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I am particularly concerned about the effects of these measures on the employment prospects of women, disabled people, gay people, religious and racial minorities and older people, because if employers are forced to act in a way that they perceive to be against the best interests of their businesses, they will, in a normal, practical way, find a way of not employing a person who might in future bring a case against them. Therefore, there is a
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danger that parts of this Bill will reduce, rather than increase, equality in the workplace, and I want equality in the workplace to become universal. There is, of course, a delicate balance to be struck, especially at times of economic downturn such as now. If too great a burden is put on businesses, businesses will fail and not only the employer, but the employees, will become jobless. That is surely not the Government’s intention.

Lynne Featherstone: We have heard a lot about the costs to business, but does the hon. Lady think that business might support the introduction of compulsory pay audit measures in the first quarter following the economy having returned to growth—or might businesses welcome such measures after two quarters of growth, perhaps?

Mrs. Laing: I think that the hon. Lady has a reasonable point; I cannot imagine quite how it would work in practice, but, in principle, it is quite a good point. My concern, however, is that if the measures go too far, not only will that damage the economy itself and hinder growth, but it will damage the prospects for individuals, who might not be given the chance of employment that they would otherwise have had. If the pendulum swings too far in the direction of protection of employment rights, the potential employee will lose the opportunity for the job, and therefore for the right, because the reality is that most businesses do not exist to act altruistically; they exist to make money, keep their businesses going, pay their employees and satisfy their customers. Statistics show that companies that have good equality practices benefit in terms of business success. The right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) made that point extremely well at the beginning of her speech. The Government should encourage all employers to do what good employers have been doing for years. That is what the previous equality Act did very successfully and, as she showed in the very good examples that she gave, we are succeeding to that extent. I am concerned that if the pendulum swings too far, people will lose the rights we want to give them.

I am also concerned about the imposition of targets, especially those on the gender pay gap. We all want sensible measures to be taken to close that gap, which remains a scandal in this country. It is particularly bad in respect of how it affects women who earn least and, often, work the hardest: part-time casual employees. They suffer most and they are the ones whom I want to benefit, but I am concerned that the Bill will require a focus on just one indicator and thus risk ignoring the underlying causes of inequality. Those causes have to be remedied to create the equality and the economy of the future that we wish to see. Proper growth will come back to our country only if we have the right conditions in which business and industry can flourish and thereby benefit everyone who works in them, employer and employee alike.

Instead of producing reams and reams of rules and regulations, the Government should be making the business case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, the “coincidence of interest” between the moral case and the business case for equality is the way to encourage genuine cultural shift. That approach is far more effective than centrally imposed political imperatives—history has shown, throughout the ages, that they simply do not work.

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There is good evidence to suggest that flexible working benefits everyone. It has been introduced step by step, and that is what the Government should be doing; they should be understanding how business and employers work. By proving the business case step by step, we will take employers and businesses with us in the quest for equality, instead of imposing top-down conditions that they may have difficulty meeting. We can build on that business case to try not only to achieve the equality that we all wish to achieve, but to rebuild our shattered economy—more than a decade of Labour’s good ideas has destroyed it.

I dare mention, just for a moment, the difficult issue of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a private matter. I entirely agree that, of course, it should be encouraged, as all the medical professionals tell us but, like all these matters, it should be dealt with in a reasonable way and with discretion. In some places it is appropriate to breastfeed one’s child and in some places it is not, yet the measures in this Bill outlaw someone’s ability to suggest reasonably that breastfeeding should not occur in one place or another. In matters such as this, we should proceed with discretion, reason and respect for everybody concerned, including, of course, the mother and the baby. This is not a matter where the Government can dictate that mothers should be allowed to breastfeed everywhere and anywhere without having due consideration to those around them and the circumstances in which they find themselves. We have all managed it, Madam Deputy Speaker, even in this building and the matter can easily be dealt with by discretion; we do not need primary legislation in a Bill such as this in order to bring this about. The reason this makes me angry is that the measures on breastfeeding are just one example of where the Bill goes too far.

I do not want this Bill to fail. I want it to succeed, which is why I would like the Government to concentrate on the basic issues that will actually make a difference to people in Britain today, who deserve equality of opportunity and currently do not have it. By adding on all these extra conditions, the Government make it much more difficult for this Bill to be supported and for it to work in practice were it to become law—it would be so much better to concentrate on what really needs to be done. It is very sad that, after 12 years of a Labour Government, the gap between rich and poor in Britain is greater than it has been for decades; opportunities, particularly educational ones for young people from disadvantaged families, are worse than they have been for decades; and social mobility is very much reduced compared with what it was 40 years ago, when a young person from a poorer background had a far greater chance of succeeding in whatever they set out to do than such a person would today—the Government know that. They have failed, and they are not going to put their record straight by introducing all the extra rules and regulations in this Bill. What a condemnation that is of 12 years of a Labour Government.

