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Equality Bill

Volume 478: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to set out to the House how the Government propose to make further progress towards the fair and equal society that we want to see.

I am pleased to announce that we are today publishing our key proposals for the equality Bill in a document entitled “Framework for a Fairer Future”. Copies are available in the Vote Office. For us, equality is a matter of principle—it always has been. As the Prime Minister set out on Wednesday in his announcement on social mobility, we want to address the serious inequalities that still exist. Addressing those inequalities and creating a fairer society is important for three reasons. First, fairness is important for the individual. No one should have to put up with discrimination. Secondly, fairness is important for our society—a society that is equal and fair is one that is more at ease with itself. Thirdly, fairness is important for our economy—an economy that sees no one pushed to the margins or excluded offers the widest pool of workers to employers. Diversity makes us outward facing and helps us to compete in the global economy.

The first equality laws were brought in by a Labour Government more than 40 years ago. Progress has been made to outlaw discrimination against people if they are black, a woman, lesbian or gay, disabled, or if they are older, but although such progress has been made, inequality and discrimination still persist. Men who work full time still earn 40 per cent. more per hour than women who work part time. Although more disabled people are working than ever before, a disabled person is still two and a half times more likely to be out of work. If someone is black or Asian, they are less likely to be in work and if they are in work, they are more likely to be earning below the level of their qualifications. Homophobic bullying still blights the lives of most lesbian or gay young people, and it is still perfectly lawful to tell someone, “Sorry, you’re too old”, and refuse anything from health care to insurance.

The Bill and package of measures that I will outline to the House today represent a radical shift in our approach to fighting unfairness, and will breathe fresh life into our equality agenda. Our package of measures includes the equality Bill we promised in our last manifesto, secondary legislation and action by the new Equality And Human Rights Commission. We expect everyone—the public sector, firms which do business with the public sector and companies in the private sector—to play their part. On pay, at the current rate of progress, it will take another 80 years before women are paid the same as men.

It is impossible to tackle discrimination when it is hidden. That is why we want a new era of openness when it comes to pay, so that women can see—in their own workplace—just how much more men get paid than them. Just as every school has to publish its exam results, so parents can see those results, and every hospital has to publish its waiting lists, so patients can see that information, I want employers to report on key equality issues, such as gender pay, so that their employees can view such information. That will put the spotlight on pay unfairness, which we all know goes on but which stays swept under the carpet.

Under its legal duties to promote equality, the public sector will lead by example. But 80 per cent. of people are employed in the private sector and the pay gap there is double that of the public sector. We must also have progress on fairness in the private sector, and we will ensure that in five ways. Given that 30 per cent. of companies do £160 billion-worth of business with the public sector, we will consider how public procurement can be used to deliver transparency and change. The equality Bill will outlaw clauses in employment contracts that prohibit employees disclosing their pay to each other. Where an employer has been found to have unlawfully discriminated, we will provide for the employment tribunal to be able to make a recommendation that applies not just to the successful complainant but to everyone in that workplace. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will conduct inquiries under its legal powers into sectors where the most progress needs to be made, starting with the financial services sector. We are going to tackle sexism in the City. Through a new kite-mark system, we will challenge companies to report on equality.

We expect business will increasingly regard reporting on progress on equality as an important part of explaining to investors, employees and others the prospects for those companies. We will review progress on transparency and its contribution to the achievement of equality outcomes in the light of that, and consider within the next five years the use of existing legislation for greater transparency in company reporting on equality.

Many people still seem to think that it is acceptable to discriminate against someone because they are older. It is not. With the number of people over 85 set to double in the next 20 years, it makes no sense. People are not over the hill at 60, to be either refused insurance or discriminated against in health care. We will include in the equality Bill duties on the public sector to eliminate age discrimination and promote equality for older people. We will take powers to outlaw age discrimination in the provision of goods and services. We will need to allow for a transitional period for changes to be made to comply with the law before it comes into effect, but work is already under way, and we will consult on making provisions to bring the new law into force more quickly in those sectors that are ready to comply with the law.

