Equality Bill

John Bercow supports the Bill welcoming moves to harmonise current equality laws and attempts to reduce socio-economic inequalities by the imposition of a 'socio-economic duty' on public sector bodies.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), to whose candid contribution I listened, as always, with interest and respect.

I begin by declaring an interest as a member of the Speaker’s conference that is committed to securing greater representation in this House from women, members of the ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and, as far as I am concerned, people from the LGBT—lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—community, which has historically been hugely unrepresented in this House.

I should also say at the outset, for the avoidance of doubt, that I strongly support the Bill. It is a good, progressive, visionary and overdue Bill, and, I would argue, a Bill that manifestly and incontrovertibly deserves a Second Reading. In the course of my contribution, I shall seek to explain to the House the rationale for my view.

As other right hon. and hon. Members have acknowledged, there are two elements to the Bill—the consolidatory feature, on the one hand, and the feature of extension, on the other. It is pretty much unarguable that we need to consolidate the law. A sprawling and complex mosaic of enactments has grown like Topsy over a period of 40 years, and it is high time that that was consolidated and distilled into one readily intelligible and accessible piece of legislation. It is a considerable tribute to the parliamentary draftspeople, intellectually and administratively, that they have accomplished that task.

We should not then say, “Well, it ends there”, because consolidation is necessary but, frankly, not sufficient. Those who admire only the consolidatory features of the Bill are, in a sense, resting content with exiguous achievements. We need to go rather further than that. Let us look at the context and background to the unveiling of new and further measures. As the Minister for Women and Equality pointed out, it is 40 years next year since the passage of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and, despite all that has been achieved, the pay gap, though on a lesser scale, nevertheless stubbornly persists. People with disabilities are twice as likely to be out of work. Members of the ethnic minorities are 13 per cent. less likely to get a job. In schools, despite all the changes in legislation and, to a degree, in culture, children who are, or who are wrongly thought to be, lesbian, gay or bisexual are harassed and bullied on a monumental scale. Therefore, we cannot be self-satisfied. I am always suspicious of people who say, “I’m all in favour of equality, but it isn’t really necessary to do anything about it”, or, “We’re all in favour of equality”—end of argument, no requirement for legislation, and by the way, would it not be socially desirable to talk about some other subject altogether?

The fact is that much remains to be done. I want, if I may, to focus on a number of features of the Bill that seem to lie at its heart. I mentioned some of the disadvantage that persists, but in a sense the biggest single problem with which we are confronted in all parties in this House is that social mobility, which is palpably a good after which we should all strive, has stalled at best and regressed at worse. That has happened under successive Governments, with attempts to do good here and there. It is a long-standing phenomenon, and we have to seek to arrest and reverse that trend. Hence the introduction of clause 1, with its imposition of the socio-economic duty. If one believed some of the more hysterical headlines and articles beneath them in the newspapers, one would think that this heralded the emergence of the vanguard of the revolution, and that truly one had to be a Marxist-Leninist, a Trotskyist or a workerist to believe in the imposition of such a clause. In fact, it simply entails an acknowledgment and a recognition that leaving things entirely to the market and the free play of those forces is not enough—one must have some action from Government and Parliament of a protective and enabling character.

Let me consider what attempts to reduce inequalities of outcome by the imposition of the socio-economic duty on public sector bodies might mean in practical terms. It might mean that in a particular area of notable disadvantage a health trust decides to focus its anti-smoking policy, or its smoking cessation service, on a disadvantaged community, in which there might be evidence to show that the incidence of nicotine addiction was much greater than elsewhere. That is an extremely good thing in the name of reducing health inequalities and encouraging and making more likely decent longevity in that community.

What else might the socio-economic duty mean? It might mean that in a particular area where there is a concentration of disadvantage and where children face great difficulty in getting into some of the better-performing schools, the parents are given advice on the school’s application process by professionals, experts and well-wishers to better the chances of those otherwise disadvantaged children. It might even mean—I would favour this; it was practised in Brighton under the Conservatives and by one school, very briefly, in Hammersmith and Fulham—the adoption of a lottery system. I know that that is politically unpopular, but I continue to believe that it is thoroughly right and fair.

Dr. Desmond Turner: I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman’s remarks so far, but I want to correct him on a point of accuracy. The so-called lottery in Brighton was introduced by a Labour council in the face of determined Tory opposition, but the Tories now holding the council have realised its virtues.

John Bercow: I am happy to accept that remonstrance and correction. It was a belated conversion, but it was nevertheless the right thing to do.

It might also be the case that in a particular area where there is poor public transport and a low rate of car ownership, it is decided to put on a free or subsidised shuttle service to enable people to get to hospital when they would not otherwise be able to do so.

Through my work on the subject of speech and language services, I have been continually and forcefully reminded, in visiting pre-schools, primary schools, secondary schools and post-16 facilities across the country, of something that all right hon. and hon. Members know to be true. Someone who is educated, articulate, capable of writing a decent letter, willing to joust with authority, and unperturbed by the thought of having to appear in front of some sort of tribunal to argue the case for their child can probably get more or less what their child needs, and sometimes more than he or she needs. On the other hand, someone who is uneducated, inarticulate, unaccustomed to expressing themselves in writing, fearful of appearing in front of some sort of formal panel or hearing, or simply weighed down by the multiplicity of other problems with which in their life they must daily contend will probably not get what their child needs. There is therefore a powerful case for saying “Let’s have the duty.” My own Front Benchers are committed to a pupil premium, which is a form of positive action, and I cannot see what the great terror of this clause is. It seems to me that if we look at the evidence, we see that class tends to trump everything. It was said earlier that less able but more fortunate children could overtake more able but less fortunate children by the age of six, so a correction to the balance is needed.

