Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Ms Abbott: I welcome the principle of a unified commission and I congratulate Ministers on introducing this important legislation. I also wish to congratulate those groups in the black and minority ethnic communities—Operation Black Vote, the 1990 Trust and the race advisers to the Mayor of London—who have worked so hard to put race on the agenda in the context of these debates.

On Second Reading, there was little discussion about race, and this evening we have managed to put that right. I welcome the unified commission in principle, and I think that the Bill—and the thinking behind it—represents an advance for all our communities.
 
16 Jan 2006 : Column 658
 
However, I remain concerned about the position of issues of race in the new commission, the finances available for work on race in the new commission, the law enforcement work of the new commission and, perhaps above all, the support that will be available for local race equality councils. As I said on Report, some of the most valuable work funded by the CRE was carried out by local and regional equalities committees.

With those caveats, I welcome the Bill. We have listened carefully to what Ministers said about race and we shall follow how things unfold as we build the new commission, but it would be a mistake for Ministers to believe that the debate about race and the commission is over: for my hon. Friends and I, that debate, and the debate on how the commission does not simply do what the CRE did but improves on it, has only just begun.

9.15 pm

Dr. Evan Harris: My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) wanted to be here, but has been called away to another engagement. She has asked me to pass on her thanks to those who have worked on the Bill. She subscribes to the views that I am about to set out.

The Bill is a liberal one; the capital L could apply to the Equality Bill introduced in the House of Lords by my colleague, Lord Lester. I understand that the Government will try to bring it forward soon, but that is a debate for another day. The Bill is liberal because it provides for a mechanism whereby the human rights of individuals can be if not guaranteed, at least looked after and promoted by the commission. It is also liberal, as it attempts to end certain aspects discrimination in a reasonable and balanced way.

One of the joyous things in the experience of those of us who have worked on the Bill is that we have not heard the negative charges, previously made in the House, that there is an equality industry or a discrimination lobby. I am grateful to Members on both sides of the House that we have confined the debate to the issues, without straying into those areas.

The Government are generally to be commended on the Bill, especially in its present form, as it has been significantly amended in both Houses. The commission to be set up under part 1 is a good structure; it does not include everything that the Liberal Democrats wanted, but it scores well in comparison with the ideal set out in the Paris principles. Government amendments, especially in the House of Lords, have improved the Bill, particularly part 1. It is appropriate to recognise that and to pay tribute to Ministers. The fact that there were no Divisions in the Standing Committee and only one on Report—not on a principle, but on the timing and speed of the promotion of transgender equality and non-discrimination—shows a spirit of collegiality and a shared sense of purpose in bringing the Bill to the statute book.

Much of the credit must go to the Ministers who steered the Bill through the House. I echo the views of the Secretary of State about the way in which the Minister for Women and Equality handled the complexities of the legislation. It was not straightforward and, as we saw today, sometimes she had to deal with points and concerns expressed by Members on both sides of the House, which is never easy. She carried it off commendably.
 
16 Jan 2006 : Column 659
 

The Home Office is stocked with Jekyll and Hyde-type characters. I hope that it does not upset the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), when I say that he is an effective Jekyll; I will not flatter the Hydes by telling him who I think they are. It was certainly a pleasure to work with him, and the fact that the Government were willing to listen and to make changes—albeit not all that we wanted—made it a productive experience.

As the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said, we have benefited from Back-Bench contributions, especially from the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) in Committee and her equivalent—if I do not offend both of them by describing him thus—the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). He was not a member of the Committee but he has always had concerns about these matters and puts them clearly.

We still have concerns about part 2, but the fact that the House of Lords removed harassment issues from the Bill left a core in part 2 that we could all generally support. As Ministers will know, there are concerns about the existing width of the exemptions under clauses 57, 58 and 59 and, indeed, about whether clause 60 is strictly needed, given that organisations that seek to use a test should have an ethos that requires that test. Nevertheless, the Bill is much better than before, and credit is due to the Government, as well as Opposition parties, for reaching this point.