On disability, we need to be able to see who is including disabled people in their work force and who is shutting them out. That way, we can see who is making progress year on year, compare comparable organisations, learn from the best and challenge the worst.

We need to make further progress on fairness. That is why we will legislate to give more scope for employers who want to increase the number of women or black or Asian employees to take positive action. That will help, for example, the police, who want to make more progress on diversity because they know that they can be most effective when they reflect the ethnicity of the communities that they serve. To allow progress on women’s representation in the House of Commons to continue, we will extend the permission for all-women shortlists for parliamentary selection until 2030. We will consider with the Commissioner for Public Appointments whether a specific power to encourage diversity for appointments in her remit would assist her in that task.

Next month I will publish a further paper setting out our proposals in greater detail, and, over the coming months, there will be a continuous and determined programme of further action, which will include: considering whether there is a case for representative actions to employment tribunals; working out whether we can toughen the law to give redress to people who suffer discrimination on multiple grounds; and working with the trade unions to strengthen the excellent and pioneering work of trade union equality representatives in the workplace.

The package will see us make further progress towards a fair and equal society. A single statute to replace the complex web of legislation that has grown up over the years will make it easier for people to know their rights and understand their obligations. The equality Bill will be written in plain English alongside the necessary legal language.

In the past, when Labour has brought in laws to promote equality, they have been controversial. However, I hope that now, in the 21st century, there will be agreement that we must all play our part in making this country fairer.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement and for giving me prior sight of it, although I got more notice through her appearances on television and radio this morning. I agree with the Government that there is a need to streamline and update equalities legislation and I welcome the direction that the Government are taking with the Bill. I look forward to working constructively with them on ensuring that we have workable and practical legislation to provide for a fair society.

However, today’s announcement has been a long time in coming. The Government first announced their commitment to a single equalities Bill in their 2005 general election manifesto. On 25 July last year, the Deputy Leader of the House told the House that

“we will produce a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny over the coming year”.—[Official Report, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c.1009.]

Subsequently, there have been promises of draft clauses of the measure. Now we have an announcement lacking in detail with no specific time commitments, and more discussions on action in the coming months. Why has it taken the Government so long to introduce the sensible and practical measure for which we are all looking?

We welcome the broad thinking behind the approach to age discrimination, but again, the lack of detail on implementation and exemptions is baffling and disappointing. We support fair provision of services for older people and we need to ensure that the proposals will genuinely benefit them. The right hon. and learned Lady has recognised that the health service is a key area that will be affected by the age discrimination proposals, yet she has carefully avoided going into detail about that. Will she now confirm that the proposals will affect not only the planning of health services for older people but decisions about the treatment of individuals? On the radio this morning, she also talked about the need for planning applications to take age concerns into account. Does she propose to change the Planning Bill that is currently going through Parliament to accommodate those proposals?

In her statement, the Minister said that the Government would consider using procurement contracts to deliver transparency. In her media interviews, she was more specific, saying that companies bidding for public contracts would have to publish pay gap figures. The implication of that was that if the figures were bad, the company would not get the business. What exactly is the Government’s position on this? Those proposals are far removed from the compulsory pay audits that the right hon. and learned Lady has supported in the past, and continues to support on her website. Can she therefore confirm that she has lost the equal pay battle in the Cabinet, and that the Bill will not include compulsory pay audits?

In her statement, the right hon. and learned Lady said that employment tribunals would be able to make wide-ranging recommendations when an employer was found guilty of discrimination. We have proposed compulsory pay audits for employers who are found guilty of discrimination at an employment tribunal. Are the Government adopting our proposals? If not, what does today’s statement mean?

The statement talks of the public sector leading by example, yet many Government Departments have failed to meet their own diversity targets. As the “Framework for a Fairer Future” document makes clear, there are Departments in which the gender pay gap is well above the average, including Her Majesty’s Treasury, where it is 26 per cent. We are told that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will conduct inquiries into the sectors where most progress needs to be made, starting with the City. When will the EHRC be invited into the Treasury to look into its record on this issue?

