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Jobs for the Girls: Two Years On

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 16 October 2008

[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 291 and the Government response, HC 634.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Maria Eagle.]

It is a great pleasure to speak to a report that comes from my Committee. I did not Chair the Sub-Committee that produced the report—that was ably chaired by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) who is in this Chamber today. She will speak to the report at greater length than I intend to. My remarks are only preliminary to hers.

I am sorry that there are relatively few hon. Members here today. I attach great importance to the report, and we are having this debate because of a solemn promise I gave the hon. Lady, so I am glad that the Liaison Committee found time to accommodate it in its programme. I should be in three places today. As well as participating in this debate, I should be in the Chamber taking part in an important and timely debate on energy providers, and I should be continuing a conversation I was having with the pupils of Blackminster middle school in my constituency. I was encouraged to see that a huge number of young ladies at that school show great enthusiasm for politics. Sadly, I have had to cut short my conversation with them to be here today, but I hope the nobler purpose that I serve by being here—one they heartily applaud—justifies my absence from the school.

As I said, the report was produced by a Sub-Committee of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee. We started the inquiry at the beginning of our Committee’s incarnation in October 2005. At that time, there was a bewildering array of issues for the Committee to consider and, in fact, we formed two separate Sub-Committees on two separate matters. They have both produced excellent reports and I am delighted to be associated with them, albeit at one remove. We have not had Sub-Committees since then, but that does not reflect on the able chairing of the hon. Lady; it is because after that time we got things slightly more under control and were able to have a rational programme of work. I pay tribute to her and the members of her Sub-Committee, whom I think she will thank individually in her remarks, for the extremely good work they did on this thorough and important report.

It is not always appropriate to do this, but I want to put on the record my deep gratitude to the Clerk to the Committee at that time, Elizabeth Flood, who might be joining us later, although I shall draw her attention to these remarks in the printed record. I was going to say that she strove manfully, but that is not the appropriate word in these circumstances, so I shall say that she strove hard and diligently to produce the report and some of the detailed work around it. I believe the hon. Lady might mention that work in her remarks.

We are not allowed to use the R-word quite yet, but it is timely that we are having this debate today because the severe economic challenges that the country faces, about which we heard in the Chamber earlier, could be used by some as an excuse in relation to our country’s commitment to climate change. That should not happen. Equally, those economic challenges might be used as an excuse to play down our commitment to equality and fairness in the workplace. That, too, would be wrong. I am glad that today’s debate gives the opportunity for the record to be set right. The issue cannot be swept under the carpet at inconvenient times; it is of great importance to us all.

The debate is not only about discrimination against women; it is about the price we all pay for their exclusion from or lack of full participation in the work force. There is still a significant gender pay gap: it has closed somewhat, but the most recent estimate is that the average pay gap between men and women is about 17.2 per cent. That is a significant figure.

Flexible working and a sensible work-life balance are elusive for many, if not most, women. I am alarmed that 41 per cent. of parents spend two hours or less each day with their children and that only a third of families manage to eat together daily. It is important for those families that we give women the flexibility they deserve. I realise this is not mainstream to the report, but we should not forget the pensioner poverty problem. For every £1 a man receives from a pension, a woman receives on average just 32p. There are big injustices that need to be resolved.

The report has a complicated chronology. I do not know whether the hon. Lady will take us through why the report has taken so long to reach the final stages, but the intervention of a general election in 2005 did not help, truncating as it did our predecessor Committee’s work. I am glad that the report has eventually appeared and that the women and work commission’s report, which it scrutinises, contained a number of recommendations that appeared in the Committee’s original report—the predecessor report to this one.

Before I sit down to allow the hon. Lady to take us through the report in detail, I want to emphasise that it is not just the women who are subjected to discrimination who pay a price. We all pay a price. The abilities, enthusiasm and talents of women are crucial to our economic success: if we want to compete globally in the world, we have to maximise our use of every resource we have. One such resource is those clever and able women who are not being allowed to contribute to the economy or to the society of which they are a part to the extent that they could.

The gender pay gap is partly a problem of aspiration—I am glad to say that I can quote a woman in defence of that argument. The noble Baroness Prosser told the Committee that she

“agreed the situation was complex, and noted that the pay gap arose partly because women do not, largely speaking, push themselves for pay rises and promotion in the same way that men do.”

I know that my daughter has received advice from a male colleague that she should not be satisfied with warm words from her bosses when she has done well; she should demand a pay increase at the same time. Women tend to take the warm words and walk away and men tend to demand the money. It is important that women are assertive in the workplace and ask for their just desserts.

I want to underline the importance of the report’s first recommendation on careers advice. In my work as Chairman of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, I have become more strongly of the opinion that careers advice is of huge importance—or at least that the failure of careers advice in our schools is a matter of huge importance. Children are not shown the reality of the modern workplace or modern economy. I passionately believe that engineering deserves a higher profile in careers advice. Manufacturing, too, is being dismissed by too many careers teachers, who are not aware of the realities of modern manufacturing, and women in particular are not being encouraged to pursue careers in industries perceived to be male dominated—particularly engineering, which is a passion of mine. One of the report’s first recommendations states:

“The causes of occupational segregation start with the assumptions made by families and in schools”.

The report goes on to state that the Department for Children, Schools and Families must give higher priority to careers advice and work experience, and should provide more support and funding, so that careers advice is not just seen as an extra duty. The report adds that further efforts are needed to build links with employers. Those recommendations are of huge importance.

I found the Government’s response to that recommendation worthy, but a little complex. What we really need to achieve—not just for women, but for the entire UK economy—is a significantly higher quality of careers advice that is much more in touch with the realities of contemporary Britain.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who chairs the Committee so ably, for giving way. He has obviously had much time to study this important subject. In relation to the report’s recommendations, does he think that the gender gap can be closed by attitudinal and best practice changes, or are legislative changes needed; or is a mixture of all three required?

This is a cop-out answer in the sense that I think it is all three. The idea of relying on only one of those is clearly illusory. We need to ensure that the Government pursue best practice in their own areas of responsibility as an employer and a procurer. A mix of things are needed to drive the matter forward, as the report ably demonstrates.

I promised that I would be brief, and eight minutes is not particularly brief, so I will allow the hon. Member for Amber Valley to explain at greater length the work of the Committee and its important report.

I am pleased with that opening to the debate on our report. I appreciate the support that we received from the Chair of our Committee and the rest of the members of the Committee. As I recall—although I do not know if I can find it now—somewhere in the report we tucked in a reference that specifically came out of the hon. Gentleman’s daughter’s comments on how one should push oneself or not push oneself. Obviously, we need to make recommendations based on experience, what we see in practice and what happens in the real world. Anecdotes, examples and our experience of what we see around us are very important and central to what we have put forward.

I am pleased to introduce the report. As has been said, I was privileged to chair the Sub-Committee that conducted the inquiry, which focused on the Government’s implementation of the women and work commission’s 2006 report recommendations, particularly in relation to the gender pay gap and occupational segregation. I thank the other Sub-Committee members for their support, hard work, good ideas and enthusiasm: the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who both remain on the Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). We were given a big job and there were just a few of us to do it. As hon. Members will imagine, it was hard to hold meetings at the same time to allow us to see the witnesses we wanted to. That is one reason why the inquiry was extended.

I should have explained that the hon. Lady is sadly no longer on the Committee. She left us briefly to be a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Minister who has now gone elsewhere. I hope that the vacancies that may be created by the restructuring of Select Committees will attract her to take an interest in our Committee once again. She was an extremely able member of the Committee more generally, not just in her chairmanship of the Sub-Committee.

Yes. I want also to place on the record, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) has, our thanks to Elizabeth Flood, the then Clerk to the Select Committee, who will be joining us later, so I will probably have to thank her again. She somehow created order and excellent drafting out of the large amount of material before us, although of course the responsibility for the report is ours. I also thank Eve Samson, the current Clerk to the Committee, who took on board the last-minute sorting out at the end of the process of publishing the report and was rather better than me at working out how to produce a concise summary and press release. I wanted to include everything and she was slightly more disciplined.

I see that the previous Clerk, whom we were just thanking for her excellent work, is here. I want to draw particular attention to her heroic endeavour—I thought that it was a rather mad endeavour, but she achieved it brilliantly—in managing at the end of the report to produce a table that compares the recommendations of three reports. The Select Committee’s predecessor produced the first “Jobs for the Girls” report on the effect of occupational segregation on the gender pay gap before the general election and recommended that the Committee return to the subject when the women and work commission had reported. Second in the table are the recommendations of the commission report, “Shaping a Fairer Future”. It made 40 recommendations. Third is the Government’s one-year-on report on implementing the commission proposals. In a heroic endeavour, which I would not have tried, the Clerk managed brilliantly to tabulate and compare the various recommendations.

