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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): It is pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) because, as I think that he is aware, my wife is also from the Principality, although she does not speak Welsh. His remarks reminded me of the historical perspective. We are now almost neutral as to people's linguistic choice, but those in the Principality have felt, and occasionally were, oppressed on account of their nationality. Perhaps it is a sign of where we need to be getting that that discrimination would generally be unthinkable nowadays.

This has been an interesting and sometimes rather revealing debate. Upwards of 20 Back Benchers have spoken, and it would probably be invidious of me to single any of them out. The Minister might like to refer to some Labour Members. On my side, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk
 
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(Mr. Bellingham), who is an expert in this area. On Second Reading, he spoke from the Front Bench but now speaks from the Back Benches. Conversely, on that occasion I spoke from the Back Benches, and now here I am on the Front Bench. I am particularly grateful to the neophytes—my hon. Friends the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) and for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller). They all made effective and balanced contributions, although some were heard somewhat at a distance and reported to me. Generally it has been a remarkably broad and useful debate—for the Ministers also, I hope.

For the avoidance of any doubt, I repeat that Conservatives welcome the Bill. I do not, on the whole, pursue policies of inconsistency. Having re-read my Second Reading speech from the Back Benches on 5 April, I do not resile from a word of it. I believe that the Bill and the discussion around it is an important signal of intent as regards the attitudes of this place towards minorities.

Meg Hillier: Several of us have tried to elicit a definition of political correctness from the Conservative point of view. Can the hon. Gentleman oblige?

Mr. Boswell: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. I was coming to that, but I will spare her the wait. She referred, very modestly, to having been born after the introduction of some of the original legislation. I am so old that the first Prime Minister I remember, and in certain respects would even commend, was a certain Clem Attlee, who, when asked to define an elephant, said that it would be difficult to define but on the whole you knew one when you saw one. As a one-nation politician—I do not claim that approach exclusively for my party, although I wish I could—I am comfortable with the way in which the debate is going.

I have some working experience of the three existing equality bodies, and I would not find it easy to recognise some of the caricatures. It is an error to think that just because a person or an institution does not do the whole job they are useless. Of course there will be mistakes, but broadly their record has been as a force for good, and I commend and thank them for that.

Having said that, I am struck by the remarkable degree of dualism about several areas of the argument. From a one-nation viewpoint, I have no difficulty at all with the general duty in clause 3—that is what most of us are in politics for. I may have a little more doubt as to whether it can legally be deliverable in that form, but that is a separate issue. However, it is beyond doubt that beyond those great themes a huge amount of legal background music has to be played into what is a rather long and complicated Bill.

Although the Chamber is beginning to fill now, I detect that problems remain about many issues on the social frontier and they are not confined to one party. There is interest and enthusiasm among aficionados and experts but neglect elsewhere. We sometimes need to engage the people outside, who are not listening. Inevitably, that leads me back to the remark of the hon.   Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) about political correctness. The new
 
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commission will have to resist it and take a lead in encouraging the notion to resist it. That requires an active communication strategy to explain what the new commission does and why.

It is important that as many people as possible have some ownership of the argument about discrimination. Business especially, though not exclusively, needs convincing that there is an opportunity and that it has an entirely proper role alongside the statutory organs in delivering an equality agenda. The commission will not function well unless it carries confidence. I never cease to make the business case in the House for diversity and equality awareness.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): My hon. Friend says that business needs to line up alongside the statutory organisations in supporting equality. Does he find it surprising that the civil service continues to discriminate on the basis of age for recruitment and retirement when many businesses have long ceased to do that?

Mr. Boswell: I agree. That is an example of something that needs to change.

To be fair to the Minister—I do not mind that because she presented her case with some passion and charm—I believe that Ministers have listened to advice, not least from Government discrimination bodies and others, in establishing the commission. The current Bill is much better than the measure that we considered in April and the White Paper that preceded it. I mean no disrespect to the former Deputy Minister for Equality, the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), who has now joined us and did a lot of work on the matter. Legislation, like wine, is better if it has matured than if it is rushed and consumed prematurely.

I am glad that the Government have been wise enough to drop religious harassment because of the criticism that they received on the ground of legal difficulty in another place. It may be sensible to revert to the matter but it needs careful consideration.

