HL Deb 28 February 2003 vol 645 cc525-94

12.47 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. New Labour's 1997 election manifesto promised that, if elected to government, they would, eliminate unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists". The Liberal Democrat manifesto contained a commitment to enact a single Equality Act. This Bill seeks to give effect to those commitments.

It is almost two years since the House debated my Unstarred Question asking what steps the Government were taking towards the comprehensive reform of anti-discrimination legislation. I explained that I shared the belief of the equality agencies, senior judges, independent experts and employers and trade unions that the time was over-ripe for the comprehensive, rather than the merely superficial, reform of that body of legislation. The approach of successive governments to the increasingly complex, opaque and anomalous state of the legislation has been piecemeal and minimalist. It has involved adding new layers of legislation in bits and pieces, be they to implement European Community law, to introduce half measures on disability discrimination, or, now, to give effect to the new but restricted EU equality directives.

There was widespread recognition during that debate, on 25th April 2001, of the pressing need for a single equality Act. In her reply, the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was kind enough to say that I had, made a powerful case for grasping the opportunity for comprehensive reform". Encouragingly, the Minister continued: We recognise the arguments for a single equality framework incorporating a single equality commission, but we have to think about how such a framework would be constructed in practice".—[Official Report, 25/4/01; col. 1448.] Since that debate, the Government have failed to grasp the opportunity for comprehensive reform, but they have not been idle. They have published draft regulations to implement the EU race and framework employment directives, with a period for public consultation that was completed at the end of January. They have consulted about proposals to create a single equality commission. Soon, they will lay before Parliament the actual regulations on sex, sexual orientation, race, religion and belief, and disability. A consultation on draft age discrimination regulations will be delayed for another year. That legislation will not come into force until December 2006. The Government intend to introduce primary legislation to strengthen the law on disability discrimination by October 2004. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, where there is already a single Equality Commission, the Government are working actively to introduce a single Equality Bill. Most regrettably, there is no sign that the Government are working in the same way to introduce a single Equality Bill for Great Britain. So much for joined-up government and joined-up legislation.

One problem with such hectic activity is that, by introducing yet more piecemeal legislation, the Government will add even greater incoherence to an already incoherent body of anti-discrimination law. Another problem is that, by rejecting the use of primary legislation to implement the equality directives, the Government will hobble the legislative powers of Parliament to create a coherent, accessible and user-friendly legislative framework that, in the words of the new Labour manifesto, tackles unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists". The regulations will forbid religious discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, disability discrimination and age discrimination, but only in employment. That is not because it is right in principle to fail to tackle unjustifiable discrimination on those grounds in education, housing and the provision of services and facilities; it is simply because the framework equality directive is confined to the employment field. Without primary legislation, Parliament cannot cover these wider areas, as they are covered in the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act. What the Government describe as their full agenda of action on equality matters, including what they call "targeted legislation" misses the important target. Without primary legislation, women will continue to face a heavier burden of proof in discrimination cases outside the employment field; a homosexual or a Muslim denied a service because of sexuality or religion will still be unable to obtain legal redress; and an elderly person, denied essential services by a health authority or local council on the ground of age, will be denied legal redress. Except in the field of race relations, there will be no positive duty on public authorities or large employers to make progress towards equality of opportunity, even though, as long ago as November 1999, the Government promised legislation to create one. To adapt the words of George Orwell, all animals will be equal, but some animals will be more equal than others. As Melissa Benn, writing on the subject of equal pay in the Guardian last Tuesday, said: A radical overhaul of our anachronistic and clumsy equal pay law is long overdue". Yet another problem with the Government's shortsighted vision is that, by seeking to create a single equality commission without a single Equality Act, the Government will put the cart before the horse. How much better it would surely be to have, as they have in the Republic of Ireland, unified equality legislation administered by a new-style and professional Equality Authority. That concept of a different kind of equality commission is included in the Bill. A single Equality Act, overseen by a single equality commission, provides a more effective way of dealing with multiple or cumulative discrimination.

Whenever I attempt to persuade Ministers to grasp the opportunity for, in the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, "comprehensive reform", I am told that the Government lack the resources to grasp the nettle at this stage. I find that excuse unconvincing. When I worked with Roy Jenkins at the Home Office in 1974 on what became the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act, we were in a minority government, facing a well organised opposition. Yet, we managed to develop a radical and imaginative legislative policy in only a few months and to introduce two major Bills within two years. We were able to do so because Roy Jenkins and his colleagues willed the end and gave sufficient priority to finding the means. What is now lacking is not the resources in the Civil Service but the political will to devote those resources to this urgent and challenging task.

The Bill has been introduced to fill the vacuum and to meet a pressing need. It is the product of four years of careful work, with generous support from the Nuffield Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Professor Bob Hepple QC, together with Mary Coussey and Tufyal Choudhury, carried out an independent expert review under the auspices of the Centre for Public Law and Judge Institute of Management Studies in the University of Cambridge. The review evaluated UK anti-discrimination legislation and made proposals to develop an accessible legislative framework to promote equal opportunity policies and to spur compliance with those policies. The review team conducted targeted case studies and interviews and published consultation papers. The report was published in July 2000 and was the subject of a consultative conference.

Next, a Bill was drafted by a former parliamentary counsel, Stephanie Grundy, on the basis of the findings of the Hepple report. It was published for further consultation in July 2002. The draft Bill was substantially revised in the light of comments from a wide range of individuals and bodies, including each of the three existing commissions. We hope that it will commend itself to the House and will be supported, at least in principle, by the Government. I wish to express my admiration and gratitude to all those who contributed to the project and to my indefatigable support staff at the Odysseus Trust, who are here today.

The Bill may seem long and complex, but it is more concise and less complex than the existing anti-discrimination legislation and the proposed new equality regulations. When the Hepple report was published, there were no fewer than 30 Acts, 38 statutory instruments, 11 codes of practice and 12 EC directives and recommendations concerned with discrimination. Since then, there have been even more.

The Explanatory Notes that we published describe in detail the structure and content of the Bill. I shall attempt to put the Bill in a nutshell, and I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do so as briefly as I can. Part 1 outlines the Bill's purpose and general principles. Three principles run like a golden thread through the Bill. The first is that the Bill is not to be construed as permitting or requiring any step that involves levelling down. Steps towards equality should involve improvement for the whole workforce or customer base. They should not worsen conditions for anyone.

The second principle is that promoting equality may require more than treating different individuals in the same way as each other and may require the accommodation of difference. That applies first and foremost to disability discrimination. There are other areas where true equality may require different treatment, such as special provision made during pregnancy, or a relaxation of uniform requirements to allow a Muslim schoolgirl to wear a headscarf.

The third principle is that the need to correct disadvantages that arise from discrimination may require the taking of special measures. That does not mean crude measures involving reverse discrimination. Such measures would undermine the principle of equality itself. The Bill recognises that measures are sometimes necessary to overcome past discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity. Provided that such measures are proportionate to their legitimate aim, they enhance rather than diminish the principle of equal opportunities based on individual merit.

Part 2 outlines measures to target particular behaviour or arrangements. It describes the conduct that is unlawful because it involves discrimination, harassment or victimisation. Direct discrimination is unlawful if it is done for a reason relating to one or more of the prohibited grounds. In addition to the existing grounds of sex, race and disability, the Bill also covers discrimination on the grounds of age, gender reassignment, religion or belief and sexual orientation. Family status, marital status and pregnancy are specified as grounds in their own right, in addition to sex.

Part 2 also defines the fields in which the provisions apply. The Bill goes much further than the government regulations in that it applies to a variety of contexts, including not only employment but also education, the provision of goods and services, public authority provision and the disposal of premises. The definition of indirect discrimination has been clarified and made consistent, and has been applied to disability discrimination.

Part 2 also explains how individuals and the equality commission may take action to enforce the law. The existing legislation focuses mainly on eliminating discrimination by means of investigative and legal processes. The Bill seeks to tackle discrimination more proactively and in a less adversarial way, without imposing unnecessary bureaucratic burdens. Its focus is on encouraging voluntary compliance wherever possible.

Part 3 contains general measures to facilitate general progress towards equality. It requires bodies exercising functions of a public nature to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and promote equality of opportunity. It also requires large employers to carry out periodic reviews of the composition of their workforce and their employment policies and practices. If a review indicates that there may be failings in terms of equal opportunities or equal pay, they are required to draw up proposals with a view to bringing about change.

Part 3 also imposes positive duties on employers, service providers and providers of education to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities. This recognises the central importance of this free-standing duty in the Disability Discrimination Act in enabling equality of opportunity for people with disabilities.

Part 4 establishes the equality commission for Great Britain to combat discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity. Clause 40 contains provisions designed to ensure that the commission combines expertise in the different areas and does not create a hierarchy of rights in allocating its resources strategically. The commission would replace the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality.

The Bill recognises the distinct position of the relatively newly established Disability Rights Commission and allows it at least three years from the coming into force of the Act to join the new equality commission.

Part 5 deals with enforcement. Legal proceedings would be brought by way of an individual complaint or a complaint by the equality commission. Part 5 also provides for strategic enforcement action to he taken by the equality commission itself. Where enforcement is necessary it needs to be fair, effective and flexible. To that end, the Bill encourages complaints to be resolved, wherever possible, through conciliation rather than through formal tribunal hearings; and adopts, where the commission is taking enforcement action, a measured approach. Thus, after investigation, the commission may request an undertaking from an employer that it desist from acting in a discriminatory way, and, if that is not given, issue a compliance notice. It may also, in its own name. make tribunal applications alleging unlawful conduct.

There is a parallel with this approach in the provisions for workforce reviews and employment equity plans. We intend that employers would undertake these voluntarily, that failure to do so would not be actionable as such, but might he taken into account by the commission when discharging its functions, or by a tribunal in relevant proceedings, and that any dispute about such reviews or plans may be referred to the Central Arbitration Committee. In taking this flexible approach, we have sought to meet the concerns of employers and others who fear that providing additional individual enforceable rights would inevitably create a flood of litigation. The clear intention is that it should not do so.

Part 6 deals with miscellaneous and supplementary matters. The powers for the Secretary of State to make regulations require amendment to meet the recommendation by the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform that the affirmative procedure should apply. Part 6 incorporates eight important schedules. The definition of disability in Schedule 1 is significantly broader than the Disability Discrimination Act, and implements the task force recommendations. For example, a registered blind or a partially sighted person will be deemed to be disabled; a person with HIV will be deemed to be disabled from the point of diagnosis.

Schedule 2 contains the various exclusions which must be interpreted in accordance with the general principles in Part 1. The most important general exclusion is the genuine occupational requirement exception which would, for example, allow a theatre company to advertise for a child actor to play a child's part. The remaining schedules contain miscellaneous provision which I do not need to deal with at this stage.

The Bill has already received widespread support outside the House. We hope that it will be widely welcomed in this debate. I am most grateful to so many noble Lords for indicating that they want to participate today. Inevitably, there will be disagreement about some of its provisions, and of course the Bill is capable of improvement. But we hope that there will be a wide consensus as to the need for a single Equality Bill that tackles the main types of unjustifiable discrimination, creates a coherent, user-friendly and non-bureaucratic framework, and encourages voluntary compliance with the principle of equal opportunity without discrimination.

We seek to provide an effective means of redress for a large number of our fellow citizens—women as well as men; the disabled as well as those without disability; the older as well as the younger generation; ethnic minorities; those who have a religious faith and those who do not; and everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation. Those parts of British society will find powerful voices during this well-attended debate.

The eminent Victorian parliamentary counsel, Lord Thring, once said that razors are made to cut and Bills are made to pass. This Bill has been made to pass. Last and most important of all, we continue to hope that the Minister will tell the House that the Government intend to support the principles of the Bill and to give a high priority to preparing a single Equality Bill of their own for Great Britain, to match what they are already doing for Northern Ireland.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lester of Herne Hill.)

1.10 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for giving the House this opportunity to discuss discrimination which, unfortunately, is still rampant in our society to a far greater extent than many people are prepared to admit. I congratulate the noble Lord on an excellent presentation of a fine Bill. It deserves warm support. I support the Bill strongly, although he is right to say that there will be disagreement because I do not endorse it all by any means.

The general thrust of the Bill's proposals should be uncontroversial because there is a clear and obvious need for ensuring a consistent standard of protection from discrimination whether it be on grounds of disability, race, sexuality, age, gender or religion and belief.

Although the Government say that they have not yet decided on the question of a single, unified commission, I believe that that is their intention. If so, it is essential that they look first at the mass of legislation which will drive the commission's work. I am sure that no one will argue with the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that legislation is not uniform. It is widely "un-uniform". To establish a unifying discrimination commission without first unifying the discrimination legislation is like building a house on disparate foundations. If the foundations are not secure, the whole structure is vulnerable. A unified legal framework is essential before any unified commission starts work and this Bill will provide it. It will tidy up the administrative mess which has, quite understandably, grown over the years.

Clarifying and simplifying our equality laws is a valuable step forward. No one gains from confusion, but clarifying these laws will benefit individuals, organisations and companies. It seems to me to be a matter of common sense that one should pursue that course of action. Yet a Minister, Barbara Roche, told the All-Party Disability Group that she is not persuaded of the relative merits of a single equality Act. She said that her concern was that the Government would spend a lot of time working on a single Act, only to see another European directive introduced which would make it necessary to amend it again.

But the possibility of a European intervention applies to many fields and on that reasoning we should take no legislative action over a very wide area for fear of some new directive. Clearly, that is an impossibly restrictive mode of conducting our affairs. I urge the Government to think again and I hope that they will. I am delighted that my very good friend, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is replying to the debate and I am sure that he will do so in his usual constructive manner, although not necessarily accepting all our points.

Although the anti-discrimination legislation across all fields is not perfect, I am most familiar with that related to disability. This Government have a good record on disability and by no stretch of the imagination can the noble Lord, Lord Lester, be justified in calling them half measures. That was a gross over-statement. The legislation introduced by this Labour Government has been most progressive and constructive and it is warmly appreciated by disabled people.

I and many others were pleased with the early achievement of imposing obligations not to discriminate against disabled people—which was fine so far as it went. But now we emphasise the respect for human rights and a positive obligation to eliminate discrimination and promote equality of opportunity. That elimination and the emphasis on human rights is a key to progress. I know that the Government are conscious of current shortcomings, and their proposed new disability Bill is very welcome. It will add to their fine record. But as yet we have neither the timetable nor the detail of its content.

This Bill joins in the task of upgrading disability legislation, although I am aware of concern about some major omissions. The establishment of a joint standing committee to consider detail in conjunction with the views of those familiar with disability will be most welcome. I hope that my noble friend Lord McIntosh will consider that course.

Such a committee could also usefully consider the single commission proposal. The Government are consulting on its possible structures. One structure, leaving the Disability Rights Commission as a separate commission, is proposed in the Bill and was admirably explained by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I appreciate the efforts that have been made by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and his colleagues to acknowledge the special position of disability, but I believe that this is not the right response. I hope that the noble Lord will think again. Rather than pursue his Bill in that way, disabled people require inclusion and not exclusion. The disability interest must be there from the start or it risks being a poor relation. I cannot speak for the Disability Rights Commission, but I believe it too supports that view.

However, I personally favour the federal structure for the unified commission proposed by the disability rights commission. The disability perspective demands a "strand specific" structure. Disabled people are understandably concerned that their much valued Disability Rights Commission may be swallowed by a single commission.

Disability leads to discrimination problems that can be fundamentally different from those arising from race and sex. It cannot be tackled by attacking only prejudice, important though that is. Adjustments of one kind or another are also required and the concept of "reasonableness" is fundamental.

Disability is much less understood than, for example, race and sex, and unfortunately it is less easily tolerated. All too readily it fuels latent prejudice if legislation, monitoring and remedies are weak. Major input by disabled people is essential to tackle that prejudice effectively. That is one of the great strengths of the Disability Rights Commission. Weakening it would be very damaging to the interests of disabled people.

The Disability Rights Commission is doing splendid work but it is still a relative babe compared with other discrimination bodies. It needs time to grow and consolidate to fulfil its great potential. Submerged within a single commission, it could well be neglected—as indeed disability has been neglected for centuries. It is for those reasons that any new unifying body needs to have a federal structure. There are too many distinct disability issues to be accommodated by a single functional amalgamation.

I have a thousand more comments to make, but I shall not do so now because I believe in relatively short speeches. I am conscious that so many of my colleagues on all sides of the House are anxious to speak. I hope that the factors I have put forward will be taken into account by my noble friend. I am sure that he will consider them. I wish Godspeed to this fine Bill.

1.18 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for introducing the Bill and enabling this debate on the important issue of equality. The noble Lord should be congratulated on introducing a Bill which, as we have heard, represents four years of hard and thoughtful work and which sets out to provide a single framework for eliminating discrimination and promoting equality between different people, regardless of racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, sex, marital or family status, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, age or disability. It is a tough and noble assignment!

I cannot confess to being as knowledgeable on this subject as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, but I will do my best to outline our position succinctly and with clarity. We can agree with many of the points the noble Lord has been making in his criticism of the current legislation. The Government have indeed failed to grasp the opportunity for comprehensive reform. Yes, there is much activity in this field. However, it is piecemeal, lacks clarity and, as such, can act as a powerful deterrent to many who are confused as to their rights and responsibilities under this very delicate area of the law.

The Bill is comprehensive and, with the principles outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. with regard to the need for change, I cannot believe that anyone would argue for the status quo. That said, we must proceed with caution and take care to ensure that the new provisions are the best that they can be for everyone, including those who have to implement the changes and provisions as well those who will benefit from them.

Turning to the Bill itself, I shall touch upon only some of the many issues covered. We support the principles set out in Part 1, Clause 1, together with the notion that legislation should be in place before we establish a single equality commission. The commission would bring together the bodies that currently oversee the law of discrimination, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, with, I understand, the chance of the Disability Rights Commission joining within three years.

