Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made it clear that we welcome many measures in the Bill, such as simplification of the law and the extension
11 May 2009 : Column 585
of legislation on age discrimination. However, there is a lot in the Bill that we do not support. We have laid out our concerns in our reasoned amendment, and that is why, when I wind up the debate, I shall ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it.

Julie Morgan: I think that everybody will see where the Opposition—the Conservative party—are coming from.

Dr. Evan Harris: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making it clear that it is not all Opposition Members who will oppose the Bill’s Second Reading, but the Conservative party. My understanding is that if one opposes certain things in a Bill—I understand the sincere reasons that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) has for doing so—one should give it a Second Reading and try to amend it in Committee and on Report. If one is still not happy on balance, one should vote against it on Third Reading. I would have thought that the Conservatives had that alternative.

Julie Morgan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and urge the Conservative party to support the Bill today so that the whole House is united in its proposals for equality.

As the Bill is so wide ranging and there are so many aspects that could be raised in this debate—I am sure that, like me, other Members have received many briefings, showing the extent of interest in the Bill from so many different sectors of the community—I want to use this opportunity to raise some of the issues that have been brought to my attention that I hope can be considered further in Committee.

As an MP from Wales, I have been approached by many Welsh organisations about different aspects of the Bill. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in Wales recently produced a document about the road to equality for women in Wales, which it says is too slow. That report showed the huge inequalities that still exist for women in Wales. When the Welsh Assembly was set up, the balance of women and men was nearly 50:50, which was a huge achievement. In her opening remarks, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality said that the positive action that Labour has taken has made a huge difference to the number of women MPs in this place and the number of Labour representatives in the devolved bodies. In 2003, the Assembly was the only body in the world to have parity—a 50:50 balance—between women and men. That was a huge achievement. I welcome the fact that the permission to have mechanisms such as the twinning mechanism that we used in the Welsh Assembly and all-women shortlists will be extended for a further period.

However, in other parts of life in Wales, outside the political sphere of the Assembly, there is still a huge way to go. For example, 74 per cent. of all teachers in Wales are women, but only 16 per cent. of secondary school head teachers and heads of further education colleges are women. That is a huge disparity, and it cannot be a good model for pupils or students. It is very important to address that. Also, 73 per cent. of all staff in local authorities are women, but only 21 per cent. of local authority chief executives are women, which again is a huge disparity. It is important to do what we can to address those issues. In Wales’s top 100 private companies
11 May 2009 : Column 586
there are no women chief executives. Achieving a more equal society in Wales has been a very slow process, despite the fact that we have such a good gender balance in the Assembly. I welcome the measures in the Bill that will tackle those issues.

One of the biggest issues in Wales, as elsewhere in the UK, is the pay gap. In some areas of work, the pay gap is particularly stark. My right hon. and learned Friend has drawn attention to the huge gender pay gaps—up to 60 per cent.—in the finance sector. Research into the finance sector has shown that women are overwhelmingly concentrated in lower-paid administrative jobs. In Wales, the latest available figures show that the pay gap has widened to 12 per cent. The pay gap has always been somewhat narrower in Wales, but that is because more men there are on low pay than the British average.

We need to tackle the pay gap, not only, as has been said, for reasons of equality and fairness, but for strong economic reasons. The women and work commission’s report of 2006 concluded that removing the barriers to women working in occupations traditionally undertaken by men and increasing women’s participation in the labour market would be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion. The gap is wider in the private sector than in the public sector. I therefore welcome the proposals in the Bill to tackle the pay gap. We have been trying to do that for a long time, but progress has been slow; indeed, the pay gap has recently risen in Wales, although it is still lower than in the UK as a whole.

Unison in Wales reckons that, putting together all its members with claims in all branches, there are now 9,000 outstanding claims, many of which are equal value claims. There are huge issues in respect of such claims, because there is a shortage of ACAS-approved independent experts in Wales, which means that huge legal bills are being built up. I understand that about six months ago, Cardiff council, whose area I represent, had paid out £160,000 in legal fees to just one firm of solicitors—something that will be reflected all over the country. The pay gap in local authorities is a problem. The money that local authorities are having to pay out to solicitors is causing a huge problem, when really that money should go on services. We need to do something to try to speed the process up and sort it out.

Unison and the Fawcett Society have made some proposals in their briefings. They both strongly support the Bill, but believe that it should be strengthened in some ways. They believe that as well as mandatory pay audits there should be representative actions so that individuals can make a claim as a group, which would cut the costs and perhaps the delay. I wonder whether that could be considered during the passage of the Bill.

The Bill requires private sector companies that employ 250 or more people to report on their gender pay gap, and public authorities with 150 employees will also have to report on equality issues. I think that that will be consulted on this summer, which would be a good opportunity to consider what issues will be raised. Will the Minister confirm the position in Wales as regards the list of public bodies that will be included? What role will the Welsh Assembly Government play in deciding which bodies are included?

