HC Deb 18 June 2004 vol 422 cc1043-7 2.12 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 3, line 35, at end insert—

'29E Unreasonable works and alterations Nothing in the provisions of sections 29Ato 29D requires unreasonable works or alterations to be carried out on existing buildings.'.

The Bill is well meaning but controversial. Following Second Reading, which was some time ago, I took the opportunity—indeed, the Bill's promoter, the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright). almost invited me to do so—to contact some of the primary organizations representing private clubs to find out their views. Those contributions were very helpful. He mentioned the Royal and Ancient golf club of St. Andrews. In fairness to him, he was honest with the House in saying that it was unhappy with the Bill. I contacted the club, which had much to say.

I am sure that we will have the chance to return another day to many of the other issues that the Bill raises, because my modest amendment covers only a very small part of the Bill. Sadly, we have only 17 minutes or so to go, and I suspect that we will not get much past this amendment—or, indeed, past it at all. Happily, that will enable us to consider the Bill further and in more detail another time, when we can try to address other aspects of it.

The Royal and Ancient had something to say about the one part of the Bill that my amendment attempts to highlight. Indeed, it picked up on something that we had spotted on Second Reading. That is covered by proposed new sections 29B, 29C and 29D of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. The Royal and Ancient says: The layout of clubhouse buildings at many golf clubs is a further, significant difficulty. Considerable capital expenditure will be required in many cases to convert clubhouses to dual-sex use throughout. Again, given the poor financial condition of many clubs, the R and A believes that this also makes it desirable for provisions enabling gradual transition to be incorporated into your bill.

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We can return to the issue of transition on a future occasion, but we need to zero in on the difficult question of capital expenditure and the Bill's effect on clubs. So that we can orientate ourselves, proposed new section 29B is entitled, "Guests: discrimination by mixed-sex clubs" and says: It is unlawful for an association to which section 29A applies to discriminate against a woman on an occasion when she is its guest— (a) in the way in which it affords her access to any of the benefits, facilities or services to which other guests are afforded access by it on that or a comparable occasion, (b) by refusing or deliberately omitting to afford her access to any of those benefits, facilities or services, or (c) by subjecting her to any other detriment. That has confused some people, including some of the club organisers to whom I wrote. I am advised that when the Bill refers to a woman it also means a man. As we discovered on Second Reading, when I tabled a number of amendments to clarify the issue, provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act stipulate that when legislation refers to a woman it also means a man and vice versa. That is the even-handed and non-discriminatory approach one would expect of such legislation, and it clarifies the position in the Bill.

The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality (Jacqui Smith)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that references to "he" and "man" in every other piece of legislation are also references to "she" and "woman"?

Mr. Forth

In the modern world of gender neutrality, equality and all the rest one would expect to take that for granted. However, the club organisers whom I contacted suggested t hat the Bill appears to be obsessed with women. An obsession with women is rather healthy in us heterosexuals, but the suggestion was that the Bill was concerned only with the rights of women, not those of men. I am trying to be helpful by clarifying the Bill's provisions and the legislation underpinning them. When I refer to a woman, I also mean a man. I hope that that does not upset you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—you appear to be more than usually perturbed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. All that might be upsetting me is whether the right hon. Gentleman is straying from the exact terms of the amendment into something that is more akin to Second Reading, but I am sure that he has no intention of doing so any longer.

Mr. Forth

Certainly not, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, we are talking about the Sex Discrimination Act, and I should have thought that a bit of chat about sex was entirely in order.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)

So that I am not accused of anything, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. Will my right hon. Friend address a point that gives me cause for concern? As I understand it, the reference in proposed new section 29B(c) to actions that subject women "to any other detriment" could cover a case where a ladies lavatory is on the first floor and the gents is on the ground floor. The club would then be obliged to construct a new set of lavatories on the ground floor. Would that be considered unreasonable under my right hon. Friend's amendment? He does not make clear in his amendment precisely the scope of the word "unreasonable" I hope that he will deal with that important issue. What, does he mean by "unreasonable" in the amendment? Does he envisage certain capital works being necessary or none at all?

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend has me at a disadvantage. He is a distinguished and experienced lawyer, which I am not. I worry quite a lot when a lawyer of his distinction taxes me on the interpretation of the word "reasonable", but I have been in the House long enough to know, or think I know, that the word "reasonable" is a term of art in the British legal system —is it not? I am even more worried when I cast my eyes back and see that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who is as eminent a lawyer, is sitting beside my right hon. Friend, so I have two eminent legal brains sitting behind me. I should have thought that if my right hon. Friend cannot answer his own question, there is little chance of my being able to answer it.

Mr. Knight

I can see a difficulty in interpretation. Clearly, if a club has several thousand members, carrying out small capital works may not be unreasonable when one looks at the club's accounts, but if a club is very small and because of the passage of the Bill into law it has to carry out capital works, in the light of that club's turnover the very same works may be deemed to be unreasonable. I want to flush out from my right hon. Friend where he sees his amendment playing in all that, if it is accepted by the House.

Mr. Forth

I assume that when my right hon. Friend uses the term "flush out", he is referring to the particular alterations to the building to which he previously referred.

