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7.5 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who is a sincere man who has achieved much in this area. I pay tribute to him for that. However, at one or two points in his remarks, he fell into the great paradox of this issue in that some of the most fervent advocates of equality exhibit a degree of intolerance of the views of others. He and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) both appeared to be slightly bemused that others could take a different view of this Bill. I hope to help them with my remarks.

I believe passionately in equality, especially in equality of opportunity. I do not like the way in which the issue is addressed in this Bill, but I believe perhaps more in social mobility—as one of the factors that has brought me to this House—than in anything else. However, I profoundly reject the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) spoke about the difference between now and the time when the Bill was first conceived some four years ago. She said that equality matters, whatever the economic climate, and I agree. But competitiveness also matters. This would have been a bad Bill four years ago and it is a bad Bill now, for a variety of reasons.

One reason—and by no means the most important—is the cost and bureaucracy that it will pile on to businesses at a time when so many of them are unable to bear the additional cost.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said that the Bill was about consolidation and asked how anybody could object to it if they agreed with its constituent parts. Well, I agree with most if not all of the constituent parts, but the hon. Gentleman also said that some philosophical changes are at stake in the Bill. Some of those are quite worrying. Some of the concerns are about bizarre definitions, and some people may not understand why they are a necessary part of the Bill—I have struggled with them. Clause 11 states that

I would have thought that that was axiomatic. However, it continues:

That is bizarre and it is difficult to follow the logic of it.

The explanatory notes on clause 13 state that

but it then claims that

Earlier, the issue of a hierarchy of equalities was raised, with some types of equality seeming to rank as more important than others. That brings me to the point that
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I raised with the Leader of the House earlier of the example in the explanatory notes. They state:

We might all think that that makes perfect sense—except that my reading of the Bill suggests that, if the Roma were already statistically over-represented in the place of employment, it would become legal for the employer to advertise saying, “Roma need not apply,” because it would establish a right for the employer to seek to give preference to another under-represented group.

As I put it to the Minister for Women and Equality, is it not the case that, under these proposals, an employer could choose to employ a white woman in preference to an equally well-qualified black man? She did not directly answer the question, because the answer is yes. So we are actually setting out a hierarchy of different, competing equalities. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) was laughing earlier, when he saw me scribbling down the phrase, “Equality disappearing up its own backside.” This is becoming so complicated that, in seeking to protect some groups quite properly from discrimination, there is a risk of inflicting discrimination on others.

The Solicitor-General: I see the cause of the hon. Gentleman’s worry, but it would not be right to say that the Bill will allow the phrase, “Romany need not apply” to be put into an advertisement, as that would discriminate against the Roma because they were Roma. If everyone applied—we would want them to do so—and there were two equally well-qualified candidates, the person from the under-represented community could be picked. That is the size of it. The Roma would probably be picked, because they would be under-represented. It is a telling, nice notion that the Roma might be over-represented, but that is not all that likely to happen right now. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that the provision is totally voluntary; it is up to the business to decide whether it wants to rebalance the community.

Mr. Brady: Absolutely. I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for that clarification. My concern is that, in the example that I gave earlier to the Minister, if a business chose to avoid employing people from an ethnic minority, for example, and its work force were therefore 100 per cent. white, it might be that employer’s preference to retain a 100 per cent. white work force. We are giving that employer the choice, as the Solicitor-General puts it—not the requirement or the obligation—to continue to discriminate against ethnic minorities, by choosing to tackle the under-representation of women in that work place.

The Solicitor-General rose—

Mr. Brady: I am happy to take a further intervention if the Solicitor-General thinks that I have got the wrong end of the stick. As far as I can see from the Bill, if an employer chooses to say that women are under-represented in his work force, he may choose to employ the woman, rather than the man from an ethnic minority.

The Solicitor-General: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is finding the discussion fruitful, which is what it is intended to be. The Bill is intended to try to redress the
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balance in under-represented communities, and he is beginning to grasp that point. It is totally voluntary for the person running the business to do that. So I am not quite sure what the source of the hon. Gentleman’s concern continues to be. He seems to regard it as possible to use the provision in a racist way to maintain all-white representation, but that is completely at variance with its purpose, which is to redress the balance of the community, so it could not be used in that way.

Mr. Brady: I think that the Solicitor-General is mistaken. Clearly, the provision could be used in that way, given that it is also possible to discriminate in favour of women to rebalance the work force on gender grounds. That would be entirely possible, and she seems to have a misplaced confidence that that could never happen. Either she must believe that no employer would ever want to discriminate against ethnic minorities, in which case the Bill would be clearly unnecessary, or she must believe that some people wish to discriminate on those grounds, in which case she is giving them a tool by which they can do so if they wish.