The benefits of such a commission are obvious. One united body could be a much stronger force for equality and the changes needed to achieve it. For a person facing multiple discrimination issues, a single body would provide more effective support, and promoting equality as a whole would be easier.

However, we must be careful about how these bodies are combined. The aforementioned bodies themselves have expressed reservations about how this will be done. The noble Lord mentioned the example of Northern Ireland, where a single equality commission was established in 1999. But many have commented that this has not been a huge success. I t appears to concentrate too much of its time on internal reorganisation matters and there has been much criticism that it has lacked sufficient focus and has ended up fighting over money.

Although in favour of a single commission, the Disability Rights Commission argues strongly for an Act before a commission. In its briefing note of last year it stated that this order of development was needed—and here I am repeating very much of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke—to, ensure high and consistent standards of protection across all the forms of discrimination covered by a new body. Otherwise any new body will be lumbered with a legislative mess and 'hierarchies of equality', seriously weakening its internal cohesion arid external credibility". The Equal Opportunities Commission also touched on this point in its briefing for the Bill. The principle that equality should not be achieved by levelling down but by levelling up also finds favour on these Benches. It is a well-documented fact that women are still not earning the equivalent salaries of men. It is thought that the figure lost over a lifetime is, on average, between £50,000 to £250,000. It is clear that something needs to be done about these depressing statistics.

However, it is hard to see how levelling up will be achieved in practice. My greatest fear is that employers faced with this option may refuse to employ women at all—pleading disproportionate burden—no matter how much legislation we pass on this point, especially at the top of organisations and in the City, which is already a tough environment for women. We must ensure that employers still feel that they have a choice over what to pay and that they reward staff according to ability and commitment.

This fettering leads me on to another point in the Bill which seems to leave employers' hands somewhat tied. Clause 29 concerns workforce reviews. These extensive reviews are to be followed up by "employment equity plans" which seek to ensure that businesses have the correct number, or rather quotas—because it seems to amount to that—of groups.

I can see many problems with this well-meaning device. First, I am concerned about to whom it will apply. The Bill defines "designated employers"—those who will have to carry out these reviews—as those designated by the Secretary of State by order. The criteria for selection are that the business must have 10 or more workers. But we are concerned about the other criteria for becoming a designated employer. Surely this cannot mean all businesses with 10 or more workers. That would place an extraordinary burden on small business in this country. The Department of Trade and Industry statistics inform us that at the start of 2000 there were an estimated 3.7 million businesses in the UK. Of these, 99 per cent had less than 50 employees.

Secondly, I am concerned that once the reviews have been carried out and the employers find, as almost certainly many will, that they do not have the correct number of representatives for all groups, they will find themselves in a rather invidious position. Their "employment equity plan" would have to extend to. each employment equity group in respect of which there is under—representation", and decide what objectives needed to be achieved in the next one to five years. While Clause 30(6) makes it clear that employers do not have to place a disproportionate burden on themselves or disregard merit, it is all too easy to see the clause creating problems in the work place.

It is clear that it will be much easier for those in urban cities to comply with these requirements. However, I fail to see how those in small rural areas of, for example, Yorkshire and Cornwall, could possibly hope to have a workforce complete with a full shopping list of all the representative groups required.

I am also concerned that this kind of clause will create problems in the workforce, with colleagues believing that a worker from a minority group has been hired or promoted merely because he or she belongs to such a group, even if this is not the case.

I well recall when working as a lawyer for a major British clearing bank in the early 1980s in New York, the problems that we faced because we were trying, with every will in the world, to enforce quotas. Our task was to employ and promote more women, ethnic minorities and Vietnam veterans. It seems that the latter were being discriminated against on the ground that they had failed to win the Vietnam war on behalf of their fellow citizens and so were in disgrace. That proved a real shock to me at the time. It also showed that new classes of individuals can emerge which necessitate a degree of flexibility in our approach to anti-discrimination law. Our quest to employ more of certain groups within the bank created an enormous amount of resentment—unfortunately, lasting resentment—often through negative under currents, among the workforce as a whole.

There are further points in this area, particularly in relation to employment. While we fully recognise the importance of protecting the vulnerable and accommodating the needs of those who need special arrangements in order to work, we are concerned about the word "arrangements". It is extremely broad.

In essence, there has to be a balance between the rights of an individual and the rights of the group with whom that individual interacts. While I accept, for example, the need for pregnant women to have special arrangements with regard to their, albeit temporary, condition—and here I speak from personal experience again—those arrangements should not place an undue burden upon fellow employees. In many cases it simply is not viable merely to go out and hire additional support. In other words, we must take care to ensure that we are not promoting the needs of the individual at the expense of the remainder of the workforce.

I note that in relation to "protected areas of activity" there is reference to the management by any persons of a members' club. I draw your Lordships' attention to this point in particular, noting that we had a debate on this issue in your Lordships' House yesterday when we were considering the Licensing Bill. Once again we made it clear that we want to support the breaking down of all forms of discrimination to protect the rights and dignity of the individual. We are indeed against any form of discrimination, victimisation or harassment and welcome the opportunity—particularly given that we in the Conservative Party are often misunderstood on the subject—to say so.

The proposal to introduce a comprehensive Equality Act deserves serious consideration. I look forward to hearing the Government's response to the Bill today.

1.29 p.m.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, I, too, add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and his team. They have made an enormous effort to produce a workable and admirably drafted Bill to deal with this most important issue.

Discrimination against groups of people because of characteristics or traits that they cannot usually help, disown or remove is iniquitous and harmful to society at large. I shall restrict my remarks mainly to age discrimination. This form of discrimination is particularly virulent and widespread, mainly because it is largely unrecognised by the people who perpetuate it. That includes older people themselves, who often feel that they have to stand down in favour of younger people. In many cases, that is mistaken, because chronological age is an extremely unreliable factor by which to judge people. If we judge them on their ability in terms of the labour market, on their competence to do a job or, in other fields, on their rights to receive goods and services to the same level as other groups in society, we see that this is an issue of fairness and justice, not merely one of equality.

I feel that legislation is necessary—certainly in the field of employment, because older people need to participate. They provide a resource to our society which is largely under used. If we take into account the new longevity and healthy life expectancy, we have a fast-growing group of people who are an under-used and very capable resource—which we need. Many older people want to continue to work. As we know, pensions are not as secure as they used to be. People's expectations are unlikely to be met without such legislation. In addition, the dependency ratio has changed: there are fewer children. There are small jumps in the birth rate, but overall it is fast declining.

In the past few years companies have used their pension scheme surpluses to downsize, always getting rid of older employees first, because this did not show on the P&L account. It was an easy and cost-effective method. But now, things are changing. I hope that with the help of this Bill they will change for the better.

Furthermore, organisations such as the Employers Forum on Age, which I was privileged to help establish, have demonstrated the value of age diversity in the workforce. They have shown conclusively that older workers tend to stay in a job longer. This must be set against the high cost of recruitment and retention of staff. Therefore, equal opportunities for vocational training for older workers are essential. Although people think that it is not worth getting into, if you employ someone of 60, that person will stay for five years, whereas someone aged 20 is likely to leave in 18 months to two years. So there is a built-in advantage in employing older people. Many older people are reliable and loyal to the company for which they work. They have a great deal of experience and expertise which can be balanced, together with their knowledge of the history of the company, against some of the innovative—and essential—characteristics of young employees.

A further fact to he considered is that 40 per cent of the population is now over 50; over half will be over 50 by 2020; but only about two-thirds of people aged 50 to 65 are in full employment now.

The Government have taken some steps to tackle age discrimination and have helped to raise awareness. But the current code of practice—the result of government activity in response to the Bill supported by Age Concern which was promoted by Linda Perham in another place in 1998—is not legally binding. It has, I am afraid, been rather ineffective.

Now, we have the EU directive, which means that age discrimination in employment and vocational training will he unlawful by 2006. But this is still very narrow. It does not include other areas where age discrimination is still rife: in education; in financial services; in consumer affairs; and, above all, in NHS services, where I am afraid it still exists. I am sure that other noble Lords will talk on that subject with enormous expertise. That is why the Bill is necessary.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has been extremely even handed. For my purposes, he could even go further in some areas of the Bill, but he has made a great effort to accommodate the difficulties that the Government will face. Combating or abolishing age discrimination, even in employment, is complex and difficult. I acknowledge that. But we have to take the bull by the horns. Enormously positive things could come out of this Equality Bill—for example, a single equality commission.

The Bill makes discrimination due to age unlawful in all protected areas of activity. To deny someone a service or employment simply because of their age is wrong. If we introduce a single equality commission—which I favour—we have to take into account the worries, particularly of people in the field of disability, that their cause, or indeed some of the others, may be diluted. If the Bill becomes law and does dilute any of those areas, and discrimination is still apparent, then it will not be working properly. We must make sure that that does not happen.

A single equality commission will have a great job to do. At present, if I felt that I was being discriminated against, it could be on a huge number of grounds—it could he on grounds of age or gender, I could be a lesbian, and so on. There are many areas where no one would be able to advise me of the best path to take to combat the discrimination. I should have to go to each area of a commission to find out which was the best place for me to go. A single equality commission which could point people to the right department or sector would be very helpful.

We have to take these issues on board now. My long-term wish would be for age neutrality or age irrelevance to replace age as a criterion which is largely used against people. We can usually substitute other factors for age. If we cannot see well enough to drive, the problem is our sight, because many older people can see well enough to drive; so it is better to concentrate on that aspect rather than on someone's age. There is a whole list which I have no time to mention now but which would take all these areas of life into consideration.

I feel that it is long overdue that we take on board age discrimination in its wider sense, across our lives. I very much hope that the Bill will succeed.

1.38 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester

My Lords, I, too. appreciate the work of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and his colleagues in bringing so large a range, both of existing legislation and of legislation that may be desirable, within the compass of a single Bill and under the oversight of, and served by, a single commission.

First, I must confess that I have an engagement later that I have to keep. Before deciding whether to add my name to the list of speakers, I took what two or three days ago was the best advice from the Whips' Office. I fear that my judgment on the basis of that advice may prove to be wrong. Only a further hour and a half or so will prove whether that is the case. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and to the House if it proves necessary for me to leave before the end of the debate.

The matters within the Bill's purview—the safeguarding of basic human rights, the promotion in society of the dignity, equality, safety and respect of all its members—are indeed of fundamental importance. They are of such importance that it will be necessary for the Government, and for all of us, whether in another place or in this House, to ensure that the bringing of all these disparate strands within the purview of a single commission does not bring some loss of focus on the individual strands, and does not enforce a misleading or distracting homogenising approach.

While there are certainly common principles, the 10 grounds first set out in paragraphs (a) and (j) of Clause 1(1) raise their own distinct issues in relation to the Bill's purpose. As expressed in the first words of that Clause, the purpose is, to facilitate both the promotion of equality and the elimination of unfair discrimination". That raises specific issues, especially if full value is given to the presence in that expression of the Bill's purpose of the crucial qualifying word, "unfair".

It is not axiomatic that identical investigation and enforcement powers are needed for, and will be appropriate for, each of the 10 "grounds". More important—but also, I recognise, more arguable and controversial—is the suggestion that some of the 10 "grounds" may be more fundamental than others. At some points, there may continue to be legitimate argument from decent, law-abiding people, whose respect for the law the Government should not lightly put at risk, that some discrimination is not only not "unfair", but actually proper and necessary according to the tenets of their faith.

Considering the list in Clause 1 from that standpoint, grounds (a), (b), (c) and (g) are unequivocally to be welcomed. Ground (d), "family status", may need some explication. None is offered in Clause 4, but I would guess that it falls into the same category. Grounds (f), (h) and (i) are also straightforward and to be welcomed, although the Churches and faiths will want to consider carefully whatever legislation is eventually proposed on the pattern of a substantial number of clauses of the Bill, to ensure that the law of the land is not about to prevent them from conscientiously applying their own doctrines and beliefs, which in many cases have been held and practised for many centuries.

The inclusion in the list of grounds in Clause 1 of gender reassignment and sexual orientation—the latter with further interpretation offered in Clause 4—in the context of the provisions of the rest of the Bill. is likely to raise a range of questions for Churches and faiths, if for different reasons. Gender reassignment raises significant questions for sports management bodies, too, but they must speak for themselves, when and as they wish to do so.

With regard to the ground of gender reassignment, I am well aware of the Government's commitment, expressed in the Lord Chancellor's Department's December Statement made in the light of the judgment of the ECHR in Goodwin and in anticipation of that of the House of Lords in Bellinger, to publish a draft Bill to give effect to the requirements of the former. Notwithstanding Goodwin'sremarkable and regrettable inadequacies, I appreciate that it has the authority that it has and that the Government must take the appropriate note of it. Doubtless, that has also been the case for the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and his team.

I appreciate the grave effects of gender dysphoria upon those who suffer from it, and the deep distress and confusion that it causes them. I recognise that, for many such people, gender reassignment treatment. including surgery, has brought substantial relief and liberation. I understand how important it is for those living in a new identity that they should not continue to be subject to embarrassing and distressing questions that hark back to the identity in which they previously lived. I support them and their friends in wanting them to be relieved of those difficulties and constraints to the greatest possible extent.

That said and meant, however, it is also important that the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and his colleagues, recognise that fundamental differences of judgment remain in the medical profession about gender dysphoria and the treatments appropriate to it. There is a significant range of Christian opinion, and of opinion in other faith communities and more widely in society, which does not agree that the gender of any of us can be changed, whatever the Government's Chief Medical Officer or the Government themselves say, and whatever their Lordships say in their judgment in Bellinger.

With regard to ground (j), sexual orientation, I am sure that the noble Lord is aware of the extent to which, for many people now, their sexual orientation is explicitly a matter of their choice rather than one that they themselves understand to be intrinsic to their identity. He may also be aware that the Church of England, along with other Churches and faith groups, is accustomed to draw a clear distinction between "orientation"—understood in terms of the interpretation in Clause 4 of this Bill—and "behaviour". We are now being advised that courts and tribunals are unlikely to recognise any clear-cut distinction along those lines in considering claims of discrimination brought under legislation that is pending. The effect will be that actions taken by the Churches to enforce their doctrines and beliefs in relation to sexual conduct will be rendered unlawful.

In making these points, I am not challenging the principle that people who understand themselves as homosexual, or transgendered, should have full equality and protection before the law and the fullest freedom from prejudice, homophobic violence and unfair discrimination. However, it is crucial that legislation that properly seeks to ensure that equality should not—in my judgment improperly—encroach on the freedom and the right that religious organisations must have to set and enforce their own conduct rules in relation to those who work for them and represent them.

As the Minister and his colleagues know, the Churches and faiths certainly do not see those problems as insurmountable. Indeed, we have a commitment to the basic purposes of legislation of the sort that the noble Lord's Bill so remarkably seeks to codify within a single compass, and to contributing to the development of best practice in this most important area of the life of society. Our representatives are available to work with the Government's, and the noble Lord's, draftspeople, to help ensure that Churches and other faith-based organisations do not find themselves in the position where the law of the land intends to prevent them from conscientiously applying their doctrines and beliefs on moral issues.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I would not normally have interrupted, were the right reverend Prelate not likely to have to leave the debate. Is he aware that, on page 75 of the Bill, we have gone to great lengths to include an exception not only for genuine occupational qualifications but for charitable bodies and schools with a religious character? Does he accept that those exclusions are an attempt to secure a fair balance between his point of view and that of others?

The Lord Bishop of Winchester

My Lords, I am grateful for that question. Yes, I had noted that page carefully. In paragraph 13 of Schedule 2, the provisions are more closely drawn than in existing legislation. Paragraph 14(2) makes a close point, stating that the exclusion does not,

exclude anything done for a reason or reasons relating to any prohibited ground other than religion or belief". For those reasons, I believe that the points I made are still appropriate.

1.50 p.m.

Lord Alli

My Lords, I am very glad to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. Like many other speakers, I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and his team for bringing forward this Bill. He deserves congratulations for taking on the task of producing such a comprehensive Bill on such an important subject.

I cannot really move forward without saying a few words to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester. I still find it amazing that Houses of God should find anti-discrimination legislation a difficult concept and continue to perpetuate a form of righteous discrimination. The principle of creating a level playing field of legislation for different areas of equality is an important one. I believe that no institution or organisation should be exempt from it.

Like all policy areas, the equality arena has its fair share of jargon. Noble Lords could be forgiven for not knowing the jargon for referring to different areas of equality—but they are called "strands". Issues relating to age discrimination are commonly referred to as "age strands", issues relating to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation are called "sexuality strands", and so on. Issues addressed by the current equality commissions—race, gender and disability—are often called the "old strands", and issues such as sexual orientation, religion and belief and age are called the "new strands". I hope that colleagues do not mind my providing a small glossary of terms, but I find it useful to be clear about the jargon used by experts in this area.

The principle behind the Bill is to equalise legislation across all strands, old and new—an overall principle which I support wholeheartedly. I do not intend to provide a detailed clause by clause commentary on the Bill, but shall focus on the question of equality policy that lies behind the Bill. I also propose to focus my input on areas where I have some expertise, including why business should welcome diversity and the importance of understanding equality issues that affect more than one strand.

To understand why the issue is important, we need look no further than a case currently under consideration by the Law Lords. School teacher Shirley Pearce faced horrific discrimination, including attacks on her person and at her home. She was targeted by pupils and colleagues when they discovered that she was a lesbian. The case has had significant publicity, not least because Ms Pearce was represented by no less than Cherie Booth QC. While we await the decision of the Law Lords, we can look back at the response that Ms Pearce received in Europe; namely, that the current mish-mash of equality legislation in the UK meant that if she had been harassed and the words, taunts and violence targeted at her had specified her race or gender, then she certainly would have had the protection of the law. As it is, because the taunts were about her sexuality, she is at best in a very grey area and may well, I suspect, have no rights at all. Can we really afford to waste the talents of so many in our society and leave them with so little protection when they are subject to such blatant attacks?

