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Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman made that point earlier, if not in exactly the same words then in very similar words, and Mr. Speaker was obliged to rule that the answer is no. I think that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the constraints that apply.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will doubtless know that the noble Lord Rooker has suggested that when such an occasion arises in this House, a certificate should be sent to the other place identifying those parts of a Bill that have not been properly debated or even debated at all. It would be within the discretion of Mr. Speaker to issue such a certificate in respect of the clauses that have been the subject of discussion in the points of order.
I am pleased with the scrutiny and attention that hon. Members have given this important Bill. It has been considered for a considerable period in Committee and it has been improved in significant ways as a result of its passage through the House, including in the addition of protection against dual discrimination, the extension of the socio-economic duty to Scotland, the limits on questions about disability that can be asked by employers when recruiting, and clarification of the pregnancy and maternity provisions. It can be further improved if the research that we have commissioned from the Equality Commission on caste can, as we have asked, be completed quickly so that if there is need, we can ban caste discrimination through measures in the other place.
The Government have a proud history of equalities legislation. When this Bill's predecessor, the Equality Act 2006, was going through Parliament, there were a number of calls for a new equality Bill. This Bill answers those calls. It sets out groundbreaking new laws that will help narrow the gap between rich and poor, place equality at the heart of what public bodies do, require transparency and therefore action to tackle the gender pay gap and outlaw age discrimination outside the workplace. In all those ways it will significantly strengthen Britain's equality legislation, which for the first time is brought together coherently in one place. It is what we have described as a "plain English Bill"-that is to say that the final version will have the legal clauses on one side of the page and explanatory notes on the other to optimise accessibility.
Ms Katy Clark: I welcome everything that my hon. and learned Friend has said. She will recall that I raised an issue to do with the Scottish Gypsy Traveller community earlier. Is she in a position to come back to me on the question of whether she believes that they are covered under the legislation by the category of race?
My understanding is that there is already a case about that, although at first instance I have not had an opportunity to consider it in sufficient
depth to answer my hon. Friend's question. I shall certainly write to her and I commend her for raising the issue.
Equality and fairness are the hallmarks of a modern and confident society. When we talk about equality, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we are talking about something that affects and impacts on real people. What we actually mean when we talk about equality is fairness-the principle that everyone has the right to be treated fairly and to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. The Bill moves that agenda on considerably and I commend it to the House.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I want to thank all hon. Members who have taken part in scrutinising this Bill at each of its stages. A Bill of this length and complexity places a particular burden on those who sit on the Committee, and I particularly commend my hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for the sterling work that they did in Committee. I believe that they have been able to achieve some improvements to the Bill.
It has taken us a long time to reach this point. It is therefore all the more disappointing that the Leader of the House did not respond to the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean that more time should be given on Report, given the large number of amendments and new clauses tabled by hon. Members from both sides of the House and by the Government.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend advise the Opposition? Given that we have not had time properly to scrutinise the Bill, is not the only option for some Members to vote against it on Third Reading?
Mrs. May: I note my hon. Friend's concern about the lack of time allowed to debate certain aspects of the Bill, but I am sure that Members of another place will be taking particular note of those aspects of the Bill that have not been properly debated and scrutinised in this House. It would not be appropriate to vote against the Bill purely on that procedural point. There are aspects of it with which I do not agree, although I do agree with a lot of it.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I agree with much of what my right hon. Friend has just said. Does she agree that much of what has happened in this House has highlighted the importance of the other place and the fact that it is not subject to programme motions?
Indeed. I note that point, and I am sure that it will also be noted by those in the other place who will scrutinise the Bill. My hon. Friend has raised concerns about programme motions on many occasions and has put his point most forcefully. It is a pity that the Government have not listened to it on this occasion and a number of others. We have always been clear about the need for a single Equality Bill to bring together and streamline the various pieces of equality legislation.
Given that there are currently nine pieces of primary legislation, more than 100 regulations and more than 2,500 pages of guidance and codes of practice, there is a clear need for simplification and streamlining. We certainly support that aspect of the Bill, which makes up the majority of it. I know that many practitioners and businesses out there will strongly welcome the streamlining of equalities legislation into a single piece of legislation.
Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman needs to check his facts. We put down a reasoned amendment on Second Reading- [ Interruption. ] The Leader of the House is chuntering from the Treasury Bench; had she given more time to debate the Bill, she could have chuntered from the Dispatch Box as well. As I was saying to the hon. Gentleman, we put down a reasoned amendment, and I am about to identify the aspects of the Bill on which we still disagree with the Government.
