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Ministers have been challenged on the issue of Saga Holidays by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). Ministers have recognised these issues in the explanatory notes, but they have failed to come up with a satisfactory way of dealing with these issues in the Bill. What they have had to resort to in clause 190 is an unacceptable power for Ministers to amend primary legislation by order every time someone thinks up an example that Ministers want to permit. That will not be acceptable for businesses such as Saga and for other insurance businesses that need more clarity about the framework in which they are going to operate.

Although one of the understandable desires of the Government is to open up services for older people, there is a danger that the clause will damage the specialist services on which older people rely, in particular insurance
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services and specialist holidays, by requiring them to provide for younger people as well. Saga has said the following about the Bill:

It says that without assurances from the Government, the following will occur:

I am sure that the Government do not intend to damage specialist services in that way, but they must listen to the genuine concerns that have been expressed. Equally, they must ensure that insurance companies that use age assessment—where that is appropriate—are not damaged. The Government have failed to set out clearly where they are coming from on this, so I hope that when the Solicitor-General winds up the debate she will be able to assure us that age-based treatment, where appropriate, can continue.

I am glad that the Bill is bringing under one roof the vast array of existing equalities legislation, so that we have more coherence in this area of law. Over recent years, equality has been given a bad name—to many people, “equality” has become about bureaucracy and box-ticking—but it should never be the enemy of common sense, nor should it hamper business; it should help business to work better.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con) rose—

Mrs. May: No, I am coming to a—[Hon. Members: “Peroration.”] My hon. Friends are flattering me by calling it a peroration. I had hoped that the Equality Bill would not just sweep away existing equality legislation, but improve on what we have. However, rather than instilling some simplicity and common sense, some of the measures in this Bill serve merely to overcomplicate and undermine. Fairness is a very straightforward concept, yet the Government have managed to turn it into a quagmire of regulation and recrimination. We shall be pressing them on many of their proposals and I hope that, where possible, we shall be able to work together to create some better legislation. But the Bill, as it stands, is littered with inconsistencies and obstacles to real fairness, and for that reason we need to start again. I urge hon. Members from all parts of the House to support the amendment, so we can work together to provide legislation that truly does deliver a fair society.

4.58 pm

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be able to participate so early in this debate. I very warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality on introducing this excellent Bill. She has been a stalwart and consistent champion for equality from well before it became a reasonably fashionable cause. I listened to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and I was puzzled by her decision, and that of her party leader, to vote against Second Reading, given that she and her party profess, albeit perhaps a little late, to be converts to the cause of a fairer and more equal society. The points she was making would more appropriately have been reflected by trying to press amendments in Committee, rather than by deciding to oppose Second Reading completely.

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I have been struck in recent weeks by the sheer number of briefings on the Bill that I have received—more than I can remember for any other recent Bill—and the range of organisations from which they have come. That reflects the way in which the debate about equality and diversity is increasingly a mainstream and not a minority issue. There are a few key points that I want to make, but I shall start with a quick reflection on just how far we have come.

Mr. Goodman: The right hon. Lady refers to the briefings that she had received, which gives me a chance to raise the matter that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) did not have time for me to raise.

The briefing from the Roman Catholic Bishops conference states:

I assume this is a reference to the competing claims of the so-called faith lobby and the so-called gay lobby. Does the right hon. Lady believe that the bishops conference has a point, and if so, how can these tensions be resolved?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely interesting point. There is no doubt that there are occasions when there are competing rights. I dealt with that as Minister for Women when we were considering, for instance, the introduction of laws against religious discrimination and laws against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in employment. We arrived at, I believe, the right compromise in those two separate strands of legislation. I assume, although I have not checked the detail, that that is reflected in the new Bill.

That was one of the reasons I came to the view that we needed a single Equality and Human Rights Commission in place of the three predecessor bodies. Where there are conflicting rights—and sometimes there will be—a body is needed that can work within a broader framework, including the broader human rights framework, to help society as a whole, as well as the courts and the House, to resolve those conflicts.

To illustrate how far we have come, I recall, as another young campaigner for equality legislation 35 years ago, just how dismal the situation was. This morning I had the pleasure of joining an excellent organisation, Working Families. We were looking at which employers to include in our top 20 list of organisations that are helping families to balance work and caring responsibilities. What I found would have been unthinkable 35 years ago, and pretty extraordinary even 15 or 20 years ago—over and over again, organisations saying that more than 90 per cent. of women who take maternity leave, which is much longer than it was, say, 20 years ago, are returning to work, often with a change in their working arrangements.