Clauses 22 to 30 of the Bill tackle the issue of stopping discrimination in the workplace on grounds relating to any of the strands. There is a common myth that business dislikes equality and campaigns against policies designed to see greater equality and diversity in the workplace. I believe that that is a vastly oversimplified view. What I think they resent are complex, unworkable and political arrangements that are commercially unfeasible.

Let us take as an example one of the "new strands", sexual orientation, which is the area that I probably know best. At the moment, there is absolutely no legislation enforcing equality of treatment or anti-discrimination against gay and lesbian people in the workplace. Such laws are coming into force and should be in place at the end of the year. At the moment, however, nothing is in place.

One might think that business would be dreading the introduction of such laws, but the reality is that many of them are taking sensible steps forward. In fact, businesses as diverse and successful as Barclays, BT, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, IBM, Shell, Sainsbury's and Ford proactively sought to work with Stonewall in a scheme called Diversity Champions. They work with the sole aim of ensuring that their companies follow best practice in diversity policy. They believe that that is not only the right thing to do, but that it gives them a competitive edge and better knowledge of their marketplace. In fact, the other day, I noticed that the Treasury, the DTI and the Department for Work and Pensions have recently joined the scheme.

Perhaps I should be encouraged by the fact that the private sector is leading the public sector in recognising the carrot as well as the stick in equality policies. However, the Government are a huge employer. I remind my noble friends on the Front Bench that the Government need to continue their good work in pushing forward their own employees in this area.

I turn to Part 5 of the Bill, which sets out a framework for the establishment of an equality body dealing with the range of different strand issues. I am sure that many noble Lords know that the Government have said that they are minded to introduce such a body and have in fact just closed a consultation period on its possible form. I know that representative groups of the new strands are especially keen to see such a body established, as work in those areas currently relies on voluntary organisations and groups. I know that many of us are keen to hear the results of the consultation and the Government's plan for moving forward in this area. I believe that the creation of a single equality body is to be encouraged as it will provide the institutional support for both the new and old strands—as well as for individuals, such as the noble Baroness and me, who fall into more than one strand.

I am glad that the Government are addressing some of those issues and I urge them to keep them high on the agenda. It may interest the House to know that many of the major equality bodies, in both the old and new strands, support the equalisation of legislation dealing with their respective areas of interest. However, what I think they would all concede is that we have not yet had a debate that has unpicked the detail of any new arrangement or engaged the public on the value of such a body. Nor do the public understand why it can be of benefit to all of us in society regardless of our background, age, race, colour, sexuality or belief. I urge all of those bodies to start that debate. Indeed, the single equality body that the Government are proposing may well be the grain of sand in the oyster that brings that forward.

The last time that I spoke to a Bill brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, was in January 2002. It was a Bill to pave the way for civil partnerships, for which I suspect that I shall be eternally grateful. I spoke of the plight of many gay and lesbian couples who wanted a more stable future. I asked the Government to look at the provisions and try to right a wrong that saw the loved ones of friends and colleagues having to sell their homes when their partner died. I ended by asking the Government to he compassionate and sensitive to those issues. I believe that they listened, and I am optimistic now. We will see movement on civil partnerships.

The Government whom I support have a great record on equality, and I ask my colleagues to listen once again. There are some valuable principles in the Bill. I hope that they will see it as a constructive move forward. In any case, I hope that they will rest assured that I shall continue to support them in this particular area.

I must end by again thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for giving us this opportunity to discuss the Bill. His perseverance should be a lesson for us all.

1.58 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I add my thanks to those already given to my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill for introducing the Bill. He has a distinguished record on human rights. He is a pioneer in the matter of anti-discrimination legislation in Britain. I have known him now for more than 35 years. He has been tireless in ensuring that race legislation is an unequivocal statement of public policy in this country. He is internationally respected on matters of rights, liberties and equality. He acted as an adviser on this issue to the former Home Secretary, the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I have no doubt that the Minister will take serious note of his comments.

It is not in dispute that the United Kingdom has substantial anti-discrimination legislation on the statute hook. In this respect, we are far more advanced than some of our European neighbours. Equality of opportunity is one of the core values of a civilised society. It has helped to build a strong. competitive and successful Britain. But this does not mean that our framework of anti-discrimination legislation could not be better. There is clear evidence that we still have a long way to go. Could we really say that we have achieved equality for all our citizens? Do women earn the same as men? Why are black men more likely to be unemployed than white men? Why is society still uneasy when it concerns gay people who are constantly harassed during work and leisure? Have we really tackled the disadvantage suffered by disabled people?

The race relations legislation was first introduced in 1965. It was followed in the 1970s with legislative measures to tackle sex discrimination. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is also on the statute book. Of course there has been progress, but it has been slow and cumbersome. Much of the early legislation on race introduced over 25 years ago needs drastic revision. We need a fundamental review to ensure that what we promote helps to make a difference to people's lives.

Barbara Roche MP has this to say in The House Magazine: There is no point in just tinkering around the edges. What we need is a complete culture change in the way our workplaces and our institutions function". I welcome the Government's initiative in undertaking a major review of our equality bodies. I also welcome the consultation document Equality and Diversity: Making if Happen. The questions posed by the Government are the right ones. What should our institutions' top priority be? How can they best contribute to a more just and equal society? What are the structural options, such as a single equality body?

I hope that this exercise of public consultation does not delay the need to replace the outdated, fragmented and unsatisfactory legislative framework that has been in existence all this time. This is not to underestimate the impact of existing legislation, but to accept that successive Governments have been reluctant to respond to many of the recommendations made by the Commission for Racial Equality in its frequent reviews of the race relations legislation. The commission's terms of reference entitle it to undertake this exercise. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, but that was driven more by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry than any other factor.

It is not good enough to say that the Government have started to implement the employment and race directives or that there is draft legislation to outlaw discrimination at work on the grounds of sexual orientation and religion. This piecemeal approach does not assist in tackling discrimination and promoting equality in a strategic way. There is now almost a consensus that a single equality Act must be the starting point for the establishment of a single equality body.

Who in the 1960s could have believed that we would have legislative measures to tackle racial discrimination? History tells us why it was necessary to introduce the measures in the way that we did. The Race Relations Act 1965 was the gentle persuasion to prepare the public to tackle discrimination in public places. The Race Relations Act 1968 established the principle of conciliation as a means of tackling grievances based on race, colour, national and ethnic origin. The Race Relations Act 1976 was the start of a strategic approach to tackle institutional discrimination.

Over the years, the position of the black and ethnic minority communities has also changed substantially. We have the benefit of the latest census figures published by the Office for National Statistics. They show that in April 2001, 9.9 per cent of the population in England and Wales identified themselves as being from an ethnic minority. In London, 31.2 per cent of people identified themselves as being from an ethnic minority. We also have evidence published by the Cabinet Office in its report, Minority Ethnic Issues in Social Exclusion and Neighbourhood Renewal that 70 per cent of all people from ethnic minorities live in the 88 most deprived local authority districts compared with 40 per cent of the general population.

Further evidence tells us that in 1999, only 30 per cent of Pakistani pupils, 37 per cent of black pupils and 30 per cent of Bangladeshi pupils achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A-C compared with 50 per cent of white pupils and 62 per cent of Indian pupils. An African-Caribbean graduate is more than twice as likely to be unemployed as a white person with A-levels. African men with degrees are seven times more likely to be unemployed than white male graduates.

There has been a massive shift in Britain's demographic makeup. The pattern is constantly changing. We no longer talk about the first generation of immigrants. Primary immigration has virtually stopped. We are reaching a stage when most black and ethnic minority persons are born in this country. Despite this, it is safe to assume that discrimination occurs in all fields. Almost all research agencies and the Commission for Racial Equality have confirmed that. It is no good being squeamish about it. The minorities are entitled to the same standard of consideration, fairness and respect as anyone else. Can we be absolutely certain that they receive it?

Equality should never be undermined. In the final analysis, the emphasis in any policy determination should be the manner in which and the extent to which minorities' deepest feelings about their race, colour, national or ethnic origin are fully accepted within the community and by the policymakers.

Trends in race relations show that discrimination still persists at a very high level. Minorities are still to be found disproportionately among the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, those who have never worked, those who are stopped and searched, those in penal institutions, among the under-achievers in schools and as victims of racial harassment and violence. The fact remains that racism and racial discrimination is an everyday reality in the lives of many minorities. Geographically and economically they are still in the precarious position of being in the same place as was allotted to them when they first came here. But the most frightening aspect is the failure of many of our institutions to take into account the cultural diversity of' our different communities.

I stress that, apart from minor tinkering, the Race Relations Act 1976 has been amended only once in 26 years. What is now required is the political wisdom appropriate to a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society. We have waited almost 30 years, but now is the time to write a new chapter.

The race relations lobby need not worry about what is proposed in my noble friend's Bill. In Committee we shall have ample opportunity to deal with various aspects of the forms of discrimination that we need to confront and with the promotion of equality.

The Bill contains almost all the provisions that equality bodies want. Much work has already been done on such issues for which we thank not only my noble friend but also Professor Hepple, Mary Coussey and Tufyal Choudhury who did much of the ground work in producing the Bill. As I say, we have waited for 27 years for a major review. Now is the time to write a new chapter based on an equality commission encompassing all equality bodies.

2.9 p.m.

Lord Rix

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity provided by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for this dry run of comprehensive equal treatment legislation. The noble Lord and his advisers deserve our warmest congratulations.

I should begin by making my usual declaration of interest as father and grandfather of disabled persons, and as President of the Royal Mencap Society. Like many others in your Lordships' House, I suppose I ought also to declare the interest of being an older person. I shall stop short of claiming ethnic minority identity as a Yorkshireman. Yorkshiremen have not tended to see themselves as a victimised minority.

In general, I welcome a good deal of this Bill, not least because it addresses the concerns about possible loss of the Disability Rights Commission by retaining that commission for the first three years of the new arrangements. In effect, the Bill preserves the existing disability rights legislation more or less intact, and extends to disabled people the benefits of a wider equality strategy. There are incidental advantages for those who, as well as being disabled, have one or more other characteristics that might attract prejudicial discrimination. This seems to me in principle the right approach in the shorter term, if we are to have early equality legislation. However, I am not absolutely persuaded that death by absorption for the Disability Rights Commission is necessarily right in the longer term.

I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the DRC for seeking to include people with learning disabilities fully in its disability rights agenda. I couple that tribute with a tribute to people with learning disabilities such as Eva Rank Petroziello as a commissioner and Simon Cramp, a Mencap trustee and a member of the commission's learning disability group, for the role which they have played. It is all too easy to perceive disability in terms of physical and sensory impairment—with the very visible symbols of wheelchairs and white sticks—and to ignore intellectual disability. It is also all too easy to forget that, particularly among children and older people, disability is commonly multiple disability.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has shown himself to be sensitive to concerns that a new unified equalities approach might be premature, given that implementation of disability rights is still being phased in; and to concerns that disability might be overshadowed by sex, ethnicity, and age—to say nothing of the more esoteric conditions giving rise to possible prejudice such as gender re-assignment. I remain concerned about the longer term. In other countries which have followed the path of integrated equalities working, there have been ongoing arrangements for a distinctive identity for the disability dimension. In other words, disability has featured as a distinctive area of business, with its own senior leadership, its own dedicated staff, its own agenda for action and its own statistics.

The Bill as it stands seems to envisage retention of the DRC followed by abolition, with no ongoing separate identity for the disability dimension. This is despite the fact that, as close scrutiny of the Bill reveals, disability is different both in being, on the odd occasion, a legitimate ground for discrimination and in requiring positive measures to be taken to overcome the disabling effects of impairment—effects which the rest of us impose.

I encourage the Government, either today or if and when it is the Government's turn to legislate, to lift the curtain of the dark a little, and to give some encouragement to the hope that in the longer term, as well as in the shorter term, there can and will be specific recognition for disability discrimination and the means of addressing it. Those who laboured for 20 years to secure what we have would be sad to see that disappear for the sake of an alleged greater but certainly more amorphous good.

I suspect that my other concerns are more easily addressed, as this government-Bill lookalike, if I read it aright, seems to address them in part already. Significant improvements in disabled people's lives have been possible because organisations and institutions have adopted policies and practices that promote the interests of particular groups of disabled people. As I understand the Bill, it encourages broad disability strategies on the part of public services and employers and, within that, allows for policies and practices that favour particular groups of disabled people.

Thus Mencap can continue, as its constitution requires, to favour people with learning disabilities, including those who have additional disabilities. As stated by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, an advertisement seeking a child actor for a child's part would be lawful. If my interpretation is correct, employers and public authorities concerned to get the less than 10 per cent level of employment for people with learning disabilities up to the more than 30 per cent employment rate for disabled people generally could also exercise some selectivity among disabled people if they so wished.

I shall venture on to more sensitive ground. The debate is a good opportunity to air some rather delicate issues. Someone with a learning disability, such as my daughter, who needs personal intimate care might have a preference that such care should be provided, whether in their own home or in a residential home, by someone whose gender and sexual orientation they personally find reassuring rather than threatening. They might have preferences based on ethnicity or religious identity. There is always the potential for a clash between the law on discrimination, as it affects the employers of care staff, and the personal choices of individuals with disabilities as to who provides their personal care.

I am inclined to the view that people whose disabilities tend to limit their choices quite severely, and who are heavily dependent on others for very basic things, probably ought to have the right to choose their carers. After all, there is no law that overrides our personal rights to decide who we let into our house.

I note in passing that one of the criteria for a housing and support arrangement being accepted as supported living rather than residential care is the right to decide who enters one's own house and room. That of itself seems to imply that the individual can override equality legislation by exercising personal choice. I would be sorry to see that same right denied to people with severe disabilities living on the residential care side of that rather unclear dividing line between residential care and supported living.

Finally, like a traveller in an antique land unearthing surprising things in the sands, I came across paragraph 36 of Schedule 2, which is in Part 5 of the schedule. It is probably not the section of the Bill to which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, most frequently turns in the wee small hours. I think that the provision, apart from clearly reinforcing the demand for incapacity benefit legislation south of the Border, provides a rather sweeping denial of consumer rights to any disabled person whose intellectual capacity has been called into question.

That is not wholly new, but I would welcome early rethinking of it by the Government. to ensure that fair treatment in buying essentials such as food, equipment or a roof over someone's head cannot be put at risk by the discriminatory doctrine that they lose their consumer rights if it is suspected that they might not shine in an IQ test. It is already apparently more difficult for people with learning disabilities to hold bank accounts, so it seems likely to be more difficult for them to handle their own benefit money when bank accounts become a sine qua non of direct receipt of social security benefits and tax credits.

Like one of those impressive sailing ships that I recall seeing gathered in the Thames for the round-the-world race, this impressively large and in some aspects elegant new Bill is embarking on its legislative journey. I wish it well. However, I fear that it is carrying so much sail that it is likely to sink without trace before it reaches Gravesend. Even if it joins Davy Jones in his locker, I see every possibility that those who construct the official version will have a great deal to learn from the Bill and our debates on it. On that basis, I welcome it, if only transitionally. At worst, how can you tell that you do not like Blackpool until you have seen it?

2.19 p.m.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for introducing this Bill in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord has a unique experience and expertise in the field of equality and race relations. Indeed, he has been at the vanguard of this field in the United Kingdom. marking the introduction of much-needed legislation at a time of great multicultural change in the society of the UK.

I am delighted to be able to support the noble Lord in his current endeavour to redress the balance of the long-standing discrepancies in equality legislation for all sections of our society. When we look for equality, it is important to ensure that all members of society feel included and that all feel that the laws are for the benefit of everyone. Everyone should come within the remit of equality. Gender, race, disability and ethnicity should no longer be a hindrance to the aspirations of members of these sections of the community.

Two years ago, I introduced a Private Member's Bill in your Lordships' House on religious discrimination because I felt that our laws were inadequate to deal with Islamophobia and anti-Muslim feeling. Since September 11th, there have been increased attacks on Muslim communities and places of worship, extending even to attacks on the Sikh and Hindu communities. Although I am delighted that the Race Relations Act 1976 covers Sikh and Jewish communities—and for good reason—unfortunately it does not cover Muslim, Hindu or even Christian communities from religious attacks from the fascists in our society.

There are also anomalies in the law. In Northern Ireland we have religious discrimination laws but they do not extend to mainland Britain. Although the employment directive from the European Union will try to spread values of equality to all religious groups, including Muslims and, specifically, women who wear the hijab headscarf and men who have beards or dress differently, employers would not he able lawfully to discriminate against that.

Nevertheless, the real problem that we face in our multicultural societies all over Europe is the pervasive, unspoken mindset of institutional prejudice against different groups. We also have to face the narrowness of reporting of religions from the media and ignorant comments from our own politicians.

Perhaps I may clarify that. There is little doubt that the mass media are greatly influential in shaping the parameters within which minority groups are viewed by, and discussed in, the indigenous community. That was confirmed in the report of December 1999 of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Differences between communities and the images perpetuated in the media continue to cause friction in the community at large. That is comparable to the Muslim community in the UK these days, which is experiencing the demonisation of its religious, cultural and traditional practices by a media culture which is reactive and narrow.

I accept that there are a few groups that call themselves Muslims and fight under the banner of Islam, but other groups in Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism also use religion as an excuse to gain their political ends. For example, the Vishva Hindu Prashad, or VHP—a Hindu nationalist right-wing party—is responsible for the massacre of Muslims in Indian Gujrat, as well as for the destruction of churches and the murder of Christian leaders in Gujrat. Similarly, the SPLA in south Sudan is a broadly Christian organisation fighting an Islamic regime in the north. Yet they are not labelled or ostracised as Hindu or Christian terrorists. I have said in your Lordships' House that ETA, the Basque separatist movement in Spain, or the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka are not defined by religion but by their political aims.

