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5.31 pm

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I apologise. I mistook the timing and I am sorry.

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I declare in interest as a commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

This Bill is extremely important. It merits the all-party support which has been demonstrated very clearly. It is part of a journey towards ensuring that we live in a fair society where everyone can feel good about themselves and have an opportunity to participate on equal terms and feel they can reach their potential. They should not face barriers over which they have no control-barriers due to prejudice and discrimination. In the United Kingdom, we have made some good progress in tackling many of the most blatant examples of discrimination; individuals and organisations now know that those who perpetuate this type of discrimination can be brought to account. However, chronic disadvantage and inequality persist, as we have heard. Half of disabled people are out of work and a Bangladeshi woman is six times as likely to be unemployed as a white woman. A child's postcode at birth is a reasonable predictor for their lot in life as an adult and our choices and chances in life are still to a great extent determined by our origins. This is not simply the product of ill will on the part of either individuals or organisations; it is a systemic bias and, while people may win individual victories here and there, progress will be slow at best and will depend upon those who make great sacrifices in order to take their cases through the courts.

The real challenge is to achieve a wholesale shift in attitudes, looking at how to improve our systems and structures in order to give everyone a fair chance. This is what the Equality Bill will enable us to do. That is why the duty on the public sector is of such importance. The Bill spells out that organisations must look at the evidence and examine their processes, finding ways of delivering for everyone, regardless of race, gender and the other strands of fairness in which they can live equally.

I turn to age discrimination. I welcome the measures outlined in the Bill to ensure that providers of goods, facilities and services-such as high-street shops, sports clubs, holiday resorts and doctors-treat older people fairly and equally. One example is that it is currently legal and normal practice for insurance companies to refuse to quote based solely on a person's age. This means that some healthy and active older people find it difficult or impossible to travel abroad to visit relatives, regardless of what might be justifiable estimates of risk or experience. There are examples in other sectors of discrimination against young adults. Older people are also denied access to some health services, such as mental health care. One in four people over 64 has a diagnosable and serious mental illness and half of those will suffer from depression. Of those with depression, 2.5 million receive no treatment whatever. One in three of us who reaches 65 will die of dementia. The Bill will ensure that dementia is recognised as a health issue as well as requiring social care.

Some issues, however, remain outstanding. For example, the mandatory retirement age will put age discrimination legislation on an equal footing with the other equality strands and make the law simpler and clearer for both employee and employers. We need this to be achieved in the lifetime of this Parliament. Being

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forced to stand down from a job because of your age rather than your ability is one of the most blatant forms of discrimination that older people face.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that homophobic bullying in schools must also be addressed and be part of this Bill. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, that the Bill must address the real causes of inequality and ensure real and genuine outcomes. It is your Lordships' role to ensure that that is built into the Bill.

I am anxious that this Bill, which is so important, does not get lost. We could try to make it perfect by debating it for a long time. It was subject to a lot of consultation in the discrimination law review. If we lose this Bill, whatever Government are elected at the next election, it will take several years before we get another opportunity like this. Measures in the Bill, which is better than some of us feared, have also been subject to amendment, particularly regarding disability. It is key therefore to ensure that the measures pass, subject to your Lordships' careful scrutiny, but not at the risk of running out of time.

The Bill will help us to celebrate differences and to value others, both for themselves and for the contribution they can make to society. We all need to pull together at a time of great economic difficulties. The Bill deserves our wholehearted support.

5.37 pm

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I welcome and support the introduction of this Bill, which not only harmonises all the current pieces of legislation but also provides new principles further to progress equality across all strands, as disadvantage and inequalities still exist.

I congratulate all those who have had the responsibility for pulling this Bill together and for overcoming the complexities and anomalies of the legislation currently on the statute book and so making it easier for everyone-individuals, service providers and employers-to understand their rights under the law.

As chair of the Women's National Commission, an interest I declare, I and the commissioners have had the privilege of discussing aspects of the Bill with a great many stakeholders, the vast majority of whom are genuinely supportive of the outcome of this Bill. I do not intend to set out the case for the Bill, because my noble friend the Leader of the House did that so well, but I should like to look practically at some of the key aspects of the Bill, starting with the three clauses that were inserted in the other place. The new provision for dual discrimination in Clause 14, which addresses people experiencing discrimination because of a combination of characteristics, is opposed by the CBI which believes that the inclusion in the Bill of the clause is burdensome for employers. However, its arguments are not valid, either in substance or in principle. What is important is precise legislation to deal with discrimination that people experience.