Over and over again, organisations were saying that the right to request different working hours was not limited to those covered by our current laws, but had been extended to everybody, and even on that basis more than 90 per cent. of requests were granted. Those are just a few examples of the huge strides we have made.

Mr. Boswell: I hope the right hon. Lady will not be surprised to know that I agree with many of her comments, including her specific recommendation in favour of the
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single equality commission. On balance, I think that has been right, but will she concede that in these discussions—it has been rather under-represented in the debate so far—we need to be very sensitive to the needs of disabled people, because the nature of their position, the remedies for their position and any discrimination against them might be somewhat different in kind from the digital situation that exists as to whether there is racial discrimination or gender discrimination? Does she agree that it is very important that in Committee we take that factor into account?

Ms Hewitt: I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not think there would be much disagreement in any part of the House. We carefully considered that in setting up the single equality commission, and I know that the commission takes it extremely seriously.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I agree with everything that the right hon. Lady has said so far. Does not the example that she has so eloquently given about her meeting Working Families this morning suggest that the current situation is working well, based on the Equality Act 2006, and therefore does not require the micromanagement that the Government now propose?

Ms Hewitt: I disagree with the hon. Lady on that point for the reasons so eloquently expressed by the Minister for Women and Equality. The point that I wanted to make about the right to request flexible working and, more broadly, work-family balance is that the new challenge we face is how employers can make it much easier and more normal for men to vary their working hours so that they can play the full part in bringing up their children, or caring for elderly or disabled relatives, that so many would like to play but find difficult to achieve at the moment.

I especially welcome certain aspects of the Bill. The new public sector duty is part of a very welcome simplification of the law. My right hon. and learned Friend, in illustrating the need for simplification, could have mentioned the appalling number of volumes now required to deal with case law on all the different strands of legislation. Having a single public sector equality duty, rather than a series of separate duties, will allow the Department of Health—my old Department—and the NHS to take a single view of the challenges they face and the opportunities they have to combat inequality. For instance, Departments could look at the real challenge they still face in achieving the proper representation of women in more senior positions. They might consider advertising almost all jobs on a flexible rather than a full-time basis—a suggestion specifically made by Working Families.

I equally strongly support My right hon. and learned Friend on the measures on positive action. Clarity is badly needed in that area. When I was a governor of my children’s primary school, we found it almost impossible to recruit men into the classrooms, even though we badly wanted more men to teach those young children, especially in a community in which so many children were growing up without the active presence of their father in their family.

I hope that the Bill will permit positive action not only at the point of making an appointment, but when a public sector body or private company—seeking greater
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diversity in its work force or on its board—solicits applications from well qualified people within the underrepresented group. Perhaps the Minister will address that point when she winds up.

The third aspect that I warmly welcome is the proposed new duty on public sector organisations to consider how they can narrow the gap between rich and poor. I referred to the work I had done as Minister for Women and as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in making proposals for a single Equality and Human Rights Commission. In the end, the factor that most led me to the conclusion that we needed a single body was the fact that—whatever the actual legal position—some groups felt completely left out of the law and the debate on diversity and equality. In particular, white men—especially white working class men—simply did not see themselves represented or reflected in the equality and diversity debate. Yet we all know very well—I certainly know this from my constituency—that school results, for example, show that white working-class boys are typically most likely to leave school without anything resembling the skills and competences that they need to open up opportunities in the modern world.

What I have also seen in my constituency and many other parts of the country is the powerful change that can come about when the Government and the public sector more generally get behind disadvantaged communities, as we have done, for instance, with the new deal for communities, certainly in my constituency, in the neighbourhood of Braunstone, where the public, private and not-for-profit sectors have come together to support local people in a desperately disadvantaged neighbourhood, to start to transform their own lives and their neighbours’ lives.

I have no doubt at all that local councils, the local NHS, the police and so on will be helped in focusing their priorities by the new duty to consider how they can narrow the class gap, as well as taking into account the different needs of, for instance, men and women and of—to use another Leicester example—the south Asian community in respect of health care and so on. That is crucial. If that is one of the main reasons behind the Opposition’s decision to oppose the Bill on Second Reading, it illustrates just how out of touch they are.

Linda Gilroy: I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming that provision. Does she agree that it has proved very difficult to address those inequalities, that it takes a very long time to do so and that entrenching such things, as in the very good work of the Plymouth local strategic partnership, is very important indeed?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right—in fact, I recall getting some sense of the work of that local strategic partnership when I visited her constituency—about the concerted effort that is needed over a long period to address such deep-seated disadvantages, which are transmitted intergenerationally within extended families in a neighbourhood.

