HC Deb 14 May 2004 vol 421 cc612-29

Order for Second Reading read.

12.10 pm
David Wright (Telford)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am somewhat surprised and delighted to find that we are having a Second Reading debate on this very important Bill. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will join me in the debate, and I will be delighted to joust with him. This is an important Bill, which the right hon. Gentleman has described as riddled with political correctness. I am delighted to receive that accolade.

I follow in the distinguished footsteps of several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), who was one of the first to try to take such a Bill through the House. He had a number of difficulties with his membership of the Carlton club, and threatened to resign if it did not grant his wife equal treatment on occasions when they could both attend events. True to his word, he resigned from the club six months later. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) attempted to introduce such a Bill, but it did not receive a Second Reading. I am indebted also to Lord Falconer, who has tried to move the issue forward in the other place.

This is a simple and short Bill, whose objective is to remove sex discrimination in clubs and other private associations. The main culprits are often golf clubs, working men's clubs and social clubs that do not allow women members to use their facilities on an equal basis. They purport to offer equal membership in many cases, but fail to deliver. Along the journey of the private Member's Bill, I have heard some terrible stories about the practices employed by a number of clubs. Many golf clubs, for example, offer only restricted membership for women and restrict the times at which they can play, sometimes not allowing them to play at weekends. They also restrict the areas in which women can socialise in clubs. That is totally unacceptable in this day and age.

I wrote to the Royal and Ancient golf club of St. Andrews as part of this process, it being the guiding light in terms of golf and its rules. It has responded to me, saying that the principles behind the Bill are important but that it did not support its provisions. I was somewhat disappointed by that, although it suggested that if the Bill made no further progress, it would have a look at codes of guidance for golf clubs. I will take it up on that offer—although we will not need that, as I am sure that the Bill will pass all its parliamentary stages and reach the statute book. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will agree with me on that.

I have talked to a number of people involved in social clubs throughout the midlands and the north of England, where such clubs are very popular. There are some 3,000 that operate discriminatory practices in relation to women. I have seen some terrible examples: women being excluded from particular parts of the club during parts of the evening; women being asked to leave the club so that men could have a meeting; women being asked to stand silently at the bar on certain evenings so

that they could not participate fully in the functions and activities of the club. That is not acceptable practice by clubs that purport to offer equal membership for men and women.

The Bill aims to add to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975—one of the greatest pieces of legislation passed by the Wilson Government—and it is worth looking at how that Act has operated. Section 29 applies to all clubs that are open to members of the public or a section of the public", where a person or a particular group of people can pay their money and enter a club to use its facilities and services. A nightclub or a sports club would be a good example of where people enter the establishment on an equal basis. Such clubs fall within the remit of the 1975 Act, so they cannot discriminate on grounds of sex. Any members of those clubs who have been discriminated against on such grounds can take action under the auspices of the current sex discrimination legislation.

Private members' clubs have been found by the courts not to fall within the scope of section 29, because they provide facilities and services to their own members, not to the public. The Bill is designed to change that by bringing private members' clubs within the scope of sex discrimination legislation. Several clubs have been asked to move in that direction for a very long time. I pay credit to the many clubs that have voluntarily changed their approach and practices by offering equal membership to women. Excluding women from equal treatment as full members of mixed-sex clubs is wholly unfair in this day and age. As I said, it can also involve demeaning and humiliating treatment. The Bill will draw those clubs into the bounds of sex discrimination legislation.

The Bill will not apply to clubs that are exclusively for men or women. Those clubs can continue to operate; there is no suggestion that they would be taken out of existence. I have to say that I doubt whether I would want to be a member of a club that was exclusively for men. I believe that such practices are archaic, but that is a matter of choice.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

If I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I may want to explore the issue of the obsession with women. Personally, I am rather fond of obsessions with women, but not in the legislative context. The hon. Gentleman has just said that he would not want to belong to an all-male club, but surely he respects the right of women to have all-women clubs. One underlying theme that does not seem to be reflected in the Bill is that we must respect the rights of women to predominate or even to discriminate where they believe that it is appropriate. Is that not preferable to the rather one-sided approach reflected in his Bill?

David Wright

That is not what the Bill suggests, which is that private clubs for men and for women can continue to operate. I would not want all-male or, indeed, all-female clubs to be removed from existence. The Bill is designed to affect club evenings and events to which both sexes are invited. If an all-male club were to stage an event for men and women on a particular day or evening, the unequal treatment of women would not be allowed. I believe that that is a positive step forward. On occasions where men and women are invited to an event, they will receive equal treatment on the club's premises.