I welcome the extension of the legislation on positive discrimination in the selection of parliamentary candidates. We have already said that we would support that move. However, the issue of allowing employers to exercise positive discrimination needs clarification. For example, if the head teacher of a primary school with only female teachers wanted to discriminate in favour of a male teacher, would that be permitted under the proposals? One area covered by the EHRC to which the Minister’s statement has made no reference is religious discrimination. Do the Government intend to include religious discrimination in their new equality Bill?

Until now, the Government have rightly sought to stamp out discrimination. The Bill takes a different approach. It will include measures to prevent discrimination, and measures to allow discrimination in certain circumstances. It introduces further complexity and confuses the Government’s message. After all these years, this is a huge missed opportunity. The Government could have introduced a revolutionary approach to equalities legislation, promoting fairness and diversity within a positive and sensible framework. Instead, the right hon. and learned Lady has been quoted as using phrases such as “empowering the resentful”. The Bill should seek to unite, not to divide. It has good intentions, but its lack of detail and clarity is disappointing. I am willing to work with the Government on this matter, because the issue of equalities is one that deserves to be looked at above and beyond the emotions of party politics. I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will join me in endeavouring to ensure that we can do just that.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her broad welcome for the package and for our endeavours. I also welcome the fact that she has ignored the cries from her own Back Benchers that the proposals are rubbish. I welcome the fact that she wants us to streamline and update the legislation—we intend to do so—and that she wants to work constructively with us. There will be an opportunity for further discussion before the Queen’s Speech later this year, and before the Bill is brought before the House. If she has proposals to bring forward, I would ask her please to do so. We will consider them carefully, as we want to work together on this.

The right hon. Lady said that the paper that we published today lacked substantive proposals, yet it announces that we intend to legislate for the first time to put a duty on all public authorities not to discriminate against people on the ground of age, and to promote equality for older people. That is new. We are also proposing for the first time to put into law the right of people not to be discriminated against in the provision of goods and services because they are older. That is also new. We have announced that we propose to put into law positive action for those employers who want to diversify their work force. We have brought forward new proposals on public procurement, public appointments and ending gagging clauses. If the right hon. Lady has an alternative list of substance, let her bring it forward. We would welcome that, as we want to make further progress.

The right hon. Lady asked whether I propose to change the Planning Bill in respect of public sector duties on local and other authorities. The whole point of the public duty is that it overrides and infuses the approach to everything. We do not have to put in a public sector duty, Bill by Bill, Act by Act, because it is there and it runs through everything that is done. That is how the public duty works. We do not need to change legislation, as all public authorities will have to have due regard to how what they do affects older people.

The right hon. Lady mentioned public procurement, which will work like this: there is a public duty on public bodies not to discriminate and to promote equality of race, gender, disability and now age. That applies not only when they employ people and provide services or goods, but when they do public procurement, using the £160 billion of public money. Spending public money is a public function, and the equality duties apply to the public function. That way, public bodies can say, “If you want to do business with the public sector, you need to tell us what your pay gap is. How many disabled are you employing? What is the percentage of black and Asian people in your work force?” Then, if a number of companies are equally qualified for that contract, the authority, in its duty to promote equality, will pick the one doing best on equality.

The right hon. Lady mentioned disclosure of the gender pay gap. We have explained that that will be mandatory in the public sector. It will then be driven through the public sector, into that 30 per cent. of business that is publicly procured from the private sector. If the private sector does not voluntarily conduct the gender pay audits and checks, we have powers in legislation to require it to do so.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Treasury. The whole point about producing league tables is that we can see who is lagging behind and who needs to make a bit more progress. I certainly do not think that women are not good enough at numbers or incapable of being financial experts; rather, there are patterns of entrenched expectations. Once we make them clear and expose them, we can take action on them.

The right hon. Lady asked about primary school head teachers. If there was an all-female work force and the head teacher, having a number of equally qualified candidates, wanted to ensure that there were some men teaching in her school, she would be able to do that. The proposals clarify the law, so that employers have more ability to promote equality and diversity within their work forces.