The Solicitor-General: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brady: I will give way, because I am keen that we move towards a better understanding of a complicated Bill.

The Solicitor-General: My understanding from business is that that is done already. For instance, if someone has an all-white sales force and wants to market to an ethnic minority area, they will want to be free to choose from two equally qualified people the ethnic minority person to sell in the community where they will feel at home and where they are likely to be welcome. The trouble is that, if someone does that now, it could be discriminatory. The Bill will protect businesses that want to do that, but it will not compel anyone to do so.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for that, but I do not think that it detracts from my fundamental point that the Bill provides the tool for discrimination if one wished to use it in that way.

Those are the problems, and the big philosophical change, which I assume that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown was alluding to, is the move towards positive discrimination, which is a completely different approach to tackling equality issues from the one that we have generally used in this country, and it is one that I reject utterly. I believe in merit and that people should be judged on who they are—on their own abilities and efforts—and not on what they are. The move to positive discrimination risks negating that approach. It is damaging to the principle of merit, and it is damaging to democracy. I particularly object to the use of these provisions in relation to candidate selection, as that interferes with the rights of free choice that our constituents should have in deciding whom they want to represent them.

In the few minutes that remain to me, I want to mention some significant points of detail, which will doubtless be thrashed out in Committee and on Report—for example, age discrimination and whether Saga will no longer be able to provide insurance targeted at the over-50s. I take it from the response of the Leader of
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the House that arbitrary discrimination will be illegal under these provisions. Surely, targeting the over-50s is arbitrary, whereas charging a higher health insurance premium for older people may well be justified, according to the balance of risks that the insurance company must consider.

I believe passionately in social mobility, but I reject the means that are being taken. On health, according to the instances given in the explanatory notes, the Bill sets out what is already done but does it differently. Clearly, in guidelines and through the allocation of resources, there is a recognition of social inequality in the way that the national health service is funded.

On education, the Bill is more worrying, because it seeks to enshrine the damaging and absurd approach that has been taken in recent years, in seeking to improve the prospects of people from less affluent backgrounds and communities getting to university by making the process easier and lowering the threshold for them. The really worrying thing about that and the reason that this is such a damaging approach is that it removes the pressure from the point in the system where it should operate. Schools in our less affluent, typically urban, areas have more excuses to underperform if we say that because children who go to such schools cannot be expected to have the best exam results, we should lower the threshold for them to get into university. Instead, we should say that failure is not acceptable in the provision of education in any community. We should be raising the standard—raising the bar—for everybody, but the approach of the proposals in the Bill works in the opposite direction.

I believe passionately in equality and in equality of opportunity. More than anything, I believe that whatever their background, wherever they come from and whatever their race or religion, people should be treated equally and given the same opportunities in life. I am very concerned that the Bill will create more complexity and problems, and will fundamentally damage the process of equality.

7.20 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) has put his views quite honestly and I imagine they reflect those of a number of Opposition Members, certainly those on the Back Benches. His speech was almost word for word the same as the speeches I have heard from Conservatives for so many years: “Yes, we’re in favour of progress in dealing with race discrimination and sex discrimination, but not just now. Legislation would be counter-productive and there are other ways to do it.”

If we had listened to such voices 40 years ago when the Labour Government introduced measures to outlaw race discrimination, open discrimination on the grounds of colour or racial origin would have continued. It is precisely because of legislation that we made progress, as we have done over the years.

Mr. Brady: Either I expressed myself badly or the hon. Gentleman was not listening to my remarks. I made it clear that I agree with the constituent items of legislation that are being consolidated. My concern is that consolidating them will put them into a competing hierarchy of equalities, which may lead to perverse outcomes.

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Mr. Winnick: I was listening to the hon. Gentleman, who expressed himself clearly, but I stand by every word I have just said. There is no need for him to apologise. He represents a strong point of view held by some Tory Members and certainly by Tories outside, who have always been suspicious, to say the least, about legislation dealing with discrimination. It goes without saying that I am all in favour of it. One would not expect otherwise from a Labour Member of Parliament. We should combat the remaining discrimination against women. There is certainly a need for equal pay and there are many necessary measures that society has yet to take.

One or two of my hon. Friends have already talked about the aspects of the Bill that deal with age discrimination. The Bill’s provisions on age discrimination are certain to be most welcome. Elderly people, and some of the not so elderly, remain of the view that they are subject to less equal treatment in the health service, for instance. Clearly, that must be tackled.

