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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, my main purpose in speaking today is to respond to the Government's legislative ambitions in the field of equality. That should not surprise anyone. Before
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doing so, I welcome the three maiden speeches to which I was fortunate enough to be able to listen. They certainly confirmed that three extremely varied, interesting and able people have been added to our Benches, and they will all be able to contribute in their own way to our discussions in this House. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Broers, that I was not able to be present during his speech.

I also want to say a few words about the consumer credit Bill which will come before us at some point. As my noble friend Lord Newby indicated, we welcome such a Bill. The present Act is very old, personal debt has reached more than £1 trillion, and the ratio of debt to income is also at unprecedented heights. In recent weeks, we have seen very vivid examples of the way in which a relatively small debt can be escalated until it acquires monumental proportions with which virtually no family could be expected to deal due to the combined circumstances of occasional inability to pay interest and the claims of the lending company.

The Bill will be very important and it has been welcomed by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. That is not surprising because sorting out debt problems has become the single biggest job of citizens advice bureaux. That is certainly the case in my part of the world and I should not be at all surprised if it were true countrywide. We should like to see the financial institutions give just a small percentage of their profits to the citizens advice bureaux so that they are better equipped to deal with the very large numbers of clients coming before them in such circumstances.

I was amused by Martin Hall, director general of the Finance & Leasing Association, which represents the big lenders in the credit industry. He said:

I discovered that quite what that means depends entirely on the tone of voice in which one reads it out, but I shall not experiment in your Lordships' House. However, I think that I can describe the welcome as lukewarm at best.

I turn to the question of the equality Bills which will shortly be before us. I start by drawing attention, once again, to the fact that equality is nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with the success of this country in all its aspects. I shall restrict myself to what I know on the subject of equality for women.

Seven out of 10 employers agree that recruiting more young people of the non-traditional sex would help to solve the skills shortage. Yet only 15 per cent of girls and boys receive any advice on work placements in areas dominated by the other sex. At least 36 per cent of girls would like to try a work placement more traditionally carried out by boys, and 67 per cent of them would have considered a wider range of career options had they realised that there is a different rate of pay in jobs usually filled by men as opposed to those usually filled by women.

In the construction industry—an important industry, especially in recent years—38 per cent of current vacancies are the result of skills shortages, but
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only 1 per cent of employees are female. The best employers achieve return rates of over 90 per cent as regards women returning after maternity leave, yet only 47 per cent of women actually return to the same employer after giving birth. Many of those who return to employment return at a lower level. I could go on and on.

We are talking about a catastrophic waste of human resources which our economy, even after the glowing words spent on it by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, who introduced the debate, can hardly afford to lose and continue to lose. In fact, some of the indications to which I have referred suggest that, were there to be more equal employment of men, productivity, which has been extremely reluctant to grow now, as in the past, might actually be increased. Added productivity is one way of combating low costs in other people's economies.

Turning to the matter of equality and human rights legislation, in March 1997—I quote this because it shows quite a long gestation process—the Labour and Liberal Democrat Joint Consultative Committee on constitutional reform published a report looking forward to a human rights commission to advise and to assist people seeking protection under the European Convention on Human Rights. That was in 1997. Over the years that suggestion has been elided into the present proposal for a new commission to deal with both equality and human rights—equality issues as defined by legislation and the wider area of human rights. That is the commission with which the legislation will deal.

That combination has in itself been controversial because many practitioners and onlookers have pointed out that there is a difference between human rights in their broad sense and how they affect our ability to pursue our interests in the courts and the specific rights given to various groups and people through legislation. In many countries, including Ireland, separate institutions have been established for those two, separate matters. However, that is not what has been done here. It seems to me that the rights movement appears resigned to welcome the new CEHR—the combined rights body—in the form determined by government. We must hope that the modus operandi determined by the new commission will give the right weight and value to each of its major new responsibilities.

