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“Equality” has become a loaded word in recent years; every year, we hear stories in the media about councils banning Christmas in the name of equality legislation.
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If the Bill is enacted, a measure of its success will be whether it can put a stop to that sort of nonsense and encourage fairness, which is what equality should be about. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said, it should be about success being based on merit and making sure that we have access to the talents of everyone in our country. We should judge people on their merit and not on characteristics that have no bearing on the content of their characters.

Other measures in the Bill that we welcome are the extension of the laws to ban age discrimination. However, the Government have not addressed some of the concerns. A number of hon. Members mentioned the concerns of insurance businesses and those with marketing models based on age. There is no detail in the Bill on that, just a very broad power enabling Ministers to amend the primary legislation by order. I do not think the House should support that solution; one of the things that Ministers need to do—it is one of the reasons for our reasoned amendment—is to go away and think again about that element of the Bill. With the parliamentary draftsmen, they should draft a clause that will be of comfort to businesses such as Saga and the others that have been mentioned so that those companies can have confidence in their business models. That clause should also mean that Ministers will not be required to amend primary legislation every time somebody dreams up a new business model.

In clauses 190, 191, 56 and 2, Ministers take powers to amend primary legislation by order; they take powers away from the House and place them with the Executive. If the Bill makes it to Committee, we will suggest amendments to all those areas.

Many Members have spoken about the gender pay gap. According to the Government’s own “Framework for a Fairer Future” White Paper, the gender pay gap is 12.6 per cent. in respect of full-time earnings. However, hon. Members may not be aware that there is also a disability pay gap in many businesses—and, indeed, in the Government. The pay gap between disabled and non-disabled employees in the civil service is larger than the gender pay gap. In some Departments, such as the Home Office, disabled employees are paid 30 per cent. less on average than non-disabled employees. There is a way to go on that issue. In its Second Reading brief, RADAR said that the disability pay gap had been sorely neglected and it demanded that it be given a higher priority. That neglect is not fair, and it backs up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole about being able to hire the best talent and enabling people to be successful in organisations through promotion.

Another key test for the Bill will be whether it makes it easier rather than more difficult for the public sector and businesses to promote equality. The single public sector duty in the Bill will replace the three existing ones. It is important that the new duty should focus on outcomes, not processes. We need to see more fairness in the delivery of public services, not just an obligation for them to comply with ever more bureaucracy.

We have a difference with the Government on pay audits. We think that their proposal is bureaucratic and burdensome and that there is no guarantee that the issues will be addressed. I also note that the audits are not to apply to the public sector. Ministers have said that they plan to use regulation-making powers in the
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Bill to impose similar burdens on the public sector, but those specific proposals are not in the Bill. If they are saying that the private sector should have to comply with certain requirements, then exactly the same ones should apply to the public sector: there should not be one law for one and another law for the other. Our proposals for having compulsory pay audits in force when tribunals have found employees guilty of discrimination are a more proportionate solution.

Judy Mallaber: Has the hon. Gentleman done any research on exactly how many employers have been found guilty? We know how many cases there have been, but has he done any analysis of how many employers are in that position compared with the far larger number of cases that have been settled and the infinitely larger number of cases that have not even got through the tribunals? How much research has been done on whether the Conservative proposal would be in any way effective?

Mr. Harper: It is for the Government to prove their case. Clearly, the hon. Lady has concerns about the way the Government run the tribunals service, which is not effective. It may be for Ministers in the Ministry of Justice to look at how that is working and how effective it is before she complains about our reasonable and proportionate proposals.

On positive action—or positive discrimination, as the Minister perhaps more accurately, albeit inadvertently, called it in her opening remarks—the Bill’s proposals seem to allow employers to discriminate in favour of candidates who are not the most qualified for the job. The argument that has been advanced, and is indeed supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, concerns the example of a primary school where there are two equally qualified candidates and it was wished to hire one rather than the other because of the diversity of the work force. It seems to me that if those candidates are truly equally qualified, and it genuinely is a tie-break situation, there is nothing in the existing law that would stop that happening. If, however, the Bill allows organisations to go further and have a wholesale choosing of candidates when they are not the most qualified for the job, that would be discrimination. It could give rise to situations such as that which recently occurred in my own county of Gloucestershire when our police force was actively discriminating against white people; that was found to be unlawful, and it had to stop it. That had a very negative effect on diversity and gave fairness and diversity a bad name. We should not be promoting that sort of behaviour, and if that is what the Bill allows, as I fear it does, we should not be in favour of these proposals.

