Equality Bill

[back to previous text]

Dr. Harris rose—
The Chairman: Order. the representation of various groupings in political parties is very interesting, but before the hon. Gentleman intervenes I should remind the Committee that we are debating amendment 204. I will allow the intervention, but hon. Members should bear my remarks in mind.
Dr. Harris: I am not going to go into historical analogies. The purpose of the Bill is to increase the number of women MPs in politics, and we support that. However, it should not have to be the Bill’s purpose that policies that women need are promulgated. Liberal Democrat party policy is made by our conference, in which a far higher proportion of women participate than are present in the parliamentary party. In terms of undemocratic parties, the Solicitor-General may be right that it is essential for women to be represented in the small cabal at the top that makes the policy. Where there is democratic policy making, however, people do not have to rely on the elite making the policy. The elite should be bound by the membership and the democratic policy-making apparatus.
The Solicitor-General: What a dreadful admission. The conference is full of women and the parliamentary party is palpably empty of them. That really says it all. I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman felt that confession was an appropriate way to clean the Liberal Democrats’ soul of the past.
The amendments are not necessary. There is certainly no suggestion as implied by amendment 204 that associations will break themselves up into smaller bodies to avoid the law. Even if they were Liberal Democrats, presumably there would be enough men and women in the organisation to say that they do not want to take such action just to avoid anti-discrimination law. We have no information, no understanding, no appreciation of a need for amendments 204 or 205. Our own positive provisions are sufficient, so I invite the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green to withdraw the amendment.
9.15 am
Lynne Featherstone: Is the Solicitor-General saying that amendment 203 would make positive action within the party legal?
The Solicitor-General: As far as I know, parties are self-regulating and can do what they want within the ambit of the forthcoming legislation. The hon. Lady can invite her national executive and her women-full conference to read the current legislation to see where it would take them in their internal machinations. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean made a point about single-sex shortlists. I was talking about positive action, not other characteristics.
Lynne Featherstone: I will take Solicitor-General’s word that all parties are covered, whatever they do in respect of positive action within their confines. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Before we leave the clause, I wish to express my regret that it does not contain a mechanism for achieving the same leap forward for black and ethnic minority representation that we achieved in 1997 with an all-women shortlist. I shall to return to the subject when the Bill is discussed on the Floor of the House, but if progress on the matter of women has not been fast enough, progress on a more diverse racial and ethnic representation in Parliament has been pitifully slow. I could never have guessed 22 years ago when I was first selected as a candidate that 22 years later there would still be only one other Afro-Caribbean woman in Parliament and no Muslim women whatever. That rate of progress is not acceptable. Twenty-two years ago, people were telling me and my young friends—Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz—that the reason there were not more black and Asian MPs was that we were not ready or qualified. It was not true then; it certainly cannot be true now, when a whole new generation of young black and minority ethnic people have emerged on the political scene.
To touch on our earlier argument, Labour Members seem to be saying that the point of more women MPs is that legislation would be tailored to the needs of women. With respect to colleagues, the argument for more diverse parliamentary representation—whether more women, more black and Asian or more Muslim MPs—is not that only women can represent women and only black and minority ethnic people can represent black and minority ethnic people, but that we must have a Parliament that looks like Britain. I have argued that case for 22 years when it was not popular in the party. The argument is not that only people of a certain skin pigmentation can represent others with a certain skin pigmentation, but about the legitimacy of our democracy in the eyes of the people. Given the issues that have arisen in the past few weeks, we should be focusing more on the overall issue of legitimacy.
Dr. Harris: I thank the hon. Lady for agreeing with the point that I made earlier. The Liberal Democrats recognise that we just have not done well enough to attract more black and Asian candidates.
Emily Thornberry: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot give way in an intervention.
Dr. Harris: We accept that we have not done well enough to attract black and Asian candidates to winnable seats. However, to extend the argument being made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, I hope she accepts that the history of policies on immigration and asylum over the past 12 years shows that whether we have black and Asian representation in the parliamentary party is a separate issue. Her party obviously has more such representation. However, although she has voted with us on some occasions, her party’s record is not great in respect of showing sensitivity towards the stigma associated with its policies on asylum and immigration policies—and, indeed, on anti-terrorism—which all have an impact on the black and Asian population.
Ms Abbott: I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman.
