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Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I should like to begin by expressing my support for the Bill. The words of the Minister were right and the time is right. However, I have some issues with the detail of the Bill, which I shall come to in a moment. First, I want to discuss some of the comments that have been made—mainly by Conservative Members, I have to say—on the religious aspects of the provisions. As a practising Christian, I have to say that the vast majority of Christians attach no stigma to sexual orientation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) talked about this British society—I cannot remember his exact words—and I would refer him to the Old Testament, which talks about sojourners in foreign lands. The sojourners we have had in our land have given us a multi-ethnic, multicultural, rich and diverse society, and it is they who need the protection of the Bill, because sometimes, as a result of malice or ignorance, situations have arisen that require more robust legislation.

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): I welcome the hon. Lady's comments, but will she explain why, throughout the entire 18 years in which her party was in power, no progress whatever was made on this agenda? Indeed, things almost went backwards with the introduction of section 28.

Mrs. Dorries: I am sure that Labour Members had plenty of opportunities to ask those questions while my party was in power. As a new Member who has been here only since May, I cannot comment on what happened before, but I am sure that the Labour party provided very effective opposition to challenge the Government of the time.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was enacted during that period of Conservative Government.
 
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Mrs. Dorries: I thank my hon. Friend for informing me of that point.

I support the Bill's holistic approach in establishing an overarching commission that takes in the functions of the three independent commissions. However, perhaps because I am a northerner, or was a business woman, I am concerned about the finances. The new commission will cost £24 million to establish and a further £70 million a year to run. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) said that the Opposition want to starve the commission of funds, but that is not the case. As a business woman, if one of my managers had come to me and said that they had a new process that would take in three existing processes, I would have expected a cost-saving justification for that. Given that taxpayers' money is involved here, it is amazing that this will cost 43 per cent. more to run, and I have not yet seen the justification for that. We know that extra strands will be taken in, but there should also be economy of scale. I take on board the points made about human resources and various other functions within the costings, but it still does not make sense. If one overarching commission is to take on the responsibility of three, with a few additional strands, an additional 43 per cent. cost cannot be justified. I look forward to the Minister's comments on that. I understand the extended scope, but it is hard to make sense of the figures that have been forward. A sensible approach would be for the Minister to look again at the costs and perhaps use that additional funding for additional strands, or put it towards the cost of the single equality Bill, about which the hon. Member for Wallasey also spoke.

I shall try to be brief so that other hon. Members may speak. I want to draw attention to a parallel between the education White Paper and the Bill. Anyone who has studied the White Paper will, like me, be concerned about over-centralisation. However, the White Paper has the safety net of common sense, which is provided by the involvement of a host of professionals in its delivery, in conjunction with parents, teachers, children and governors. That will result in a natural erring towards common sense, and a natural moving away from bureaucracy. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) said, in the Bill much is centralised in the Minister. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) referred to the guest house, which may be a Christian guest house, the people who might be staying there and the issues that arise from that. I want the Bill to work because it is needed and it needs credibility to do so, but when it is over-centralised, and when such issues arise, they will be given priority.

Vera Baird: I had not understood that the commission would be over-centralised. I shall be disappointed if the Minister does not tell me that it will have regional offices. We are certainly hoping for one for the north-east. I would not say that we expect it in Redcar, but we have put a bid in.

Mrs. Dorries: Perhaps the Minister will say whether there will be regional offices.

Angela Eagle: There are.

Mrs. Dorries: That does not actually mean that the legislation will not be over-centralised in its administration throughout those regional offices.
 
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Some who called for the Bill do not have the same agenda as the House or Opposition Members. They will want to use it for their own means and ends. I hope that the Minister will ensure that such people will not be able to do so. If the Bill is too rigid and too politicised it could be exploited by such people. I urge the Government to be wary of over-centralisation.

I have a genuine query for the Minister. Part 4 of the Bill places a duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between men and women. How will that impact upon candidate selection for all political parties? I should genuinely like to know whether the legislation affects what is already in place.