But it is with regret that every organisation which fights for the right of self-determination for the Muslim community or which fights an army of coercive occupation in Palestine, Kashmir or Chechnya is then referred to as Islamic terrorists. Those sentiments are then spread to our communities here in the UK with fear, suspicion and loathing, and that strengthens the propaganda of the right-wing fascists who attack Muslims, Jews, Hindus or whoever. However, unfortunately, since September 11th, the concern has been on the Muslim community.

The troubles in the North in 2001 were the result of under-achievement, deprivation, social exclusion and high unemployment. but sadly this situation was exploited by the BNP who viewed and related it as Muslim criminals on the loose, who are responsible for the social problems in our society—an easy scapegoat to account for the fallacies of the structure of the institutionalism of discrimination in the UK.

I would like to thank the Government for providing an independent report produced by Derby University regarding religious discrimination. I want to express my concern that not enough progress has been made in this area to accommodate discriminated groups in our society today. I also want to thank the Nuffield Foundation and the Rowntree Foundation for their Cambridge University Hepple report, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lester.

I welcome the Bill in that it widens the prevailing framework of anti-discrimination legislation that deals only with exclusions based on the grounds of sex, race and disability. The Equality Bill seeks to encompass religious and ageist bias as well which ensures that individuals will not be discriminated against on the basis of their personal differences. The Bill also intends to co-ordinate, to modernise and to extend established arrangements under a number of different enactments, as well as integrating the principles of the new Article 13 in the Treaty of Amsterdam. I welcome Part 3 of the Bill which will require bodies exercising functions of a public nature to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity.

Furthermore, the proposed unified equality commission which will amalgamate the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, will provide a more focused, coherent body examining discrimination charges. Could the noble Lord, Lord Lester, clarify to what extent the body would have a statutory enforcing power to direct tribunals to implement their compliance notices once issued?

Also I welcome the positive duties that employers are encouraged to take in order to effect policies to achieve fair participation in the working environment. Where there is under-representation of certain groups, it is necessary to encourage the participation of the excluded members by creating an environment that is open and conducive to the needs of those people. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Lester, a question with reference to Part 4 of the Bill, which relates to the obligations in employment—that members of groups are defined with reference to colour, race, ethnic or national origins, sex and disability. However, that excludes religious groups as a group seeking to achieve equality. As religion transgresses racial and social groupings, it is vital that that is also accounted for, as the potential is there to affect another stratum of society. Could the noble Lord clarify the position of such a group regarding employment representation?

In conclusion I wish to reiterate the importance of reassuring the victimised sections of our society who are facing the brunt of ignorant racism in its broadest sense. It is essential that the Government acknowledge that they are concerned about the welfare of all their citizens here in the UK and that in order to protect their rights, they have a recourse available to them. In many ways the Government have commendably tried to address these pressing issues, but have achieved only a piecemeal solution to the underlying problems facing these sections of society.

Sometimes criticism is the cost of conviction for leaders. but the badge of honour upholding the universal, transcendent values of equality and even-handedness should be seen to shine and guide this Great Britain to a more peaceful path.

2.29 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I am sure that no one will be surprised if, in speaking to the debate today, I speak partly to the agenda of sex discrimination. The great value of the Bill is that it covers all forms of discrimination. My responsibility on these Benches is women's issues, although the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has reminded me that as I age my eyes do not work as well as they used to and I am becoming arthritic.

I was for some time the chair of the Associate Parliamentary Group on Sex Equality. Even before the publication of the Hepple report, the group had begun to discuss the creation of a single equality body because we knew it might be in the offing. Most of us were doubtful about, or even positively opposed to, the idea. We had some of the same fears of diminished service from a commission serving interests other than those of women, that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, expressed with respect to people with disabilities.

Gradually, over several months of presentations and discussion, most of' the members had the same experience as I did. Almost without argument, we more or less independently arrived at the conclusion that the idea had merit.

Recently, the Government consulted on the subject of a single quality body. The group, under its new chair Julie Morgan, sought and obtained advice and opinions from quite a wide range of people, including practitioners in the legal minefield of the existing rafts of equality legislation.

Again it became clear that members of the group were in broad agreement that a single equality body should be set up in the context of a new equality Act. Furthermore, many felt that an important element of that Act should be the duty on employers not just to avoid discrimination but positively to promote equality among their workforce. I would be amazed if a similar approach had not been taken by many other organisations consulted by the Government.

Now we have a Bill before us which does both things: it modernises and broadens the coverage of equality legislation within a single Act, and it provides for the establishment of an equality commission to encourage its implementation and to enforce it. Perhaps I may pause to make a point in answer to the one made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. One of the reasons why the Irish equality commission is having some difficulties is that it is not backed up by a single equality Act.

I, for one, very much welcome my noble friend's initiative in bringing forward the Bill. I appreciate that it is the fruit of many people's work, not least that of my noble friend himself. It is clear from the material that has reached me that not all the organisations consulted on the draft Bill are entirely satisfied with the Bill before us today. However, I trust that their concerns can be alleviated in Committee.

Our existing legislation, in advance of its time when first passed, is showing its age and needs not merely amendment but a thorough overhaul. The various existing Acts have different impacts. I think I am right lo say that only the Race Relations (Amendment) Act provides for a duty upon public employers to promote equality. That new duty resulted from the determination to drive out institutional racism which followed the Lawrence case.

The question arises as to whether other types of discrimination, against women, for example, do not also derive from cultural assumptions and stereotypes which may he endemic within places of work. Is that riot also a form of institutionalised discrimination? The Bill responds to that problem by putting all forms of discrimination on an equal footing and by including larger private employers within the legislation.

In addition, it includes prohibition of discrimination on some grounds that have never before been included in legislation. Several noble Lords have spoken vividly and interestingly on that subject. Under the Bill, discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy, marital status, family status and gender reassignment are treated equally with, and not merely as a part of, sex discrimination.

Therefore, a major result of the new Bill, if it were enacted, would be greatly to simplify the present situation that obtains whereby a lawyer trying to assist a client must first determine the ground on which to make a claim that discrimination has been suffered. That is rendered more difficult because the area of activity in which the discrimination has been suffered must also be considered. At present the choice of ground or area affects the ease or difficulty of proceeding. In future, all strands—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, for enlightening us about the use of that word in this context—will be treated equally.

Another strength of the Bill is its definition of direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, victimisation and other unlawful acts contained in Clauses 9 to 17. Many people have commented to me on the length of the Bill, but much of that length. including these clauses, renders the intention and force of the Bill wonderfully clear. Surely that is an admirable quaity, in legislation, rather than the reverse. The Bill helps us to define an important aspect of our civil rights: the right to equal treatment in several crucial aspects of our daily lives, such as employment and the sale and purchase of goods and services.

The other day, the phrase "political correctness" was used in your Lordships' House following a question that I raised on the number of women non-executive directors. The phrase both annoyed and saddened me. I lived for a total of almost six years in communist countries and know exactly what political correctness is—the opposite of an interest in, and determination to ensure, equal civil rights for all. It is sad that a concern for equal treatment is sometimes regarded askance by the British, who tend to claim that a sense of fair play is peculiarly British.

Enlightened self-interest is also involved. Equal access to education is important to society, because ill-educated and alienated youngsters are a breeding ground for criminal behaviour. Companies. local authorities or government departments that do not give women an equal possibility of rising to posts that match their ability lose the full contribution of that ability. Can it be sensible to behave as though all the skills that this country needs are located in the bodies and brains of white, able-bodied, straight men of so-called working age? No, my Lords. The Bill is not desirable for its "political correctness". It is not even desirable solely in the pursuit of justice and equal treatment for all, although my noble friend has spent much of his life in the pursuit of those objectives. It is also desirable because it carries forward a process that, among many other benefits, will contribute to the general well-being of society and the progress of this country.

I hope that the Government will now renew their earlier interest in a new approach to equality legislation. It would be far more fruitful than the mere creation of a new equality commission, trying to administer existing legislation, could ever be. I do not wish to threaten Ministers, but I remind them that my noble friend has had considerable success in the past in bringing forward-looking and difficult legislation to this House in the form of a Private Members' Bill and seeing it eventually adopted by the Government.

2.39 p.m.

Baroness Prashar

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for introducing the Bill. His commitment to equality and perseverance to ensure that we have comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation on the statute book is admirable and an example to us all Characteristically of the noble Lord, his Bill is, as we heard, the product of four years' careful and thorough work that he and his team initiated by setting up a review and ensuring that there was wide consultation on both the review and the draft Bill.

As someone who has been involved for nearly three decades in promoting equality, I welcome the Bill and applaud the principles and the approach that underpin it. I hope that the Government will grasp the opportunity that the Bill presents. It offers an effective way of tackling discrimination on all accounts and promoting equality in the 21st century. The Bill will help to end the history of poor performance to date. It will enable prevention, rather than cure, to be the basis for dealing with discrimination and inequality. It will rectify the system, which is old and out-of-date and does not reflect higher contemporary expectations. The Bill will deal with dissatisfaction with outmoded legislation, fragmentation and inconsistencies between separate anti-discrimination regimes and separate commissions.

The current legal complexity makes it harder for employers, particularly small employers, to comply with legal obligations. It hinders victims of discrimination in their attempts to get redress, and it renders compliance with legal obligations too dependent on the willingness of individuals to take action. At present, the main initiatives for tackling discrimination and promoting equality tend to be piecemeal, reactive and separate from each other. There is a need to create a new culture of inclusiveness that, while taking account of differences, will encourage integrated approaches, as envisaged in the Bill.

Sharing common ground will encourage links between groups facing discrimination and, at the same time, help to focus the attention of employers and service providers on the need for an integrated and comprehensive approach. It will encourage cross-fertilisation. Furthermore, the Bill will make it easier to deal with cases of multiple discrimination: all will enjoy the same rights. At present, to whom should a gay, black woman born in 1940 in Africa turn, when she fails to gain employment, even though she is the most qualified and most suitable applicant, or, after gaining a post, must leave it because she experiences a hostile environment? Just determining the basis of such discrimination could be a puzzle within a puzzle.

Was she discriminated against because of her sex or sexual orientation? Perhaps it was the colour of her skin or her religious affiliation. Perhaps her employer or other employees harassed her because of her age or her country of origin. At present, such an individual will not receive the kind of assistance and justice that she deserves. If we adopt the Equality Bill, all individuals in this country—regardless of sex, race, colour, ethnic or national origin, belief, disability, age, sexual orientation or other status—will be protected from unlawful discrimination.

Time has moved on. Discrimination and exclusion are more complex and covert than they were three decades ago. To eliminate discrimination and promote equality, we must place greater emphasis on changes in the culture and ethos of organisations and significant changes in institutional practices and policies. My experience of working with and within organisations has convinced me that we need a new legal framework that will help to make equality central to the whole range of public policy debates and organisational practices and reduce the risk that equality issues will be sidelined. The Bill would provide such a framework.

In that context, I welcome the provision for participation by interest groups, employers and service providers in the development of equity plans to promote equality. That would mean getting employers and service providers to take on greater responsibility and get involved directly in decision making. It would represent a shift away from the adversarial approach to one that is participatory and involves everyone. That is precisely the culture change needed in order to make progress. The change will not happen without the legal framework proposed in the Bill.

Finally, I regret that the Government have entered into consultation about the desirability of a single equality commission without reviewing the case for a single equality Act—the logic of which I do not follow. We need to learn from our experience of the past 35 years and develop a modern approach. Different regimes and inconsistent legislation sometimes contributed to unnecessary special pleading by different groups and fragmentation. That runs counter to the Government's desire to create an inclusive society. A single equality commission, without a single equality Act, will not improve matters. In my view, a single equality Act is an important aspect of the aspiration of the Government to build a cohesive society. Indeed, it will be a missed opportunity if the Bill does not receive the support that it so richly deserves.

2.45 p.m.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, has a long and distinguished record in the field of human rights and has long been an ardent advocate of the ethical and practical value of antidiscrimination legislation. I recall first meeting the noble Lord in the mid-1970s when he was an adviser to Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, and I were founder members of the Equal Opportunities Commission, set up under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. In 1976, the Race Relations Act followed. Whatever difficulties we see in that legislation now, they were certainly marvellous examples of anti-discrimination legislation in their day. Much of the credit goes to the noble Lord, Lord Lester.

I, too, believe that it is right to create one commission to replace the separate bodies, subject only to the telling and important remarks made today by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke. It is right to reform the tangled web of legislation and to seek a broader scope so that it covers other forms of discrimination, including age, religion and gender assignment, along with the older strands—as my noble friend Lord Alli described them. I wish the Bill well at Second Reading today.

I especially welcome the Bill's proposal to extend present anti-discrimination laws to age, particularly, but not exclusively, in the realm of employment. As an aside, I hope that there is no significance in paragraph (3) of the Explanatory Notes which states that the Bill provides: a single framework for eliminating discrimination and promoting equality". Age sometimes brings a number of discriminatory advantages. I do not want my concessions at the cinema, theatre and London Underground to disappear in an advanced requirement for equality in every sense of the word.

More seriously, as the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, reminded us, in 1999 the Government produced their code of practice on age diversity in employment. The Government's recent Green Paper on Working and Saving for Retirement sets the standards for non-ageist approaches to recruitment, training and development, promotion, redundancy and retirement.

Apparently, there has been considerable improvement in practice although, as possibly expected, not so much with the small and medium-sized enterprises who are said to be less aware of the code and less aware of the benefits to employers of carrying out the practices that the code suggests. The evidence is that employers with age-diverse workforces enjoy lower staff turnover, lower absenteeism and have workers with higher levels of motivation, commitment and efficiency.

Praise can he given to firms such as B&Q, which have no retirement age, and to Tesco, where one in six of the workforce is 50-plus. Quoted in the Green Paper is a 72 year-old, who said: I'd been turned away by one supermarket who said their upper age limit for drivers was 70. I responded to a flyer advertising for delivery drivers for Domino's who said age did not matter and they have given me a chance". The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, touched on the fact that if employers do not want to be ageist, they are none the less often stuck with pay and pension structures which make it financially more attractive to replace older people with younger workers. That may create a disincentive to older people to reduce their hours before retiring fully.

Flexible retirement, allowing the opportunity more gradually to move from full-time work to full-time retirement, should be more readily available and would be widely favoured. I believe the Government are developing proposals to outlaw age discrimination in employment and vocational training by December 2006, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, reminded us. To some of us, that seems a long way away. Although that is required by EU directives, would it not be a good idea to jump that gun?

I want to express anxiety about the intervention of law in the matter of discrimination, and in particular discrimination between men and women, in the employment field. In a current case before the Employment Tribunal, a man is claiming to be discriminated against because his employers expect him to wear a collar and tie and his female colleagues are subject to less exacting requirements. I understand that elsewhere women workers complain because they are expected to wear a dress or skirt while the men are allowed to wear trousers.

Perhaps I am letting my imagination run away with me, but there could be a case of a man complaining that he is required to wear trousers while a woman is not. But my question, which is serious, is: are such claims apt for solemn dispute with all the paraphernalia of lawyers, judges or tribunal members? Surely, there should be a balance between the demands of an employer as regards hours of work, conditions of work and suitable clothes that employees should wear—no doubt properly negotiated with the relevant trade unions—and also the equal treatment of men and women.

These are times of changing sartorial habits, whether between sexes, different ethnic groups or just between individuals. I query whether we want the law to be even more involved with increasingly extreme, if not absurd, claims of discrimination being brought before our courts and tribunals.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, will not be surprised to know that I am extremely doubtful about his desire to push anti-discrimination law even further into the realm of private members' clubs through Clause 6(1)(f) and Part 7 of Schedule 2, tucked away but none the less of significance, in his Bill. The subtle distinctions to be made in his Bill between single-sex clubs and other clubs in the Bill are more appropriate for discussion in Committee, but I want to make a general point. The law should not trespass into the home—or the extension of one's home, which is how I would regard most members' clubs—and the law should not be used to intervene in people's social behaviour. If it does, statutory provisions may have to be excessively subtle, complex and difficult to interpret and I suggest that some of the provisions to which I have referred fall into those categories.

Finally, I refer to the lecture of the noble Lord. Lord Lester, in 2000, which became known as the St Thomas More lecture. In it he claimed that, 30 years on from the Race Relations Act 1968, the moral legitimacy and practical value of equality legislation was widely accepted and understood. I certainly agree. But when in the same lecture the noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred to the views of Lord Radcliffe in 1968, which were highly critical of the introduction of the law into the field of race relations, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, seemed to accept Lord Radcliffe's view that at that time anti-discrimination was novel, controversial and lacked political consensus.

Today, in my view, some of the more extreme applications of anti-discrimination law, including its extension to private clubs and its involvement with social life, lacks political consensus and is a case of' one area of legislation too far.

2.56 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, when you find yourself 13th on the speakers' list, the only thing you can say is "Where does the bad luck fall? On those who have to listen or on those who have to speak?".

To cut to the chase, the Bill and the aims behind it are good. Discrimination of any kind—whether it is against the disabled or on sexual or racial grounds—is a violation of people's human rights, their dignity and the way they operate. It is absurd to create huge barriers, other than on practical grounds.

What are those practical grounds? First, there is the ground of tradition and the context in which we look at these issues. Traditions are generally invented or re-invented every 50 years. It has been 20 or 25 years since we started the process, and I suggest that we can now start a new tradition by bringing together all the anti-discrimination bodies.

Secondly, there is the ground of practicality, which was raised by the disability lobby, with which I am strongly connected. As the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, pointed out, disabilities are complicated by their diversity. The needs of someone in a wheelchair are different from the needs of someone with, for example, my own disability, dyslexia. Different disabilities affect people's lives in different ways. In certain situations, a disability will not impinge on a person's life style. In other situations the disability can become a total barrier—for example, when a dyslexic has to write down something quickly or when someone in a wheelchair is confronted by a flight of steps. The knock-on effects of these situations are complicated. It is difficult for people to understand these problems and to follow the logic from one point to another.