It was a pleasure to serve on the Committee with the hon. Members for Epping Forest and, of course, for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), both of whom are forensic yet charming—a rare combination in lawyers, unless someone is paying them a great amount of money.

Part 3 is a crucial and welcome addition to the Bill, because we all know the problems that people face with discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. However, the fact that pressure needed to be applied to provide part 3 hints at the hierarchy of discrimination and inequalities. We therefore wish good speed to the discrimination law review, to produce a single Equality Bill and then an Act, which will end the debate about hierarchies once and for all. Of course, part 4 is key, because we will not achieve full equality for men and women until public authorities have a positive duty to promote such equality.

In conclusion, we are still in the early days of the era post the Human Rights Act 1998. A great deal needs to be done to raise public awareness about people's rights and, in particular, about public authorities' duties to ensure that they do not discriminate against people or breach human rights—but we hope that, one day, they will have a duty to promote human rights. It is with great pleasure that I wish the Bill well. I hope that it receives Royal Assent and look forward to its enactment. I hope that the whole country benefits from the measures that will be set out in statute that we have debated these past few weeks and months.

9.22 pm

Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): I endorse all the compliments that have been given in the Chamber this evening. I served on the Standing Committee and spoke
 
16 Jan 2006 : Column 660
 
on Second Reading, and it has been a hugely positive process. It was a pleasure to sit and simply listen to the debates prior to Third Reading, and I will keep my remarks extremely brief.

Like everyone else, I think that creating a single commission is an extremely good move forward, because of all the advantages that a single commission ought to have. We talk about a single, unified body being accessible and coherent, which is a great concept, but we must get it right in practice. So what do we mean by the word "accessible"? We mean that the messages sent from the new body must be extremely clear, and an awful lot of proactive work must be done to inform people about the new commission, especially those who may wish to use it. The word "coherent" means a shared culture, consistent ways of working, shared good practice and an ability to deal with multi-stranded, complex cases. All that is not easy to deliver, and the key to doing so is the appointment of an extremely talented and able chief executive, as well as the commission under that person. I am sure that the Government will pay particular attention to the appointment of the chief executive, because that is critical to the success of the commission.

I welcome the provisions in the schedules to the Bill that make it necessary for the commission to work towards developing a strategic plan through consultation and preparation. It will be required to set out the activities that it will cover, the timetable that it will use and to set priorities. I also welcome the duty imposed on the commission to review and revise its strategic plan as it moves forward. That is extremely important but, as important, is the link between that process and Parliament and the fact that the strategic plan and its revision will be laid before Parliament. Only through such a transparent process will this accountable body of Parliament have a regular opportunity to scrutinise in detail the work of the commission. If we cannot do that, there is no point in having a commission. It must be made accountable.

Similarly, all the commission's processes of monitoring the law and the progress made must be examined. Again, there must be a link with Parliament and reports must be laid before us. There is also a connection between the consultation that all those processes demand and the absolute necessity for having the strong regional footprints to which the Minister has referred throughout the debate.

People who know me know that I have a particular interest in disability issues. I am very pleased with the proposals to integrate more closely the commission's duties and functions in relation to disabled people with its duties and functions in relation to other groups. Nevertheless, the Disability Rights Commission is a very junior member when compared with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. I am therefore pleased that disability issues are recognised in statute by the fact they will have their own committee, albeit with a sunset clause, which is right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) spoke about how difficult it is for people from black and Asian groups to get through the door into employment. May I drew to her attention how very difficult it is for people with disabilities, particular those with mental disabilities, to
 
16 Jan 2006 : Column 661
 
get through that door let alone access all the other services that we take for granted? When the commission is set up, I shall look at how it makes a difference to the lives of all the people in the various strands or groups, but particularly at the progress that is made for people with disabilities.

9.27 pm


Next Section IndexHome Page