We support the streamlining of legislation, but we are not able to support several areas of the Bill. The socio-economic duty is indicative of the Government's failure to tackle issues of inequality and poverty as well as their causes. As we approach the end of this Parliament, it is clear that the Government have run out of ideas. I wish that passing a law to tell people that they are entitled to a better life would actually deliver that, but it will not. We want the Government to tackle the issues that cause inequality, but their failure to take the decisions necessary to improve educational outcomes, tackle worklessness and reduce family breakdown, all of which are key causes and drivers of inequality and poverty, mean that they are now resorting to this posturing with pointless targets.
In Committee, we pressed the Government on a number of issues, one of which was positive action in recruitment, and some discrepancy seems to have emerged between the understanding of the Leader of the House and that of the Solicitor-General about what the Bill should do on that issue. On Second Reading, the Leader of the House said that positive action would be allowed in cases where there were "two equally qualified candidates", but the Solicitor-General confirmed in Committee that the legislation would be "far broader" than that. We have consistently supported positive action on the basis that it could be used as a tiebreaker when there are two equally qualified candidates. It is a shame that the Government appear to have gone beyond that, and we hope to return to this issue in the other place.
The Solicitor-General mentioned pre-employment questionnaires. I recognise that the Government have taken the concerns about them seriously, but I still feel that they have not gone far enough. For people with disabilities or longer-term health issues, and especially those who suffer from health conditions, the issue remains of concern. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has said that people with mental health problems face serious discrimination in the employment process, particularly from the attitude of employers. We need to make sure that there is a level playing field for people with health issues, and in general we do not believe that details of an illness or disability should be required to be revealed until after a job offer has been made. As I said, I
recognise that the Government have taken on board some of the concerns in this area, but we will want to return to the matter again.
The Solicitor-General: I shall not detain the Chamber, but the clause that we have put forward now is stronger than the one proposed by the Opposition. It offers a solution, whereas theirs merely declares things to be unlawful and offers no remedy. Ours is the stronger measure but, apart from that, I honestly believe that the right hon. Lady is making a fuss about nothing and that there is not a cigarette paper between us.
Mrs. May: I have to tell the hon. and learned Lady that it was only after we had pressed them on this point that the Government were willing to make any movement. There is still concern about the matter outside this House. I am sure that the other place will want to return to it, and there are also problems with the regulations on age-related discrimination.
Equality is not just for the good times. We all want to ensure that equality and fairness drive what we do, but we must recognise that equality has been given a bad name in recent years, with many people thinking that it is something given to others and not to them.
We are clear that equality should never be the enemy of common sense. It should not get in the way of businesses, communities or the public sector, but instead it should help them to work better. That is the approach that we have taken, and it is the one that we will continue to take.
Lynne Featherstone: I thank colleagues on both sides of the House for their contributions in Committee and on Report. There have been some very intelligent and long discussions about the Bill, with huge consensus evident across the House. I should also like to thank all the Officers and Clerks of the House who have helped us, and me especially, as we have worked our way through the Bill.
My party welcomes the Bill and the way that it brings all sorts of legislation together. We oppose the Government on almost nothing in it, but believe that it should have gone further. I have great concerns that the things that were not included in the Bill, or in respect of which the Bill does not go far enough, will not see the light of day if there is a change of Government.
I welcome the introduction of measures covering age discrimination in the provision of goods and services, but fear that delaying them for six months could mean that they will not come into force. In addition, I am disappointed that the blanket ban on gay men giving blood was not examined further, but I am very relieved that the Solicitor-General said that the question of caste should be looked at again in the other place.
I am very disappointed that children will continue to face harassment in school if homophobic bullying does not receive the same coverage that other discriminations receive. In respect of people whose gender identity is not clear, I have never felt that the Government have properly understood the difference between gender reassignment and gender identity.
I hugely welcome this Bill but, for the reasons that I have set out, I hope that it will be taken further and that matters that we have not succeeded in getting debated
will receive proper consideration. Along with colleagues across the House, I deplore the lack of time made available for discussion, as it has meant that we have not been able to debate many important and serious issues. That abdication of responsibility to democracy makes a farce of any commitment to a different type of politics.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Although there are obvious differences between those on the different party Front Benches, the comments of both the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) have made it clear that their parties have an absolute commitment to equality.
I just want to place on record my appreciation for the work done by the Leader of the House in propelling this Bill from a draft to the stage that it has reached now. She has been a true champion of equality, and this is a great legacy for her.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Some of us have concerns about supporting the Bill on Third Reading, not because of many of its elements, which I support-my record on equal rights is on the public record-but because of the lack of time to discuss such important issues. For that very reason, I feel that I will perhaps not be able to support the Bill on Third Reading. It is an absolute disgrace that an issue of such importance has been given so little time.
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