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11 May 2009 : Column 591

Mr. Boswell: I am quite sure that there will be cost savings in the long run, and that the situation will settle down. There is a difficulty in the short term, however.

I want to turn to public sector bodies. Even if we drop the argument that the pursuit, in one clause, of socio-economic equality amounts to socialism, as I have heard it described, it does provide a charter for politically motivated interference. In some cases, it could even threaten equality under the law. For example, should we wind up the public library service because it is allegedly used by middle-class people rather than by the population as a whole? Worse, the public sector duty could become a cop-out from doing the real work that is needed in other parts of the public sector.

In some respects, the public sector and the civil service, of which I have some knowledge, are good employers and meet many of the requirements in the Bill. I know a bit about job share in the civil service, for example. Nevertheless, there is still a gender pay gap in the public service. A recent issue of Westminster & Whitehall World highlighted a problem in recruitment advertising that could deter a substantial amount of part-time applicants from applying for certain jobs—I think that the estimate was that 25 per cent. of jobs were not open to job sharers or part-timers. That would mean that many women with family responsibilities could not apply for those jobs. There also continues to be a lack of gender balance in public board appointments, although positive discrimination is perhaps not the right way to address the problem.

Yet the Government are somehow exempting themselves from many of the duties relating to publishing information on the gender pay gap. Characteristically, however, they go on to impose mandatory gender pay audits across the private sector, not on a targeted basis, and such an imposition on hard-pressed businesses is particularly difficult in present circumstances.

We also need to remember the social implications of the Bill. Not to put too fine a point on it, people will know that I do not go along with what is sometimes unfairly implied about the white working class. In a very interesting speech, the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) spoke about the interests of the white working class. However, wherever we come from in this debate, we have to understand that there is a very fine line to tread between the social progress most of us—nearly everybody in this Chamber—would want and the risk of a backlash from grass-roots opinion. It is not always racist to protest if people feel that they are being treated unfairly because of a body of law or how it is interpreted; if that happens, we could have social unrest, particularly at a time of economic difficulty and unemployment.

At the same time as the Bill focuses on one or two headline-catching initiatives, which are obviously part of the particular Minister’s agenda, it does not go far enough or give a sufficient lead in other directions. In respect of the private sector, there is, of course, no direct lever that Parliament or Ministers can pull other than setting out particular legal provisions. In terms of example, however, I have always felt that the best results come from the private sector when the moral and social case for equality and inclusion coincides with the business case. I have shared platforms with the Institute of Directors and other such bodies and argued that that coincidence of interest is the best way of guaranteeing social progress.

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Employers need every sensible encouragement to good practice in equality. If one were to go into a bank in Leicester, it would hardly be surprising—or, to put it the other way, it would be extremely surprising if it did not happen—if one saw two or three Asian cashiers. Of course that will be the case, because that is the characteristic and make-up of the population.

We do not have enough disabled prospective parliamentary candidates, but we are beginning to address the problem.

In the public sector, there is also the question of principles and people debate whether the Bill should have a principles clause. I tend to agree with the Equality and Human Rights Commission that we should have such a clause. It is a “King Charles’ Head” issue for me, so I was delighted that the Mental Capacity Act 2005 kept such a principles clause in, and I have drafted them for other Bills. I did not have much success with them, but I believe that there is a strength to having such clauses. I can understand exactly why Government lawyers are uncomfortable about principles-based laws; they think that they are somehow a foreign invention that could create a clash between specific requirements and wider principles of good behaviour. Actually, however, these clauses enable tribunals or courts of law to look behind the fulfilment of box-ticking and to move towards compliance with the underlying principles, meeting the challenges that the legislation is designed to address.

We have seen similar sorts of problems with our own expenses, when MPs have said that they complied with the rules, but we all know that that is not a sufficient response. If we are going to make real social progress, whether it be in the private or the public sector, it does mean a change of culture and it means that people have to go the extra mile beyond what is specifically written down in the law.

In truth, my personal vision of equality is, in a sense, motivated less by discrimination—I am not, however, a lawyer—than by an approach informed by human rights. I believe that employers should have to treat all their staff—and, of course, job applicants, too—decently. Equally, for those offering public services, we know that they are difficult to resource and to join up, but what should motivate all public officials is the offering of considerate, personal, holistic and decent treatment. Doing that properly in the interests of the person concerned should transcend the mere letter of the law. Passing this Bill, notwithstanding its many virtues, is at best a step towards that wider social advance.

6.15 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): When the Bill was published, I really thought that we would be conducting not so much a debate as a mutual appreciation afternoon, but it has turned out quite surprisingly differently in view of what can only be described as the curmudgeonly response from the Conservative Opposition. Given that the Bill is largely a consolidation measure and that hon. Members of all parties agree that there is much virtue in consolidating all the legislation on equalities in one Bill, thus simplifying the law, it is remarkable that the Tories oppose it.

