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Philip Davies : My hon. Friend is making a good point. Although the organisation may need only one HR department, does he agree that given the history of the existing bodies trying to regulate against discrimination and the number of discrimination cases brought against them by their own employees, it will probably need to be a large one?

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend gives a good reason why the new body will have to be a first-class example of how to treat employees.

On the subject of the DTI setting a good example, the Minister did not really reply to my question about the gender gap in the Department. Why is there still a 16 per cent. difference between male and female salaries at the DTI? That figure is only marginally better than the national average. That is a disgrace. Why do a significant majority of DTI officials—60 per cent. in a recent survey—not agree with the statement:


 
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Sixty per cent. did not agree with that statement, so as my hon. Friend suggested, the DTI and organisations that come under its remit should set the best possible example of any Department.

I want to look in more detail at the provisions relating to religious discrimination and legal aid. There is no provision either in the Bill or in existing legal aid legislation for individuals or organisations to be given legal aid if they are being investigated by the commission or being sued by, or with the backing of, the commission. Nor is there any provision for a person or organisation to recover legal costs in defending themselves from investigation, or in fighting a legal claim backed by the commission. In another place, Lady O'Cathain made the point more eloquently than I could when she said that

That sums up the point very well indeed, and I hope that the Minister will consider it when she replies to the debate.

We have heard several good speeches this afternoon that referred to religious discrimination. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West talked about political correctness, although I shall not go down that route. However, religious groups by their very nature discriminate on religious grounds the whole time. Several colleagues have given examples of over-zealous interpretation of the existing law and the removal of public references to Christianity. Recently, the Home Office threatened to stop the funding for a carol service for the victims of crime because it was too Christian. Waveney council in East Anglia is planning to scrap grants for Christmas lights because they conflict with its core values of equality and diversity—total nonsense.

Ms Abbott : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bellingham: I will not give way. I have only three and a half minutes to go before I must conclude.

Earlier this year, the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust considered banning Bibles from bedside lockers to avoid offending other faiths. Torbay council removed a wooden cross from the wall of a crematorium chapel to cater for everyone in our diverse, multi-faith society. Yes, of course those organisations are acting in good faith, but what concerns me very simply is that, very soon in my judgment, any Christian organisation that receives public money could be told to drop all its religious content or lose public funding. That would be extremely unfortunate and regrettable.

Certainly, the vast majority of my colleagues in the Conservative party feel very strongly that everyone should be given fair treatment. I feel very strongly that discrimination of any kind is morally wrong. It destroys lives. It can break up families and ruin health. It can destroy wealth, because the most valuable asset of any business is obviously its employees. If they are
 
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undervalued, undermined or discriminated against, how can they give of their best? If their lives are falling apart because their home life is a misery, how can they go to work with motivation and commitment?

We want everyone to be given every possible opportunity to reach maximum fulfilment of their lives, free of any kind of discrimination. We would not necessarily have introduced legislation in the exact form of the Bill if we had won the last election, but I believe that it has many good points, and some weaknesses. If we can address those weaknesses, we might at least have legislation that will meet not only the objectives that the Government have set for it, but the aspirations of the people who will be affected and, very importantly, of those wealth creators without whose wealth and the taxes that they pay we would not have public services in this country.

6.42 pm

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I thank Back-Bench Members of Her Majesty's official Opposition for the honesty and candour that they have shown in the debate today. I grateful to them for their honesty and candour because there is a danger, when watching the two Conservative party leadership contenders, that we may believe that their party is modern and pragmatic. At least we now know where they stand.

We have heard from colleagues who took part in the debate five months ago. We have heard about a calm consensus one month before a general election, and now, five months after that election, we see the Conservative party showing its true colours. I am sure that the honesty and candour exhibited by Conservative Members will be shown in Liberal Democrat "Focus" leaflets and Labour rose leaflets throughout the country over the next three or four years.

I am also grateful to the Minister with responsibility for women and equality for the way that she began the debate. I congratulate her and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) on their stewardship of the Bill in recent weeks and months and on the way that they have genuinely listened to the concerns sincerely raised by stakeholders who are keen to try to improve the Bill even more. I declare an interest: in my previous life, I played a small role, along with many others, in trying get to the stage we have reached today. Frankly, it is quite exciting to be speaking as a parliamentarian in the debate on the Bill's Second Reading. I have no doubt that the Bill will lead to real improvements in the lives of ordinary residents in Tooting and all parts of the UK.

I also pay tribute to the previous Minister for Women and Equality—now the Secretary of State for Health—and her deputy, who is now the Minister for Schools, both of whom persevered over the past couple of years to get where we are today. Over that period, many solicitors, non-governmental organisations, voluntary groups and other experts have been involved along the path, and friendships have been made, broken and remade to get to this stage. Many people deserve credit for the fact that we are debating the Bill on Second Reading.

I hope that the Bill will attract support from all parts of the House, for it is not just about what Labour Governments have been doing for their citizens over the
 
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past 40 years. The first legislative example of that is the Race Relations Act 1965, which was passed 40 years ago this month. It is worth reminding ourselves that the objections now being made by Back-Bench Members of the official Opposition are not dissimilar to those made in 1965, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1976 and 2001, when Labour Governments have passed legislation to try to fight inequality and discrimination.

The Bill shows what a modern Parliament should be doing for its citizens in the 21st century: passing legislation that will improve the quality of life of the   most vulnerable in our society—the elderly, the disabled and minority communities—and ending the inconsistency in anti-discrimination legislation that leads to a hierarchy of protection in equality legislation. I hope that the hierarchy of rights that we have in the UK will be ended by the single equality Act, which the new commission will help to draft. That comprehensive Act will protect all, replacing the patchwork, piecemeal approach that we have had until now.

One commission will represent all—rather than the two, three, four, five, six or seven bodies that we could have if it were not for the Bill—thus ending the ridiculous situation whereby someone who suffers from discrimination on a number of levels is forced to go to two or three commissions for help, using several Acts to get protection and being shunted from pillar to post. It will end the situation where it is lawful for a hospital or council to discriminate against a user of the services provided on the grounds of his or her religion or beliefs, or where it is apparently lawful for Conservative-run Bromley council to deny couples, citizens of the borough, the chance to celebrate civil partnerships.

I could go on to give more examples of the sort of indignities our fellow citizens face because of their age, religion, beliefs, or sexual orientation that will be made unlawful. I hope that that will lead to a change in attitudes and behaviour in this country.


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