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Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I apologise for the fact that I was unavoidably absent for the middle part of this debate, although I followed proceedings with one ear as much as I could. I want to add my voice to all those who have spoken in support of the Bill.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 has been on the statute book for 30 years and, although the Secretary of State may not be aware of it, I worked very hard to ensure its success. I campaigned, lobbied, marched, wrote letters and attended endless meetings in its support, and it is good that the thinking on which it was based is being extended across society.

While I campaigned for the 1975 Act, in my heart of hearts, I hoped that it would eventually be repealed when we had succeeded in achieving our aims and objectives in respect of equality for women. It is sad that, 30 years later, we are still talking about it. I hope that it does not take another 30 years before our successors can repeal this legislation, which I believe will achieve a huge amount. It is part of the great tradition in which legislation is used to change cultural attitudes. Legislation has a real role in that process and I am sure that, in the long run, this Bill will ensure that discrimination is eliminated from our society.

I do not want to repeat what many have said already, but neither do I want the warm welcome that this Bill has received in the Chamber to end up with us being burned as we were by the Child Support Act 1991. All hon. Members will remember the heart-rending child support cases that we heard about in our postbags and surgeries, and we should be wary about a Bill that receives a similarly warm reception here. When the Bill is enacted, I am sure that it will be broadly helpful, but we must look at it with a critical eye to ensure that it does not cause the resentment and difficulties experienced with other legislation.

I am keen that the CEHR should succeed and hope that the Government are not contemplating a repeat of what happened with the Equal Opportunities Commission. I intend no slur on Manchester, but the EOC was rather banished from what might be called the
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centre of influence. My friends among the commissioners, and my own experience, tell me that the EOC was not as influential as had been hoped when it was established and I am sure that distance was one of the factors in that. I therefore hope that, when the new body is set up, it remains in the centre of influence, which is still London, although I accept that there should be a Welsh and a Scottish element to it because of the devolved Administrations.

It is crucial that the body works with the grain of society. Although there is a need to confront discrimination and prejudice, it is much easier to persuade a society to accept the changes that are required to deliver equality if people are encouraged to go along that route, rather than enraged or driven to take that route because resentment has built up. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) about the need to work with the grain of society, making sure that businesses, organisations and the community feel that it is in their own best interest to rid society of discrimination and to work towards equality because it would deliver a better society.

It is important that the new organisation is clear in its thinking. One problem with other equality bodies is that language has been developed that is all-encompassing and which avoids the issue in order not to offend. The problem is that the language itself is derided and people ignore or deride the organisation. None of us wants the efforts to abolish inequality to be undermined by language that invites mockery. We label it politically correct language, but in my view using such language often means avoiding clarity of thought. If we are not clear in our objectives and the meaning of the words that we use, we are likely to undermine our objectives. It is crucial that the CEHR is clear about what it wants to achieve and that it speaks in language that is readily understood.

Reading the explanatory notes, one thing that struck me was the general duty on the public bodies to ensure gender balance, with which I have no quarrel. That is not before time and I wish them all success in so doing. What slightly bothers me is how that is to be implemented—whether it will be implemented from the centre, whether public bodies will be subject to further quotas and targets, whether there will be costs to the bodies for the measurement of their achievements or lack thereof, and what impact those costs could have on the organisation, in terms of extra administration, and ultimately on the taxpayer or, in the case of local government, the council tax payer.

We are all well aware that council tax has risen steeply in recent years and that there is huge resentment of it. I would not wish legislation to be approved that added further costs to public bodies. It is encouraging that an organisation such as the Audit Commission is reviewing the amount of auditing work that it imposes on the bodies that it audits. I would hate to think that we were complicit in adding further costs, having just taken some away, particularly from local government. I would like the Minister to assure us that provisions to ensure gender balance will not give rise to extra costs and bureaucracy.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry that it is in the best interests of small businesses to maximise the quality of their employees. Labour Members discussed whether small businesses
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should be exempt from the legislation and I should be grateful to hear the Minister's thoughts on that and whether it is an issue for the equalities review. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said that 90 per cent. of business is comprised of small businesses and that we must ensure that they are not overburdened or over-regulated. One million jobs have gone from manufacturing industry in the past few years and we do not want to put yet another regulatory burden on small businesses. We need to work with them so that they are encouraged to hire people and are not badgered and bullied into it.

