Equality Bill [Lords]
Eleanor Laing speaks as Shadow Minister for Women and Equality in support of her amendment and raises her concerns about the costs of the new Commission for Equality.
Mrs. Laing : The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) has made an important and eloquent speech. He mentioned that the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) has attended Eid celebrations, which is what my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is usually here on the Front Bench, is doing. We cannot all attend Eid celebrations, which are important, but I am sure that all hon. Members support them.
I listened carefully to the speech by the hon. Member for Leicester, East. When I challenged him on one point, he answered another point, but I still disagree with him on the first point, which amendment No. 43 addresses. Given that we are discussing equality, it is strange that the Bill gives pre-eminence to matters concerning race, religion or belief. We discussed that point at length in Committee, where I argued that it is illogical to include the word "particular" in clause 10(4), because it is not right that particular attention should be paid to one of the strands of equality. However, I will not press that point, because other issues are far more important and I do not feel strongly about it. When we made that point in Committee, the Minister gave a reasonable explanation why the word "particular" should remain. I accepted her argument then and, being consistent, I am sure that she will advance it again today, in which case I shall probably accept it once more.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East has made some important points. In Committee, I moved amendment No. 52, which suggested that the commission should consist of:
"(d) at least one female Commissioner,
(e) at least one Commissioner who represents an ethnic minority,
(f) at least one Commissioner who at the time of appointment is aged over 65 years, and
(g) at least one Commissioner who is either gay, lesbian or transgender.'."
To that extent, I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, East.
In Committee, my concern, which I still harbour, was that we should be prescriptive on Report, because law is better if it is not vague, but precise. My amendment in Committee, which is similar to the general points made by the hon. Member for Leicester, East this afternoon, would have allowed Parliament to prescribe some of the qualifications for some of the commissioners. It is important that at least one commissioner is female and that at least one commissioner can discuss issues around age from their own experience. I am not sure whether all hon. Members agree that "aged over 65 years" is a qualification, and if others think that it should be 70, 75 or even older, I would not argue, because the point is sensitive.
In principle, it is important that the commission has members who know about discrimination from their own experience rather than from a second-hand, academic or professional understanding. A reasonable proportion of the commissioners should have an understanding based on their own experience, which is different from an understanding derived from academic study or professional experience. I therefore agree with the general principles behind what the hon. Member for Leicester, East has said this afternoon.
Keith Vaz: I therefore assume that the hon. Lady will support the amendment.
Mrs. Laing: My amendment was slightly different from the hon. Gentleman's amendment. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has suggested that his amendment is better, which is his prerogative. If I had wanted to press the matter to a vote, however, I would have tabled a different amendment. I do not support the letter of his amendment, but I support what he has said in principle. However, I suspect that the Minister will advance a legal argument to try to persuade the House that a provision in schedule 1 already covers all those points. Nevertheless, it is important that we have it on record that this House feels strongly that the commission should be composed of people who understand the issues of discrimination against which we are legislating from their own personal experience.
It is also important to recognise that this is a cross-party matter. I suspect that the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) agrees with me in principle as she did in Committee, although she may argue about the exact dots and commas. When such matters are considered in the wider sphere, it is important that Parliament is seen to be concerned that the commission is made up of people who have relevant personal experience.
Keith Vaz: I am surprised by the hon. Lady, because I should have thought that under the new leadership of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) she would want to appeal to the black and Asian community in the United Kingdom by saying that it has a voice in the Conservative party, which says that it must have equal representation. Why is she struggling with the issue, which should be an easy win for the Conservatives?
Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken—I am not struggling at all. My speech in Committee was made prior to the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney as leader of the Conservative party. My principles are those in which I have always believed and continue consistently to believe. It is delightful that the new leader of my party agrees with me on these matters, as he honestly does. I am pleased that he is directing my party in the right direction in this respect. I might struggle with the exact words that the hon. Member for Leicester, East has used in his amendment—I am not giving him any assurances in that regard—but I am not struggling with the principle. Conservative Members agree with what he said, and he deserves to be complimented on saying it in such a heartfelt way.
