Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?

Vera Baird: I will—I was actually just about to turn to a point that the hon. Gentleman made.

Mr. Bercow: Given the circumstances, the hon. and learned Lady is especially generous in giving way. Given the importance that the Government rightly attach to the duty to promote gender equality, does she agree that it is not too much to expect—either by amendment in Committee or through secondary legislation—a firm commitment to require pay reviews and action to counter pay discrimination not only in the provision of in-house services by public authorities, but in relation to contractors? When services are outsourced, action must
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1354
be taken to ensure that those who service the Government operate by the standards that the Government apply in-house.

Vera Baird: Three aspects of how the gender duty will impact on the pay gap need clarification. Presumably—I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will confirm this—public bodies will be required to address unlawful pay discrimination and carry out pay reviews. However, will the duty go beyond pay reviews and pay discrimination so that the kind of matters that the Women and Work Commission is starting to throw up can be examined? It has issued only a position paper thus far, but it has already found subtle ways in which the emergence of women into equal pay is being obstructed, although they can be remedied. As the hon. Gentleman says, the provision is necessary because although the definition of a public body covers any body that has functions of a public nature and the duty will therefore cover a private security firm that is contracted to provide a public function, for example, that duty will extend only to the public function, not to the whole of the private company. Consequently, the application of contract compliance becomes extremely important. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that that is what is anticipated and intended, although I do not expect much detail at this early and rather queer stage of the Bill.

I shall end where I started by giving a welcome to the Bill and a predictive welcome to what I think of as the single equalities Bill that will soon follow. In a few weeks' time, when Labour has been re-elected for an historic third time and that Bill is introduced, we will, with a straight face, have to say what we have said today all over again. Our re-election is an exhilarating prospect, whereas the repetition of this debate is a somewhat debilitating prospect, but I say of both: the sooner, the better.

6.31 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I am in the peculiar position of agreeing with almost everything that everyone has said in this afternoon's debate, which is hardly the right atmosphere in the Chamber on the day that the Prime Minister has asked Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament. However, I disagree with the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) in that I look forward to having the debate again, because some extremely important issues have been raised and although we have had plenty of time today to discuss them and we have heard some excellent speeches, it is worth re-examining them so that we can perfect the legislation before it is properly introduced in the House.

I agreed with much of what the Secretary of State said, in particular her remark that equality is a basic moral imperative—or words to that effect. I agree 100 per cent. and I think that all Members of this House do. It is not so long ago that that statement would not have commanded complete agreement within the Chamber, but it is now accepted that equality is a basic moral imperative and no party would argue differently. What is good about the proposals is that instead of being negative and designed to prevent discrimination, they are positive and designed to promote equality. I welcome that approach.
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1355

It is unfortunate that the Government have timetabled the Second Reading today, when the Bill has no chance of becoming law. What a pity that we did not use all those hours that we spent debating the rights and wrongs of fox hunting to consider this Bill, which, had it become law—in a slightly different form, having been through a proper Committee stage—could have done so much good.

Angela Eagle: I am confused, because the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) suggested that we delay the Bill until all the work had been done on the single equality Bill that must surely follow, whereas the hon. Lady wants us to have introduced this Bill sooner. Clearly, we all want legislation on the statute book as soon as possible, but I am confused about the Opposition Front-Bench team's position.

Mrs. Laing: I am saying that it is a pity that the whole issue was not discussed sooner—not only weeks, but months or years sooner. However, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and her Ministers for much of the work that has been done on equality issues. We discuss those issues week after week, and much progress has been made, which I welcome.

Also welcome is my expectation that in a few weeks' time, when my colleagues and I are sitting on the other side of the Chamber—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) scoffs, but just let him wait. When we are sitting on the Government Benches, we shall have another debate of this type as a prelude to introducing our legislation on equality, to which we are all committed. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asked when that was likely to happen. All I can say is that it has taken the Labour Government eight years to reach this stage, but it will not take the next Conservative Government as long, because for us it is a priority.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) put our case extremely eloquently. I reiterate what he said about the importance of the value of the work force and of fair and equal treatment. He put it so well, saying that what we are trying to do, if this proposed legislation were properly to be brought forward, is to encourage all employers to do what good employers have always done. At the same time we must not put unnecessary burdens on businesses and on employers, especially on small and medium-sized businesses. My worry is that if an employer knows that employing a certain type of employee—be it somebody with a disability, somebody who happens to be female or somebody from a different country—is likely to lead to a case being brought against them for some sort of unfairness, that employer, unfortunately, is likely not to employ that person in the first place. That would be a retrograde step. I do not want to see that happening because I believe passionately in equality of opportunity for everyone in the workplace.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) is right in his plea for the need for strong advocacy in enforcement of the rules that would be brought forward by the commission. Any sort of legislation is meaningless without enforcement. I
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1356
commend the right hon. Gentleman's patience and perseverance, having spent 19 years waiting to see the fruition of the work that he began a fair while ago. I am sure that he must be pleased to see a little step forward, and that much that he wishes to see happening will probably happen in the months ahead.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) made an interesting speech. I agree with his point about the importance of a positive approach and the need to promote a duty of equality rather than just to provide a right to complain in retrospect. He is right to promote sign language, which is what he called his personal soap box. It is so important but it is a much neglected area. I completely support what he has been trying to do. However, how strange it is that when asked how he and his party would implement what he was putting forward as being a reasonable idea, he said at the same time that his party would abolish the Department of Trade and Industry. The hon. Gentleman is a clever man and a quick thinker but he had no answer to the question. The truth is that he and his party know that there is no chance that they will be in Government to implement any of the things to which he is referring. He has no answer and he has not thought things through because he does not have to do so.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) answered the hon. Lady. He told her that the Home Office was the obvious place from which to bring forward this sort of legislation. If she reads the words of Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who used to work for Roy Jenkins, she will find that it was a Department that was capable of bringing forward legislation of this sort in the past, and would be capable of bringing it forward in future. Possibly it is a failing of the Department of Trade and Industry that the Home Office is failing to recognise how important human rights are to this country. Perhaps if the Home Office had the connection with human rights, it would be the Department that might start to recognise and respect human rights.

Next Section IndexHome Page