To be frank, this area has been swimming in reports and recommendations over the years. We have discussed endlessly the barriers and inequalities faced by women at work and the difficulties that exist but, as has been said, although progress has been made, the gender pay gap persists, despite 30 years of equal pay legislation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality estimated that at the current rate of progress it would take 80 years to eliminate the gap—she was possibly being a bit optimistic.

When the women and work commission was set up in July 2004, there was a gap in mean hourly earnings between men and women of 18 per cent. among full-time workers and 40 per cent. among those working part-time. According to the last Office for National Statistics survey, the gap has narrowed to 17.2 per cent. for full-timers—or 12.6 per cent. if we strip out the extremes and put it at the mean—and to 35 per cent. for part-timers. It is hard to eliminate the pay gap for a number of reasons, but particularly because men and women tend to work in different occupations, and traditional female occupations tend to be lower-paid and less valued than those of men.

However, it is important to reiterate that the pay gap and segregation are not just unfair to women. The Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee—I do not know whether the Committee has found a quicker way of saying that.

The Business and Enterprise Committee and its predecessor in this area, the Trade and Industry Committee, had an economic remit, so they were considering the issue not just as a question of fairness. When I said that we should examine such issues, I presented my argument in a way that focused on the economy. The Committees’ concern was the health of the economy, as well as fairness and proper behaviour. Occupational segregation limits the pool of recruits available to employers at a time when harnessing and extending the skills of all is increasingly vital for the economy.

In our report, we were not seeking to reinvent the wheel. As I said, there have been many reports. We wanted to consider what action had been taken and proposed. There were 40 recommendations about tackling job segregation, the gender pay gap and related issues. Many of those had been made in our predecessor’s report, so we were not trying to amass a new lot of evidence, although we did take evidence from various bodies. We started with Baroness Prosser, who chaired the women and work commission. She gave us an extremely useful estimate of where she thought implementation had got to and what she regarded as the key proposals. It is important to keep returning to these issues, and we will do so again and again, because we will not eliminate this problem overnight. There will be more reports to come, and it is very important that we keep producing reports.

Our report focused on the issues under three main headings: education and training; the workplace, including the type of work available, the role of management and unions and the legislative framework; and Government as an exemplar, including in public procurement. That issue was of interest to us in this inquiry and has been of continuing interest to the Business and Enterprise Committee and its predecessor. We have raised the question of being able to use social objectives in public procurement on a wider basis than just in relation to equalities—in relation, for example, to safety and other areas. That issue has been the subject of separate reports by the Committee. It tied in very clearly with this report, again showing the links between equality and economic issues.

I will go on to highlight some of the recommendations, but first I want to say that a very determined effort will be required on all fronts if we are to tackle the stubborn pay gap and inequality in employment. That requires a culture change among employers and unions and in educational institutions and the whole of society, including families. As we all know, that will not be easy to achieve; none of us would dream of pretending that it will.

It is also important to acknowledge, as the Chairman of the Committee has, that we drew up the report in different circumstances from those that pertain now. I can hear now the voices that will tell us that the actions proposed and those that the Government and others are taking are a luxury in this difficult period and that therefore we should put them on the back-burner. That is similar to what we were told earlier about the danger of climate change. It would be a mistake, because if we do not tackle the skills and education gap now, we will find that we are still under-skilled and still wasting the talents of a huge proportion of the population when we come out of any downturn. In straight economic terms, we need to be doing this work now. Issues relating to the changing nature of the work force, family relationships and so on do not just disappear in hard times; if anything, they become even more difficult and even more important for us to address.

Of course, this is not just a matter of skills and education. I declare an interest as the father of four daughters who has always taken a close interest in this area. I am pleased to be the only male Government Member here today. In my pre-MP existence as a freelance accountant, I noticed—this is still the case—that women have a much weaker propensity to form businesses and become self-employed. Even when they do, those activities and occupations tend to be at the less well-paid end of the spectrum. There are many exceptions to that, of course—Steve Shirley in computing and many others since—but there is that weaker propensity among women. How does my hon. Friend think that a cultural change in that respect might be brought about?

That is a huge question. Such a process has to start right at the beginning of people’s lives and in schools and so on. The question has to be dealt with right across society. There is no easy answer, but we have to try to tackle it on every available front.

In one of my local secondary schools, there was a girl who wanted to go into construction. The young people do a lot of apprenticeships and vocational training. It was a tribute to her father, who was in the building trade. She wanted to follow in his footsteps, just as someone might become a doctor if one of their parents was a doctor, but he did not think that that was appropriate, so she ended up doing health and social care. There is nothing wrong with that, but the father did not see it as a tribute to him that construction was what the daughter wanted to do, so she missed the opportunity to do that.

That said, I went into one of our local engineering companies and saw a 14-year-old who was on the young apprentice scheme. She was working for Collis Engineering, a firm that makes signal gantries, and the whole factory had just adopted her—the people there almost did not want to let her go back to school because they thought she was doing so well.

It is not obvious how we start to tackle some of the problematic attitudes, but we just have to keep going on. It is about giving people the opportunity to look at different ways of experiencing things. Often, we give people only very limited choices to look at, so they cannot even see that there are other areas that they could manage to take part in.

I return to my theme of needing to take action even when we may be in more difficult economic circumstances. I shall take just one local example. The construction industry tends to be first in and first out of downturns, or whatever they should be called if we are not to use the R-word. In my area, one of the greatest advocates of the skills agenda and the first chair of our learning and skills council owns Bowmer and Kirkland, the biggest privately owned construction company in the country and a major local builder.

Mr. Kirkland has always been proud of the fact that he employs some women surveyors. I was sitting next to him at a dinner hosted by the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett). I challenged him, saying, “Well, it is all right having a few women surveyors, but what about the rest of your work force? Why not survey it to see what is going on?” He took up the challenge; he came back surprised and rather excited because he had more women in positions of responsibility than he realised.

The Government’s latest proposals talk about transparency in the work force, yet Mr. Kirkland, the owner of a company and a positive man, was not aware of what was happening in his company. We discussed getting together with his women employees to try to ensure that their skills and those of other women in the company were fully utilised, and how to bring on more people. It will obviously help Mr. Kirkland to have a work force with a broader base of skills; when the building trade picks up again, he will need those skills, which are often in short supply when demand is high and supply is limited.

The hon. Lady may like to know that immediately after this debate I am meeting the Minister with responsibility for construction at DBERR to discuss our report on construction matters, published earlier this year. It makes significant recommendations on how to address precisely the issue that she mentions. The Minister and I will be pursuing the hon. Lady’s concerns, through another report, in two or three hours.

That is good news.

I turn to the meat of the Committee’s findings on whether the women and work commission recommendations have been implemented. We were rather disappointed with the Government’s one-year-on report, and we were a little fearsome with some of the witnesses because of the lack of a timetable and committed funding in the Government’s initial response to the commission’s report. However, the inquiry and the report extended over quite a period, and there have been a number of developments since then.

Later progress reports were much more encouraging, and we were heartened by the commitment shown by those Ministers who appeared before the Committee: the Minister for Women and Equality; and the then Under-Secretary of State, now the Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). We also took written evidence from the Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden). It was clear that there had been considerable development, even over the period since the initial response, which was not long after the women and work commission reported. It is a developing area and even after we had received the Government’s response—our report was published in February—there were a number of developments. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about further progress.

Among other matters, we wanted to consider the structure of Government and the perennial problem of how easy it is to embed the equality recommendations in all Departments to ensure that action is taken. We strongly recommended all Departments and public bodies to take the issue on board. To that end, we call on other Select Committees to include it as part of their remit. I have been on several Select Committees, and there is great variation in whether they take note of the matter. Most of those Committees have been dealing with economic matters, and they vary greatly in whether they regard it as necessary to ask questions about progress on equality in their inquiries, even if it is directly relevant to their work. It is important that other Select Committees should realise the importance of monitoring Departments in order to ensure that they take such matters on board.

The Committee undertook a survey of Departments. Their replies are included in the report, and they make interesting reading. We asked what Departments were doing to promote gender equality, what changes they had made in their processes and what they had done about public procurement. We received replies from 12 Departments; they did not all reply and, as one would expect, the depth of their responses varied. It might be enlightening for people to see which Departments have been making more progress.