Another source of concern in recent years has been the worries of some of the existing equality strands that their particular concern will be swallowed up in a single equality commission. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, told us about the large number of different pieces of legislation that play their part in equality issues. I shall not go through that again, but if one looks at the different rights provided by these different pieces of legislation, it is understandable that people should have such concerns. The quite recently established Disability Rights Commission was perhaps particularly concerned about being rapidly integrated into a different body. At least some members of the Commission for Racial Equality were worried about the impact on their ability to serve their clients as effectively as before.
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However, after a long period of government consultation, response and reconsultation, it seems to me that those anxieties have gradually abated. Perhaps the very process of joint discussion itself has helped to break down mutual suspicions and to allay concerns. Certainly the same thing happened within the All-Party Group on Sex Equality when it considered these matters some years ago. Gradually, just talking, listening and thinking together over a series of meetings, changed our attitude from at least partial hostility to acceptance and even welcome.

I hope that a particular problem will have been solved by the Government's expected legislation. The extension of a duty to promote equal treatment from its current application on the race equality strand to the sex equality strand is greatly to be welcomed.

The Disability Discrimination Bill will introduce a similar duty to promote equality for disabled people. So the duty to promote is now becoming more widespread and more equally distributed between the major strands of equality. That Bill will also cover the extension of protection on religious grounds to include the provision of goods, facilities and services. In another part of the forest, age discrimination will also be addressed.

There are still concerns that a single commission will be administering a jumble of legislation dating from 1975 to the present day. Many of us would wish to see the creation of a new single equality commission within the context of a single equality law. On these Benches we welcome that legislation. No doubt, when the time comes for it to be presented to Parliament, we shall have constructive criticisms to make, but that is for the future. For today, I merely ask the noble Lord when he hopes to introduce those Bills to Parliament.

Lord Giddens: My Lords, I would like to comment on the Government's economic record on inequality and what has been called the opportunity society. Among the industrial countries, at the moment the UK is doing very well; it has a good rate of economic growth—better than competitor countries; it has a low level of unemployment; it has a fairly good ecological record; and it also stands up well in terms of levels of expressed satisfaction. In a recent survey, the UK came fourth out of the 15 EU countries in terms of how much people like living here. However, there is one respect in which the UK stands out like a sore thumb: that is on inequality and poverty. In 1997, the UK was ranked fourteenth in levels of child poverty in the European Union. It is consistently ranked low in terms of embedded poverty and multiple deprivation.

Sometimes this Government are said to have acted with an attitude of some insouciance in the face of those problems. That assertion is wholly false. One cannot find an area of social policy where some initiative relative to inequality has not been introduced by the current Government. The list is very long. It includes the working tax credit, the child tax credit, the pensioners' tax credit, the minimum wage, Sure Start, New Deal and a plethora of area initiatives.
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The Government have taken a different approach to inequality and poverty from previous Labour governments. They have insisted, first of all, on the primacy of economic policy over social policy. The issue is to create a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy and to promote job creation. These things are central to social justice, rather than social justice producing them in the first place. We must connect economic and social policy. I wholly approve of that emphasis.

Secondly, the Government have concentrated more on equality of opportunity than equality of outcome, although obviously the two are connected. That is important in a society in which we want to encourage people to develop their full potential.

Thirdly, the Government have decided—again I think rightly—to level up rather than to level down. We should not be seen to penalise success in a society that needs entrepreneurs and successful people. The approach has borne fruit. It is generally agreed that the best route out of poverty is to get a job and to stay in that job. The UK has an employment rate of 75 per cent—75 per cent of the active labour force is in work. That compares to an average of 64 per cent for the EU countries.

A prime criterion of social justice has to be full employment, and the UK has close to full employment. In the period from 1997 to 2002, using a relative measure of poverty—the EU measure of poverty—about 1.5 million people have been leveraged out of poverty; on an absolute measure, comparing, say, 2002 with 1997, something over 2 million people have been moved out of poverty.

