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That happened more than 20 years ago and I would like to think that things are a little different now. I would also go so far as to say that that may be due in no small part to Ant and Dec. People seem to like the north-east accent now. The legislation will mean that neither I nor anyone else will ever again be discriminated against solely because of our accents. However, I knew then, and I still know, that it was not my accent that cost me that promotion; it was what the accent stood
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for—that is, my class and my background. The Bill will ensure, as much as we can, that employers and even educators will never be able to cite someone’s accent as a reason for turning them down for a job or anything else.

In many ways, I am one of the lucky ones. I never wanted to be an MP when I was younger, because—well, I would never have dreamed it was possible, coming from my background and with my life circumstances, and especially not because I am a woman. Working-class men from the north-east had made it here for generations, but not many working-class women had, if any. I am not totally sure, but I think I may have been the first working-class woman born and bred in the north-east to make it here to represent a north-east constituency, or any other type of constituency for that matter.

I have come a long way from doing the accounts and payroll at Tyneside Safety Glass. I left school at 16 to get a job, in order to help my mam financially with my two younger brothers, as she was on her own. That was at a time when the north-east was being ravaged by the consequences of the Conservative party’s assault on industry, our communities and the way of life in the north-east. My breaks in life came through hard work, aspiration, determination and workplace education, which this Government have widened and enshrined in statute, through union learning reps and return to learn programmes, which have given hundreds of thousands of people, especially those from my generation—the Thatcher generation—a second chance in life.

Through membership of the Labour party, I found a passion for politics and a way to make a difference by trying to redress the balance and make life fairer for people like me across the country. Just as we cannot help the family circumstances we are born into, we cannot help where in the country we are born. However, when I was growing up, being born in the north-east made such a difference to my life opportunities and those of everyone around me. Some might say that it still does, but I believe that, thankfully, it does to a much lesser extent. The injustice of the north-south divide was—and still is—a huge driving force in my politics.

In the Labour party, I was part of an organisation that promoted fair rules and fair chances. My eventual selection came from an all-woman shortlist. I am currently the only woman MP in Tyne and Wear—there is me and 12 men—although hopefully that will change quite a bit at the next election, as my party has continued with that policy and selected more women to contest safe seats. That is the difference: women have to contest winnable seats, not just be allowed to stand in the marginals. However, none of that would have been possible had it not been for the determination of a few to create chances for the many. Those people were Labour people. I believe that this Bill, more than many others that I have seen in this House, reflects those deeply held values of fairness and equality.

I want to take just a minute to reflect on why we need to keep pressing the case for improved gender equality in both Parliament and the workplace. Just under 20 per cent. of our MPs are women. When we look to other countries, such as Sweden and Rwanda, where women account for nearly half of all members of Parliament, we are surely urged to action. I am one of only 291 women MPs ever. There are currently more than 520 men or
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thereabouts in this Parliament. I do not know the total for all Parliaments ever, but a rough calculation suggests that it must be many thousands, if not tens of thousands. Two-hundred and ninety-one women and 120 still here makes 170 women MPs or thereabouts—I might be a few out—who have gone before us. Indeed, there are a few women MPs—just a few though—here now.

Being part of a chosen few makes me feel very special, but I am also very sad that so few women have had the chance to sit on these Green Benches and make a difference and improve the country’s legislation. That is why the Bill is doing just that. It is thanks to women on our Front Bench, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality in particular, that we are in this position.

John Bercow: I am listening with great respect to the hon. Lady’s speech. I accept that the Bill is fundamentally a social democratic or new Labour piece of legislation—that is pretty unarguable—but that does not mean that we should not support it when it is fundamentally right. I put it to the hon. Lady that although the Bill can be honourably opposed, some of the people out there in the country who oppose it do so because they are so comfortable with either their prejudices or their privileges that they do not want them to be disturbed.

Mrs. Hodgson: As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Indeed, I think that those on our Front Bench agreed with it too.

Most of us are agreed that the number of women in this place needs to rise substantially over the years to come. I wholeheartedly support the measures in the Bill to extend permission for all-women shortlists to 2030. The discrepancies that we see between the numbers of men and women in Parliament are still played out in society as a whole. Although the minimum wage has decreased the gender pay gap by 5 per cent., the gulf between male and female wage packets is still an unbelievable 21 per cent. In an enlightened society, where we women work just as hard as men, that is simply inexcusable. I congratulate the Minister on bringing an end to the tired excuses that we have heard so many times before.

We also need to bolster skills among women. That is why the public sector equality duty will be so vital in continuing to unlock talent. According to the women and work commission, closing the gender skills gap could increase GDP by between £15 billion and £23 billion a year. I cannot imagine the naysayers sniffing at that, especially not during such difficult times.