I turn to some of our specific proposals. I cannot go through them all, as there are too many. The first was the fact that the causes of occupational segregation start with the assumptions that are made by families and schools, as was said by the Chairman of our Committee, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire. I reiterate the importance of giving careers advice and work experience more support and funding. All too often, they are seen as extra duties, and teachers do not want to take them on. I have had people doing work experience in my offices, both here and in my constituency, and there is great variation. Some monitor their pupils, telling them what to do and what they are expected to achieve in their placements; and others simply turn up to ensure that the pupils are there—it is clearly a bore and a chore. There is a great difference in how work experience is treated. Placements can be invaluable—for example, in breaking down barriers, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). If students go to only one work placement in one area—a placement that fits into a traditional area of work—they will not have any experience of what else might be open to them. Often, it depends on whom their parents or their friends know, and they have to sort it out for themselves. They do not necessarily have the opportunity to break down any of those barriers or to think about other sorts of placements.

We heard some interesting evidence from the YWCA, which has considered the matter closely and is talking about the need to have varied work placements and the possibility of opening people up to a different range of experiences. That is obviously one of the ways in which we can start to break down some of the assumptions about what jobs girls and boys should take up. There are also assumptions about what jobs boys should do and what they are able to do, so it is not an issue only for girls. It would be wrong to say so; however, people can be channelled into the areas that are expected of them. That is true in relation to expectations about educational aspirations as much as to expectations about where they will be in the labour market. Given the gender divide, those expectations result in boys and girls, and men and women, tending to go into separate areas of work.

I would like to hear more from the Minister on another matter. We were told in evidence that Ofsted is reviewing practices in order to ensure flexibility in adult education. We recommended that there should be additional funding, so that colleges would find it easier to run projects to enable older women who may want to change their work direction, as well as younger women with family commitments, to be able to do undertake such education—and a little pot of money to enable them to take that road might be a good idea. Such a review is important. Adult education can allow people to start again, to try something new and to have the opportunity to move on. We understood that that report would be available in April, but it has not yet appeared. The Minister may not know why; if not, I hope that she can find the answer.

Thirdly, we considered apprenticeships—another important area. We recommended that the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Low Pay Commission should consider the gender pay gap for apprentices. Girls and boys tend to go into different apprenticeships. Again, the YWCA found in a survey that the lowest paid apprenticeship was for hairdressing, which as expected is more than 90 per cent. female; and the highest paid electro-technical trades paid twice the average, and is 100 per cent. male dominated. That will come as no surprise.

One development that has taken place since we reported was the Government’s commitment to a massive expansion in apprenticeships. When I first saw one of our internal party political briefings, I threw up my hands in horror because it made no mention of equality. Ministers were upset and referred me to the proper document on apprenticeships, which included an entire paragraph on equality. I was heartened also at the announcement made at the TUC by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham): he announced an increase in the minimum pay for apprenticeships. We had asked that the Low Pay Commission consider the agenda pay gap. It was asked also to consider whether apprenticeships should be excluded from the minimum wage. However, the Government have announced that, pending the work of the Low Pay Commission, there would be an increase in the minimum pay for apprenticeships from £80 to £95 a week.

What pleased me was that the Department has the issue in its consciousness sufficiently that the Secretary of State pointed out in his speech at the TUC that young women—apprentices such as those in hairdressing and care—would benefit most. Clearly, there is concern, but that does not mean that it will be easy, if we have a massive expansion of apprenticeships, to begin to break down some of those barriers and get girls a broader range of choices of what they want to do. That is important.

We were disappointed, as was the women and work commission, with the Government response on quality part-time work. There has been an excellent quality part-time work initiative to create projects to get women into quality part-time work. When we asked Baroness Prosser at the first meeting what she thought was the most important issue, the first thing that she mentioned was that quality part-time jobs are essential. It is, or can be, easy to get part-time work, but it is hard to get part-time work of quality; all too often, women, even those in good career jobs, who go back to work after having a child, say, if they are able to go back part-time, find that they are demoted or that they have slipped down the career ladder. It is hard in general in a whole range of occupations to get decent quality part-time work. That also means that some of the experience and skills of older women is lost.

In their response the Government said that they will be reviewing the matter and deciding what to do, but we said that the amount of money available to the programme should be increased. That is still important. It raises the general point, which is relevant to other things, that we can do good projects and pilots, and get a range of employers as exemplars, as we have, that try to do positive work, but the difficulty is extending it. I do not think that the Committee had an answer to that, but we need to be conscious of moving beyond saying, “We did jolly well. We had some pilots”, to working out how we extend them.

One of our main recommendations—we were rather bold in this—was that the Government consider a gradual extension of the right to request flexible working to the whole work force. We thought that we would be bold but, obviously, we understand that the commitments of people with young children and carers are paramount. However, at the end of the day, there is no reason why we should not be able to offer more flexible working patterns to the population. We know that that is a long-term aspiration, but it was important for us to consider it. Obviously, there has been an extension to the right to claim flexible working since then.

I support the recommendation in my hon. Friend’s report to extend the right to request flexible working to all members of the work force. Will she comment on a meeting that I had with trade union women last week? A number of the women said that they thought the right to request flexible working worked well in the public and white collar sectors, but not in others. They cited examples of women who were nervous about asking for the right to flexible working because they feared that they would be discriminated against in their jobs.

I tend to take the view that that reflects badly on people’s management rather than on the needs of the work force. I ran a small work force in a voluntary organisation of 20 to 25 people, and quite often people would sidle in with a look that said that they were either pregnant or wanted to change their working hours for another reason—one can quite often tell when someone is pregnant. It was often possible to arrange for them to work different hours. Obviously, it depends on the nature of the work force, and it will not be possible in some jobs, but it is perfectly reasonable that an employer should look at the possibility. The point is that they should be required to take it seriously and to have serious reasons for their decisions, is it not?

This example is striking. The Select Committee on Education and Employment, which was the first Select Committee on which I served, back in 1997-98, did a report on part-time workers. We invited people from supermarkets and shops such as Sainsbury’s and Thorntons that have quite a good record of allowing flexible working, but we also invited people from the textiles industry. The latter said to us, “You don’t understand about production lines. It isn’t possible to have people working part-time.” Some people who had worked in textiles for donkeys’ years went off and had children but were not allowed to go back and work part-time. To my mind, that showed why the textile industry was in difficulty, because the management were not able to cope with organising a production line that could cope with flexible working arrangements.

The points that my hon. Friend raises on the management of work forces are interesting. However, the reason why I support the idea of flexible working for the entire work force is that, anecdotally, I have learned that problems arise because some fellow workers resent the fact that some of their colleagues have a right to flexible working. Their argument is always, “Why am I not allowed that? Is it because I do not have children or caring responsibilities? It is unfair.” It is not exclusively on the management level that this problem arises in the work place; flexible working can strike other workers as unfair, therefore the right to flexible working would be a great benefit all round.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Interestingly, officials from the Graphical, Paper and Media Union came to see us during one inquiry. That industry features very traditional attitudes among the work force, but the officials talked openly about changing working patterns and flexibility, how it could be done and what they were doing to educate and work with their members to allow it. That was an interesting and surprising example. I think that that happened when we were taking evidence for this report, but these things sometimes seem to be seamless over the years.

Clearly, it is difficult, and it is just as bad for an employee simply to assume that they can have anything that they want as it is to assume that they should not be listened to at all. There has to be a balance between the needs of the job and the needs of the employee. That balance can be to the benefit of the employer when it is possible to offer flexible employment. It should at least be considered.

Interestingly, one of my real interests in getting the report done was giving a boost to publicity for the women and work commission. We have to keep going back, getting publicity and keep the pressure going, as has been said, if we are going to change attitudes. I was pleased that when the report was published, we got a massive round of publicity. I went on loads of TV, radio and all the rest of it, only to find myself being asked what I thought about Alan Sugar. I assumed that he made some comment on flexible working, but it turned out that he had made some rather unguarded comments, having been asked about the issue off the back of our report, that got a massive amount of publicity. He had said something about how people would not take on women and how employers should be able to ask about their life situation, children, whether they would have children, and said that there was a disincentive to employing women. He tried to row back on what he said by saying that he had employed some good women, but it was an interesting furore. Different attitudes have been put forward.

One of the members of the Committee was very keen—she was absolutely right—to say that although we were looking at occupational segregation, it is also important to look at the undervaluation of traditional women’s jobs. There is nothing wrong with traditional women’s jobs—they are important, but they are undervalued and underpaid often. What is more important than bringing up children and being involved in nursery care or primary school teaching, which mostly involves women? Many such jobs, including caring jobs; are among the most important, yet they are undervalued. We wanted to highlight that. The minimum wage is important in that respect, but we were given examples of projects within traditional areas of work by which efforts were being made to assist getting women higher up the scales. I am interested in what the Minister has to say on that.