The right hon. Lady said that we had not done enough. However, we have introduced civil partnerships and flexible working, and we have eliminated age discrimination against older people in employment. We have done all that. I remind her that for the 18 years in which her party was in government, it introduced not a single piece of equality legislation. The Conservatives’ version of equality legislation was clause 28. I know that those on the Opposition Front Bench have changed, so I hope that the right hon. Lady will bring her Back Benchers along to join the 21st century.

I welcome today’s statement, which certainly goes a lot further than the previous Green Paper on equality. The gender pay gap in Aberdeen is one of the largest in the country—the average female take-home pay is 60 per cent. that of the average male take-home pay. I am interested in what my right hon. and learned Friend said about public procurement. In Scotland, public procurement comes not only from central Government, but from the Scottish Executive and local authorities. Can she explain how her proposals will apply in Scotland and whether they will cover all public procurement there?

The primary legislation applies throughout the United Kingdom, but secondary legislation is the responsibility of the devolved Administrations. If, for example, there is a Scottish public body that operates only in Scotland, any statutory instrument that applied the primary legislation to that organisation would be the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. However, all organisations that work across the border between England and Scotland would be covered by reserved powers. We want to work closely with the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland, the devolved Administrations and all sides in the Scottish Parliament.

I very much welcome today’s statement and thank the Minister for allowing me early sight of it. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome a new equality Bill that will bring together all the various strands of equality legislation and further the equality agenda, which sure needs some furthering.

We particularly welcome the eleventh hour inclusion of a grey charter, with the overdue outlawing of age discrimination in the provision of goods and services and the extension of the public equality duty. Can the Minister confirm whether that will cover young people?

I would also be grateful to know the exact date, or as near as we can get, when older patients will be legally entitled to the same treatment in our hospitals as the rest of us.

Allowing employers to discriminate positively when candidates are equal is a good thing and has the potential to effect change in the workplace, but mischief is being made on the airwaves. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that all under-represented groups are covered and that it is for an employer to improve the situation where the current legislation means that they could be sued.

The move to make public sector suppliers more accountable in their equality polices is certainly a step in the right direction, but it raises some concerns. It is one thing to tick boxes on procurement questionnaires, but if there is no realistic chance of any claims being verified, those measures will indeed be a tick-box exercise. What estimates have the Government made of the number of people employed by their suppliers, notwithstanding simply the £160 billion that goes to private sector employers?

What extra resources are being allocated by the Government to their procurement departments, so that they can monitor and verify the claims made by their suppliers? Given that so much public sector work is now out-sourced to private sector companies, will the public equality duty be extended to cover them in full?

The proposals are a step in the right direction, but it is disappointing that the Government have stopped one step short of compulsory pay audits. I would like to know from the Minister the criteria for when the Government would enact compulsory audits, should the softly-softly approach fail. What will it take? How will we know when the moment has come?

Some of the problems with the lack of equality are to do not solely with legislation, but with the queues at the employment tribunals. What extra resource will the Government commit to clear the backlog? On the Bill as a whole, will any exemptions or exceptions to the equality principles in it be explicit, detailed and decided by the House?

Finally, we have jumped from a Green Paper to a Bill without any formal Government response to the hundreds of organisations that participated in the original consultation. Are the Government ever going to publish a response? What confidence can stakeholders have that they will have their say on the Bill?

In conclusion, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches are happy to work constructively on the equality Bill. I will take the Minister up on her offer of discussions before the Bill is published, as we have quite a list of things that we would like included.

The provisions will not cover people under 18. It is right to treat children and young people differently, for example through age limits on alcohol consumption, and there is little evidence of harmful age discrimination against young people. Harmful age discrimination is basically against older people.

The hon. Lady asked when the duty on age would come into effect. The public sector duty in respect of the provision of health and social care will come into effect as soon as the legislation is brought into effect, but the Department of Health is already working on this issue before that happens. It has conducted research to identify where discrimination exists and it is taking forward action to tackle it, so the process is already under way, even before the legal obligations come into effect. Yes, if a particular gender—say, men—is under-represented in a particular area, positive action can be taken in relation to those under-represented groups.

