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Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman has had a few hours since the hon. Member for Gordon failed to answer the question, and he has thought up a really good answer. Perhaps he has worked out in the intervening period that his party might be trying to position itself in some form of coalition in the weeks ahead. That is extremely interesting. I commend him on trying to sort out a difficult situation. It might well come to that.

The hon. Gentleman for Sheffield, Hillsborough—[Interruption.] I beg the hon. Lady's pardon. I should have said the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson).

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): It is equality.

Mrs. Laing: No. I never think that addressing a lady as a gentleman means equality. After all, a woman who seeks equality lacks ambition. The hon. Lady has been committed to these issues for many years, and she made a spirited speech today. I am sure that the whole House will wish her well in whatever the future holds for her.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made an impassioned speech in which he referred to respect and used the excellent phrase "equality before the law". That is what this is all about. He and I have supported some slightly unpopular causes, and we have always been right; we are winning through. With his usual eloquence, he explained how the Bill could be improved, and I look forward to that happening in the near future. He asked the Minister an important question, of which I am sure she has taken note, about the obligations on public authorities in regard to equal pay. We look forward to hearing her answer.

The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) has shown a consistent commitment to age equality. I recall the private Member's Bill that she introduced some time ago, about which she was extremely enthusiastic and on which she worked very hard. She made a good point today about the lack of a positive outlook on age. The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) intervened on her to point out that the work force needed older people, and that is true. However, we must also remember that, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made such a dreadful mess of the pensions system, older people often no longer have a choice about whether to work; many of them have to work because the pensions in which they have invested during the whole of their working lives have been plundered by the Chancellor's taking £5 billion per annum out of private pension schemes. Surely we therefore owe it to the older people in society who have been forced to work when they want to retire to ensure that they should not be discriminated against when they apply for jobs. Let us not forget that, while most of us can never change our race or ethnic origin and very few of us change our sex, we shall all change our age. It would be rather short-sighted not to look forward to the time when that happens.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has been dedicated to promoting issues of disability, special needs education and equality for many years. He has committed himself to championing some unglamorous causes with his customary understatement and forensic accuracy. He is totally right to say that there is a business case for taking action. There is certainly a moral case for doing so, but there is also a business case. He also made some important suggestions on how the Bill could be improved, and I very much look forward to seeing him and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk introducing a new Bill when they become Ministers in a few weeks' time.

Keith Vaz: As the hon. Lady prepares for ministerial office, will she address the point that I made in my speech that it is important that the new commission should be located outside London? I put forward the view that Leicester would be an excellent place for it. Will she make an early commitment, before she becomes a Minister, to accept Leicester as the location?

Mrs. Laing: I think that I could make a commitment that, when I am in that position, I could come to Leicester to review the possibilities.
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Keith Vaz: You are already wriggling.

Mrs. Laing: No—Leicester would be an excellent place. It is in the middle of country, so why not?

The hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) was right to say that we must ensure that no teeth are lost in the streamlining process. I wonder whether that was in the Age Concern brief.

Sir Robert Smith: Some of the new body's teeth are to promote human rights and the European convention in this country. Would the hon. Lady pull those teeth from the Bill under the leadership of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) or would she keep them to promote the rights?

Mrs. Laing: The Conservative version of the Bill will have all the teeth that the measure currently possesses. That is a reasonable commitment.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) has been committed to equality for many years and she spoke passionately about it. That also applies to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who is right to make the case for small businesses and saving money. There is no point in putting three bodies into one if the costs increase. Creating one body out of three is the perfect opportunity to save costs; the public expenditure thereby saved could then be better spent on other things.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East was right to say that members of all sectors of our society must be given opportunity on merit but, sadly, some parties on the fringes of British politics do not agree. I hope that very few people cast votes for those parties in the forthcoming general election.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar who is chairman of the all-party group on equalities, of which I am pleased to be an officer, as ever made an excellent and impassioned speech. We can all work together on the issue.

The Bill is correct, not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is good for the people of this country and our economy. We all believe in equality; let us go forward and try to achieve it.

