Previous Section Index Home Page

7.32 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who made an interesting speech. Unfortunately, I may possibly repeat one or two of his points, although I shall make them slightly differently.

The Bill is very much welcomed by Members on the Plaid Cymru Bench. Ensuring fairness, regardless of race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief, is right and likely to be effective in the long term in developing our countries’ economies. In respect of my particular concern, age discrimination, banning ageism in the provision of goods, facilities and services is a significant step forward. However, I have two reservations that I should like to outline briefly. They might be addressed in Committee.

First, and unsurprisingly to some Members, I am concerned about the fact that discrimination on the basis of language is not included. Earlier, we heard complaints from a Conservative Member, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), about a requirement to speak Polish. He was dismayed at a requirement to speak Polish for a certain job, but if speaking Polish is a legitimate occupational qualification, that is no problem whatever. I cannot see why he is so exercised about it.

My concern is both broader, in a sense, because it concerns all of society, and more specific, because it is about my country, Wales. It is about the treatment of the Welsh language and the fact that the subject does not appear in the Bill. The Bill does not reflect the social, economic and legal reality in Wales, where both Welsh and English are used widely and are, to quote the Welsh Language Act 1993,

“Equality” is the important word here. That Act treats the Welsh and English languages on a basis of equality, yet the Equality Bill makes no reference to Welsh, and that might lead to problems.

To go back to my earlier remarks about the Polish language, or any other language, for that matter, Welsh is different, in that it has a certain legal status—a status that clearly does not seem to have impressed itself sufficiently on the people who drew up the Bill, despite the attempted persuasion of the Welsh Language Board; I know that there was some correspondence. On the legal status of the language, as I said earlier, the 1993 Act says that English and Welsh are to be treated on a
11 May 2009 : Column 610
basis of equality, and there are various ways in which that should be achieved. Historically, there have been separate arrangements for Wales, in respect of the language, for a very long time, starting with the official ban on the use of Welsh in the early 16th century under the Acts of Union. That was nearly 500 years ago, so we in this place have a bit of experience of dealing with that language issue, whatever complexities might arise with regard to Polish, or any other of the 60, 70 or 80 languages that might be heard outside this place.

There have been further legislative moves. The Welsh Courts Act 1942 and the Welsh Language Acts of 1967 and 1993 were passed by a national Government, a Labour Government and a Conservative Government respectively, so the issue is not party political. Of course, the Conservative 1993 Act set up the Welsh Language Board. On the language issue and the law, the Welsh Affairs Committee is currently considering a legislative competence order that would transfer the right to pass laws on the Welsh language to the National Assembly for Wales. Eventually, laws will be passed in the Welsh Assembly on the Welsh language, but the Bill is silent on any relationship or possible clash between such laws passed in the Assembly and any other laws passed in this place. The legislative competence order would transfer most, but not all, language legislation to the Welsh Assembly Government.

One intention of the Welsh Assembly Government is to create a language commissioner. Such a commissioner might pass judgment on employment issues. Conservative Members have voiced concerns about a clash, or a hierarchy of discrimination; the concern is that some sorts of discrimination might be viewed more seriously than others. We might have a clash between the Welsh Assembly Government’s intentions for the Welsh language and any provision passed in the Bill.

Unfortunately, there is a long history of discrimination on the basis of language in Wales in modern times, from the infamous Brewer Spinks case of the early 1960s, in which an entire work force were banned from speaking Welsh in a factory, until the owner changed his mind, to the recent case of Thomas Cook, which tried to ban its workers from speaking Welsh in the workplace. Again, it later overturned its decision. The Welsh Assembly Government intend to establish a right to speak Welsh; they have told us that. That measure relating to the Welsh language might—I do not know—in some way clash with the intentions of the Bill. That is why I am slightly concerned about the fact that the Bill is silent on the issue.

