Equality Bill

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Mr. Boswell: The Solicitor-General has just used an interesting phrase, which I think makes the point that I am going to make. She was talking about discrimination being driven out of the health service. I did not want to interrupt her on account of the timetable, and I accept her explanation of why it will take some time. However, it is worth remarking to the Committee that whereas, as she has rightly said, age discrimination is good in certain contexts and bad in others, in my dealings with Age Concern and Help the Aged and with the interests of older people, it would be seen almost universally as a negative in the health service. In that area, although the issues are complex and sometimes expensive, it is very important that public policy moves on.
The Solicitor-General: I agree that it is very important that policy moves on. Just because I cannot give a definite date by which we can say, “It’s gone” does not mean that we are not starting now. Obviously the inquiry in the south-west is intended to be painstaking and careful and is designed to look at where the problems are, with a view to being able to drive them out more systematically. Even though the date for the ban coming into force is 2012, that does not mean that we are not starting. Public authorities are concerned to drive age discrimination right out from now. We hope that in business, too, the consultation process can throw light where light needs to be thrown. It may be that there is discrimination going on now that no one intends and that has no real purpose. We would hope that, even before the legislation comes into force, merely throwing light on its presence might help to persuade business to drive it out, again on the ethical model of how consumerism works these days, rather as I cited when we were talking about gender pay—they would want to look better for discriminating purchasers.
The discussion was interesting. I hope that I have been able to give the hon. Gentleman the answer to his new questions, which were slightly different from the ones posited in the amendment. If I have not, I am sure that he will tell me.
John Penrose: I am happy to say that the Minister has, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I beg to move amendment 206, in clause 190, page 135, line 23, at end add—
‘(5) All orders under this section shall be made within six months of Royal Assent.’.
The purpose of this amendment would be to limit the time available to Ministers of the Crown to make orders detailing the exemptions to the general principle of non-discrimination on the basis of age in the provision of goods, facilities and services.
We have touched on some of the issues that I am about to raise. The problem is that although I can see exactly what the Government are trying to do, that does not necessarily assuage the fears of older people that, should the strong powers be unlimited in terms of time, if the amendment does not pass then it is possible that some of the good things intended in the Bill will never come to pass. Governments of a different hue might put off the implementation of this brave and welcome step by the Government to end health discrimination in terms of age.
The fear is that any Minister at a future date could come to Parliament and ask for an exemption to the general and very good rule on non-discrimination on the basis of age. The problem with that is that, whatever the current hue, the Opposition are unlikely to be able to challenge the Government successfully, meaning that an order would pass. Clarity on the timing is not yet there, although the Government have gone a long way with their consultation paper in trying to reassure older people. I seem to be representing the fears of older people—Age Concern supplied the briefing and thinking behind this measure—as opposed to the business community and the arguments that we heard regarding the first amendment to the clause. Older people are fearful about the sort of discrimination that they have suffered from—as the Solicitor-General said, there have been 750 representations from that one sector. They are right to be concerned and they fear that without a commencement date, that discrimination will be brought back in through the back door, and this might all have been for naught.
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I hope that the Solicitor-General will clarify how the provision could be used for some of the issues that might warrant exemption, as it is hard to think of a legitimate aim other than that of saving money—that is the big elephant in the room, particularly regarding health. There are already powers in the Bill that allow justifications and exemptions to the general provision of non-discrimination on the grounds of age. Clause 13(2) says that direct age discrimination could be justified if it is
“a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.
I should have thought that that covered many of those cases that, as the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare said, are good age discrimination rather than bad. Clause 153 allows for more favourable treatment relating to age that increases participation, where that more favourable treatment is proportionate—again, that is good age discrimination.
It is obvious why we tabled the amendment. The first use of such a power would have to take place within a reasonable period of time from the commencement of the Bill, and we thought that six months was reasonable. In effect, that would be a commencement date.
How can the Solicitor-General reassure older people about ending discrimination? People can come to Parliament and lobby me—and hon. Members from all sides, I am sure—whether that is about insurance or health provision. I hope to be able to reassure older people that their fears are unwarranted and I look forward to the Solicitor-General’s response.
The Solicitor-General: With great respect to the hon. Lady, we will not be relying on her to reassure people at all. We regularly meet Age Concern and the age lobby. I think that they are on our stakeholder body for this matter and have been closely involved. I have met them at least twice during my involvement with the Bill.
Lynne Featherstone: I know how closely the Government have been working with all the older groups. They have listened carefully to those groups and have taken the brave and bold step of bringing age into the anti-discrimination law. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not raise the sort of concerns that remain outstanding among that body.
The Solicitor-General: I am not being in the slightest bit critical. The hon. Lady was saying that she would reassure those people, and I wanted to make the point that they are in pretty permanent communication with us already, and we will seek to reassure them. She makes the all-conquering point that what she calls a “brave and bold step” has been taken. There is the political will to stamp out age discrimination, but we must not do haste at the cost of accuracy. It would not suit Age Concern either if we did that. Therefore, I have set out the timetable.
The hon. Lady’s timetable is, frankly, unrealistic, and I invite her to consider that since we have made this step and declared our political will to ensure that the measure is passed, age bodies can be reassured. If it was said that we could only ever regulate once within six months of Royal Assent—we may need to amend things later anyway—that would be a foolish amendment for me to accept. She will have to be satisfied—the age bodies probably are—with our clear declaration that we will make this happen as quickly as we can.
Lynne Featherstone: I thank the Minister. The intention and political will are there, but we fear that the same political will may not always be driving the measure. That is what lies behind my amendment.
Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare made it clear that we support the principle of eliminating age discrimination. We welcome the approach that the Government have taken in the consultation document. The timetable that the Minister has laid out is sensible. The important thing is that she has made it clear that the commencement of the outlawing of the discrimination is tied with the exemption, so that both of those come into force at the same time. That is reassuring, not only to businesses but to those who will benefit from those exceptions. I see nothing that would stop any other Government from following a similar programme.
Lynne Featherstone: It is heartening if a member of the Conservative party is saying that there will be no resiling from anything, and that they will support the measure regardless of whether there is a change of Government. Is that what the hon. Gentleman is saying?
Lynne Featherstone: My anxiety was that such a proposal might never come to fruition, but both sides of the House have reassured me about that. I am therefore happy to take the Minister’s reassurance, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 190 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 191

