HL Deb 16 January 2001 vol 620 cc1032-4

2.59 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they plan to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 in the light of the recent continued refusal of the Carlton Club to admit women as full members.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, our expectation is that private clubs which allow access to membership to both men and women would want voluntarily to put a stop to any discriminatory practices they may have. We recognise that they may need time to do this.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does she not agree that if a West End club, a golf club or, indeed, a working man's club were to exclude people from membership or access to membership because they were black, Jewish or had some kind of disability, there would be a public outcry? It would, of course, be illegal. Is it not even more offensive that private clubs are able to discriminate against people solely because they are women? Is this not a matter of civilised behaviour rather than a matter of political correctness? Will my noble friend join me in commending those members of the Carlton Club who have resigned their membership in protest against this decision? Can she say whether the Leader of the Opposition has joined them, as he said he would?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I have no idea of the intentions of the Leader of the Opposition; nor do I know what standing Mr William Hague has in the Carlton Club or whether his threat to resign will lead those who want change to vote for it or to his persuading more people to do so. Members on the Opposition Benches may be able to answer that question. The Carlton Club was started in 1832 by those who were appalled at the Reform Act, which extended the franchise. So reactionaries started it, and reactionaries may win against progress today.

My noble friend referred to the difference between the Sex Discrimination Act and the Acts covering disability and race relations. Neither the SDA nor the DDA extend to private clubs, whereas the Race Relations Act extends to clubs with more than 25 members. These provisions reflect what Parliament thought appropriate at the time. Attitudes have since changed, and we believe that they will increasingly lead to change on a voluntary basis.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I am not a member of the Carlton Club and cannot vote on this issue—but why does not the noble Lord join, so that he can? Such a demonstration that he has learnt the error of his ways might go down very well.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I cannot answer for my noble friend.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, can the Minister report any progress within the Women's Institute, given that certain experiments in that regard have not been terribly successful?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it is my belief that most of the activities of women's institutes should be joined by men. I am sure that they would make excellent jam makers, and the more members they can recruit, the better.

Lord Peston

My Lords, would my noble friend care to reflect on the Marxian view on this matter? I refer, of course, to Groucho Marx, who said that he would never join a club that would have him as a member. Surely, any woman offered membership of the Carlton Club should simply view the offer with contempt and do something much more useful.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not expect to be offered membership of the Carlton Club, so I do not think that I shall be placed in that dilemma.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her original Answer, in which she indicated that the Government are—unusually—prepared to leave people alone for once to do what they want.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Earl's congratulations.

Earl Russell

My Lords, without prejudice to the issue of private clubs—which is a thorny one—does the Minister agree that if legislation were to be triggered by a political club, particularly one with a specific association with Her Majesty's Opposition, the impression given might be unfortunate? Is this a matter that can safely be left to the voters?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in the light of the Minister's answers, what plans does she have for the "women only" room set aside in this House for women Peers? Secondly, will the Minister be pressing the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to relinquish his membership of the Garrick Club?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not have responsibility for decisions regarding rooms allocated in this House either for women or for men. So far as concerns my noble and learned friend's membership of the Garrick Club, I shall work on him!

Lord Richard

My Lords, is my noble friend aware—I was not, until I had it on the impeccable authority of my noble friend the Chief Whip—that the Farmers' Club has admitted women since its inception in 1842? If those bucolic attitudes are correct for farmers, should they not apply to other clubs as well?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the government view is that this is a matter for voluntary change.Personally—and I think that many of my noble friends agree with me—I prefer mixed membership.