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Meg Munn: Of course I am always happy to receive representations that seek to take us to law that effectively does what we want in preventing harassment. The views of hon. Members and many people outside Parliament are important in these matters.

I want to deal with the question of why there are certain exclusions in discrimination law. It is sometimes necessary to ensure that legislative measures are not fettered by public duties to promote equality and that the important work of the security and intelligence agencies can continue effectively.

David T.C. Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Meg Munn: I need to proceed, because many hon. Members want to take part in the debate. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman stays he will have an attentive audience.

I turn to the new part that was added to the Bill during Third Reading in the other place. The Government have accepted amendments to provide a power by which the Secretary of State may make regulations that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services or in the execution of public functions. We recognised the widespread support in Parliament and beyond for these measures, and continue to be firmly committed to the provision of comprehensive rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. This change in the law is another important move, among many taken by this Government, towards that aim.

Part 4 contains provisions that prohibit public authorities from discriminating on grounds of sex when carrying out their public functions and place on them a duty to promote equality of opportunity between men and women when exercising their functions. That will lead to important changes and may be the biggest advance since the passage of the 1975 Act itself. It complements the duties in respect of race and disability that are already on the statute book.

Although the Bill is not intended to deal comprehensively with all equality issues or all discrimination law, it is another major step towards a society where every person has a chance to achieve their potential, not limited by prejudice and discrimination—a society that is based on the enduring values of respect, dignity and fairness, which we all share and which form the foundations of British society, and where groups and communities are able to live side by side with mutual respect and understanding, not fear, ignorance or hostility.
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These are important issues that we must address if Britain is to face the challenges of the future with confidence. The Bill will help us to do that. The time is right for the Bill. The Government moved swiftly to introduce it following the election because it ran out of time in the last Parliament. There is a great deal of support for the Bill across the House and among the many groups outside the House who have a detailed interest in its provisions. Equality and human rights are important to everyone. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.12 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I welcome the Minister to her first Second Reading debate in her ministerial role. She puts her points eloquently, even where I do not agree with her, and I am grateful to her for doing so. I am also grateful to her for listening patiently to many of my hon. Friends. I think that we are going to have a lively debate.

I pay tribute to the many outside bodies that we and the Government have consulted on these matters. The Equal Opportunities Commission, the Disability Rights Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality have worked hard to refine the contents of the Bill, as have the Christian Institute, Stonewall and Age Concern. We have considered their views carefully; I am sure that the Minister has done the same.

The Bill has been considerably refined and improved by many of my noble Friends and other Members in another place, particularly Baroness Miller and Baroness O'Cathain. Lord Alli and Lord Rix also made terrific contributions, all of which will inform and improve our debate.

In general, the Bill has good intentions and we support it. However, as some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, like all good intentions, the Bill must be refined and implemented in a workable fashion. When it goes into Committee—I hope hon. Members will decide that it should—we will have many detailed questions to ask and suggestions for improvements to make, and I hope that the Minister will consider them positively.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): As the Member who leads the Conservative party's support for the Bill—and who did so historically—is not the hon. Lady as upset as I am by the Neanderthal comments from Conservative Back Benchers? How does she cope with the yobs at the back?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. and learned Lady must withdraw that last remark.

Vera Baird: I am sure that there is not a single yob on the Back Benches of the Conservative party.

Mr. Speaker: Withdraw the remark.

Vera Baird: I have.

Mrs. Laing: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for withdrawing a question that I cannot answer.

I hope that the Minister will consider our reservations positively. Any criticism that Conservative Members make is meant to be constructive because we want the
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proposals to work. To command the widespread support that is necessary for that, the Bill must fulfil four specific conditions.

First, the new body—the commission for equality and human rights—must be cost-effective. I am worried about the Government's estimate of its running costs. The Minister said that they are likely to be £70 million per annum—almost 50 per cent. more than the current cost of the three bodies it would replace.

Meg Munn: Forty-three per cent.

Mrs. Laing: I withdraw the "almost 50 per cent."; let us stick with 43 per cent. The cost will be 43 per cent. greater than the current cost of the three bodies it would replace.

Bob Spink: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point but she forgets the economies of scale of combining those organisations. With economies of scale, the cost almost doubles. Why will that happen?

Mrs. Laing: I thank my hon. Friend, but of course I had not forgotten the economies of scale—I am about to deal with them. Why is there such a significant increase in cost? We all know that when the Government or any other body estimate a cost, it almost always increases in reality. I therefore suspect that when we examine the measure in two or three years, my initial 50 per cent. figure will probably be nearer the mark than 43 per cent.

Sir Patrick Cormack: My hon. Friend's comments are important, but something else is even more important. The new body should be credible and earn respect. If it is to achieve that, is not it important that it does not appear to be meddlesome on the side of those who would remove Bibles from lockers and do silly things that would bring it into disrepute?

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is right—he must have read page 5 of my speech. We will get there in due course. Cost is only my first point; there are many others.

We understand that the new commission will have additional powers and duties and that a balance must therefore be struck between the economies of scale of bringing together the administration of the three bodies under one roof and expanding its remit. I strongly welcome the fact that the new body will deal with discrimination on the ground of age, sexual orientation and religion or belief as well as race, gender and disabilities, which the current bodies cover.

Angela Eagle : I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I hope that she will continue to be robust with the reactionary tendencies on the very back of her Back Benches. She is making a case about the increase in funding. In addition to the three strands that have traditionally formed part of the pioneering anti-discrimination legislation of the 1970s, we now have four more. Are not the increases in funding therefore entirely in order, to enable the new protections that are being extended to many of our citizens to become a reality?
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Mrs. Laing: The hon. Lady makes a point about arithmetic, but none of us can prove the arithmetic until we see exactly what the new body will do, and exactly how the economies of scale will work in bringing the three existing bodies under one roof. It makes sense to bring all the aspects under one directing body, especially as many instances of discrimination relate to more than one of the six categories, and I totally support that plan. However, when we do the arithmetic, the necessary increase in funding—taking into consideration economies of scale and the expansion from three aspects to six—will surely not amount to 43 per cent.

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