The hon. Lady also asked about the backlog of tribunal cases, and one thing that we are considering is the issue of representative actions. The Ministry of Justice is working with the Civil Justice Council to see whether representative actions could play a role, rather than requiring people to lodge claims individual by individual. Discrimination and unfairness are not mostly about the individual, but about the structure and the employer. We are looking to see whether representative actions can play a part.

We will publish all the replies we received to the consultation, along with our formal responses to them, at the end of this month.

The hon. Lady asked about pay audits. We are adopting a new approach. One problem with what have been described as job evaluation gender pay audits is that we could end up paying consultants tens of thousands of pounds to go around an organisation, re-evaluate every job, tell the employer that everything is fine as there is no unlawful discrimination and issue a clean bill of health. They might then leave without telling anyone in the organisation what the gender pay gap is. We need much more focused pay audits, which actually tell people what they want to know. We could then find out not whether the Treasury has been signed off as non-discriminating, but whether the pay gap in the Treasury is 26 per cent. and what it is likely to be next year.

We are taking a new approach in a more focused direction. We will set out for employers how to comply and then review progress. I think that once we set out the information that employers should be expected to give, they will have no excuse for not producing it. It is very easy to produce, so the only reason for employers not to provide such information is that they want to keep it hidden because it is just too embarrassing. When the pay gap is swept under the carpet, it will be evident that the employer has a great deal to hide. We think that a good culture of openness will emerge from this.

I would like to thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) for welcoming the proposals; I know she will work constructively with us. I am sure that she and her party will make good proposals. Unlike some Conservative Members, the Liberal Democrats have not been a drag anchor on this agenda over the years. Far from it. Some Liberals in the House and people such as Lord Lester in the other place have been champions of the equality agenda. Although the Labour party has taken this forward in government, important contributions have been made by voluntary organisations and all sorts of people outwith the Government to deliver on the equality agenda. That is what we will do.

Some companies in the private sector have a gender pay gap that is double that of the public sector and they may well resist moves to become more transparent. How will my right hon. and learned Friend encourage such companies to become more transparent about the pay of their work force?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have discussed this with the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and other employer organisations. It is the easiest thing to add up the average pay of men and the average pay of women to find out the difference. There is no bureaucratic or administrative difficulty in doing so, so there is no justification for refusing to do it. If employers do not do it—they obviously have no excuse for that—we have the power under the Companies Act 2006 to require that information to be made public. I hope that we will not have to use that power, but it is there if we need it.

Is the right hon. and learned Lady aware that, despite what she said, what she proposes will be an extremely harsh burden on smaller businesses because of the extra amount of red tape and bureaucracy with which they already have to deal? The Bill will be a further blow. I come from a small business background, so I know that better than some on the Government Benches who have never had any experience of running a small business. May I say that I am completely at odds with my own party because I have never believed in positive discrimination? But it will reassure the right hon. and learned Lady to know that her plans for older workers will perhaps protect me from any retaliatory action.

We do not plan to place any additional burden on businesses, big or small. By bringing all the legislation of the last 40 years together in one piece of legislation—heavens above, it is even going to be written in plain English—the Bill will make it possible, in a way that is not possible now, for employers and employees to read the provisions and understand their rights and obligations. That streamlining will make a big difference to business, which will not have to employ an army of lawyers and consultants to tell them whether they are complying with the law. This is a major streamlining that will reduce red tape, not increase it. I take it then that the hon. Lady welcomes the provisions for extra duties, obligations and rights on age discrimination.

Arising from that last question, is it not the case that, 40 years ago, it was a Labour Government who legislated amidst tremendous controversial opposition to outlaw race discrimination, which many of us had strongly urged? The current proposals are intended, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, to deal with various outstanding forms of discrimination against women and the disabled and certainly against age prejudice. Without in any way wishing to be misunderstood, would it not be a good thing if we took it as normal that there should be people in the Cabinet of pensionable age? That would certainly give a lead against age discrimination.

