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11 May 2009 : Column 548

Would it be possible, Mr. Speaker, for you to consider making public the advice that this House received from the security advisor to Parliament as to what bits of data really must be withheld under such circumstances? For example, while withholding addresses, they have released the tradesmen’s details.

Mr. Speaker: I cannot discuss security matters on the Floor of this House, but I have heard what the hon. Member has to say, as has every other hon. Member.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order to point out that many of us—I hope from all parts of the House—feel that bringing in the Metropolitan police, who have a huge job to do in London at the moment in dealing with all sorts of problems, to try to find out who has leaked something, when, as has been pointed out, the newspapers have handled the personal details very responsibly by blanking them out, is an awful waste of resources? Will the public not see this, whatever the intention, as a way of hiding—

Mr. Speaker: Let me answer the hon. Lady. I listen to her often when I turn on the television at midnight, and I hear her public utterances and pearls of wisdom on Sky News—it is easy to talk then. Let me put this to the hon. Lady and to every hon. Member in this House: is it the case than an employee of this House should be able to hand over any private data to any organisation of his or her choosing? The allegations—I emphasise that they are allegations—are that that information was handed over to a third party in order to find the highest bidder for private information. If I do not ask, or rather if the Clerk of the House does not ask, for the police to be brought in, we are saying that that employee should be left in situ with all the personal information of every hon. Member, including the hon. Lady’s own information and that of her employees. Let me say that anyone who has looked at their own un-redacted information can see that the signatures of employees are exposed, that private ex-directory numbers are exposed and that passwords—telephone passwords—are exposed. I just say to the hon. Lady that it is easy to say to the press, “This should not happen,” but it is a wee bit more difficult when you have to do more than just give quotes to the Express—or the press, rather—and do nothing else; some of us in this House have other responsibilities, other than just talking to the press.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am all in favour of owning up and apologising when we are in the wrong, but would it be in order to inquire whether the House authorities should be a little more robust in responding to the many falsehoods that have been written about our use of the allowances? On 4 April, a Mr. Ian Cowie wrote an article in the financial section of The Daily Telegraph in which he falsely suggested that we were all pocketing the office costs allowance, that we are subject to special tax treatment and that, on average, each of us owes the Inland Revenue £54,000 in tax a year. He
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elaborated on this thesis over more than two pages, he has repeated the claim on other occasions and other newspapers have made similar allegations. After Mr. Cowie’s article appeared, I contacted a senior official of the House and suggested that he issue a rebuttal, only to be told that it is not your policy to respond to falsehoods of this nature. Is that the case, Mr. Speaker? If so, would you reconsider, because we are in a climate now where any nonsense can be written about anybody, and it is dragging us all down?

Mr. Speaker: Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that I will make sure that that matter, and how these things can be rebutted, is raised at the Commission’s meeting this evening.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you, as part of a clarification of your statement, indicate whether the House of Commons Commission will tonight be considering the early release of all information, which I believe to be in all Members’ interests, as opposed to dragging this matter out until July? And will—

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I did say that in the statement? Perhaps he was reading the statement. Another individual Member who is keen to say to the press whatever the press want to hear has said that the House of Commons Commission has done nothing. Just remember that it was less than a year ago—on 3 July—that the House of Commons Commission put a report before this House, in which some of the problems that we have got today were examined and rejected, so it is wrong for him to say that the House of Commons has done nothing, but I answered his point in my statement in any case.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the Commission is looking at the possible earlier release of the information, can I be assured that we will all keep our heads and recognise that at present hon. Members are going through many thousands of sheets of paper? I have today sent to the Fees Office many sheets, asking for corrections which consist of nothing more esoteric than the removal of a credit card number or private individuals’ names and addresses, making it clear where something has not been claimed. I have done that today. If that is multiplied across the House, there is a huge task. May I ask that we keep our heads and not be driven by what is happening?

Mr. Speaker: I say to the right hon. Lady that I am very aware that at present hon. Members are looking at the information that is on those documents, and they have a right to protect not only themselves, but their staff and their families. Matters such as bank accounts and cheques have sometimes been involved, and those items been replicated in the so-called disk that is doing the rounds.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 3 July last year the House unanimously passed a resolution relating to capital gains tax and second homes. Will the Commission tonight be looking at what has happened to enact that resolution?