Let me turn to disability. The hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) is right to say that we must recognise that disability discrimination needs to be approached differently. Indeed, that was the conclusion of the Work and Pensions Committee in its report. As he said, in order to create a level playing field and have genuine equality of opportunity, it is often necessary to take positive steps to ensure that disabled people are treated fairly. We are glad that that has been recognised in the Bill and that the Government have responded to the judgment in the Malcolm case, and we will be testing to see how their proposals work in practice.

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The hon. Gentleman also referred to improvements in disabled people getting into work. I have checked the official figures, and some progress has been made; I pay tribute to the Government for that. In 1999, the employment rate for disabled people stood at 46 per cent., and it has now risen to about 50 per cent. There has been some progress, but there is a considerable way to go. We have come up with some ambitious welfare reform proposals because we want that to go further and faster.

The socio-economic part of the Bill—part 1—is the biggest disappointment. No one will disagree that the widening gap between the rich and poor and declining social mobility under this Government need to be addressed. Indeed, a recent study from the London School of Economics showed that in Britain social mobility had declined and that the gap between rich and poor was getting wider. A careful comparison of several countries revealed that the United States and Britain were at the bottom, with the lowest social mobility, but in Britain it was getting worse. Those problems clearly need to be tackled: we cannot just wish them away or legislate them away. The Government thought they had legislated away fuel poverty, but it still exists. They plan to pass a Bill to eliminate child poverty, but last week it rose, yet again, by 100,000. It is going in the wrong direction, and simply passing a Bill will not solve the problem. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said at the start of the debate, if we are to tackle these problems we need to tackle the root causes—family breakdown, poor education and worklessness. Real action will solve them, such as our proposals to give parents more power and allow good schools to expand and new schools to open where there is demand.

Roger Berry: How would blocking the Bill by voting for the Opposition amendment solve the problem?

Mr. Harper: If the hon. Gentleman just waits until I finish, he will hear—

Roger Berry: Tell me now!

Mr. Harper: No, because I want to come to that at the end of my speech, for which the hon. Gentleman will have to wait with bated breath. First, I wish to touch on some of the contributions that hon. Members have made. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), in an intervention on the Minister for Women and Equality, made an important point about discrimination in employment. One of his local businesses placed an advert that said, “If you do not speak Polish, please do not apply as your application will not be considered.” That was not for a job involving translation but for a job on the minimum wage as a picker-packer in a factory environment. Such discrimination should be unlawful. Rather than saying that the worker had to speak Polish because there were other Polish employees, perhaps the company should have ensured that all those other employees could speak English. It should not be acceptable to say that someone has to be able to speak a minority language in order to get a job of which that is not an essential part. I would be grateful if the Solicitor-General could confirm whether such an advertisement is lawful today. If so, perhaps she will confirm whether the Bill will change that.

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The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), who is no longer in her place, made a thoughtful intervention on mental health issues and the position of Members of this House. She also mentioned pre-employment questionnaires, and I had much sympathy with what she said.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) made a wide-ranging speech. She welcomed the Bill and then proceeded to spend 20 minutes or so telling us all the things that she thought were wrong with it. I suggest that she join us in voting for our reasoned amendment, which stacks up much better with what she said.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) told us about the position in Wales, and she talked about some problems with local authorities. Of course, as I have said, the Bill excludes the public sector from mandatory pay audits. [Hon. Members: “It does not.”] It does. I have read the Bill in great detail. I may not have a copy autographed by the Minister for Women and Equality, despite having gone to her equality reception, and I am disappointed that the copies on the Table are not autographed, but I have read it in some detail.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), in his usual thoughtful way, made a comprehensive and wide-ranging speech, drawing on his long-standing interest in this area of policy. He reminded the House that it was a Conservative Government who introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and he mentioned the importance of making the business case for equality as a method of ensuring that it moved much further and faster.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) strongly supported simplification of the law but cogently laid out the significant flaws in the Bill. I have already mentioned the important issues relating to disability that the hon. Member for Kingswood raised, as befits his role as co-chairman of the all-party disability group. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who is in his place, expressed some concerns about the order-making power in clause 190, which we shall probe in Committee if the Bill makes it there.

My hon. Friend—I think he is a friend—the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made a measured speech until he got to the Churchillian quotation at the end, which I shall not take to heart, and he mentioned his membership of the Speaker’s Conference. The hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), who will be the last Member I am able to mention, spoke about her experiences at Northern Rock. Clearly Northern Rock’s loss was our gain, and given what has happened to this House and to Northern Rock, she may well consider that she was more fortunate ending up here.

