Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Judy Mallaber: It is hard to say, but that is a good point. It is important to raise and to counter such arguments, because they are being used by those who seek to undermine the Bill's good intentions.

Given that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) was clearly unhappy with some of the Bill's terms, it is worth reading out its intentions. The commission's functions are to support

a society where

a society where

Philip Davies: No Member in any part of the House questions the good intentions behind the Bill. Many of us, however, are nervous about whether bodies such as those in the Bill are the most effective way of bringing about the changes that the hon. Lady would like to see. Given that in the past 10 years, approximately 20 racial discrimination cases have been brought against the CRE by its own staff, does she think that it is setting a good example in curbing racial discrimination, particularly given that taxpayers' money is being used to settle these cases out of court?

Judy Mallaber: The last Member who made a speech opposed precisely those intentions. He referred specifically to not wanting to develop a society with those goals, so one must challenge these points.

Let me give one reason why I read out part of the Bill earlier. In 1998, as a new and inexperienced MP, I nervously put my name to, and argued for, a number of
21 Nov 2005 : Column 1296
amendments to the Northern Ireland Bill relating to equality and human rights. We argued that such improvements needed to be made to ensure that we implemented the radical agenda in the Good Friday agreement, and that that agenda got into the Bill. We argued about using impact assessments of the effects of particular policies, to ensure that they did not discriminate. We argued for a statutory duty on public bodies to promote equality.

As I said in my speech during that debate, we argued for those things because

That radical agenda was put forward in the Good Friday agreement because the communities in Northern Ireland realised that it could tackle division, discrimination and prejudice. As I also said then:

Interestingly, we in this country are only just beginning to catch up with the radical legislation that was introduced in Northern Ireland at a time when many things were going on there, and people were seeking to reach agreement. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 placed a statutory obligation on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation; between men and women generally; between persons with a disability and persons without; and between persons with dependants and persons without. That was at a time when Northern Ireland was trying to deal with huge political problems, but people thought that it was important to tackle equality and discrimination issues to help to heal the divisions in that society. We are only just catching up with some of those things.

As has been said, it is the 30th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. We have made the greatest advance in gender equality and achieved the biggest change in sex equality laws in the 30 years since by introducing the duty to promote gender equality. The hon. Member for Epping Forest asked how far we have advanced in those 30 years, and I agree that in many ways it is frustrating that little has changed but, on the other hand, a great deal has happened. Thirty years ago, someone who argued for a minimum wage for the lowest paid, particularly women, and for a family-and-work balance so that people could combine employment responsibilities with their home life was regarded not as barmy—it was not just a matter of political correctness—but as completely mad. Society has changed, and we now realise the importance of such policies. We understand the importance of child care, which was difficult to argue for 30 years ago.

Ms Abbott: Opposition Members have argued, as they have done for 40 years, against the use of the law and institutions to fight discrimination. I beg them to look across the channel at France, which has doggedly
21 Nov 2005 : Column 1297
refused to use the law and institutions, or to recognise multiculturalism, and has just experienced 12 days of rioting. The Bill is not perfect—the old CRE was not perfect—but the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.

Judy Mallaber: I agree with my hon. Friend, who puts the case very well.

The measure affects and helps everyone—it is not a Bill for just one particular group. Division, jealousies, inequalities and prejudice lead to tensions and conflict in society, prevent us from harnessing the talents and potential of all those living in our communities, and mean that we do not use their skills in society or in the economy. Hon. Members have already mentioned last week's excellent debate, which demonstrated that the maximising of women's skills is essential to the health and expansion of the UK economy.

When I tentatively and nervously tabled amendments to a sensitive Northern Ireland Bill that was enacted some years ago, I did so because my own union, Unison, had taken the lead as the first organisation to support the Good Friday agreement. It drew membership from both sides of the sectarian divide, and I saw from how it dealt with those members on a daily basis how important it was to promote equality if we were to try to heal the divisions in society.

To develop my intervention on my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the way in which my union operated in those circumstances leads me to argue strongly for continued representation on the new commission the TUC and the employers' side. The TUC has two representatives on the Equal Opportunities Commission, one on the CRE and another on the Disability Rights Commission. There is automatic union representation on similar commissions in Ireland and South Africa, and it is important that we maintain such representation here.

One reason for doing so came home to me vividly when the hon. Member for Epping Forest said that employers must not be subject to legislation that was too onerous or expensive. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) pointed out that the Bill is designed specifically to limit recourse to the law, and lays strong emphasis on conciliation and the provision of advice and information. The whole aim is to try to avoid recourse to the law. A large range of employment relations cases will arise, and the experience that both sides of industry have gained in dealing with employees and union members in their home and work life will be invaluable in mediation and conciliation. We should seek to use that experience to meet the legitimate concerns of the hon. Member for Epping Forest and other Opposition Members. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), will consider seriously the proposal to continue the tradition of representation from both sides of industry on the commission.

I would like to highlight a couple of concerns expressed by the Equal Opportunities Commission. First, will the gender duty allow public sector bodies to take the action that we hope they will take? There is a fear, as has been said, that private functions of public bodies—namely, employment—are not covered by that
21 Nov 2005 : Column 1298
duty. Public bodies will not necessarily be able to take action to encourage private contractors to tackle discrimination, but it is important that they should do so. Last year, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, of which I am a member, produced a report entitled "Jobs for the girls: The effect of occupational segregation on the gender pay gap". It highlighted the tendency of men and women to work in different occupations, which is a major factor in the gender pay gap, as the evidence that we received demonstrated. I am sure that that will be confirmed by the Women and Work Commission. We need to tackle that problem.

The lack of skills that results from our failure to harness people's abilities so that they do not undertake different kinds of work has a damaging and limiting effect on the economy. It is important that public sector bodies with a duty to promote equality should be able to do so in their own work force, in other bodies with which they work and in the contracts for which they are responsible. The lack of clarity may not be intentional, but the Equal Opportunities Commission is uncertain about exactly what is covered. I am not a lawyer, so I am not sure about the exact terms that are causing concern, but I hope that the problem can be addressed.

Secondly, as has been said, we need to make sure that educational institutions are covered. They are not covered by the gender equality-specific duties on public bodies, so they do not have the full range of duties to take the action that we hope they will take. Last year, the Select Committee took evidence from the Equal Opportunities Commission for its report. The commission's surveys of year 10 pupils—14 to 15-year-olds, for people who cannot remember which year group is which—showed that

Many boys, too, are prepared to consider a non-traditional job, but that open-mindedness disappears as children grow older. Witnesses from the Learning and Skills Council suggested that

That was brought home to me very strongly when I visited a local secondary school that is doing excellent work to promote vocational education. It makes sure that the academic kids do the vocational education and that students on the vocational pathway have the basic academic skills that employers need. The school is doing some imaginative work—perhaps I should not say so, but students are even doing repairs for the school as part of their vocational work. They are also learning brick laying and many other skills. The headmaster told me that one girl was keen to take the construction course because her dad was a builder. She had been around construction and building, but her father did not think they were appropriate for her. The pressures on girls to leave vocations that they would like to follow and the pressure that push boys away from vocations that they would like to pursue are the starting point of the occupational segregation that limits opportunities and leads to the equal pay gap. We have already heard how
21 Nov 2005 : Column 1299
much the British economy could benefit if we harnessed the skills and opportunities of all those people. Our learning institutions must tackle that problem.

Next Section IndexHome Page