Mr. Speaker: I will make sure that that happens.

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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): On a point of order on another matter, Mr. Speaker. Yet again, the centre of our capital city has been brought to a standstill—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am taking points of order on the statement.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Deplorable though it is that private information relating to hon. Members and our staff has been offered as a leak or possibly for sale to members of the press, we clearly cannot blame the media for the situation in which we find ourselves. I wonder whether, when the House of Commons Commission meets this evening, you would consider adding to what you are already doing a rather different approach. Because it is the public who elect us and pay for us, would you and the Commission consider establishing citizens juries, as they are called, perhaps one for each region, to consider the matter both of our salaries and of—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think it is clear that it is time for me to move on.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I clear up a different point that emerges from your statement? It has been suggested in some quarters that the use of an outside body to check the receipts and the auditing, which seems to me a desirable thing, would in some way exempt those from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. My assumption is that that is simply not the case. Have you been advised accordingly, and can you confirm that?

Mr. Speaker: There is no intention that any action that we take will, inadvertently or otherwise, allow the freedom of information to be restricted. I hope that is of help to the right hon. Gentleman.

I move on. Does the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) now wish to raise a point of order?

Mr. Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yet again, our capital city has been brought to a standstill by a bunch of demonstrators who have, in effect, occupied Parliament square for about six weeks. I have raised the matter with you before. Although it is true that Members have had access, albeit not to the main entrance of the House—we have had restricted access—there are nevertheless hundreds of thousands of people out there going about their business, who have had their business lives and their personal lives disrupted by the demonstration, at enormous cost to them and their businesses, as well as inconvenience. I know that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has had added to his list of things to do that which you asked him over the weekend to do, but I have raised the matter with you before. It is surely unacceptable that these people should be allowed to take over Parliament square and disrupt the entire centre of our capital city. I wonder what on earth the Metropolitan Police Commissioner is doing about it, bearing in mind that every police officer to whom I have spoken has made it clear to me that it is his view that the Commissioner will take no action, because after the G20 they are completely frit of doing anything for fear of ending up in court themselves.

Several hon. Members rose

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Mr. Speaker: If hon. Members allow me to answer, perhaps they will not need to make their points.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the case that the hon. Gentleman makes. Perhaps later on this week I will make a statement after I have brought people into the House to try to resolve the matter. Many of us were involved in demonstrations before we came into the House, because demonstrating is part of a democracy, but we would have those demonstrations and then leave. No one has ever expected a demonstration to hijack Parliament square and the roads, and thereby stop others performing their democratic duties. I will be able to give the hon. Gentleman more information later in the week.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am pleased by what you have just said, but will you assure us that demonstrations and the right to demonstrate will not be impeded? Could we all not have some sympathy for the Tamil people out there who are desperate to do something to achieve safety for their families back home? Can we not recognise, at a human level, that people want their voice to be heard and for this House and our Government to do what they can to bring about a ceasefire in Sri Lanka?

Mr. Speaker: I can understand that people have issues on which they wish to be heard, but to hijack an important part of this city—with hunger strikers, tents and food stalls, but no toilet facilities—is not the proper way to conduct a demonstration. I will say something further on the situation later this week.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you have your discussions later this week, will you please discuss with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner the advisability of bringing in an implement that would be used in virtually every other capital city—the water cannon?

Mr. Speaker: We have enough problems without water cannons; we do not need water cannons.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your advice, because I was personally involved in Parliament square this morning? I was coming in by car and I was almost at Chancellor’s Gate when the Tamil demonstrators
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burst out of Parliament square and occupied the road. I was delayed in attending a meeting in the House. Indeed, I was held up for an hour and 10 minutes, until the police were able to sort out the traffic. Is it not the case that Members of Parliament and those associated with the House should have unimpeded access, and the police and the authorities should seek to guarantee that?

Mr. Speaker: I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait until I have further information later this week.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not condone people going on to the streets, but I wish to place it on record that I know for a certain fact that the demonstration in the square was applied for lawfully and granted permission for at least the last four weeks, and it will be able to continue lawfully for some weeks to come. I hope that colleagues will understand that there are laws, passed by this House, governing these matters, and the applicants for the demonstration have complied with those laws.