The new Clause 40 responds to concerns about pre-employment health questionnaires which effectively allow employers to weed out candidates with medical conditions, including HIV. As chair of the Independent

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Advisory Group for Sexual Health and HIV, this is of particular concern to me. While the new clause is helpful, in that it provides a clearer pathway to a tribunal for people with disabilities, it still does not preclude employers asking questions and discriminating against applicants on health grounds. Thus there remains the "fear of discrimination" factor that many people affected by HIV or mental illness have highlighted.

I greatly welcome the Bill making it unlawful to treat a woman unfavourably because of maternity and pregnancy, but until the noble Lord, Lord Lester, spoke I had not appreciated that under Clause 84(c) it will be legal for a school to expel a student on the basis of her pregnancy. I ask my noble friend for clarification, because surely that cannot be right. Also on schools, it is alleged, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said, that Clause 82(10) will allow schools to harass pupils on grounds of gender re-assignment, religion or belief, or sexual orientation. There is considerable evidence of this. School pupils are a captive population in the classroom, so surely they must be protected even more. This clause has caused great concern among the people involved, and I fail to understand what good purpose is served by allowing it to remain unamended.

As my noble friend said, the importance of the public equality duty cannot be overstated, but, in working the new duty, it is important that the beneficial aspects of the gender duty are not lost in harmonisation. The gender duty has provided a legislative framework for women to hold public bodies to account, and, as women invariably make up the majority across all the equality strands, it is vital that a gender perspective is prominent across all the grounds.

Clause 148(5) is particularly important in that compliance with the duties involves treating some people more favourably than others. This is a counter to the widespread misconception that equality means treating everyone the same, which has had a detrimental effect on women-only services. However, for the new duty to be effective there has to be greater awareness and understanding of how it will work.

The public sector, as has been said, spends £175 billion a year on goods and services. As the CBI says, public procurement is a useful lever to promote equality and other social goals. That is absolutely right. It can also lead to good pay practices, which brings me to the question of pay. As other noble Lords have said, after nearly 40 years of the Equal Pay Act, the gender pay gap remains, but the elimination of the pay gap relies on a package of measures: pay audits, transparency, representative action and hypothetical comparators.

On mandatory pay audits, views differ: from those that oppose to those that call for their instant introduction. Clause 78 attempts to balance those two views, and although I support it in principle, I should say to my noble friend that 2013 is an awfully long way off and a tighter timetable may be needed.

Currently 30 per cent of employers insist on a secrecy clause in employment contracts. The introduction of transparency and the right to discuss one's pay with a colleague are important and can make employers consider their pay structure before an equal pay claim is made. However, I again ask my noble friend for a

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definition of "colleague". Who is included in the clause? It is impossible to achieve equal pay, particularly for women in low paid, undervalued work, unless there is a comparator in the same employment who is treated differently. Again, I must ask why equal pay is the only area of discrimination law in which a hypothetical comparator cannot apply.

While the Bill helpfully extends the role of employment tribunals to make recommendations in discrimination cases that benefit the whole workforce, it goes only part of the way. Representative action has been demanded for many years. I appreciate that the Ministry of Justice is looking at this issue, but this should not preclude the inclusion of representative action in the Bill.

In conclusion, I shall refer very briefly to two other issues. The first issue relates to positive action. The value of a diverse workforce is beyond question and is accepted by employers. These provisions will not only promote positive action but clarify the current confusion arising from the existing plethora of different rules about when positive action can be used. It would be a retrograde step if the principle of this clause were not accepted. The second issue relates to a purpose clause. Although the Government do not support the idea that a purpose clause is needed in this Bill as it was in the Children Bill, such a clause at the beginning of the Bill that stated the goals and fundamental principles would be a useful tool for those who apply the law in practice. It would prevent misinterpretation of the legislation, thereby strengthening protection for all groups. For that reason, I ask the Government to reconsider the matter and think about a purpose clause.