John Bercow: I know that my hon. Friend performed with great skill and dexterity in the Standing Committee on the Bill. However, as I was not fortunate enough to be chosen as a member of the Committee, I am familiar only with some, not all, of the exchanges that took place there. I understand her argument that the terms and wording of her amendment differ from those of the hon. Member for Leicester, East, but if there is something wrong with his amendment, what is it?
Mrs. Laing: As usual, my hon. Friend asks a very precise question. In principle, there is nothing wrong with the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but I am not willing to commit my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself to supporting exactly what he has said word for word. I know that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me as well. I confess that I am a cautious lawyer by training, so I do not rush into precise and binding promises on every dot and comma of a particular amendment unless I am 100 per cent. sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I wish to be led down precisely that path.
Keith Vaz: I like the hon. Lady, but I do not forgive her, because this moment represents a genuine opportunity for the Conservative party to show some fresh thinking on the equality debate. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is sitting next to her, will have just come back from the Eid celebration, having made his usual marvellous and eloquent speeches in support of this country's ethnic minority communities. If the hon. Lady agrees with the principle of what I have said, here is her chance—her moment in history—to strike a blow for those communities. Why does not she seize it with both hands?
Mrs. Laing: I am tempted by the hon. Gentleman's flattery, but I simply repeat that in principle we support what he said—he advanced some good arguments. It is quite something for agreement on principle to be reached between Conservative and Labour Members. He should quit while he is ahead, or I will find something specific to disagree with.
Mr. Boswell : It might assist my hon. Friend if I were to tell her my view, without anticipating any speech that I may shortly be called to make. Is it not absolutely crucial that we have a robust and entirely convincing response from the Minister, because some of us will be listening to the debate and deciding what to do in the light of that?
Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is, as ever, extremely wise and experienced in these matters. He is entirely right and anticipates what I am about to say. Although, as I said, I have every respect for the hon. Member for Leicester, East—I must stop paying him compliments or it will be bad for his political image—it is not what he says, but how the Minister responds, that determines how we go forward. The Minister's response will probably be a carefully thought out legal argument. As such, I may well be convinced by it. However, I have already confessed to being a cautious lawyer, and I will continue to proceed with caution. Perhaps that backs up my earlier remarks about the importance of people who sit on the commission drawing their conclusions not from their cold professional understanding but from their own personal experience.
Rob Marris: I, too, am a lawyer, although perhaps not as cautious as the hon. Lady. I see no Conservative amendment relating to the disability committee, which is covered in part 5 of schedule 1. The wording in that part of the schedule is on all fours with amendment No. 9, except that one would have to take out the word, "disability", and insert the word, "race". As the hon. Lady has not tabled an amendment to part 5 of schedule 1, I presume that she accepts the disability committee, so why is she being so cautious about the wording—and perhaps even the concept, although I am not so sure about that—of the amendment?
Mrs. Laing: I have been examining the principles that we are debating. Unfortunately, in my position, I do not have the power to do any of the things that the hon. Gentleman would like to be done. When I am sitting on the Government Benches—I think that it will be in the not-too-distant future—I hope that I might have the privilege of dealing with these matters from the Dispatch Box. If the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Leicester, East were to ask me such questions then, I hope that I would be able to reply positively.
Rob Marris rose—
Mrs. Laing: There is no point in the hon. Gentleman continuing to ask me questions, because I am not the Minister.
I want to move on, because we have taken up a lot of time on this and there are many equally important matters still to be debated. Amendment No. 42, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, relates to the way in which the new commission will be held accountable for the spending of taxpayers' money. I brought that up many times on Second Reading and in Committee. The Minister and the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) are smiling because they have heard me make this argument so often, but I make no apology for repeating it.
The cost of the new commission and the work that it undertakes will be very much greater than the cost of the three bodies that it replaces. I am very worried about that. Of course, I accept that as we are widening the scope of the work done by the existing three bodies, excellent as they are, the new operation will cost more than the current one. That is correct. However, there is a difference between more and an enormous amount more—indeed, multiplied several times over. The Minister has given me many answers on that point in our previous deliberations but none has satisfied me.