We have fought tooth and nail over equalities issues since 1997 and the Opposition seemed progressively, to their credit, to have come round on the whole, especially
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on sexuality legislation. They accepted it, so I thought that we had secured a large degree of consensus in the House on equalities.

Mrs. Laing: We do have a large degree of consensus, but why is it wrong for us to debate the parts of the Bill on which we do not have a consensus? Is that not what we are here for—to hold the Government to account?

Dr. Turner: I am happy that areas of disagreement can be debated, but that is different from throwing the whole Bill out, which is what the Conservative Opposition are suggesting. That seems to me to be a total negation of what the hon. Lady has just said. By all means let us fight in Committee on all the issues that are worrying, but anyone seriously in favour of equality should back the Bill so that there is a vehicle in place to argue about. That seems to me to be simple logic, but I have problems understanding the Opposition.

Although the Bill is, as I say, mainly a consolidation, it introduces some new principles and points, many of which are essentially philosophical. In bringing all equality strands into one Bill, it creates, if I may put it this way, an equality of inequalities. In other words, whatever the inequality is, “We’re agin it, and we are agin it to the same degree.” I think that that is an entirely healthy development of a kind that will lead to the cultural change that several Members have mentioned. That is what we really need at the end of the day. Yes, we set legal frameworks, and it is important to do so; but unless those legal frameworks end up creating a culture change in society or are met by such a change, the overall outcome will not be the one that we wish to see. I believe that the legal framework is at least one half of that broader picture.

I am pleased that the Bill places an equal duty on public sector and private sector bodies in respect of equalities in the delivery of services. At this point, I must advise my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General that I shall introduce what I hope will be regarded as a helpful amendment because there seems to be a small oversight in clause 1, which specifies a list of public bodies. Unfortunately, it leaves out unitary councils while including the council of the Isles of Scilly. I think that rather more people are represented by unitary councils than by the council of the Isles of Scilly. Similarly, when it comes to the health service the Bill specifies primary care trusts, but I think it would be much wiser for it to cover all NHS trusts. It should be made clear that any arm of the NHS that deals with patients and the public in general must observe the equalities duty.

The Solicitor-General: If my hon. Friend is right and we have left some things out, of course we will put them in. I am grateful to him for being so observant.

Mr. Harper: And assiduous.

The Solicitor-General: And assiduous, as the hon. Gentleman says.

In addition to the list of public authorities, there is a definition of a public authority as any authority or organisation delivering a public function. So probably everything will be covered in any event, but we will box up the list, because it would certainly look better if all the organisations were included.

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Dr. Turner: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her helpful response. As she says, it is possible to infer that all such bodies are covered, but it is always good to have things spelt out clearly. Otherwise, members of the profession that she so lately graced will always be trying to find loopholes.

Among the new provisions, the socio-economic strand represents a legislative breakthrough. Given that since 1997 we have placed attempts to achieve socio-economic equality at the top of our agenda, it is disappointing that, in some respects, the gap seems to be widening. That tells us two things. It tells us that socio-economic equality of opportunity is extremely hard to achieve, and it tells us that there can be confusion between absolute poverty and relative poverty. There has undoubtedly been an increase in relative poverty, but examination of the figures will almost certainly demonstrate a decrease in absolute poverty.

This problem is very difficult to define and very, very difficult to tackle. In that context, public sector bodies have a vital role to play. Councils, for instance, can deliver education. The Bill provides for positive bias and discrimination, and I believe that we need local authorities to exercise more of it towards people from socio-economic backgrounds that are deprived not only financially but in terms of parental aspirations, and all the other factors involved in the complex mix that we are discussing. The Bill gives local authorities an opportunity to do more than they do now. The extent to which they take their duty seriously is variable at present, and we need to make them all recognise that it is a prime duty.

Age has always been with us, and I am very pleased about the advances that the Bill makes in tackling age discrimination. I am pleased about the emphasis on goods and services, and I am pleased that while wrinklies will not lose the advantages provided by Saga Holidays, older members of our society may also be given greater opportunities. I have always believed that, in some respects, we could learn quite a few lessons from the United States, where people are not automatically disregarded or discriminated against on the basis of age. If they are still up to the job and can still deliver, people in the States are able to operate until they are in their eighties, and I see nothing wrong with that.

I hate to say it, but I agreed with the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), on the subject of the compulsory retirement age, which strikes me as a discrimination in itself. I wish that it had been covered by the Bill, but there is still an opportunity for that to happen. Certainly it should be dealt with in the near future. The existence of a range of compulsory retirement ages defies logic. In the armed services, the police and the fire services the retirement age is about 50, while the general retirement age of 65 is enforced, in my view inappropriately, by many institutions.

