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Minister for Women

Volume 450: debated on Thursday 19 October 2006

The Minister for Women was asked—

Equal Pay

Last month, I published an action plan, in response to the women and work commission recommendations, that set out a comprehensive package of measures across Government that I believe will widen women’s choices, enable more women to realise their potential and reduce the gender pay gap.

In Hull and the sub-region, women still face many barriers in the field of employment. What is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage more employers to take up best working practices and to break down some of those barriers?

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the issue is not just about legislative change. We have to change the culture within which employers operate. I am determined to build up as many companies as possible as exemplar employers that can showcase their flexible working to others and show what is possible. We have nearly 100 exemplar employers and I hope to build that up further.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that the comprehensive spending review 2007 will prioritise closing the gender pay gap, set specific gender equality targets for Departments and require measurable progress year on year?

As the hon. Lady knows, I have regular discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on this and many other issues. She will also know that we do have a target for reducing gender inequality. As part of the Budget process, we try to ensure that women are treated fairly and we are making real progress in tackling inequality and the gender pay gap, in particular. I hope that she is also aware of the latest action that we have taken through the women and work action plan, which not only builds up exemplar employers, but introduces equality reps and a quality part-time work initiative and sets out the measures that the Government are going to take, including extending the right to request flexible working.

In my constituency of Hove and Portslade, our further education and sixth-form colleges have pledged to put increased effort and investment into NEET pupils—pupils not in employment, education or training. What advice would my right hon. Friend give those institutions and those pupils on training to address the gender pay gap?

I suggest that the careers advice that pupils are given should emphasise the importance of pay progression and the opportunities that will be available to those young people. I have been trying to encourage girls to consider non-traditional occupations, which they might ultimately find more rewarding in every sense—personally fulfilling, as well as financially rewarding. The Government have introduced a national standard for careers advice to make sure that top-quality careers advice is offered throughout our schools and colleges.

Science

17. When she next plans to meet the Engineering and Technology Board to discuss the promotion of science, engineering and technology as a career choice for women. (95021)

The promotion of science, engineering and technology comes under the Office of Science and Innovation. The Minister for Science and Innovation meets the chair of the ETB regularly. I am pleased to report that the board and the UK resource centre for women in science, engineering and technology are developing a memorandum of understanding to promote the role of women in science, engineering and technology. I met Annette Williams, the director of the UK resource centre, this week to discuss progress.

I am grateful to the Minister for that comprehensive answer. She will have heard her right hon. Friend the Minister for Women say that she has frequent meetings with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. She will also know that the Department of Trade and Industry is a sponsor of the ETB. Will she or her right hon. Friend be saying to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that funding continues to be needed in this valuable area to promote science, engineering and technology?

Of course. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s role in the engineering board. It is important that we continue not only to get more women into the sector, but to get back into it some of the 70 per cent. of women who have qualifications in the area. The funding that has gone into the UK resource centre has been enormously important and we will of course continue to press for more.

For 13 years, Aberdeen has hosted a science festival called Techfest at the beginning of each September. The festival is aimed predominantly at schoolchildren, although events are also held for adults. May I invite my hon. Friend to come up next September to see what is happening in Aberdeen, the excitement on the children’s faces—boys and girls—and the way in which all businesses have been supportive of the festival and engaged with young people to get them interested in science in the first place?

I congratulate Aberdeen on its efforts. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is enormously important that children are enthused at an early age. Great work is going on in this area, and, subject to diary commitments, I would certainly love to look at the opportunity of going to Aberdeen next year.

Equality Bodies

18. What the Government’s policy is on encouraging the development of productive working relationships between statutory equality bodies and the voluntary sector. (95022)

In October 2007, all the existing equality bodies will be replaced by the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. As was set out in the “Fairness for All” White Paper, one of the guiding principles of the new body will be partnership working, including with the voluntary sector.

In thanking my hon. Friend for that response, may I remind her that the voluntary sector is often at the cutting edge of innovative new ideas, especially in the areas of sexual orientation and disability? The sector’s work has not always come to fruition, but it has often come up with ideas that have later become the norms of behaviour and attitude. The Minister for Women referred earlier to changing cultures. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are to change cultures in such areas, it is important that we have a flourishing voluntary sector with which the statutory bodies work properly? For example, the Fawcett Society addresses gender equality, and I could go through a list of different aspects of equality in which the sector’s contribution has been enormous. It is important that we get the balance right.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. In preparation for the new commission, 15 stakeholder events were held throughout the country, and many voluntary sector organisations attended them. We hope to announce in the near future the commissioners of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. I am sure that there will be representatives with a great deal of experience of the voluntary sector.

I welcome what the Minister says about the progress so far, but as the next step towards establishing the new statutory equality body—the Commission for Equality and Human Rights—will the Minister publish as soon as possible the results of the Government’s consultation on the Sexual Orientation (Goods and Services) Regulations? I ask this in the true spirit of co-operation: will she then publish the regulations in draft form so that Parliament can have a meaningful debate on this sensitive and important matter, instead of the wide-ranging and unfruitful debate that is taking place at present?

I can give the Government’s absolute commitment to bringing forward the regulations as soon as possible. I will certainly take back the suggestion of draft regulations, but our priority must be to lay the regulations in Parliament, alongside the religion and belief regulations, and get them implemented next April.

Sexual Orientation (Goods and Services) Regulations

19. When the Government expect to lay before Parliament the Sexual Orientation (Goods and Services) Regulations. (95023)

We made clear earlier this month our intention to implement the sexual orientation regulations next April. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has just set out, we will lay the regulations before the House in good time for them to be debated and approved so that they can come into effect on that date, alongside the regulations on religion and belief.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that, subject only to the very limited doctrinal exemption that the Government already propose, the sexual orientation regulations must apply in full to all organisations, religious or otherwise, including adoption agencies, charities, general practitioners, housing trusts, nurseries and youth groups, because the principle of equality before the law must take precedence over the views of a vociferous religious minority which, however sincere, is fundamentally opposed to that important principle?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we must provide effective protection against discrimination for gay, lesbian and transsexual people. It is right that we take the time to consider the more than 3,000 responses that we have received on the matter. As I am sure he and other hon. Members are aware, there are passionate views on each side. It is only right that we take the time to consider properly such a complex issue, so that we provide protection against discrimination in a way that is effective and appropriate and which gets the balance right so that people are able to hold religious views and beliefs.

I reiterate the call for the regulations to be published in draft form before they are laid in Parliament. That could lead to a much more sensible and rational debate when the time comes. I cannot emphasise too strongly my agreement with the words of my colleague the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Any excessive exemptions granted in the regulations would undermine the principle that Parliament has adopted.

I hear exactly what my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) have said. It is important that we have a proper debate that involves people who hold views on both sides of the argument and that we can discuss matters openly and honestly with each other. My first priority is to have the regulations implemented in April. In the consultation, passionate views were expressed on both sides, some of which, I fear, are completely misleading—for instance, the thought that the regulations would in any sense force Churches to marry gay people or schools to promote a homosexual lifestyle. It is 100 per cent. inaccurate to suggest that that might be the case, but given the nature of the responses to the consultation that we received, it is only right that we take our time to analyse them properly. If we can, I will consider laying the regulations in draft form, but my priority must be to implement them alongside the religion and belief regulations in April.