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My only other point is that we are now faced with a situation in which all housing sectors are deeply dysfunctional, whether we are talking about social housing; private
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As a result, the real cost of social and private rented housing is rising because the pressure on those sectors is growing. There are empty new build flats in London while across the country 4 million people are on the housing list. Therefore, the housing policy needs special attention. I am glad that my former boss, Margaret Beckett, is taking on that task. I hope that she will take a root-and-branch look at all aspects of the housing market.
We need to ensure that the costs of adapting to climate change, particularly energy costs, do not fall most heavily on those least able to meet them. That is part of a wider problem. Green taxes can be just as regressive as non-green taxes. We need to offset any impacts of regressive green taxes through other measures.
An interesting article in yesterdays Guardian suggested that people are unaware of the inequalities in our society. Those on low incomes are not aware of the high incomes being paid in the companies they work for and those on higher incomes do not know what the average income is. That is why I strongly support the measure in the equality Bill which will make it more difficult to hide inequalities within companies. If the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, wishes to press for that measure to be extended to companies which have been found to have practised gender discrimination, I will support her.
The equality Bill is principally about race, gender and disability but it is also concerned with wider inequalities in our society. I hope that our very good policies on climate change do not aggravate those inequalities and that we are prepared to implement measures to offset any such impact. If the cost of meeting climate change challenges can be regressive nationally, it is even more so internationally. We need to avoid both consequences.
Baroness Young of Hornsey: My Lords, I shall focus on the equality Bill. As has been noted, it is appropriate that we examine this issue as we note the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights andas I learnt this afternoon from the APPG on equalitiesthe debate in Europe on the anti-discrimination directive gets under way. I hope that Britain will be a leader in that conversation and will ensure that our legislation complements that of Europe.
The equality Bill presents us with an opportunity to clarify an area marked by opacity, complexity and a degree of myth. I support the Governments commitment to the legislation, although, like others, I feel that there is much to debate. I am sure that we shall do so vigorously in the weeks and months to come. There are real fears that bringing together the different pieces of discrimination legislation will result in a lowest common denominator approach and weakened legislation. I have heard comments on this from those involved in combating racial discrimination and in disability campaigning. Some women have expressed the fear that gender discrimination, particularly the pay gap, will not be vigorously pursued. Others make more specific comments on that in their responses to the Governments consultation exercise.
There is a nervousness that advances made under the old legislative regimes will not be carried over into the new Bill except in a diminished form. Particular needs must, of course, be considered in legislation. Discrimination manifests itself in a variety of ways which are not necessarily consistent across all the different groupings. We need to achieve a balance between the generic and the specific. I can see that some people might interpret this as weakening legislation. We must be mindful of that. We can also see how complex this endeavour is. For example, we need to examine carefully how we tackle disadvantage and discrimination on the basis of religion. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark addressed that issue, albeit from slightly different perspectives. I look forward to a probing debate on that matter.
I take the view that our goals are best achieved by working together across boundaries formed historically as a result of perceived and real common interests and experiences to secure the best possible legislation. Even though it may be argued that there are qualitative differences in the experience and degree of discrimination and disadvantage between the targeted groups, and even though tactically there may be some advantage in maintaining divisions at certain points, it is more productive to combine forces to achieve longer term strategic goals.
These concerns about which sections of society might lose out and which might gain are based in part on a perception that there is a hierarchy of need or a deficiency model which sees the various groupings as having to compete with each other for limited resources. However, this is not just about perception. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, demonstrated, it is very real. He gave the example of the disparity between the pay of ethnic minorities and that of their peers, which seems to have dropped off the agenda.
These issues are particularly urgent in the current economic climate where it will be possible to claim that some initiatives are too costly and cannot be implemented in ways that we might wish because of the financial situation. However, fairness and social justice should not be bound exclusively to the present conditions. Indeed, it seems to me that we have a responsibility to ensure that the legislation enacted is fit for purpose for some time to come. I agree with the Minister that during such difficult times we most need
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Another important issue, which has been touched on, concerns the clarification of what is meant by, and allowable under, the umbrella term positive action. Such clarification is sorely needed. At present, this is an area of substantial misunderstanding and, indeed, ignorance. It is sometimes referred to as positive discrimination and/or reverse discrimination, often by people who should know better. I agree with the results of the consultation on the Bill, which showed a broad consensus, that clear and authoritative guidance on this matter is essential. There will be tough areas to address though, particularly if there is a move towards enabling employers to take into account under-representation of disadvantaged groups when choosing between two equally qualified candidates for a job. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said on that matter. It sounded to me very much as if he was advocating quotas. I am not in favour of that strategy. I should like to hear him speak further on that. I am sure that we will go into it in detail.
Many people have pointed to the level of seemingly endless bureaucracy being a real deterrent in implementing current anti-discrimination legislation. Public sector bodies that will have to understand and deliver policies will not be helped by having to fill in dozens of forms each time they need to implement a particular action. I hope that there will be scope for developing a framework which moves away from process-bound outcomes based on a ticking boxes delivery.
