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John Bercow: My hon. Friend makes his point pithily and eloquently, as ever. With due respect, may I take him back to a point that was interestingly but wrongly made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) earlier? She mentioned a possible analogy between the issue we are debating and the role of a midwife. Does a midwife have to have given birth to be a suitable person to deliver a baby? What we are talking about here is not a one-off function: it is an ongoing advocacy and representational role, and that is the important point that we have to bear in mind.
Mr. Boswell: I agree, and had I wished to indulge myself earlier I would have taken up the hon. Lady on a related point to her analogy of the midwife. At least part of the case that she made is that a midwife, whether or not she has given birth, should be experienced and knowledgeable about people giving birth and, by definition, sympathetic to them. A midwife should not be multifunctional and also act as a physiotherapist, occupational therapist or speech therapist in her spare time. Therefore, we need people on the commission who are heavyweights, who understand what is involved and who can engage with and win the confidence of the minority communities, minority interests and others who might be discriminated against.
I love moving amendments and trying to get a Bill right, and part of that includes the cerebral function and taking a cool look at how legislation works, as with the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) rightly made about the administrative cost of the new commission. However, it is also important to understand that the process includes an element of emotional intelligence and the reflection of anger and disquiet in the community. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) asked about the common feature and I think that at least part of it is the anger people feelfor example, whatever their skin colourat the discrimination that they have endured for no good reason and, sometimes, as they see it, as the
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fault of society. The Bill will not solve all ills, but we could make a start by saying that it should reflect not only the best structure that we can produce, but the anger of individuals about how they have been treated and a determination across all the parties to do our level best to see that that does not happen in the future.
Ms Abbott: I wish to speak in support of the amendments that would introduce a race committee and provide proper representation among the commissioners. I also support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and other colleagues on issues of staff protection, and I hope that the Minister will take them seriously.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) reminded the House, it is some 20 years since he and I were first selected as prospective parliamentary candidates, together with Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng. We were not selected because of our good looks and charisma, at random or as an act of patronage by our leadership. Indeed, as a group, we were regarded with some fearyes, even my hon. Friendwhen we first entered the House in 1987. We were selected on the back of a feeling in society that had arisen because of the riots in London, Bristol and Liverpool in the early 1980s. There was a strong feeling in society at the time, especially in the communities from which we were selected, that it was high time that, towards the end of the 20th century, this House of Commons started to look like the people of Britain.
The argument, which was accepted on all sides at the time, was that for young black and Asian people to feel part of and engaged with this society, they had to see representation at the highest level. That was not because only black and Asian people can understand the issues of black people and other ethnic minorities. Nor was it because of quotas or numbers. Nor was it because in an ideal world it would not matter what colour MPs were. The idea was that representation mattered because of what it said about an institution. People can read about issues of discrimination and even do dissertations on them, but unless they have lived them and felt them, they will not be able to give them the emphasis that only living them gives.
I have heard all the mockery about needing to have a one-legged person, one blind person and one Chinese person for the past 20 years, but the arguments on representation are about the legitimacy of institutions and the wealth of talent available to institutions. If the arguments about representation were valid for the House of Commons 20 years ago, how much more valid are the same arguments for this commission on equality today? I beg Members not to have a continuous rehearsal of arguments that we heard 20 years ago. If the case for representation was important 20 years ago, it isif anythingmore important today.
The hon. Lady is here because of her ability, and so is the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). Does she agree that true equality means that the best person for the job is given the job, whatever their background? If that means that all the people on the commission are black, so be it. If that means that all
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the people on the commission have a disability, so be it. While we talk about quotas and look at people on the basis of their colour or whether they are disabled, we will never have true equality. It should be irrelevant what colour people are or whether they have a disability: what matters is that we have good people, whatever their background.
Ms Abbott: Of course, in an ideal world colour, gender, sexuality or physical challenges would not matter, but we are not in an ideal world and all my experience of these issues, which goes back a few years before the hon. Gentleman entered the House, tells me that unless we debate representation, raise the issue and put in place the structures and the law to ensure itas we are calling for in this casewe will find that the majority of people best placed to empathise with the issues are somehow, magically, always white males. Time after time, that is the practical outcome.
I am old enough to remember when the CRE was set up and am the first to acknowledge that although it has had some excellent leaders, it has not been as effective in recent years as it might have been. I am the first to acknowledge that the CRE has faced challenges as an institution, but I remind the House that when it was set up in 1977 it embodied the best and most hopeful aspirations of our society for racial equality. In those early years, it attracted the best and brightest members of our black and Asian community. The House should also remember that the CRE is not just a London organisation; in community after community, in town after town, local racial equality committees, often with only one or two paid staff, do incredible work 18 hours a day, as beacons, fighting for equality in their community.