As some of my colleagues have done, I want to flag up genuine concern about the cost of the commission. When the Institute for Public Policy Research presented its original scoping proposals for a single commission, some of the equality bodies were worried that there might be an increase in cost. They believed that they would have to do the whole job for less. It has normally been the case that, when Ministers put several institutions into a single regulatory body—one of my hon. Friends referred to the Financial Services Authority—they claim that it will save money but it does not. In the case that we are considering, Ministers are coming out openly and saying that the commission will cost another 40 per cent. Goodness knows what the cost will ultimately be. Some of the debate compounded that with Christmas-tree politics, which adds on further nice things to do. That must be resisted; cost must be carefully probed and controlled.

Let me revert for the last time to political correctness. I emphasise that the commission has an important role in ensuring that that is resisted. There must be no argument for saying that the commission is playing into that. It should also positively dissuade others from
 
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doing that. I know from my work in health and safety that it is often not a commission that plays into political correctness.

Judy Mallaber: Will the hon. Gentleman make a commitment on behalf of the Conservatives that, every time they come up with an example of alleged political correctness, they check their facts to ensure that it is not merely one of the many myths that are put about and that make all-too-lovely newspaper headlines?

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Lady will understand that I can be responsible for what I say, but I am not sure that I can be responsible for what my colleagues say.

Mr. Swayne: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Boswell: No, I will not. I cannot be responsible for my hon. Friends, let alone for Labour Members, but we will all do our best. Let us be straight about this; let us find out what is involved and let us understand that if the commission encourages or condones such attitudes, it will devalue its own work. That is not something that I want it to do.

I believe that the great majority of people in this country want to see fairness of treatment and respect for the rights of others as well as of themselves. I also believe that the moral centre of this country is somewhere above the lowest level of the comment in the tabloid newspapers, which consistently underestimate people's decency. They are wrong to do that.

It has been observed that there is unfinished business in other parts of the Bill. There is much more work to be done on producing a single concept, as a result of the gradual, incremental way in which the law on disability and other discrimination has come together. That is why I welcome the review, and the Minister's readiness to open it to outside engagement. There will undoubtedly be a need for a new, single equality Act, but it is better to take a little more time to get that right. I emphasise to the Minister the importance not only of legal form but of equality of redress, so that all the different parts of the Bill work to ensure that people who have a problem can get it raised. The commission will have a role to play in that regard. The relationship with human rights was mentioned in relation to publicly financed private institutions and service providers such as care homes. Many other detailed points were raised, but I do not have time to rehearse them now.

As for the effects of the Bill, the worst possible scenario would be for the Government to believe that the establishment of the commission were an end in itself—I am not saying that they do—or some kind of sophisticated displacement activity, rather than the means to address real inequality of opportunity in society. I very much welcome the review under Trevor Phillips. Members on both sides of the House have rightly referred to the continuing gender pay gap, and to the engagement of disabled people and ethnic minorities in employment. These issues will not go away, and we should talk about them. We should not blame the equality bodies because perfection has not been achieved; but continue to work towards reducing the gaps.
 
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France was mentioned earlier, and all these issues    should be viewed without complacency or schadenfreude by Labour Members. A good Parliament should be alert to changing social conditions and try to steer them in the right direction. That is why it is important that the commission should have a role involving monitoring and speaking out. It is, incidentally, possible to cut the costs of monitoring by outsourcing some of those tasks to academia, for example. They do not all have to be done in-house. When Trevor Phillips gets up and expresses his extremely important and challenging views on ethnic inclusion in the United Kingdom, it is right that such people, who take the lead on these issues, should be able to speak out and open up the debate, even if we do not agree with their every last word. That forms part of the national debate. It is not necessarily an expensive activity and I hope that the commission will be able to play a part in it.

Today's debate has shown that we all have a duty to have regard to the condition of the people, and a special duty towards those who are less well placed to voice their concerns. Frankly, most of us will get our own way, one way or another, but there are plenty of people who will not. In our own interests as much as those of anyone else, we need to open our society to the potential of all our citizens, and to remove any roadblocks to their progress and welfare, both as individuals and as groups of individuals. The Bill and the commission will stand or fall on whether they really help to achieve those shared objectives. I support the Bill because I expect and hope that it will help—not on its own, but over time and with the good will of the people—to achieve some of those goals for us.

9.44 pm


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