The Bill's objective is clear. It applies to mixed-sex clubs that purport to offer membership of equal status to women, but fail to deliver it. Golf clubs, as I said, are some of the worst culprits. The playing hours for golf clubs were designed during an era when it was predominantly the men in families who went to work and the women stayed at home. I do not believe that that has ever really been the case, even then. Such rules were out of date then and they are certainly out of date today when, in most family environments, men and women share the load—whether it be working, looking after the house or taking care of the household more generally. Restricting the hours during which women can play golf solely to weekdays is absolutely ridiculous. It fails to take account of the fact that the lifestyles of men and women have changed significantly.

In opening the Second Reading debate—I hope that we can make further progress—I reiterate a point that I have made two or three times already. The Bill relates to clubs that offer or purport to offer equal membership to men and women but fail to deliver. It does not relate to the removal of single-sex clubs, but draws them into line for events that they hold for both men and women. I hope that we can make progress, and I look forward to hearing what the Government, Opposition Back Benchers and indeed Opposition Front Benchers have to say.

12.20 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

I am always very unhappy when such legislation comes along. It worries me when people, no doubt with the best motives, constantly reach for the law to intervene in people's relationships and social activities. That is even more worrying in the case of clubs and other private bodies and organisations. I have no problem with the desire to ensure that people are properly and fairly treated in public places, including public clubs and associations—as the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) said, that a long-standing approach, and it has largely been successful—but I worry at the constant pushing of the role of legislation further and further into this area.

An interesting side effect of the Bill could be that more and more clubs that want to extend their facilities to people of both—perhaps I should say, in a modern way, all—genders go back to being single-sex. Personally, I would not blame them, because legislation such as this seeks to intrude on their workings. They might not want to be subjected to it, and get round it by reverting to single-sex status.

Right at the outset, in the long title, we read that the aim is to prevent sex discrimination in relation to the membership, benefits, facilities and services offered by clubs and other private associations". The avowed intention is for the law to intrude on the activities of what are literally and avowedly private associations, and that worries me, because we should draw a proper distinction between organisations in the public and private domains. If someone of either sex joins such a club or association, they know from the start its rules and practices, so it seems perverse for them to complain about them. Alternatively, they may, as feisty, self-confident people, join precisely in order to change the rules. If they are that appalled and disgusted by the way in which the club conducts itself—despite their having joined it—one would imagine that they would be perfectly free to argue against it from within.

David Wright

The point is that women, in particular, are often excluded from the management structure of such clubs. How can they argue their case for reform when they are excluded from the very parts of the club that can bring about any change?

Mr. Forth

People join clubs, presumably, in that knowledge. I find it difficult to understand why people who join something, presumably having found out its ethos and rules, then complain bitterly that it is somehow not appropriate for them. That problem is ignored when it comes to legislation of this sort.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con)

I apologise for entering slightly late into this debate. Is my right hon. Friend saying that it would be preferable for change to take place as a result of argument at particular times in individual clubs, rather than through setting a standard below which people may not fall?

Mr. Forth

Yes, certainly. I am very unhappy about arbitrary standards or mores being applied to private associations. I have said that I reluctantly accept that the law seems these days to need to intrude more and more into the public arena, but it bothers me that the Bill seeks to intrude by law more and more into private associations. When people join Private associations, what they do in them should be allowed to be private. People should be allowed to make their own judgments about what such associations do, how those associations may or may not change and whether or not they are able to influence the associations. In some cases, I imagine, they would be able to exert influence, and in others, they would not.

Clause 1(3) says: It is unlawful for an association to which this section applies, in the case of a woman who is not a member of that association, to discriminate against her". I must pause to note the presumption that all discrimination is always against women. I should be happier if the Bill were framed in more neutral or inclusive terms. It surely cannot be impossible to find a way in which there is some discrimination sometimes, somewhere against men. The obsession with discrimination against women, which gives us Ministers for Women and so many things for women these days, strikes me as somewhat unfair and one-sided. I should give the Bill more support if even an attempt had been made to make it more even-handed and to say that it is intended to deal with discrimination against whomsoever it may apply, rather than just the "woman" thing.

Clause 1(3) applies to a woman who is not a member being discriminated against by an association in the terms on which it is prepared to admit her to membership". Again, one can say that, presumably, at the point at which one applies for membership, one has knowledge of or pretty quickly learns what the terms are. The clause also refers to refusing or deliberately omitting to accept her application for membership. The question arising, which is not clearly answered by the Bill, is whether that would preclude the association from refusing her application on any grounds at all, or simply on the basis of gender.

I worry that the Bill's wording might make it impossible for an association to refuse membership to a woman on any grounds. Presumably, it may refuse membership to a man on a wide variety of grounds, depending on what the association is and its objectives and purposes. If it were a golf club, for example, I should have thought that it could say that only people with a handicap of less than 12 could join—or something of that kind. Whether that would be discriminatory in legislative terms is an interesting thought. There is a danger that the Bill would not allow an association to refuse membership for any reason at all, and that would be regrettable.

