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However, let me say a few words about Clause 1, which introduces a public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequalities. Greater socio-economic equality is difficult to oppose in principle, certainly from these Benches, and I do not oppose it in principle. However, what I would call the sceptical pragmatist in me raises an eyebrow about trying to legislate for it and the deliverability of this clause.
Many of the bodies involved struggle already to deliver their core businesses and to meet rising public expectations. Most of the bodies are going to have their budgets cut in real terms over the next five years and will be required to drive efficiency as never before. Adding to their woes with what many will see as a piece of tokenism is in my view ill advised and I believe that the clause should be withdrawn, as others have suggested. I do not think that it would weaken or do any damage whatever to this Bill if it did not have Clause 1.
I shall speak about the Bill's approach to religion in Clause 148, on the public sector equality duty, and to some of the related issues in Schedule 9 on work exceptions and Schedule 23 on general exceptions. In doing so, I declare my interest as a member of the British Humanist Association. Clause 148 imposes a duty on public bodies to,
Like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, I do not think that the Bill is right or sensible to apply this provision to religion or beliefs. This provision would be well outside the delivery capability of most public bodies. Religions and beliefs are not fixed or innate, unlike other protected characteristics, such as race or age. Claims can legitimately be made and argued about, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has indicated. Religions or beliefs are treated differently from other equality strands in legislation such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. They are a private matter and not for public bodies to meddle in, but Clause 148 encourages public bodies to do so.
I turn to Schedule 9. At present, organisations with an ethos based on religion or belief are given some wider scope to discriminate in their employment practices on the ground of religion or belief, more so than other employers, and are allowed to refer to their ethos to justify that discrimination. As I understood it, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, seemed to want to extend this, but I think that we should talk about narrowing it. As drafted, the Bill would apply this discrimination even when a religious organisation was working under a contract to a public body and was paid to provide
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Lastly, there is the related issue of religious organisations effectively being allowed to discriminate against service users on the ground of religion or belief when working under a contract with a public body and paid under that contract from the public purse. The Bill as currently framed allows that, even though the religious organisation cannot discriminate on the ground of sexual orientation, as provided for in paragraph 2(10) of Schedule 23. That seems to me to be a very odd contradiction, but it means that in practice religious groups that get such a contract from a public body could, in time, turn those services into ones restricted to a certain set of beliefs. That would be much more divisive than now.
I have been in the House for 10 years and, like other Members, I have received a large enough number of briefings from religious organisations to realise that my concerns are not fanciful. If we leave the legislation as it is, it will only encourage those who wish to advance the cause of their religion at the expense of taxpayers. I ask the Government to think again about the three issues that I have raised and to bring forward some amendments. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance on those issues.
Baroness Murphy: My Lords, the fundamental principles underlying the Bill cannot be challenged and, in general, I give the Bill my support. For me, the most pressing area of need in the Bill is the intent to ban age discrimination in the provision of goods and services. I note that there will be further consultation on how that is to be achieved. I have belonged to a number of organisations which have decided to subject their people to diversity training-I guess most of us have been through it at some stage-and Members will probably know that the most common outright prejudice is not sexism or racism but common or garden ageism. All my professional life as a psychiatrist for older people, I have had to struggle against NHS and local authority ageism. We desperately need legislation in this area.
The Government's calculations on the possible impact of implementing equality of access to care in mental health services, in general medical and surgical services and in cancer services, will prove extremely costly but it is well worth the investment. I understand the complexity of implementing these provisions and the need for further consultation but I am worried about the proposed delay. There is no timetable outlined and I hope that the Minister will give us some kind of timetable for implementing these vital age-equality provisions.
There are some very disappointing areas in the Bill. From discussions while the Bill was zooming through the other place, I had thought that Vera Baird, the Solicitor-General, had indicated her support for prohibiting the use of pre-employment health-related questions which are not directly relevant to a candidate's ability to do a job. Disappointingly, the Bill arrives unchanged in this respect. People with HIV, mental health problems and many disabilities find themselves asked in application forms about medical conditions, disability and medication. In the United States and a number of EU partners, such questions are unlawful.