We moved on to enforcement and legislation. There is a great deal of controversy—I will not to go on too long because otherwise, nobody else will have a chance to come in—over whether pay audits should be made compulsory, and we decided to take evidence from the TUC and CBI at the same time. That was interesting, partly because the CBI was saying that making pay audits compulsory, so that what is going on in the firm or in that area of employment can be seen and whether any changes should be made, was much too difficult and bureaucratic, and that it was one of the classic burdens on business.

At that point the people from the TUC said, “Actually it is very easy; you can do it in quite a light-touch way. Would you like us to take up a commission? We can come and do it for you at a fairly small fee. We will be happy to come and do some audits for your companies.” That was interesting as a potential exchange, with the TUC setting up as an agency and sending its experienced officers to do pay audits elsewhere.

The issue of compulsory pay audits has not moved on, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will probably want to comment on our current position in relation to the equality Bill and the current big push for transparency and encouraging employers voluntarily to be transparent about, and publicise, pay structures. We felt that we could not at this stage conclude that pay audits should be mandatory, but we looked at the alternative possibility: we are still making our way on whether the gender equality duty in the public sector will have an impact, but another way forward could be to extend the gender equality duty to the private sector. We reached the conclusion that we would not recommend either course at this time; but that if the pay gap continues to decline only at the terribly slow rate at which it has declined until now, the Government should consider some of those further measures.

We took evidence originally at a time when people were putting their evidence to the Discrimination Law Review, which most people, including the Committee, were rather disappointed with. It turned out that by the time Ministers came before us they were rather disappointed with it, too. We moved on from some of the issues that were then being discussed. However, we thought that several of the issues that were raised should be examined, with respect to whether changes in legislation would help, including hypothetical comparators, representative actions and the role of equality representatives. I should be interested to know whether those issues are still on the table, and where we may be going with them.

We made some comments on no win, no fee lawyers, but if I get on to that territory I shall probably be here for the next hour. I did not like being ambushed when I was speaking about the report at a conference for Incomes Data Services. There were questions from the back, and I discovered that those concerned had not told me they were some of the lawyers raking in a fortune by taking up relevant cases. However, that is another story. It is an area of considerable concern.

I mentioned the survey of different Departments. One of our recommendations, which I suppose rests with the Minister for Women and Equality and with Select Committees, is to examine the extension of best practice beyond Departments.

The last measure that I want to mention, which is very important, and is a subject dear to the heart of the Select Committee, is public procurement. We have raised the matter on several occasions. There was one day when we were in Brussels and the officials there were very hazy about whether public procurement could be used to promote social objectives or whether that would be anti-competitive. We took the view that the advice given by the Office of Government Commerce is far too timid and that it could be the case that public bodies are indeed required to meet the gender equality duty and could be in breach of it if they failed to ask their suppliers and contractors to demonstrate active commitment to equality principles. They cannot necessarily ask them whether they have equal numbers of men and women, but they could be asked about a commitment to equalities principles and to showing that they have procedures to deal with those. In that context we are talking about £160 billion of contracts; the draft equality measures give a higher level than we had thought. There should be some requirement for those who obtain contracts to promote social objectives, particularly those that are set out in law, such as health and safety and equalities.

Public procurement is potentially a powerful tool for action. We are certainly very pleased that the Government have taken it on board. One relevant example is the Olympics Delivery Authority, which uses the approach in relation to social objectives. I met the person who deals with contracts for one of our biggest construction companies, who said that, far from there being a problem with including social objectives through public procurement, it was hoped that they would win some Building Schools for the Future contracts specifically by promising to deal in a big way with apprenticeships and training, and promoting that in the community. The hope was that it would be a plus point towards winning a contract, not that it would be anti-competitive and prevent their winning it. It was seen as potentially a positive way forward and certainly not something that would hold back industry.

There are many recommendations, and there is much more in the report, precisely because it is such a massive area, and it is hard to know where to start. It is a matter of working on all fronts at once. A number of actions have been taken, but it would be useful to know about further developments. Sometimes it feels depressingly as if we have made no progress, but at the last international women’s day debate a fellow MP gave me a 1943 guide to hiring women, which I liked. It was written for male supervisors of women in the work force during world war two, and had several useful passages:

“Be tactful when issuing instructions or in making criticisms. Women are often sensitive; they can’t shrug off harsh words the way men do. Never ridicule a woman”.

“General experience indicates that “husky” girls—those who are just a little on the heavy side—are more even-tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters.”

“Pick young married women. They usually have more of a sense of responsibility”

than those flighty ones who have not got married yet. There are ten of these pieces of advice. I like this one:

“Give the female employee a definite day-long schedule of duties so that she will keep busy without bothering the management for instructions every few minutes.”

I am sure that there are some workplaces where one would still find some of those attitudes.

Yes, this place might be one—but when I found the sheet of advice again yesterday I thought that perhaps we are making some slight progress. I shall hold up those attitudes as examples of what we aspire to remove everywhere we go, but I hope we have moved on a bit beyond them. We can perhaps make a little more progress on some other issues, too.

The report is a good one. There are many recommendations and many people are doing a lot of hard work, but it is a massive area with an awful lot more to do. We were disappointed with the initial progress, but we were encouraged, as we continued, with the steps that were taken. I should be interested to hear further comments on those steps and where we are going.

This is an important debate on an important report. I congratulate the Committee on that report and in particular I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) on leading the work on the report, and on her tireless work on the issues. Like her, I sometimes feel that we have a seamless process of meetings and debates, and I wonder where we are getting. However, from what she said we can see that we are making progress, if more slowly than we might wish.

There is obviously still a long way to go to close the pay gap. I am sure that the report is a step on the way. In Wales—and this will interest you, Mr. Williams, and my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)—the gender pay gap between full-time workers is 12 per cent., but there is a staggering 31 per cent. gap between the pay of a full-time male worker and a part-time female worker. That is obviously unacceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley has already described how part-time work is undervalued. I welcome her emphasis on the Government’s getting back on track and getting part-time work valued more than it is now. Because women make up the overwhelming majority of part-time workers it is obvious that they suffer from the devaluation of part-time work.

We all know why women are the part-time workers: they are still the main carers. Despite some welcome changes and a move towards men playing more of a role in the family, particularly with young families, women are still the main carers in society. That means that they do unpaid work as carers and if they can work in part-time jobs they are paid at a lower rate than if they were in a full-time job. Women are hit both ways in that respect and it is important that the Government should get on track in valuing part-time work. I should like to hear what the Minister will say about steps to be taken about that.

We have already discussed the Committee’s recommendation that the right to request flexible working should be gradually extended to all the work force. I am glad that the Government have extended that right to parents of older children and to carers of elderly or disabled relatives. However, there is a case for considering extending that right to every member of the work force because it would have good results in every respect.

As I said earlier, it is important to see how such a practice is working on the ground. According to Government figures, there have been a lot of successful requests for flexible working. It is great that that has happened in a voluntary way. However, for some women, flexible working does not work so well in practice, so we need to examine the matter further.

As my hon. Friend has already said, the key to reducing job segregation is education. We need to give young people the chance to see all the opportunities that lay before them at an early stage. Not long before its absorption into the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission in Wales produced a document entitled “The Apprentice: Making genuine career choice a reality”, which showed that young people, especially young women, were not given appropriate advice about the opportunities that exist that would give them a genuine freedom to enter any occupation. Arriving at the situation in which women feel that they can do any job is a huge step, but one that we must reach. We need to take small steps to get there.

The EOC report showed that women were guided into traditional careers, even though more than 80 per cent. of the girls said that they would be interested in considering non-traditional jobs. Therefore, at an early stage, women are interested in going into other areas, but they do not get the opportunity or the advice to do so. My hon. Friend referred to a very important proposal, which also came out in the Committee’s report, that young people should do two work placements, including one that is non-traditional. Male students should have the opportunity to take up child care placements and female students should be able to take up engineering placements. That is important not only for men and women but for the future of those industries. I was interested in what the Chair of the Committee said about his interest in engineering. I know that at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, there is a dearth of students applying for its engineering course. The university has frozen those courses while it sees whether any more students will come forward. When only 50 per cent. of the possible applicants apply for the course—that is because many women do not even consider going into engineering—it could partly explain why there is a huge problem for such courses.

