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Mr. Hunt: rose—

Keith Vaz: I shall give way for the final time to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hunt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for generously accepting my interventions. He has spoken extremely eloquently. If he is not successful in persuading the Government to accept his amendment, does he agree that they should consider including in schedule 1, part of which deals with the appointment of commissioners, provisions to cover the recruitment of a commissioner who is specifically appointed to deal with race relations, of a commissioner specifically appointed to deal with disability rights and of commissioners to deal with other key areas, so at least someone can focus directly on those issues and thus make sure that there is a figurehead for those important campaigns.

Keith Vaz: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, and I accept that he is sincere. The fact is, however, we need proper representation in the Bill. The issue of portfolios is applicable now. The CRE has a number of commissioners, some of whom deal specifically with, for example, the Muslim community. The portfolio issue is a secondary consideration, but the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to paragraph 2 of schedule 1, because the issue of representation is the key point.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say that I have spoken eloquently, but I think that I have spoken for too long. [Hon. Members: "No."] I want to allow my hon. Friends the opportunity to speak. We rarely debate equality in this House, because the Opposition never want to debate it in their time. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) disagrees, but when was the last time that she used one of her Opposition days to discuss equality? The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has told us all about his commitment to equality, but I cannot remember when the Liberal Democrats last provided time to debate it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) has just returned from Eid celebrations to attend this debate, which must have been a difficult choice.

This is an opportunity to send a powerful message to the black and Asian community, and I hope that the Minister takes it and does not leave me and my hon. Friends in the position of having to call a Division against our own Government.

Mrs. Laing : The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) has made an important and eloquent speech. He mentioned that the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) has attended Eid celebrations, which is what my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is usually here on the
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Front Bench, is doing. We cannot all attend Eid celebrations, which are important, but I am sure that all hon. Members support them.

I listened carefully to the speech by the hon. Member for Leicester, East. When I challenged him on one point, he answered another point, but I still disagree with him on the first point, which amendment No. 43 addresses. Given that we are discussing equality, it is strange that the Bill gives pre-eminence to matters concerning race, religion or belief. We discussed that point at length in Committee, where I argued that it is illogical to include the word "particular" in clause 10(4), because it is not right that particular attention should be paid to one of the strands of equality. However, I will not press that point, because other issues are far more important and I do not feel strongly about it. When we made that point in Committee, the Minister gave a reasonable explanation why the word "particular" should remain. I accepted her argument then and, being consistent, I am sure that she will advance it again today, in which case I shall probably accept it once more.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East has made some important points. In Committee, I moved amendment No. 52, which suggested that the commission should consist of:

To that extent, I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, East.

In Committee, my concern, which I still harbour, was that we should be prescriptive on Report, because law is better if it is not vague, but precise. My amendment in Committee, which is similar to the general points made by the hon. Member for Leicester, East this afternoon, would have allowed Parliament to prescribe some of the qualifications for some of the commissioners. It is important that at least one commissioner is female and that at least one commissioner can discuss issues around age from their own experience. I am not sure whether all hon. Members agree that "aged over 65 years" is a qualification, and if others think that it should be 70, 75 or even older, I would not argue, because the point is sensitive.

In principle, it is important that the commission has members who know about discrimination from their own experience rather than from a second-hand, academic or professional understanding. A reasonable proportion of the commissioners should have an understanding based on their own experience, which is different from an understanding derived from academic study or professional experience. I therefore agree with the general principles behind what the hon. Member for Leicester, East has said this afternoon.

Keith Vaz: I therefore assume that the hon. Lady will support the amendment.
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Mrs. Laing: My amendment was slightly different from the hon. Gentleman's amendment. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has suggested that his amendment is better, which is his prerogative. If I had wanted to press the matter to a vote, however, I would have tabled a different amendment. I do not support the letter of his amendment, but I support what he has said in principle. However, I suspect that the Minister will advance a legal argument to try to persuade the House that a provision in schedule 1 already covers all those points. Nevertheless, it is important that we have it on record that this House feels strongly that the commission should be composed of people who understand the issues of discrimination against which we are legislating from their own personal experience.

It is also important to recognise that this is a cross-party matter. I suspect that the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) agrees with me in principle as she did in Committee, although she may argue about the exact dots and commas. When such matters are considered in the wider sphere, it is important that Parliament is seen to be concerned that the commission is made up of people who have relevant personal experience.

Keith Vaz: I am surprised by the hon. Lady, because I should have thought that under the new leadership of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) she would want to appeal to the black and Asian community in the United Kingdom by saying that it has a voice in the Conservative party, which says that it must have equal representation. Why is she struggling with the issue, which should be an easy win for the Conservatives?

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken—I am not struggling at all. My speech in Committee was made prior to the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney as leader of the Conservative party. My principles are those in which I have always believed and continue consistently to believe. It is delightful that the new leader of my party agrees with me on these matters, as he honestly does. I am pleased that he is directing my party in the right direction in this respect. I might struggle with the exact words that the hon. Member for Leicester, East has used in his amendment—I am not giving him any assurances in that regard—but I am not struggling with the principle. Conservative Members agree with what he said, and he deserves to be complimented on saying it in such a heartfelt way.

6 pm

John Bercow: I know that my hon. Friend performed with great skill and dexterity in the Standing Committee on the Bill. However, as I was not fortunate enough to be chosen as a member of the Committee, I am familiar only with some, not all, of the exchanges that took place there. I understand her argument that the terms and wording of her amendment differ from those of the hon. Member for Leicester, East, but if there is something wrong with his amendment, what is it?

Mrs. Laing: As usual, my hon. Friend asks a very precise question. In principle, there is nothing wrong with the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but I am not willing to commit my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself to supporting exactly what he has said word for
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word. I know that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me as well. I confess that I am a cautious lawyer by training, so I do not rush into precise and binding promises on every dot and comma of a particular amendment unless I am 100 per cent. sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I wish to be led down precisely that path.

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