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28 Jan 2010 : Column 943

Equality Bill (Access to Information)

3. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): If she will bring forward amendments to the Equality Bill to provide equality of access to information for blind and partially-sighted people. [313703]

The Minister of State, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): Undertakings have been given in the other place to consider tabling amendments on Report. However, the existing disability discrimination legislation provides that accessible information for visually impaired people and others is a reasonable adjustment, and the disability equality duty requires public authorities not to discriminate against disabled people on the grounds of their disability. Providing accessible information for disabled people might be required to meet that obligation in appropriate circumstances.

Miss Begg: The problem is that organisations such as the Royal National Institute for Blind People feel that the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 to which the Minister referred are unenforceable because access to information is classed as an auxiliary aid and service. I hope that my hon. Friend will look favourably on the suggestion that the Equality Bill needs a separate clause to make these provisions absolutely clear. Will she also confirm that trying to solve this problem by means of a judicial review would not be the way forward?

Maria Eagle: The requirements of the current Disability Discrimination Act are enforceable, and they can be enforced in appropriate circumstances. However, we want public authorities to take a leading role and to lead by example in providing accessible information to those with visual impairments and others. In that respect, I hope that the House authorities themselves will consider whether refusing to allow a visually impaired parliamentarian a Braille copy of a Bill is really helping that parliamentarian to do his job. Should we not be leading by example in this respect? I believe that we should be, and I hope that the House authorities will reconsider that decision. [Official Report, 3 February 2010, Vol. 505, c. 3MC.]

Equality Bill (Age Discrimination)

4. John Howell (Henley) (Con): When she plans to publish the draft regulations on age discrimination as provided for in the Equality Bill. [313704]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): We aim to consult in the autumn on a draft order under the Equality Bill, which will specify the exceptions to the otherwise full ban on age discrimination against adults in services and public functions.

John Howell: I thank the Minister for that response, and I am pleased to see that the Government have accepted the concerns of those of us who served on the Bill Committee about the need to retain good age discrimination. Can she confirm that the exemption for companies such as Saga will be in the regulations, and not just in the guidelines?

The Solicitor-General: Yes, I can, and I am sorry that I could not do so earlier when I was asked to make that clear on Report. There will be a number of specific
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exceptions. There has been a very good consultation process on this. We had 106 responses from businesses, the age lobby and local authorities-indeed, everyone we could have wished to feed in did so. There will certainly be specific exemptions for financial services, and for age-related group holidays, which are obviously advantageous.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my young ministerial colleague not agree that it is totally unacceptable that anyone should be discriminated against because of their age, and that there is no justification for forcing someone out of work when they reach 65 if they want to continue in employment? If it is good enough for us, it should be good enough for the people outside the House.

The Solicitor-General: I volunteer to be the young Minister who responds to my equally youthful colleague's question. Obviously, we are looking as closely as we practically can, and as quickly as we can, at the question of the future of the default retirement age, which frankly seems unpromising. It is probably older than both my hon. Friend and me, and past its sell-by date.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), and given that the Equality Commission now agrees that a mandatory retirement age is discriminatory and should be outlawed, I should like to inform the Minister that there is an opportunity in the Lords at the moment to table an amendment on this matter. Will the Government table such an amendment to end the mandatory retirement age?

The Solicitor-General: It is prudent, when something has been a fact in a given piece of law in our system for a very long time, not simply to click one's fingers and remove it, but to consult and to find out what any unintended consequences might be, so that it can be done-if it is to be done-in a sensible way, after all the input has been considered. We have recently mentioned a date by which we expect to complete that process, and I hope that the hon. Lady will curb her impatience at least until then.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): I have seen as an employer, and personally as the years roll on, the value of experience. I hope that the good voters of Ochil and South Perthshire see that too. Does the Minister agree that valuable experience will be a building brick to get the economy growing as we move out of recession, and that it should be seen as a significant asset?

The Solicitor-General: Yes, I do-I am equally prepared to volunteer to be an experienced Minister. A number of employers are now seeing the benefits of having older people working for them, which is marked in places such as B&Q. They see enormous benefits in terms of good customer relations and general wisdom. I agree with my hon. Friend 100 per cent.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Is the Minister aware that a golf club in my constituency proposes to stop offering reduced membership to its pensioner members, on the basis of its understanding of the Equality Bill? Has it got it right?