There is much in the Bill that we welcome, and simplifying the law makes sense, but it is a pity that the Minister for Women and Equality hijacked what could have been an opportunity for common agreement on both sides of the House as a vehicle for her own ambitions.

I suggest that hon. Members support our reasoned amendment and, in effect, tell the Government to take the Bill away, remove the bits that are unwelcome,
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which we have laid out in our reasoned amendment, and bring back a Bill on which the House could reach a consensus. That would be the best possible outcome.

9.45 pm

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): I will write to the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), if I may, about the Polish matter, which needs better explanation.

We could not have started on the Labour Benches with a better contribution than that from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), who has been a stalwart of equality throughout her career. I am grateful for her welcome. She was concerned to ensure that we encourage wider groups of people to apply for jobs. We can already do that, but that right will be made more meaningful now that we can take positive action in appointments as well.

My right hon. Friend was worried that action against discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity had become weaker, but clauses 16 and 17 will make it stronger. The old definition was that the treatment must not be less favourable, which prompts the question: less favourable for whom and less favourable than what? The definition now says that the treatment must not be less favourable than is reasonable, which is a clearer objective standard.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) said that we had not acted on equal pay. Well, of course we have, many, many times—the women and work commission and the minimum wage are two examples—but the problem is intransigent. The proposals in the Bill will help enormously. She would impose mandatory pay audits on all businesses. What do we do, then, about those that have already done audits and are working by consensus with their work forces towards equality? What do we do about those businesses that do not necessarily know that they have systemic pay inequality, but which, when our transparency provisions start to work, will see it and move consensually towards equality? We are all aiming at the same bull’s-eye, but we have the straight arrows. Hers would miss the target.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan). Equal pay progress has been far too slow, because much of it is hidden, sometimes perhaps even to the employer, but knowledge of inequity is power to get rid of it, and that is what we will give. She suggested representative action, and there is a lot to be said for taking the burden off an individual when discrimination is systemic. We are examining the Civil Justice Council’s proposals about that.

My hon. Friend is worried that the age discrimination provisions will not apply to under-18s. It is a complex issue, but we have concluded that they would not address, for instance, the many concerns that she and the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised this evening and that they could make matters far worse for children.

I pay enormous tribute to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), but I am very sad to hear that we will no longer have him with us. I really respect the commitment that he has shown over the years to equality generally and disability in particular. With permission, I will answer his specific question when I deal with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry).

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The hon. Member for Daventry was troubled about socio-economic equality. He asked whether we would close libraries because only the middle classes use them. The answer is no. What we will do is put measures in place to encourage people from the estate round the corner to come and read—to get a love of books, which I have been blessed with since my working-class mother and father taught me to read at three. Now, at approaching 43, I still value that great love of books.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) talked about amendments to thrust upon me, so I conclude that he wants to be on the Committee and that he will be able to keep his excellent points until then.

I genuinely apologise to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) for winding her up. She accused me of not wanting to be seen as an old-fashioned socialist and demonstrated herself to be an old-fashioned Tory. She said that if the pendulum swings too far to protect rights, that will hurt business. That is what the Tories said about the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the minimum wage—and as a matter of fact, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you could have said it against the abolition of slavery as well. Business is not there to be altruistic, she said. I do not want a world in which disabled people have to rely on anyone’s altruism to be treated well at work; I want them to have good rights. Business, by and large, is far more understanding and altruistic about the rights of disabled people and other sectors than she and other Tories have suggested tonight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood is involved with the all-party group on disability and has a distinguished record in this field. The clarity of his argument and his analysis of the distinct nature that it is necessary to give to disability were clear evidence of the depth of his understanding. I can give him the assurance he seeks, which was also sought by the hon. Member for Daventry. Disabled people can be treated more favourably, and the hon. Gentlemen should cast an eye over clauses 13(3) and 143.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and I did our hopeless best to understand each other. He disclosed, in the end, that he just does not favour positive action. I hope that he has told the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that. She spent some considerable time telling the House that she wanted positive action. Indeed, she boasted that the Tory party was using it with great vigour to bring things along for women. Has she told the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that, or that champion of political incorrectness, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)?

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), as always, spoke with the vigour of a young man. He railed against the default retirement age. The Heyday case is still pending—let us watch for a result. Anyway, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will review that age in 2011 at the latest.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) talked mainly to his constituents. He knows that the Welsh language is protected elsewhere. I am personally delighted that the Welsh Assembly Government are totally in support of the Bill and I am glad to have the welcome that he was able to give it, albeit on a limited basis.

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