We all want equality in the workplace. We all want equality across all strands of life in Britain today. We all want equality of opportunity, for it benefits not only the individual, but our society as a whole. The way in which the Government have drafted parts of this Bill will not bring about what we all want to see, which is why it is necessary that sensible people examine the reasoned amendment tabled by my right hon. Friends and support it this evening.

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6.47 pm

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I welcome the Bill most warmly, and I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, and her colleagues, on producing this measure after what have clearly been Herculean efforts. Bringing together a lot of the existing equality legislation, with harmonisation, in part, into a comprehensible whole is clearly challenging. There have been debates along the way and many people have expressed reservations from time to time about the direction in which things might be going, such as in respect of public sector duty. It takes time for Ministers to consider comments that have been made, for example after the Green Paper, and return with a good document.

This is an excellent Bill, which is why it has been almost universally welcomed. It has been welcomed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission; by a massive number of voluntary organisations such as Age Concern, Carers UK, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—RADAR—and so on; by the Royal College of Psychiatrists; by the TUC; and by the British Medical Association. In fact, I could find only one organisation that has not welcomed the Bill: the Conservative Opposition. When I intervened to ask the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who spoke for the Opposition, whether she could name a single organisation, nay individual, who had expressed concern and opposition to this Bill, no example was forthcoming. Reference has been made to the CBI and its concern about the proposal for gender pay gap reports. In fact, the CBI’s document starts by saying:

That is exactly what the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) wants—she is nodding. The CBI spends half of its submission explaining why

Mrs. Laing: Of course everybody welcomes the parts of the Bill that consolidate previous legislation and do exactly what the hon. Gentleman has just quoted. We all welcome that part. It is the other parts of the Bill that we question.

Roger Berry: I looked carefully for advice from the CBI on how I should vote today, as I always do. I listen to everyone. I cannot find in the CBI’s submission any suggestion that I should vote for a motion to decline agreement on Second Reading. I see the CBI welcoming the

If the CBI welcomes something, I get the impression that it is saying I should support it, which I do. I have yet to find—I am happy to take interventions—any organisation that is openly opposed to the Bill.

Philip Davies: May I commend to the hon. Gentleman a marvellous organisation, of which I am proud to be a member, called the Campaign Against Political Correctness? If he looks at its website, he will find that it is wholly opposed to the Bill, as am I.

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Roger Berry: I am so grateful for that most welcome intervention. The only organisation that any Member in the House has been able to put forward as opposing the Bill is the Campaign Against Political Correctness. [Interruption.] Age Concern supports it, but forget Age Concern—listen to the Campaign Against Political Correctness; I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will inform his constituents, who may be active supporters of Age Concern, that he dismisses their support in that rather scornful way— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) knows the correct way to conduct himself in parliamentary debates.

Roger Berry: I am well aware that there are Members in all parts of the House, including the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and one or two others who I hope will speak soon, who support improvements in equality legislation. I must, however, comment on the one or two Members who, from a sedentary position, in response to the comment from the Minister for Women and Equality that it was the Labour Government who introduced the Race Relations Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and so on, objected to the idea that nothing at all had been introduced by the previous Conservative Government.

It is correct to say that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was introduced by a Conservative Government. I remember it well. It is well documented. I will not detain the House, other than to say that the only reason why the DDA was introduced in 1995, with all the loopholes—it was like a string vest—was that various hon. Members, with support from all parties, had on several occasions tried to introduce the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Following the way in which the then Conservative Government blocked that Bill, when I happened to be the promoter that year, and how three Members of the House had to apologise to the House for using tactics that were misleading, the Government were so embarrassed by the public opposition that they introduced the DDA.

Like my colleagues, I genuinely thought we had got past that. We have had cross-party support for almost all the equalities legislation since. We had support for the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act 2001, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, and the Equality Act 2006. Those are only the disabilities measures that spring to mind. Therefore I was hoping that we would get cross-party support this evening, and I am sure we will, but the official Opposition will not be with us.

Despite comments to the effect that there are lots of wonderful things in the Bill—the hon. Member for Epping Forest said that she supported most of it—we will be urged by the official Opposition to vote for an amendment that kills the Bill in its tracks. The only organisation that will be happy about that is the Campaign Against Political Correctness—not Age Concern, RADAR, the BMA or anybody who has taken a serious interest in these issues.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): May I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has the support of this party, even though this party is a one-man band as an independent in this place? Nevertheless, I support the Bill, which has
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some wonderful things in it. Does he agree that we need to examine it carefully in Committee to strengthen it if we can? For instance, public bodies are told by the Bill that they may take into account the impediments of disabled people. There are many disabled people with serious impediments who think that public authorities should always take those impediments into account.