New section 29B on page 2 says: It is unlawful for an association … to discriminate against a woman on an occasion when she is a guest", and that takes us into difficult territory. The new section goes on to talk about the way in which it affords her access to any of the benefits, facilities or services to which other guests are afforded access … by refusing or deliberately omitting to afford her access … or … by subjecting her to any other detriment. I can imagine a problem arising with facilities—toilets, changing rooms or whatever. There is a risk that some associations may be forced to make expensive alterations to their premises to meet the requirements.

Peter Bottomley

To link what my right hon. Friend has just said with his earlier mention of golf clubs, may I share with him a message that I had recently from Worthing golf club about discrimination that might adversely affect women? Under the Licensing Act 2003, golfers who play at a club but are not members of it cannot be served alcohol on the club premises. Legislation originating from Government could therefore have an even greater impact than the wrong that the promoter of this Bill is trying to undo. My right hon. Friend could suggest that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should get together with golf clubs and others to investigate the discrimination that could be even worse, indirectly, than that addressed by the Bill. Perhaps they could solve the problem of the unintended consequences of previous legislation, as well as considering whether the Bill before us would be a good addition to the statute book.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend illustrates the risks that arise when one starts—no doubt with the best of intentions and motivation—to intrude into the way in which associations work. As he was speaking, I was wondering whether we might be able to use the Bill to right the wrong that he mentioned, but I fear both the short and the long title would probably preclude that possibility. I am not an expert on procedure or tabling, although I hope to become one very quickly, because over the next few weeks I shall be tabling a lot of amendments to a number of Bills—not least, I suspect, this one. I shall take a crash course.

I take my hon. Friend's point that we may have to consider that sort of discrimination in some other way. This Bill may not provide that opportunity, because it is all about sex, not booze. I am grateful to him for raising that idea, because it strengthens the point that I was trying to make—that as soon as one starts to intrude by law into people's habits and behaviour in a private context, one is likely to get into great difficulty.

What worries me is the provision for guests, and even worse, suggested new section 29C, entitled "Guests: discrimination by single-sex clubs". I wonder whether the world of clubs and private associations realises that were this measure to reach the statute book, they might well have to make costly alterations to their facilities.

Peter Bottomley

I believe that the Minister and officials will pay attention to the points raised in this debate, so may I emphasise another example, following from what my right hon. Friend is saying? A golf club may want young people under the age of 16 to come and learn the game, but if the serving of alcoholic refreshment is an incidental part of its functions—important financially, but secondary to the golf—the young people could be denied access, and the club might have to have separate provision for the under-16s, even though they will not be served a drink because they are under 16. One needs to be careful—although I am not saying that about this Bill—about launching too enthusiastically into legislating for private organisations that have good purposes, such as sport and recreation, in case one then discovers that young people are barred from joining in, just as some clubs now bar women.

Mr. Forth

Again, my hon. Friend illustrates all too well the dangers of starting out with a substantial, complex and detailed Bill that seeks, always with the best of motivation, to right a perceived wrong. It can blunder into all kinds of unforeseen side effects.

I am always disappointed that, on occasions such as this, Members of Parliament do not receive more representations about such measures. I do not know whether the club world is asleep or whether it supports the Bill. Even the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) hinted that the support for it out there may not be widespread, but I bet that the Government support it, because it is right up their street. It is interventionist, regulatory, judgmental and just the sort of measure that we expect from the Government. I would not be surprised if that view were expressed, albeit in a very charming way, by the Minister.

I should like to believe that the measure was not up our street because we are supposed to be the party of deregulation and respect for private and individual rights and, I hope, the rights of private associations. I hope that the measure will not be portrayed as all-party; it cannot be portrayed as enjoying agreement in the House today. Even if it receives a Second Reading, it will require, thanks to the thoughtful interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), a fair amount of scrutiny and perhaps amendment at subsequent stages.

Peter Bottomley

To get away from golf clubs, I make it plain that I perceive such a Bill not as regulation but as providing opportunities for women to enjoy facilities that men enjoy.

Mr. Forth

That is typical of my hon. Friend, who is a generous, progressive, fair-minded and modern sort of man. None of those adjectives applies to me but that simply shows the great tent that is the modern Conservative party. It embraces my hon. Friend and me and we have such a jovial relationship. In one sense, we are together in that we both perceive dangers in the sort of measure that we a considering. He may well support its thrust and intent—I do not—but we are united when we begin to examine the fine print and the possible effects of its implementation. That is when the worries start to arise.

