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I was pleased to support the Equality Act 2006, which finally and rightly protected religious people—people with religion or belief—from discrimination. Indeed, as hon. Members may know, my private Member’s Bill goes further to protect Catholics, in particular, from
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unjustified discrimination in our constitution. My Bill received support from all political parties, but it was talked out by the Lord Chancellor, no less, on Second Reading. I think that religious organisations, however, show too great a willingness to want to discriminate against other people. They accept the protections that they have been given, but want the scope to discriminate against other people—for example, on grounds of sexual orientation or religion.

Schedule 9 deals with exemptions for religions in respect of employment. I recognise that the drafting here is better than it was in the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. The import of the Amicus case has been included, where the provision states that a post with a sexual orientation test has to be one clearly involved in proselytising and not another. The subsequent provisions on page 182 of the Bill are, sadly, weaker, allowing organisations with a religious ethos not to have to justify the discrimination that they may wish to indulge in on grounds of religion, for example. Nevertheless, even that is better than the coach and horses run through the spirit of the Bill by the Schools Standards and Frameworks Act 1998, particularly sections 68, 69 and 70. As I was told by a maths teacher working in a state school funded 100 per cent. by the taxpayer, those provisions allow schools to tell teachers—regardless of whether they are teaching religious education—that they must have “Jesus in your heart”. Is that really necessary for someone teaching maths in a primary school? What is going on? I find it regrettable that the Government have not taken the opportunity to recognise that organisations with a certain ethos can, if necessary, be governed by provisions that already operate in relation to a religious test, as opposed to a broad exception involving many other posts.

As for the provision of goods and services, the problem still exists that schools are allowed to discriminate and segregate on the basis of religion. In an area containing, say, four schools, where one has a religious intake and can segregate and discriminate, children or families adhering to the religion concerned can choose any of those four schools, while everyone else has a choice of only three. If that is coupled with the public duty to provide equality of opportunity, a huge amount of pressure will be exerted for everyone to have their own school that discriminates, and I do not think that that is a good idea.

The provision of public services involves a key question. Should there be a right to discriminate on grounds of religion, or indeed sexual orientation? I hope that, in Committee, the Government will recognise that the Employment Appeal Tribunal was correct in saying, in the case of the Islington registrar Lillian Ladele, that it was wrong for someone providing a public service to be allowed to discriminate, and that the council was right to say that everyone doing that job must not treat people differently according to their sexual orientation.

We have read of a dentist who wants to require his women patients to wear a hijab before being able to access health care either on the NHS or privately. That cannot be right. Reasonable adjustment may be possible. For example, a cook may not want to cook pork. That does not involve discriminating against human beings, at least in respect of what they are doing, and it does not necessarily involve a public function.

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Finally, let me say something about the positive duty in regard to religion. Religion is different from the other strands. For example, it is not essential or immutable in the same way as race or gender. Religious beliefs give rise to policies and practices that are highly contested, unlike the other strands. Representatives of religions —rightly, in many cases—feel the need to proselytise in order to secure new followers, unlike representatives of other strands. Some religions campaign actively against equal treatment in relation to other strands, as they have a right to do. They are unique in that respect.

For that reason, I think that, while we should ensure that there is a public duty to end discrimination on religious grounds and promote social cohesion, tackling inequality relating to religion may actually increase religious sensitivities. People may feel that they are not being given what someone else is being given because of historic service provision in that area, and may want the same for themselves. An example is the demand for it to be considered that sharia law might be given more status in relation to other religious laws.

Those are the issues that I hope to raise in Committee.

8.48 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I, too, apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate. That was because of difficulties that I encountered in travelling to the House today. I am delighted to have been able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), who is not here at the moment, said in her excellent speech, hon. Members have received a number of excellent briefings. I want to begin by quoting from the TUC briefing, because it sums up what I think about the Bill:

most notably age and carers.

I also want to begin by thanking my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General for steering this Bill through to its Second Reading. They have both long championed equalities issues when it was not necessarily fashionable to do so, and all Labour Members owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their excellent legislation, which we now have on the statute book because of their efforts.

The Bill is very much about developing Labour’s fairness agenda. One of its most important aspects is the new duty on public bodies to consider how to reduce socio-economic inequalities. That is important in two key respects. First, imposing that duty on public bodies and Ministers may ensure that, across government, we get much closer attention to how policies and policy development will reduce socio-economic inequalities. That has been some time in coming. Labour has had an important agenda to tackle inequalities, but we must recognise that we need to do more, in particular to foster the cause of social mobility. I hope that this duty helps us to continue to develop policies to support
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social mobility. Secondly, the duty will enable all of us in society to have a stronger look at what is happening in local government and other public sector bodies. It has long been my contention that sometimes local government and other bodies have managed to subvert Labour’s equality agenda and not implement policies effectively locally.