It is interesting to note that it was not so long ago that anyone seen as a proponent of equality of opportunity was caricatured as a member of the loony left or as a woolly minded liberal. Although today we have made significant strides towardsfor want of a better termmainstreaming equalities, there are still those who are unable to accept or grasp the significance and importance of a systematic, fair, embedded approach to equality of opportunity, even though the moral, business and human rights cases and justifications for attempting to eradicate discrimination have been effectively argued for many years now.
Often public misconceptions are fuelled by scare stories in the press and elsewhere and the bullying tactics of those who attempt to close down reasoned debate through the use of terms such as political correctness. This sloppy, overused expression is often called into play to denigrate notions of fairness and social justice which underpin the legal and other types of mechanisms adopted to help us move towards equality of opportunity. Accusations that equality means trying to make everyone the same, that every attempt to level the playing field constitutes political correctness gone mad, and claims that white middle-class men need not apply, are a common feature of popular journalism which serve to undermine the quest for a more equitable society. I am sure we can expect a litany of such comments in the press as we debate these issues in the months to come, and I hope that we will not be intimidated or caught on the back foot, or backtrack apologetically.
I would like to think he is right in that assumption but we still need to do a better job of informing the public about equalities and human rights. We are not talking about a minority, when all is said and done. This is not a minority interest where only other people are affected by the impact of discrimination and disadvantage. The majority of people will probably have been subjected to or experience them either directly or indirectly at some point in their lives.
What we are seeking is, on one level, quite simpleto be fairly treated regardless of where we come from and what we are seen as representing. I do not underestimate the enormity of the task which lies ahead but I look forward to working with noble Lords across the House to make this a truly effective Bill, enabling us to take another step towards a fairer, more equitable society.
Lord Mitchell: My Lords, I struggled with the problem of whether my speech would fit into this evenings debate, as it could well have come under the area of education. However, I am really pleased that I am speaking this evening because the subject of my speech is equality, and it dovetails with the very fine speech which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has just given.
I would like to speak about a project that I have been involved with on improving relations between Muslims and Jews. To give a bit of background, I became a trustee of an organisation called the Coexistence Trust about three years ago; it had been set up jointly by my noble friend Lord Janner and His Royal Highness Prince Hassan of Jordan. I was a trustee who attended the odd meeting and did not do very much. Last May my noble friend Lord Janner buttonholed me and asked if I would like to become chairman. In a weak moment I said yes which I regretted for a week but then I thought, You have got the job now; you had better make a good job of it. I am doing my best and actually enjoying it very much.
The Coexistence Trust set out to go around the world getting Jewish or Muslim parliamentarians in various parliaments to deal with the issues of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. My noble friend Lord Janner, in particular, was very successful in getting lots of people to sign up to this. When I took over as chairman I wanted to change the emphasis and to concentrate on the UK. It may come as a surprise to noble Lords to find out that on our campuses there are tensions between Jewish and Muslim students, and I felt we should address this issue. A meeting was held and I got into conversation with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. There seemed to be a great meeting of minds between us. We talked about how we could address this issue and the concept of a road show came into being, where we would go round various universities as parliamentarians.
In any conversation between Jews and Muslims, of course, the Middle East is the elephant in the room but we wanted to keep it out because if it stayed, it was
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We got together a group of parliamentarians, mainly from your Lordships House, but there were a couple of Members of Parliament as well. It was a cross-party group with Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Cross-Benchers and Labour Party Members. As well as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, the group included the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, from the Liberal Democrats, the noble Lord, Lord Hameeda Cross-Bencherthe noble Baronesses, Lady Afshar and Lady Deech, and my noble friend Lord Janner. From the other place we had the right honourable Michael Howard, who attended one of our road shows, and the Labour Member of Parliament Khalid Mahmood. I would like to thank all of them because they gave up a lot of time travelling around the country. It is not easy to give up time but they did it very well.
The format was quite interesting. We went to five universitiesOxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, Birmingham and Leeds. At each debate we had four panelliststwo Muslims, two Jews, all parliamentarians. The first debate was at the London School of Economics. I have to confess that I was petrified. I was convinced there was going to be trouble in the audience and that nobody would turn up, but it was packed and it was a very exciting evening. We all started by talking about our family backgroundwhere we had come from, where our grandparents had come from, what their experiences had been in this country and the prejudice and hostility they had suffered in their lifetime. Not surprisingly there was a tremendous commonality.
The issues that came up were interesting. We talked about being British Muslim and being British Jewish. We talked about integration. As a Jew I talked a lot about assimilation and the fact that the Jewish population in this country is declining rapidly because of intermarriage. To a lot of people that is a threat to the Jewish community. We talked about Sharia law. We talked about the way universities deal with examinations being held on religious holidays and the issue of food that is common to both religions. We both have some rather arcane and difficult dietary requirements that are difficult for other people to understand. Nevertheless, for observant Jews and Muslims, these are very important. Most of all, we talked about the real common threat to both communities of the resurgence of the BNP and everything that it is doing. Whether it is attacking Muslims today or Jews yesterday, it is the same people attacking all of us in the same way.