I am often disappointed, especially on wonderful private Member's Bill Fridays. On that subject, when the Solicitor-General replied to the previous debate, she made a slightly scathing remark about the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and me. She suggested that we were pursuing a private vendetta through private Members' Bills. I was tempted to intervene and say that, if she were here every Friday, I would allow her to make such a remark. Frankly, I do not take kindly to fair-weather Friday Members who turn up once for the Bill that they support, criticising those of us who are here every Friday, attempting to discharge our duties and scrutinise legislation properly. I will take any amount of abuse from the hon. Member for Hendon because he is here every Friday—we do not abuse ourselves or each other regularly but we do so occasionally—but I am not prepared to take it from someone who pops up once in a blue Friday and subsequently disappears. I thought that I would put that on the record; I may send a copy to the Solicitor-General.

The measure is, by any reckoning, a fairly substantial private Member's Bill. Some of the measures that we have considered on previous Fridays, and even those that we have already discussed today, are shorter. The Bill has, per force, to be fairly lengthy and rather tediously detailed to achieve its purpose. Therein lies the danger of such a measure and that is why I believe that we must examine it in some detail. I hope that we shall get proper and responsible representations, as individual Members and political parties, from the world of clubs and associations that may be affected.

I would regret it if inch a measure slipped through the parliamentary process only for several associations to pop up and say, "Oh dear! We didn't realise this was happening. We're afraid of its effects because it will involve expenditure and interfere unnecessarily in the way we have worked for a long time." I would rather they alerted themselves to the measure now. I hope that, if nothing else, the Second Reading debate will give interested parties an opportunity to approach the promoter and to try to make an input in Committee and on Report so that if the Bill survives and gets on to the statute book, the unintended side effects will have been eliminated or ameliorated. That is the proper purpose of the legislative process. We should be allowed to do our job properly and ensure that, if such legislation succeeds, its effects are only beneficia1 and not adverse.

As I started, so I shall finish. My instinct is not to support legislation of this kind. We have too much of it already and the Bill is pushing too far. When one starts to involve the law in the inner workings of private associations, that is unacceptably too far for legislation. For that reason, I shall, in my modest way, oppose the Bill on Second Reading and hope to look at it closely in its subsequent parliamentary stages.

12.40 pm
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on introducing the Bill, which gives us an opportunity to debate sex discrimination in private members' clubs. I congratulate him on an excellent speech in favour of the Bill and pay tribute to his work as chairman of the all-party group on world heritage sites. As the Member for East Devon, which contains much of the Triassic and Jurassic coastline that was awarded world heritage site status, I welcome such a group, which is wholly non-discriminatory, blind to race, gender or even political persuasion. All are welcome on equal terms.

At the risk of being considered a club bore, I must confess that I am a member of three clubs in London. Each is excellent in its own way, but with differing traditions and attitudes towards the admission of women although, in fact, none is open to female membership. I do not really know why I retain my membership of those clubs—my wife and my bank manager both find it unfathomable. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I should not want to join a club that would have me as a member.

David Wright

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. May I extend the hand of friendship and ask him to join me at the Wrockwardine Wood and Trench Labour club for a pint in the Harold Wilson lounge, where he will see a different world?

Mr. Swire

I notice that the hon. Gentleman, too, is something of a club bore. Not only is he a member of the Wrockwardine Wood and Trench Labour club, where I shall willingly join him, he is also a leading light of the Dawley social club, so he might take me there, too.

In that spirit of confession, I should also declare my presidency of the Western Area Conservative Clubs' Council, which covers more than 100 Conservative clubs in the west country, including three excellent clubs in my constituency—in Exmouth, Sidmouth and Axminster. That presidency, along with my vice-presidency of the Colaton Raleigh and district ploughing association, are probably my two most distinguished political, or non-political, achievements to date.

As we have heard, the purpose of the Bill is to bring private clubs within the coverage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 by making unlawful the unequal treatment of male and female members, associates and guests of mixed-sex private clubs with 25 or more members. It is important, as there has been some confusion about it, to point out that the Bill would not affect single-sex clubs other than by making unlawful the unequal treatment of male and female guests at an occasion to which guests of both sexes were invited. Making those changes would mirror similar provisions on race. Following a number of cases interpreting the Race Relations Acts 1968 and 1976, there is special provision to prohibit race discrimination in private clubs with 25 or more members. It covers the terms on which members are admitted and any refusal to accept membership that is based on race.

The objectives of the Bill are certainly to be commended and I make it clear that my Conservative colleagues and I abhor discrimination of any kind, whether on the basis of physical disability, race, religion, gender or any other grounds.

