimination law in the UK is rather complex. Different figures have been given for the number of items—I think that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) had slightly more up-to-date figures than I have. I had a figure of slightly less than 100, but a few more statutory instruments and EU directives have probably passed me by since I last did a count. We can all agree, however, that people must try to find their way through a tangled, inconsistent, unpredictable, piecemeal and complex web—even when, as in the majority of cases, I believe, employers wish to do the right thing and ensure that they abide by the law.

Such a complex network of legislation and duties also makes it almost impossible for individuals who believe that they may have been discriminated against to find out, by examining the law, what their rights are, how they might access them and how they might protect them, unless they have the support of, say, a trade union or an advocacy group, which can teach them and point out what their rights are. Ideally, a simplified, harmonised approach is needed. We need an approach that consolidates some of the law that we have, but that
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also extends that law. As many Members on both sides of the House have pointed out today, there are some serious loopholes and inconsistencies in the law, which create a hierarchy of discrimination and protection from discrimination, which is unjustifiable when it is examined.

The existing law is under-inclusive. Those who are discriminated against on the grounds of gender, race or disability are more widely protected than those who are discriminated against in relation to what I have referred to as the orphan strands—the newer strands of sexual orientation, age and religious belief. As has been pointed out by other Members who have contributed to the debate, those of a certain age or sexual orientation may be actively discriminated against in the provision of goods, services or facilities, yet have no redress in law.

The present position is ridiculous. It is illegal for a landlord to say that he does not want a woman tenant or to prevent someone from becoming a tenant because of that person's colour, but it is not illegal to refuse tenants because of their age or sexual orientation. I cannot for the life of me see any justification for that. It must be put right as quickly as possible.

As I said earlier, we must shift the focus towards promotion and prevention rather than concentrating only on redress. That means restructuring some of our current laws. Our efforts to introduce a single equality Act must proceed in parallel with work that has already begun to create mechanisms for the enforcement of such a law, and the establishment of the commission for equality and human rights. I hope that in the next Parliament, in the not too distant future, we shall be able to enact both pieces of legislation. I welcome this dress rehearsal, and look forward to the real thing.

5.36 pm

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