Amendment proposed: 31, in clause 191, page 136, line 4, leave out ‘thinks’ and insert ‘can demonstrate’.—(Mr. Harper.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.
Division No. 6]
Baron, Mr. John
Boswell, Mr. Tim
Featherstone, Lynne
Harper, Mr. Mark
Harris, Dr. Evan
Howell, John
Mason, John
Penrose, John
Abbott, Ms Diane
Baird, Vera
Brown, Lyn
Drew, Mr. David
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
Griffith, Nia
Hesford, Stephen
Osborne, Sandra
Sheridan, Jim
Thornberry, Emily
Question accordingly negatived.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Harper: Briefly, I hope—[Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order.
Mr. Harper: Thank you, Mr. Benton. I hope that all members of the Committee can remember what the amendment is about—it seems so long since we debated it. I listened carefully to the Minister’s response when we were debating the matter—she characterised it as thinking in a public law kind of way, I think. I still thought that it was worth pressing the matter to a vote, but given that we now have the clause as it is, I shall cogitate on some further amendments to table on Report to put some controls on how the Minister uses the power. On that basis, I am comfortable to leave the clause as it is.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 191 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 24 agreed to.

Clause 192

Crown application
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Boswell: Briefly, the clause relates to Crown immunity. I simply wanted to invite the Solicitor-General to take note of certain concerns. While there has been a welcome practice in recent years under different Governments of gradually extending the range of the application of the law and minimising the amount of Crown immunity or exceptions, some areas remain. In the Bill, they include bits that were in the clauses debated, such as security services. I think there are good reasons for doing that.
All I would like is for Ministers, individually and collectively, not to stand pat on what is excepted for ever, if it ceased to be appropriate to except it. Moreover, I would like them to encourage their colleagues who administer those services with necessary exceptions, to, wherever possible, act in a way that is consistent and congruent with the Bill, notwithstanding their exceptional status. That should apply to, for example, the employment rights of people in the security services, as the Minister knows. I would comment on its—possibly negatively, in relation to the Conservative Government of the day—being a matter of great controversy in relation to GCHQ. I am just saying that as far as possible—that is for Ministers to judge, and we must leave some judgments for them—we should have things in the open. Where we cannot, and there are good reasons for that, the Government, as the employer and otherwise, should, if humanly possible, act within the spirit of the legislation, even if they are exempted by statute.
The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman makes a fine point. In so far as I am concerned, that is how the Government will proceed, and I hope that the rest of the Government will agree.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 192 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 193 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 25 agreed to.
Clause 194 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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