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Mrs. Dorries: As was pointed out to me, the Government have been in power for eight and a half years. They have had that time in which to try to improve the position.

Barbara Keeley: I think the hon. Lady would agree that it probably takes more than eight and a half years
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to work one's way up to becoming chief executive of a local authority. It takes most people a few years to reach the top of an organisation—probably more than just eight years. I think that more responsibility falls on a party that was in government for 18 years.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) pointed out, welcome work is already being done on occupational segregation to find out why men and women are concentrated in different jobs. Work is also being done on female access to what have historically been seen as male jobs. It is important for us to understand concepts such as that of the glass ceiling, of which we have heard so much and which prevents women from making progress, and that of the sticky floor—a new one on me—which stops women from moving up from the jobs that pay least. It is equally important to understand both those concepts.

I want to say something about how caring affects ability to work. Employers should recognise that their employees are juggling caring responsibilities with work. Having such responsibilities, especially for a child or an adult with a disability—or indeed an elderly relative—affects the ability of both men and women to work. Employment rates for men and, in particular, women carers are likely to be lower than those for other people of the same working age. Seventy per cent. of men between 30 and 44 caring for a disabled son or daughter are in work, while fewer than 50 per cent. of women carers in the same age group are in work. The peak age for caring is between 45 and 64—women may return to caring even if they have been working—and one adult in four in that age group has caring responsibilities. Again, that applies more to women: 27 per cent. will be caring for someone with a long-term health condition between the ages of 45 and 64, compared to 19 per cent. of men.

For many carers, overall employment rates are lower. The greater the caring commitment, the more likely it is that carers will have to work part time. Given the wider pay gap among part-time workers, that means that carers juggling caring and work suffer double discrimination, and most of them are women.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): May I say something about the support given to carers and others who are discriminated against by employers, because of their caring duties or for other reasons? Perhaps my hon. Friend, like me, has been lobbied by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which fears that its powers under section 73 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 are not being transferred in the Bill—specifically, its power to represent people confronted by discrimination of this nature. If so, no doubt she will ask the Minister to respond later.

Barbara Keeley: My hon. Friend must be clairvoyant. I was coming to that point.

Issues involving parenting, caring and work are complex. They affect many of our constituents, so they should concern us all. A question that is still being asked is whether the duty to promote equality between women and men will ensure that caring responsibilities are recognised by public bodies with duties applying to their employment practices and the way in which they design their services. I understand that the Equality
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Commission for Northern Ireland deals with caring as a separate strand, and has a positive duty relating to public bodies, including the promotion of equality

Caring is often not even visible to employers. Many carers do not like to ask for time off, or indeed for flexibility, but the Bill will allow them to do so. Many currently feel that caring is not seen as a reason for time off in their workplaces. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), I hope that the Committee will consider whether the duty to promote equality could be extended, and whether caring responsibilities could become an extra and, perhaps, a particularly important strand of the commission's work.

It is welcome that the new single statutory commission has human rights in its title. We should celebrate that. With that institutional support, the work on equality and human rights can be linked. As we know, discrimination and lack of equality waste the potential of individuals and represent a loss to our nation, which we can now quantify in terms of GDP.

In the past 30 years, we have made steady but at times slow progress on reducing inequality and attacking discrimination, although much more progress has been made under Labour Governments than under Conservative Governments. As Labour Members have said, it has been disturbing to hear the views of what is becoming known as the dinosaur tendency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley said, Members should be clear about their terms. I understand that the reason why bibles have been removed from patients' lockers in NHS hospitals is to prevent cross-infection. If a patient in the NHS wants a bible, the idea is that they ask for one. They are then provided with one that has been properly disinfected following use by other patients. Therefore, it has nothing to do with political correctness. That has been quoted twice by Opposition Members. It is rather silly that they do that type of thing. In contrast, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) gave an excellent exposition of the work of Labour's women pioneers over the past century.

Since 1997, we have abolished section 28 and introduced civil partnerships. Today, many of my hon. Friends have emphasised the importance of ending discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services. Like them, I welcome the fact that our Government have accepted amendments to the Bill in the other place which allow the Secretary of State to make regulations that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. We are indeed glad that there is widespread support for these measures in Parliament and beyond and I add my support to that.

Looking forward, measures are proposed to outlaw age discrimination in the workplace, and the women and work commission will report early next year. Like many hon. Members, particularly those on the Labour Benches, I welcome the Bill, which is the biggest step forward for the law on equality for many years and creates a body, wherever it is located—I hope that it will be in the north-west—that will integrate the three pillars of equality, diversity and human rights and work to promote good relations.
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8.37 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to speak in the debate. It is particularly pleasing to follow the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley), who has talked about many important issues with regard to working women. The majority of women in my constituency are working women. Indeed, I am one myself. The issues that she raised are also important for my constituents.

The Bill has benefited greatly from extensive debate in the House of Lords both on Second Reading and on Report. That helped to clarify some important issues before the debate today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said, the Bill has many good intentions but I agree that it is in need of some refinement.