I am very interested in the engineering issue. A few years ago, there was an event in the House of Commons organised by a federation of companies, particularly marked towards engineering and water. The representatives were bewailing the fact that insufficient numbers of young women were applying to become engineers. I said, “Why have you not approached them on the level that they would be of enormous benefit to the developing world?” Every young person that I know is passionately committed to helping the developing world. There may be an element of the industries themselves being unimaginative in they way in which they try to attract our young people to their particular disciplines. They should look at the problem in a more imaginative way.

That is an extremely important point. Employers and people who run engineering courses should try to capture young people’s imaginations. Talking about the developing world and the passion that young people have is one of the ways in which they could do it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley also made an important point when she said that we should think not just of women going into non-traditional occupations but men as well. Such a practice would help to boost the wages in those occupations as well as providing male role models in areas such as nursing, child care and primary education, which is hugely important. The issue of primary education has come up a lot in my constituency and I am sure that it has in other constituencies as well. In many primary schools, all the staff are women. It is obviously not good that there are no male role models, so we need to make a concerted effort to encourage boys to go into teaching, and into primary schools in particular.

Another report that was produced by the EOC before it went into the larger commission in Wales was entitled “I Want To Fulfil My Dream”. It looked at the opportunities that are available to ethnic minority girls and women. Some of those points are covered in the Committee’s report. The EOC report showed that black and minority ethnic women in Wales are frequently at a double disadvantage with wider pay disparities than white women, and a lack of role models. They are also limited to certain types of job because they have to take account of family influence and religious and cultural restrictions. I hope that the Minister will consider ways in which we can open up opportunities to black and minority ethnic women.

The EOC report showed that the restrictions on work opportunities brought about by family and cultural pressures resulted in some good financial consequences. Some of the women felt that they were being pressurised into so-called respectable jobs such as dentistry and optometry, which are relatively well paid but reflect a narrowing of choice. After reading the report, I felt that the idea of restricting women and girls to respectable careers was confined to the minority ethnic population. I was thinking back to the south Wales valleys and the feelings of the miners in particular who wanted their children to go into the white collar occupations, such as teaching and medicine. Generations of teachers came from the Welsh valleys. There was a strong instinct of wanting to get children into safe and respectable occupations. It is important to raise the point about the restrictions placed on black and minority ethnic women in particular and I hope that the Minister will take it up.

I want to refer briefly to the modern apprentices. Huge opportunities exist to reduce gender segregation in modern apprenticeships. In fact, women take up fewer modern apprenticeships than men, so they start off at a lower rate. The opportunity is there to reduce that segregation. For a number of years, I presented the prizes at the Young Apprentice of the Year Award. The occupations covered by the award were mainly plumbing and engineering, and there was not a woman in sight. I always used to ask the employers whether any women were up for prizes. There never was and there never has been. Yet the employers said that they wanted to have more women taking up apprenticeships, but they never did. They were well-meaning, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said, they did not go out and capture the imagination of women and girls to encourage them into their fields. That is what we must do. We must make a huge effort to capture imaginations, and the earlier we can do that the better.

In conclusion, this report will move on the debate. Step by step, we are moving towards a better situation. It is taking a long time, but I am sure that the Minister, who has taken up her new post, will give all her enthusiasm to try to move things along.

I congratulate and thank the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform for enabling my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) and her colleagues to produce this interesting report.

In the main, I agree with practically everything that has been said, although I must admit that I have my doubts about role models, because I am of a generation raised almost exclusively by women. They were my only role models, as all the males in my environment were away fighting in the second world war. Those women managed to run the country as well as their homes and families with great expertise. Of course, once the war was over, as at the end of the first world war, they were patted on the head and told politely, “Thank you very much for all your hard work. It was marvellous. Now go away and do what you do best, which is look after children and cook.”

We have moved on slightly from that position, but this debate prompted me to revert to my early days in this place. I looked up our debates from 1993 on sex equality and from 1994 when, for a short period—I am happy that the practice has been restored—the House would debate women’s issues on international women’s day. I was rather shocked that, despite all the good work that our Government have done and the major changes that our party has made to encourage and support more women in putting themselves forward for election to the House, we have not moved very far. There is still an enormously long way to go. My hon. Friend said that it would be 80 years before we achieved equality of pay. That is much too long.

The Labour party made huge strides in ensuring that more women were given the opportunity to present themselves to constituency parties, to be selected and to present themselves to the electorate for election to this place. In Government, we have broken down so many barriers. In a speech in the House in 1994, I made the point that a woman had never been Home Secretary. We have certainly broken through that barrier, and there is no Department of State that is not more than well represented by female Ministers—they are excellent—but when we come to evaluating women’s work as having innate value, we still have an enormously long way to go.

There have been changes; that is a theme that I wish to develop. For example, it is now entirely acceptable to see female doctors on television, whether in a soap opera or answering questions. We see female lawyers, female barristers and occasionally female judges, and women in the armed forces, but it is rare to find a woman plumber. It is even harder to find a woman electrician. They do exist; they have a confederation based in London and the south-east. It is extremely difficult to get one to come do a job, as they are always inundated with work because the quality of their work is so high.

One of the training schemes in my borough, Camden, ran classes in those skills. Initially, they were coeducational—men and women worked there together—but after a few weeks, the women were made to feel so uncomfortable by their male colleagues that they left, so the local authority set up segregated classes. For the introductory year of the programmes, whether for plumbers, electricians, painters and decorators or carpenters, women worked exclusively with women. By the second year, they could take on the men with no problem, and they had no trouble completing their courses.

That brings me back to another point. Not only is women’s work undervalued in this country, but women undervalue themselves. They do not believe that they are capable of doing anything and everything. It must have been 25 years ago that there was a falling roll because we were having fewer children. Business, industry and employers in general were concerned to attract mature women back into the work force. The BBC, which had an educational film unit—I do not think that it has one anymore—made a series of films in which I was the link person.

I remember distinctly one session in a major employment agency that was working hard to get mature women back into the work force. It had set up a series of seminars around the country. One interviewer said to me, “A woman came in to speak to me and I said to her, ‘What have you done?’ She said, ‘I’ve not done anything. I left school, I worked for a couple of years in an office and then I had the children. I’ve raised the children, I’ve run my home and the kids are all away in university now.’” The interviewer asked her, “Well, what have you done in the last three months?” She replied, “I haven’t done anything in the last three months. I’ve organised a wedding for 300 people.” The interviewer said, “But don’t you realise that those are major skills? A price can be put on them and they can be actively evaluated.” She had not realised that. That is an attitude that still informs women, and society as a whole, far too much.

The matter on which I want to concentrate—it is of vital importance, and the Committee touched on it—is education. If, as I suspect, school careers officers now are pretty much like careers officers when I went to school, which was a very long time ago, the job is given to a teacher who has a spare hour every afternoon and has no particular responsibilities in any area. That is not good enough. We need properly skilled, properly paid, highly motivated individuals whose sole interest and purpose in life is to broaden their pupils’ horizons about what is actually out there in terms of interesting jobs and professions, whether those pupils be girls or boys. I am concentrating on girls at the moment.

A week or 10 days ago, as part of the excellent House of Commons educational programme for young people, I was asked to take questions because the MP for the schools touring the Palace that day could not meet the pupils after the tour to answer their questions. I said, “Yes, I’ve got a spare hour or so; I’ll come along and speak to them.” There were dozens and dozens of highly intelligent, attractive young girls and one solitary boy, and they asked interesting questions—when I eventually got them to ask some.

All the girls, with the exception of six, were taking courses in child care. That was what they wanted to do. A teacher said to me, “Why are the Government not encouraging boys to enter child care?” I said, “We are”—we are clearly a Government committed to equality across the range—“but to transfer your question to my constituency and the families that I know, nine times out of 10 it is parents who don’t want their daughters to do any job that will get their hands dirty.” It is parents who push the caring professions, which we were all raised to regard as the natural field for women to work in.

There were dozens of young girls there who were committed to what they were studying and wanted to be good at their jobs, and there were six girls—six girls out of three schools—sitting behind them. I do not believe that they were deliberately segregated. I asked, “What are they reading? What are they going to do?” They were reading law.

That is a tiny, anecdotal microcosm of a problem that we must get to grips with. We must concentrate much more on opening horizons to all our children, but particularly to girls. We must do it not only in schools—where I think we must start much earlier than 13, 14 or 15—but by working much more closely with employers and companies. Not infrequently, when a school looks at potential careers for its pupils, even if it is absolutely committed to opening every available door, it looks only at the doors available in its own immediate area of employment. Schools are not looking further afield. I can understand that, certainly now as the world enters a slowdown—I know that we are not allowed to use the R-word—

Oh we are! [Interruption.] I was not saying “allowed” in a political sense. I meant that I did not wish to make even more panic-stricken all those people who seem to be selling their shares. Okay?