Mr. Speaker: I know that I might be in a bit of a bad mood today, but let me say that when authorisation is given for 50 people to demonstrate, it means 50 people. It does not mean tents or food stalls, or texts being sent to supporters to tell them to bring little children along. That is not part of the authorisation of the demonstration. As a former trade union officer, I know that when somebody co-operates with the authorities to obtain permission for a demonstration, they comply with the rules that they lay down. No one can say that that happened in this case.

Let me add a further thing, because it relates to what Sir Nicholas has said. People, including me, who have had to drive around the square have been put into a dangerous situation—the roads have been blocked off, because police officers have had to put their vans in the filter lane. So when anyone tells me that permission was given, I say that it was given for a limited number of people, not a mob.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that we must move on. We have got something called the main business, and we had better get that dealt with.

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Equality Bill

[Relevant document: The Third Report of the Work and Pensions Committee on the Equality Bill: how disability equality fits within a Single Equality Act, HC 158-I.]

Second Reading

Mr. Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

3.50 pm

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

For us, equality matters because it is right as a question of principle, and it is necessary as a matter of practice. It is essential for every individual. Everyone has the right to be treated fairly, and everyone should enjoy the opportunity to fulfil their potential. No one should suffer the indignity of discrimination—to be told, “You’re old, so you’re past it,” to be overlooked because of a disability, to be excluded because of the colour of their skin, to face harassment because they are gay, or to be paid unfairly because they are a woman.

Equality is not just the birthright of every individual, but necessary for the economy: a competitive economy is one that draws on everyone’s talents and abilities and is not blinkered by prejudice. It is also necessary for society: a more equal society is more cohesive and at ease with itself than one marred by prejudice and discrimination. So this Labour Government are, like other Labour Governments before us, a champion of equality.

The Bill is not about turning back the clock—quite the opposite. It is looking to the future. It is backward societies that are marred by discrimination against lesbians and gay men, where women are expected to know their place and which are bound by rigid hierarchies. It is the modern and open society that can look to the future with confidence.

The point about a meritocracy is that only if we have fairness and equality will people really be considered on their individual merits, free from discrimination and unfairness. So this is not an argument against a meritocracy—quite the reverse: fairness and equality are necessary to underpin a meritocracy.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con) rose—

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Ms Harman: I will give way during my speech, but I am afraid that it is quite a long one; the hon. Gentlemen might have an opportunity to come back after dinner and intervene. I will try to press on with my speech.

Some people have said, “Why do this now? We know it was in your manifesto, but we’re in the middle of a global recession. Now’s not the time.” But we do not accept that. When times are hard, it is even more important that everyone feels that they have an equal chance and that we all pull together, because we are in the same boat.

Andrew Selous: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have a very serious point to raise with her, and I hope that she can be of some help to me. I
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have come across a number of incidences of employers stipulating that it is a necessary condition for a job at the minimum wage that the applicants speak Polish. I consider that discrimination against the vast majority of my constituents who left school at 16 without being able to speak Polish. Will she take this opportunity to say very clearly to employers across the country that, where there is no genuine occupational requirement, it is illegal for them to stipulate that a foreign language is required to apply for a job at the minimum wage in this country at a time of rapidly rising unemployment?

Ms Harman: If a job was to teach Polish, for example, that might well be why the employer needed to recruit such people, but that is not a question in the Bill, which, as I will say again as I get through it, deals with discrimination on grounds of race, gender and disability.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Andrew Selous rose—

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con) rose—

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con) rose—

Ms Harman: I am going to press on.

We really must make the most of every individual’s talents and potential, whatever their age, sex or race— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Bellingham rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Leader of the House speak for a while. Perhaps then she will take interventions.

Ms Harman: Just as we give real help to people now, we need to give real hope for the future, and that hope is a strong economy and a fair and more equal society, so I am proud to be bringing the Equality Bill to the House for its Second Reading.

There are many great champions of the equality movement in the House of Commons, and many, many more outside. I pay tribute to their efforts in the cause of equality. The Equality Bill is a Government Bill, but the campaign for equality is a great movement and we are proud to play our part in it.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Under the terms of the Bill, will it be possible for an employer to choose to employ a white woman rather than an equally well qualified black man?

Ms Harman: I will get to the points about positive discrimination and positive action further on in my speech—[Hon. Members: “Ah.”]—if Members will bear with me. [ Interruption. ] Yes, the Bill includes positive action.

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