Meg Munn: I am puzzled by the hon. Lady's view. She says that the figure has been multiplied many times. The budget for the new commission is £70 million whereas that for the existing commissions is £48 million. By anyone's calculation, the figure is not multiplied many times.
Mrs. Laing: The Minister is right. The new commission will cost twice as much. We had that argument previously. [Interruption.] I know that 48 times two does not equal 70, but if any hon. Member can give me an example of a Labour Government's projection and the relevant figures at the end of the year for which it was done coming in below that same projection, I shall withdraw my comments. If the Government estimate £70 million, the commission will cost more than that.
The current £48 million is probably money well spent and I do not therefore argue for a cut in spending on such an important matter. My hon. Friends and I always argue for spending the smallest possible amount of taxpayers' money, yet if the Government plan to put three bodies under one administrative roof, there must be economies of scale and the current budget of £48 million should be reduced. Nevertheless, given that the new commission can rightly cover six strands of work instead of three, that budget will clearly increase. However, if one decreases and then increases a budget, one should not predict spending twice the amount of taxpayers' money.
Rob Marris: We are considering a new body that will cover six strands, but the difference between 48 and 70 is less than 50 per cent. A 50 per cent. increase would be 72. I understand the hon. Lady's position but, if she believes that £70 million is too much, how much would the Conservative party be prepared to pay to tackle discrimination?
Mrs. Laing: At present, discrimination is tackled by £48 million a year and it is well done. I pay tribute to the three bodies that currently carry out the excellent work. They have worked hard to inform hon. Members about the issues that we are debating and they should be congratulated on their hard work on our proceedings, as should the bodies that represent the other strands of inequality that will come under the new commission for equality and human rights.
The current work represents taxpayers' money well spent, but I am worried. I wager that, when we examine the new body's accounts at the end of its first financial year, it will have cost more than the £70 million predicted by the Minister. I fear that the new body will cost more than twice as much as the current bodies. That is worrying because every pound spent on the commission is a pound of taxpayers' money not spent on health, education or some other matter.
It is our duty, as a House of Commons, to be the guardian of taxpayers' money. Whatever we want to do and however good the intentions of the legislation that we wish to pass—I have said time and again that the Bill's intention is good and we thoroughly support it—if it costs too much, is over-bureaucratic and puts too many burdens on business, thus costing more indirectly to the economy, it will undo some of its good work. It falls to me as Opposition spokesman to make this point because the Government will never make it: Labour Governments always spend more taxpayers' money than they intend because they do not have the regard that they should for the economy.
Ms Butler : Equal pay, with men and women paid equally, would improve the economy. Do not the new compassionate Conservatives believe that equality and eliminating discrimination are worth it?
Mrs. Laing: Of course I did not say that—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I remind hon. Members of the amendment under discussion? They should confine their remarks to the amendments.
Mrs. Laing: Certainly, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not need to answer the hon. Lady's question because I have said at least six or seven times in the past half hour how worthy I consider the Bill to be and stressed the importance of the work of the new commission for equality and human rights. The hon. Lady's question was therefore unnecessary and I should not have given way to her.
The new body should be accountable for its spending. Without amendment No. 42, the commission would be required to
"send a copy of a statement under sub-paragraph (1)(b)"—
a statement of its accounts for the year—
"to . . . the Secretary of State, and . . . the Comptroller and Auditor General."
Amendment No. 42 would require the commission to send a copy to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. It is essential that hon. Members should be able to examine the accounts of the new body and hold it to account for every pound of taxpayers' money that it spends.
It would be wrong if my concern for fiscal prudence were misinterpreted as opposition to the Bill. I reiterate my total support for the principle of the measure. The official Opposition support the Bill's intention. However, in doing that, it is our duty to be the guardians of taxpayers' money and amendment No. 42 therefore proposes that, every year, we should be able to examine every pound that the commission spends. Of course, I have confidence that every pound will be well spent.