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The Solicitor-General: No, it has not. I can write to the hon. Gentleman to set out, step by step, how it has got it wrong. But take it from me-it has got it wrong.

Government Equalities Office

5. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What information the Government Equalities Office collates on the gender pay gap for (a) full-time and (b) part-time workers. [313705]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): The Government Equalities Office uses data collected by the Office for National Statistics in the annual survey of hours and earnings to monitor the gender pay gap. In 2009, women working full time were paid 12.2 per cent. less than full-time men; women working part time were paid 2 per cent. more than part-time men. Comparing all women-full and part time-with all men, the pay gap is currently 22 per cent.

Tony Lloyd: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. In recent times, one disappointing thing has been the growing pay gap in the private sector. That is possibly a result of the financial restraints currently operating there, but it is still unacceptable. Will the Equality Bill have a material impact on that pay gap in the private sector? Is there any evidence that other parties will offer their support for that step forward?

The Solicitor-General: Overall, during our period in office, the pay gap has reduced from 27.5 to 22 per cent. We are passing pleased about that, although the Equality Bill is intended to jump that process up a lot of gears. Our proposals have not had wholehearted support from the Opposition, to put it bluntly. The proposals hinge on the need to make pay structures in business transparent, so that we can compare business with business, sector with sector, like with like, and see where the imbalances are. Only when such imbalances are visible can they be
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pushed out. The short answer is that we were not supported in that admirable endeavour by Her Majesty's Opposition.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Is it not ludicrous that the Government give tens of millions of pounds to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to lecture the rest of the country about the gender pay gap, yet the Equality and Human Rights Commission itself pays women more than men?

The Solicitor-General: I am groping hard for the logic behind that question-was "ludicrous" the word the hon. Gentleman used. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has had a lot of input into making the right measurements available so that the hon. Gentleman, as well as I, can know what the pay gap is, so that he can join forces with me to ensure that women are given equal pay in the very near future.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Let us get real about low-paid women workers. The national minimum wage has increased the earnings of many more women than men. Will the Government Equalities Office keep a close eye on the impact of a minimum wage on the gender pay gap for low-paid workers, and make representations to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to use the minimum wage as a key driver for equality?

The Solicitor-General: Of course the minimum wage has had an enormously advantageous impact on low-paid women, despite the best endeavours of the Tories to stop it getting on to the statute book. It will continue to have a good effect, as will a number of other proposals that we have. Perhaps the most telling fact is that the Tories will oppose all the steps we take to advance equal pay, even though it is clearly known that the most important single measure to get children out of poverty is to give women equal pay. That does not affect the Tories, but they still oppose it.

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Business of the House

11.34 am

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us next week's business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The provisional business for next week is as follows:

Monday 1 February-Motion to approve the seventh report 2009-2010 from the Standards and Privileges Committee (HC 310); followed by motion to approve a money resolution on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill; followed by motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill; followed by Consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (day 5).

Tuesday 2 February-Remaining stages of the Flood and Water Management Bill.

Wednesday 3 February-Motions relating to police grant, local government finance and council tax.

Thursday 4 February-Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Crime and Security Bill; followed by remaining stages of the Corporation Tax Bill; followed by remaining stages of the Taxation (International and Other Provisions) Bill.

Friday 5 February-Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 8 February will include:

Monday 8 February-Opposition day [4(th) allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 25 February and 4 March will be:

Thursday 25 February-A debate from the Transport Committee entitled "Rail Fares and Franchises"

Thursday 4 March-A debate from the Foreign Affairs Committee entitled "Global Security: Non-Proliferation".

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business but she has not actually been very forthcoming. We already knew the business for next week and she has only given us the business for one day on the following week. Can she share with the House her plans for the week after next?

Will there be a statement next week on today's conference on Afghanistan? While I am on international matters, may I ask once again for an opportunity to debate Haiti? Last week the right hon. and learned Lady said that she would look for an opportunity "in some form or another, for Haiti to be debated on the Floor of the House next week".-[ Official Report, 21 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 449.]

Given the huge international effort that will be needed to rebuild that country and the problems of rehousing millions of people who have been left homeless, surely this is an issue for which we should find time in this House.