In the next few brief minutes, I want to move above party political points and put on record the principles for which I have stood for the past 23 years. The issue relates to the political process, particularly in cities such as London. An increasing proportion of younger people are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. How can they be expected to see politics as relevant to them if they do not see MPs of whatever party that look like them or to whom they can relate?
As we have seen, having a black man as President of the United States has had an extraordinary effect not only on black Americans but young Americans and white Americans who felt that nothing could change and that politics was the same old, same old. If we show people that representation can change and that their representatives do not have to look like those who were there before, it will have a galvanising effect not only on women or minorities but on young people and the wider community. I believe that the Bill could do more in that respect. The idea seems to be that we should wait for natural processes, but that has given us two black women in 22 years—so in 50 years we will have three. We cannot wait for natural processes. We have to consider what sort of positive action can be taken.
We have heard various explanations of positive action as opposed to positive discrimination. My argument has always been that positive discrimination takes under-qualified people and puts them in position. Positive action is about making it possible for people to be put in position who are qualified but who, for all sorts of structural reasons, do not have access to opportunity.
I have not argued in a long while about race; and I have never argued for positive discrimination. I believe that it is not necessary. When I was first selected, there was a lot of media attention. I remember at Stoke Newington hearing one white party worker say to another, “It’s all very well, this Diane Abbott; I keep reading about her, but is she qualified?” My friend said “Well, do you know, she has 10 O-levels, four A-levels and a degree from Cambridge, and she has served for four years on the city council. What qualifications do you mean?”
Mr. Harper: The hon. Lady gave the example of President Obama. He was selected as his party’s candidate in the primaries, and he became President of the United States because of his merit and talent. In no part of that process was any form positive action taken. Why was that possible in America, and why is it not possible here?
Ms Abbott: I have my eye on the time, Mr. Benton, so I shall be brief.
To understand the rise of President Obama, we have to remember that he came from the politics of Chicago, which had been shaped by black mobilisation since before the second world war, by the huge influx of slaves that came to work in the northern cities and by positive action. That allowed Chicago to select black Congressmen before the second world war; and Chicago became only the second US state to have a black Senator. Obama was undoubtedly able to rise on merit, but he was able to do so as a result of positive action and black mobilisation that went back 50 years. That is all that we ask for today: give us the foundations on which our merit can be seen.
The question is important because of the changing nature of the demographics of the country and our big cities, the legitimacy of our politics and the pathetic progress made not only for women but for black and ethnic minority people. The black and ethnic minority community is looking for progress. People campaigning in the inner cities will know that some of the most conscientious and engaged voters are black or minority ethnic people. They are looking for progress. The Bill and the clause do not address that question, and I plan to return to the subject on Report.
The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend said nothing with which I do not agree. She will know that we commissioned a report from Operation Black Vote on the viability of having black and ethnic minority shortlists, but it raised practical considerations that led to the Government deciding not to go in that direction. With a bit of luck the Speaker’s Conference will produce a little acceleration; the new Speaker is pretty committed to radicalism.
May I add a footnote to what my hon. Friend said? Really outstanding people can get on, whoever they are. Indeed, the hon. Lady herself is pretty special and got on a long time ago, when it was much harder even than it is now. The worst aspect of discrimination and of structural inequality is that people from the ruling sector—whether that is to do with class, race or whatever—get on in a way that people of roughly the same ability from other sectors do not. The vast bulk of people in the middle suffer most from discrimination.
Ms Abbott: My hon. and learned Friend is quite right. Really outstanding women, such as Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle and Jo Richardson have risen. The test of a truly equal society is when mediocre women and mediocre black candidates can rise in the same way that mediocre white male candidates have always risen.
The Solicitor-General: I agree. Down with mediocre white men!
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 99 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 100 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 101

Interpretation and exceptions
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Harper: I will not detain the Committee too long. I am not entirely certain that this is the right time to raise the issues that I am about to raise—I am sure that you will tell me if it is not, Mr. Benton.
Before I go on, mention of outstanding women parliamentarians should not pass without referring to the Baroness Thatcher—the first female leader of a British political party. I am sure that she slipped the mind of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington while she was talking about great women of the past. That omission needed to be filled in.
Emily Thornberry: Can the hon. Gentleman recall how many women from the Conservative party were promoted by Margaret Thatcher into her Cabinet? Was she the only woman in her Cabinet?
