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26 Jun 2008 : Column 499

Equality Bill

11.33 am

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to set out to the House how the Government propose to make further progress towards the fair and equal society that we want to see.

I am pleased to announce that we are today publishing our key proposals for the equality Bill in a document entitled “Framework for a Fairer Future”. Copies are available in the Vote Office. For us, equality is a matter of principle—it always has been. As the Prime Minister set out on Wednesday in his announcement on social mobility, we want to address the serious inequalities that still exist. Addressing those inequalities and creating a fairer society is important for three reasons. First, fairness is important for the individual. No one should have to put up with discrimination. Secondly, fairness is important for our society—a society that is equal and fair is one that is more at ease with itself. Thirdly, fairness is important for our economy—an economy that sees no one pushed to the margins or excluded offers the widest pool of workers to employers. Diversity makes us outward facing and helps us to compete in the global economy.

The first equality laws were brought in by a Labour Government more than 40 years ago. Progress has been made to outlaw discrimination against people if they are black, a woman, lesbian or gay, disabled, or if they are older, but although such progress has been made, inequality and discrimination still persist. Men who work full time still earn 40 per cent. more per hour than women who work part time. Although more disabled people are working than ever before, a disabled person is still two and a half times more likely to be out of work. If someone is black or Asian, they are less likely to be in work and if they are in work, they are more likely to be earning below the level of their qualifications. Homophobic bullying still blights the lives of most lesbian or gay young people, and it is still perfectly lawful to tell someone, “Sorry, you’re too old”, and refuse anything from health care to insurance.

The Bill and package of measures that I will outline to the House today represent a radical shift in our approach to fighting unfairness, and will breathe fresh life into our equality agenda. Our package of measures includes the equality Bill we promised in our last manifesto, secondary legislation and action by the new Equality And Human Rights Commission. We expect everyone—the public sector, firms which do business with the public sector and companies in the private sector—to play their part. On pay, at the current rate of progress, it will take another 80 years before women are paid the same as men.

It is impossible to tackle discrimination when it is hidden. That is why we want a new era of openness when it comes to pay, so that women can see—in their own workplace—just how much more men get paid than them. Just as every school has to publish its exam results, so parents can see those results, and every hospital has to publish its waiting lists, so patients can see that information, I want employers to report on key equality issues, such as gender pay, so that their employees can view such information. That will put the spotlight
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on pay unfairness, which we all know goes on but which stays swept under the carpet.

Under its legal duties to promote equality, the public sector will lead by example. But 80 per cent. of people are employed in the private sector and the pay gap there is double that of the public sector. We must also have progress on fairness in the private sector, and we will ensure that in five ways. Given that 30 per cent. of companies do £160 billion-worth of business with the public sector, we will consider how public procurement can be used to deliver transparency and change. The equality Bill will outlaw clauses in employment contracts that prohibit employees disclosing their pay to each other. Where an employer has been found to have unlawfully discriminated, we will provide for the employment tribunal to be able to make a recommendation that applies not just to the successful complainant but to everyone in that workplace. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will conduct inquiries under its legal powers into sectors where the most progress needs to be made, starting with the financial services sector. We are going to tackle sexism in the City. Through a new kite-mark system, we will challenge companies to report on equality.

We expect business will increasingly regard reporting on progress on equality as an important part of explaining to investors, employees and others the prospects for those companies. We will review progress on transparency and its contribution to the achievement of equality outcomes in the light of that, and consider within the next five years the use of existing legislation for greater transparency in company reporting on equality.

Many people still seem to think that it is acceptable to discriminate against someone because they are older. It is not. With the number of people over 85 set to double in the next 20 years, it makes no sense. People are not over the hill at 60, to be either refused insurance or discriminated against in health care. We will include in the equality Bill duties on the public sector to eliminate age discrimination and promote equality for older people. We will take powers to outlaw age discrimination in the provision of goods and services. We will need to allow for a transitional period for changes to be made to comply with the law before it comes into effect, but work is already under way, and we will consult on making provisions to bring the new law into force more quickly in those sectors that are ready to comply with the law.

On disability, we need to be able to see who is including disabled people in their work force and who is shutting them out. That way, we can see who is making progress year on year, compare comparable organisations, learn from the best and challenge the worst.

We need to make further progress on fairness. That is why we will legislate to give more scope for employers who want to increase the number of women or black or Asian employees to take positive action. That will help, for example, the police, who want to make more progress on diversity because they know that they can be most effective when they reflect the ethnicity of the communities that they serve. To allow progress on women’s representation in the House of Commons to continue, we will extend the permission for all-women shortlists for parliamentary selection until 2030. We will consider with the Commissioner
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for Public Appointments whether a specific power to encourage diversity for appointments in her remit would assist her in that task.