Another question that came to mind was how the post of language commissioner would work. Hon. Members might not know that we already have two other sorts of commissioners in Wales. We have a Commissioner for Older People in Wales, and a Children’s Commissioner for Wales, who have powers. Of course, there is a Children’s Commissioner for England, too. The interrelationship worries me, and I would be interested to hear the Solicitor-General’s response on that subject in her winding-up speech.

The second issue to do with the Bill that causes me concern is that of age discrimination, which the hon. Member for Walsall, North mentioned. I have a long-standing interest in the matter; in fact, the first amendment that I ever moved in Committee was on the Employment Bill in 2002. It was aimed at extending protection from
11 May 2009 : Column 611
unfair dismissal to people who are over retirement age. I was helped then, as I am now, by Age Concern. The amendment was unsuccessful, and we waited until 2006, when the Government acted—albeit only partially. My concern, which Members from all parts of the House share, is that the Bill fails to remove compulsory retirement—the so-called mandatory or default retirement age.

However, as Members might expect, I commend the proposed steps to outlaw age discrimination. Age discrimination is the most common discrimination of all and, alas, one that we are all in danger of facing, some sooner rather than later. Any steps that are taken to combat age discrimination are therefore very welcome. There has been a long-standing call to make age discrimination illegal, and it is a live and important issue for many of our constituents, particularly those in my part of the world, north Wales, where we have a higher than average proportion of older people. It is a particularly salient issue there, but it is an issue throughout the UK.

I understand that the Government will look separately at the mandatory retirement age, as the Minister for Women and Equality said earlier, but that we will apparently have to wait until 2012. In the context of the current political situation, however, who knows who will be in power in 2012, or whether they will be inclined to implement any change?

I am also concerned that the omission of action on the mandatory retirement age may contribute both to some people’s false impression that such age discrimination is acceptable in this particular circumstance—albeit in the short term—and to a climate of opinion. Most Members will know someone who has been the victim of age discrimination, as will most of our constituents, because, in the real world of work, older employees, who may be valued by enlightened employers for their commitment, skills and experience, may be undervalued by other employers who see their age as a proxy for many undesirable qualities, from an inability to turn up in the morning to the likelihood of being ill, in poor health or inflexible. All those negative connotations might lead a bad employer, at a time of redundancies, to select older people for redundancy. That proxy is unfortunate and misplaced, but the assumptions, which are not based on the individual’s health or qualities, may be very influential in their future employment.

The age discrimination that many workers face often leads them to feel that their right to work is less certain, but it is not limited to people who are 64 and a half, as was mentioned earlier in the debate; it affects people in their 50s and, even, late 40s. They look to the future with some trepidation, concerned that a climate of opinion has not been fostered, because the Bill fails to address the mandatory retirement age.

Many people find retirement to be a time of freedom and opportunity, and their right to choose to retire should be protected. Others, however, want to work into later life, and it is an entirely laudable desire. They may want to maintain their network of colleagues and friends, and they may want and need to maintain their incomes by earning money for work that they have done. As has been said, it is ironic that this House, which legislates on matters such as mandatory retirement age, benefits from the contribution of Members who
11 May 2009 : Column 612
have long passed their retirement age but still have a great contribution to make. It is even more ironic in respect of the other place. I have often been impressed by the clarity, incisiveness and, indeed, sheer trouble-making genius of people in the other place—people who might, in other situations, be regarded as beyond working age or on the scrap heap.

Those are my concerns about the mandatory retirement age, and I hope to see them addressed in Committee. There is a great deal to welcome in the Bill. I have reservations, but Plaid Cymru Members will not support the Conservative amendment tonight.

7.44 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I welcome the Bill and am pleased to speak in the debate. It is very important to bring together in a single Act those measures that have accumulated over many years, and I am delighted that we are extending protection to a number of groups, such as disabled people, carers and older people. On the consolidation of those measures, however, I contest totally what the Tory Opposition say. The Bill will make it easier, not more difficult, for individuals and businesses to understand and to use the legislation.

