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Minister for Women

Volume 455: debated on Thursday 18 January 2007

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Private Sports Clubs

I am aware that sex discrimination persists in some private sports clubs, where women members are treated less favourably in accessing facilities and services, or regarding their right to play a part in club management. We are considering how to address such discrimination through the discrimination law review.

The glorious game of golf is a 15th-century gift from Scotland to the modern world, but there are still some clubs in our land whose attitudes to women members are stuck in the social bunker of that bygone era, in that they discriminate on the ground of sex so far as playing and voting rights and access to facilities are concerned. Will the Minister be up for the tussle with the antediluvian tendency in this sport when she drafts the regulations necessary to eradicate discrimination on the greens and in the clubhouse, so that, at last, women and men can be on a par?

I entirely agree with the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. Where clubs have members of both genders, they should be treated equally, and we will seek to address that matter.

The Minister specifically says that where clubs have members of both sexes, they should be treated equally. Does she have any plans under the review that she mentioned to look at clubs of which women are not allowed to be members, such as the Royal & Ancient golf club, which is actually golf’s governing body?

The Government’s position on single-sex organisations is that they should be allowed to exist. There are situations in which both men and women choose to have an organisation that is for just one gender, and we will not seek to change that. However, where both men and women are members of a given club, they should be treated equally.

Sex Industry (Drugs)

21. What estimate the Government have made of the percentage of women involved in the sex industry who are addicted to class A drugs. (116355)

A 2004 Home Office study profiled 228 women involved in street-based prostitution and found that 87 per cent. used heroin and 64 per cent. used crack cocaine. Anecdotal evidence from a subsequent Government consultation paper suggested that a high proportion—in many areas, practically all—of those involved in street prostitution used class A drugs.

Does not that suggest that the key intervention in relation to prostitution, especially street prostitution, is the provision by the NHS of effective drug treatment across the country?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The prostitution strategy that was produced by the Government recognises the enormous importance of providing appropriate drug treatment and he will be aware that we have invested £600 million in drug treatment provision in the recent past.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) a speedy recovery to full mobility.

The Minister will know that many of those involved in prostitution are the victims of trafficking. Can she enlighten us as to when the Government will come to the end of their period of reflection on the UN convention on trafficking and sign up to it?

I welcome the hon. Lady to women’s questions, although I hope that her participation will be temporary because we would like to see the hon. Member for Epping Forest back in her place as soon as possible. She raises an enormously important issue. Significant numbers of women are trafficked into prostitution in this country. The Government are committed to all the aims of the European Union convention and we are looking carefully at when we will be able to sign up to it.

A few years ago, Wigan and Bolton health authority carried out a survey of the sex industry, which showed that 98 per cent. of the women on-street were addicted to heroin, whereas very few of the women off-street were addicted to any drug at all. Therefore, would it not make sense to protect the safety of those on-street prostitutes by prescribing heroin in clinics, at least for a limited period while they are weaned off the drug?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. On-street prostitution is the main focus of the prostitution strategy, because of the many different concerns that it provokes. However, decisions about the treatment of the women need to be taken on the basis of careful consideration of their individual circumstances. We have also stressed the importance of considering not only drug treatment, but every other circumstance that affects them, so that we can deal with the issues that have driven them into prostitution and not just one aspect of their situation.

The Minister referred to the co-ordinated prostitution strategy, which was a watered-down response to a consultation document called “Paying the Price”. That involved a change of rules to allow prostitutes to work together, a crackdown on kerb crawlers and, vitally, new ways of helping women addicted to class A drugs. Why have even those mild measures not been enacted nearly a year later? When will the Government bite the bullet, risk unpopularity and some tabloid press, and do the right thing by those women?

I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of what the Government are doing. Significant amounts of money are being invested in drug treatment and the issue of street prostitution is being given priority in many areas. We are taking forward co-ordinated activity on prevention and developing routes out of prostitution. Importantly, we are also tackling demand.

Both Front Benchers might like to know that the treaty is neither a UN nor an EU convention, but a Council of Europe treaty. If nine out of 10 prostitutes are slaves to drug dealers as well as their pimps, are we not talking about victims, not sex workers or the sex industry, let alone the ludicrous idea from the Liberal Democrats of increasing such activity by legalising it? Is it not men who have to be put in the spotlight? They create the demand and until we cut off the demand, the supply will unfortunately continue.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. The women are victims and we need to take that seriously. I am pleased that he raises the issue of demand and I would like to see more hon. Members taking on that issue and raising that important matter.

Gender Pay Gap

22. What steps the Government are taking to close the gender pay gap in the public and private sectors. (116356)

The Government action plan implementing the women and work commission’s recommendations includes measures ranging from the exemplar employer initiative to the forthcoming public sector duty on gender equality. I will be hosting an event with the CBI later this month to share best practice with both public and private sector employers.

According to last week’s report by the Equal Opportunities Commission, women are still painfully under-represented in so-called “power jobs” across the country. Thirty years on from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, does the right hon. Lady agree that many of the largest institutions in both the public and private sectors need to make a renewed effort to remove the hidden barriers to women’s career advancement that distort the work place?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The gender pay gap has been closing over the past 10 years or so, but we need to make further progress. As part of the exemplar initiative, we work with private sector employers to overcome the barriers to promotion that women face and to open up part-time work opportunities, not just at the lower-paid end of the market, but in respect of higher-quality and higher-paid jobs. That initiative is a really important element in taking the matter forward.

How does the right hon. Lady explain the disturbing fact that the gender pay gap among part-time employees is higher in the public sector than in the private? What does she intend to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman is very well informed, but he must know that the total pay gap in the public sector is lower than in the private sector, partly because wage differentials are compressed. Local authorities, Government Departments and other public sector bodies are taking action on this matter. The gender duty to be introduced in April will require public sector organisations to take further steps towards closing the gender pay gap.

Electoral Politics

23. What steps she is taking to encourage greater participation in electoral politics among those groups of people with lower than average levels of participation. (116357)

The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 allowed positive measures to be taken to increase women’s participation. For instance, it enabled the use of quotas in local elections to increase the level of female representation. Currently, women make up 29 per cent. of councillors in England, and 19.5 per cent. of MPs. Additionally, the local government White Paper set out a commitment to review the barriers and incentives to becoming a councillor. That review will also consider the challenges facing under-represented groups.

The introduction of the 2002 Act was a major step forward, but the Labour party is the only major political party to use it to allow positive discrimination in favour of women candidates. Does my hon. Friend believe that the voluntary mechanism preferred by other parties is successful, given the composition of the Opposition Benches?

I have been a member of the Labour party for many years, and have always been interested in this matter. The Labour party tried the voluntary route for a number of years, but it did not work. Now, 28 per cent. of members of the parliamentary Labour party are female. Parties that are serious about getting more female members must be prepared to take the difficult measures necessary to secure all-women shortlists.