Sandra Osborne: The hon. Gentleman is giving useful examples of the many advantages that the socio-economic duty will provide to disadvantaged people. Is he aware that at the moment the duty does not extend to devolved areas? In Scotland, we are depending on the Scottish Government to co-operate and take this on board. Does he agree that if that does not happen and we do not get that co-operation, many people in Scotland will be greatly disadvantaged?

John Bercow: They would, and I hope that that will not arise and that there will be an opportunity in the course of the Bill’s passage to make certain that it does not.

Positive action has been the subject of some debate, which I think has become excessively convoluted. Some of my hon. Friends have fears about it that are wholly unrealistic. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is an admirable parliamentarian, but his sense that there will be a competitive hierarchy of disadvantage, or alternatively of cases of positive action, will probably not be realised in practice. My view is that if a primary school has real difficulty in getting male teachers, and there are two candidates of equal merit, it should be permitted—not prescribed—for the school to opt for the man. Similarly, if there is a bank with an all-male, besuited board and not a woman in sight, and there is a strong woman candidate on the shortlist, it should be open to the bank to say, “We will have the woman in the name of the diversity of the work force that will thereby result”.

What is more, it is a question not just of decency to the individual but of benefit to the business and potentially the wider economy. Research by the Catalyst organisation shows that when Fortune 500 companies recruit and promote on that basis, they do better on sales by about 42 per cent., on return on capital invested by about 66 per cent. and on equity return by about 53 per cent. The provision will ordinarily be used as a tie-breaker. I do not need to labour the point, but it seems to me that it is an example of an active assertion of the need for change. Just leaving things as they are will not lead to progress.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent speech. Wearing his other hat as someone who sits on the Speaker’s Conference, does he not agree that we should consider measures to adopt positive action on representation in this house for black and Asian people as well as for women?

John Bercow: Yes. I gave the example of women, but the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to challenge me more widely. I certainly do think so, and in principle I am sympathetic to the idea of black and minority ethnic shortlists. However, the world does not change in a day. I have been doing my best since January 2003, unsuccessfully thus far, to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to accept the principle and practice of all-women shortlists. I am happy to take that on board as part of my list of demands with which I go to my colleagues to lobby, with some expectation of eventual but not immediate success.

The gender pay gap is a huge issue, and I can see why my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) believes that her idea of compulsory pay audits for demonstrably errant companies is valid. The Government should seriously consider that, as it is a practical and sensible idea. However, I do not agree with the thesis that we should simply pursue a selective policy and eschew the idea of a universal requirement. All that is involved in the clauses on this subject is, first, the ban on secrecy clauses—that is very sensible, because information is power, and if people do not know what others are getting they are in less of a position to argue, lobby and seek better treatment for themselves—and secondly, the requirement from 2013, in the event of inadequate progress in the interim, that companies with 250 or more employees should publish an annual statement of the gender pay gap in their organisation.

That requirement is extraordinarily modest and a long way in the coming. The Government certainly cannot be accused of being excessively hasty or unreasonable about it, as they are looking to see what progress will be made. Of course, it will apply only to approximately 0.5 per cent. of all businesses, so the idea that the decimation of the industrial or commercial base of the country and mass unemployment will result from this relatively modest and well-overdue provision seems somewhat far-fetched. If we look at the evidence, we find that when companies behave well, on the whole they do better with a more diverse work force.

Judy Mallaber: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the plans whereby it would be very easy to do a pay audit of a company? It does not take a great deal of incomprehensible bureaucracy to do that, and it goes beyond just asking what is the pay gap, as it analyses the causes of that gap. Many proposals have been put forward that could provide a toolkit for being able to do that within a company. It really is not a complex process at all.

John Bercow: I rather agree with that, and actually I think that that is true both of large companies and, to some extent, of small. In the case of large companies, it is probably relatively easy to collate and publish the material, because there will be an in-house personnel department. In the case of some smaller businesses, although not all, the number of people involved is relatively small by definition and the material can be quite easily made available. The idea that there is some sort of Herculean obstacle to doing that is not true.

I wish to finish by saying that I am genuinely saddened by the stance that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have taken. The general tenor of the debate has been, “Well, the Conservative Opposition are opposing a Second Reading”, and certainly the terms of the reasoned amendment rather suggest that. Actually, there are people who strongly support the Bill—mainly on the Labour and Liberal Democrats Benches, and certainly myself—as well as some who are strongly opposed to it. On the whole, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead seems to be strongly undecided about the Bill, which is a pity.

If the Opposition Front Benchers are not in favour of the Bill but actually against it, the honourable, upright, bold thing to do would be to vote against Second Reading. I think that that position would be wrong, but everybody could understand it. I cannot help but be called to mind of Churchill’s verdict on Baldwin in 1936—that he was

“decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent.”—[ Official Report, 12 November 1936; Vol. 317, c. 1107.]

I make no such suggestion in respect either of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) or of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, but I do think that there is a certain wobble on the subject, and a degree of robust candour would be respected so that we could have an honourable difference of opinion. Most people conclude that at the moment the Opposition are against the Bill, and I am sorry about that, because there is much good in the Bill.

I am forced to conclude by saying that when it was said earlier that the Bill was a missed opportunity, I could not help but think, “No; the real missed opportunity in 2009 is the unwillingness of my own party’s Front Benchers to give the Bill a Second Reading.” Even now at this, the 59th minute after the eleventh hour, I appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean for a change of heart on the part of our party.

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