What was most exciting was that after the debate we generally had a dinner with members of the Jewish Society, the Islamic Society, the panellists and some of the university administrators. This gave people an opportunity to become much more involved and to talk about their fears and concerns. It was an overwhelming success. Members of the Jewish and Islamic societies who had never spoken to each other were exchanging mobile phone numbers and saying that they needed to get to know each other and understand each others religion better. That was very rewarding. Nobody in the room disagreed; nobody said that it was a complete waste of time, and that was tremendous.
We have posted a video of this road show on the website that has been set up. We are encouraging students to get on blogging sites because that is the way they communicate. Anyone who wants to can reference the website at www.coexistencetrust.org.uk.
I want to conclude by talking about a particular danger that we saw. At one ancient university a student said that she had been having a meeting with a member of the faculty about taking a day off for a religious event and the member of the faculty had said, If I do it for you, I am going to have to do it for pygmies and mountain people. That provoked stories of numbers of instances where members of the faculty had been less than helpful to Jewish students and, I would guess, to Islamic students, to women, and to people from all sorts of minorities. Members of faculties in our universities are able to say and do things that would not be permissible in the workplace or in schools. We need to address this issue to make universities a much better place for students to be in.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, it is a privilege, and it is rather frightening, to follow that brilliant, humane and thoughtful speech, which was totally different from anything that anyone else has said in the House so far. That is a great recommendation in a debate such as this.
I shall concentrate on the equality Bill outlined in the Queens Speech, a development that in general I value greatly. However, I have some concerns about the upcoming Bill stemming from a meeting with members of the Bill team during the previous Session, for which I am extremely grateful to the Minister who was involved at that time. We learnt that at that time the Bill already contained about 320 clauses. That is a matter of concern in itself, and I look forward to the Ministers reply to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, who was also talking about the complications of the Bill.
Meanwhile, I deeply regret the absence of a broad opening clause or clauses explaining the main thrust of the Bill and indicating how the managers or owners of companies could be confident that they were interpreting it correctly. I am sure that we are all aware of the frustration of managers, particularly of small businesses, in this country and how much resentment has built up over time as the barrage of legislation rained down upon them. Guidance is all very well, but
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The briefing prepared for this debate by the equality commission is helpful; the recognition that we need a simpler approach to equality, rather than the current mishmash, is core to the reform of equality law, and I welcome many aspects of what is before us. In particular, the newly defined public sector duty and the obligation that it places on the public sector inspectorates to monitor compliance are very welcome. So is the idea of using public sector procurement to oblige suppliers to improve their own equality practices. This is not a new ideaI remember it from my time in local governmentbut I welcome the greater emphasis placed on it by the Bill. However, I confess to having some doubts about the commissions wish to see a general clause,
I will spend the rest of my time on the matter of womens equality, particularly in the workplace. Women are not a minority group. On the contrary, they are the majority of the population. Laws about the pay and promotion of women have been on the statute book for years. Yet they are routinely evaded by the methods used, for example, in recruitment for promotion, particularly for senior jobs, and by rules which prohibit discussion of pay packets among employees. It comes as no surprise then that the number of women in senior or boardroom positions in major private companies does not reflect the value of their abilities to those companies.
At the same time, many companies recognise the need to move in a different direction, if only so as not to lose valuable employees. So the expected inclusion in the Bill of equal pay itself is welcome, as are measures to ban secrecy clauses in contracts. Legislation to enable representative actionswhat the Americans call class actionsfor equal pay claims is also welcome, if long awaited. It seems that the Government want public sector bodies to report on important issues, such as the gender pay gap, and they may encourage public authorities to achieve this via contract compliance. The equality commission also wishes to use other methods to end pay discrimination, possibly via equal pay audits as recommended by the code of practice on equal pay, approved in 2002.
The Governments framework document on the Equality Bill, published last June, gives an insight into pay gaps between women and men in government departments. In the Treasury, for example, the gap is 26 per cent, whereas in the Government Equalities Office it is minus 4 per cent; in other words, the women are better paid than the men. It reminds me of the comments by a Civil Service union representative who held a session with the womens parliamentary group some years ago about how difficult it was for women in the Civil Service who had children to get back on to the promotion ladderand therefore get back their equal pay statusparticularly if they had had a period
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Finally, I welcome the Governments decision that employers will be able to take positive action by taking into account the under-representation of certain groups when selecting between equally qualified candidates. This will apply to all the under-represented groups, and one of the cheering aspects of the framework for the equality Bill is that both the CBI and the TUC support positive action of this sort. In their different spheres, both organisations can exercise pressure in favour of equal treatment under the law in the very important field of employment, not just for women but for all the other groups excluded from full participation in society.
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