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Mr. Burrowes: That is only one option and we should ask whether it is appropriate always to burden those charities or organisations with the obligation to obtain insurance and whether there should be an option of public funding assistance, given that the commission would receive such assistance for presenting the case. I accept that legal insurance is one option to consider, but I am worried about whether charities, which are already bound under several regulations, burdens and expenses, should be obliged to follow the legal insurance route.

I ask the Government to consider especially the point about representation and assistance.

8.4 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): If I may partially exclude the previous speaker, some extraordinarily reactionary speeches have been made from the deep, dark backwoods of the Tory Benches. Sometimes, I felt like Captain Kirk looking out from the Starship Enterprise at a newly discovered planet and saying, "There's life there, Scotty, but not as we know it."

I welcome the advent of the commission and the vision that underpins the Bill. Clearly, the commission's purpose is to drive forward all equalities and human
 
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rights so that they are embedded in our culture, the concrete of our society and the matrix of our lives. All sensible people should welcome that and the Government are to be commended. If there are any excessive notes of bureaucracy, as some have suggested, they will be tackled in Committee.

Apart from decency, there is an important business case for the quest for equality, especially in the workplace. Without equality, we will not be as productive as we could be. Productivity requires everybody's talents to be harnessed to the full. That requires no discrimination against any sector or individual to limit that universal potential.

Some Conservative Members have described the Bill as dealing with a marginal issue or marginal people. By 2010, 80 per cent. of the work force will be in one or other of the strands that the commission covers. That means that only 20 per cent. of the work force will be white, male, able bodied and under 45—and they will not be under 45 for long. It is extraordinary that such a huge chunk of the population has had no protection until today. We are considering a big issue, not one about margins.

The subject is not only large and important but complex. Inequality is not as simple as we believed in the first place. Women who are single pensioners, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, disabled or lone parents are far more likely to be poor and excluded than men in those categories, whereas women in some industries, for example, the law, probably have equality with men these days. That shows the need for a much more complex approach to overcoming discrimination. It is not simply about gender.

From another angle, a black older woman often would not know why she had not got a job, simply that she had been discriminated against. She would not know whether the reason was race, age or gender and she should be able to get support from one organisation that understands those complexities and also takes on human rights, which are integral to all the issues.

Let us consider domestic abuse. It is mainly against women, so there is a gender element, but it is a deep violation of an individual's human rights. Children's rights and forced marriage also show that there is a big overlap between equalities and human rights generally. It is therefore key that the commission is united and key that human rights are involved. Again, I congratulate the Government on the Bill.

I have some medium-sized criticisms of the otherwise pearlescent perfection of the commission but I can deal with them quickly because others have mentioned them. Before I discuss them, let me make one point for the Opposition and the media who talk about the Government as if they were perpetually leading an onslaught against human rights, civil liberties, equalities and freedoms. I ask them to examine the advance that the Bill will make. The Human Rights Act 1998 made the initial change so that human rights could be enforced here without having to go through our multi-tiered court system and off to Strasbourg. That means that human rights more deeply imbue our law and awareness than they would have done if the only way to enforce them continued to be a wildly expensive, long-term process with an occasional case reaching a remote court in Strasbourg. The Government accepted that they
 
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should surround themselves with those value-based guidelines in a strong form while they struggled—with terrorism today and who knows what tomorrow. They wrestle now with their duty simultaneously to protect the article 2 right to life of their citizens, free from threat, and the article 5 rights of the people who appear to pose the threat. The Government brought those rights home and made those values part of our law.

Today the Government go much further in tasking the commission to drive forward those values and equalities through our society and culture. These are not the actions of an oppressive Government.

There remain among the excellent proposals in the Bill some causes for real concern, however. The hierarchy of equality has been referred to already, so let me merely nod and pass that matter by. Discrimination in regard to the provision of goods and services will not be outlawed for people of age, nor will there be a public duty to promote age equality. So age is already two points down; it has already suffered twice, and it will suffer again in relation to the matter raised by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). The definition of a public authority is over-narrow, and only public authorities are obliged to comply with human rights legislation directly. Only public authorities will be subject to the duties that the commission can impose on people.

