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Keith Vaz: Leicester, East is not yet a city. However, the architect of the legislation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, comes from Leicester and by 2010 the city will have more people of Asian origin than any city in Europe, and half our population happens to be women. It is a perfect location, so in supporting the Bill I put in a bid for the city of Leicester. If we spoke to the Secretary of State she might be in favour of that as well.
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): Even the members of the commission will have to relax some time. Redcar has a fantastic beach, so my bid is for the location to be further north than Leicester. However, I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who gave such an amusing and knowledgeable address.
I welcome the Bill. I hope I do not sound like a pompous lawyer, but I should like to welcome it not just personally but as chair of the all-party group on equalities. We thoroughly congratulate my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, who are great champions for equalities, and in particular great champions of the rights of women.
The Bill is a huge and strong signal of the Government's commitment to eradicate discrimination and enhance the rights of all members of our society. It makes it clear that the Government understand, if I can put it in shorthand form, that we are all in this together; the pursuit of equalities is not a minority interest.
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Almost equally welcome was the announcement in February of the equalities review, to try to identify the root causes of inequality. I hope and expect that Trevor Phillips can carry out a profound inquiry into the deep-seated, complex and subtle causes of the various inequalities that still limit the personal development of a large number of our citizens at a timethe 21st centurywhen that simply should not be happening.
Like most people, I also welcome the discrimination law review, which I hope will propose a single Act on equality. People are concerned about timing. The review is due to report in summer 2006, so if its proposals are clear, scrutinised reasonably quickly and accepted, by the time the commission starts in 2007 it may have the powers that it needsthe basis of equal law for all strands of inequality.
I repeat a point that has been made before: the current random selection of rights in equalities is unacceptable. There is a public duty for race and there is soon to be one for disability. We have suffered hugely as a gender from the fact that there has been no public duty for gender. That is, of course, in the Bill, but there is still no public duty to promote age.
Equally, discrimination in respect of goods and services on the grounds of race, gender, disability is unlawful. The Bill will prevent discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, but still not on the grounds of age. All those things must be smoothed out and recast to ensure that the new commission is not saddled withI hope that I have in place the right grammatical structurethe oxymoron of a hierarchy of equalities.
I wish briefly to welcome two aspects of the commission: the equalities aspect absolutely unequivocally, and the human rights aspect strongly, too. The commission's equality duties, as set out in clause 8, are truly all that we could ask for. The commission must
More prosaically but very practically, a huge advantage to having a single commission working together, even though the strands will obviously conduct their own separate work as well, is that it is not always possible to know the basis on which someone is discriminated against. If a 58-year-old black woman is refused a job, it is essential to have what the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) called a one-stop shop to which she can take her problem. She should not have to guess why she has been refused the job inappropriately. She needs to go to an organisation that can pick her case, run with it and put right what has been wrong. So I am pleased with the equality aspect, and I am pleased, too, with the incorporation of human rights.
Human rights is a very dear issue to me. I pay great tribute to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I was briefly privileged to be a member of that Committee, but long after I left, it carried on its powerful work, which I firmly believe has played a large role in ensuring that
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human rights are part of the Bill and the commission. I strongly compliment my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), who has so very well chaired and led the Joint Committee on Human Rights and truly driven the human rights agenda in this Parliament in a way that is second to none.
"promote the understanding of the importance of human rights . . . encourage good practice in relation to human rights . . . promote awareness, understanding and protection of human rights and . . . encourage public authorities to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998".
I wish to express the devout hope that the commission will be instrumental in bringing about a human rights culture throughout out society. Equality teaches us that we cannot bring about a cultural change by piecemeal advances in rights that come about because of random cases that happen to go to court at any given time. The commission is necessary to drive human rights until they are rooted in our society, so that they become common values that we can use daily to frame and balance what the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) talked about: the decent ways that we should deal with one another.
I want to express three perhaps mild concerns, given the temper of the debate. First, the commission will be able to pursue cases under human rights law where the case is brought on the basis of equality, but if the equality aspect of the case is dropped or somehow falls away, the commission must drop the case completely, unless the Secretary of State gives leave for it to continue on a human rights basis. I cannot think why it should be for the Secretary of State to make such a decision and why the commission cannot determine whether the human rights aspect of the case is good enough to continue in its own right.
My second concern, which I raised with the Secretary of State, is the absence of teeth in relation to the human rights side of the commission. It has no power to issue codes of practice, and no investigatory and enforcement powers. I appreciate what she saidthat we do not want to overburden the commissionbut I hope there will be an opportunity when we discuss the Bill again to consider increasing the powers that relate to the human rights side of the commission, because it is hugely important that human rights are not seen as a lower priority.
The third caution that I raise is the way in which clause 9 is framed. Not surprisingly, and entirely appropriately, it gives priority to promoting rights under the European convention on human rights, which is entirely as one would expect. However, I hope that the provision will not preclude the promotion of broader rights. For example, we are signatories to the convention on the rights of the child and the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. The specific rights in those conventions equally merit dissemination by the commission, so I hope that I can be reassured that clause 9 is not intended to limit the commission's ambit.
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On the commission's budget, I wish to raise a rather different point from that made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). I think the commission will have an annual budget of £70 million plus start-up costs. All three current commissions think that that will not be sufficient and reckon that a budget of £120 million would be closer to that required. Together they get approximately £50 million, so even with the efficiency savings of which Conservative Members understandably made much, the proposed allocation of £70 million would leave only £20 million extra to deal with the three additional strands of equality: the human rights remit, the expanded operation into Scotland, Wales and the English regionsthat is an important point for someone with a north-east constituencyand the important requirements of the new commission's community functions. It is hard to see how £20 million more than that for the current three commissions would be an adequate sum.
Let me turn briefly to the points made by the hon. Member for Buckingham about the Equal Opportunities Commission's fears about what I call in shorthand "the missing powers". Section 55 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 currently gives the EOC the power to review discriminatory health and safety provisions. That is important when there is a requirement to treat women and men differently, such as the way in which pregnant women are treated at work. Section 73 of that Act allows the EOC to tackle persistent discrimination when an individual is unwilling or unable to pursue a complaint. It is important that the commission can take the matter to an employment tribunal, get a ruling and subsequently rely on that in civil proceedings. The power is useful and used frequently, but it is not in the Bill and I cannot think why.
What a wonderful turn of phrase, so hallelujah for it. The provision was promised in 1999 and has now been delivered by the Government. Women will be glad to hear of it in the advent of an election and will be increasingly glad as its impact starts to bite in the years to come. The duty will shift responsibility on to public authorities and they will have to ensure that they take active steps to promote gender equality.
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