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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Meg Munn: How could I refuse?

Mr. Swayne: Has the hon. Lady spotted the fact that religious equality takes up 36 clauses, whereas sexual equality has merely one? That is a shocking shortfall in a Bill about equality. Is she working on an amendment to put sexual equality on the same footing as religious equality?

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): My hon. Friend does not care about either.

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman answers for me. I ask the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) to be patient, as I will get to those aspects later. If he takes the time to read the one clause, he will find that it is about sexual orientation.

The Bill is a key element in the Government's work on equality and human rights. It puts in place a new commission for equality and human rights that will support individuals, employers, service providers and public bodies. We are also examining the root causes of inequality and how they can be tackled through a fundamental review of equality in our society. Furthermore, we are reviewing the legislative framework concerning discrimination with a view to how it should be shaped for the future. The Bill and those reviews should be viewed in the wider context of the Government's manifesto commitment to bring forward a single equality Bill later in this Parliament.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does the Minister share any of my anxieties that the creation of a huge bureaucratic quango is in danger of trampling on many of our much valued freedoms of speech or even—dare one say it—attitude? Is she not concerned that, even if enacted with all the best intentions, a Bill of this size and scope could create more problems that it will solve?

Meg Munn: I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's anxieties on that, or anything else.

Several hon. Members rose—

Meg Munn: I hope that hon. Members will permit me to make a little progress.
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The Government have done more to promote equality and tackle discrimination than any previous Government. We have outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion and belief, and will do so next year for age. The Government have introduced the ground-breaking duty on public authorities to promote race equality, which has been followed by duties for disability, which are on the statute book, and for gender, which are being introduced by the Bill. We established the Disability Rights Commission. We have continued to extend the rights of gay men and lesbians, with the Civil Partnership Act 2004, in an important addition to which we are introducing powers to protect against discrimination in goods and services.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right to say how much work has already been done on gender equality and for transgendered people, as with the 1999 regulations. Is she prepared to take another look at that issue to ensure that transgendered people are included in the scope of goods and services, as outlined already?

Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. A number of people have raised that issue with me. Of course the Government are entirely committed to equality for transsexual or—as some people prefer to be described—transgendered people. However, there are a number of complexities. We have put in place the discrimination law review, about which I will say a little more shortly, and we think that that is the appropriate place to deal with that issue.

Those achievements add to the record of over four decades of the House tackling discrimination, beginning with the first race legislation in the 1960s, and the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act in the 1970s. It is, of course, 30 years this month since the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was passed.

John Bercow: Having enthusiastically supported the Bill on Second Reading on 5 April this year, I do not feel the need to weary the House with the same contribution all over again.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is on his own.

John Bercow: I may be on my own, but I happen to have the advantage of being in the right, which is not something that my right hon. Friend can boast.

May I simply tell the Minister that, in introducing the regulations to protect gay people from discrimination in the provision of services, facilities and goods, it is important that they be introduced soon, that they be comprehensive and that they do not contain get-out clauses that would provide licences for the continuing practice of prejudice?

Meg Munn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes some important points. Of course, it is absolutely right that those regulations should be subject to a good deal of consultation and that we should get those issues right. That is one of the reasons why we want to take our time and why we did not want to proceed with amendments at this point, but have accepted an order-making power in the Bill.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Contrary to the mumblings among Conservative Back-Benchers, by
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which they seem to suggest that equality does not interest them at all, many Labour Members and a few Opposition Members are very grateful to the Government for giving way on the issue of goods and services for gays and lesbians—in particular, because many people in this country are already sick and tired of the fact that their general practitioners refuse to look after them because they are homosexual. That must surely be wrong, and we are grateful to the Minister for giving way on that issue.

Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Of course such things are wrong, and they are precisely some of the issues that we hope to deal with.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Meg Munn: I should like to make a little progress. I will give way soon.

We are also proud of what we have achieved in the area of human rights. The Government passed the Human Rights Act 1998—a historic step in bringing home the rights of the European convention on human rights and making them part of our domestic law.

The things that I am listing should not just be seen as combating unfairness, although that is certainly worth doing. Living in a country that values equality and human rights benefits everyone; it helps us to develop a better society. Equality is not a minority pursuit—although it appears to be among Conservative Members. We all have a stake in a successful society. For instance, if everyone is given the chance to participate in economic success on their own account or in a co-operative environment, wealth is created. Our country and our communities need the talents and the energy that each person has to give. Without those talents and energy, particularly if they are held back by bigotry and hatred, we are all diminished.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Minister agree that hard work needs to be fairly rewarded? Will she have a look at the gender pay gap? Am I right in thinking that there is still a 16 per cent. difference between male and female salaries at the Department of Trade and Industry?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman raises a point that I shall address later when we deal with the gender duty.

Many people in our society still do not have a fair chance in life. Prejudice and disadvantage continue to blight the prospects of far too many. We live in a world in which there are many identities, cultures and faiths, in which the patterns of family life are changing and in which changing demographic patterns raise important issues about the rights of older people. Those matters are not remote; they touch all our lives.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): As the Minister knows, Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill. Will she address a group of people who have not been mentioned in her speech: couples—one
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man, one woman—who have chosen not to marry, but have remained together for years as a partnership? Will such partnerships be recognised by the Government either through the Bill, or in the near future?

Meg Munn: The Bill does not cover that matter. I understand that there are no plans at present to deal specifically with those circumstances.

Parents want their children to have a fair chance in life, whatever their race and gender, and whether or not they are disabled or gay. We all grow old and want to do so with dignity and respect.

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