We know that 60 per cent of employers will not knowingly employ a person who admits to having had mental health problems and over 40 per cent of mental health service users are put off even applying for a job because of such discriminating questions. A half of those who decide to apply for a job hide their history and I have to admit to colluding with some patients who decided to do this in the past by not seeking to intervene in the process. It is, of course, permissible and necessary to ask a person who has been offered a job about any disabilities which might impact on their ability to do the job. I feel there must be a middle way to ensure that employers feel encouraged to take on people who fall into these groups that is just and fair for both employers and job seekers. I hope we can work on this as the Bill progresses.
A further concern is the impact of a public authority's duty in respect of religion or belief. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, said everything I wanted to say about that and so did the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald. I will add only that I see a real danger of creating parallel, separate services for different religious groups, which lead to further divisions in society and to unfair employment practices. I remember my great shock, at my first visit to Northern Ireland services to older people about 35 years ago, on realising that, when you went into an institution in Northern Ireland, you either went to a Catholic one or a Protestant one, and there was no choice.
Here, we already have separate charitable institutions run by various religious groups and some of them are exemplary. Methodist Homes for the Aged, for example, are rigidly-and blessedly, in my view-an organisation which is an equal opportunities employer of the very best kind and accepts residents of all faiths and none. There are others, such as Jewish Care, which, for understandable historical reasons, have developed along separate lines and take people who wish to go into a particular sort of care, because they are Jewish. This I find perfectly okay, particularly as Jewish Care is also a very clear equal opportunities employer and its care staff, again, are of all faiths and none.
I have also served on a Christian housing association where we had a truly ecumenical board running it. We also had very good, strong equal opportunities policies. I am concerned, however, that the provisions in the Bill will make it possible for religious organisations to discriminate in employment. We already know that this goes on in some providers of public services. People who provide care services at home, where people do not have a choice, because the contract is let by a local authority or primary care trust, need to know
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My last area of concern is the clauses on positive action. In general, I do not have a problem with Clause 154, it seems fine to me. However, I have a strong objection to Clause 155, on recruitment and promotion, where it is permissible, the Bill says,
to discriminate in favour of an individual with protected characteristics. In practice, it does not work, mainly because there never are two equally qualified candidates for a job; there is either someone with protected characteristics who is the best fit and properly qualified, or there is someone who is not and who is given the job and somebody else who will be directly discriminated against as a result of the choice.
I am astonished to see Clause 155 in the Bill, because we have had ample evidence of the misguided application of positive action in local authorities, such as Lambeth in the 1980s, and in the NHS, which did not appoint executive trust and PCT executive board members in this way, but has quite often appointed non-executive directors in this way, which, frankly, has led to PCTs and many trust boards becoming white-male-free zones. I remember when many white male chairs were sacked from trust boards in 1987 and 1988. Many women and some ethnic minority candidates came in instead. Too few of them, at that time, had real experience of running large corporate organisations or had serious financial skills-there might have been women who did, but they did not. They were said to be bringing community knowledge and skills. We were creating corporate incompetence on a massive scale, which, I fear, continues to this day.
Positive action in employment is profoundly discriminatory because of this lack of candidates being equal and does nothing to establish confidence in women or people from ethnic minorities being able to do the job. This is usually a matter for allowing time so that those who have had educational opportunities and experience can catch up. Of course, we need to provide special development opportunities for people to be able to make the best of their talents, but we women and ethnic minorities should oppose anything that detracts from our being appointed wholly on merit. I look forward to the Committee stage of this valuable Bill and to some robust debate.
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, before the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, goes, I want to start by congratulating her on her speech and saying how wonderful it is to have her back in the House being well after her accident. She is greatly loved in this House, and her speech reminded us all of how we have missed her.
I, too, wish to congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill. I pay special tribute to the Ministers who have championed its introduction: Harriet Harman and our Front Bench in this House. It is a visionary, progressive and long-overdue piece of legislation. Social justice requires the eradication of all discrimination.