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We are due to debate the Wright report on 23 February. Despite the Prime Minister's warm words at Prime Minister's questions last week, there is now widespread suspicion that the Government have adopted an approach that is simply designed to fail. Today's edition of The Times reports that we will be voting only on an unamendable order, which could be blocked by a single Member. Is that consistent with the spirit of consensus to which the right hon. and learned Lady has constantly referred? The last time a similar package of reforms was debated in the House, in 2002, we had a debate and then we voted on a series of resolutions on the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee. Why is that not an appropriate precedent for the Wright Committee? Will the House be able to vote on the resolutions of which the Government approve as well as on those that they do not? Does the Leader of the House agree with my suggestion that we should postpone the February recess by one day and debate the Wright report earlier than she proposes, given that we are seriously beginning to run out of time? Yesterday she admitted that she was not much good at reversing. Today she risks stalling.

May we have a statement on the release of material to the Chilcot inquiry? When he announced the inquiry, the Prime Minister unequivocally said that

Yesterday, Sir John expressed his frustration that key documents relating to the legality of the Iraq war had failed to be declassified. Has the Prime Minister now backtracked on that commitment?

May we adopt the Chinese menu approach to Business questions? When I say "No. 41", that means I am looking for the date of the Budget; when I say "42", I am looking for the date of the Easter recess. Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady very helpfully pointed us in the direction of Easter. We are getting warmer, but may I repeat that I am asking this question on behalf of people who work in the House and who can take leave and holidays only when the House is not sitting? Can she provide us with another clue today?

May we have a debate on how Britain is governed? Two reports in as many weeks from senior civil servants who have worked under Labour paint a picture of a dysfunctional Government, with a "strategic gap" at the heart of Downing street that allows Ministers a free rein to produce endless reams of unnecessary and bad legislation.

On behalf of Conservative Members, may I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for one thing and offer her our full support? According to a survey this week from the National Centre for Social Research,

Ms Harman: I am sorry that I unable to announce any business after Monday for the week after next-the reason is as follows. The Supreme Court has made a decision about the freezing of assets of those suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. As hon. Members will know, it is very important that we stop money flowing into organisations that will then use it for terrorist activities. Freezing assets is an important part of the armoury to tackle terrorist activity. The Supreme Court has given a judgment that the methods of freezing are outwith the law. We therefore need to address that
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issue, because we are absolutely determined that we should be able to freeze assets, but we must do so in a way that is compliant with the substantive law. We have applied to the Court for a stay of implementation of the release of those frozen assets to allow us to consider whether or not we can bring forward legislation before those assets are unfrozen so that we can put the law in order, but prevent the release of assets to those whom we think should not have them.

I am sorry that I did not have a chance, because these things are ongoing at the moment, to give that explanation to colleagues. A decision will be made at 12 o'clock in the Supreme Court to say whether it will give a stay of implementation of its judgment such that will allow us to legislate. I did not want to announce the business for the week after next given that it may be subject to decisions relating to information that we will not have until after 12 o'clock.

On Afghanistan, we had a debate led by the Foreign Secretary and closed by the Secretary of State for Defence last week. Obviously, the very important conference is taking place today and I know that the House will want to be updated. Similarly, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for referring to Haiti, which remains an important issue. We will look for opportunities to ensure that the House can be updated, not only about the work that the Government are doing-the doubling of the aid that has gone to Haiti-but about the £50 million that the public has donated and the very important work that our search and rescue teams are doing. I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman's request about Haiti, which I know is shared by many hon. Members, and I shall do what I can about it.

On the Wright report, the right hon. Gentleman has talked about "widespread suspicion". It is fair enough for people to be suspicious if there is something to be suspicious of, but he should not be suspicious because we are trying to be very straightforward about this. The Government have been very positive about reforming and improving how the House of Commons works, and we have a clear record of bringing to the House of Commons reforms that have then been accepted by it. We are keen to continue that reform by taking forward the recommendations in the Wright Committee report. The Government's preference for reaching decisions on these reforms is that we proceed on the basis of consensus, and proceed as quickly as possible. We would like to recommend to the House no fewer than 21 of the Wright Committee's recommendations. We thought it would help the House to have a full day's debate-as the right hon. Gentleman said, we have given a provisional date of 23 February for that-at the end of which we will place all 21 before the House under the Remaining Orders of the Day. I hope that some of them will go through without objection, as I know that there will be consensus in the House. That will probably not be the case for all of them, but let us hope that it will be for as many as possible. If there are objections, we are committed to bringing back to the House those motions that have been objected to. Resolutions will then be tabled that can be amended. At the point at which they are amendable, any recommendation from the Wright Committee's report can thereby be attached.

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