As the legislation covering discrimination on the grounds of disability was the last to arrive—and if ever there was a painful birth it was that of the DDA; I shall never forget the affair of the two Scots—it needs to be taken forward further. It is still a small and leaky ship. The Disability Rights Commission is a useful body which is growing in strength. Indeed, my noble friend has acknowledged that it has not yet reached its full growth. He believes that it will take at least three years before the commission is able to diversify and operate at its full potential. But it is a practical way forward.

Much of the Bill builds on good practice and on other pieces of legislation—my noble friend nods in agreement. Therefore, my noble friend faces the great problem that the disability field at present is not as it should be. I cannot help but feel that if we follow this approach through and attempt to achieve an overall commission that pays proper attention to disability matters, becomes experienced in this area and begins to know how to think, we shall take matters further. We shall have the support of other groups in going forward. That is what we want.

I have one question about the equality commission. What proposals does my noble friend believe should be added to the Bill to make sure that it has the required amount of knowledge and expertise across all these fields—disability is the one with which I am mostly concerned—so that we have the means of making sure that matters are pushed in the right direction? At present, the Disability Rights Commission has a large number of disabled people working for it who know what they are talking about. If they do not know about a particular field, at least they know that there are areas about which they need more knowledge—areas where they are not experienced and where it will not have occurred to them that discrimination takes place. An answer from my noble friend on that point would remove one of the question marks.

I have pushed long and hard to try to make sure that all these types of activity are gathered together. I have harassed various Ministers on this issue for several years. We are trying to create a process that will stop discrimination generally across society, which will bring all these areas together—provision that works effectively, so that we can look to one body, or reform one Act, and get on with the idea of fully enforceable civil rights. At present, we waste a great deal of parliamentary time, and our own time, on these matters. I hope that this Bill or a similar provision will soon mean that we are able to take on more positive issues, not be eternally defending positions in an attempt to make sure that certain groups are not restricted in their ability to take part in society in their fullest capacity.

3.2 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I must declare an interest as the first deputy chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Indeed, it seems only yesterday that, with the chairman of the EOC, the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, we were interviewing potential staff for the commission, which was due to begin its work on 29th December 1975. I remember finding it mildly amusing that the civil servant allocated to be our chief executive and to help us with that task came from the Ministry of Defence.

As the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, has said—the noble Lord was a much-valued first-time colleague on the EOC—the 1975 Act was largely crafted, or, as I would say, inspired, by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who was at that time working in the Home Office as political adviser to the much missed Lord Jenkins. So the noble Lord, Lord Lester, the sponsor of this Bill, is not only a hugely respected international human rights lawyer, but also, in the opinion of many people, including myself, the supremo of equality legislation as it has developed in this country.

It is not surprising to find in the draft Bill much that I recognise important duty to be given to the equality commission to promote equal opportunities as well as to enforce the law. There is, as well, what was in 1975 the novel and highly influential concept—now to be strengthened—of indirect discrimination. But equally, there is much that is new—for example. the subsequent incremental changes in UK law and the relevant EU directive, some of which, such as religion and age discrimination, are due respectively by 2004 and 2006. They are not with us yet, and one hopes that they will be hurried up. The Bill seeks to include almost every single form of unjustified discrimination which it is currently believed that legislation can help us to eradicate.

In the early days, the Equal Opportunities Commission, with its fairly limited remit by today's standards. faced a hostile reception. Most of those affected, such as employers, education authorities, or the providers of goods. facilities and services, had yet to accept that they could possibly be discriminating against women. The media, too—women journalists as much as men—were almost uniformly hostile.

Early on in that era, there were calls to amalgamate the EOC and the Commission for Racial Equality, but keeping the two commissions separate was certainly the most sensible route in those days. As between race and sex, there were distinct differences, both as to what needed doing and over priorities. At that time, with the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the recently passed Sex Discrimination Act 1975, equal opportunities for women seemed to have a higher profile than racial discrimination—although it could go one way or the other. Against that background, I remember arguing, as proved to he the case, that there was a positive merit in pressing for changes in attitude and practices that disadvantaged the female 50 per cent of the population because, when those changes were in place, it would be impossible to argue that they should not equally apply to discrimination against different ethnic groups. In other words, one might blaze the trail for the other.

We have proceeded incrementally, with considerable success for all parties despite the distance left to go. My prediction was that it would take 25 years or so before we saw any appreciable difference. It is easy to get impatient with the pace of change, and it is important to do so. However, we should not forget how much has been achieved, although some high-profile bastions, such as women on boards and women Members of Parliament, have yet to be stormed.

Even at a relatively early stage, people took the view that the time would come when only one commission would be necessary to oversee all anti-discrimination laws. With the plethora of EU directives in the pipeline and other areas of discrimination being recognised, now seems a sensible time to consider legislating for one Act of Parliament and one commission, both covering all aspects of unjustifiable discrimination.

I warmly offer the noble Lord, Lord Lester. my unqualified congratulations on the principles and objectives behind the Bill and on the Herculean efforts that went into its drafting. Even so, I confess that, like other noble Lords, I am uneasy about some aspects. I will air one or two of them, and hope that the noble Lord will be able to reassure me.

The Bill covers issues that are complex and vitally important to us all. I hope that the Government will agree to set up an appropriate committee to give us all further opportunities to ensure that we arrive at the right balance and answers.

First, I am concerned about the current trend of "giantism". People seem to believe that placing all aspects relating to promoting and regulating an industry under one giant umbrella—the one-stop shop approach—will result in a more efficient and less costly service for all. But will it? There are clearly some advantages to that approach, but is it not likely that some aspects will be regarded as more important, to the detriment of others? I am thinking of the huge Ofcom Bill, for example. Even while the Bill is under consideration, there have been debates about which of the two different aspects should be in the lead—the technological and economic responsibilities, or the content and quality of public service broadcasting and what is being communicated.

Where is the line to be drawn, now and in the future, between what is seen as justified and as unjustified discrimination? Considerable thought has been given to what does not qualify as unjustified discrimination, such as inequality of birth and individual circumstances, or, in sex discrimination, the existence of genuinely—and I underline genuinely—single-sex clubs and schools. As we heard, there are also individual arrangements for disability rights. It is clear from the evidence given and from the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Ashley and Lord Rix, that those organisations are the least enthusiastic about having one commission. They are more in favour of something like a federation under one law, and a draft Bill would give them time to catch up.

What about issues that border on positive discrimination which, until recently, have been avoided in UK legislation? I am thinking, for example, of the concessions made in the recently passed Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act. How does the Bill draw the line on that point? Could all-women shortlists be seen as unjustifiable discrimination, not least within human rights terms, against male would-be candidates? I am also thinking of the very early US case of Bakle.

As for age discrimination, like everyone else, I declare an interest. Surely one would think that a person's ability to do the job, rather than their age should be the deciding factor. However—I think that this is dealt with on page 75—the exclusions for justifiable age-based discrimination seem to depend largely on what is meant by, objectively justified by a legitimate objective". Who is to decide the objectivity of the objective, and on what basis?

Another concern is the provision for updating the Bill if what is currently seen as justifiable discrimination becomes generally accepted as unjustifiable. I return to the example of the hard-fought, but only half-won, battle within the Church of England for women priests. I should add that—as was obvious from yesterday's Answer to the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Perry—the position on women bishops is even less clear. However, it is clear that single-sex employment will still be allowed for other religions that have not yet—but, who knows, may still—move that far.

Although it may be right to await a more general approach to some forms of discrimination before including them within the legislation, are there not other forms that could and should be tackled in the Bill? One example is the different retirement ages for men and women. Although that issue was initially outside the Sex Discrimination Act, now that the ages have been equalised, should the actuarial profession still be allowed, as part of a retirement policy, to pay a lower lump sum to a woman whose salary and length of service are the same as those of a man, based purely on the women's generally higher life expectancy? Should not that exemption now be seen as unjustifiable discriminatory practice and included in the Bill as no longer lawful?

My next point concerns the commission's proposed powers, many of which reflect the duties of the three existing commissions, including the vitally important duty to promote non-discriminatory practice. The ability to conduct formal investigations—which are in my experience more useful as a threat than in practice—is also retained. However, I should be grateful for further clarification on whether the commission's proposed powers are, in every field, to be greater than those currently available; and, if so, in what respect.

I turn to a not dissimilar point. The Bill proposes one Equality Bill and one commission. However, if that is accepted, will there be any overlap with the Human Rights Act and/or conflicts between the rights imposed by that Act and the intended anti-discrimination rights to be conferred in this Bill? If so, does that matter?

Finally, I revert to an issue I mentioned earlier. Surely this is appropriate and urgent business for the Government to undertake as a means of fulfilling their 1997 election pledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, pointed out, to eliminate unjustified discrimination wherever it exists. Indeed, only yesterday, during the Report stage of the Licensing Bill, such an issue arose. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, implied that these matters should be dealt with in a comprehensive anti-discrimination Bill, such as the one we are debating today.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will forgive me for having concentrated on some of my concerns about the Bill rather than on its many excellent points. Again, I most sincerely congratulate the noble Lord on what he and his very expert team have achieved, and hope that the Government will think again about their responsibility for this area and act quickly.

3.15 p.m

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I, too, am very pleased to add my support to the Equality Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I congratulate him and his team on their drafting. I also congratulate the noble Lord on the stylish way in which he introduced the Second Reading debate.

I do not think that anyone has mentioned one of the successes that the noble Lord has had in the last few days in your Lordships' House. Buried in Written Answers on 13th February is the news that he has managed to secure a change in the wording of the Writ of Summons issued to Lords Spiritual and Temporal by the Crown Office (Forms and Proclamation Rules) (Amendment) Order 2002. Instead of referring to prelates, great men and Peers, the Writ of Summons henceforth refers to prelates, great men, great women and Peers. I congratulate the noble Lord on that. It is also a privilege to follow one of those great women, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who has done so much for the cause of equality and gave me so much support on the Private Members' Bill I introduced in the last Session.

The need for this Bill cannot be disputed. As other speakers have said, the law on equality is complicated, confused and, in many respects, out of date. It is widely accepted that aspects of the race relations legislation need to be improved, and there can be few who believe that the situation on sex discrimination is satisfactory. Similarly, issues relating to disablement need urgently to be addressed. To bring all these matters together, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has done with this Bill is therefore sensible and timely.

Noble Lords will recall that I have tried on a number of occasions to draw attention to the problem of sex discrimination in private members' clubs. I was able, with the support of the great majority of your Lordships, to take a Private Member's Bill through this House in the last Session. My Bill would have removed the exemption for private members' clubs with more than 25 members from the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 by amending it in a way which would have brought that Act into line with the Race Relations Acts 1968 and 1976 which prohibit race discrimination in private clubs with 25 or more members.

I remember saying on Second Reading, almost exactly a year ago: The Bill has nothing to do with political correctness. It is about decent, civilised behaviour. The aim is to say clearly and unambiguously to private member clubs that if they have membership categories for men and for women, those categories must be open equally to both sexes".—[Official Report, 13/3/02; col. 915.] Three interesting things happened as my Bill made its way through your Lordships' House. First, I continued to receive a substantial amount of mail from clubs and their members around the country. Some letters and phone calls were from officials who wanted factual information about what the Bill would mean for them. But the great majority were from individuals, men as well as women, who wanted to share their own, often horrific, experiences of discrimination in golf clubs and working men's clubs. Those letters convinced me that I was right to press on with the cause, because there was evidence of real injustice and grievance which only a change in the law could put right.

The second interesting development was that the official Conservative Opposition decided to support the Bill. I have paid tribute on a number of occasions in the past, and I do again today, to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, for navigating her way through what I suspect was a party minefield to give the Bill her support. She made particularly telling speeches on her experiences with the Carlton Club, from which she and other noble Baronesses had resigned, because of that club's refusal to admit women on the same terms as men.

Thirdly, the Government, in the shape of my noble friend Lady Scotland, supported my Bill in principle. The Government were unable to find time for it in another place, but they have encouraged the introduction of a new Private Member's Bill, which deals with sex discrimination in private members' clubs. That Bill was introduced by the Member for Gloucester, Mr Parmjit Dhanda, under the ten-minute rule on 4th February. My noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham confirmed in our debate on the Licensing Bill last night that the Government support the Bill introduced by Mr Dhanda.

What we have in front of us today is a Bill which embraces not just the main ingredients of my Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Bill, but also brings together all the relevant anti-discrimination legislation and proposes the establishment of a new equality commission, which would be charged with monitoring and implementing the new Act. That is the body to which people who suffer discrimination would go to obtain redress; for example, the women members of golf clubs who are restricted to associate membership and told by the men when they should play, the bars and the facilities they should use, the competitions they may enter and so on.

Some men may want to pay a lower subscription to a club such as the Carlton but are denied admission as associate members. I hope that the new equality commission will look after them as well. There is nothing wrong with two categories of membership provided that each category is open equally to men and women.

This is a valuable and important Bill. Not only do I wish it well, like other speakers, I hope that the Government will give it their support and make it the foundation of a government piece of legislation which deals with the subject of discrimination and equality. There are precedents for Private Members' Bills which go through this House and become government legislation in another place, as happened with the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill in the previous Session. It would be wonderful if my noble friend the Minister could say that that is the fate which the Government have in store for this Bill. But, at the very least, we must press on with it. I hope very much that the Second Reading Motion is agreed. I look forward to the Committee stage.

3.22 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, we often hear of the principle of unripe time. I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, on introducing the concept of ripe time. It is just as real, but it is far less often heard of. It is my judgment also that this is the ripe time. I am very much reassured to find that it is also hers.

I also share the objections which have been made on all sides of the House, and in two excellent briefs from the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Royal National Institute for the Blind, to the piecemeal approach to anti-discrimination legislation. One of the weaknesses of the piecemeal approach is that it distracts attention from the basic point of why discrimination is wrong. Attempts to tackle discrimination against one particular group are usually seen as attempts to promote the interests of that one particular group at the expense of other groups. Those in all three of our parties who have sought to enter another place as Members of Parliament have, I think, found that that creates a backlash which makes life for a while more difficult for them than it need be. That is quite unnecessary.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Habgood, once intervened in a speech that I was ma king on discrimination. It happened to be on sexual orientation but it might have been on anything else. He asked me whether I could say under what circumstances it was proper to discriminate. I said that it was proper to discriminate only in a case where the quality was relevant to the fitness and ability to do the job concerned—something very close to the wording of my noble friend's "occupational requirement". Once you accept that what you are dealing with is the occupational requirement, you get a much clearer answer to the question why discrimination is wrong. It is wrong because it ignores the dignity and the individuality of the individual—something to which everyone is entitled to recognition simply because they are a human being. It is wrong because it attracts attention to one of a person's qualities at the expense of all the others.

One does not usually turn to Ed McBain for political philosophy, but I remember reading in one of his books about detective Arthur Brown looking in the mirror, observing his different qualities that people might notice. He was middle-sized, middle-height, middle-aged. He was an American, he was a New Yorker, and he was black. Why, he wondered, was it only one among all those qualities that people chose to notice about him? It is a good question, and it is at the heart of why discrimination is wrong.

The third reason why discrimination is wrong is that, if we believe in any sort of fair competition—in the economy, most of us do—that competition must take place on a level playing field. People must be able to advance within it according to their merits.

My noble friend Lord Addington had some important things to say about the applications of the principle to disability. He pointed out that passing a note to a dyslexic and presenting a flight of steps to a paraplegic, although very different activities, were equally total barriers.

Both of them come within what I hope that I may be forgiven for fathering on the noble and reverend Lord as "the Habgood principle". There is consistency. If we can take account of that in Committee, I hope that we shall make some progress on points that concerned the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and a good many others.

I welcome the inclusion in the Bill of pregnancy and sexual orientation. I make a very serious point by welcoming both in the same breath. I welcome the inclusion of immigration. That is not meant to prohibit discrimination between people who were born in this country and people who are not immigrants. That cannot be done in immigration legislation. However, there is evidence that certain categories of immigrants, by nationality, are worse treated than almost any other. In the words of 1066 and All That, it was provided that, anyone found in Armenia should be slowly divided into twelve parts". When one looks at the fate of Kurdish refugees, one wonders whether that principle is quite dead.

There is a long way still to go on the problem of discrimination. Listening to my noble friend Lord Dholakia and others giving statistics on equal pay, I wondered whether there was now much more inequality arising from discrimination than from any ordinary question of class.

In the past two or three days, I happened to have conversations with two distinguished women members of the Lobby about how difficult it was to be a Lobby correspondent and a mother of children. Why should it be more difficult to be a woman member of the Lobby with children than to he a man member of the Lobby with children? I am convinced that one of the ways forward for equality is increasing attention to the rights of men as carers of children.

The rights of men as the ones who deal with domestic emergencies should also be considered. I remember an agonised article once written in the Guardian by a woman who tossed a coin with her husband to decide which of them should stay in to let the workman in to repair the boiler. Her husband lost and got the sack, and the mixture of feelings running through her mind can safely be left to the imagination. A great deal is still to be done in that area.

I noticed in the publicity about Rachel Lomax, whom I congratulate on her promotion to deputy governor of the Bank, that, when she first applied to work part-time while her children were young, that was the first such request that had been met. It is time that there were a great many more, and time that they were regarded as regularly available for both sexes. That is the only way that we shall make progress.

After all, if we are to have a society based on promotion by merit, as, in recent days, the Prime Minister has often said he wants, it must be one equally open to both genders, all races, all orientations and to anyone who can pass the Habgood principle of "fitness to do the job". As Lord Palmerston said when he was talking about Catholic emancipation, it is inexpedient to exclude so many able persons from the public service.

