§ Mr. Gunnell
To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if she will make a statement on the Government's approach to equality issues. 
§ Marjorie Mowlam
The Government are working to transform Britain into a society which is inclusive and prosperous. Eliminating unjustified discrimination wherever it exists and making equality of opportunity a reality for all is at the heart of the Government's agenda. Equality of opportunity is not only inherently right, it is also essential for Britain's future economic and social success. Much has been achieved in the last two years. But we are not complacent. A lot remains to be done. We will continue to act to stamp out discrimination, remove 175W barriers and improve the position of groups facing disadvantage and discrimination in employment, public life and public service delivery. We will ensure that the right legislative framework and institutional arrangements are in place and that information, guidance and other support is available to challenge discrimination and deliver fair treatment to allow everyone to develop and contribute to their full potential. That is to the benefit of all—individuals, communities, business—in a healthy, modern, diverse society.
We will avoid unnecessary and burdensome regulation and will promote, encourage and support progress through non-legislative means. However, we will legislate where necessary or desirable when legislative time permits. In doing so, we will be governed by the principles of improving consistency between the protection afforded to different groups by different legislation, modernising enforcement powers, and by the need for the public sector to lead by example.
As explained in our response to the Better Regulation Task Force Review of Anti-discrimination Legislation, we will where practicable harmonise the provisions of the Race Relations Act 1976, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and align the equality commissions' powers. This will significantly extend discrimination law coverage and strengthen the powers of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to match those of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC). We will legislate to remove barriers to the equality commissions working together on common issues and to enable them to produce joint guidance.
We are modernising Government. Not only will we continue to tackle discrimination in all institutions, we will champion equality in every sense and at every level. Public bodies must take the lead in promoting equal opportunities and the Government will put this obligation in legislation as soon as Parliamentary time permits. Together with our commitment to implement the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry action plan, this will help ensure public institutions and services are free from discriminatory procedures and practices and should improve the position of disadvantaged groups, both as employees and users of public services. This will not in any way replace or supersede the existing statutory arrangements in Northern Ireland where there is already a duty on the public sector to promote equality of opportunity. We will be looking at, and learning from, the operation of the law in Northern Ireland. We will also build on existing mainstreaming and appraisal guidance to ensure that policies are inclusive, and take full account of the needs and experience of all those likely to be affected by them, and of the impact on particular groups in society.
We will continue to take action to meet our commitment to remove the under-representation of women, members of minority ethnic groups and disabled people on public bodies; and to meet the challenging targets set for representation of these groups in the Civil Service.
The Race Relations (Amendment) Bill announced in the Queen's speech, will extend the Race Relations Act to public functions not previously covered, such as law enforcement and immigration. It will implement, and go beyond, one of the Lawrence Inquiry Report 176W recommendations by making it unlawful for public authorities generally to discriminate in the exercise of their functions. This is an important step in the Government's efforts to ensure that the public sector sets the pace in the drive towards equality; and we will extend it to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 when legislative time permits.
The gender pay gap is indefensible. We will support further action to address this and to achieve greater choice of career, of working patterns and a better balance between work and home responsibilities that will benefit both businesses and individuals.
We intend to launch a campaign to promote employment policies which help people balance work and life delivered through partnership with employers. Fairness at Work measures are improving parental and maternity leave, and allowing time off for emergencies. The National Childcare Strategy, Working Families Tax Credit, Childcare Tax Credit and the National Minimum Wage are all bringing benefits and removing barriers for women and men. We will consult on changes to Tribunal procedures to speed up and simplify equal pay claims.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 lags behind sex and race legislation in the protection it provides for disabled people. The establishment of a Disability Rights Commission, in April 2000, will address one of the Act's major weaknesses but there are other gaps in coverage. The Disability Rights Task Force, which has been looking at securing comprehensive rights for disabled people, will report shortly. The Government will carefully consider its recommendations. But we are committed to improving the rights of disabled people. Where appropriate legislative opportunities arise, we shall use them to pursue this commitment.
Further legislation is not enough in itself. Changing negative attitudes towards disability, and indeed all forms of discrimination, is crucially important. We shall continue with our campaign to address the lack of knowledge of disability issues and raise awareness among service providers' of their duties to improve access for disabled people.
We are certain that a great deal of progress can be made through the provision of information and guidance to ensure awareness of rights and responsibilities. The Government have already produced a Code of Practice on discrimination in employment based on age and proposes, in conjunction with the EOC, preparing a Code of Practice on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Evaluation of the effectiveness of this Code and consideration of developments in other areas will inform any future decision on the need for legislation.
The Government are alive to the concerns that have been expressed about the issue of religious discrimination, and to the case for it to be made subject to the law. However, this issue raises many difficult, sensitive and complex questions. We have commissioned research to try to assess the current scale and nature of religious discrimination, and the extent to which it overlaps with racial discrimination, in mainland Britain. The results, due in autumn 2000, will help to inform our thinking about the appropriate response.177W
Clarification of the law and advice will be provided in a number of areas to encourage the adoption of good practice. There will be a code of practice on discrimination against volunteers, guidance on positive action to tackle under-representation of women and ethnic minorities, and guidance on sexual harassment at work. In particular, we are looking at ways of giving small businesses better access to coherent information and advice about equality issues. We are planning to pilot a new joined-up service next year.
Overall, therefore, we intend to combat discrimination across a broad front, using both legislative and non-legislative means as appropriate, and with the public sector taking the lead. To this end, the Government will introduce legislation as soon as Parliamentary time allows, following a targeted consultation exercise in the first half of 2000; and will press ahead with the non-legislative measures outlined above. Our efforts to combat discrimination are already making an impact and will, in conjunction with new actions, continue to yield results making Britain a better place to live and work for all.