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James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I welcome the Bill and its aspirations of promoting not only a just, decent and tolerant society, but the concept of opportunity for all, whatever background people come from, and whatever their creed, colour, religion, or faith. I associate myself with such opportunity in society.
I welcomed the comments of the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) about the need to focus on the assumption that the problems of homophobia and racism have gone away. I know from my constituency that that is unfortunately not the case. In the earlier part of the year, a Jewish cemetery in my constituency was desecrated, vandalised and covered in graffiti. That brought home to me the fact that a lack of understanding and a great deal of intolerance and fear remain in our society. Homophobia is a problem, and people can be assaulted, abused and ultimately killed because of their sexuality, or for following their creed or religion.
Those problems are bound up in the direction that a society takes. The Bill in itself tries to address the underlying problems, given that the actions that I have highlighted already have a criminal sanction. We must continue to focus on the cause of such actions and the issues that lie behind them, so I welcome the thrust of the Bill.
I also welcome the logic of trying to bring together the various strands that the Bill tries to address, whether that discrimination is on the basis of ethnicity, disability, age, or religion. Trying to pigeonhole such complex matters into individual organisations and addressing them with a disparate body of case law does not promote the vision that I want for this country: a much more tolerant and understanding society for us all to live in.
We must face up to several challenges when bringing together those various strands. We need to ensure that the necessary skills and qualifications exist in the commission for equality and human rights because the wide issue about which we are talking is extremely complex. We will also need to focus on how the body addresses its many challenges. I welcomed the fact that the Minister said that the structure of the commission would be such that funding would not be pigeonholed for different aspects of its work. Such an approach must be adopted.
Clause 3 sets out the basis and scope of the commission's work, which is, by its very nature, extremely broad. I am concerned that that breadth will lead to a lack of focus and that it will be unable to achieve what it needs to achieve. The commission needs an independent role, but it is interesting that the strategic plan of targets by which it will seek to measure its work will be delivered merely to the Secretary of State, whereas the code of practice that it will adopt will be subject to a much greater degree of parliamentary scrutiny and involvement of the Secretary of State.
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Although I accept the need for independence and for the commission to take a robust approach, clause 3 in essence contains political aspirations and ideals. The commission should have such a role and responsibility, but in examining provisions on the way that it draws up its action plan and three-yearly reviews, we must acknowledge the need for scrutiny to ensure that it focuses on the complex objectives that have been set for it. We must ensure that we have the opportunity to scrutinise its roles and how it is proceeding. The lack of that in the Bill could on one hand be said to be a strength, but on the other a weakness.
There is also a need to ensure that we do not end up with a bureaucratic structure. I hear the comments of the Minister and other hon. Members, but the structure is in danger of becoming bureaucratic and lacking focus. There is vagueness in the intentions of clause 3 and the definition of human rights. The Bill says that human rights will be those under the European convention, but it could mean other human rights. As the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) said, it could mean the rights of the child. That is very interesting, but that lack of focus and certainty about the commission's role may ultimately mean that it cannot fulfil its function.
The use of resources has been debated and numbers have been bandied across the Chamber. It is interesting to note that the Equal Opportunities Commission and various other stakeholders have said that the money to be provided is not enough. When one considers the breadth of the work, it is possible to envisage how money could be fired off in different directions. That underpins my argument that greater focus and clarity are needed in the direction and scope of the organisation's work.
Comments about political correctness have been interesting to note. In some way, I endorse those made from the Conservative Benches. One function of the commission is to try to stop litigation and to encourage a culture in which there is not always the need for a litigious approach. However, we are entering a dangerous period. We have a society that might be described as very defensive, so we need a law to tell us what we can do, as opposed to the rule of law under which we could do something unless some enactment prevented us from doing it.
I respect and understand the need to create a just and tolerant society, but I do not want us to go down the track where we feel that our actions need to be sanctioned in order for us to feel comfortable about them. Gold-plating and the approach in the Bill might result in local authorities and other legitimate organisations, which might be faith-based, feeling constrained in their actionsnot because of the way that they act, but because they fear litigation and that they might be doing something that has not been sanctioned, which will be costly and time-consuming in the courts.
