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Mrs. Laing: I have given way a good deal. If I do not make more progress others will have to make much shorter speeches, and I am looking forward to hearing what Members on both sides of the House have to say.
As well as not being merely for the purposes of political correctness, the Bill must not become merely a charter for lawyers by creating rights and causing more litigation. A litigious society is not a harmonious society. I want the Bill to result in a harmonious society, not a litigious society.
Vera Baird: Is not the purpose of the commission to take the emphasis away from individual cases? Attempts to achieve equality can be very haphazard. Someone who is wronged must have the money and the courage to keep goingthose elements must coincideand once the case has gone to court, the outcome will not be widely published. Is not the point of the Bill to reduce litigation and generate a culture of equality?
Mrs. Laing: Yes, it is. I was about to make that point. For the sake of brevity, I will not repeat it. The hon. and learned Lady has made it well. That is the whole point. This Bill is not about creating more work for the courts. It is not merely about being politically correct, but about creating a different framework where disagreements between employer and employee or any other parties can be sorted out without resort to litigation and without going so far on the political correctness agenda that we take rights from people to whom we want to give rights. The Bill does not deserve to be interpreted as being merely politically correct, but we must fight to protect it to an extent from itself and from those who would push its provisions too far.
It is 30 years since the Sex Discrimination Act was passed and it is very disappointing that we still need to introduce more legislation to try to enforce it. I appreciate that today we are talking not only about sex discrimination but about five other strands and indeed the general issue of discrimination. I welcome that, but one would have thought that we might have made more progress than we have in 30 years. However, I do not support the campaign for equality only because it is altruistically correct, which it undoubtedly is. It is also economically imperative.
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I was struck by something that the Minister said last week. I do not think that she repeated it this afternoon, so let me repeat it for her. Unusually, I am quoting her and agreeing with her. She made an extremely important point:
"Maximising women's skills in the economy could bring economic benefits worth up to 3 per cent. of GDP, which equates to the total value of UK exports to Germany"[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 192WH.]
That is an enormous amount. At the moment, our GDP is failing by that 3 per cent. because women are not working to the full extent of their abilities. If that is the case as far as women are concerned, there can be no doubt that a similar proportion of people from ethnic minorities, gay people, older people, younger people and disabled people are contributing far less to the economy and to society than they might if only we protected them and gave them the opportunities they need.
We as a country are missing out economically as well as socially because we do not encourage all our citizens to contribute to their highest potential. That is shameful. Therefore, we should support the Bill today not just because it is altruistically correct and equality is a good thing, but because it is an economic imperative. The suffragists would not have succeeded had it not been for the changing economic circumstances after the first world war.
Mrs. Laing: No, I do not mean suffragettes; I mean the suffragists. They would not have succeeded had it not been for the changing economic circumstances after the first world war. Equality legislation will not succeed now unless it is recognised that there is a good economic case for its success, which there is.
I hope that today's debate will open a few eyes and that the Minister will seriously consider those four concerns as the Bill progresses: costs, burdens on business, unwarranted interference in everyday lives and overplayed and unnecessary political correctness. I will raise them again in Committee.
Equality is a bit of a misnomer for what we are considering today, or at least it is shorthand for a much wider issue. We all want to see equality of opportunity for everyone, but the essence of a free society is that people are not equal because each individual is different from every other individual, and we much respect that diversity.
I want to see every person in Britain today being encouraged, first, to use his or her talents and abilities to the very limit of their potential; and, secondly, being allowed to live their own lives as they wish, while respecting the right of every other citizen so to do. In trying to achieve equality, we have no wish to make everyone the same, but simply to allow everyone to be different and to encourage, understand and support that diversity. I would say that that is not much to ask of a decent and civilised society.
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Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who spoke from the Conservative Front Bench, and, as I often do in such debates, I wish her well in dealing with her recalcitrant Back-Bench colleagues. It is good to know that at least some parts of the Conservative party understand the importance of the anti-discrimination agenda. Unfortunately, not all Conservative Members believe that discrimination is wrong and their behaviour at the start of the debate was extraordinary. That saddened me, as I had thought that progress had been made when we last debated the Second Reading of this very Bill in the dying days of the previous Parliament. On that occasion, the chorus of, how shall I call it, antediluvian chuntering and reactionary chatter on the Conservative Back Benches was absent, and it is a great pity that that element has turned up today.
Conservative Front Benchers should be supported in their attempts to change the views of their Back-Bench colleagues, but on the basis of today's evidence, the hon. Member for Epping Forest has a long way to go. I wish her well[Interruption.] She supports the Bill and Labour Members welcome that. That said, she wants to starve the new commission for equality and human rights of the funds necessary for it to do its job properly, especially in respect of establishing new strands of work to enshrine equality in terms of human rights, age, sexual orientation and religious belief. That task would be a challenge for any new body and I certainly believe that the suggested funding allocation is the minimum necessary to ensure that the single commission gets off to a good start.
The Bill is most welcome and it has improved since its introduction in the dying days of the last Parliamentnot only as a result of events in the other place, but when the Government realised that they could extend the scope of the Bill in certain necessary respects. The Bill sets up a new commission for equality and human rights to take forward equality work and enforce those new rights.
It is argued that extending equality protection to the majority of citizens in this country somehow sets the scene for us all to be the same, but the Bill is about protecting people from the adverse effects of overt discrimination and extending those rights from the three strands covered by the previous Labour Government to include two new strands. That is to be welcomed. It is not about uniformity or creating some false equality. It is about giving positive protection to sections of our citizenry who have never been afforded it and who have faced overt discrimination day-in, day-out of a type that has been outlawed in terms of other groups of people. Two obvious examples of that are, first, the extension of protection against discrimination in the supply of goods and services to people on grounds of their religious belief and, secondly, in respect of sexual orientation. The latter category was included as a result of the Government's decision in the other place.
In reality, that means something very simple: once this legislation is enacted, it will be illegal for people to be denied a hotel room, or access to a service such as hiring a car, simply on the grounds of their religious
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belief or sexual orientation. That has surely got to be right, and I do not see how any Member of this House could possibly object to it.
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