I strongly support the socio-economic duty; it is absolutely great that it has been brought into the Bill. It is a huge challenge to try to reduce the inequalities that have come about as a result of the division between the
11 May 2009 : Column 587
rich and the poor, but I feel that the Government and the Labour party are determined to address it. It is very important. Will the Minister say who will make decisions about which public bodies in Wales are included in the list? I also have some concerns about the exception in that clause of people who are subject to immigration control. Will she expand on the thinking behind that?

Another issue that has been raised constantly with me by voluntary bodies and children’s groups is age discrimination and young people. I know that children and young people need to be treated in an age-appropriate way, but many of the young people who have spoken to me feel that they are discriminated against and not listened to just because they are young. The last Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Peter Clarke, said that one of the most common complaints that he received from young people was that they were not listened to. The Young Equals campaign highlighted the fact that 43 per cent. of those under 18 felt that they had been treated unfairly because of their age. I have been in correspondence with the Minister about that issue and have asked why age discrimination against those aged under 18 is not included as part of the Bill. I hope that we can explore that issue a bit more, because the young people and children who speak to me and the bodies that represent them do not understand the logic of why they are not part of this Bill with the appropriate exceptions built in.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I agree very much with the hon. Lady’s last few remarks. Does she agree that that issue is particularly important when young people are subject to residency orders? Their parents might be going through difficulties so that residency is an issue, and too often the courts and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service do not take into account the views of the children and young people who are involved.

Julie Morgan: The general feedback that I have received from many bodies is that children and young people’s views are not given enough due attention. Those children who are active in such movements see it as a slight that they are not included in the Bill. I understand the reasons behind that decision, because of the many exceptions that would have to be made, but the bodies and young people involved do not understand. We need to discuss that subject at greater length.

The Solicitor-General: I know that there is an issue to discuss about age discrimination and the under-18s, but I hope that my hon. Friend is not under the misapprehension that the Bill does not apply at all to those aged under 18. Of course, in every other strand, it does.

Julie Morgan: Yes. I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention.

One issue that young people complain about in particular is inappropriate health care provision. Let me take this opportunity to welcome initiatives in my constituency, particularly the Skypad unit, which is based at the University hospital of Wales. It has special age-appropriate facilities for teenage cancer sufferers. The rooms are geared towards teenagers and there is a chill-out zone as
11 May 2009 : Column 588
well as computer games. That sort of development is exactly what we should be encouraging, because it is appropriate for the age of those young people. They are not children, and they are not adults, but in the health service in general about two thirds of those who are at that in-between age are not in appropriate accommodation. Those are the sorts of issues that have been brought to me by young people.

Another point made to me by the Young Equals campaign in particular—I have met a lot of these groups—was that research has shown that children do not expect the police necessarily to take them seriously when they make serious points. Sometimes, groups of young people are not allowed access to leisure facilities and shops. A shop near my office allowed in only two young people at any one time. That is labelling all young people as potentially disruptive, and I wonder how young people who feel very deeply about such issues can be protected from such discrimination. How will such issues be addressed under the Bill? That is an important point, and I hope that we can have a further discussion so that it can become clear to young people, who often feel strongly about such issues, that the Government are considering their role.

I want to mention other welcome provisions. Many of us have campaigned for a ban on discrimination in private clubs for years, and have even stood outside such clubs making our views known, so it is great that that is now happening. I also welcome the measures to protect pregnant women and new mothers, and to make it illegal to eject breastfeeding mothers from cafés, restaurants and public places—I know that that has happened. Many of us have suffered from such discrimination.

The Bill will reinforce some of the good initiatives that are already happening. In Cardiff, there is a “Breastfeeding Welcome” scheme. Businesses put up a sign saying, “Breastfeeding mothers are welcome.” The scheme has spread all over Cardiff and is particularly strong in the Cardiff Bay area, which is a tourist area. The Bill will strengthen the scheme. We can make the legislation, but we also need efforts to encourage women and to say, “We are pleased that you are breastfeeding here. We think that breastfeeding is good for you and good for the children and we want to do all we can to help you feel welcome.” We have the legislation to back up that approach, but we still need the schemes to reinforce the message and to make people feel welcome.

I congratulate the Government on this wide-ranging Bill, and I am sure that it will make a huge difference to individuals in this country. I want to conclude by mentioning one particular group. I am chair of the all-party group on Gypsy and Traveller law reform and I know that Gypsies and Travellers are among the most discriminated-against groups in this society. I hope that the Bill will help them to achieve their rightful place in society and that they will play a major future role in their communities with its help.

5.59 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): It is a personal pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), for two reasons. First, as she will be aware, I, too, have some interest in Wales. Secondly, I am an officer of the all-party Gypsy and Traveller law reform group to which she has just referred. I strongly
11 May 2009 : Column 589
confirm her impression that the situation for Gypsies and Travellers in education and health, for example, is deplorable and a clear example of discrimination.