The Government were quick off the mark to say that additional money will be made available for retraining people who lose their jobs. We should regard that—touching on another part of the report—as a silver lining in encouraging older women to retrain. However, that will be very difficult, because of the lack of confidence in women. The longer that a woman has been in one particular job, the harder it is for her to think, “Okay, I can retrain, relearn and develop new skills,” because she might not know that she has skills to develop in the first place. Often that needs pointing out to women.

We need a much more detailed approach starting much earlier in our schools. We also need to highlight the enormous potential value of a really good careers officer working much more closely with schools, local industries, businesses and, more broadly, the federations. I touched earlier on what I regard as a lack of imagination in the engineering industry in attempting to attract young women into training. We need more women in engineering, science and the boardrooms. Perhaps a changing world financial situation will encourage more people in the City of London who run banks to put women on their boards. Perhaps that could be one of the Government’s requirements on banks—that the money will not be passed over unless there are clear signs that there will be more women, not necessarily in the higher-paid jobs, but in those jobs where the important decisions are taken.

As a nation, we take what women do too much for granted, without paying them proper tribute. They do an enormous range of work that is undervalued and very often underpaid. Far too often, women are expected to simply grin and bear it and get on with it, but we have to acknowledge that to really open the doors for all our young women in the future, we will have to work quite hard on their parents and grandparents who still, in the main, would prefer them to take jobs where their hands are kept clean, and that will allow them to produce grandchildren and be near home so that they can always have them around.

A friend of mine once produced a huge series of articles on Henry Moore. Yet another enormous tribute had been paid to Henry Moore as one of the greatest artists in the world, and part of the series involved an interview with his mother, who at the time was a very old lady. The interviewer said: “You must be very proud of your son.” Henry Moore’s father had worked on the railways—I have a feeling that he was a fireman—and she replied, “I always wanted him to have a job where his hands were always clean.” I do not think that we have changed much since.

I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who should be responding to this important debate on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Sadly, she has been called to her constituency on fairly urgent business. However, I have been well briefed and shall try to follow my brief closely, for fear of criticism afterwards.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) talked about education, which reminded me of a joke that I like to tell on the dinner circuit. The police know that a man has committed a murder and that he will be at a certain house at a certain time. They enter the house and find four people playing cards: a teacher, a lorry driver, a scaffolder and a firefighter. They arrest the teacher. How did they know it was the teacher? Well, the other three were all women. It works on the circuit, because people in the pub or the hall do not think of the scaffolder, lorry driver or firefighter as being women. But they should do. The purpose of this debate is to help to move attitudes on so that in 10 years one cannot tell that joke, because it will not be funny—no one will think it odd that the lorry driver or scaffolder are women, or that the man is a teacher.

The Government are not helped when a Culture Minister remarks that little girls either want to be footballers’ wives or win “X Factor”—actually she said that they “only” want to be footballers’ wives or win “X Factor”. There are problems, but the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) made the point that 80 per cent. of young girls would be interested in other careers, and the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate said that given the opportunity they would pursue those careers, but that often parents and grandparents constrain them. The question is: how should we deal with that?

The Business and Enterprise Committee recognised that the gender pay gap has reduced, as has been said, from 17.4 per cent. to 12.6 per cent. over the past 10 years. That is good progress on which the Government should be complimented. However, I think that the calculation is that it will take 20 years for the full-time pay gap and 25 years for the part-time pay gap to be eliminated. Only 10 per cent. of FTSE directorships are held by women, and according to the calculation that I have, it will take 65 years to close that gap. There are things that the Government can do to affect those issues far more directly than they are currently doing.

As the report stated, 60 per cent. of women workers are employed in just 10 of 75 recognised occupations, with the heaviest concentrations in—hon. Members can guess it—the five Cs: caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical work. The Fawcett Society has labelled 30 October as “women’s no-pay day”, because, if we take account of the 17 per cent. pay gap, that is when their pay would stop each year. As we approach 30 October, this is an appropriate time for this debate.

Why is the glass ceiling so pervasive in the workplace? All too often in this country we have a working culture of “presentism”, whereby an employee’s worth and dedication are assessed by the number of hours that they spend behind the desk or counter, instead of by the contribution that they make to the business or employer. Following a private Member’s Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull to extend the right to request flexible working to parents with children up to the age of 18, the Government have gone some way towards that by announcing their intention to extend that right to parents with children up to the age of 16 and to carers.

As was rightly said, the lack of flexible working lies at the heart of economic inequality between men and women. When children come along, one parent has to look after them, and of course it is usually the woman. That is not necessarily wrong in itself, and I am not going to say that women should not look after their children if they wish to. However, they should have the opportunity not to do so and to work if they so wish. We need employment regulations that allow them to do that. It is easier for parents and carers if they can work flexibly. It is also easier if men can work flexibly so that they can take care of the children as well. It works two ways, because often both parents need to have flexible working. It is not just a matter of women being able to work flexibly.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the dearth of flexible working for women, particularly in part-time work. Does he agree that it appears that women find themselves at the brunt of poor conditions and pay and are disadvantaged in the workplace because they happen to have a different anatomy and the equipment to carry a baby to term? Does he agree that we are penalising not only those women who look after a baby, but all women simply because they hold the equipment for carrying a baby to term?

I agree with that point. It is women who bear the child. I am told that at some point in the future it will be possible for men to bear a child—[Interruption.] I am sure that some people will read that and wince.

Some scientific research was done on a male baboon in south-east Asia so that it was taken to within two weeks of term. That is not the sort of experimentation that I approve of, but it proves that it is medically possible for that to happen—[Interruption.] That knowledge comes from some of the Bills that one occasionally gets to work on in this place.

I am being asked to come back to the subject matter and I take the point, Mr. Williams.

All too often, mothers are forced to accept poorly paid part-time work or to give up work entirely in order to fulfil their role in caring for their children. Eighty per cent. of women are responsible for looking after the children, compared with 17 per cent. of men, which demonstrates my point. Too many women are in jobs beneath their skill level. The right to request flexible working should allow women to fulfil their potential and ensure that business does not lose out on their talent.

Flexible working can be very good for business: it can reduce absenteeism, increase recruitment and retention, and reduce stress. It can increase staff well-being, which in turn improves customer service and satisfaction. Fears that flexible working might damage business are unwarranted, because a request can be turned down if a valid business case can be made for refusal.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate referred to women-owned businesses. The Government state that they are unlocking the talent of women entrepreneurs and that that is at the heart of their new enterprise strategy, which included a £12.5 million capital fund for women-led businesses and a package for the support and promotion of women in business. I have to say to the Minister that £12.5 million is not an awful lot of money in that area.

Well, I praise the Minister on the achievement of getting £12.5 million out of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I think that she ought to try to get a little bit more because it is an important area. I am not sure whether that money was extracted by the Minister or by someone else who is not here. I know that getting money out of the Treasury is very difficult for any Minister, but I believe that more could be done if there was more money for that package.

Fortunately, organisations that help women entrepreneurs to get started and build their own businesses do exist. Prowess is one such organisation. It has helped more than 100,000 women looking to start or grow businesses every year, and has helped 10,000 women get a business off the ground, contributing an additional £1.5 billion to the UK economy. In the context of what women can contribute by starting businesses, the £12.5 million that the Government have made available does not seem very much. Prowess has supported the launch of 25,000 new businesses each year, 35 per cent. of which are owned by women. In the UK, women-owned businesses make up approximately 16 per cent. of the business stock and 27 per cent. of the self-employed population. Total early stage entrepreneurial activity rates for women in the UK are 3.9 per cent of the total working age female population, and the female entrepreneurial activity rate is only half the male entrepreneurial activity. In the USA, the female entrepreneurial activity rate is stronger—more than double the UK’s rate.

This year, a new organisation called WEConnect was launched to foster and register women-owned businesses in the UK. It enables companies that wish to consider procuring from women-owned businesses to search a register of companies. It started without Government funding, but, with backing from companies such as IBM, Accenture and Pfizer, which recognise the value of procuring from women-owned companies, it helps companies that want their suppliers to look like the people they supply to. The Government could do much to facilitate the growth of women-owned business by imposing quotas on procurement using taxpayers’ money. With little or no cost, the Government could lead that growth instead of letting global companies forge the way in exercising corporate social responsibility.

