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Equality Bill

Equality Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Joe Benton, David Taylor, Ann Winterton
Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
Baird, Vera (Solicitor-General
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
Mason, John (Glasgow, East) (SNP)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Alan Sandall, Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 2 July 2009


[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Equality Bill

Clause 188

1 pm
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I beg to move amendment 309, in clause 188, page 134, line 24, at end insert—
‘(1A) For the avoidance of doubt, subsection (1) allows a person to provide gender-affected activities separately, but does not allow such activities to be provided to people of one gender but not to the other, unless it is unreasonable or disproportionate to seek to provide them for both.’.
This amendment seeks to prevent, for example, the instance where there is a sporting competition that is open to men, but there is no equivalent competition open to women.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 304, in clause 188, page 135, line 6, at end insert—
‘(7) Bodies responsible for the organisation of international and national-level sports competitions shall not discriminate on the grounds of gender in the provision of competition and team membership unless they are able to demonstrate that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.’.
Sporting bodies have to demonstrate that discrimination on the grounds of gender, in the provision of competition and team membership, is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
Dr. Harris: I apologise for a rather breathless arrival. The Committee that is considering how the House scrutinises Government business was meeting in another part of the House and the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who was due in another Committee Room, and I had a race over here—he won.
We are now on sporting issues, and the point of the amendment is to probe the extent to which the Bill places a duty on sporting bodies, particularly those in receipt of public money—many are—to ensure that there is not a historical bias towards male sport. We frequently see that taking place in respect not just of participation and organisation, but television and other broadcast coverage of sport. It is most unfair and regrettable that many participants who enjoy their sport and would like to watch it find it hard to access it on television, particularly in relation to women and girls’ sport.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): As the proud father of three daughters, perhaps I could remind the Committee that there is, indeed, often a negative bias in relation to output and achievement? I cite the example of the successful England women’s cricket team as exactly a case in point. There is nothing wrong with female participation in sports that have been seen, wrongly, as traditionally male.
Dr. Harris: Indeed. I think that the hon. Gentleman won the race to mention that before other hon. Members. Given his athleticism in Committee, it is not a surprise that he was able to win that race. He has mentioned just one example—I shall not list all the examples. My purpose in tabling the amendment is to probe the extent to which the Minister believes that the Bill will require or strongly encourage sporting bodies, including those in receipt of public funds, to do their utmost to promote participation on an equal basis, where no provision or aspect of the sport prevents it being obviously less popular or less possible to do so. That seems to be a reasonable basis on which to go forward.
The new subsection can clearly only be probing because it states
“for the avoidance of doubt”.
That wording should not be put in Bills because they are not supposed to contain any doubt and where there is doubt, it is deliberate. The amendment states,
“subsection (1) allows a person to provide gender-affected activities separately, but does not allow such activities to be provided to people of one gender but not to the other, unless it is unreasonable or disproportionate to seek to provide them for both.”
The measure is about ensuring that the presumption is for providing sporting facilities for both genders, rather than simply providing them for one gender on the basis of history or laziness.
Amendment 304 is similar, but slightly different. Again, it has been tabled to probe whether the Government have a view on the subject and whether legislation has any hold on the unfairness that exists in relation to sports where there is full participation by men and women, but where international events are organised only for one gender. I shall use the example of cycling in the Olympic games because it is something that I and other people feel strongly about. How can it be that the Olympic games—I know that we do not have direct jurisdiction over the International Olympic Committee, but we must have some influence over the 2012 games—has a sport, in which Britain excels, where there is no way that a woman participant can get as many medals as a male participant? They have less chance of getting their particular type of race into the games than a male participant because there are simply more events for men.
That means that our superb women athletes such as Victoria Pendleton and Rebecca Romero can never achieve the status that some of our excellent male athletes have, because the male athletes are automatically liable to win more gold medals in events, even though there seems to me to be no discernible difference between the superb performances of both. I think that some of the women cyclists could have the accolade of being triple gold medal winning if they were given an equal chance. Does the Solicitor-General see any way in which we can in Parliament, by recognising that it is, to an extent, historical gender-based discrimination, ensure that at the Olympic games that we host there is no simple discrimination in that way on the basis of history or custom and practice?