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Too much time was spent in the 1970s and 1980s debating which forms of inequity were worse: gender, class or race. The truth is that combinations of inequality are often the hardest to overcome. Lack of resources is so often the killer blow. So I congratulate the Government on the socio-economic duty, which is a brave inclusion in the Bill. It is highly symbolic, but one of the functions of antidiscrimination legislation is to be symbolic, so I hope that the Front Bench will not listen to the sceptical pragmatists in our midst. It has been my lifelong belief that greater equality is the material foundation on which a better society is built. In recent years, that became a very subversive thing to believe and certainly a subversive thing to say. I was never intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, although some people within my own party took a different view. The prevailing neoliberal fundamentalism over the past two decades saw financial inequality as an irrelevance at best and, at worst, something to be encouraged.
However, we now have impressive empirical evidence that shows that many of our social ills are directly linked to levels of inequality: from health and mortality through to mental illness, obesity, homicide and other crime. The research of Wilkinson and Pickett, which was published earlier this year in The Spirit Level, says it all. Almost all social problems that are more common at the bottom end of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies. The reason is that in societies where there is greater inequality, people are more inclined to feel inferior and less respected, and that in turn leads to all forms of social pain. We see it expressed in lack of trust in others, mental anguish, comfort eating, binge drinking, crime and antisocial behaviour. In more unequal societies, there is less sense of community and more depression, social isolation and loneliness. It is not just the poor who suffer from inequality; the rich do too because they suffer feelings of angst, insecurity and pressure. They too have mental illness and eating disorders and feed their fears with more consumption of material goods, which depletes our planet's resources, and constantly finding ways to cocoon themselves and their children from people who are not like themselves.
I am afraid that unequal societies breed anxiety and fear of the other, and fear of the other is what leads to discrimination. So what is the answer? It is a reduction in social inequality. The good society means the creation of a different, more egalitarian society. It means greater fairness between the better off and the poorer. Talk of equal opportunities is not enough. I say this to my liberal friends. All the rhetoric about meritocracy is a
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The National Equality Panel, which has been working on a report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is finding that larger income differences tend to reduce social mobility. Greater equality of income should be a national objective and a central focus of national policy because the social effects of inequality have truly profound implications.
It is to the credit of the Government that they are now legislating for change. I shall be supporting this Bill and I just hope that there is time to get it through. This is Labour at its boldest. This is Labour at its best.
Lord Ouseley: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the wonderful speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. I believe that she is one of the great heroes of this Chamber, as indeed are many who have contributed tonight. I am astonished by the wealth of experience that Members bring not only to this issue but to all issues that come before this House. The Equality Bill offers an opportunity to pay tribute to the thousands of people who over many decades have fought, challenged and sought to help their fellow citizens to achieve greater opportunity, equality, fair treatment and justice.
The Government have brought forward a worthy Bill. I praise and thank those who have fought to bring it to this House in its present form. It offers the basis for us to consider what is good and to reflect on all the contributions made by Members of this House in order to enable the Government to consider those and, I hope, to offer some amendments that will reduce the scope for lengthy debate and discussion that might hold up this Bill. Certainly, we will have to take account of all comments that have been made from a wide variety of experiences by Members to enable us to improve this Bill to the point at which it is enacted.
This is long overdue consolidating legislation and I welcome it. If it is enacted with improvement and, if implemented, enforced effectively, it will help us as a nation to bridge and reduce the widening gap in inequalities. However, in its present form, the Bill is hugely disappointing. It is defective in many respects and unlikely to remove some of the structural barriers blocking the path towards universal equality for all our people.
Having ignored the advice of many experienced individuals and organisations when they introduced the Equality Bill in 2005, the Government put the proverbial cart before the horse and created the enforcement machinery of the Equality and Human Rights Commission ahead of the consolidated Bill we have before us. That was a serious misjudgement, as the past few years have proved. But we are where we are. Perhaps light-touch regulation is now dead, in which case we can all celebrate. I believe that it is shameful that this Bill with its deficiencies is being rushed through in the dying days of this Parliament and it is almost being offered to us on a take-it-or-lose-it
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There are many positive provisions in the Bill. I welcome the extended protection against discrimination on additional grounds, although from what I have heard from colleagues, such as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, there are some difficulties that we have to consider and seek to overcome. It is flawed by some unreasonable and unduly narrow definitions, such as some in the case of marriage and civil partnerships which are to the detriment of cohabitees and those involved as couples in common law unions.