Roger Berry: I agree that we need to look at all these matters carefully, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

I shall focus on the disability provisions, but there are three general issues that I want to raise. First, I strongly support the extension of the rights of older people facing discrimination in goods and services. That is good news for older people, which of course means it is good news for many disabled people and many carers as well. It is terrible news for the organisation referred to earlier, but good news for such people. Secondly, the more effective use of public procurement for delivering equality is to be welcomed. Thirdly, the empowerment of employment tribunals to make wider recommendations to stop future discrimination in employment is also welcome. I may say a little more about that in a moment.

In relation to disability, there has been significant progress in recent years. Ten per cent. more disabled people are in employment than 10 years ago. Many service providers now provide a more accessible environment, but sadly it is still the case that disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, twice as likely to lack qualifications as non-disabled people, and twice as likely to live in poverty. There has been progress, but there is still a long way to go.

In relation to disability issues, the Bill should be tested against three criteria. The first, as I said, is that the Bill is in large measure about harmonisation, but it must ensure that the distinctive aspects of the DDA are not lost, in particular the fundamental principle that equality for disabled people is emphatically not about equal treatment. It is about different treatment to produce equal opportunity.

Secondly, gaps in existing legislation must be plugged. There are still areas where discriminatory legislation is condoned, such as, yet again, the Ministry of Defence’s exemption from the employment provisions of the DDA. Goodness gracious me. The third point is that enforcement is a real issue. Hon. Members are right when they say that passing legislation itself is not enough. There are important questions that need to be asked about the best ways to enforce that legislation.

Let me say a few words about each of those things. As the hon. Member for Daventry said, the DDA differs fundamentally from other forms of anti-discrimination legislation. It is asymmetric. It creates rights for disabled people to be protected against discrimination, without a corresponding right for non-disabled people. Treating disabled people the same as non-disabled people will not deliver equality. Wheelchair users do not experience equal opportunities by being treated the same way as non-wheelchair uses. Women with learning disabilities are less likely to use breast-screening services. That is a matter of fact. This is likely to arise not as a result of direct discrimination, but as a result of the provision of information in exactly the same way as it is provided for those without learning disabilities.

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That is why the public sector duty, introduced in effect in December 2006, required health authorities as public authorities to do something about such situations. If it is observed that some patients are not accessing a service equally, questions need to be asked about what can be done to give them equal access. The fundamental distinction in disability discrimination legislation is the recognition of the need for more favourable treatment—in specific ways—for disabled people. As I read the Bill, I think that it contains a recognition of the importance of more favourable treatment, but I would like an assurance from Ministers that the new public sector duty indeed addresses that issue and would in no way dilute the provision in the DDA.

I welcome the many areas where the Bill will extend rights for disabled people. For example, it will extend protection against direct discrimination and harassment to people who are perceived to have a disability and to those associated with someone who has a disability. Some of us remember the debates about the DDA in 1995 and the Americans with Disabilities Act— a wonderful piece of legislation that we aspired to emulate. It made specific reference to protection from discrimination for those perceived as having a disability. The argument is obvious: if someone is discriminated against by, for example, an employer, because he or she thinks that that person has a disability, and the person turns out not to have a disability, the employer has done nothing wrong. That is a bit daft. Similarly, if a carer for someone with a disability is discriminated against by an employer or a service provider for that reason, that is surely wrong—that was the issue in the Sharon Coleman case. I therefore welcome those improvements.

I welcome the fact that the provisions on age discrimination in relation to access to goods and services will help older people and therefore many disabled people. I also welcome the duty on landlords and management companies to make reasonable adjustments in relation to communal areas, such as hallways and stairs. I also welcome the fact that political parties will be allowed to do more to enable disabled people and others to seek selection as candidates. I congratulate Mr. Speaker on the Speaker’s Conference on these issues. Indeed, the vice chair of the conference is in her place—

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that recognition of the work of the Speaker’s Conference. I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, but we have been in Manchester for a very useful evidence-taking session, where we spoke to many disabled people and people from ethnic minorities.

Roger Berry: I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she and others are doing.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) suggested that the Bill should take a more thorough look at the definition of disability. While that is in many ways an elephant trap, we still have the medical model and the DDA definition and I am concerned about, for example, people with severe depression that lasts for less than 12 months but who cannot show that it is likely to recur. They have no rights under the law because disabled people have to show that they have an impairment that has a long-term—at least 12 months—substantial and adverse impact on
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their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. That is too restrictive a definition and I hope that the Government will at least consider reducing the time to six months.

The Conservative amendment suggests that employment tribunals are given too many powers in the Bill. That is not the case, and they should have the power to reinstate in the DDA and other employment cases.

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