Public authorities are very narrowly defined, and that will damage the position of many people. The case mentioned by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam involved a Leonard Cheshire home, and it was decided as long ago as 2002. It was the intention under the Human Rights Act 1998 that an organisation should be regarded as a public authority if it was carrying out public functions. That is very straightforward, and a Leonard Cheshire home clearly carries out the functions that a council would otherwise have to provide. However, the court allocated the status of public authority on a very different, rather esoteric and much narrower basis. Ninety per cent. of care homes and 70 per cent. of the domiciliary services in old people's homes are run by private suppliers, and they will not be covered by the Bill because they will be excluded by that definition.

I know that the Government are aware of this matter, and I know that there is a three-pronged approach to putting it right. The first involves looking for a suitable case, presumably so that the Attorney-General can intervene to advocate going back to the original definition. It is not the Government's fault that there has been no such case, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam seemed to suggest, but we do not know when such a case will arise. The second possibility involves local authorities entering into contracts to protect old people's human rights. That was suggested in the course of the case in 2002, but there is still no guidance to that effect for local authorities. The problem with that solution is that it would be enforceable only by the local authority against the home, and not by an individual against the home. The third possibility would be to include the issue in the discrimination law review.

This issue will bite harshly on people of age, but, because we are committed to using private suppliers to supply innumerable public services—I make no criticism of that—it will also affect a far wider group of recipients. Examples include the increased use of private
 
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finance initiatives, the large-scale voluntary transfer of council houses, the private provision of services by diagnostic and treatment centres, and the privatisation of back-office services in local authorities and of highway maintenance. Many other aspects of our public services are also delivered by private sector organisations, and it is debatable which of them, if any, would qualify as a public authority under that very narrow definition.

So the Bill will give rights with one hand, and take them away with the other—as a result of transfers from the public sector to the private sector—so long as that narrow definition of a public authority subsists. What, I ask—rhetorically, of course—is there to prevent the inclusion in the Bill of a clause stating that we reaffirm the public functions basis of the definition of a public authority, and that we declare the case of Heather v. Leonard Cheshire Homes to be of no effect? There seems to be no reason why that could not be done. It is a fourth possible solution, and it has the advantage that it could be done now. I invite the Minister to comment on that when she replies to the debate.

Clause 10, which was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), will require the commission for equality and human rights to work towards community cohesion and to promote good relations across all seven of the equality strands. However, subsection (4) states:

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) said that the Bill was a taster, and that she relished the prospect of the main course of a single equalities Act in which all equalities will be equal, but I believe that the Bill will entrench a hierarchy of equalities now.

The inequality contained in clause 10(4) would give a premium to groups defined by reference to race, religion or belief, and it would affect the allocation of differential resources. There has never been a satisfactory explanation for the rationale behind the Equal Opportunities Commission working on only half the budget of the Commission for Racial Equality. As drafted, clause 10(4) is bound to disadvantage all the equality strands that are not defined by reference to race, religion or belief, in the allocation of resources.

The Bill requires the commission to set its priorities in consultation with the community, but clause 10(4) would effectively remove that right completely and undermine the commission's independence by setting in stone in the Bill something that might be a current political priority but which would remove the commission's freedom of movement. I recognise that the rationale behind clause 10 is that the potential for interracial or inter-faith conflict that exists at the moment is a problem, and I do not want to minimise the need for the commission to promote good relations in those areas. However, I do not believe that they should be singled out and given permanent priority in law, when there are also significant levels of conflict in other areas. People are made very unhappy, they are harassed and even killed by racial and religious strife, but two
 
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women a week are killed by a violent partner or former partner. Just under half of all women experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Forty-eight per cent. of east London gay people suffer from homophobic crime, and 23 per cent. of adults with learning disabilities have experienced physical abuse.

Let me say gently that there has sometimes been conflict between the sexual orientation and women's rights sectors and some religions and beliefs. Of course, doctrines are a matter for them, but when it comes to the impact of the Bill on the wider community, why should women's equality have a lower priority than the protection of faith? It should not. It should have equal priority, and I suggest that it should be expressed as equal in the Bill. I suggest further that human rights are a useful tool for mediating in situations in which there is a conflict between equal equalities.

To give priority to a particular strand would be to undermine part of the purpose of the commission. I suggest therefore that clause 10(4) should be amended to provide that the commission should have due regard to the importance of exercising the powers conferred in this part of the Bill in relation to all seven communities defined in subsection (2). That would be fairer, and it would be equal. That is what the Bill is about.

8.17 pm


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