The reality is that there are barriers for women in business that men simply do not have to negotiate. There is unequivocal evidence that women-owned businesses start with lower levels of overall capitalisation, lower ratios of debt finance and are much less likely to use private equity or venture capital. The level of start-up capitalisation used by women-owned businesses is on average only one third of that used by male-owned businesses. Recent evidence from the UK survey of the finances of small and medium-sized enterprises reported that women were charged more than men on term loans—2.9 per cent., as opposed to 1.9 per cent. That must be addressed so that women can grow their businesses, especially at a time of financial instability.

As the report highlights, one of the reasons why girls have historically taken low-paid jobs is that they had lower educational attainment than boys, but that is not now the case, as girls are achieving and succeeding. So if girls are succeeding educationally, why are they not taking up the other jobs? We now have female doctors and lawyers as role models, which was not the case in the 1970s. The question of careers advice was raised earlier, and what is said to girls in school to enable them to realise that potential is important.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Sub-Committee heard evidence—I cannot remember from whom—suggesting that women’s pay levels five years after entering a job will be lower than that of the men in the same jobs, even though they started with the same qualifications? Many factors need to be tackled right along the line, because women are achieving well academically and at university, but that does not necessarily help when they get into the work force.

The hon. Lady’s point is entirely correct, as were her earlier points about pay reviews. I know that the report refers to those difficulties and that it is being looked at. We need the assurance that people get equal pay for equal work. As I said earlier, extra effort needs to be made to ensure that pay scales are the same across the board.

When girls and boys are going through their teenage years, they think about what they will do in life. When I was a young lad, my father said I should be a train driver, but I said I wanted to be a signalman so that I could control where the trains went and not just sit on one. Then I wanted to be a zoologist. I remember that the girls at school wanted to be nurses or have similar roles. That has changed in part, but it is still girls who end up as nurses, and rarely boys who do so. When I go around the care homes in my constituency, I find that 80 to 90 per cent. of the care workers are Filipino women, because it is difficult to find people in the UK who want to do that work.

If I remember rightly, this Chamber used to be a cafeteria in the early 1980s—

Well, the cafeteria must have been downstairs or underneath. I know that it was in this part of the building. The catering staff provide an example of this problem. Most of the people who served then were women, just as today most of the staff in the cafeteria are women, while the cooks in the back are men. Inequalities here have not been addressed by our procurement and employment practices.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate mentioned plumbers. My point is that this issue is not just about highly paid, powerful jobs; it is also about getting girls into other careers. How do we get them to be lorry drivers and bricklayers and into the construction industry? That is where we are falling down. The idea that they all want to be Barbie dolls is not true. That is nonsense and an insult to girls.

We must face problems and consider what we can do in terms of business and procurement. There is no reason why this House should not encourage far more businesses that tender for work here to be owned by women. That could be done within existing legislation. When the House of Commons Commission wants building work done, it ought to try to get tenders from women-owned businesses, and ensure that the same happens with subcontractors. That can be done by this House and this Government; it would not require a long time to achieve that.

The employment practices of this House are dealt with by the Commission, not by the Government. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should be more accurate in his suggestions.

It is within the power of Members of this House to affect the Commission. I am fairly sure that if the Minister were to talk to the Commission about employment, it would happily listen to her. She could use her influence on the Commission. I hope that it will take note of the comments that have been made in this debate.

I have taken up enough time. I know that the Minister will want to respond at length and that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) will also wish to speak, but before I sit down, let me give a few statistics from a note that I received from the British Medical Association in response to the report. It notes that women have been practising medicine for 150 years and that more than 60 per cent. of medical students are women—so there has been progress. However, women still make up less than 40 per cent. of hospital-based doctors and general practitioners. Among medical academics, statistics show that only 11 per cent. of clinical academic professors are women and that 20 per cent. of medical schools do not have a single female professor. It says that in all strands of medicine, women have found that there is still a glass ceiling in career progression. Figures show that in 2006, in England, women accounted for 37 per cent. of medical hospital staff but only 25 per cent. of consultants. In surgery, only 7 per cent. of consultants were women in 2003. The BMA says that part of the difficulty is a lack of flexibility, and that flexibility in training has become worse. That is an issue for the NHS, and I respectfully suggest to the Minister that the Government can deal with that.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Williams. It is also a pleasure to support the excellent Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), and the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber).

Broadly speaking, this has been a constructive debate. This subject is very important, because it costs this country a great deal of money. When I was thinking about what I wanted to say, I took advice from a friend, telling her that I had to speak on a Select Committee report, entitled “Jobs for the Girls: Two Years On”. She said that the title was patronising, and ought to be “Jobs for Women: Two Years On”. I thought that the difference is that they are girls until they leave school and women afterwards, and that the fact that the report deals with careers advice is probably one reason why that is the title.

I think that the fact that the title has caught the hon. Gentleman’s attention makes our point. Given that the style of Select Committee reports is not very jazzy, we were trying to find something that would attract people. Of course, this issue does start at an early age, because what happens to people starts in childhood, or even before birth. Also, women are sometimes referred to as girls in a slightly derogatory way, as opposed to boys, who are always called men.

I entirely agree. When I was a member of the Select Committee on the Environment, we were the first to have a cover jacket that was slightly more jazzy than the standard green report, so it can be done. I agree, too, that the title attracted attention. It certainly attracted several comments from my colleagues when they knew that I would reply to this debate.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire that the whole thrust of the debate should not be altered in any way as a result of the economic slowdown—let us call it that. This is a serious issue, and we need to take sound, proportionate measures. Since 1997, the Government have introduced 18 Acts and 280 statutory instruments dealing with employment legislation. That is a severe burden on business, particularly small businesses, as it is reckoned that 80 per cent. of small businesses do all their paperwork themselves. It is therefore no wonder that the former Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, who is now the Secretary of State for Defence, has said that we need to

“challenge the automatic assumption that the only way to deal with exploitation in the workplace is by passing new laws”.

The purpose of my intervention on my hon. Friend earlier was to establish whether he felt that this matter would best be dealt with by legislation, a change in attitude or good practice. I think that he ducked the question, but that his answer was absolutely correct. The general theme is that all three are necessary.

The new millennium has witnessed a considerable change in the composition of households, particularly with an increased number of lone parents. We need to recognise that equality has changed, and we must change with that change in the general composition of the population, families and workplace practices.

The hon. Gentleman needs to be careful with his argument. Obviously we need action on all fronts and legislation alone does not get us anywhere, but I recall that it was not even regarded as legitimate to put in a claim for equal pay until authority was given to that idea when it was put into legislation. That in itself led to people believing that they had the right to claim equal pay. As a member of the Regulatory Reform Committee, I know about the rather dubious “business barometer”—of the Federation of Small Businesses, I think. I am conscious that the main aim, when talking about burdens on business, is to say almost that women should not have the right to maternity leave. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not stray too far down that path in opposing legislation as an important way of giving rights and of enabling us to bring equality to and make progress in the workplace.

If the hon. Lady hears me out for the rest of my speech, she will find that I shall deal, and agree with, most of the points that she has just made.

As has been mentioned, UK men earn, on average, 17.2 per cent. more than women, resulting in the average woman losing or forgoing £300,000 in her lifetime, which in turn has an effect on her pension entitlements. Further, male earnings are growing at a faster rate than women’s, despite the fact that women are promoted younger and faster than their male counterparts. Several examples have been given in which a man and woman have applied for similar jobs within a company, and within a short time, the man was earning more than the lady for doing similar work. That is to be utterly deplored. We should promote equal work for equal pay. That is covered in the Equal Pay Act 1970, which was given Royal Assent some 37 years ago. We have come some way in that time, but there is still a long way to go.

We have an ageing population, and it is important to note that women are also discriminated against in the amount of pension that they receive. As my hon. Friend has said, 3.8 million retired women still do not receive the full state pension, and a further 1.1 million will retire without an adequate pension between now and 2010. Will the Minister address that problem? Do the Government have any proposals to deal with it? The fact that for every £1 men contribute to a pension, women will receive only 32p remains grossly disproportionate and something that must be addressed.

One of the reasons that women receive less pension is the current contribution system. Is it now the view of the Conservative party that instead of having contribution-based pensions, we should have a residency-based pension, which would deal with the inequalities of the state pension?

The whole pensions area is difficult and I will not commit to that on behalf of the Conservative party this afternoon. It is something that requires careful thought before any commitment can be made.