I am not suggesting that only legislation can deal with such matters. In the 1960s, one of the arguments made about race discrimination was that major organisations—certainly in the media—could give a lead. For example, non-white people could present programmes to make it clear that they were all part of our society. To some degree, the same thing applies to women nowadays. I find it difficult to understand why women television presenters who are getting older—I am taking great care with my words—are considered no longer the right people to read the news or front programmes when they reach a certain age. That does not apply to men. Obviously, I am pleased that there is no such problem for men in their 50s or 60s. They continue to do their job and do it very well, yet the story is different for females. Progress could be made if the BBC in particular took a somewhat different attitude.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned race, age, and now sex discrimination. Does he believe that the Bill could be strengthened by including in chapter 2 a provision that courts and tribunals could consider multiple discrimination cases? Such matters could be put before the courts together, so that the court could make a more rounded decision.

Mr. Winnick: That is a good suggestion for the Committee, which I am sure will be very interesting.

To be subject to age discrimination is probably not as painful or humiliating as being subject to race prejudice. Nevertheless, age discrimination is undesirable, unjust and deeply resented—rightly so. The Bill includes measures to deal with age discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services. As people grow older, it is important that they are not made to feel like second-class citizens. However, I have some criticism because clause 190 gives wide-ranging powers of exemption and I hope that will be looked at in Committee. It is all very well to set out anti-discriminatory legislation on goods, facilities and services, but that is no good if the Government have wide-ranging powers of exemption from such provisions in future.

A number of Members want to speak, so I shall deal briefly first with employment. As they grow older—in their 40s and certainly in their 50s—men and women alike face difficulties in gaining employment. Anyone
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with illusions about that should talk to some of their constituents. At a time of high unemployment, the problems become all the more acute. Even when we had near full employment, employers took the view that once a person had reached a certain age there was no particular reason to take them on in preference to younger people. Of course I am against any form of discrimination on age grounds, but the situation seems much more unfortunate for someone made redundant at the age of 50, 52 or 53—even more so, if they are trying to find a job against great competition.

As I look around the Chamber, I can see some Members who are under 50 but also a good number who have not reached my advanced age—I shall not name them. They are certainly in an age range where they would have trouble finding employment in normal occupations—if I can use that description.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. Sadly, he is right about age discrimination. My father was made redundant in his early 50s and I remember him then going to interview after interview. It seemed that it was only the age on his birth certificate that was holding him back. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that age discrimination in employment cuts both ways? Invidious discrimination still exists against younger people who receive a lower rate of minimum wage despite doing exactly the same job as older workers.

Mr. Winnick: Are we speaking for our respective age groups? As I said a moment ago, I am against discrimination on age grounds for all groups. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), I do not want to see discrimination against young people, but I think that to a large extent the problems are greater for people who are getting on in years, as I have suggested.

Another issue arises in respect of those in employment who are forced to retire at 65. There is what is called the national default retirement age; in practice, it means that if a person reaches 65 and wants to consider carrying on working, the employer is under an obligation to review the matter, but that is all. I see no reason why that should be so. Let us imagine that that applied to Members of Parliament. Does anyone really think it would be appropriate to close Parliament to people trying for the first time to get here, or those already here, because they had reached 65? If it is all right for us to continue to work past 65—and no one has suggested otherwise, fortunately as far as I am concerned—why should we deny such rights to our constituents?

Moreover, very often, those who make the decision in industry—the leading people, managing directors, chairs of companies and so on—are, in many instances, over 65. They would not dream of retiring simply because they had reached a certain age. I therefore feel that the default retirement age should go, as I said in an intervention on my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality. The Government’s position was established a few years ago and is clear: it was to be reviewed within five years—that would bring us to 2011—but that is all. The default retirement age is being challenged in the courts. We shall see the outcome, but of course we would not have to wait to see the outcome if the Bill were so amended in Committee that the default retirement were abolished.

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In a recent YouGov poll, 67 per cent. of those who retired at 65 said that they were forced to do so when they were not ready. Of course, there are certain occupations—it would not be difficult to name them—where a person is only too pleased to go. I am not suggesting for one moment that someone should be forced to go on working beyond 65. I am saying that if someone wants to do so, and unless there is a very strong case against it—on health grounds, or because of the nature of the occupation or whatever—that person should be allowed to continue working, at least until 70.

The measure before us is certainly a substantial step in the right direction. I am pleased to be associated with it, as I am sure all my right hon. and hon. Friends are. I hope that, with some amendments in Committee, it will soon pass into law.

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