Three organisations are being consolidated into one and there will be savings on premises. However, there will be overlapping expertise and the cost to the new organisation will be higher. The existing commissions believe that they do not have sufficient resources and it will be difficult for the Department to work out the balance, but we must ensure that, when the bodies are consolidated, duplication in obvious areas is winnowed out or efficiency will be reduced. No new body would want to be labelled inefficient from the start.

My final point is more personal. We have discussed the groups that we do not want to suffer discrimination, but I am concerned about the stigma that still attaches to people with mental health problems. When we discuss discrimination against people with disabilities, mental health disabilities are often overlooked. Society still stigmatises people with mental health disabilities more than those with physical disabilities. Will the Minister assure me that the commission's remit will cover mental health so that it can work with the broader population to alleviate people's fears about those with mental health problems? People who are mentally ill are capable of recovering because modern drugs and treatment enable them to play a full part in society. If that is achieved, a large group of people—one in five will suffer from a mental illness at some time—will have that stigma removed and be able to play a full part in society.

With those slightly cautionary notes, I wish the Bill well, but I also think that we need to look at it with a clear eye. There are pitfalls that we need to avoid before it passes into law, leaving us needing to change the legislation at a later date.

6.5 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am delighted to take part in what is probably the last Second Reading debate of this Parliament and which, because the Bill will not be able to complete all its stages, may well provide the first Second Reading debate of the next Parliament when we come back after the election. I have been in the House for 18 years, and I cannot recall such a good-tempered debate on an issue that used to cause great controversy. I remember debates on equality and race and community relations in which there was much anxiety and distress among Members on both sides. Certainly, that was so when we were the Opposition and the Government were Conservative. That has not happened today, and we have heard some excellent speeches on both sides. Three in particular deserve mention—those from the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)—and we
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have just had a speech from the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). I often vote for the hon. Member for Buckingham as Back Bencher of the year; I know that he did not win this year, just, and he cannot win every year, but I am sure that after the election I shall vote for him as the Opposition Front Bencher of the year, because I am sure that his hard work in Parliament will be rewarded by whoever is the next Leader of the Opposition.

What has been good about the debate are the constructive points that Members have put in welcoming what the Government propose to do in the Bill. We have needed a Bill of this kind for some time, and there is no doubt huge support for it outside Parliament. All of us have received a briefing note from practically every one of the organisations involved, and there is universal praise. When the Law Society agrees with Stonewall and the Citizens Advice Bureau with Age Concern, there must be something very right about what the Government propose.

There is all-party endorsement, although I am sorry that I missed the speech from the Liberal Front-Bench spokesman and most surprised to see so few Liberal Democrat Members attending; they often claim to belong to the party that speaks for equality, but they obviously do not feel that so strongly that they felt they should come here in large numbers, which is a pity.

As the Secretary of State said, equality is the defining issue of our age. I am proud to have been a member of the first multiracial Government in this country's history, and I am very proud of what the Labour Government have done since 1997 on equality issues. In a sense, the Bill is an emphatic underlining of the work that we have done and a pledge to continue it after the election.

A lot of tributes have been given to Ministers, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, who has steered the Bill through from the initial consultation period, but I particularly mention my Leicester colleague, the Secretary of State, for her work on the equality issue. I have called her the champion of equality. I share a city and a community with her, and we go to many community events together. Throughout her long career, and even before she came to the House through her work for the National Council for Civil Liberties, she has always championed the ethnic minority community and women's rights. It is therefore right that she should have introduced the Bill.