I will make sure that the Prime Minister gets to see my hon. Friend’s comment. He is absolutely right to point out that whenever we have introduced legislation to tackle discrimination, there has often been a huge row. But yesterday’s controversy becomes today’s conventional wisdom. We are confident that we can work with all sides to ensure that our proposals are as easy to apply as possible. It is a modern society that is a fair society and a modern economy that is a fair economy.

This Bill has nothing to do with equality. It is the most politically correct Bill ever, proposed by the most politically correct Minister that this country has ever seen. If she were so bothered about equality, she should have enshrined in law the fact that people should be given a job and candidates selected on merit—irrespective of their gender and irrespective of their racial background. How on earth can she justify in an equalities Bill a provision that allows people to be selected solely on the basis of their skin colour or their gender? That is completely and utterly outrageous. The party that, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, introduced anti-discrimination laws is now reintroducing discrimination into the workplace. How many of the Minister’s hand-wringing white male colleagues have offered to give up their seats in the House to make way for more women and more ethnic minority MPs?

When only 3 per cent. of MPs were women, the House of Commons was not representative. When John Major’s first Cabinet had not a single woman in it, what did that say about the merit, talent and ability of women in this country as he saw it? The point is that it is not about doing a favour to individuals; it is about tackling discrimination and patterns of unfairness and making sure that our institutions and our businesses are not just entrenched in the old boy network, but face the future and recognise that everybody can play their part. I suggest to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), in her place on the Front Bench, that she should induce a bit more political correctness in her Back Benchers.

May I warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on a set of proposals that will come to be seen as a major landmark in the long march to equality? Will she also ensure that the Government do everything possible to support the French presidency in its attempt to get early agreement on proposals for a European framework directive on equality, which will set minimum standards for all European citizens, across the European Union?

I can certainly assure my right hon. Friend that that will be the case. I pay tribute to our Members of the European Parliament, particularly Michael Cashman, for their pioneering work at European level. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all her work as a Secretary of State and Minister for Women, and for introducing a right for those with families to request flexible working. Her comments today remind me of our happy days when she was the director of Liberty and I was its legal officer, and we were together on the women’s rights committee.

The right hon. and learned Lady has referred to the Scottish Parliament, but the Welsh Assembly Government will have a key role in delivering the equalities agenda in health and education, also as an employer and a major source of work for the private sector as third parties. Does she intend to include framework powers for the Welsh Assembly Government in the Bill, or will they have to apply using the legislative competence order procedure, which entails inevitable delay?

We will discuss the matter with the First Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales. Many in Wales will champion the agenda, work with us and take it forward. I pay tribute to women Members of the Welsh Assembly who have led on issues from child care to human trafficking, and to partnership organisations such as Chwarae Teg. I hope that what the House and the Government are doing will strengthen their arm in Wales.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on what could be an epic, historic piece of legislation. I am sure that Help the Aged and Age Concern will welcome it with open arms. I cannot say that the elderly will be dancing in the streets tonight, because of functional problems, but I am sure that they will welcome it too. [Interruption.] I eliminate myself, of course.

On the implementation of anti-age discrimination in terms of goods, facilities and services—it is a big problem—is there an end implementation date, because some of us do not have a lot of time left?

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning Help the Aged and Age Concern, and I pay tribute to the persistent and dedicated work of those organisations, which have been determined advocates for tackling this unfairness and discrimination, and have produced the evidence that has made it imperative for us to act. As for old people dancing in the streets, has my hon. Friend not seen “Strictly Come Dancing”? Does he know how old Bruce Forsyth is? Of course, we will get on with the implementation.

Under the positive discrimination aspects of the Secretary of State’s proposals, will it be legal for an employer to choose a white woman over an equally qualified black man?

We are just allowing for a permissive measure, so that if an employer with a number of equally qualified candidates wants to promote diversity in their team, either because women are under-represented or they have too few black and Asian people, on that basis they can choose the under-represented group. There is also the question of the discrimination against black and Asian women, which would not happen in the same way against black and Asian men, or against white women. Given the hon. Gentleman’s question, I hope that he will back us in solving such problems of multiple discrimination.