In that context, as the person who spoke from these Benches against the inclusion of religion in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, I praise and welcome its inclusion in this Bill. My objection in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill and that of these Benches was twofold: first, we thought that the drafting was not right—the direct read-across from racial hatred to religious hatred did not work; and, secondly, we thought that something of this complexity should not be dealt with as rushed emergency legislation. We meant that. Now it is in a place where we can consider it slowly and seriously. After the final guidance offered by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, right at the end of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, I suggested that the gap could easily be closed. We are very happy to see it here.

The categories of discrimination continue to change. For example, there used to be discrimination against women with moles because they were more easily suspected of being witches. It was the witches' familiar mark. We do not have to worry about that at the moment, but we shall have to recognise that categories of discrimination will change again. However, I believe that my noble friend was right to limit himself to particular categories, named and set out in the Bill, even though he wants to combat a phenomenon which is general. We need legal certainty, and we need precision in setting out what is and what is not permitted. To say that legislation will be needed at some time in the future as those categories change is only to say that all human affairs are mutable, and no legislation in this place will ever change that.

3.32 p.m.

Lord Bhatia

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, on introducing this Equality Bill. It is a very thorough piece of work, and perhaps few could have produced such a well-researched and detailed piece of draft legislation. The noble Lord has for many years worked in the field of equality and human rights. He is a leading authority in this area. I, for one, am very supportive of the Bill and hope that many other Members of this House will also support this initiative.

Human beings, from time immemorial. have found it difficult to interact with others who are different. In some ways, we are all very tribal. We have a tendency to stick together with those who are similar to us in a variety of ways. Consequently, and often quite inadvertently, we may offend and perhaps even injure others by the usage of inappropriate attitude, language or behaviour. We often forget, for example, that people with disabilities may need special attention or assistance. Quite often, however, all they require is simply to be treated like everyone else. On the other hand, it is also true that every society has its bigots—uninformed and prejudiced people—who seek deliberately to hurt those who are different from themselves.

It is because discrimination exists on the grounds of age, gender, race, religion, belief or no belief, sexual orientation and disability, for whatever reasons, that people need protection by way of equality legislation. Such legislation ensures that clear lines are drawn so that we may all know what is and is not acceptable and behave accordingly.

Such legislation can, then, also deal with those who deliberately, and sometimes repeatedly, undertake acts of discrimination and unfair behaviour on one ground or another. It is only through such clearly defined legislation that we can deal with those people and thereby create a more just and fair society to live in—a society where every citizen is able to go about his or her business and achieve his or her full potential.

Over many years this country has developed an extensive range of laws that protect those who are different, weak and/or vulnerable and today it has some of the best equality provisions anywhere in the world. Our vast array of legal provisions that deal with different forms of discrimination, are, furthermore, supported by a range of specialist equality institutions and agencies. However, because of the way that those laws and bodies have developed, there arc also many gaps that need to be filled. I believe that quite rightly the noble Lord. Lord Lester, wishes to bring together all such laws and institutions and fill the remaining gaps. I fully support this effort.

Many Members of the House who have already spoken, and who will speak after me, bring their experience and wisdom to support, to add to and to argue the substance of the Bill. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to make a very specific contribution on just one of the grounds of discrimination covered by the Bill, that of religion. It is unfortunate that in Britain individuals and institutions are still permitted to discriminate against people on the basis of their religion or belief. I believe that that is, in itself, most unacceptable in a multi-faith, multicultural society such as ours. But it is a wholly different matter altogether that the state and its laws should discriminate between religions as to the protection and provisions that it avails to them.

Through my involvement in the Religious Offences Select Committee, I have come to learn how, in the area of criminal law, our blasphemy laws protect only one faith—perhaps even just one denomination in that faith—to the exclusion of others. Our provisions on incitement to hatred also protect only some religions and not others.

Having said that, let me make it clear that I am not advocating that those protections and provisions that are in place for some religions should be removed in order to provide a levelling down and equality between different religions. Rather, we should expend our best efforts to see how we may level up the situation to protect all faiths. Surely, where equality is concerned, we need to ensure that all faiths receive the required protection in law so that all our citizens can go about their business without fear.

In the area of civil law, some faith communities are protected but not others. That may change to some extent under the Government's proposed implementation of the EU framework employment directive. Even after those changes, however, some faith communities will not be protected from discrimination in education; in the provision of goods, facilities and services; in law enforcement, regulatory and control functions; in the disposal or management of premises; and in the management of private members' clubs. However, others will he protected. Some religious communities will still not benefit from the positive duty on public sector agencies to eliminate discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity, while others will. Furthermore, some faith communities will still not have the same level of access to equality institutions as other faith communities.

That situation is clearly iniquitous and in breach of Article 14, vis-à-vis Article 9, of the Human Rights Act 1998, which requires that there be no discrimination in provisions availed for different faith communities. Once again I am not suggesting that there be a levelling down of the provisions that are currently rightfully made for some religions, but simply that the state should be just and fair to all religions by levelling up.

I conclude by saying that I support the Bill, knowing that some of the inconsistencies in the civil law arena that I have pointed out, and which no doubt others will point out, can be eliminated by the Bill's adoption into law. Then the state will be a little less discriminatory on the basis of religion and belief.

3.39 p.m.

Baroness Wilkins

My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in paying warm tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for his immense contribution to the cause of equality over the years. The wisdom, skill and diligence that he and his team have demonstrated in presenting the Bill for Second Reading shows once again how much we, as a society, are in their debt.

I very much welcome the introduction of the Bill. It gives us an opportunity to stand hack and examine the breadth and complexity of issues which are involved if we are to create a society that eliminates discrimination and provides equal opportunities for all.

The introduction of the Bill is especially welcome in the light of the Government's current consultations on a single equality commission and concern at their lack of commitment that this should be preceded by a single equality Act. As the RNIB points out, unless there is a single equality Act and upward harmonisation, all discussions about a single equality commission will be blighted by concerns about the formation ofhierarchies within it, with lower profile or lesser protected groups being at the bottom of the pile.

Disability groups have, for the most part, welcomed the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the strenuous efforts he has made to meet their concerns. The features that have been particularly welcomed are; the application of anti-discrimination duties to all public authorities and functions; the extension of positive public sector duties to promote equality across the board; and the use of tribunals for enforcing the legislation with cases being referred to the courts only in exceptional circumstances.

However, as other noble Lords have mentioned, there is still considerable concern that the anti-discrimination legislation and structures protecting disabled people are still too vulnerable to be subsumed into a single equality Act. Disability rights' legislation is relatively new on the statute book; the Disability Discrimination Act only began to come into force in 1996 and has yet to be implemented in full. The next stage relating to reasonable adjustments for physical features will not come into effect until October 2004. The Disability Rights Commission has been in existence for only three years and there are still major loopholes in the law.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has tried to meet these concerns by proposing that the Disability Rights Commission has a three-year exemption from an equality commission. However, I would agree with the DRC that that does not go far enough in recognising the specific needs and requirements of disabled people and that the very existence of an equality commission might compromise the progression and enforcement of any disability-specific legislation.

There are a number of other issues which are of concern to disability organisations. The Disability Rights Commission makes the case for two major omissions. First, there is no provision for reasonable adjustments in post-16 education; and, secondly, the Bill makes no provision for reasonable adjustments with respect to premises.

The Bill also fails to take on board some of the recommendations in 1999 of the Disability Rights Task Force which set out the next steps in achieving full civil rights for disabled people. In particular, MIND, the RNID and the RNIB are concerned about the issue of definition. While they welcome the Bill's provision that anyone who has a disability is covered—and some blind and partially-sighted people currently have to undergo extensive medical examinations in order to prove that they are disabled—they remain concerned at the complicated nature of the definition which, in a more inclusive legislative framework, lies at odds with the way that the other strands are treated. The RNIB, for instance, has proposed that the burden of proof in relation to the status of complainants as disabled persons be shifted to the respondent. Far too much tribunal time is currently taken up with definition issues before the real issue of discrimination can be addressed.

Among other things, there is also concern about the lack of transport accessibility standards and the absence of specific provisions to ensure that guide-dog owners, for example, are granted carriage and not charged extra by taxis and minicabs.

I shall now turn briefly to Part 4 of the Bill, which sets out the constitution, general function and powers of the equality commission. Many disability organisations have concerns with the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and would argue for a federal body rather than the fully integrated commission based primarily on functional units as set out in the Bill. They are concerned that the experiences of such commissions elsewhere have resulted in disabled people losing out when disability rights are subsumed into a generalist structure. For instance, the chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission found clear evidence on her visit to the Australian equality commissions that disability had fallen off the agenda at state level, where there is no disability-specific commissioner.

The equality commission proposed in the Bill would not guarantee a proper focus on civil rights for disabled people. It would result in reduced representation in that there would be only seven to nine commissioners, none of whom must be disabled. The DRC currently has 10 to 15 commissioners, over half of whom must be disabled people, or people who have had a disability.

The RNIB makes the case for the Bill to be amended so that the equality commission reflects the DRC model. That would be a federal arrangement consisting of an umbrella body, focusing on cross-cutting issues of shared concern, and specialist units linked to appointed committees that would have responsibility for the individual strands. The federal body would be responsible for promoting equality in general and the new arrangements. It would also tackle multiple discrimination, mainstreaming equality through the use of cross-cutting positive duties on public bodies and equality audits, using strong strategic enforcement powers and advising the Government. The federal body would include the chairs of the proposed strand committees, including one for disability rights.

The strand committees would allow the current level of representation of disabled people to continue, with a majority on the disability rights committee being disabled people. There would also be minimal disruption to existing structures, processes and work programmes under that model. Most importantly, disabled people would continue to identify with the commission as "our commission", and would feel that it protects and enforces disabled people's rights. They would not feel that no sooner had the DRC been created than it was taken away.

I have dwelt mainly on the concerns that disability organisations have raised about the Bill in the hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will be given the opportunity to take it through all its stages and on to the statute book. But I hope that that does not obscure my warm welcome of the Bill and my hope that the Government will support it.

3.47 p.m.

Lord Patel

My Lords, the reference of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, to private clubs reminded me of an article that I read in The Times last Saturday, 22nd February, at page 13. Two articles on the same page were relevant to today's Bill. The headline of the first was: Woman golf pro takes on Royal and Ancient Men". It refers to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, a 249 year-old, male-only club, which is the governing body of golf worldwide. The second headline was: "Equality watchdog blocked". It said: Plans for a single equality body to champion women, gay people, ethnic minorities, the elderly and disabled people have been blocked by one of the interest groups concerned". I disagree with both of those approaches. That is why we need this Bill and why we are holding this debate.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and his team on introducing the Bill, and on the easily understandable, clear Explanatory Notes, which are necessary for the likes of me. I wholeheartedly support the Bill. To move from anti-discriminatory legislation to legislation that recognises and promotes equality in all walks of life for all citizens of our country—young and old, black and white, male and female, able and not so able-is what a truly multicultural, multi-ethnic, civilised society should do. The Bill is mainly about recognising equality. It goes a long way to doing that.

I am pleased that the Bill tackles both discrimination and positive duties. In the debate on the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill in December 1999, as reported at col. 146, I expressed concern that the legislation did not remove the exemption that allowed discrimination in partnership arrangements comprising fewer than six partners. I believe that the Bill will remove the partnership exemption from race discrimination legislation. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, will agree that I am right to think so. It is important in the medical field, particularly in general practice, as many practices have fewer than six partners.

The second issue that I raised in the debate on 14th December, 1999 was indirect discrimination. I am encouraged to see that the Bill significantly extends the duty on public bodies, such as the NHS. Such bodies will be under a duty to have regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds. They will also be required to promote equal opportunities and good relations between members of different racial groups. That will help to eliminate practices and procedures that amount to indirect discrimination.

I speak mostly about health services and healthcare, for that is what I know most—little though it may be—about. However, people in all walks of life are familiar with discrimination by institutions and individuals. The legislation on racial discrimination does not promote equality; it is, as the noble Lord said, reactive and negative. Those who work in the health service and those who need healthcare are likely to benefit from laws that promote equality. I have spoken in your Lordships' House about the tens of thousands of doctors and nurses from ethnic minorities who feel that they are not treated as equals, despite doing the same job. Although legislation against racial discrimination has helped raise awareness of the issue and helped to educate people, it has not removed indirect discrimination of the type that holds people back from promotion and greater rewards and fails to recognise their true worth—in short, unequal treatment.

That is not to say that anti-discrimination legislation, particularly that relating to race, has not been effective. Gone are the days, which I remember as a student in London in the late 1950s, when most advertisements for room rentals openly stated "No blacks". There was no legislation to prevent that then. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, will, no doubt, be able to reassure me that the Bill will not blur the focus on discrimination of a particular type—for example, racial discrimination.

It is to be hoped that the Bill will remove inequalities in healthcare. I am speaking about the healthcare needs of the ethnic minorities, the elderly and the disabled. The Parekh report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain and other publications have highlighted not only the disease burden from which the ethnic minorities suffer but the lack of services to meet their health needs. Legislation that recognises those needs as of right may help.

We have an increasingly ageing population. The elderly suffer from all kinds of discrimination, including discrimination in health and social care. Denying care on the basis of age is immoral and unethical, but it exists. Healthcare that does not recognise the special needs of the elderly is not equitable. Similarly, despite the many laws, people with mental health problems and disabilities suffer because their needs are not regarded as being equal to those of the more able. The third commonest cause of disability in the world is mental illness. Despite the high priority given to mental health in our health service and the services for those disabled through mental illness, such people—young and old of all races—do not get equal care. Those from ethnic minorities and the elderly suffer even more.

The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, referred to the clause on pregnancy. I must disagree with her. In my work as an obstetrician for three and a half decades, I was always concerned about the inability of pregnant women to attend ante-natal clinics. I was even more concerned for women whose pregnancies were complicated by existing diseases and who were not given permission to take time off work for the benefit of their own health and that of their baby.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. I hope he accepts that I am concerned that care should be taken as to how the word "arrangements" is interpreted. Certainly, I attended ante-natal clinics, and so forth. Women need time to do that. However, there must be a balance in terms of how the burden of an employee's workload is dealt with by colleagues in her absence.

Lord Patel

My Lords, I stand corrected and I am grateful for the explanation given by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe.

We are a prosperous nation. Our prosperity depends on the education, ability and wealth created by our citizens. There is a shortage of a significant number of skilled workers—not just doctors and nurses—and there is an ageing population. For the foreseeable future, we shall need skilled workers to come to our country. We must ensure that there are laws that will treat them as equals.

For all these reasons, I welcome and support the Bill. Of course we shall have a debate. I need to feel reassured that the proposed commission has adequate powers of enforcement of legislation. Above all, I hope that the Government give their support to the Bill. Government support will give a strong message to citizens from all walks of life that equal treatment of all people is important. In conclusion, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing the Bill and I support it.

3.56 p.m.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, on introducing the Bill. Those of us who support it hope that it will lead to a much-needed Act.

When placed at No. 20 on the speakers' list, one fears that there may be nothing left to say. However, a good deal is left to say and I venture to speak on it. Orwell's aphorism, most usually translated as "some people are more equal than others", is probably the most famous sentence ever written on equality. The aphorism, and the great novel in which it is written, should be read and re-read by all who have the interests of fairness, justice and happiness at heart.

Members of an ideal society would not tolerate homosexuals or smile upon them with kindliness but take their orientation for granted and regard it—as they should regard any kind of sexuality—with indifference. The assumption of superiority that even liberal-minded people make would have disappeared. For instance, no one any longer would patronisingly imply his or her superiority by remarking, as I still hear said, that "many of my best friends are gay".

We are a long way from that Utopia. We are a long way from relying on people to grow up with that indifference ingrained in them and with that taking for granted part of their attitude to life. People of a heterosexual orientation are still, alas, more equal than those who are gay. Children of "straight" orientation are more equal than the gay. That discrimination begins with children and their taunting and bullying of a child who is already, inevitably, showing homosexual tendencies. Children are not born with a congenital prejudice against homosexuals. They absorb it. They learn it from their parents 'and elders'—though not their betters—conversation and innuendo. Not until we have a generation growing up without discrimination will we begin to achieve equality between straight and gay people. Even the word "straight" implies that the reverse must be impaired or crooked.

Meanwhile—we hope that it will not be a long meanwhile— what goodwill and open-mindedness is not yet ready to do must be done by the law. Existing law protects only the discriminated against on the grounds of race, disability and sex, but, among other omissions, not on the grounds of sexual orientation. A positive legal obligation should be placed on public bodies not to discriminate on this basis.

For example, in Sweden, the law ensures that no one shall be denied employment or promotion on sexuality grounds—which means, of course, because they are homosexual. In that famously open-minded country, the provisions of the law seem to have permeated the nation's thinking. The state of affairs which I earlier described as Utopian is not so far from being achieved there. Of course, it may be, on the other hand, that the nation's enlightenment has permeated the law. But even there equality is not perfect. Gay couples may not adopt children or gay women receive artificial insemination.

Civil partnership registration is recognised in whole or in part in 11 European countries and the same number allow legal rights to same-sex partners in varying degrees as to succession and/or tenancy. As my noble friend Lord Alli pointed out, the Government are heading in the right direction in this regard.

Using the powers established by the Amsterdam Treaty, the European Commission has introduced a proposed directive to outlaw discrimination in employment on a number of grounds, and is the first explicit EC legislation to recognise sexual orientation as an issue for European Community action. Her Majesty's Government have acknowledged that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is present in United Kingdom workplaces and have asked the Equal Opportunities Commission to draw up a code of practice on this subject. However, since the code is to be voluntarily adopted, it will very likely be observed only by those employers who already have an equal opportunities policy and an aim to eliminate prejudice. Legal protection for homosexuals is safer and surer.

