Equality Bill passes Commons second reading

May 13, 2009 at 5:35 pm Leave a comment


by James Easy

The Government’s Equality bill got its second reading on Monday.

The bill deals with discrimination on the classical grounds of race, gender and disability.

Minister for Women and Equality, Harriet Harman MP (Lab, Peckham and Camberwell) is by far the Government’s forthright minister on such matters.

“For us, equality matters because it is right as a question of principle, and it is necessary as a matter of practice,” she told the House.

“It is essential for every individual. Everyone has the right to be treated fairly, and everyone should enjoy the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

“No one should suffer the indignity of discrimination—to be told, “You’re old, so you’re past it,” overlooked because of a disability or excluded because of the colour of their skin, or to face harassment because they are gay or be paid unfairly because they are a woman.

“Equality is not just the birthright of every individual; it is also necessary for the economy: a competitive economy is one that draws on everyone’s talents and abilities and is not blinkered by prejudice.

“It is also necessary for society: a more equal society is more cohesive and at ease with itself than one marred by prejudice and discrimination. So this Labour Government are, like other Labour Governments before us, a champion of equality.

“The Bill is not about turning back the clock—quite the opposite: it is looking to the future.

“It is backward societies that are marred by discrimination against lesbians and gay men, where women are expected to know their place and which are bound by rigid hierarchies. It is the modern and open society that can look to the future with confidence.”

The major issues that arose in this debate concerned firstly, areas of discrimination missing from the Bill, i.e. the suggestion that it wasn’t going far enough; and secondly the question of what lengths the Bill goes to in actively promoting the initiatives of positive action and positive discrimination by employers.

A precise example of what such provisions might lead to was shown when Graham Brady (Con, Altrincham and Sale West) asked: “Under the terms of the Bill, will it be possible for an employer to choose to employ a white woman rather than an equally well qualified black man?”

Ms Harman told us that “men still earn on average 22 per cent an hour more than women.”

Mark Pritchard (Con, The Wrekin) however, was concerned that the Bill was not really about equality.

“There is a contradiction at the heart of Government policy,” he said.

“Muslim women countrywide are suffering under the extension of the powers of Sharia councils…Muslim women are being discriminated against, so the Government have to change their policy otherwise the Bill is a complete mockery.”

Ms Harman countered: “There is certainly discrimination, and the Bill provides more opportunity to tackle it. There is nothing in our law that endorses discrimination in private contracts or private agreements such as those under Sharia law…”

Philip Davies (Con, Shipley) asked whether the Bill “will have any unintended consequences? Saga, for example, provides great services for people over 50. Will its operations have to cease?”

Ms Harman replied: “…this gives me the opportunity to reassure older people that justifiable, preferential treatment [such as that described] will not be banned…Unjustifiable treatment and discrimination against older people however, will.”

On the issue of race, Ms Harman stated: “We expect that the new public sector equality duty in the Bill will require more public bodies with more than 150 employees to publish their ethnic minority employment rate.”

She also stressed that the Bill will “allow political parties to use positive action to address the lack of black and Asian representation in political life.

The main elements of the Bill are:

* Banning age discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities or services and public functions. Things that benefit older people, such as free bus passes, will still be allowed.

* Increasing transparency in the workplace. If inequality remains hidden, we can’t measure it and make progress;

* Making Britain fairer through a single equality duty, which will require public bodies to consider the diverse needs and requirements of their workforce, and the communities they serve, when developing employment policies and when planning services;

* Extending positive action measures to allow employers to make their organisation or business more representative;

* Allowing political parties to use all-women shortlists beyond 2015;

* Reducing nine major pieces of legislation, and around 100 statutory instruments into a single Act, making the law more accessible and easier to understand, so that everyone can be clear on their rights and responsibilities.

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