I am truly sorry that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) is not present at the moment. She gave a very thoughtful and well-considered speech, and I agreed with a great deal of it. I must say, however, that my own local authority of Durham City had a truly appalling record on tackling inequality. In fact, its policies achieved the opposite end. When the authority in question was in power, by selling off land in some of our most disadvantaged communities and reinvesting the capital gain from that land not in the local villages, but in city centre projects mostly used by the very affluent or upper middle class, it ensured that a transfer of resources did, indeed, take place, but it was from disadvantaged areas to the more advantaged areas. Similarly, the authority did not use the considerable house building that was taking place through planning law to enable it to build more affordable housing. It did exactly the opposite: where possible, it gave planning permission without any requirement to produce any affordable housing either within the development concerned or anywhere else in the city. I therefore want to check with my hon. Friends on the Labour Front Bench that this duty would require local authorities to explain why they wanted to implement policies that would exacerbate inequalities rather than attempt to reduce them.

Mrs. Hodgson: To ensure that the House is aware of this, will my hon. Friend clarify that Durham City was a Liberal Democrat council?

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I can clarify that easily for my hon. Friend; when Durham City was in existence, for the last six years it was a Liberal Democrat council.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) has returned to the Chamber now, so the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) can repeat what she was saying.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: The hon. Lady can read that in Hansard tomorrow, but I would be very grateful if the question I have just asked is answered.

The key point that I wish to make this evening is that it is very important that local government and other public sector bodies, such as primary care trusts, seek in their overall strategic frameworks to address inequality issues.

Emily Thornberry: Is my hon. Friend aware that since 2002 Pride in Canterbury has been lobbying for Canterbury city council to promote gay culture in Canterbury and has been fobbed off, so it took the matter to the local government ombudsman, only to be told that no regulations could be used to criticise the council for not supporting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community? This Bill will change that.

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Dr. Blackman-Woods: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which demonstrates that we need to take further action with regard to local authorities.

Other measures that I wish specifically to mention are those banning age discrimination outside the workplace and, importantly, those removing discrimination against carers. I cannot understand why the Conservative party is going to vote against the Bill, because it is so important that we continue to support carers and to remove discrimination against them. I had to re-read the first sentence of the Conservatives’ reasoned amendment a few times, because I thought that they had missed something. Obviously the Bill seeks to address

The Bill does attempt to address the root causes of social inequality. If the socio-economic duty been provided for at the back end of clause 194, I might have understood the Conservatives’ missing it, but of course the duty falls within the first clause. Labour Members may find it interesting to be given further explanation by the Conservative party as to why it is not supporting the Bill this evening.

Other key features of the Bill are equally important, and for some of us they have, as I said, been a long time coming. They include the further action to promote equal pay. As we know, public sector bodies will have to produce a gender pay report—the Government are going to consult the public bodies on how they might do that—and for private sector companies with more than 250 employees this will not be compulsory until after 2015. That is an important step forward in gaining a fuller understanding of why we still have the gender pay gap.

There are two areas that we might wish to examine further, however, and discuss in Committee. The first is what we need to do to get rid of occupational segregation. It remains a problem and it is one of the reasons why women continue to have lower earnings than men. We must examine our education policies and our learning and skills policies across the board to see what more we can do to attract both men and women into a wider range of occupations.

The second issue, which the Bill goes some way towards addressing, is the need to get rid of secrecy in respect of people’s pay. Unless we have a full understanding of what people are paid, we will not be fully able to develop policies to address the issue. I know that there are key areas that we could cite—I hate to say it, but academia is one—where it is not always clear what people are earning. We know that in private sector companies it is also not clear and transparent what people are earning. We need to take further action on this matter.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the importance of measures to protect women who are breastfeeding from being removed from places such as restaurants and public galleries. The measures in the Bill are greatly to be welcomed. It is disgraceful that in the 21st century we have to legislate to ensure that women will not be discriminated against because they are breastfeeding. Hon. Friends stressed earlier how important breastfeeding is in reducing inequalities right from day one of a child’s life. We know that it is women from socially disadvantaged backgrounds who are less likely to breastfeed their children.

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I have experience of working in a project for Save the Children many years ago in Sunderland, where a community health project was working with local women and desperately trying to support them in breastfeeding. It was very difficult. We had many cultural hurdles to overcome, and years of work were undone in an instant by somebody going into one of the shops in the city centre and being asked to leave. That spread around the local community and rendered useless much of the work that had been done. We know that Sure Start projects are doing a great deal of work to encourage breastfeeding and we do not want that work to be undermined by women being excluded or made to feel uncomfortable. As was said earlier, most women who breastfeed in public manage to do it discreetly and should be encouraged.