It will already be clear from an intervention that I made earlier—I ought perhaps to declare an interest—that I am now safely past the state retirement age and, as the Americans would say, am slated for retirement from this House at the next general election, whenever it might come. This subtle passage of time might have led me to take a progressively greater interest in ageism, although I do not intend to say much about that tonight. I have had the rather sobering thought that, given the way things are going, this could well be the last time that I participate in the Second Reading debate on a major, substantive Bill. I am proud and pleased to be able to do so on this occasion.

For a variety of reasons, I have developed an interest in equality issues over the past 10 years, and I hope that I can display what I might call a progressive Conservative position on them across the piece. My main experience has been on disability issues, and I still chair my party’s disability group. For other reasons, I have an interest in race relations and community cohesion, and I have a further interest given the gender make-up of my own family. When listening to the speech of the Minister for Women and Equality, I vividly remembered her tabling an amendment to national health service legislation some 20 years ago, in which she called for a gender quota of at least 40 per cent. women in the membership of NHS bodies. I countered at that point by saying that, as I was the only male in my own family, the gender ratio was already 4:1.

I found the right hon. and learned Lady’s speech interesting, and I am not against the Bill in principle, for reasons that I shall deploy, but I felt that it was a little deficient in historic sensitivity. It required an intervention to get her to concede, somewhat grudgingly, that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was Conservative legislation. In my view, that legislation was path-breaking.

Roger Berry: Would the hon. Gentleman care to remind the House of the circumstances that led to the introduction of that legislation?

Mr. Boswell: Not in detail, but I think we got to the right outcome in the end.

I felt that there was a certain naiveté on the part of the right hon. and learned Lady in assuming that legislation could somehow automatically eliminate any difficulties. At one point I was moved to intervene on her—I aborted the attempt—to ask whether the absence of a public sector duty was somehow directly responsible for the fact that inequalities in this country had increased over the past 10 years.

We should be looking for agreement where we can find it, however, and I certainly broadly welcome the concept of the Bill, and many of its provisions. We are not going to get into the business of abolishing inequalities overnight, but almost everyone in the Chamber would accept the principles of equality under the law and of equality of opportunity as being important for a healthy society. I am happy to say that I believe there is a moral case for greater equality, because we all deserve decent treatment. There is also a social case, because a society that is not frustrated by inequalities is more likely to be a happy and cohesive one. There is also an economic
11 May 2009 : Column 590
case, although the evidence for that is not conclusive, because gross income inequalities are likely to depress national output and competitiveness.

I go on from that to support the broad approach to the single Bill and the body of law that bridges the various strands of discrimination. I admire the work led by Trevor Phillips in his equalities review, not least because it brought the question of outcomes—to which I have already referred in relation to the Gypsy and Traveller population—to the fore, and the careful, painstaking, parallel review of equality law that took place. Both reviews have informed this legislation.

It is surely sensible to unite concepts and process in a piece of overarching legislation. I would add for consideration, possibly in Committee, that we need to give some attention to equality of access, and I can mention two areas in which there have been difficulties historically. The first is educational discrimination in relation to special educational needs. When there is a special educational needs and disability—SEND—tribunal in the compulsory years, access is much more likely to take place than it is in further or higher education, where there might have to be recourse to the county court.

Secondly, disability discrimination duties are expressed in part II of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in relation to employment and, in part III, in relation to goods and services. I am not saying that a tribunal is always the right approach, but the fact is that more people use them than go to the courts. All these points should be subject to detailed scrutiny in Committee, and I am particularly anxious that there should be no perceived dilution of the Bill’s coverage of disability, which is a more complex case.

Having said that, I am happy to have a single codification of the law, and I do not rule that out as an important factor in driving social progress. It is, to some extent, a lever of desirable change. However, given the experience with equal pay—the relevant legislation is now more than 30 years old—very few people would argue that the law itself will achieve an immediate or conclusive result. I hope that we will have a common aim of equality and that we will use the law appropriately, and not unduly puff its ability to deliver. At the same time, for moral reasons, neither direct nor indirect discrimination should be acceptable.

I shall move on from the body of law—important though that is—to examine some wider and more positive concepts, some vision matters and some matters of culture, where things can be a little more difficult to deliver. My unease—such as it is—about the detailed provisions of the Bill echoes some of the concerns set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in her speech and in the reasoned amendment. The Bill is sometimes waffly and unspecific on public duties, which are not yet adequately defined or costed in regard to compliance. At the same time, however, it is unduly intrusive on the private sector. This is not a good time to introduce further costs, not least those involved in familiarising industry with the legislation. There are likely to be substantial one-off costs and continuing compliance costs, at a time when industry already has considerable burdens of its own.

Lynne Featherstone: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there will be a net profit to UK plc?

Next Section Index Home Page