I welcome the Bill, but a lot more needs to be done in terms of the operation of the commission that it seeks to establish, and the culture and climate that it seeks to foster. We must ensure that it positively promotes a tolerant and just society, not a society in which people are always looking over their shoulder and looking for comfort in law. It must enable people to act normally, and in a way that we in this House regard as acceptable.
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Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): One consequence of speaking at this point in the debate is that my comments will necessarily be briefer than I had originally intended, as many Members have eloquently covered many of the points I hoped to make. I stress, however, that my comments will be no less heartfelt for that.
I want to begin by picking up on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing). She said that she regretted the fact that, 30 years after the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, we are still debating equality issues in this House. That is a very important point, and it is slightly depressing to think that I was not born when the Race Relations Act 1965 was enacted, and that I was at primary school when the 1975 Act was enacted. Here I am, now a mother myself, seeing this very important Bill come througha Bill that means a great deal to me personally, and to my constituents, friends and family. It will make a big difference to the future focus of our society. It will enshrine in law, in a single Equality Act, all the things that decent, right-thinking human beings want in terms of how their fellow human beings should be treated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) eloquently outlined the issues relating to the argument for a single Equality Bill, so I will not go into those, but I want to pick up on the comments of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who talked about Britishness. He should come to Hackney, South and Shoreditch, where he would see Britishness manifested in a way that he would not recognise, but which my constituents embrace enthusiastically. Some 54 people attended my last surgery, a week ago. Many of them came to see me about their immigration status and its progress through the Home Office. As commonly happens during surgeries and when I knock on doors in my constituency, a number of them talked to me enthusiastically about becoming British citizens, especially those who had just received leave to remain. Be they from Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia or eastern Europe, many such people are keen to be British. That does not chime with the "Britishness" examples given by the hon. Member for Castle Point.
Although other Members have highlighted the Government's achievements in this area, it is worth reminding ourselves, at the tail-end of this debate, of some of them. Only recently have civil partnerships been put on the statute book, thereby providing such people with equal security within the law. Our having legislated for the full civil rights of disabled people is an issue close to me personally. I am a carer for a disabled adult, and I see the massive difference that such legislation has made to her. For the first time in her life, last Christmas she was able to get on a bus in a wheelchair, thanks to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 coming into force. Those who talk nostalgically about London buses, or who criticise drop-kerbs and other "petty" changes that they do not take seriously, should remember that these changes make a daily difference to people's lives. That is what such legislation has meant, and we will see other such examples in this single Equality Bill.
I want to talk briefly about some issues that are particularly important to my constituents. Measures in train to outlaw age discrimination in the workplace are
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a very welcome development. In an intervention, I highlighted the fact that there are some 250,000 people in London aged over 50 who are willing, able and qualified to work, but who are not in employment. That represents the biggest pool of underused skills and experience available to the London economy, so it is vital that we progress the legislation as fast as possible.
Another major concern in my constituency is the pay gap between men and women, which other hon. Members have outlined eloquently. Many of my constituents in Hackney, South and Shoreditch work in low-paid, manual or service jobs, some of which, particularly in the caring professions, are dominated by women, as is the case nationally. The women and work commission, which is due to report next year, will make an important contribution to that debate. It will, I hope, make a huge difference to my constituents, although I accept that we have a mountain to climb. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality for her long-standing campaign on that issue.
The equalities review is important. Hackney has been one of the poorest boroughs in London for more than 100 years. The people may change, but some of the problems, discrimination and inequalities that they face remain the same. I highlighted a case in an intervention, but it bears repeating as it is just one example of many that I could cite in my constituency. Why are Africans who come to this country, particularly from west Africawho are highly qualified, often with second or even third degreesunder-employed or even unemployed? Surely, we have learned lessons from the people who arrived in our country and faced discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s and, indeed both before and since then. I look forward to the outcome of the review chaired by Trevor Phillips. I hope that we will begin to see a difference and perhaps make a step change in future legislation. The discrimination law review will also lead to improvements.
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