As this debate may be our last chance to say anything about the CRE before it goes in two years' time, we should not just look at where it has failed and where we might disagree with one of its chairs on a particular issue. We should look at the hopes and aspirations that it embodied and at the incredibly brave work of hundreds upon hundreds of individuals for the national body or for their community, long before race and equality were fashionable or acceptable. It would be wrong for the House not to acknowledge the contribution that the CRE has made to ensuring that we do not see in our society what the French saw last summercommunity after community in flames.
I entirely concede that the CRE may not have achieved all that we hoped. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, I do not agree with what Trevor Phillips said about multiculturalism, but we should not forget what the CRE represented, the hopes it embodied and the real achievements of individuals associated with it.
Of course, I support bringing all the equality strands into one commission, but my fear is that unless we get the legislation and the structures right, the commission will embody what I have seen so often, whether at local authority, non-governmental organisation or
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Government level: lowest common denominator equality, which is no good for anyone, although it provides a laugh for some people who are hostile to the whole notion of equalities in principle. Lowest common denominator equality sells every equality strand short. Sadly, it is my experience that if race is merged with other equalities issues, without sufficient thought and care about the structures, race inevitably falls to the bottom of the agenda. That is why, when the Government set up a working party to look into the matter, out of 28 people there were only three visible minorities. When we say that we want not just assurances but legislation and structures, we are not looking in the crystal ball, we are reading the book.
It astonishes me that two years after my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East and I took a group of concerned parliamentarians to see Ministers, the Government have not moved on the issue. As I said earlier, I am arguing not for a hierarchy of equalities, but that, based on my experience of working on equality for 30 yearsnot just as an MP, but in my trade union and my communityall the equality strands have a distinct character. On employment, for example, the problem for most white women is how to get through the glass ceiling: the problem for most black people is how to get through the door. Of course, the commission must broker a collective view at the end of the day, but unless there are people on it who understand the distinctions between the challenges faced by disabled persons, by people whose problem is their colour or by women, we shall end up with lowest common denominator solutions that pay lip service to, but do not address, the difficult issues.
Many issues concerned with race are difficult. This society still finds it difficult to face many of the realities about race. When I started raising the issue of the underachievement of black boys, white people asked me whether it was not a little embarrassing to talk about that. I was not afraid to talk about it, because the issue is real and it needs to be addressed. However, if we have a commission with no structures and without the right legislation, the temptation will be to duck the difficult issues; there will be lowest common denominator equalities.
Ministers talk about empathy and hoping. No individual in the black community is more committed to institutions, to the state and to making things work through the political process than I am, but there are persons out there in our communities who are really not that interested in middle-class white men empathising with their situation; they want representation and stakeholder involvement. We have heard about Lord Halifax and the end of the Indian empire, but I have to tell the House that the days of white men empathising with the situation of other people have long been left behind. I do not say that because we are not all people and because everybody cannot represent everybody else, but because institutions are more than the sum of their parts. They are about what they saythe message they give to a society. So when Ministers tell me that they hope that the commission will not be all white men, what do they mean? They are Ministers. If they want to ensure that the commission has proper representation, the remedy is in their hands. They can put those matters on the face of the Bill.
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I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East that the Government have made progress on inequalities. This society has made progress on equalities in the 20 years since I have been a Member of Parliament; indeed, sometimes society makes progress ahead of politicians and they have to scrabble to keep up. We have made progress, but if the commission goes ahead with the Government resolutely refusing to listen to the united voice of black and Asian communities and the Bill goes forward without a race committee, without the proper structural arrangements, we shall set the race issue in this country back many years.
Ministers say to me, "Diane, why are you going on about race? The issues are different now, it's all about human rights." All the issues are serious, but if they do not have mind to the race issue, it will have a way of forcing itself back on to the political agenda. Rather than the House having to create structures and produce law to deal with a situation where black, Asian or minority persons feel disfranchised and marginalised, why do not we this evening ensure that we have the thought-out structures and arrangements that will reassure black and Asian people that just as representation mattered to the House of Commons 20 years ago, it matters for the new equality commission? I could not let the debate go past without speaking on this matter, because representation is important.
Of course, I am here to represent everybody and I try to balance every view in my constituency and work for every community. However, the people, black and white, who worked so hard to elect me in 1987 would have been disappointed if, at a point when the Government are being completely obdurate and it seems as though there is no hope, I had not stood up and spoken to this issue. That is what representation is about. It is not about advancing the issue when it is easy, or when a Member is in a majority, or when the Government are on their side; it is about advancing the issue because it has to be donebecause that is where we come from and where we learn and, in the end, we know that we are answerable.
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