Fairness and equality are two of the most fundamental human rights, yet it is beyond doubt that in many areas there is still some way to go in delivering those rights. I wish to share with the House the horror of something that happened to me in the early 1980s in the United States, that bastion of equality and opportunity. I was being given dinner by a charming couple in Kansas City, and halfway through—I remember this as if it were yesterday—I said how nice their country club was, and asked if it was the best one in Kansas City. They said that it was not and named another club nearby that was considered even more prestigious. I then asked why they were not members of that club and they said, in a matter-of-fact way, that they could not join because they were Jewish. I was, and remain, utterly appalled and I do not believe that I have ever encountered that level of prejudice and outright discrimination in this country, whether in a club or elsewhere.

The prejudiced membership conditions of the country clubs of Long Island and Palm Beach are not our concern. Over the years, many measures and Acts of Parliament have been designed to break down barriers that prevent women from taking part in activities that they wish to pursue, including the 1918 Acts allowing women to vote and be elected to the House of Commons; the Equal Pay Act 1970; the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and, more recently, the establishment of the Equal Opportunities Commission. The continuation of gender discrimination when over half the United Kingdom population is female should therefore trouble all of us. Attitudes are changing and inequality is becoming increasingly unacceptable, but there is clearly still a long way to go.

As part of efforts to tackle discrimination, the Government announced on Wednesday a proposal to establish a new commission on equality and human rights. As I have made clear, everyone should have the right to fulfil their potential, regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation, so I welcome the streamlining of the existing gender and race equality organisations in a single entity. However, I caution against that new super-quango becoming another bureaucratic black hole that is only about political correctness and unnecessary interference. We need an organisation that will provide guidance and implement the rule of law for those who are subjected to discrimination. It is the duty of every member of a civilised society to respect our fellow citizens, regardless of their personal circumstances.

I have some concerns about the Bill and am not convinced that, as with all the biggest problems facing society, there is a simple solution to the problem of private clubs. It would be wrong to suggest that such problems can be overcome solely with legislation, and the Bill is not necessarily the appropriate response. I do not disagree with its aims, but the law can be a blunt instrument when used in such a way. I am sceptical about inflicting on people legislation tackling the way in which they choose to behave in private. That said, I recognise the need for cultural change in some private institutions, which is essentially a question of confronting closed minds. We need to complete the cultural changes initiated at the beginning of the previous century. Our country's mindset must move on from the preconception that women should be viewed differently from men in modern society.

I yield to no one in my belief that women and men should have equal opportunities. Indeed, it would be foolhardy for me to think, let alone proclaim, otherwise, as I live in a house with three women, and wish to continue doing so. As the father of two small daughters of whom I have the highest expectations and for whom I have the highest ambitions, I want women to go on reaching the top through merit.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will agree when I say that all of us Conservatives are proud to be members of a political party that produced our country's first woman Prime Minister, and arguably one of the best Prime Ministers the country has ever had. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of her coming to power in 1979, it is interesting to reflect that as a woman—as an outsider—she joined, or rather penetrated, the cosy club of socialist men that dominated European politics at the time. We should also remember that not many courtesies were extended to her. It is worth recalling what an achievement it was for her, as a woman, not just to become the leader of the oldest political party in the western world but to become Prime Minister. She rose to the top through merit.

We live in a country in which our security services have been headed by women, and in some instances still are. The chairmen of some of our leading FTSE 100 companies are women. Numerous charities, arts bodies and myriad other organisations are run by women. Women—amid some controversy, I concede—are admitted to holy orders, to our armed forces and, of course, to politics.

My party has been criticised in some quarters for not going down the road of all-women shortlists. I happen to believe that we are right not to do so and I am enormously encouraged by the fact that the candidates selected for the vast majority of our target seats are women selected on merit rather than on the basis of gender or anything else.

Highlighting this issue is a good idea, because it may enable us to go some way towards persuading people to rethink their attitudes. But we must tread carefully, as there is surely a limit to how much we should interfere with the rights of individuals acting in a purely private capacity.

12.52 pm
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on his success, and on the clearness and lucidity with which he presented his Bill—not least in the light of the anxieties expressed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about its impenetrability.

The Liberal Democrats support the Bill, which has already been introduced in other forms by Members of both Houses. We have supported those attempts to reform the law, and our support will continue. It should be stressed again that the Bill does not in any way compel single-sex organisations to change the way in which they operate. It is not intended to convert them to mixed-sex organisations. It simply provides that organisations purporting to be mixed-sex clubs should operate in a way that ensures equal treatment of all who become members. I agree with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst on one thing, at least: I think it unfortunate that the Bill's wording suggests that discrimination operates in only one direction—that it is experienced only by women—although in practice it is nearly always the case. It might be useful to deal with that in Committee or on Report, and to make the Bill gender-neutral.