I thought that the wording of my amendment was somewhat clearer than my right hon. Friend suggests. When I refer to

unreasonable works or alterations to be carried out on existing buildings", I am not speaking about scheduled works or works that would otherwise be done. I am referring explicitly, in the context of the Bill, to the kind of works that would be forced on the organisations or associations by the terms of the Bill, unless it is amended by my amendment.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab)

The Bill relates to private members clubs that currently offer membership to both sexes but discriminate against women in their practices. That would mean that those clubs would already have facilities for women to use, such as changing facilities or toilet facilities. If any changes were required to deal with women or men who had disabilities, those would be covered by the disability discrimination legislation. The clubs would have to make the necessary changes anyway, following action by the House. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that?

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman obviously knows what his own Bill means. I can only go by what is stated on the face of it. I am seeking to amend it and the fact that the amendment has been selected suggests that it has relevance. We have not even come on to guests yet, and I have not got on to my thoughts on whether his Bill might force a lot of clubs to go back from being open to both sexes to being single-sex clubs.

Mr. Knight

I think the intervention that my right hon. Friend has just made is legally incorrect. The hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) is legally incorrect in his remarks. My understanding is that a private club does not have to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 unless it admits members of the public, so a private members club open only for the benefit of its members is exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act, but, for example, if that club hires out a room for a wedding on a Saturday, it would have to comply for that particular day with that particular Act. The premise of the intervention was wrong.

I was seeking to draw to my right hon. Friend's attention—I hope he will address the issue—not the lack of provision for, let us say, ladies lavatories, but the fact that under proposed section 29B there is a reference to

subjecting to any other detriment", so if the lavatories for one sex were up a flight of stairs, the club might be forced to put both sexes' lavatories on the same floor, which seems to me way over the top.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

May I seek to bring a sense of proportionality to the debate? Interventions appear to be longer than the speech that is being made.

Mr. Forth

I will seek to lengthen my speech to get back the proportions, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if that is your wish. It is not often that I have been encouraged from the Chair to do that, but I am more than happy to do so on this occasion. Let us get back to the text to find out whether that helps us to keep our bearings.

We are talking about a woman—or a man—when she or he is a guest and about the facilities or services afforded to guests. Of course that is where we get into the likelihood that is referred to in my amendment of the need to carry out works and alterations to buildings. Given the breadth of the definition, it is surely self-evident that benefits, facilities or services can cover a huge variety of different circumstances in the context of clubs. That must be the case at a large number of premises. I suppose that the facilities can range all the way from the obvious—toilets— which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) has mentioned already, to changing rooms and, no doubt, all sorts of other facilities as well. As was highlighted by the Royal and Ancient golf club, although the same thing is in the minds of many people, the problem is the likelihood that, if the Bill were ever to reach the statute book, bite and start to affect clubs in the way in which it is presumably intended, expenditure would be inevitably forced on those clubs.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con)

My right hon. Friend refers in his amendment to unreasonable costs that might be attributable to a club in undertaking material alterations to the structure. I put it to him that the use of the word "unreasonable" could subject those clubs to an endless barrage of litigation to determine that which is reasonable and that which is not reasonable. In the circumstances, instead of using the word "unreasonable" and bearing in mind what my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) said about some of those clubs having small numbers of people, might it be preferable to put a monetary figure on such things, rather than leaving them open to the lawyers to decide?

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because that could well be a very useful further amendment to seek to make to the Bill. I think that I am right in saying that, procedurally, as we are sadly about to run out of time, there happily will be plenty of time to table further amendments to the Bill for consideration on the subsequent occasion on which it is debated in the House. My hon. Friend has just come up with a very helpful suggestion to which we could return if my amendment, after due deliberation and perhaps even a Division, proves not to be to the satisfaction of the House.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

My right hon. Friend's amendment refers not to unreasonable costs, but to unreasonable works. The cost of the work may be only one of the grounds on which the work is unreasonable.

Mr. Forth

Ah! Again I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which gives me another thought: a planning dimension could come into play and a conflict could therefore arise. If the Bill became a statute and it were thought that it required alterations of a kind for which planning permission could not be obtained, there would appear to be a conflict between the Bill's requirements and planning law.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con)

Has it struck my right hon. Friend as odd that restaurants, village halls and other places do not face such problems?

Mr. Forth

I find many things odd in both the law and life in general, but I can only deal with the Bill as it is before us. Again, if my hon. Friend thinks that further amendments would be helpful, he will happily have the opportunity to table them for debate when the Bill is further considered.

David Wright

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that the R and A had contacted him about the Bill. Has he had any contact from the CIU, which is offering wholehearted support for the Bill? I think that the CIU would find the amendment rather strange.

Mr. Forth

Yes, I have indeed. The hon. Gentleman is correct: the CIU has indicated that it is content with the Bill.

Mr. Howarth

For the elucidation of the House, will my right hon. Friend tell me what CIU means?

Mr. Forth

The CIU is the Club and Institute Union, which is a very august and eminent body that represents what, in the good old days, used to be known as working men's clubs. They are probably now known as lifestyle clubs—I should not be surprised—or work persons' clubs, more probably, given their current attitudes—

It being half-past Two o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the debate without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 15 October.

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