Discrimination is in itself abhorrent. It is unjust, unfair and it should be unlawful. It destroys confidence, blights lives and denies people opportunity. In a civilised society, discrimination in whatever form should simply not exist.

I am opposed to legislation for the sake of it, but the Bill is necessary and well intentioned in today's society. We must hope that the Government will ensure that their good intentions are not abused by those who will try to use the Bill to meet their own ends.

8.25 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I welcome the Bill. I, too, am proud of the work of Labour Governments over 30 years and, as we heard, of even earlier decades, in bringing forward legislation to promote and ensure equality and diversity. I also welcome the establishment of the commission for equality and human rights, which I naturally hope will be based in Manchester, or even nearby Salford. [Interruption.] Worsley would be good. We have heard arguments for London, so it is worth making a few points about Manchester's case.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has obviously long flourished in Manchester. I hope that we can get away from believing that we can work on policy only here in the metropolis. For our party conferences and policy making we move around the country, and, of course, all the groups that need to be consulted on issues also live in Greater Manchester, so I hope that people will not be too swayed or diverted by arguments in favour of London as a location.

The Equal Opportunities Commission tells us that achieving equality for men and women requires taking account of more than gender, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) said earlier that among older people, people with a disability and Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic groups, the women are more likely to be poor and excluded than men, and that is a key fact. But we also know that white working-class boys perform less well in their standard assessment tests and GCSEs than white working-class girls, and boys from other ethnic backgrounds. When I was responsible for an education service in local government I was concerned about such statistics. I felt that too little was known and too little work was being done on such issues. That is why it is welcome that the Bill introduces the equalities review and the discrimination law review.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): How does the hon. Lady account for the figures in my constituency where I have the largest Muslim community of any Conservative Member where the
 
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highest educational attainment is among Pakistani Muslim, mainly Kashmiri, girls at all levels from 11 to 18?

Barbara Keeley: That is what I was talking about. I was saying that in many cases now, some of the ethnic minority groupings are doing better than white working-class boys. When we investigate discrimination, we need to look across the piece and try to find reasons for that. That is why the equalities review is such a good move. It will be able to investigate all the social, cultural and economic factors that limit or deny people the opportunities to make the best of their abilities. It is important that we gain that understanding of the long-term cases of disadvantage that need to be addressed in public policy. When I was responsible for education in local government, I was never clear what specifically we could do for those white working-class boys to improve things for them.

I want to touch on three aspects of the new commission. I want to talk briefly about women and then move on to carers and human rights. The new provisions to prohibit discrimination and to create a general duty to promote gender equality are welcome. The public sector is a major employer of women. Of public sector workers, 64 per cent. are women. In my constituency, the largest employers are the two local authorities, Salford and Wigan, and the NHS.

We know that the gender gap has closed considerably over the past 30 years. As some of my hon. Friends mentioned earlier, women now earn 83p for every £1 earned by men, compared with only 70p 30 years ago. However, there is still more to be done. I want the pay gap between women and men to be closed even more. Apart from that being the right thing to do, it makes sense for the economy. My hon. Friend the Minister cited figures demonstrating that raising women's skills to the level of men's would add 3 per cent. to our gross domestic product. Although the gender pay gap is only 10 per cent. among full-time staff in the public sector, it is 21 per cent. in the private sector, so there is still much to be done.

I believe that there are still too few women in senior management positions in the public sector, in which there is a concentration of women in such roles as teaching and social work. When I was a councillor, we appointed our first woman chief executive, but she was one of very few to attain that senior post in the north-west. One of my two local authorities, Wigan, has just appointed a woman chief executive, Joyce Redfearn. That constitutes a step forward in that part of the north-west, but it is still the case that only a fifth of local authorities employ women in such senior positions. The health service is doing a little better: 28 per cent. of its chief executives are women. I hope that the public-sector duty to promote gender equality will help authorities to take steps, in their role as employers, to improve the current position.


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