I was very sorry to miss the opening speeches, because an accident closed the motorway and I got caught by the Tamils, delaying me by three hours. I was particularly disappointed, because I wanted to intervene on the right hon. Member for Maidstone—[Hon. Members: “Maidenhead.”] I got the wrong one. I will return later to the questions that I wanted to ask the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), because I am astonished that the Conservative Opposition are opposed to giving the Bill a Second Reading.

I understand the considered arguments of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who obviously had considered views about why he opposed the Bill, although I in turn oppose them. He said that he supported very strongly equality of opportunity, but because of the discrimination that there has been over many years against a number of groups, it is discriminatory not to redress the balance if one is going to not have discrimination now—if that tortuous wording makes any sense to people.

The hon. Gentleman had a considered view against the legislation, but I was surprised by the desire of a number of Conservative Members to jump up and say, “But we welcome large parts of this Bill.” They then really struggled to explain why they want, in the words of the reasoned amendment, to decline

They almost spoke as if they did not support the amendment.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) blamed the Solicitor-General for not allowing Opposition Members to hold the Government to account, but the hon. Lady wanted not to dissect the Bill but to chuck it out, which would be a grave mistake and a missed opportunity. I appreciate many points in the Conservative amendment, but I do not agree with most of them. They are all worthy of debate, but I cannot see that they are sufficient to chuck out the whole works. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) gave a long list of the organisations that support the Bill, and I really hope that the Opposition will change their
11 May 2009 : Column 613
mind, keep the cross-party view about support for advancing equality and enter into a detailed debate about their concerns.

The promotion of equality has been central to my work since I became involved in politics—indeed, in thinking about anything. Part of the motivating force for my becoming involved was to try to promote equality in all its facets, but the first time that I became involved in this place in its promotion was when we were trying to incorporate the provisions of the Good Friday agreement into what became the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Astonishingly, that legislation and agreement was way ahead of any that we had for England, Wales and Scotland. Interestingly, too, many groups in Northern Ireland, which were at the extremes of the political divide at the time, understood the power of tackling equality to undermine some of the worst things that were happening in society. It was a powerful tool for dealing with the disadvantaged and the causes of their suffering in that country, in respect of religion and other areas of equality. They strongly supported trying through the Good Friday agreement and then the 1998 Act to promote a view of equality that was way in advance of what we had on this side of the water.

I shall not repeat too much of what everyone else has said, because I support many areas of the Bill. I shall, however, read out the first sentence of our briefing from Age Concern and Help the Aged:

I say this to Opposition Members: please do not throw it out. Let us welcome it and then deal with the items of concern.

It is worth citing a couple of examples of age discrimination from Age Concern and Help the Aged. As I, and all of us, get older, the issue hits home more clearly. The mother of a woman who called Age Concern was buying something for £150 at a leading department store. At the till, she was asked whether she wanted to apply for a charge card so that she could get a 10 per cent. discount. As soon as she said that she was 65, however, the cashier apologised and said that she could not have the card because she was too old. Why? Her money was good enough. I cannot get my head around why she should not have been entitled to the card just because she was older. If she had been about to get ill and drop dead, she would not have been able to buy the next item and get the 10 per cent. off. What was the problem?

An older man, a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists who flies aeroplanes every week, tried to hire a car at Edinburgh airport. He was 70, so he had to agree to pay the first £500 of any claim, including for theft. Did the insurer think that he would not be able to run quickly enough to stop a thief getting in the car? That is another bizarre example, and I am pleased that the Bill will tackle such issues.

Age Concern and Help the Aged said that the opportunity to abolish forced retirement had been missed. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) commented on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown
11 May 2009 : Column 614
(Dr. Turner) made an interesting contribution on how we might address the issue. I hope that those points will be looked at further.

