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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Equality and Diversity in Britain

Saturday, November 26, 2005

At an event celebrating diversity in the European Union hosted by Keith Vaz MP, Meg gave the following address.

 

The Government is committed to helping bring about a country where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential - whatever their background, their sex, class, religion or race, regardless of age, disability or sexual orientation. We believe such a country would not only be a fairer place in which to live, but would encourage the talents of all our people to bloom.

 

In an ever more competitive and global economy, equality and economic success go hand-in-hand. Britain’s businesses will increasingly need to draw on the abilities of their entire workforce to remain successful. This will also have to happen in every Member State if the European Union is to achieve the targets set in the Lisbon strategy - to make Europe more competitive in an increasingly tough global marketplace. The Government supported the European Employment Directives, which tackle discrimination in employment on the grounds of race, disability, sexual orientation, religion and belief and from 2006, age.

 

At a time when consumers show a growing willingness to judge individual business companies by whether equality and diversity are part of their core values, these businesses can reap rewards by ensuring that they demonstrate how they are achieving these ends in practice. By ensuring all their employees have the opportunity to achieve, companies can generate a virtuous circle - positive feedback from their employees, leading to positive feedback and sales with the general public. Promoting equality and diversity is not only vital in securing individual opportunity and potential - it’s also vital for the prosperity of business, and ultimately society.

 

That is why our Government supported the European Employment Directives, which tackle discrimination in employment on the grounds of race, disability, sexual orientation, religion and belief and from 2006; age.

 

Government achievements on equality

We have set about tackling discrimination and promoting equality in a variety of ways:

  • In 2000 we established the Disability Rights Commission to promote the rights of disabled people. Earlier this year, we passed the Disability Discrimination Act, bringing in a new duty on the public sector to promote equality for disabled people.
  • We’ve introduced the biggest package of support for working mothers, including extending maternity leave, new rights to flexible working and guaranteeing free nursery places for all 3 and 4 year olds. As part of that we have given greater support to fathers, introducing two weeks paid paternity leave for the first time.
  • We have outlawed race discrimination in all public functions and introduced a new duty on public bodies to promote race equality.
  • The Civil Partnership Act, which comes into force next month, will give same sex couples the same inheritance, pension and next of kin rights as married couples.
  • We’ve introduced the first ever Human Rights legislation in the UK, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights.

 

Current equality work

However we all know, unacceptable inequalities in opportunity still remain. Too many people face discrimination and prejudice, in Britain and across Europe. We have to make further progress in tackling discrimination and promoting equality.

 

I want to highlight the areas of work where we are now focussing. This programme has three key elements.

 

Firstly a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. On Monday the Equality Bill was debated in the House of Commons - a major plank in the strategy to ensure that discrimination and prejudice have no place in our society. It will transform the way Britain tackles discrimination and disadvantage:

  • It establishes a powerful new commission to champion equality and human rights. 
  • It extends the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief beyond employment into goods, facilities and services, the management and disposal of premises and the exercise of public functions. 
  • It creates a gender duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between men and women.

 

The Commission for Equality and Human Rights will draw together the work of the three existing equality Commissions, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission and include new areas of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, religion and belief, and from 2006, age. It will also provide institutional support for the Human Rights Act, in particular to embed human rights effectively into public service delivery.

 

It is being established to bring a new, inclusive approach to promoting equality and human rights, and provide more effective support for our discrimination legislation. This approach recognises the importance of both human rights and the need to ensure good relations between communities. The Commission for Equality and Human Rights will build on the work of the existing bodies. We want it to be open to its stakeholders and committed to partnership working. That is why our Bill includes innovative new duties, such as a duty to use its powers to work towards a fairer society, and duties to map society’s progress towards equality through a “state of the nation” report.

 

I’d like to highlight four of the many ways in which this will mean the Commission for Equality and Human Rights will be different. These are through:

  • Greater legitimacy: being the guardian of equality and human rights for the whole of society and not any sectional group.
  • Maximising expertise: putting expertise in one place - providing a single point of access on equality and human rights legislation.
  • A stronger voice: being a strong advocate and influencer for equality and human rights, both with key decision makers and the public at large.
  • Evidence based action: building up a powerful evidence base on the causes of inequality to help identify goals and priorities.

 

Alongside these important legislative measures we are also examining our whole approach to equality and discrimination.

 

The Equalities Review is chaired by Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality. This review is looking at the long term and underlying causes of inequality and disadvantage. The review will inform the work of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights and provide practical recommendations on key policy priorities for Government, the public sector, employers, trade unions, the voluntary sector and civil society.

 

The third element of our programme is the Discrimination Law Review. This is reviewing the effectiveness of our existing anti-discrimination legislation and identifying gaps in protection. This work, which will seek to simplify and modernise the law, will move towards the establishment of a Single Equality Act providing a simpler, clearer, fairer framework - something equality organisations and others have campaigned for, over many years.

 

In the Britain we have a relatively long history of legislation and institutions that support different elements of the equality agenda. The Government has been working very closely with our existing equality bodies in developing plans for the new commission.  Their support has been, and continues to be, critical to our success.

 

It is understandable that some campaigners fear possible loss of focus on the issues of greatest concern to the people whose interests they serve.  But the growing understanding that developing equality and diversity is in everyone’s interest helps strengthen the case for one single powerful commission. 

 

Government understands that equality and human rights are not minority concerns. They are the concerns of all who want a society built around mutual trust and respect, which are part of the building blocks of a socially inclusive Europe. Let’s not under-estimate the distance we have come in developing this agenda, nor over-estimate the problems that remain to be overcome in achieving our vision. We need to continue moving forward at a measured pace bringing the majority of the population with us. Governments can make all the laws we like, but its changing hearts and minds about these issues that will ultimately determine the future shape of society.  

 


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