Next month I will publish a further paper setting out our proposals in greater detail, and, over the coming months, there will be a continuous and determined programme of further action, which will include: considering whether there is a case for representative actions to employment tribunals; working out whether we can toughen the law to give redress to people who suffer discrimination on multiple grounds; and working with the trade unions to strengthen the excellent and pioneering work of trade union equality representatives in the workplace.

The package will see us make further progress towards a fair and equal society. A single statute to replace the complex web of legislation that has grown up over the years will make it easier for people to know their rights and understand their obligations. The equality Bill will be written in plain English alongside the necessary legal language.

In the past, when Labour has brought in laws to promote equality, they have been controversial. However, I hope that now, in the 21st century, there will be agreement that we must all play our part in making this country fairer.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement and for giving me prior sight of it, although I got more notice through her appearances on television and radio this morning. I agree with the Government that there is a need to streamline and update equalities legislation and I welcome the direction that the Government are taking with the Bill. I look forward to working constructively with them on ensuring that we have workable and practical legislation to provide for a fair society.

However, today’s announcement has been a long time in coming. The Government first announced their commitment to a single equalities Bill in their 2005 general election manifesto. On 25 July last year, the Deputy Leader of the House told the House that

Subsequently, there have been promises of draft clauses of the measure. Now we have an announcement lacking in detail with no specific time commitments, and more discussions on action in the coming months. Why has it taken the Government so long to introduce the sensible and practical measure for which we are all looking?

We welcome the broad thinking behind the approach to age discrimination, but again, the lack of detail on implementation and exemptions is baffling and disappointing. We support fair provision of services for older people and we need to ensure that the proposals will genuinely benefit them. The right hon. and learned Lady has recognised that the health service is a key area that will be affected by the age discrimination proposals, yet she has carefully avoided going into detail about that. Will she now confirm that the proposals will affect not only the planning of health services for older people but decisions about the treatment of individuals? On the radio this morning, she also talked about the need for planning applications to take age concerns into
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account. Does she propose to change the Planning Bill that is currently going through Parliament to accommodate those proposals?

In her statement, the Minister said that the Government would consider using procurement contracts to deliver transparency. In her media interviews, she was more specific, saying that companies bidding for public contracts would have to publish pay gap figures. The implication of that was that if the figures were bad, the company would not get the business. What exactly is the Government’s position on this? Those proposals are far removed from the compulsory pay audits that the right hon. and learned Lady has supported in the past, and continues to support on her website. Can she therefore confirm that she has lost the equal pay battle in the Cabinet, and that the Bill will not include compulsory pay audits?

In her statement, the right hon. and learned Lady said that employment tribunals would be able to make wide-ranging recommendations when an employer was found guilty of discrimination. We have proposed compulsory pay audits for employers who are found guilty of discrimination at an employment tribunal. Are the Government adopting our proposals? If not, what does today’s statement mean?

The statement talks of the public sector leading by example, yet many Government Departments have failed to meet their own diversity targets. As the “Framework for a Fairer Future” document makes clear, there are Departments in which the gender pay gap is well above the average, including Her Majesty’s Treasury, where it is 26 per cent. We are told that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will conduct inquiries into the sectors where most progress needs to be made, starting with the City. When will the EHRC be invited into the Treasury to look into its record on this issue?

I welcome the extension of the legislation on positive discrimination in the selection of parliamentary candidates. We have already said that we would support that move. However, the issue of allowing employers to exercise positive discrimination needs clarification. For example, if the head teacher of a primary school with only female teachers wanted to discriminate in favour of a male teacher, would that be permitted under the proposals? One area covered by the EHRC to which the Minister’s statement has made no reference is religious discrimination. Do the Government intend to include religious discrimination in their new equality Bill?

Until now, the Government have rightly sought to stamp out discrimination. The Bill takes a different approach. It will include measures to prevent discrimination, and measures to allow discrimination in certain circumstances. It introduces further complexity and confuses the Government’s message. After all these years, this is a huge missed opportunity. The Government could have introduced a revolutionary approach to equalities legislation, promoting fairness and diversity within a positive and sensible framework. Instead, the right hon. and learned Lady has been quoted as using phrases such as “empowering the resentful”. The Bill should seek to unite, not to divide. It has good intentions, but its lack of detail and clarity is disappointing. I am willing to work with the Government on this matter, because the issue of equalities is one that deserves to be looked at above and beyond the emotions of party politics. I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will join me in endeavouring to ensure that we can do just that.