It has been argued, understandably, that—especially when legislating through private Members' Bills—we should be careful not to stray too far into, and interfere too much with, the realm of privacy. That point was made by both the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and we should bear it in mind whenever we consider legislation that extends and redefines that boundary. It is clearly a point that would have been weighed when Parliament first considered issues of equal pay and came to the view that it was appropriate to legislate, extending the boundary so as better to regulate—although not yet successfully in some ways—issues of fair pay for women in the workplace.

It is worth noting that the Bill is born not out of one Member's initiative, but out of a long process of consideration and deliberation, and indeed out of considerable force of complaint by many who feel affronted by the fact that the law does not address the issue. It is therefore north considering the work done by the Equal Opportunities Commission back in 1998, when it consulted on the matter and published its deliberations, including a recommendation for this measure. It made the point, also made by the hon. Member for Telford, about the unfairness that features in typical complaints, such as those about the restriction of playing times for women in golf clubs, based on the assumption that women are not in paid employment and can therefore cope with restricted playing times.

Mr. Forth

Should we not be even more suspicious if a Bill such as this arises in any way from the activities of quangos such as the one that the hon. Gentleman just mentioned? The measure is, after all, in their interests; they are bureaucrats paid to pursue such an objective. Does he not agree, therefore, that it is somewhat odd to quote such a quango in favour of the Bill, and that we should discount a large part of what it says because it is paid to promote such measures?

Mr. Burstow

I certainly think it important that none of us suspends our critical faculties when we are considering legislation and the evidence put to us by a whole range of organisations, including the Equal Opportunities Commission. Nevertheless, the complaints that the commission receives, which it reports faithfully, ought to be brought to the attention of the House. The complaints about hours of access to golf courses are certainly relevant.

In its 1998 report following consultation, the commission goes on to say: The amendment as described below would not, therefore, place any obligation on 'gentlemen's clubs', the Women's Institute, or charities, which confine benefits to one sex, to change their current practices. It is worth restating that: it is not the Bill's intention to extend equal opportunities legislation to organisations such as those, and that is why we support it.

I said that this is not the first time that the House has considered the matter. The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) introduced a Bill in 1999, but unfortunately managed only to utter a couple of sentences on Second Reading. Today, the hon. Member for Telford was able to utter quite a few sentences to make his cogent case. The hon. Member for North Dorset introduced a ten-minute Bill in 2001 and wrote a useful article inThe House Magazine, in which he made the point that his measure, which is not dissimilar to the one before us, was about allowing women access to governance of the clubs of which they were members, enabling them to take a full part in their chosen club. There can be no justification for treating people who are members of mixed-sex, private clubs as second-class citizens, solely on the grounds of their. gender. That is not acceptable in the 21st century. Things have moved on, and it is appropriate to consider where we should draw those lines today.

The Bill is modest; it applies only to mixed-sex clubs of 25 or more members. The hon. Member for East Devon has reservations about it. and clearly those matters will need to be considered in Committee. He talked about the need for cultural change, and I certainly sign up to that. Simply passing legislation of a declarative or any other nature does not change hearts and minds, but it can play a part in accelerating or kick-starting change. It is for those reasons that, on balance, the Liberal Democrats support the right of the individual to be treated equally, regardless of gender, and we believe that that should apply to mixed-sex clubs.

12.59 pm
The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality (Jacqui Smith)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) on introducing the Bill, which the Government support. We hope it makes progress. As he rightly outlined, he follows a proud tradition of Members who have also tried to make progress in this area: the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and, of course, my noble Friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester in another place. I therefore very much welcome the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Telford and several other Members have made a strong case for bringing private clubs within the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. We have heard some concerns, understandably, from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but I hope I can reassure him on the nature of the Sex Discrimination Act.

First, the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about how the original Act, I suspect, and the Bill were drafted. Of course, the Sex Discrimination Act was drafted as a particular exception to the usual use in legislation of the term "man" to cover both sexes. That acknowledged the fact that women were normally the victims of sex discrimination, although as is made clear in section 2—I am sure he is an assiduous reader of the legislation and knowledgeable on this point—references to the discrimination against women apply equally to discrimination against men.

Clearly, the Sex Discrimination Act is about pursuing equality of opportunity between men and women. However, it is also about identifying where that discrimination happens and taking action. I welcome many of the points made by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who referred to his family and how they prompted his concern to ensure that there is equality. I can tell him that I consider myself fortunate to live in a house with three men, including two small men whom I want to grow up in a society where people are judged on the basis of their talent, not one in which people are discriminated against because of their gender, whether they are men or women. I am sure he agrees, and I think we share that objective.