My concern when the Bill was published—a concern, too, of the black and Asian community—was that we did not want the Government to abolish the Commission for Racial Equality. We felt that this was not the right time to deal with the CRE on the same basis as the other organisations. I welcome the fact that a number of organisations that have never had a commission acting on their behalf, such as Stonewall and Age Concern, will be included, with all these other strands, but I felt, and the community felt, that there was a strong case for keeping the CRE outside the ambit of the new commission until it was ready to join. Ministers in this Government listened very carefully to what the community had to say. They accepted the points made by organisations such as the 1990 Trust, listened to the consultation that took place and heeded
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the wise words of the CRE chairman, Trevor Phillips, who will now be chairing the equalities review, and they accepted that this was not the right time.

On race, a number of issues had to be resolved and time was needed to ensure that that was done before the CRE became part of that whole. We therefore welcome the fact that late entry is being accorded to the CRE. That commitment has been warmly welcomed by the community as a whole. That does not detract from the fact that we need to get on and ensure that we have the single equality Act that we need to ensure that the Human Rights Act 1998 is very much a part of our everyday life in this country.

I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) will be speaking next. There is no better advocate or champion of human rights legislation. She is much more experienced on these matters than I am, and I am sure that she will cover this point. When that legislation first became part of our domestic law, there were concerns about how it would develop. We all welcome it, and it has become part of the everyday life of our country; indeed, it is part of the law. It is right that the commission will recognise human rights issues within its overall ambit. Why have four or five commissions when we could have one commission on equality?

The other important point in this debate is the way the chairman of the commission and the other commissioners are chosen. I know that there is detail in the Bill and that we will have a chance to scrutinise it when it goes into Committee after the election, but it is important that we ensure that the commission properly reflects the community as a whole and the stakeholders in this new organisation.

The point made by the hon. Member for Beckenham is also important. I am not sure whether she was in favour of or against targets for public bodies. I think that targets are a very good idea. I recently completed a report called "Making Progress", which looks at Government appointments to quangos over the past five years with particular reference to the black and Asian community. The power of appointment is an extremely important weapon, and we need to make sure that we use it to put black and Asian people on to those committees, to put more women on to our quangos and to make sure that every group in society is properly represented.

The hon. Member for Daventry, a former Minister who, in government, had the opportunity to make a number of appointments, correctly talked about the huge talent that we have in this country. That is why we have a leadership role in equality and race issues in Europe. We are able to show by example—not by positive action but by merit—how our various communities, not just the black and Asian community, but women and all the other communities that make up Great Britain, have been able to contribute to the country. That is something that we can be proud of, but we need to go much further. Of course, jobs must be awarded on merit, but when the commission is formed, we must ensure not only that the commissioners are representative of society as a whole but, much more importantly, that people who have executive positions are also properly representative of society. That is happening with the civil service now; it is getting better. However, as the Secretary of State and the Minister of
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State have said in speeches on the issue, there is still so much more that can be done. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar is a rare example of a woman QC, but she was appointed on merit; she just happened to be a woman.

There has been much better progress in some Departments, especially in the Home Office. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was Home Secretary, targets were introduced for the first time. In the Lord Chancellor's Department, now the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Lord Chancellor has made a huge effort to ensure that there is adequate diversity in the appointment of the judiciary—all based on merit. The basis of equality is to ensure not that we have positive discrimination in this country, but that every citizen has the right to be chosen on their merits.

On today of all days, when the Prime Minister has asked Her Majesty for a general election and Parliament is to be dissolved, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) made a good point: the Bill is a good campaigning issue. It seems as though there will be common ground, which is good for politics and for our country. If equality and race could be taken above party politics and become campaigning subjects across parties and across the political spectrum, that would be the way forward.

My final point is about location. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality may want to announce that the new commission will be based in Redditch, but what better place to house the new equality commission than the great city of Leicester?

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