I would extend the same welcome and support to protection from age discrimination, even though there are flaws in the restriction of protection for young people, and to the comments made about special provision for goods and services for those aged over 50. We heard from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, earlier about Saga. I will not repeat what has been said but there are matters that have to be addressed there regarding specific needs. Those are promised in secondary legislation and it is hoped that we will see some of those in the Bill before it is enacted.
The importance of positive action warrants its inclusion in the Bill, but the provision and its likely effects in terms of outcome are totally exaggerated. It adds nothing to what exists now and is more likely to be counterproductive than beneficial. The provisions to deal with multiple discrimination are essential but why are they not applicable to indirect discrimination and harassment? That seems to me a ludicrous oversight and requires addressing. It is not for want of trying over the past decades that we have failed to narrow the pay gap between men and women. The requirement for firms employing more than 250 employees to publish gender statistics will contribute to greater transparency, but it will neither resolve this dilemma nor tackle the root causes of gender inequality in the workplace. A combination of light-touch regulation and political timidity are the main contributory causes of this lamentable scenario. I am delighted to welcome and support the provision for the employment tribunals to be able to make recommendations in individual cases which will be applicable to the workforce as a whole. It is hoped that this provision will be utilised by a body like the Equality and Human Rights Commission to use individual casework to push industries and sectors towards a broader application of best equality practices, using the power of enforcement in the way it is intended.
My concerns about this Bill are numerous but I shall focus on three which I feel can be addressed. Not surprisingly they relate to performance, implementation and enforcement relating to equality. I say those are the important underlying principles because I believe we are what we do and my experience has been right at the frontline of seeking to change institutional practice and eradicate the discriminatory impact on people from all backgrounds. The first is the public sector duty regarding socio-economic equalities. I see it as mere exhortation and posturing. It will make absolutely no difference to poverty and inequalities unless there
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In 1997 the Government inherited one of the most unequal societies in western democracies and since then, the gulf has widened in spite of all the efforts made to narrow it. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their recent publication, The Spirit Level, as quoted also by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, pointed to the fact that income inequality in the UK is now 40 per cent greater than it was in the 1970s. How will this Bill contribute to a turnaround in the fortunes of the poor? The newly formed Resolution Foundation highlighted that 14.3 million people are currently living in households earning less than the median income but above the level for state support. They literally are on the edge of serious debt all the time. How will the Bill help them? Our economy has been carefully regulated to concentrate wealth in the hands of the people who are already seriously rich and to make sure that the cost of the risks that they take as well as the cost of the rescue plans when things go wrong are borne by society as a whole. Such disproportionality is not acceptable in the context of equality. How will the Bill address this huge inequality?
The second of the three main concerns I want to deal with is that of the expanded public sector duty, which still falls short of what is required. On the point about public bodies, I think there should be only exceptional exemptions from compliance. All public bodies should be in no doubt about what actions are required to achieve measurable outcomes and the consequences of non-compliance. The continuing specification for public authorities to apply the discredited requirement "to have due regard" is no longer acceptable. "Having due regard" is interpreted as thinking about the need to tackle discrimination and equality, but having to do nothing to achieve it. That is how, in my experience, a lot of local authorities-many of which I have worked with or for-have interpreted or semi-interpreted Section 71 of the Race Relations Act 1976. They were required to make appropriate arrangements and did. They said, "We've made appropriate arrangements, and those appropriate arrangements are to do nothing". Many local authorities today, even with new, enhanced equality duties and public duties, still pay due regard but do very little or nothing, which the law allows. We cannot continue to allow the law to be so feeble. This is a very important part of the Bill. If not amended, it will continue to be a blunt instrument to push forward meaningful activity to achieve equality outcomes and eliminate persistent, deep-seated institutional discrimination.
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