The other important point made by the hon. Gentleman was his reference to how the treatment of private clubs in respect of the Sex Discrimination Act is in many ways out of step with the position under the Race Relations Act 1976. Discrimination on the basis of race goes against that Act, and of course the draft disability Bill will also tackle discrimination on the basis of disability. It seems timely and appropriate that today we are considering the extension of tackling this particular discrimination to the Sex Discrimination Act.

May I take the opportunity to thank the hon. Gentleman for what was just about a welcome for the Government's announcement on a single commission for equality and human rights? I very much agree that it needs to be far more than simply a bureaucratic quango. As we have made very clear, its ability to promote good practice with respect to diversity and to work in partnership with employers in the public and private sectors, as well as service providers, will be very important to how it operates, notwithstanding the fact that, when it needs to take enforcement action to achieve its objective of ensuring that we have a society that is fair for all and based on equality of opportunity, it can and should take such action.

The Bill gives us a valuable opportunity to examine and debate once again the issue of continuing sex discrimination in private clubs. This is an issue of some resonance for many of us; arguably, it affects us all. Clubs form an important part of the social, political and recreational landscape of many British communities.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is concerned that the proposals would mean an invasion of private space, in which there is no public interest or for which the public have no responsibility. Although described as "private clubs", many of them regulate the means by which the public gain access to leisure facilities, resources and sporting opportunities. It is only right that those opportunities are open to women and men, rather than restricting access as a result of the outmoded and discriminatory traditions of certain clubs. The Bill does not simply deal with the private sphere. In many cases, it tackles discrimination in the access to many facilities that most of us think should be open to all.

The right hon. Gentleman also argued that those who are discriminated against by the clubs should argue for change from within, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Telford rightly said, the precise nature of the discrimination in some clubs means that that is not possible. Some organisations in which a strong majority of members support changing an outmoded discriminatory practice have had that pressure for change blocked by a minority because of the requirement for a high threshold in any vote to change, for example, an organisation's constitution.

At the recent annual general meeting of the Working Men's Club and Institute Union—the umbrella body to which most working men's clubs belong—61.7 per cent. of delegates favoured equal access to associate membership for men and women, but a two thirds majority was required to change the organisation's rules. So despite a clear majority wanting to make progress, it was not possible. Given that the right hon. Gentleman called for organisations to represent their views to those of us who are considering the Bill, he will pleased to know that the national executive of the CIU supports it.

There is also an argument that somehow or other the Bill would impinge on an individual's right to freedom of association. No one mentioned human rights, an argument that is often used in such cases. We do not think that the Bill has any major human rights implications. Introducing this non-discrimination rule is justifiable on the grounds of public interest. However, we need to be sure that its implementation satisfies the principle of proportionality—for example, by ensuring that we give clubs adequate time to make the changes necessary for them to comply with the law. The regulatory impact assessment is available in the Library. I do not subscribe to the right hon. Gentleman's use of the traditional "There aren't enough toilets" argument as a reason why it would be difficult for most clubs to make progress on equality. However, we will look in detail at the transitional arrangements needed if the Bill makes progress.

There are more than 160,000 private clubs in the UK, offering a rich variety of function, interest and organisation, some of which we heard about today. What they all share is that they were formed for a common purpose, as defined by their members. That can be anything from enjoying golf to exploring the history of a local town. Whatever the interests of the club, I do not accept that discrimination on the grounds of sex can be justified in any club that admits both men and women members. As Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, I regularly receive letters from women complaining about sex discrimination in the clubs to which they belong. They speak of the injustice and humiliation of being treated as second-class citizens in their own clubs.

Although I think that the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) said that he supported the Bill, there was a suggestion in his intervention on the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that we should be thinking about continuing to pursue a voluntary approach. That has brought some progress in tackling this sort of discrimination in private clubs but, quite clearly, it has not brought it about quickly enough to overcome some of the considerable discrimination that exists.

For example, 47 per cent. of the 2,700 working men's clubs that belong to the Working Men's Club and Institute Union still deny their female members full rights. Those clubs often restrict women in the use of certain facilities, give them restricted voting rights and deny them access to the annual general meeting. The rules of the union stipulate that associate and pass cards may not be issued to lady members, but those are the cards that allow a member of one CIU club to visit another and to enjoy its facilities as a guest. Many golf clubs, as has been touched on today, still restrict playing times for women members, making if difficult for working women to play during peak hours at weekends. The assumption on which that policy is based, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) said—that women do not work—perpetuates the archaic notions about women's lives that we know are out of step with reality.