6.47 pm

The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality (Jacqui Smith): I agree with hon. Members from all parties about the quality of our debate today. I should like to put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and, for an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). All have a proud record of campaigning for equality and against discrimination in the House, in our party and in their communities. I also put on record my welcome for the support from Opposition parties for the Bill, especially given that the measure is so ambitious, as the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said.
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The Bill needs to be ambitious because it aims to help nurture the sort of society that can meet with confidence the challenges of the future. We want a society in which, as the Bill makes clear in clause 3's groundbreaking fundamental duty, every individual can achieve their full potential and enjoy equal respect and dignity. We want a society in which every one of us has an equal chance to participate and contribute, and where our communities are strong, vibrant and celebrated as part of the essential fabric of modern Britain. The Bill is the latest step in the development of our equality and human rights framework. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says, it builds on the excellent work of the existing equality commissions, to which I pay tribute, and that of many other organisations that strive to make Britain a better place for all.

Despite the progress that we have made in the past 30 years, there is still too much evidence of persistent inequalities, whereby people's life chances are blighted because of who they are instead of enhanced by what they can bring to our workplaces, communities and civil society. Although our law has moved on, no institutions exist to enforce new regulations on sexual orientation, religion and belief—and, when they arrive, on age. Despite our historic human rights legislation, there is no institution providing advice on or promoting human rights. Individuals facing discrimination need to decide into which box they fit in order to get support, and employers large and small who want to do the right thing to tackle discrimination need to shop around for the right advice. The time is therefore right for a step change to meet those future challenges.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Jacqui Smith: No, because I am short of time. I am sorry.

The single commission for equality and human rights will ensure greater impact, relevance, ease of access and coherence.

I want to try to respond to some of the points made about the commission. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough—to whom I also extend my best wishes for what I know will continue to be an active and, in the broadest sense, political life following her retirement from the House—made the case strongly for legislation to change culture. In particular, she argued that we need both promotion of the values of equality and diversity and sufficient enforcement powers to make a difference. I assure her that we have put in place the necessary teeth in terms of modern enforcement powers to ensure that the commission is able to do that.

In relation to individual cases, which were raised by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), funding will come from the commission for equality and human rights budget. At the behest of stakeholders, we have not set down specific criteria on which cases should be supported. That will rightly be a decision for the commission to take, and will be part of its strategic planning in relation to spending priorities.
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I know that there is concern about rolling forward the provisions in sections 55 and 73 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. It is our intention that there will be no regression in the powers of the commission, particularly with regard to section 73. We are examining carefully what to do to ensure that that is the case. Perhaps I can write to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk on the point about freedom of information in relation to clause 6.

I want to respond, however, to the point made about the state of the nation report and the function of the commission to monitor equality. That is an innovative new duty to measure progress on human rights and equality. It is important, of course, that the commission gets it right. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk argued that the process should happen every year. In fact, we will need to take time both to gather evidence and to ensure that the right indicators are in place. That is why clause 13 provides for wide consultation. It is important that that process should not be rushed. I assure him that under clause 44, the commission will be able to continue an action started by one of the three existing commissions.

One of the important things about the commission will be the way in which it recognises the new nature of devolution in the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North raised issues in relation to Wales. I assure her that members of the Wales committee, while appointed by the CEHR board, will in practice be appointed in consultation with the National Assembly for Wales. Of course, the chair of that committee will be the commissioner with special responsibility for Wales, who will have been appointed in agreement with the Assembly. We will of course want to ensure that the commission works closely with both the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the older persons' commissioner for Wales.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston and others raised the issue of disability in particular. We have listened carefully and taken into consideration the recent history of development in relation to disability, not least the important progress made with the Disability Rights Commission. That is why we have made provision for a disability commissioner and disability committee. As my right hon. Friend said, many people in the disability world are now convinced and more confident that they will benefit from a commission that can not only give a strong voice to disabled people in determining progress on their legislation, which is right, but address cross-strand issues and be a more powerful and effective body.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East for his comments about the way in which the Government have tried to listen to the understandable concerns of black and ethnic minority communities, especially those represented by the Commission for Racial Equality, the 1990 Trust and others.

We have listened, I believe that we have addressed those concerns, and I can give my hon. Friend this commitment: we will continue to listen to those communities and ensure that they have a voice through the commission. I entirely agree that we must ensure that both commissioners and staff represent a model for the diversity that we feel should be promoted.
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