I welcome this new push on equality, including on tackling age discrimination and the issues raised by the cross-party reports from the Business and Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committees on tackling the gender pay gap and public procurement. Will she confirm that no specific legislation will be needed on public procurement? Does the Office of Government Commerce, which has been too timid in the past, now accept the Select Committee’s view that public bodies are required to pursue their equality duty when putting out contracts for goods and services? If progress remains slow on the gender pay gap, will she consider whether the equality duty needs to be extended to the private sector?

As I said, we will expect the private sector—including private firms doing work with the public sector—as well as the public sector to play their part. We are working with the OGC and the Treasury. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary and to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) for leading the work of the Select Committee in making proposals on such issues. On procurement, there is detail to be worked out, and we will consult on it. We are clear, however, that spending public money is a public function, and that the equality duties must apply to that every bit as much as they apply to direct employment and direct provision of services.

Although her statement meets with denunciations that are as furious as they are predictable from Members of the Taliban tendency, may I tell the Minister that her statement does right by those who have long suffered discrimination, and is right in the interests of the country as a whole? Will she confirm that the equality Bill will contain robust measures to tackle homophobic bullying and to deal equally robustly with the gender pay gap among part-time workers in the public sector, and that the legislation will be on the statute book by the summer of 2009?

I think that I can confirm all those points to the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for his question. He has proved that not all Conservative Members are still stuck in the stone age. Given his comments, I would say—although I would have to reflect on the matter with my colleagues—that he ought to be regarded as an honorary member of the sisterhood.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s comments on outlawing age discrimination in goods and services, which would give effect to one of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ report on the treatment of the elderly. May I press her, however, on the timetable for the transitional period, particularly in relation to the health service? I fully accept that a transitional period is necessary, but what number of years is being considered?

Just as when the Labour Government introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970 and said that because of entrenched patterns of discrimination it would not be brought into effect for five years, at the outset we will discover the extent of discrimination in the public services through the equality duty, so that we can make determined progress on sorting it out. We will work closely with the Joint Committee, and I pay tribute to its work in that respect.

In the recruitment and employment process, it should not matter which group an applicant happens to belong to. People should be recruited and employed on the grounds of their merit and capability. To employ somebody for any other reason would be discriminatory. On all-women shortlists for parliamentary seats, the suggestion is that women can succeed only if men are excluded from the process, which is demonstrably untrue, discriminatory and offensive to women.

The evidence is in front of the hon. Lady’s eyes. If she thinks that there is not a systematic, structural problem, how does she account for the fact that, per hour, women who work part-time are paid 40 per cent. less than men? Surely she cannot believe that a woman who works part-time is 40 per cent. less intelligent, less committed, less experienced and less hard-working than a man who works full-time. There is structural discrimination, which has been swept under the carpet, and we must expose and tackle it. Of course, the group that people belong to should not matter, but it does. That is why there is a pattern of entrenched pay discrimination, which we are determined to expose and sort out.

As for the question of women in the House of Commons, as I have said when I was first in the House only 3 per cent. of Members of Parliament were women. There were 10 Labour and 13 Conservative women MPs. We resorted to positive action, and we now have 96 Labour women MPs. The Conservatives did not resort to positive action, and over those 25 years they have increased the number of Conservative MPs from 13 to 17. At that rate, we shall never see equality. We must take positive action to ensure proper representation.

Forward-thinking businesses, both large and small, understand that the provision of equal opportunities in recruitment will benefit them, because it will make them more likely to secure the best candidates. However, I am concerned by the rather light-footed way in which the Minister appears to be treading when it comes to forcing private companies to publish the gender pay gap. I urge her not to wait too long before using the powers in the Companies Acts to ensure that all of them do so. As she said, it would be a very easy and non-bureaucratic task, and would be extremely effective in exposing the companies that have still not entered the 21st century.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work as chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee. I expect the work of her Committee, along with that of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, to play an important part in helping us to develop our proposals. Our intentions are clear, and we intend to make progress with them.

Britain’s faith communities will have noted that the Minister’s statement contained nothing about religious discrimination. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the Government’s intentions in that regard are not clear.