The issue of equality touches all our lives. I want to see a society where each individual is given the opportunity to reach their full potential and where no people are left behind as a result of their gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexuality or age. I want to see that not only because it is morally right but because as a country we cannot afford to approach things in any other way.

In the debate in the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor pointed out that one of the basic foundations of the Bill is ensuring that everyone can participate in this country's economy. We have to do all that we can to enhance the competitiveness of our country, particularly after eight years of this Government, who have done much to undermine Britain's competitiveness.

Streamlining the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission into one commission for equality and human rights will, I hope, provide a framework for a simpler, more easily accessible and consistent approach. Indeed, many businesses have welcomed the Bill, unsurprisingly, as employment has become one of the largest and most litigated bodies of discrimination law. Anything that promises to support the call for a simpler framework will receive the support of business now and in the future. Indeed, the commission for equality and human rights will provide the opportunity to achieve that.

Small and medium-sized firms all too often do not have the capacity to employ special advisers on these matters so they need support and help. A great many businesses in my constituency fall into that category: they want to do the right thing, but do not always have the specialised knowledge to hand to be able to do so. I believe that the commission has the potential to become, as other hon. Members mentioned earlier today, a one-stop shop of advice and support for businesses on all matters of discrimination. The commission for equality and human rights should see itself as promoting good practice in business, offering—to use the Government's term—a joined-up approach to reduce the spiralling amount of litigation and hopefully not add to it. That is the key.

The Government have said that the Bill will not impose more regulatory burdens on employers, so good practice will be the primary route for driving change. I will be listening for an assurance in the Minister's winding-up speech that the Government still adopt that
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position. The commission must not become merely a regulator and an enforcer, as it can do so much more than that. If it does become only that, it will alienate business and set back the causes that we seek to support today, such as reaching out to small businesses as a priority.

As I said earlier, we cannot afford as a country to take any other approach. Ensuring that everyone can participate to their utmost in our country's economy is vital for our future success and nowhere more with respect to older members of our community—a group that has not received much comment in today's debate, although a couple of hon. Members have picked up the point lately. I welcome the fact that the Bill recognises the need to support older people against discrimination. I understand that new regulations are due to come in next year to outlaw age discrimination in the workplace, but more could be done to prepare the way for that legislative change. As I am sure hon. Members will be pleased to note, life expectancy for men in Britain has risen by five years to 76 since 1981 and by 10 years since the 1940s. My grandfather is in his mid-90s. Women regularly live beyond 80 nowadays, yet many remain active and want to continue to work in their communities, but are often stopped in their tracks by the ageism that permeates many aspects of our society.

I would like to look at a couple of examples within the Bill and keep my comments short in order to allow other Members to contribute to the debate. Before I do so, I want to refer to a particular example from my constituency. I was contacted by one of my local parish councils in Basingstoke—Silchester parish council—which wanted to employ two local residents to collect litter. Both residents had been given a clean bill of health by their doctors: they were able bodied, but in their mid-70s. Employment levels in north Hampshire are, as hon. Members may be aware, very high, making it quite difficult to recruit people, and there were no other applicants for those jobs.

The parish was unable to employ those applicants because, on account of the age of the people concerned, it was unable to obtain the necessary insurance. That left the beautiful parish of Silchester—it certainly is beautiful—without the litter pickers that it needed and left the two constituents without the employment that they wanted, purely as a result of their age.

Legislation alone cannot change attitudes and I applaud the work done by organisations such as Age Concern and Help the Aged, which have championed the rights of older people over many years, but we need to join them in doing all we can to encourage full participation—both in our communities and in the economy—of all who are able and not let advancing years stand in the way of those who want to participate.

Could the Bill do more to support older people? I think that some would argue that it could, as illustrated by my example of Silchester parish council where older members of our community found it difficult to find employment because an insurance company would not provide insurance. The Bill specifically prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the grounds of sexual orientation, but it will not provide protection to older residents in my constituency in employment rights. I await the raft of
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letters I am sure to receive if this issue is not addressed. The Minister said earlier that it could be addressed as part of the discrimination law review, but why not address it now in the Bill?

The Bill could be used to better support older people, as well as to harmonise the discrimination law. I am concerned that the Bill will not do all that it could to support older people and, indeed, could create more inconsistencies in equality law. How would that help to ensure that we give everyone the opportunity to realise their potential? Some hon. Members have referred to the hierarchy of equality, but it should perhaps be called the hierarchy of inequality. The legislation is patchwork and fragmented, as the Bill reveals, and that is worthy of more discussion, perhaps in Committee.

It is not difficult to find examples of inconsistency and lack of support for older people in the Bill. It makes provision for public bodies to promote gender equality—which I do support—but the Government have not taken this obvious opportunity to harmonise legislation even further and include a duty to promote age equality. They could even simplify matters for all of us and create a general duty to promote equality across all the strands to be covered by the commission. Again, the losers will be older people. I am deeply concerned by the lack of support in the Bill for those who may have contributed much to our society and wish to contribute more. Legislation lags behind. As in many areas of politics, older people's voices are simply not heard, perhaps—in the case of the Bill— because they are lost in the crowd. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that that is not the case.

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