I want to raise two specific, more narrow issues, on which I hope my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will comment when she makes her winding-up speech. The first issue is discrimination against women who are pregnant or on maternity leave. It is truly shocking that 30 years, or whatever it is, since the introduction of paid maternity leave so many women still find themselves
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discriminated against by their employer when they are pregnant or on maternity leave. That includes utterly crass forms of discrimination, such as the woman who telephones or tells her employer that she is pregnant only to be told, practically in the next breath, that she has lost her job. The alliance against pregnancy discrimination has expressed concerns that clauses 16 and 17 will not be as strong as the existing law, and it would be helpful if my hon. and learned Friend reassured us on that point.

Emily Thornberry: I speak as the chair of the all-party group on maternity, and I add my voice to the concerns being expressed about clauses 16 and 17. Perhaps we can seek some reassurance from the Minister on that point.

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support, because she has done outstanding work on the issue.

On the second issue, I want to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) about caste discrimination, because it is certainly the belief of Caste Watch UK that the current law does not adequately protect those in south Asian or, indeed, other communities who find themselves discriminated against on those grounds. I understand that the UN human rights convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination prohibits discrimination on five grounds: race, colour, national or ethnic origin, or descent. Of course, the UK ratified the convention in 1969, but I do not believe that our existing law, or indeed the Bill, is as explicit on that point as, for instance, the legislation in Australia. It would be helpful if the Minister addressed that issue.

The Bill is a landmark measure and it deserves the wholehearted support of the House. I certainly wish it well in Committee. I believe that in years to come it will be seen as another milestone on our long march to a fairer and more equal society.

5.15 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): The passion that drives and motivates Liberal Democrats—that beats in our hearts—is our quest for, and commitment to, a fairer and more open and equal world, so we very much welcome the Bill. It was too long in gestation and far too late in arriving but it is very much welcome nevertheless.

Fairness and equality are Liberal Democrat watchwords and we shall support outcomes in the Bill that genuinely further their cause, but where there is weakness or omission we shall challenge and probe and add improvements to deliver even fairer outcomes and even more equality. Our equalities pedigree is well known. Lord Lester, who will lead for us in the other place, has a long and impeccable track record in these matters—basically, he wrote the book. Equalities legislation reflects his pioneering and lifelong commitment to the cause.

Before I turn to the key issues in the Bill, I shall touch on a few overarching matters. We think the Government could have taken a more radical perspective and extended the commitment to equality beyond the Bill, with an overarching equality guarantee. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission said, that would ensure
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that equality was considered in every action of the state and in every future piece of legislation. Such a guarantee would be radical and would give us a constitutional right to fairness.

It is important to establish what we are trying to achieve through the Bill. How will we measure success? How much inequality will be eradicated? My overall sense is that the Bill does not go far enough and that the length of time it has taken to reach the Floor of the House does not seem adequately reflected in the final product or the urgency to be given to some of the provisions, given the scale of inequality that the Leader of the House briefly outlined.

Women in full-time work are paid 17 per cent. less than men, and 36 per cent. less if they work part-time. A disabled person is two and a half times more likely to be out of work. A person from an ethnic minority is 15.5 per cent. less able to find work. Sixty-two per cent. of over-50s believe they have been turned down for a job because of their age, and six in 10 lesbian or gay schoolchildren experience homophobic bullying. Will the Bill cure those horrific statistics? That must be the measure of how far it can go.

The simplification and unification of our equality laws will help. It will not be a panacea for eradicating inequality but it is a good start. There are 35 Acts, 52 statutory instruments, 13 codes of practice and 16 European directives—only lawyers will get rich from them.

As has been mentioned on both sides of the House, we are in the middle of one of the deepest recessions in history. Legislation does not exist in a vacuum, so we cannot completely ignore the plight of business and the impact of new laws. However, after 10 years of boom, when the Government did not act on equality issues—especially equal pay—it would not be acceptable if there was any weakening of equality legislation. I welcome the Leader of the House’s assurance that the delivery of the law will not be affected. I shall argue some of those points when I speak about the gender pay gap.

We are rewriting 40 years of equality law, and it has to be fit for the next 40 years. I encourage the Government to have the courage of their convictions, and to believe their own analysis of the cost-benefits of the new law, which is that there would be a net gain for UK plc within three and a half years. I would like to address some concerns of a general nature. An awful lot of very important things will not be in the Bill. A lot of powers are being left to Ministers, and powers to amend decisions—on, for example, exceptions regarding age discrimination in the provision of goods and services, multiple discrimination and how equal pay should be measured—are being kicked into the long grass.

Mr. Boswell: I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is most gracious. Does she accept that the lack of detail on some of those matters makes it difficult to compute the impact and compliance costs for business and others? We simply do not know at this stage.

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