In our current economic climate, we sometimes find that women are harder hit than men. In the north-east, figures show that female unemployment increased three months before men had to face the same problems. Although those figures have begun to level off, it just goes to show how much variety exists between the typical “male” job market and the typical “female” job market, which is more often than not part time and low paid.

We know that legislation is not a catch-all solution. To achieve the vision behind the Bill we must change attitudes and break down barriers. One example would be those clauses that support a woman’s right to breastfeed.
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I am ever so pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) is in the Chamber and will speak, too. He has led a fantastic campaign on this matter. I am really pleased, as I am sure he will be, that that has been recognised and that provision has been made in the Bill.

It is a well-established fact that wherever possible, breast is best. I breastfed both my children, my second until 18 months—she was very eager, and it took some work to bring it to an end—and I evangelise on the merits of doing so, as does Bosom Buddies, which runs schemes at Sure Starts units and children’s centres in my constituency and, I am sure, across the country. Bosom Buddies is a project where breastfeeding mums partner and mentor pregnant mums and new mums. They encourage and help them to start to breastfeed and to continue to do so. It is a very good project and I fully endorse it.

In numerous studies, breastfeeding has been shown to be the healthiest way to feed babies. In addition to providing the essential nutrients and sustenance, it greatly reduces the risk of babies developing health problems such as gastroenteritis, asthma, diabetes and obesity and helps to protect women from breast and ovarian cancer. In comparison with a formula-fed baby, a breastfed baby is five times less likely to be hospitalised with gastroenteritis. It is estimated that if all babies were breastfed the NHS would save up to £50 million a year in dealing with such illnesses. I know that that is just one example, but it is a real example of how this Bill will make small changes that will have a big impact on individual lives as well as on the fabric of our nation.

One group of people for whom the Bill can have a transformative impact are carers. I was pleased to receive a briefing from Carers UK that sets out its support for the Bill and in particular welcomes the provisions that extend protection against discrimination and harassment to someone who is associated with caring for a disabled person, in effect giving carers new rights in the workplace and in the provision of services.

We need to look more closely in the Committee—on which I hope to be able to serve—at the true effect of a handful of provisions. The right to request adjustments and flexible working practices is one of the significant steps taken by the Government to boost workplace opportunities for all. As the Bill stands, those rights will be created for disabled people but not for carers, many of whom would benefit hugely from receiving the same rights. Given the already ambitious nature of the Bill, I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality might be willing to go that one extra step for the carers who already save the economy billions of pounds a year.

We also need to ensure that appropriate mechanisms are in place so that the duties and rights set out in the Bill are properly enforced. In short, we should be wary of missing a trick. There remains a real difficulty for disabled passengers travelling by air. I have had to table early-day motions in the past to draw the House’s attention to the less than exemplary practice of one airline that insists on disabled customers telephoning premium rate telephone numbers to secure seats, incurring extortionate extra costs.

The broader provisions in the Bill will enable campaigners to keep an eye on progress in both the public sector and the private sector. The end of the gagging clauses and
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the introduction of a duty to report on the gender pay balance will ensure that inequality can no longer hide anywhere in Britain from the boardroom to the tea room.

The old saying says that you should never judge a book by its cover. That has certainly been true of me over the years, and of a lot of people I have met, too. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that there is plenty of wisdom in that phrase and I believe there to be plenty of wisdom in the Bill. It sets out a message of equals not elites and that is a message that I am delighted to support.

8.33 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I would certainly agree that the Labour party had a very good record on equality up to the 1997 general election. Indeed, I think that it was the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who has contributed enormously well to the debate on a number of occasions, who pointed out that it was a social democratic approach—I would say that it is also liberal. It is no surprise, therefore, that Roy Jenkins was so heavily involved in the Labour party in the moves to provide equality in certain areas at a time when it was less popular to do so and less acceptable than it is now.

The Government will get this Bill through—I hope that they do—and it is hardly opposed in this House. That is a sign that the Government are pushing against an extremely open door in a way that the Labour party could not when it introduced earlier legislative proposals to provide for equality. The Government are implementing, quite rightly, their manifesto commitment to abolish unjustified discrimination wherever it exists. My regret is that that was a 1997 election manifesto commitment. Over the 12 years for which I have been a Member of this House, I have questioned why it has taken so long for the Government and the House to do some of the things that could have been done many years previously.

My party’s record is pretty good. We opposed section 28 when it was introduced, for example, and pressed for an early end to discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. We first tabled amendments to the criminal law in 1998 to bring in laws on sexual offences that treated people equally, regardless of sexual orientation. That legislation was enacted in 2003. The Government were forced by European judgments to bring in equality on the ground of sexual orientation in the armed forces, but they should have done so before. We also urged them to introduce civil partnerships legislation, which they have now done, and supported them to the hilt when they introduced the controversial—for some—regulations on the provision of goods and services without discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation.