I turn to public sector procurement. Public sector contracts account for about £175 billion-worth of expenditure. It is important that when contracts are awarded by the public sector, they are given to companies that are exemplars of good industrial relations across the board and have excellent equal opportunities policies. I also want to make sure that public sector procurement is used to support the green agenda, and I am sure it is possible to marry the two.

Lynne Featherstone: I welcome the whole of the procurement chain being used in that way, but my concern is that there may not be the means to ensure proper monitoring of that chain. I am anxious lest it become a tick-box exercise, rather than a real force for change.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. She makes a valuable point.

I am pleased to see that discrimination in private clubs is to be made unlawful. I know that this is a minor or a side issue, but I am pleased that the Government are addressing it. I remember a teatime conversation many years ago at home with my brothers and some of their friends, who are all golf enthusiasts. They were talking about a motion that was coming before their committee from the women, asking if they could play one of the days at the weekend.

My brothers were discussing what they would do about that. They were probably sorry that they asked for my opinion. I asked, “Why wouldn’t women be able to play at weekends?” They said, “The issue is that women can play during the week, but men can’t because they are at work.” This was the early 1980s, and I gave them a mini-lecture on the percentage of women who were employed outside the home. That proportion has continued to rise since the early 1980s, so the rationale for restricting women’s playing time, which was ridiculous then, is even more so now. I am pleased that, thanks to the Bill, a golf club will not be able to prohibit its female members from playing on certain days, while allowing men to play whenever they like. It might be a peripheral issue in some ways, but I am pleased that we have got there. It is about time, too.

Finally, I come to the issue of the representation in this House of women and people from ethnic minority communities. Some hon. Members were saying earlier how surprised they were by the reaction of the official Opposition to the legislation, but given their record of getting women to represent the Tory party in this House
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we should not be so surprised. Their progress has been very slow—much slower than ours—mainly because they have not taken the difficult decisions, such as introducing all-women shortlists, to increase women’s representation. We know that informal mechanisms are important and we all need to do more to encourage women, young people and those from ethnic minorities to come forward and think about entering formal politics, but without formal mechanisms progress is too slow.

We know that of the 125 women MPs in Parliament, 98 are Labour—and many of them are here because of all-women shortlists. International comparisons show us that of the 17 countries with the highest percentage of women MPs, 14 have some sort of quota, so we know that concerted action is needed and that voluntarism does not work. Action is needed not only to get more women into Parliament, but to make this Chamber more representative of the society in which we live. So we also need a more ethnically diverse group of politicians.

I hope that the measures in the Bill are accepted. I hope to be on the Committee and I look forward to some interesting debates. I welcome the Bill.

9.7 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): If the Government decide to call something the Equality Bill, they expect everyone to support it because we are, of course, all in favour of equality. But this is the most incredibly misleadingly titled Bill, as one of its central planks is not to enshrine equality in law but to reintroduce discrimination into the workplace. We heard earlier how 40 years ago Labour Governments banned race and sex discrimination in the workplace, but this Bill tries to bring it back via the back door and—unbelievably—in the name of equality.

The Bill has nothing to do with equality. It is all about the politically correct extremism of the Leader of the House and her trendy, left-wing prejudices. Most people who support the concept of equality support the concept of equality of opportunity, but this Bill is not interested in that. It is about a socialist, 1980s Labour party agenda of equality of outcome. Indeed, page 1 of this long-winded Bill explicitly says that it is

To be honest, I do not know how this Government dare talk about reducing socio-economic disadvantage. They have the nerve in their explanatory notes to give the example that this would lead to a duty on local education authorities to ensure that children from deprived areas have a better chance of securing a place at their school of choice. This from the Government who hate grammar schools, which probably did more than anything else to enable kids from the poorest backgrounds to access the best schools, and who scrapped the assisted places scheme, which paid for the brightest kids from the poorest backgrounds to get the best education at top private schools. Perhaps the Solicitor-General will make it clear when she winds up that this provision will mean that many of the parents in my constituency, who live in villages close to popular primary schools such as Eldwick, Burley-in-Wharfedale and Bingley, will be unable to send their children to their local school as pupils from poorer areas will be bussed in to take their place. Is that really what the Bill proposes?

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The Bill is massive—250 pages, including the schedules, and nearly 250 pages of explanatory notes—but if it were truly about equality, we would not need 250 pages of politically correct gobbledegook: it would be a very short Bill, which would simply enshrine in law the fact that people who seek jobs should be selected on merit alone and that they should be given jobs irrespective of their gender, race, age or disability—

Dr. Evan Harris: Or religion.

Philip Davies: Indeed. What on earth would be wrong with that? It seems to me that the people who are truly racist and sexism see everything in terms of race and gender, rather than those of us who just wish people to be recruited entirely on merit. Batook Pandya, the director of Bristol-based charity Support Against Racist Incidents, put it perfectly when he said on the subject of fire service open days aimed at only ethnic minority recruits:

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