I have been able only to scratch the surface of some of the clauses of this important Bill. I have raised a number of queries which the Government may not feel able to respond to positively, but this Bill is not about rhetoric but about a real, practical advancement towards equality. I fundamentally believe that, in the name of equality, it is crucial that the Bill is carried in its entirety, and I wish it a speedy passage through your Lordships' House.

5.45 pm

Baroness O'Cathain: There are many issues in this Bill, but I intend to concentrate on two: religious freedom and the process of scrutiny of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, stated that faith is not an immutable characteristic. This is untrue, particularly in my case. I know that I could never change my faith, and there are many millions with the same view. Let us not forget that many have gone to the stake for it over the ages. This is the time of year when our country's Christian heritage is most obvious. Many of us will participate in carol services and other services, proudly watching grandchildren, children and godchildren taking part in nativity plays, all celebrating the great news of the birth of the saviour Christ.

This country recognises the unique place of the Christian faith in its national life not just at Christmas but every day. There are many examples of this, including daily prayers here in Parliament, memorial services around the country, and church schools, which continue to be popular with Christian and non-Christian parents

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alike. However, the Christian majority in this country is renowned for being the vast silent majority. Our voice is not strong enough and is not heard often enough. We certainly punch way below our weight. This struck me forcibly on Sunday when I read the interview with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Sunday Telegraph. His observations were wholly accurate. He said:

"The trouble with a lot of government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it's an eccentricity, it's practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities ... The effect is to de-normalise faith, to intensify the perception that faith is not part of our bloodstream".

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester warned recently that Britain is increasingly becoming,

The past 12 months alone have seen several disturbing cases of Christians suffering unjust treatment for their religious beliefs. They have been mentioned in the press and include a nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient, a Christian care home stripped of £13,000 of public funding by Brighton council, and a hostel support worker suspended for discussing Christian beliefs with a colleague. Many more, of course, go unreported. What do these cases have in common? The Christians involved have all suffered in the name of "equality and diversity". Supporters of this agenda may have noble intentions, including a desire to protect Christians, but it is now apparent that all too often it becomes a tool for punishing them.

Equality laws have created some of the worst injustice. The case of the Christian care home in Brighton, which I have just mentioned, was motivated by the 2007 sexual orientation regulations. These same regulations have forced several Roman Catholic adoption agencies to close; yet these are the very agencies that accounted for one-third of all voluntary sector adoptions. Their contribution to our society has been huge.

Christian principles have woven the fabric of our democracy: the belief in the unique worth of every person, freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of speech. The rule of law in this country is based on the principle of equality in the eyes of God. Parliament and the judiciary have upheld these principles for centuries. All our constitutional freedoms have developed from Christian principles. Throughout history Christians have been at the forefront of humanitarian efforts. We heard about the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York going to Cumbria and sorting out problems for people involved in the floods. That is not religious preaching or liturgy; it is pure humanitarianism.

Christians have also been at the forefront of establishing education and welfare projects in all parts of the world, and have led the way in the abolition of slavery. All this is real equality. In our own age, Christian groups are working so hard to free trafficked women and those who have been forced into prostitution, as I have already said in a debate in this House. Why are Christians being increasingly marginalised in Britain in 2009? Poring over the evidence, I have no doubt that the equality and diversity agenda lies near the heart of the problem.

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Yet today we are considering this huge, all-embracing and cumbersome Equality Bill. This is the biggest piece of equality legislation ever put before Parliament, and in the current culture I fear that it could serve to make things worse. I believe that, for Christian freedom, it is the single most damaging Bill to come before the House in my 18 years as a Member.

I am deeply concerned about another aspect affecting this Bill; namely, the scrutiny process. In 18 years the scrutiny of legislation in the Commons has diminished significantly, and I am not the first person to make that statement. There was a problem with the Coroners and Justice Bill there when murder was not even considered. Despite what the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said-that the Bill was well scrutinised in the House of Commons-five and a half hours on the Floor of the House to have both Report stage and Third Reading together does not equate with good scrutiny. The Bill caused uproar in the Commons. The Government appeared to renege on an offer to discuss with the opposition parties how much time would be given to debate the Bill. Just one day was allocated for the remaining stages despite more than 200 amendments having been tabled. As a result, the guillotine fell part way through the second of seven groupings, before the Minister had even begun responding to the debate.