At present, it is obviously difficult for anyone in almost any job to state with assurance, let alone prove, that he or she has been passed over for promotion because of sexuality. It is all too easy for an employer to defend his or her failure to promote a member of staff on the grounds that a particular person lacks qualities of leadership, is too "soft", or lacks self-confidence. For these are the very failings that so many people, albeit only half consciously, still associate with homosexuals. Lesbians, for instance, may be denied promotion because they are too "butch", aggressive and assertive—whether they are or not. A change of attitude in employers is needed, and one which must be brought about by re-education and careful attention to the law.

I want to raise another point in connection with misapprehensions regarding homosexuality and children. A large percentage of the community confuses homosexuality with paedophilia. Potentially, that has disastrous results and can lead to witch-hunting. Curiously enough, no one, without good cause, supposes that heterosexual men have designs on female children, while continuing to believe in the likely guilt of gay men in their relations with young boys. Not so many years ago when a boy of eight was staying with me, his mother refused to allow him to be driven home by a friend of mine whom she knew to be homosexual. If she and others holding the same mistaken belief had been in a position to employ people, we can only imagine how violent they would be against homosexuals, particularly if they were expected to work with children, while promotion prospects would be nil.

As things stand, only a very few gay people have confidence in starting a job that they will be seen by fellow workers as equal. They also have a terrible hurdle to face, barely imagined by non-gay women and men, of coming out of the closet or staying in it. One woman, for instance, who has written to me of her plight—we will call her Jane—is sure she has been promoted in her high-powered job only because she has never disclosed that she is lesbian, nor that she has lived in a close and loving relationship with another woman for 14 years. In order to maintain this deception, Jane confessed to me that lying has become habitual to her and as a result she fights constant threatened depression. She tells colleagues of a series of boyfriends, her preference for the single, though not the celibate, state, and that she lives alone. Since her partner may answer the phone, or be seen if someone calls on her, Jane talks of a friend who lives in the country but sporadically works in London and often needs a pied-à-terre.Neurotic, my Lords? Yes, indeed, but it is society and the absence of adequate law which has made her so. This woman also says that her situation is at least somewhat easier than a man's would be. She knows gay men who have been denied promotion because in their forties they remained unmarried.

Another correspondent of mine, James, has told me of how, as a homosexual man, he protested at work when an anti-gay remark was made. On an impulse, though for a long time he had been psyching himself up to come out of the closet, he stated that he himself was gay but not to spread it around. Spread around it was and he found himself ostracised while the almost promised advancement in his job was withdrawn. He stayed in the job for a year but at last could stand the atmosphere no longer and left.

A gay acquaintance of his called Tom, who he mentions to me, has a company car and if he were married he would be able, under his company rules, to have his wife insured as well. Although it is well-known and apparently well—or, at least, tolerantly—received by his employer that Tom lives in a long-term partnership with another man, no provision is made for his same-sex partner to be included on his policy. A friend of this couple, also with a long-term same-sex partner, was granted no special leave on this man's serious illness and no bereavement leave when he died, though women in the company whose husbands were ill and died were given both kinds of time off.

These are truly cases of all people being equal but some far less equal than others. Only a change of thinking on the part of the community will fully change things, but a single equality Act would go a long way to redress such obvious wrongs, underpinning a single, dedicated equality commission.

Age is probably the most neglected area covered by the Equality Bill. It may come in Clause 1(1)(a) of the Bill's provisions but it is still, I believe, the most likely to be hurriedly passed over. Yet it is an area of discrimination which Members of your Lordships' House are particularly fitted to discuss. We are not a young but on the whole an elderly assembly, with an average age, I believe, of 70. Perhaps most noble Lords speaking in the debate should declare an interest. Because of our nature, our presence here, our experience of life and in many cases the "day job" that we do, we know how capable we and our fellows, some long past that average age, are to be gainfully employed. Geriatricians will often tell us how being forced to abandon a career at a certain age may well hasten an elderly person's death. We should, belonging as most of us do in this category, be peculiarly sensitive to the issues involved.

Obviously, as the Bill states, there must be exclusion for justifiable age-based discrimination, but i find it difficult to identify jobs from which every older man and woman would be disqualified on age grounds. A personal trainer or a steeplejack, perhaps, or those jobs which require almost acrobatic skills and physical power. Looking at the situation which presently exists, we have to admit that this is a field in which employers not pursuing an equal opportunities policy refuse jobs to older people solely on the grounds of age, no matter how fit, youthful and intellectually alert they may be. For doing so, no excuse can be made except the feeble one that this particular applicant is too old.

Finally, I should like to mention a shop in Denmark which, in advertising for staff, stated that they must be over 60. Older people, the advertisers felt, were more courteous, less hasty, more patient and more thorough than younger ones. Of course we may consider this, and rightly, as a requirement discriminatory in itself and not to be recommended, although—as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, indicated in his opening speech when calling it reverse discrimination—I am confident that young people are as yet in no danger of suffering victimisation in this regard.

As to disability, I wondered about those people in wheelchairs denied the opportunity to get to work during the fire fighters strike, when 22 Underground stations were closed due to their lifts being dangerous to use. Not only that but, although Westminster station was open, its lift was out of use during all those strike periods. As to unfairness, only the disabled were thus inconvenienced.

4.8 p.m.

Lord Ouseley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and his team for presenting us with this excellent Bill. The noble Lord has an excellent record in promoting legislation on equality and human rights and in advocating its enforcement. My own knowledge of the noble Lord goes back some 30 years, to when I was first undertaking community relations in south London and learnt of his support for community relations initiatives at a local level, and very impressive his support was then.

For around half a century the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has been actively engaged in challenging inequalities. He has demonstrated his prowess and expertise in these matters with great distinction, both nationally, internationally and, as I have said, even locally. I should like to take this opportunity to place on record that my experience during that period has been that in this country there are millions of open-minded people who are committed to seeing a just and fair society for all their fellow citizens.

The Bill reflects the commitment and expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to enable us to put in place a coherent legislative framework for individuals, corporations, institutions and organisations to administer and receive equality and fair treatment.

The Bill provides the Government with the opportunity to avoid putting the cart before the horse, as they presently intend to do with their proposal for a single equality commission. While the Government may be correct to avoid the creation of new commissions to tackle the introduction of anti-discrimination protection in the areas of age, sexuality and religious belief, this would be creating a super-commission to work with a plethora of various legislative provisions. That is not a satisfactory situation. The Bill provides the opportunity to take stock of what we have to do to eliminate discrimination and to provide equal opportunities; and only thereafter can we be clearer about the design of the most appropriate enforcement body.

With a single legal framework for eliminating discrimination and promoting equality between different people, regardless of their racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, sex, marital or family status, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, age or disability, there would be the desired and necessary coherence to enable the Government to establish with greater effectiveness their proposed equality commission.

Such a commission would, in its promotional work, have the crucial task of representing all interests in society—crucial because, in my experience, equality activity in this country has created resentments. People feel that all equality protection, as they see it, excludes them. A primary role would be that of representing the widest possible set of interests.

The Bill, while bringing about clarity and coherence, is still, in my view, in need of strengthening in several respects. Although our anti-discrimination legislation is on a par with, or better than, anything in Europe, it still remains inadequate, especially in terms of enforceability. Most individuals, organisations and institutions in this country know that many direct or indirect discriminatory actions, or inaction, are unlikely to be discovered and eliminated and therefore there is no real pressure to change and little likelihood of punishment for discriminatory activity. That is a reality. It affects most institutions and organisations and the people within them.

Legislation is only as good as its enforcement. Alongside that, we rely on the power of persuasion to change attitudes and behaviours, as well as leadership, to bring about positive changes and benefits for all in our society.

I draw on my experience of 30 years in local government, including five years as chief executive officer of two local authorities, of a further seven years as executive chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and, most recently, of managing a privately run business, in stressing the relative important roles of corporate, political and individual leadership alongside effectively enforced legislation.

My main concern, as I have said, relates to the enforcement of legislation. Whether we have this Bill—and that is preferable—or have to work with the existing provisions, enforcement against discrimination is woeful. That is not a criticism of the existing commissions, merely a statement of reality in terms of the limitations that exist. The new equality commission should be conferred with powers equivalent to those of the Health and Safety Executive in order to be able to intervene with employers and service providers whenever it believes that discrimination as defined in the Bill is occurring. The proposals in Clauses 28 and 30 to introduce employers' obligations for employment equity plans are very welcome in this respect.

At present, the investigatory processes are cumbersome, process-laden, time-consuming and resources-guzzling, with minimal impact and strategic effect. It is no longer good enough to be trudging along with this inadequate process. It has not worked efficiently; therefore it must be reformed. Even the recently introduced and much welcomed Race Relations (Amendment) Act has set the CRE and the regulatory bodies on a massive paper chase to evaluate and monitor the race equality schemes and policies of public bodies.

The enforcement body must also be able to support blocks of cases on behalf of whole sectors or classes of employees or consumers to make a real impact in tackling and eliminating discrimination in more meaningful ways, rather than through ad hoc individual cases, at a snail's pace. The scope for the new commission to initiate proceedings in its own name is welcome and, if strengthened, has the potential for positive results.

The Bill is inadequate in addressing the requirements to enable the effective use of equality compliance in contracting and procurement policies and practices. It should be a requirement of public bodies not to enter into contracts with providers of services, goods and facilities unless there is evidence of active equality policies and practices. We should not continue with the existing standard, complacent, tick-the-box, "we have a policy and do not discriminate" response, which gets bodies on to approved lists of contractors and suppliers without too much effort or commitment to genuine equality results. That was supported by the Government's own Better Regulation Task Force, which the Government then rejected.

The proposal in the Bill for an equality commission makes provision for the retention of the Disability Rights Commission for at least another three years after the establishment of the proposed equality commission. Although it is understood that the newest commission needs to establish itself more significantly before being absorbed into any equality commission, it is illogical to exclude the DRC from the equality commission. Its exclusion could be perceived as a presupposition that the equality commission might be ineffective and incapable of incorporating the priorities, emphases and commitments of existing commissions, including those of the DRC. There are fears of it therefore becoming an irrelevant monolith—a criticism echoed by, among others, the Employers Forum on Age, Bert Massey, the chairman of the DRC, and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development. I fully support the view expressed by the noble Lord. Lord Ashley, who wanted to see an effective and inclusive equality commission from day one.

My final main concern is about the absence of any legal provision to curb some sections of the printed media, which are obsessed with the demonisation of some minority ethnic groups in our society. That does not only apply to minority ethnic groups; this week. we have seen a competition between tabloid newspapers, which claimed they were the first to out an MP who is gay. The media operate by hiding behind the cherished tenets of free speech, giving no meaningful consideration to how such incessant and unrestrained coverage impacts on our attitudes and behaviours. That contributes to discrimination, prejudice, hatred, harassment and violence.

Public bodies with the responsibility, inter alia, to promote good race relations between people of all backgrounds in all their activities, know that they have an uphill task to do so successfully in the context of the daily negative stereotyping. They need all the help that they can get to achieve their goals. Your Lordships' House has a responsibility to consider how we may help to achieve those goals in the passage of the Equality Bill.

In conclusion, Great Britain is a progressive, competitive, dynamic and relatively wealthy country, but it remains deeply unequal in all aspects of social, economic, cultural, family styles and daily life experiences. We would all benefit from the introduction of modern legislation, which is simple to comprehend and provides protection to everyone against unfair discrimination, placing responsibility on all public, private and not-for-profit bodies to provide access to opportunities, in line with the provisions in the Bill.

Let me go even further. I am not aware of any compelling reason why we should exempt private companies from having the same general duty as exists for public bodies to promote equality and good relations. Why do we not do something about that?

The Bill is about bringing consistency, simplicity and coherence to existing and proposed anti-discrimination laws and regulations. I welcome it, as it provides the opportunity to make progress in eliminating the many forms of discrimination that persist in our society. I hope that the Government will see the wisdom of supporting it to make equality and fair treatment a reality for everyone.

4.19 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, like many other noble Lords, I start by paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. I have known him for probably longer than anyone else in this Chamber because he has been a friend of mine for 40 years. He has a long—indeed, unique—record in fighting for laws against discrimination. He was an adviser to the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, in 1974–76, when Lord Jenkins was serving his second period of office as Home Secretary. The highlights of that period were the two landmark statutes, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which was the first Act to give broad equality rights to women, and the Race Relations Act 1976, which expanded and replaced earlier legislation on race equality. Both Acts owe a very great deal to my noble friend. It is a curious and regrettable fact that the recent obituaries of Lord Jenkins of Hillhead have almost all passed over the achievements of his second period of office as Home Secretary, especially the two Acts I mentioned. In many ways, I think that those achievements match the remarkable achievements of his first period of office.

Last year, my noble friend introduced an important Civil Partnerships Bill which met with a wide—perhaps surprisingly wide—degree of acceptance. We on these Benches certainly hope that the Government will take up that Bill and introduce their own legislation on the subject.

My noble friend has now introduced what I would describe as a massive Equality Bill, the product of several years of work by himself, Professor Hepple and the other members of an expert and dedicated team. We strongly support this Bill. I do not propose to go through it in any detail. However, it is, of course. true that many types of discrimination are brought together under a single umbrella in this Bill. I should say that I see some distinctions between disability and other forms of discrimination. Most forms of discrimination involve taking into account a factor that should be ignored, whether it is race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or age. Disability discrimination arises in many cases from the exact reverse of that, as a disability is ignored when it needs to be taken into account—for example, by ensuring that buildings are properly accessible to people with disabilities. There is also an immense variety of disabilities with quite different consequences.

Nevertheless, there is a very great deal of common ground between all different types of discrimination—disability as well as the others. There is, for example, the concept of indirect discrimination and the question of harassment and victimisation on grounds of discrimination. It is also desirable to have a single statute governing matters such as the complaints procedure, hearings, the burden of proof and enforcement. We therefore believe that a single commission with power to combat all forms of discrimination has very many advantages. We certainly welcome the proposal to merge the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality.

I was struck by the fact that three speakers, all with particular knowledge of discrimination, were, like the RNIB, anxious to retain the Disability Rights Commission either as an independent body or as part of a federal structure. I think that we will have to look at that issue in due course.

We very much welcome the extension of anti-discrimination law to what the noble Lord, Lord Alli, helpfully described as the "new strands"— age, religion and sexual orientation, in particular—and to do so in ways that are wider than those which are necessary merely in order to meet the requirements of European employment legislation. We welcome the obligation to take positive steps to promote equality and not just to react to discrimination. We therefore welcome the broad support that has been given to the Bill by the Equal Opportunities Commission briefing, by the briefing from Help the Aged, and in many respects by the RNIB as well.

A number of criticisms have been made of the Bill. I have already referred to the proposals that the Disability Rights Commission should be left in existence in some form or another. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, who must be feeling somewhat lonely, given the emptiness of the Benches behind her and the absence of speakers from those Benches, spoke about the burden of workforce reviews and employment equity plans on small businesses. Whether or not we need to consider whether 10 employees is too low a starting point, which it may be, I believe that in principle the measures for workforce reviews and employment equity plans are absolutely right. As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, pointed out, these measures can benefit businesses and are already being taken by many well-known names in industry and commerce.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester said that legislation should not encroach on the freedom of a religious body to enforce its own rules of conduct. I am not entirely sure what he meant by that. Obviously, we would not support a law which was meant to enforce the right of a woman to become a Roman Catholic priest. But I think that the right reverend Prelate meant rather more than that, and I suspect that he was going into areas where we would disagree with him.

There has been criticism of the extension of the Bill to clubs. We would support the views of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, as we did yesterday, rather than those of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie.

The noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, made a speech with which we in general strongly agree. But I think that some of his remarks on imposing some kind of control over what the media say are potentially dangerous and possibly counter-productive.

This is a bold and daring measure. I do not know of any other Private Member's Bill which has been so detailed, so carefully drafted and covers such a broad spectrum. I regret that the Liaison Committee of your Lordships' House refused to set up a Select Committee, as my noble friend Lord Lester wished, to examine the Bill and take evidence on it. It would have been a valuable process, and much better than a conventional Committee stage.

I recognise that some issues need to be debated, and of course we do not assume that the Bill is incapable of improvement. The bodies which have produced briefings have all pointed to aspects which they feel need further debate. But, as I said at the beginning, we strongly support the Bill. We believe that it represents an enormous step in the right direction. If the Bill does not reach the statute book, we hope it is the precursor of one that will.

4.28 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, let me start by agreeing with some of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has just said. This is not one of your run-of-the-mill Private Members' Bills. It is quite different and quite outstanding. The Bill has been the subject of detailed thought and consultation by some of the people most expert in the field over a number of years. The Bill has been brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, whose reputation in this field is outstanding and whose work with Lord Jenkins in the 1970s is still seen as a step change in our views about legislation on equality. This is something we take enormously seriously. Although I shall not support the Bill and I shall not give an indication that it will be followed by a government Bill along the same lines, I do not believe that the Bill will die the death. I believe that it will make a continuing, valued and worthwhile contribution to debate on the issues covered by it.

I congratulate the noble Lord. Lord Lester, on the way in which he produced and introduced the Bill. I also congratulate him on the virtually universal approval of large parts of it that he has achieved in debate this afternoon.

The issue on which we part company is illustrated by the difference between the Labour and the Liberal Democrat manifestos of 1997, both of which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, quoted. The Liberal Democrat manifesto went for a "big bang" on this matter, as it did on the matter of constitutional reform. The Labour manifesto contained a commitment to implement visions of equality through legislation wherever and whenever possible. The views of the Liberal Democrats and those of Labour differ on the matters of constitutional reform and equality.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, in his opening remarks was good enough to say that the Government had not been idle. We certainly have not been idle. I intend to demonstrate that in arguing the case for the incremental approach, as it were, to tackling discrimination rather than the "big bang" approach. Our priority is to concentrate on the most urgent areas for change. We focus on the key practical disadvantages that people face. We believe that that is a more productive approach and one that is preferable to a complete overhaul of the legislation, as is proposed in the Bill.