Some employers really welcome older employees. The management at the B&Q in my area go out of their way to get older employees. The last thing that they want is a young whippersnapper who has never done any work on houses pretending that he knows how to advise customers on how to do things in the home; they want the person who has been doing the work for the past 40 years and knows what people want and need and knows what did not work when they were doing work on their house. That B&Q goes out of its way to employ older people, so it is not all doom and gloom when it comes to ageism. The Bill provides a welcome move in the right direction.

On addressing socio-economic inequalities, I should say that the Conservative amendment misses the point. One of the party’s reasons for not wanting the Bill to have a Second Reading is thatthe Bill

The whole point of placing a new duty on Ministers, Departments and public bodies to consider what action they can take to reduce inequalities on socio-economic grounds is that there will be a mechanism to consider issues such as why we are not dealing with social mobility and why there are still socio-economic inequalities. That will be able to be done systematically across Departments. The Bill gives the precise mechanism that would address one of the criticisms in the Conservative motion.

I hope that the Conservative party will consider the issue again; it is valuable that at last we are saying that we need to address inequality in relation to class and socio-economic advantage. According to how I read it, the Bill is careful to say that that will not mean that a front-line decision by a service provider will suddenly be dealt with in that way; we will not suddenly find a doctor saying, “I’m not treating you because you come from too advantaged an area and you’re too rich.” However, it will require my primary care trust and local authority to consider health disparities and inequalities and how we can deal with them.

The Bill makes positive inroads into one area of health inequality: it promotes women’s ability to breastfeed in public. I was astonished by the bizarre intervention made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest; I am sorry that she is not still here. One would hardly know that most women whom I see breastfeeding in public are doing it; they are so discreet that they would not offend anybody. I do not know why it would, however. If it does, the problem belongs to the person being offended and not to the woman and child who are doing something that makes a vital contribution to reducing health inequalities. The World Health Organisation says that mothers should breastfeed.

It would not normally have occurred to me to pick up on this issue in this debate, but I have had e-mails from constituents who are concerned to promote this aspect of the Bill. One thing that came across is that lower socio-economic groups and younger mothers are less likely to breastfeed, certainly in public places—partly because they find doing so embarrassing and unacceptable. That puts them off doing it at all. If when they are
11 May 2009 : Column 615
out and about they find it difficult to breastfeed, they will lack confidence and worry about the reaction of other people.

I am delighted at the BEARS groups in my local area, at which mothers provide breastfeeding support to other women. There is one in the Langley Mill Sure Start centre, recently visited by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, and in other Sure Start centres. In the run-up to the elections, I am worried in case Derbyshire county council stops being Labour and our wonderful Sure Start centres are closed. They provide fantastic help, including on this issue, to less advantaged families to make sure that the kids have a good start in life. That would be threatened if we ended up with a Tory county council and a Tory Government; I just throw in that comment in passing. The breastfeeding element of the Bill is valuable.

It is good that we are to make it clear that public bodies can use public procurement in the drive to equality. When I served on the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee and we were writing the report on public procurement and the one entitled “Jobs for the Girls”, which was about trying to address the gender pay gap and inequalities, we heard public organisations say that public procurement could not be used in this context. We argued, however, that if public authorities have a duty to promote gender equality, they will fail if they do not ensure that those to whom they give contracts take suitable steps to try to address inequality in their employment and service practices. We saw a number of positive examples of how the £175 billion of public procurement can be used to promote equality, and I am pleased at that.

Equal pay is the issue on which there has been most opposition, with people saying that some provisions would be a burden on business; at least that is how I interpreted what was being said when we were told that the issue was difficult. There is the issue of gender pay reports. Transparency is absolutely vital; there is still a massive pay gap. I find it hard to understand how hon. Members can say that the gap is a scandal but also that they do not want to do anything about it.

I wanted to raise questions with the right hon. Member for Maidstone—[Hon. Members: “Maidenhead!”] Why do I always get it wrong? I wanted to raise with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead arguments related to some parliamentary questions that I tabled today. Inthe amendment, and in a private Member’s Bill put forward by the right hon. Lady, is a proposal for the implementation of

Next Section Index Home Page