I agree, as hon. Members have already identified, that clubs should be afforded the autonomy to decide for themselves whom they permit to join as a member, and on what terms. Several hon. Members have made it clear that the Bill does not seek to make all-male clubs open their doors to women on force women's clubs to be open to men. The hon. Member for East Devon may remain in his male-only clubs and those people who benefit from, and want to be in, women-only clubs may remain in those. However, I do not agree that a club's autonomy should stretch so far as to override the rights and dignity of those whom it has accepted into membership or those whom, in the case of guests, it invites in to use its facilities—then, in some cases, discriminating between them solely on the basis of their sex.

Mr. Forth

Will the Minister answer the question that I raised on new subsection (3)(b) in clause 1? My reading of that is that there is a danger that it could become unlawful for an association to refuse to accept an application for membership from a woman at all—in other words, that an association would be simply unable under that provision to refuse membership. It is not clear to me from the words of that provision that it would apply simply on the basis of a woman's gender, and my fear is that it would mean that a private association would be unable to refuse membership for any reason. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that that is wrong, because the point is important.

Jacqui Smith

I can give the right hon. Gentleman that reassurance. As I have suggested, there is nothing in the Bill that restricts an organisations autonomy to set criteria for its membership, but if an organisation accepts members of both genders, it cannot then discriminate against people, in terms of membership, on the basis of their gender. I hope that that reassures him.

The Bill really is not the undermining of our private lives or our civil society that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst attempted to set it out as. It is a sensible, pragmatic and reasonable response to the discrimination that people still face in private clubs that accept members of both sexes. I hope that hon. Members agree that such practices and beliefs belong to a different time. They have no place in Britain today, and we should take this opportunity to allow the Bill to be considered in Committee and, I hope, make further progress.

1.14 pm
David Wright

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to thank the Minister for her powerful speech, and to thank the Government for supporting the Bill.

I believe that this was the first appearance at the Dispatch Box for the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and, on today's evidence, there will be many more over the coming years. He did a fine job and, although I did not agree with everything that he said, I enjoyed his contribution. I would also like to thank the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) for the support of the Liberal Democrats. They have a history of supporting the Bill through its several mutations in the House, and I appreciate their support today.

I enjoyed the contribution of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). He made a number of important points, and I hope that we can return to them in Committee. He was quite constructive in the way he approached the debate today, and I appreciate that. I will enjoy having further discussions with him about the mechanics and detail of the Bill; there might be some issues relating to gender neutrality that need to be looked at in relation to its drafting. We would have to return to those matters and I give the right hon. Gentleman a commitment that I shall listen carefully to his points throughout the progress of the Bill.

I mentioned in my earlier speech some correspondence that I had received from the Royal and Ancient golf club, and I am willing to deposit it in the Library for other Members to see as we go through the process. That correspondence is particularly important, because the R and A is a significant body in the governorship of golf.

Mr. Forth

Has the hon. Gentleman had indications from any other umbrella organizations—or, indeed, individual associations—about their reaction to the Bill? What measure has he of the acceptability of his proposals to the people out there on the ground who are running these private organisations?

David Wright

The right hon. Gentleman's remarks about inviting comment via this Second Reading debate were important. The CIU is broadly supportive of the proposal, as the Minister has said, and the Equal Opportunities Commission has supported the measure historically and continues to do so. I am more than happy to take contributions from other clubs, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be keen to bring examples to the Standing Committee, should he choose to serve on it.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

1.17 pm
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm whether the Government have today tabled amendments to the Pensions Bill that would provide for a compensation fund retrospectively to compensate those workers who have lost their pensions in occupational pension schemes through no fault of their own? If that is the case, is this not an example of why it is so important for people to join trade unions and to have a Labour Government?

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have seen an amendment that has been tabled by the Government today that would create a financial assistance scheme for people who have lost their pensions. You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that 60,000 people have been the victims of pension scheme wind-ups. As someone who has campaigned with the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), attended the marches and led a debate on this subject in January 2003, I would like to pay tribute to the all-party campaign that has finally made the Government see sense. However, should not a Minister come to the House and make a full oral statement about such a significant change of policy?

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We were led to understand yesterday by the Leader of the House, no less, that the Government were going to table 100 amendments to the Pensions Bill. If those 100 amendments have now, rather belatedly, been tabled by Friday afternoon, and if the House is going to consider the Bill in detail next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, those with a legitimate interest in the matter have been left with a pathetically short time in which to consider those amendments before we start to deliberate on them in the House. Is it too late for an appeal to be made to the Government to postpone consideration of the Bill next week, so that those people with a legitimate interest in the 100 amendments can look at them properly and let Members of Parliament know what they think?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

I am not aware of the matters to which hon. Members have referred, or at least I am not as up to date as they appear to be. A certain amount of information that has resulted from the original point of order may be helpful to all hon. Members present. Hon. Members who visit the Table Office or Public Bill Office will see the current state of play.