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On the particular issue of cycling, I seem to remember—I am sure that the Solicitor-General will be able to furnish us with the facts—that the Minister for the Olympics updated the House on progress towards 2012 in relation to that very subject. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that some of the imbalance is historical. The International Olympic Committee is wrestling with the question of how to balance the events from a gender perspective while managing the overall size of the competition. I think that I am right in saying that some progress has been or is being made on that subject. I seem to remember that the Minister for the Olympics updated the House some time ago, but I am sure that the Solicitor-General will be able to state the exact position.
Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman may be right. I certainly raised the issue in a question that was not reached but was answered about six weeks ago. It may have been one and the same answer or a different one.
John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although I realise that there are forces who would argue against it. Some of their arguments are along these lines: more people want to watch such-and-such a sport, or more people want to watch men performing a particular sport than women. How does the hon. Gentleman answer those opponents?
Dr. Harris: In the end, that is a question for broadcasters. We have already argued, I think, that broadcast decisions are broadcast decisions and should not be subject even to the positive duty, but you’ve got to be in it to win it and it is a chicken-and-egg situation, if I may use two clichÃ(c)s—I apologise for doing so. Unless there are women’s events to televise, there is no opportunity for people to say that they want to watch them. I do not think that there was any evidence that in relation to the performance of our cyclists in particular—although that is just one example—there was any distinction between the astonishing achievements of the women athletes and those of the male athletes.
Legislation is not the best way, the only way or even necessarily an appropriate way to deal with the issue, but given that we are hosting the Olympic games in this country and there is that blatant unevenness—which may be based on custom and practice or history but which is not based on watchability, participation or any of the physical differences, because the athletes are doing the same thing in each case—I just wonder whether we can use this opportunity, along with the efforts of the Minister for the Olympics, who I know is engaged on this matter, to make further progress.
The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I can pray in aid my own very considerable sporting prowess as a member of the Olympics Minister’s five-a-side football team for women. We played the women’s national five-a-side football team in our first match. Their average age was about 30 years younger than ours, and that was about the number of goals that they scored in the first half as well, but then they realised that we were not that serious about it, so they started to let us win and we scored about 10 goals—football is a very good sport.
I know exactly what hon. Gentlemen were saying about discrimination in sport. It is very real. I myself had to get one of the sponsors of the Redcar half-marathon to threaten to withdraw the sponsorship money because the prize money was less for women than it was for men, even though it was the same race. That was, I am sorry to say, when the Liberal Democrat-led coalition was organising it; I am pleased to say that it is now back in safe Labour hands.
I appreciate that these are only probing amendments. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is really just seizing the opportunity to debate the issue, which is, I suppose, fair enough. The clause is about allowing separate sporting competitions where physical strength, stamina or physique are factors in determining success or failure. It is to allow for separate competitions where there is a point to that. Amendment 309 would require any organiser of a single-sex sporting competition, including, for example, a local pub, to demonstrate, if challenged, that it was unreasonable or disproportionate for them to provide an equivalent sporting competition for the opposite sex only. Amendment 304 is about sport governing bodies.
The gender directive prohibits discrimination based on sex in the access to and the supply of goods and services. Article 4(5) provides that this directive
“shall not preclude differences in treatment, if the provision of the goods and services exclusively or primarily to members of one sex is justified by a legitimate aim”.
That includes
“the organisation of sporting activities (for example single-sex sports events).”
Where men and women are both taking part in the same sport, game or other competitive activity, clause 188 allows them to compete separately. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is really quibbling about the way in which the clause will work. He is just seeking some assurance that the Government are doing all they can to ensure that the undoubted imbalance in availability of sporting opportunities is being combated.
Let me turn now to the Olympics, which is probably the hon. Gentleman’s real point. The Minister for the Olympics was also the captain of the women’s five-a-side football team. She was a master of tactics. At one point she shouted, “Vera, you are big; go to the back and stop them scoring.” She made herself centre forward—or whatever the right term is—and I said to the other teams, “You do know that she is Secretary of State and is responsible for grants to sporting organisations?” So she scored a few goals.
About a third of the 34 events across the 26 sports in the Olympics reflect some gender discrepancy. In the Paralympic sports, the figure is nearer to 50 per cent. However, over the past 30 years the IOC has made considerable strides. In 1980 in Moscow, women represented only 18 per cent. of athletes, whereas in Beijing it was 42 per cent. Change to Olympic sports is in the sole gift of the IOC, but the Minister for the Olympics is lobbying for change. She has asked UK Sport to work with the British Olympic Association and with national governing bodies to identify those sports in which gender imbalance exists.
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