The Minister will be aware that when the word “equalities” is used, it is not always clear whether it refers to equality of opportunity, equality of outcome or equality of esteem. She will also be aware that those equalities can sometimes conflict. What is clear from her statement, however, is that the Government’s general intention is to increase opportunities and life chances, which is a laudable aim. If a Bill is indeed introduced, ought she not to consider entitling it the equalities and opportunities Bill or, even better, simply the opportunities Bill?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point: if people start from very unequal positions, they do not have equality of opportunity. I thank him for supporting our overall aim. As he will know, we have already outlawed discrimination on grounds of religion and belief, and we plan to exemplify that in the Bill by embodying it in the public sector duty. However, we shall have to have further discussions on how that will work out, because it is less straightforward than including the public-sector duty on discrimination in relation to age.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her welcome statement. We have seen some mischief-making on the Conservative Benches, and today’s Daily Express has commented “White Men to Face Jobs Ban”. I should have thought that the Express would welcome the age-discrimination element in view of the age of most its readers, but will my right hon. and learned Friend please assure the House and the wider public that this is not a proposal to ban white men from jobs?

I certainly will. I share my hon. Friend’s frustration at the deliberate misunderstanding that certain people want to engage in. The Bill is about promoting fairness and equality of opportunity.

Some people say that now that the economy is in some difficulties we cannot afford fairness—that we cannot afford to treat women or black and Asian people fairly. My response is that it is precisely when things are difficult—when the family budget is under pressure and people are feeling the pinch—that fairness becomes even more important.

The Minister said in her statement that the public sector would lead by example on pay. Does she agree that although the public sector has tried to lead by example over the past 10 years, it has not been able to do so because it has not had the funds, the flexibility or the systems to do so? Does she accept that there will be a cost, and that it should be borne by the Government, in ensuring that funds are available to close the equal pay gap in the public sector?

Different parts of the public sector have made varying degrees of progress. When there is proper transparency in relation to the gender pay gap, the disability employment level and the employment rate of ethnic minority staff, public authority by public authority, we shall be able to see who has been making progress.

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to make further progress on settling the backlog of equal pay cases. As he will know, the Department for Communities and Local Government has made available £500 million of capitalisation to enable local employers to do that. Half of them have already done it, but more progress is needed.

It is always difficult to sort out entrenched patterns of discrimination, but the best option is to sort them out and then move forward on an equal basis.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her statement. The Dumfries and Galloway elderly forum will be delighted by what she has said. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who quoted a headline from the Daily Express. Today’s Daily Mail says that

“women will be more equal than men”.

Does that not belittle the work that the Government are trying to do, and does it not also show that those who write banner headlines of that nature have never been on the receiving end of discrimination?

I am glad that there will be a welcome for our proposals in the Dumfries and Galloway elderly forum. I hope that all the elderly forums in the country that bring together the various agencies, voluntary organisations and pensioners’ action groups will work with us to ensure that they are implemented swiftly and effectively.

The challenge that I would issue to the Daily Mail is: who did actually write that headline? Who actually thinks, with a gender pay gap of 40 per cent., that women are more equal than men? That day might arrive, but it is certainly a long way off.

In the last generation massive progress has been made in some professions, such as law, medicine and accountancy, but there remain unreconstructed areas such as financial services, on which my right hon. and learned Friend has focused. Perhaps she could also include information and communications technology. How will she tackle the defence from some employers in those sectors that there is a lack of suitably qualified and trained women to take the higher-level jobs? Should she not move further upstream, to the universities and elsewhere, to ensure that there is a reasonable range and mix of students entering courses on those subject areas? That is the problem that she may find in financial services and ICT.

My hon. Friend is right: patterns of discrimination go back a long way. He mentioned universities. Fewer than one in 10 universities are led by vice-chancellors who are women, and although many women and black and Asian people are going into the legal profession, the higher echelons of the profession—as will be confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General—still qualify as unreconstructed. Only one judge at High Court level or above is black or Asian, despite the existence of many able black and Asian lawyers. We really do need to make progress in tackling and exposing entrenched discrimination.