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Ms Butler : Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating North West London college, which has ensured that the skills gap for plumbers is filled by advertising those jobs to females?

Judy Mallaber: Indeed. Such positive examples are greatly to be welcomed. It is part of the responsibility of educational institutions to assist in redressing that gap.

The Bill is extremely important and could make a dramatic difference. I am disappointed that it does not refer specifically to Parliament, but I hope nevertheless that we will take the opportunity of examining the other scandal of our under-representation in this country. According to the Hansard Society report "Women at the Top", Britain is 51st in the worldwide table of political representation. Less than 20 per cent. of our MPs are female. In Rwanda, the figure is more than 48 per cent.; in Sweden 45 per cent. of the Government are female; and in Iraq 32 per cent. of MPs are women. The Opposition have managed to achieve only 9 per cent. Labour is keeping the percentages up, although we wish to go further. I hope the matter will be taken up. Perhaps the Conservative leadership candidates should duck the issue of boxers or briefs, and consider more seriously the representation of women.

I welcome the Bill and hope it will encourage all of us to do more and to promote greater equality in the future.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, a considerable number of hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye. We have a 15-minute time limit on all speeches, but hon. Members do not have to take the full 15 minutes. If one or two were prepared to take a little less, I could call more hon. Members to speak. I think everyone would appreciate that greatly.

7.31 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall endeavour to assist colleagues, to ensure that as many as possible get the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. One of the striking features of this debate compared with the one on the earlier version of the Bill—I read that debate—is the slight change in tone. The sounds off during this debate have been somewhat different from the debate before the election. That is interesting for what it says about where parties stand.

I make no criticism of the speech from the official Opposition Front Bench. That was a sound position, but a number of speeches from Back-Bench Conservative Members suggested that legislation and a commission were not the answer. My question to those who hold that view is, what is the alternative that ought to be proposed and argued for? I did not hear, particularly from the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), a cogent argument for an alternative way forward, other than some description of organic change.
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We have perhaps been experimenting in real time with organic change on a range of equality issues that the Bill will address, and we have seen that discrimination has continued to be corrosive and to harm the interests of many in this country. That is why I strongly support the Bill.

Chris Bryant : Was the hon. Gentleman as saddened as I was by the speech from the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), not least because many of us who know him know that he is much nicer than some of his views? He said that the Churches are unanimously opposed to homosexuality. Is not the truth that they are pretty ambiguous about homosexuality? They are much clearer about equality and their support for it.

Mr. Burstow: Absolutely, and much clearer about being tolerant. That was omitted on this occasion. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments about the normal character and demeanour of the hon. Member for Castle Point. I am sorry he is not in his place to hear me—[hon. members: "He is."] Ah! He moved. He will have heard the point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and I echo much of what he said.

Much in the Bill is long overdue. There are three aspects that I shall touch on, all of which relate to age equality and age discrimination issues. First, the commission will be charged with promoting age equality and tackling age discrimination. Older people can face multiple discrimination. For example, evidence shows that older women are considerably poorer than older men, and the oldest are the poorest of all. On average, women's income in retirement is just 57 per cent. of men's, due in part to their greater caring responsibilities for children and other family members throughout their adult lives. As others have observed, this pensions gap is the product of a mid-20th century set of assumptions about family structures that no longer apply. No wonder that, as a consequence of those assumptions, a quarter of older single women live in poverty.

The recent recommendation by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence—NICE—concerning the availability of disease-modifying drugs, such as Arecept for the treatment of dementia, points to ageist assumptions in the appraisal of drugs. Another example is the way in which the benefit system discriminates against older disabled people. At the age of 64, a disabled person can claim disability living allowance, which, with its mobility component, is worth up to £43 a week. However, once the person turns 65, they can no longer claim DLA if they become disabled, and are entitled only to attendance allowance, which is a less generous benefit with no mobility component.

For those who are old and disabled, the message that seems to be sent by the benefit rules is that an active life ends at 65. That is not the message that the Government want to send, and I hope that through the Bill we can explore ways of ensuring that such a message is no longer sent by the apparent divide in our benefits system when a person reaches the age of 65.

Age discrimination compounds other forms of discrimination. The challenge for the new commission will be to work across the various equality strands, tackling real-life discrimination in the round, rather
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than trying to shoe-horn people into one category or another. I was heartened by what the Minister said in opening the debate. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) that a committee-based structure that maintains the existing silo approach to equality is not the right way forward. Although I understand the concerns expressed by some about a possible loss of focus on some of the work of the existing commissions, I strongly believe that a single commission will bring benefits to everyone.

That brings me to my second point. The commission will realise its full potential only if all equality strands enjoy parity under the law. I very much agree with the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) about the need not to level down, but to level up in that respect. Although the Government have updated and developed the protection in law for every other strand of discrimination, they have left age discrimination behind. The best they can do is the minimum they must do: implement the EU equal rights directive in respect of employment. Even there the protection against age discrimination in employment is weaker than for any other form of discrimination in the workplace.

The law should protect older people against discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services. The Lords have already extended the law to include sexual orientation, albeit through regulations, as we heard. The positive duty on public authorities should apply to all strands. It has already been widened in the Lords to include gender. It should be widened to include age as well, as it does in Northern Ireland. Such a positive duty also exists in Scotland and Wales, so why are older people in England treated less favourably?

The impression given is that in England the elderly are second-class citizens, compared with their neighbours. Why must we wait for the conclusions of the law review? Why can we not find ways through the Bill to provide the means—the paving stones—to give older people equivalent rights in this regard? The danger must surely be that we will end up with a single commission hamstrung by the need to discriminate between the different strands, working within a confusing and complex set of legal protections that result in unequal quality—a hierarchy of equality, as was said earlier, which is enshrined in the Bill in clause 10(4).

My third and final point relates to the human rights dimension, which is such an important part of the Bill. The Human Rights Act 1998 asserts the equal dignity and worth of each and every one of us, but does that really apply to all of us? The answer is clearly no. Thanks to the way the courts have interpreted the meaning of "public authorities" under section 6 of the Act, when one crosses the threshold of a privately run care home, one enters a twilight zone, where an out of sight, out of mind culture of abuse can become the accepted norm. Care homes are places where human rights can be denied. There is what the British Institute of Human Rights calls a "protection gap", into which older vulnerable people can fall.

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