That sits ill with our problem with funding pensions for the future, and the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions is considering an eventual raising of the retirement age from 65 towards 70. The two strands are in conflict. I believe that we should think about changing the current compulsory retirement ages to pension qualification ages, enabling those reaching the relevant age to claim a pension and retire or, if they choose, continue to work, provided that they can satisfy the requirements of their occupations. That would give
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us true equality, and would also give society the benefit of all the experience and wisdom which, at present, are being foolishly discarded.

If there were a compulsory retirement age in this place, there would be a very heavy cull straight away. Governments, including this one, could perhaps look to the age discrimination requirements when it comes to Front-Bench appointments—but I will say no more about that, because I do not want to embarrass my hon. Friends.

Positive action will be essential. It is the only way we can finally achieve results, because there will always be resistance. Talking of resistance, I wonder if the nub of the attitude of Conservative Front Benchers can be traced back to the CBI’s briefing paper, which, while welcoming the Bill in principle, devoted its entire length to opposing and criticising the measures on gender-related pay discrimination. It claims that business will always say, “You can’t do that; it will ruin us.” However, if we had listened to that argument, we would never have made any social progress in this country. It is the old story of the roads to ruin. It applies to the minimum wage—you name it.

Gender-related pay discrimination will only be truly eliminated if the requirement to report is universal. If reporting is carried out selectively after the event, it will take so long to eliminate such discrimination that we will all be 6 ft under long before it happens. This is therefore vital.

The Bill clears up some matters that should have been dealt with previously. The insurance provisions are a particular case in point. Insurance companies have been allowed to discriminate too freely for too long, such as through age discrimination in insurance. When someone reaches 70, they are normally immediately rejected by the insurance industry for travel insurance. One day they are perfectly healthy, the next day they are thought to be a calamitous risk; that is clearly nonsense. Unless insurance companies are required to undertake a proper assessment of the insured’s risks instead of simply having an arbitrary age descriptor, this discrimination will continue and that is totally unjustifiable. Travel insurance becoming unavailable at 70 is also ridiculous. People who are 70 nowadays are like the 50-year-olds of 50 years ago, and preventing them from travelling is dreadful discrimination. I am very glad we are putting a stop to that.

Mr. Breed: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Would he apply the same logic to people trying to get driving licences over a certain age?

Dr. Turner: Yes, I would, and, in fact, that is the current situation: when someone reaches 70, they just have to satisfy the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency that they are still fit to drive. I do not mind that. The licence is not being withdrawn from them; indeed, there are people aged over 100 who are still driving.

There is another loophole in the excellent legislation that we have passed. In dealing with discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexuality, the last equality legislation omitted insurance, and this Bill fills that gap.

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I have used up almost all my allotted time. I simply want to give this Bill broadly a very hearty welcome and assert that it is something of a groundbreaking Bill; it will lead to a quantum change in the whole national approach to equalities and in the outcomes for equalities.

6.32 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I am a committed campaigner for equality—I always have been, and I always will be—and I welcome most of this Bill. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), who gave a balanced analysis of the Bill and pointed out many of its good aspects. I particularly welcome the parts of the Bill that simplify and consolidate previous equality legislation, the main principles of which we Conservatives have wholeheartedly supported. I also very much welcome the positive equality duty imposed on public authorities; that will go a long way towards changing the cultural attitudes to equality in all its manifestations and in all walks of life in our country. That is right, because equality of opportunity is a basic moral imperative. As the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, there is general consensus in favour of that principle in all parts of the House.

The difficulty with the Bill, however, lies in the extra bits that have been added to it. I am not against the drive for equality—not at all. Labour Members have frequently peppered their speeches and interventions with attacks on Opposition Members for doing our job of holding the Government to account. It is extremely important that we dissect the Bill, and look at its outcomes as well as its good intentions. I do not agree with every proposal in it, because no political system—neither the most liberal, nor the most totalitarian—can make people equal by passing laws that say that equality is desirable. Therefore, the good parts of the Bill are, sadly, undermined and diminished by the unworthy parts, which revert to the worst excesses of old-fashioned unreconstructed socialism. [Interruption.]

I am particularly concerned that— [Interruption.] As usual, the Solicitor-General laughs. She cannot bear to be identified as a left-wing activist; she wishes to come before this House and— [Interruption.] She continues to laugh, but she does not actually make a positive contribution to the debate. She expects us all to bow down and agree with what she says because she says it, but that is not what we are here for. I am particularly concerned about the effects of these measures on the employment prospects— [Interruption.] If the Solicitor-General wishes to intervene, I will give way to her, but she should not speak from a sedentary position.

The Solicitor-General: I am not sure what the matter is with the hon. Lady—but I have given her a chance to calm down now, so I shall sit down again.

Mrs. Laing: Well, that was a very helpful contribution to the debate!

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