More than half of over 200 amendments that had been selected by the Speaker went undebated. Only those in the first group actually got a response from the Minister at the Dispatch Box. Even today, on the first occasion that I have taken part in a Second Reading debate, we have been asked to limit our contributions. This is a Second Reading debate, not a timed debate. I believe that there is some ulterior motive in all of this. Last week a meeting was held by the Leader of the House and the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, at which groups concerned with the Bill were told not to put down amendments, not to provoke long discussions and not to make interventions, because the Government wanted to curtail the Committee stage of the Bill.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: That is not so.

Baroness O'Cathain: May I continue? I shall write to the noble Baroness.

Apparently the Government have been advised by the Whips that a Bill of this size should require eight or nine Committee days, but they want to cut it down to four or five. I believe that that is totally unacceptable. We will not be able to hold our heads up in terms of scrutinising Bills by pandering to the Government's perfected art, shown in the Commons, of limiting scrutiny. In the interests of avoiding further undermining of Christianity in this country and avoiding injustice, I beg noble Lords to stand their ground and put down as many amendments as they feel they need to do for the Committee stage.

We are dealing with the vital issue of religious liberty and free speech. In addition, I believe that the Bill puts a huge, expensive bureaucratic burden on business and charitable organisations, which, at a time of severe recession, is inexcusable. I ask your Lordships to think seriously about this. The other place does not appear to care about ever-increasing bureaucratic regulation.

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Some of the Bill's provisions are not controversial and are widely supported, yet in my view any positives in the Bill are surely outweighed by the negatives I have discussed. The problems I have mentioned so far are caused by existing equality law. So even if the Bill confined itself to consolidating current law, it would not enjoy my support. The examples of adoption agencies and care homes show that the present law is unjust and must be remedied. The Bill continues that injustice. In debates on the earlier 2005 Equality Bill I moved amendments to protect freedom of conscience for those in business. The Government disagreed, and Schedule 23 to the new Bill continues the policy of giving no protection in this area.

However, the present Bill goes much further. Part 11 introduces public sector equality duties so all-encompassing that the implications could be vast. What are public bodies going to make of a duty to promote religion and a duty to promote sexual orientation? As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, even the BBC and Channel 4 have voiced fears. The Bill would drastically limit the freedom of churches and religious organisations to choose to employ people, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has said. It significantly narrows the existing exception which allows churches to refuse a post to those whose lifestyles are incompatible with Church doctrine. It could mean that churches are left without protection even for clergy posts. Leading employment lawyer and author John Bowers QC confirms this position. The Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and many other religious groups, not only Christian, are very alarmed. Losing the right to choose a church minister who shares their beliefs would strike at the heart of freedom of association for religious believers. The exemption which has existed until now must be maintained.

The implications of the Bill are far too great for it to be rammed through Parliament before the impending general election. I fear that this is the hidden agenda of the Government in view of the comments I have already alluded to concerning the restriction of amendments.

On careful reflection, I believe that equality is morphing into an ideology hostile to the Christian faith. I accept that many Members of this House never intended this to happen, but at grass roots level the equality and diversity agenda is causing increasingly severe problems for Christians in many walks of life; at work and at school, in the media and in the public sphere. The evidence therefore shows that we must make major amendments to the Bill to meet these concerns, or call a halt to it altogether until a solution is found.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Noble Lords will forgive me if I set the record straight. Every meeting I have in this House is open and transparent. I would not do anything of which I was ashamed. We are not trying to ram this Bill through. There is no hidden agenda. I have had a series of meetings with noble Lords on all sides of the House. I have explained that, if noble Lords wished to have a Bill-and the vast majority in this Chamber do-timing is extremely tight. I do not wish to curtail scrutiny. I have never said that noble Lords should not put down any amendments which

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they wish to put down. I have merely pointed out that, if they wish to have the Bill, they should not put down amendments that bear no relation to the Bill; they should focus their amendments very carefully. I am not ramming the Bill through; I am not seeking to curtail any scrutiny.

Baroness O'Cathain: I must say to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House that I have nothing but admiration for her. The way it was reported to me was: not to put down amendments which might be not tangential to the Bill. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding. I shall go back to my source and find out. I do not want to impugn anything like this on the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, but it was part of a very serious conversation I had and I will give you chapter and verse.

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