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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Progress on the Equality Bill

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

At a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Equalities held in the House of Commons on Monday 14th November Meg made the following speech.


Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.


As you know the Equality Bill has reached the Commons stage of its parliamentary progress and will have it Second Reading on Monday 21 November.


This event gives me an excellent opportunity to speak to you about some of the issues that we have encountered in the House of Lords, and the changes that these have led to in the Bill; changes that we believe have improved the Bill adding strength and clarity.


First though, a few words about the new Commission. The establishment of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) is about more than bringing together the existing equality commissions. It will provide institutional support of the newer areas of discrimination law covering sexual orientation, religion or belief and age. And - importantly - the Commission will for the first time provide support for the promotion of human rights.


Human rights have a vital part to play. They are firstly a guarantee that every individual has a right to dignity and respect. Secondly, they provide valuable tools for dealing with differences and potential conflicts between us. The principles of human rights law - that any limitation of rights must be necessary and proportionate - can be guiding principles in areas where there are disputes between the rights of one group and another.


While many have responded to detailed proposals for the Commission, during the lengthy and extensive consultation we have carried out, none have been opposed to bringing all the areas of discrimination, equality and human rights together in one framework. That is the important foundation on which we have sought to build the Commission.


Turning to the Equality Bill, I would like to thank all of my colleagues in the House of Lords for their valuable and considered deliberations; we recognise the wealth of experience that has informed their arguments.


Similarly we must thank our stakeholders for their continued and constructive engagement with this Bill; this is invaluable.


Throughout the process that has brought us to this point we have been committed to listening to - and taking account of - the input of those with experience, knowledge and expertise across a wide range of fields. The changes that have been made to the Bill to date are evidence of this, and we have been pleased with the manner in which Government amendments to date have been received.


There will no doubt will further serious debate, and we will listen carefully to it. We feel that this openness and transparency in policy making is laying down markers on the way in which the Commission itself must function in practice.


In summary the major areas where changes have been made are


  • Strengthening the independence of the Commission by:

    • ensuring that appointments area made on the basis of merit;

    • Strengthening the funding commitment;

    • Placing a statutory requirement for the Secretary of State to have regard for the desirability of the Commission being under as few constraints as possible; and

    • Removing direction-making powers in respect of investigations, inquiries and assessments of the public sector duty

  • Introducing powers for the Commission to undertake judicial review on human rights grounds;

  • We listened carefully to the concerns about including disability within the Commission’s “good relations” work, and have made changes to clarify its duties and how they apply to communities, groups and individuals.

 

  •  Finally we have given a firm commitment to make discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services unlawful on grounds of sexual orientation. The strength of feeling on this issue - both inside and outside Parliament - has been a persuasive force.

We need to maintain momentum and continue to work together collaboratively and openly.


We should take the time necessary to explore the areas that may still be a cause for concern, but be mindful of the timetable we believe it is important to keep to.


We are currently on course for Royal Assent in February; this will allow us to keep to our timetable for establishment of the Commission, with doors opening in October 2007 and taking on responsibility for race functions in early 2009. 


Part 2 of the Bill introduces important provisions making it unlawful to discriminate in the provision of goods, facilities and services - and in the letting of premises and the delivery of public functions - on grounds of religion or belief.


These provisions close a loophole in the law that limits protection against discrimination in these areas to Sikhs and Jews who - because they are considered both an ethnic and religious group - are covered under the Race Relations Act. This is not right, and Part 2 of the Bill corrects this.


Part 3 of the Bill introduces the long awaited public sector duty on gender equality. As someone long involved in the women’s movement, and a campaigner and activist for gender equality, this is particularly welcome. In April 2007, it will put gender equality on par with disability and race, requiring public authorities to proactively take full account of, and be responsive to, the different needs of men and women.


On 4 October, I launched the Government’s consultation on the nature and detail of the specific duties which will feed into the secondary legislation needed to bring the duty into effect.  I know that I will be talking in more detail to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sex Equality on 22 November, but I would welcome any views you have to the consultation document - the deadline for responses is 12 January.  

So - broadly speaking - that is an outline of the Equality Bill. Before I take questions on the Bill, I would like to take this opportunity to explain a little about the wider agenda on equality that we are pursuing in the Department for Trade and Industry.


Building on over thirty years’ experience of equality legislation, the Government has embarked on a comprehensive programme of reform that will create a new and better framework that is robust and forward-looking to the challenges of the future. This programme has three key elements


Firstly of course, we are seeking, through the Equality Bill, to establish the CEHR as a champion for equality and human rights.


The second element of the work is the Equalities Review, chaired by Trevor Phillips, through which we are seeking to deepen our understanding of the root causes of inequality and how they can be tackled. The Equalities review will feed into the third element - the reform of the legal equality framework through a Single Equality Act following the Discrimination Law Review.


These two reviews will inform each other so that the package of changes that they engender is based on sound evidence, and balances the relative impact that legislation and other action can have in bringing about meaningful change. The outcomes of this work will provide a strong foundation to enhance the work and agenda of the CEHR.


We have come a long way to reach this point, and I hope that we will not forget that.


I encourage you all to keep the ambitious and aspirational vision for this Commission - set out so well in Clause 3 of the Bill - in mind during the coming weeks.


Of course there is stillroom for debate and there may be further improvements to be made. But I we remain committed to moving forward and getting this Bill on the statute books so that we can get on with putting the Commission in place and moving further towards that vision.  


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