On age discrimination, I remember urging my colleagues through the Lobby to vote on an amendment to the Employment Relations Bill in the late 1990s, to end age discrimination in employment. We have also argued that that could and should have been brought in as part of the Equality Act 2006. Nevertheless, we are where we are now, and I welcome the fact that the Government are introducing these provisions.

I want to discuss three topics: the balance to be struck between free speech and harassment; the exemptions on discrimination, particularly on the grounds of religion and sexual orientation, where another tension obviously
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exists; and the proposed public sector duty, every aspect of which is to include a duty to promote equal opportunities in respect of religion.

I ought to declare a couple of interests. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has performed significant scrutiny of previous equality legislation and proposes to do much more on this Bill. We have already had a very useful and mutually beneficial meeting with officials from the equalities team. I also hold honorary positions with the British Humanist Association, the Liberal Democrat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender campaign, and the National Secular Society.

Before I start on my three topics, I want to point out that inequality is a vital issue in this country. It is terrible that the gap between the rich and the poor has got wider. The rich, even in this recession, are far richer than they were 12 years ago, and, even before the recession, the poor were relatively poorer than they were before. Radical action is needed, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) has already said that she does not think that the provisions in the Bill represent that radical action. It is policies that will bring about the end of inequality, including policies on taxation. I am still astounded about what has happened on tax policy over the last three Parliaments. The fair taxes have not been increased, but the regressive ones have. For the Conservative party to say that it wants to do something about the inequality in wealth between the rich and the poor while its flagship policy is to cut the tax payable by the richest estates in the country is simply astonishing.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) intervened on the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) to make a point about political correctness, and I should like to say to him that the Campaign Against Political Correctness might be against the Bill, but political correctness can work both ways. If it is politically correct to say that it is not acceptable—I mean socially acceptable; I am not arguing about criminality here—to call people “cripples” or “spastics”, then I support political correctness. If supporting political correctness means that it becomes unacceptable—even in private, where it would not be against the law—to call people “sooty” or “Paki”, then I support political correctness. The hon. Gentleman needs to define what he means by political correctness. If he defines it very narrowly, I might agree with him, but it is not enough just to talk about it as the tabloids do.

My first topic is the balance between free speech and laws that protect people. What kind of protection are we talking about in anti-harassment provisions? We are talking about the freedom from being offended, or worse. I certainly accept that this is not just about being offended. This can occur in public, in employment and in the provision of goods and services, including a special case involving public services and the delivery of public functions.

In public, the Government have rightly accepted that there is a difference between homophobic or religious hatred and, for example, racial hatred, because the offence involved is very narrow. They have recognised that free speech can be impeded. I am sure that I would not agree with most of that speech, but I recognise that some religious organisations, for example, need to be able to explain their views on sexual orientation or the
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religious beliefs of others. Similarly, I have argued for amendment of section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which criminalises the use of insult as being likely to cause distress, goes too far and could lead to bizarre prosecutions or investigations by the police. I hope the Government will recognise the point. They have made an exception in cases of religion and homophobia, and they are right to do so.

In employment, there is protection against harassment, and employment probably provides the strongest case for it because one has to be secure at work, but our harassment provisions are pretty wide. Indeed, the human rights memorandum on the Joint Committee on Human Rights website, probably also to be found on the Government Equalities Office website, accepts the point, stating that harassment laws

I hope that question will be dealt with in Committee. It is not simply a matter of defining harassment as engaging in

because also relevant is

Because it is non-intentional and because the views of the victim are important, this can be cast very widely.

I worry when I hear about cases such as the Christian night-shift worker who was having a conversation with a fellow worker about his views on homosexuality; apparently, although we have only his side of the story, he said in moderate terms that he thought it was wrong. Even if there were no prosecution under harassment law, as it were, I think it would be wrong if employers decided to take a strong view simply because someone felt that their dignity was violated because they were gay or knew someone who was gay and could not accept anyone sincerely disagreeing with them and using non-abusive language. I believe that that is going too far; we should not have to read that sort of press story or hear about that sort of activity. Here, I stand four-square with religious people who feel that they are not allowed to say those sorts of things. I do not recommend it, of course, but if they avoid abusive language, that is acceptable.

With goods and services, the Government are right not to include harassment provisions relating to sexual orientation or religion. It was right that the Northern Ireland provisions were essentially struck down and have not been reintroduced in the Bill. It is impossible to restrict people’s ability to explain their point of view when not providing goods and services. When it comes to the provision of public services and public functions, the question remains whether there might be scope for introducing some protection from harassment; gross harassment, of course, is discrimination.

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