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Ms Harman: I thank the right hon. Lady for her broad welcome for the package and for our endeavours. I also welcome the fact that she has ignored the cries from her own Back Benchers that the proposals are rubbish. I welcome the fact that she wants us to streamline and update the legislation—we intend to do so—and that she wants to work constructively with us. There will be an opportunity for further discussion before the Queen’s Speech later this year, and before the Bill is brought before the House. If she has proposals to bring forward, I would ask her please to do so. We will consider them carefully, as we want to work together on this.

The right hon. Lady said that the paper that we published today lacked substantive proposals, yet it announces that we intend to legislate for the first time to put a duty on all public authorities not to discriminate against people on the ground of age, and to promote equality for older people. That is new. We are also proposing for the first time to put into law the right of people not to be discriminated against in the provision of goods and services because they are older. That is also new. We have announced that we propose to put into law positive action for those employers who want to diversify their work force. We have brought forward new proposals on public procurement, public appointments and ending gagging clauses. If the right hon. Lady has an alternative list of substance, let her bring it forward. We would welcome that, as we want to make further progress.

The right hon. Lady asked whether I propose to change the Planning Bill in respect of public sector duties on local and other authorities. The whole point of the public duty is that it overrides and infuses the approach to everything. We do not have to put in a public sector duty, Bill by Bill, Act by Act, because it is there and it runs through everything that is done. That is how the public duty works. We do not need to change legislation, as all public authorities will have to have due regard to how what they do affects older people.

The right hon. Lady mentioned public procurement, which will work like this: there is a public duty on public bodies not to discriminate and to promote equality of race, gender, disability and now age. That applies not only when they employ people and provide services or goods, but when they do public procurement, using the £160 billion of public money. Spending public money is a public function, and the equality duties apply to the public function. That way, public bodies can say, “If you want to do business with the public sector, you need to tell us what your pay gap is. How many disabled are you employing? What is the percentage of black and Asian people in your work force?” Then, if a number of companies are equally qualified for that contract, the authority, in its duty to promote equality, will pick the one doing best on equality.

The right hon. Lady mentioned disclosure of the gender pay gap. We have explained that that will be mandatory in the public sector. It will then be driven through the public sector, into that 30 per cent. of business that is publicly procured from the private sector. If the private sector does not voluntarily conduct the gender pay audits and checks, we have powers in legislation to require it to do so.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Treasury. The whole point about producing league tables is that we can see who is lagging behind and who needs to make a
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bit more progress. I certainly do not think that women are not good enough at numbers or incapable of being financial experts; rather, there are patterns of entrenched expectations. Once we make them clear and expose them, we can take action on them.

The right hon. Lady asked about primary school head teachers. If there was an all-female work force and the head teacher, having a number of equally qualified candidates, wanted to ensure that there were some men teaching in her school, she would be able to do that. The proposals clarify the law, so that employers have more ability to promote equality and diversity within their work forces.

The right hon. Lady said that we had not done enough. However, we have introduced civil partnerships and flexible working, and we have eliminated age discrimination against older people in employment. We have done all that. I remind her that for the 18 years in which her party was in government, it introduced not a single piece of equality legislation. The Conservatives’ version of equality legislation was clause 28. I know that those on the Opposition Front Bench have changed, so I hope that the right hon. Lady will bring her Back Benchers along to join the 21st century.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I welcome today’s statement, which certainly goes a lot further than the previous Green Paper on equality. The gender pay gap in Aberdeen is one of the largest in the country—the average female take-home pay is 60 per cent. that of the average male take-home pay. I am interested in what my right hon. and learned Friend said about public procurement. In Scotland, public procurement comes not only from central Government, but from the Scottish Executive and local authorities. Can she explain how her proposals will apply in Scotland and whether they will cover all public procurement there?

Ms Harman: The primary legislation applies throughout the United Kingdom, but secondary legislation is the responsibility of the devolved Administrations. If, for example, there is a Scottish public body that operates only in Scotland, any statutory instrument that applied the primary legislation to that organisation would be the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. However, all organisations that work across the border between England and Scotland would be covered by reserved powers. We want to work closely with the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland, the devolved Administrations and all sides in the Scottish Parliament.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I very much welcome today’s statement and thank the Minister for allowing me early sight of it. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome a new equality Bill that will bring together all the various strands of equality legislation and further the equality agenda, which sure needs some furthering.

We particularly welcome the eleventh hour inclusion of a grey charter, with the overdue outlawing of age discrimination in the provision of goods and services and the extension of the public equality duty. Can the Minister confirm whether that will cover young people?

I would also be grateful to know the exact date, or as near as we can get, when older patients will be legally entitled to the same treatment in our hospitals as the rest of us.

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