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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who on these issues always makes a thoughtful contribution to the House. I also thank the many hon. Members who have contributed to today's debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), for Erewash (Liz Blackman)—these quaint English names are sometimes beyond my good Scot's tongue—for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) and for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). I also congratulate the many new Members who have contributed to today's debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley (Barbara Keeley), for Tooting (Mr. Khan), for Hove (Ms Barlow) and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), and those on the Opposition Benches.

I also thank the official Opposition for their support for the Bill, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionists—who I think support the Bill—and Plaid Cymru, who I trust speak for all the nationalists in the House. We are in the gratifying situation that on this day in 2005 we have almost unanimous agreement on some of the major equality issues. That is to be applauded, because some of us remember the time before the Race Relations Act 1976, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the equal opportunities legislation, when there was not always consensus in the House on how to tackle discrimination.
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This is an ambitious Bill, as many contributors to the debate today have said, and we have had a wide-ranging and supportive debate that appropriately reflects the Bill's objectives and underlines how it will affect the lives of so many diverse individuals and groups represented in our communities. Some of the examples that have been raised today are indicative of that. I am grateful for the points that have been made and I shall come to them in a moment.

The Bill is the latest step in the development of our equality and human rights framework. It builds on sound legislative changes that have already been made to challenge race discrimination in public bodies, to better protect people at work from discrimination and to strengthen the rights of disabled people when accessing services and the public sector. It builds on the excellent work done by the three existing equality commissions and the many other organisations working to make Britain a better place for all. As the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, I applaud and recognise the fact that the Disability Rights Commission is five years old this year. Ten or 15 years ago, disabled people throughout the United Kingdom never thought it possible that we would have such a commission to champion their cause and to challenge on their behalf.

The law has moved on, with regulations tackling workplace discrimination on grounds of religion and belief, and sexual orientation. There will soon be similar regulations to tackle age discrimination. But there are no institutions in place to enforce those regulations. There is no institution providing advice or promoting human rights. So the time is right for a single commission for equality and human rights, ensuring greater impact, greater relevance, greater ease of access and greater coherence.

The Bill also extends the legislation against discrimination on the grounds of a person's religion or belief. For the first time, it provides protection and reassurance for many in the provision of goods, facilities and services and other important areas.

Part 2 corrects an anomaly in the law. Through developments under the Race Relations Act, Jews and Sikhs are already protected against discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services, the management and disposal of premises and the provision of education—protection that is not available to any other faith or belief. The Bill deals with that anomaly.

It is generally accepted that the Bill has been improved by the addition of part 3, which contains the power to make regulations prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. It is an example of the Government's response to support in Parliament and elsewhere. We are honouring our long-standing commitment to gender equality by introducing the most significant measure in 30 years in the form of a new public duty.

The Bill is not intended to do everything, but it forms part of our overall strategy for action on equality. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey who said, using a telling phrase, that this was the starter before the main course. Work is continuing on the other two prongs. The equality review is considering the
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underlying causes of continuing inequalities, while the discrimination law review is considering the development of a more consistent and coherent legal framework throughout discrimination law. I ask Members who may be disappointed by some of the perceived gaps in the Bill to bear in mind the importance of getting changes right before including them in legislation.

Opposition Members in particular mentioned cost. The £70 million budget planned for the commission represents a 43 per cent. increase on the existing commissions' budgets, but it also reflects an objective assessment of what the CEHR will need, based on work to identify its activities and services and the resources required to support them. Others raised the issue of regional presences. One reason for our wish to fund the commission properly is the need to ensure that there is a strong regional presence. Combining the various bodies will produce efficiency savings, but they will be ploughed into front-line services. There will not be an open-ended cheque book which no one will ever scrutinise. The budget is specifically for the work that the House will ask the commission to do, and, as I have said, any savings will be ploughed back into the front line.

Mrs. Laing: Will the Minister undertake to report to the House each year on how much the CEHR has cost and why the cost has risen or, indeed, fallen? Keeping costs down will be very important,

Mrs. McGuire: As the hon. Lady well knows, Ministers come to the House each year to explain their budget commitments and how the budgets are spent. I assume that this will be part of our normal accountability to Parliament.

The business community was mentioned by both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller). Representatives of the CBI and the Small Business Council participated in the CEHR taskforce, helped to draw up the White Paper and advised on consultation responses, and are represented on the CEHR steering group, which is advising on the establishment of the new commission. In fact, business wants a single equalities body: it wants all advice and guidance on all areas of discrimination and human rights law to be in one place. I hope that that gives some comfort to those who fear that businesses feel that they are being over-regulated. They are actually being very supported.

The hon. Members for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar and, again, the hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned age discrimination. It is clearly wrong at both ends of the spectrum—and the House should recognise that it happens to younger as well as older people. Developing ways to tackle age discrimination in an effective, properly targeted manner is, however, complicated and that is why we have asked the discrimination law review team to examine ways in which we can solve some of the major issues. It is fair to say that Age Concern, Help the Aged and other organisations representing older people support that approach, rather than putting measures into the Bill and perhaps not getting it right at this time.
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I wanted to deal with the issue of children. Of course children are people and they will be covered by the CEHR. As the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) highlighted, there will be memorandums of understanding with the commissioners in both Wales and Scotland. It is important that we recognise the nuances of devolution in relation to that element.

Hywel Williams: Will the Minister ensure that there is full discussion with the Welsh Assembly on the appointment of members to sit on the Welsh committee?

Mrs. McGuire: I can assure the House that there are already discussions taking place with both the Welsh Assembly Government and the Scottish Executive on those issues.

On regional arrangements, I hope that I have already dealt with that under the issue of cost. It was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar. We have listened intently to all the representations from across the country as to where the commission's headquarters should be sited. We have noted them all and the location study will report in due course.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar made an important point when she asked why we had not gone down a fourth way and provided a legislative solution to the problem of the meaning of "public authority" in the Human Rights Act 1998. We must be sure that any legislative alteration to the meaning of public authority in the Act will not have an adverse impact on other discrimination legislation, such as that on the public duty to promote equality. It is for that reason that we have asked the discrimination law review team specifically to consider that issue. We expect to issue a consultation paper calling for arguments and evidence on that subject early next year.

I will deal quickly with some of the more specific issues that were raised. I give my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash the assurances that she was seeking in terms of the disability strand. I also pick up on some, not all, of the contribution of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). There is a cut-off date of 18 May to allow boy scouts and girl guides to continue to make the promise. We did not want to create a loophole where future groups could get around discrimination laws by requiring potential members to make a statement such as, "I believe in all faiths but Islam" or "I believe in all faiths except Christianity." It is to deal with a potential loophole.

I hope now to give the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) some pre-Christmas cheer and to send him away with a smile and spring in his step, which I reckon is a pretty formidable task. The Home Office is not withdrawing funding from the carol service that he mentioned. In fact, it has agreed to pay up to £2,000 towards the cost of the memorial service for four consecutive years.

This is an important Bill that has gained widespread support in this House. It is a good Bill and I hope that the House will endorse it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.
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