Most experts in the field are agreed that the Government are on course to reach their target of reducing child poverty by a quarter by 2005. The UK has moved up the European league of child poverty from 14th to 11th. For some 30 or so years, economic inequality has been on the increase. According to the latest figures, this has now come to a halt. The Institute for Fiscal Studies attributes that to government policies. Economic inequality would have continued to increase without the policies which the Government have instituted.

Therefore, these are tangible and real achievements, and the Government deserve credit for them. However, we have to ask at this point whether existing policies are enough. Do we have a package of policies adequate to push us on to a new stage of tackling issues of inequality in this country? The level of inequality, the level of poverty in this country, which is an affluent country, is still scandalous. My answer to that question is that that is questionable. There are several areas where I think that we need further thought and reflection and probably have to look at existing policies. I shall list four of them.

First, our policies so far have probably allowed us to gather the low-hanging fruit. It is easier to get people into work who are on the verge of entering the labour market than it is to cope with people whose poverty is more deeply entrenched. I am not at all persuaded that the existing policies on the second phase of the child poverty programme, which is halving child poverty by 2010-11, are sufficient to get us there. We have gone a long way, but do we have adequate policies to get us
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further? I am not completely convinced that just an extension of existing policies—mainly based on tax credits, even when they are complemented by the investment that is now rightly going into child care—will get us far enough to a prime target which we must seek to achieve.

Secondly, I am in favour of the opportunity society. My father worked on the London Underground, and I know what it is like to have to make one's way in the world. But there are problems with it. There are problems to do with the level of social mobility in our society. My generation was able to move up the social ladder, largely because of economic change.

Over the past 30 or so years, we have essentially moved from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based and service economy. Thirty or so years ago, over 40 per cent of the working population in this country worked in manufacture. That proportion is down to 17 per cent. People of my generation had opportunities and were able to move on and up because of that structural change. There was not a lot of mobility where people moved up and down the social ladder; most social mobility was caused by the expansion of white-collar service and knowledge-based occupations. It does not look as though a comparable process of expansion can happen again, because over 80 per cent of the population already work in these new-style occupations. We might therefore have to work much harder to generate further opportunities for the new generation than we had to for the generation to which I belong.

Thirdly, we have to ask questions about the role of tax credits. Tax credits have been extremely effective. Most of the improvements in levels of poverty that I have referred to are the result of the introduction of the diversity of tax credit schemes to which I alluded. Tax credits have numerous advantages. They are not perceived as stigmatising by those who accept them. They do the important job that I mentioned earlier, which to me is part of what new Labour is all about—connecting programmes of social justice with economic dynamism. The working tax credit does precisely that. We should certainly not seek to abandon the use of tax credits.

How far can they go? There must be some limit to their usefulness. Tax credits have well known problems of complexity and targeting. In order to move further on a programme of testing inequality, which is where we should move, we have to look again at the nature of those limits.

Finally, the Government should articulate a more effective vision for what a more egalitarian society would look like than they have hitherto. The Government have instituted, as I said, a barrage of schemes to do with reducing poverty and alleviating inequality. Those schemes have been substantially successful, but they have introduced so many schemes that even experts in the field have trouble assessing what they all add up to.

I should like to see the schemes more integrated. I would like to see a vision of a more egalitarian society which goes along with a vision of public services. A
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good, solidary society needs a good public sphere. Investment in public services is therefore crucial to it, but why not have alongside that a commitment to a more egalitarian order, which is also part of producing a more inclusive and solidary society? I repeat: the level of inequality and poverty in our society is not acceptable in a civilised society. We must look to push on to a new stage of contesting the scars which poverty produces, because poverty scars our attempts to improve health, reduce crime and improve education.

I ask Ministers to take seriously the issues which they raise and that they give a commitment to your Lordships' House that these problems will be discussed and analysed with the intensity and depth which they demand.

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