Mr. Harper: Given that the Baroness became Prime Minister when I was only nine years old, I am not entirely familiar with all the people whom she promoted to the Cabinet. She certainly smashed through one barrier: whether one agreed with her or not, she showed beyond all doubt that a woman was eminently capable of being the Prime Minister of our country. That was an excellent example to set and it should have made it easier for women for two reasons: first, she demonstrated beyond peradventure that women could do the job; and secondly, she raised the aspirations of all those women who think that they can do the job to show that they can and should do it. Her example is remarkable.
Emily Thornberry: I am older than the hon. Gentleman —[Interruption.] It is true. I can assure him that photographs of the Cabinet of the time show only one woman, who is therefore not a feminist.
Mr. Harper: I did not say that Margaret Thatcher was a feminist; I said that she was the first female Prime Minister. She believed in people succeeding on merit. I shall finish on this point, Mr. Benton, because I see you growing restless in the Chair. I meant to make a small point at the beginning of my remarks, but I am afraid that I provoked the hon. Lady. The parliamentary party that Margaret Thatcher led was not diverse. I have already said in response to the Minister that the current Conservative leader wants the party to be more diverse, and we have taken measures to make that happen. I am confident that it will be more diverse after the next general election. I am pleased that the Minister said in her response that she was looking forward to that and, implicitly, to a Conservative Government.
The Solicitor-General: Did I say that?
Mr. Harper: Implicitly.
On the clause, I wanted to probe the Minister on what the existing law says on association and in which cases the Bill would actually change the law. During business questions on 11 June, the Minister for Women and Equality, who was talking about the provision in the constitution of the British National party that people who are not white cannot be members, said:
“Under the Equality Bill that is passing through the House, that constitution will be made unlawful.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 935.]
She also made a slightly inaccurate reference and said that we voted against the Equality Bill—we did not; we tabled a reasoned amendment—and she added that she hoped that we would strongly support the Bill, which would prevent us from having an apartheid political party in this country.
9.30 am
We, of course, abhor the behaviour of the British National party more than anyone else, and it is not wise for the Minister for Women and Equality to try to score cheap points on a matter where all the mainstream parties in this country should be united. She implied that a party having a constitution that prohibited anyone who was not white from being a member was not currently unlawful but that the Equality Bill would make it so. I am not sure that that is entirely accurate. As the Solicitor-General will know, the Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote to the British National party on Tuesday of this week about possible breaches of existing anti-discrimination law.
I shall briefly set out to the Committee what the commission has done. It wrote to the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, to outline its concerns about the BNP’s compliance with the Race Relations Act 1976 and asked for undertakings that it will make the changes required by the commission by 20 July. Failure to do so would result in the commission issuing an application for a legal injunction against the BNP. The commission refers to its existing statutory duties to enforce the provisions under the Equality Act 2006. That Act will be partly subsumed by this one. The commission also refers to provisions on racial discrimination under the Race Relations Act 1976, which will be subsumed to some extent by this one.
It seems that the membership criteria under the British National party’s constitution, its recruitment and employment policies, practices and procedures, and the provision of services by its elected officers to constituency members of the public are already prohibited by existing legislation. First, will the Solicitor-General confirm that that is the case? If that is so, the Minister for Women and Equality should not really be implying that those things become unlawful only with the passage of the Bill.
Secondly, given that the British National party’s constitution prohibits membership by people who are not white and since that party has been around for a while, can the Solicitor-General explain why it is only now, when the BNP has succeeded in getting its members elected to the European Parliament, that the EHRC has taken action against such discriminatory practices? If the BNP’s constitution has been in place for a while and it has been behaving in such a way for a while, the EHRC and its predecessor organisations should have taken action earlier to nip it in the bud. However, despite the lateness of the EHRC’s action, I entirely welcome it.
If the BNP’s constitution violates the law, I hope that the EHRC will get those undertakings. If it does not receive them, I hope that the commission will take the proper legal action to ensure that the British National party behaves in a non-discriminatory way and conducts itself in accordance with the law of our country. That would be the best answer to its behaviour and a good response by the EHRC. It is a shame that that has taken so long if the BNP’s behaviour is prohibited under existing legislation.
I am sure that every member of the Committee is behind what the EHRC has been doing—the measured and precise way that it has been doing it sends a clear message that political parties should not discriminate against anyone in the way that they conduct themselves.
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 26 June 2009