I intend to discuss the major strands, both new and old—I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Alli for that helpful distinction—to indicate the work that we have done, our targets and the plans that we have for the future. I believe that that will stand up to the most detailed scrutiny and the most detailed criticism. I reject the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that there has been a lack of resources provided by the Government to tackle discrimination. Anyone who has seen, for example, the work of the Women and Equality Unit or the work that is carried out by various groups within the Cabinet Office and in other departments will know that that is not the case.

I also was sorry to hear—

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I hope that I may correct what he has just said. I did not say that there was a lack of resources; I said that when I asked Ministers whether they would undertake this task, they said that it was a lack of resources that prevented them from doing so. However, I fully accept that many resources are being devoted to this area in a number of ways.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I suspect that Ministers in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, may have intended to refer to lack of parliamentary time. There is certainly a lack of parliamentary time. There is always a lack of parliamentary time.

I was sorry to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, say that we had a history of poor performance to date. I was particularly sorry to hear that from someone who has been as closely involved with these matters as she has. I hope that I shall be able to convince her and others that we have—to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lester—not been idle. One of the arguments against—

Baroness Prashar

My Lords, I did not say that the Government had a history of poor performance; I said that the impact of the legislation to date has been poor.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is a matter on which I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. I apologise for criticising her. It is absolutely fundamental not merely to pass laws but actually to eliminate inequalities. I want to discuss that matter before I end my speech. I am relieved to find that we do not disagree at all on the matter.

I wish to say a few more words about the "big bang" theory. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, claims that there is something terribly wrong with the current law due to its inconsistencies. Of course we aim to remove unwarranted inconsistencies, but the law is different in some cases. For example, disability law is different, as has become clear this afternoon, because it is designed to tackle specific issues relevant to a particular group. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made that very clear. He said that disability legislation was different because it sought to remove obstacles that exist, whereas other forms of discrimination are the other way round, so to speak.

To implement the race and employment directives, we are working hard to make the legislation coherent and easy to use. We are using the same wording for key discrimination concepts where appropriate. We will always seek to simplify the law by reducing exceptions.

The other problem with the big bang theory is that it is, in a sense, a moving target. Not only is the law in this country evolving, but so are European directives. Almost always, they evolve in a helpful direction. There have been three directives since 2000. One was on race, and another on employment deals with sex orientation, religion, disability and age. We talked yesterday about the amendment to the equal treatment directive, which deals with sex discrimination

There have been enormously important rulings by the European Court of Justice. My noble friend Lord Ashley referred to some of those, particularly that relating to equal pay. We have to take an active role, as we have done, in shaping the European directives that bear on equality, and ensure that they reflect UK interests and our concerns for tackling inequality. We did that with the race and employment directives, which represent a major step forward. They provide a common framework of protection against discrimination at work. We are carrying that on now in the negotiations on a new European Union sex discrimination directive.

As all those directives become law, they have to be incorporated into UK law. That means a constant succession of legislation, both primary and secondary. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, thought that the Bill would provide some sort of final solution for discrimination and that we would not be troubled with it in Parliament if the Bill were passed. I am afraid that that is not the case. The process is, will be and ought to be a continuing one. That is why we take the view that we do about the big bang theory.

Let me say something about what we have been doing and what is in the pipeline. We negotiated the European Union race and employment directives so that they took account of circumstances in the UK. For that reason, we are very happy to be implementing them. That process involves amending existing legislation on race and disability, and introducing entirely new legislation to outlaw discrimination in employment and training on the grounds of age, sexual orientation, religion and belief. That is a major commitment, and we must get it right before we consider whether to expand the framework further in the area.

Perhaps the most difficult matter is age discrimination. I entirely agree with what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and others on the subject. It is enormously important, in terms of not only justice but economics. She referred to the dependency ratio, and whether we are going to be able to afford decent pensions for ourselves and future generations. She and my noble friend Lord Borrie were right to say that that is covered in the pensions Green Paper.

There are by no means firm conclusions on all the points, particularly that about any change in the retirement age. But we are preparing detailed proposals for implementation of the age provision, and we shall publish them for wide consultation by the summer. Regulations will be in place by December 2004 so that employers can prepare for changes that will come into force by 2006. I heard my noble friend Lord Borrie argue that we should jump the gun on that but, of course, it is a matter for negotiation with employers and they must have time to prepare for it.

Another very difficult area is disability. But I was pleased to hear, above all, my noble friend Lord Ashley pay tribute in his opening remarks to what has been done. It is clear that we have a positive agenda on civil rights for disabled people. Last September, we implemented the first phase of anti-discrimination rights in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act so that disabled students are taken into account by schools and further and higher education institutions.

Later this year, the Government will publish a draft disability Bill, with measures affecting the public sector, transport and premises and with some widening of the definition of "disability" and more. The scope of the Bill is yet to be finalised. However, we are considering extending the Disability Discrimination Act definition of "disability"—a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins—to cover more people with HIV and cancer, to introduce a duty on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people, and to extend duties under Part 3 of the Act in areas such as the function of public bodies, transport operators and premises.

We are committed to implementing the disability provisions of the Article 13 employment directive in 2004. Those provisions end various exemptions in the Disability Discrimination Act and bring into the scope of the Act a million small employers and a range of occupations, such as the police, prison officers and barristers in chambers. I say to my noble friend Lord Ahmed that they will cover issues of religion and employment. We have laid regulations to bring into force in October 2004 changes to the Disability Discrimination Act which will require service providers to consider making physical changes to their premises in order to remove barriers to disabled people's access.

Work on sex discrimination continues. Amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act will include explicitly treating both harassment and sexual harassment as forms of discrimination. We are taking steps to tackle the specific issue of equal pay and to address the broader causes of the gender pay gap. We undertake that every central government department will complete a pay review in April 2003. I understand the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, about burdens on employers, but I believe that the fundamental point is that made by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. Our best economic interest lies in using all our people in the best way that we can and in having a diverse workforce where no part of our population is discriminated against and is therefore unable to contribute.

I do not believe that in the time available I can go into the issue of clubs, except to say to my noble friend Lord Faulkner that of course we are sympathetic, but not in licensing legislation.

We move from that to the important issue of sexual orientation discrimination. My noble friends Lord Alli and Lady Rendell, in particular, made very moving speeches on that subject. It is true that at present there is a lack of protection. However, it is also true that many employers, including in particular public sector employers, would welcome an increase in protection. Rather than the non-statutory code of practice, to which my noble friend Lady Rendell referred, new regulations, which will be enforced in December this year, will outlaw sexual orientation discrimination and harassment, which is defined as being an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. We are committed to bringing new legislation into force on sexual orientation, religion and belief, race, sex and ability. Noble Lords will have the opportunity to debate that legislation as a package in May of this year.

I am sorry to say that there was little reference to the issues of families, couples and partnerships. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for the Civil Partnerships Bill that he promoted last year. I was glad to have the support of my noble friend Lord Alli for the review that we are now undertaking of the policy and cost implications of a civil partnership registration scheme in England and Wales. We see strong arguments—Barbara Roche has made it clear—in favour of a civil partnership registration scheme for same sex couples with a package of rights and responsibilities for those who register. We look forward to producing a consultation paper in the summer.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is not present so I shall not express my disappointment about race legislation which he mentioned. We had a major amendment in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 that came into force in April last year. It met 11 of the recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report it outlawed direct and indirect discrimination and victimisation in all public authority functions not covered by the original Act; it placed a general duty on specific public authorities to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups in carrying out their functions.

To the noble Lord, Lord Patel, I say that our race equality strategy is concerned with tackling the serious problems of health inequalities in our society. As I have said, we are implementing the race directive that will strengthen our race legislation and enhance the rights of individuals through the introduction of a revised definition of indirect discrimination and of harassment. All of those matters are not just projects for the distant future, but work in progress.

Related to that is the issue of religion, referred to by my noble friend Lord Ahmed and the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, who is a member of the your Lordships' Select Committee that is considering the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. We look forward to the committee's report. Already the Government are extending protection for excluded religious groups at work in the employment regulations that will come into force in December this year. If I have missed out any of the forms of discrimination or dealt with them inadequately, I apologise, but I am conscious of the time.

This afternoon there has been much controversy about the single equality commission. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, started by saying—I know the principle is widely held—that one cannot have one without the other; one cannot have a single commission without a single Act. There has been much disagreement about that, notably from my noble friend Lord Ashley, the noble Lords, Lord Rix and Lord Ouseley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, who feel that disability discrimination is a different matter that needs specific and perhaps different treatment.

We have not taken a decision on the matter. We are still consulting and we shall announce the decision later this year. Our view is that a single commission can operate to promote guidance on the law, whatever its scope and whatever its origin. There is no reason why a single commission needs a single Act under which to work. That has been the position with a number of existing commissions. My noble friend Lord Alli said that the single commission would have to be strand specific, but it has to cover those who find themselves in more than one strand. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, gave a graphic illustration of that.

The point is that any complainant to a commission will have to identify the grounds for complaint. I have some sympathy with what the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said against "giantism" in commissions. That point could take up a considerable amount of time if the Bill goes into Committee.

Finally, I want to say something about the limits of law, which is the relationship between law and cultural changes. From what I have said, I hope that it is clear that the Government have been extremely active in dealing with equality legislation. It is also clear that we live in an unequal society. In order to make changes in society, we need more than legislation. We cannot make people behave well by legislation. There are many other ways in which we could work towards cultural change. We need to encourage those to the full. We need to work for ownership of equality and diversity by employers, by the public services, by business and by community organisations in every way.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made a significant contribution on this point. I do not know whether he meant to. He talked about the rights of men as carers for children. I do not think he was entirely talking about what should be required by law, although perhaps he was in part. But it is partly a question of attitude in families as well as in places of work.

Everyone's objective, whether or not we want a single equality Bill, is that our young people and our future generations should have a shared and mutual respect and understanding, regardless of any of the matters which appear to divide us. I believe that society can learn from the Bill. We shall certainly not oppose its passage through your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has done a great service to the House by the way in which he has prepared and introduced it.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I begin by thanking all Members of the House who have contributed to this very long, detailed and important debate. Perhaps I may also thank noble Lords for the compliments—undeserved—that have been showered upon me. They remind me of what is said to have happened when Dr Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize. An American lady came up to him and said "Dr Kissinger, I wish to thank you from the bottom of my heart for saving the whole of humankind", to which he replied, "You're welcome".

This House is more representative of the groups and individuals affected by the Bill than another place. Those who have spoken have done so from a diversity of backgrounds and experience unequalled in another place. If the Bill and the debate do nothing else, I hope that they will send an extremely powerful message to the Minister's colleagues who are responsible primarily across five different government departments—a Balkanised administration in that Sense—with the Cabinet Office having to try to produce joined-up legislation in this area.

I shall offend if I seek to go through the more than 20 speeches in detail as well as boring the House, but I should like to make one or two general points. First, I am more than glad that reference was made to amending the Writ of Summons. It happened in this way my noble friend Lord Russell, who remembers more than I shall ever learn, pointed out that the Latin word in the ancient Writ of Summons, which I think is proceres, had been mistranslated as meaning "great men", instead of "great ones". After protracted correspondence with the Lord Chancellor, the Sovereign was eventually graciously pleased to give a better translation, not as great ones but as great men and great women.

We heard many great women as well as great men speak in this debate. If she will permit me to say so, one of the most important speeches was that by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. If her speech from the Opposition Front Bench represents her party's policy, it is of enormous significance. Although my party has some leverage, if the two opposition parties could combine to help the Government forward in this area, it would concentrate their mind rather well.

The Labour manifesto was clear. It said: We will eliminate unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists". It did not say that it would do so wherever a European directive said so, nor that it would do so only in employment fields. It says, "wherever it exists". The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, with whose plight I sympathise, was unable to explain why one should not seek to eliminate unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists in the fields covered by the Bill and not by EU directives.

The Minister referred to a "big-bang" theory—something that comes out of the universe, disappears, and, in a way, is ridiculous. But there is nothing ridiculous about seeking to establish a coherent legislative framework into which one can pour future legislation from the European Union as and when it arises.

When the Chancellor of the Exchequer took office, he inherited a mass of SROs—self-regulating organizations—across the financial services sector. He had a big bang called the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. He set up a single agency—the Financial Services Agency—working with City institutions within a completely coherent, marvellous framework. That big bang was translated into a proper framework. The Bill seeks to initiate a little bang—nothing as ambitious as what the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury did. It would produce a user-friendly, coherent framework.

Many noble Lords who expressed particular concern about disability have made me reflect on whether I was wise to include disability discrimination in the Bill. We thought anxiously about it and realised that the disability lobby would be anxious about the institutional architecture of equality. We heard a great deal about the matter today. But I would like the disability lobby to think carefully about exactly what it is asking those of us concerned with public policy to do. Does it want disability discrimination to remain in entirely separate legislation, with an entirely separate enforcement agency in perpetuity? Or is it willing to see eventually a single unified equality commission, provided that there is no unjust preference for one strand over another? I think that Bert Massie, the chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, indicated that he was willing to see such a system in five years' time from 2000.

I could easily have removed disability discrimination from the Bill. Had I done so, none of the complaints about the institutional architecture would have been made. If the disability lobby wishes, I shall be happy to remove disability discrimination from the Bill in Committee. What have we done instead? We have heeded every recommendation of the disability task force.

The RNIB has made yet further suggestions, which we will think about carefully. Some are misconceived; others are quite radical, and some need much further thought. I beg the disability rights movement to consider exactly what it wants. I sympathise with the Government's objective of creating a single equality commission, but like Bert Massie, I believe that we cannot have it without a coherent framework.

In dealing with the question of the architecture and the objections about the "big bang", I must say that the Irish Government and Parliament managed, with fewer resources than we have, to produce, in two Bills, a coherent framework for dealing with equality. It covers nine different kinds of discrimination, and a single Equality Authority deals with all of them, side-by-side with the Human Rights Commission. I see no reason why, with our greater resources, we cannot do what they have done.

Your Lordships asked many questions. I shall not deal with all of them, but I shall touch on one or two points. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, approved the principles of the Bill most helpfully. Clearly, she understood exactly what we were concerned with. She raised the problem of getting equal pay without deterring employers from employing women. It is a difficult problem, but the answer is that that is why we need comprehensive legislation on employment discrimination, as well as pay discrimination.

Later in the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, asked whether we should not get away from trivial cases about what people wear. That problem has been there in the Sex Discrimination Act since 1975. There have not been any crazy decisions, although there have been some crazy cases, and I am not aware that the tribunals have created a ridiculous situation. If that has happened, such cases have been dealt with on appeal. I understand the point; it is important to bring cases that matter. However, matters of dress can be extremely important—maybe not to those of us who dress conventionally, wearing baronial robes or putting horsehair on our head in court. To somebody who is made to conform to a dress code at work, when someone of the other sex is not required to do so, it can he as important as it would be, for example, to a young Muslim girl who is not allowed to wear a headscarf. When considering the law, we should not trivialise such symbols and badges.

The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, spoke about not imposing excessive burdens on small employers and asked whether the employment equity reviews were not a little heavy-handed. I hope that we will be able to persuade those who are concerned about that—I am sure that the CBI itself is concerned—that, on the contrary, the employment equity reviews are not intended to be an onerous, heavy-handed paper chase. As regards the designation of employers, it was the fear of going too far that made us want to leave some discretion for the Secretary to State as to the level of employment that would be covered.

Questions were asked about how we would ensure that there was a level playing field within an equality commission. If noble Lords examine the Bill, they will find that we have taken special steps to ensure the efficient allocation of resources and to ensure that the allocation is fair all round. We have taken account of the need for strategic allocation to be fair all round and for the commission to be adequately resourced and independent.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester raised several points. In his absence, I need not reply, but I will say that we had the same kind of arguments during the passage of the Human Rights Bill. It is not appropriate for faith organisations to seek immunity from principles of equality. The Bill would balance religious freedom with equality in other areas.

Noble Lords have clearly explained what "discrimination" means. The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, illustrated how a novelist is better able to convey the underlying values than any barrister or politician. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, was worried about death by absorption of the Disability Rights Commission. I believe that if the disability rights movement wishes to he semi or wholly detached, federally-linked or entirely integrated, that is a matter for it. However, that should not dominate consideration of the Bill.

I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, in answer to his questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, was worried about giantism. There is no question of giantism—I am more worried about many small equality agencies not able to deal with multi-discrimination. The noble Baroness was worried about who would decide what is proportionate in deciding what is justifiable. Ultimately, it is the judges and tribunals and they have had to do that since 1975. There is no real change, therefore. Furthermore, the limits of positive discrimination are matters of interpretation of the general principles.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, also asked whether the Bill goes far enough, for example, in allowing an actuarial defence in relation to retirement and sex discrimination. I hope that it goes far enough, but we can examine that. She also asked whether the commission's powers were stronger than the existing powers. They represent the highest common factor of powers that we could achieve. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked whether there was any conflict with the Human Rights Act, to which the answer is "No".

As regards the definition of "disability", we have met all the recommendations made by the Disability Task Force. If there are further definitions which require consideration, we should pursue them.

I ask myself what is the best way forward. I had hoped that we would have a Select Committee on the Bill, because taking evidence on the points raised, for example, by the noble Baroness, Lady Buseombe, about employment equity plans and burdens on businesses could have been well addressed. However, the Liaison Committee decided otherwise and there is no right of appeal against its final and, I am sure, wise decision about how the resources of the House should be used.

What do we then do? I believe that we should let the Bill proceed hoping that we will not be presented with hundreds of amendments which will indefinitely tie down Ministers, civil servants and noble Lords I hope that we can focus upon key issues to try to make the Bill as good as possible.

Why are we doing this? Ultimately, we are doing it to help government and civil servants to produce sooner rather than later a Bill which covers unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists in a coherent framework. On that basis, I hope that noble Lords will give the Bill a Second Reading and I commend it to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.