Women are half as likely to be involved in start-up activities as men, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) said. Although the number of female entrepreneurs rose by 3 per cent. between 2003 and 2005, a report by the small business survey has found that the new female-run businesses are replacing rather than adding to the existing male-run stock. Indeed, in the words of the Home Secretary and former Deputy Minister for Women and Equality:

“If women started businesses at the same rate as men, we would have 150,000 extra start-ups each year.”

In addressing the issue it is interesting to look at what is going on in the rest of the world, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge did. At present, the UK has one of the lowest ratios for female-established business ownership compared with the rest of the G8. In contrast, in the US, as the hon. Gentleman said, female entrepreneurs are twice as likely to run their own firm as their British counterparts. Other countries such as Canada, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy also boast a smaller gap between the number of female and male entrepreneurs.

Even with the changes to the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the equality Bill, it is clear that the Government are not going far enough. I am sure that it will be a surprise to many that in the past three years the number of female councillors has fallen 16 per cent. and we have a lower proportion of women MPs, at 19.5 per cent., than Iraq, Afghanistan and Rwanda, where I was for two weeks in the summer.

I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman highlighting that issue. What is his party going to do about it?

I was not going to say this, but if one examines the number of female prospective parliamentary candidates in the Conservative party, there could be many more female Conservative MPs after the next election than at present. I happen to believe that a number of them are in seats where they will be elected.

I must give an advertisement for my own county. I am glad to say that should we sweep the board in Worcester as I expect we will at the next election, there will be three men and three women. That is an ideal model for the whole country: three-all, very good.

I am delighted to concur with my hon. Friend. Having met at least one such female candidate, who will become my immediate constituency neighbour, if my knowledge of the map serves me, I can say that she is a very competent lady indeed, and we will certainly benefit from her presence in the House.

I would like to go through one or two of my party’s proposals to deal with the problem of discrimination and the gender gap. We need to ensure that employers cannot discriminate against women in the workplace in any way. At present an employee who wins a tribunal case against their employer on equal pay may receive redress, but other employees who have been similarly discriminated against in that same workplace are not automatically helped by the tribunal finding. There are no requirements or encouragement for the employer to change its pay policy. That is something that we would like to see addressed.

The Conservatives recognise the importance of a transparent and stable regulatory framework. We would introduce new rules, so that an adverse tribunal decision against an employer would automatically trigger a pay audit—something that the hon. Member for Amber Valley mentioned. I am proposing not a universal pay audit, but one that would be triggered by an adverse tribunal adjudication. The employer would have to carry that out according to agreed guidelines. This approach is a proportionate measure to protect employees against unscrupulous employers, while also minimising the burden on companies following a tribunal decision. Currently, employers can claim the pay gap is due to a material factor but the tribunal does not have to decide whether that is reasonable. We will change that.

It is often women who seek to work flexibly because they are much more likely to have caring responsibilities. However, jobs currently available on this basis tend to be more poorly paid and have therefore significantly contributed to the gender pay gap. The right approach to tackling this problem is to extend the option of flexible working, where possible. That would broaden the variety of jobs available on a flexible basis, including better paid jobs, and would also help to reduce the stigma too often associated with flexible working.

The contribution that flexible workers provide to the economy is often understated and undervalued, not only by employers. I take the point made earlier that often women undervalue themselves. As my hon. Friend said, not only do they undervalue themselves, they are sometimes not strident enough at standing up for themselves on pay and conditions with their employer. We need to acknowledge that such workers are helping the economy by investing their time and energy in bringing up the future generation—good citizens help the economy by working and paying taxes. Their performance levels are also of an excellent standard: 90 per cent. of employers believe that their flexible workers often outperform their traditional full-time colleagues.

Considering those benefits, it is important to support flexible workers as much as possible. That is why as the Select Committee proposals state in a paragraph that we support, the Conservatives are committed to extending over a period of time the Employment Act 2002 to all parents with children aged 18 or younger. With reference to paragraph 19 of the Select Committee’s conclusions, we support the gradual extension of child care entitlement to the parents of two-year-olds in the most disadvantaged circumstances. Our child care costs are the among the highest in Europe and Labour’s approach to child care restricts the choice for those parents who decide they want to work.

Aside from implementing measures to ensure that women receive equal pay, more needs to be done to support young women to make broader and more ambitious career choices, helping them to achieve their full potential. That would also add greater value to the work force by helping to solve the current problem regarding skills shortages. I support the important points made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) about careers guidance. Too often, careers guidance is given by somebody on a part-time basis who does not have the up-to-date skills to provide a broader and more imaginative horizon, which can guide women into less traditional areas of work such as engineering. Yesterday I was with the Chemical Industries Association, which said it is terribly important to encourage women to continue to do unpopular subjects at school, such as chemistry, physics and mathematics, so that they can go on and do jobs that would not necessarily be associated with women, for example in engineering and the chemical industries.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Will he clarify something for me? He is reading us the policy response to the Select Committee’s report. Is he saying that his party would only allow two-year-olds to have access to child care if they were from poorer families, unlike the Government’s proposal that there should be universal care for two-year-olds?

Obviously, the aspiration must be for all two-year-olds, but we want to start with the most disadvantaged families first, because they are the ones in greatest need and least able to afford the current high cost of child care, so that is where we have got to at present.

We agree with the Select Committee’s recommendation in paragraph 10 that more must be done to realise

“the importance of these apparently ‘extra’ duties of careers advice and work experience.”

Providing advice for women from a young age is essential. As stated in paragraph 11, it is particularly useful for small and medium-sized enterprises that normally do not have a human resources department and therefore find it much harder to forge positive business-education partnerships at the local level.

On the hon. Gentleman’s previous points about flexible working, I find his party’s change of heart on some issues quite remarkable, given its previous voting on them. Is he also looking at giving advice on talking to business about the advantages that he portrayed so well? Are he and his party now seeking to point out to businesses that there are advantages in that sort of flexibility and in those proposals?

The hon. Lady may know that international trade is part of my Front-Bench responsibilities. I spend a great deal of time speaking to business people, and, obviously, the subject of the gender gap frequently comes up. The lack and loss of skills that result from not employing enough women in various sectors is a frequent topic of conversation. So, yes, the whole gamut of what we need to fill the gap comes up in discussions held by me and others in my party.

As the Select Committee’s report states in paragraph 29, there are currently insufficient training opportunities, and the few that are available are geared specifically towards younger, less-qualified women. They fail to help the more experienced women who are eager to return to the workplace after fulfilling caring responsibilities. The report states that that is unfair, particularly considering that

“those who will form the UK’s 2020 workforce are already at work”

and therefore need less guidance from those who are older or younger than them.

So, where do we go from here? Providing equality in the workplace must remain at the forefront of our agenda. The principle of equality needs a simple, clear philosophical approach that enshrines fairness, common sense and clarity. I agree strongly with the Select Committee’s comments in paragraph 67 that both the trade unions and management must be involved in bringing about cultural change. Like the Select Committee, we, too, are

“disappointed that the Government’s support for union equality representatives appears lukewarm.”

As I recently attended a TUC conference of equality representatives which was strongly supported by Ministers, many of whom attended, and as I have in the past spent a whole morning in a Committee in which his party opposed our having trade union education representatives who actually benefit education in the workplace, I find his comments rather surprising. Such measures are strongly supported by the Government.

The comment that was critical of the Government’s support for equality representatives in trade unions was in paragraph 67 of the hon. Lady’s own report. I find it a little hard to understand why she is criticising her own report.

We must continue to encourage similar efforts in all businesses so that the gender gap begins to narrow at a much faster rate. Not only is it important for women that that occurs, but equality of opportunity underpins a strong economy, and a strong economy enables everyone to play their part. Quite simply, unless we make substantial progress to close the gender gap, we are wasting valuable talent, hindering social mobility, failing to deal with family breakdown and, above all, failing to deal with the poverty gap. Why is more not being done when the Equal Opportunities Commission calculates that increased women’s employment could benefit the economy by up to £23 billion? It will be interesting to hear from the Minister how she proposes to deal with the problem.

It is a pleasure to be here in a new role—as of last week—as one of the Equality Ministers. I have, of course, dealt as a Minister with equality issues in the past: between 2001 and 2005, I was the Minister with responsibility for disabled people. Consequently, I have a background in dealing with equality issues, not to mention the sort of experience that those hon. Members on this side of the Chamber, all of whom happen to be women, have had in their lives.

One of the things that struck me about this interesting debate was the widespread support for the concept of closing the gender pay gap and ensuring that women and men have equal opportunities. That is very welcome, and it is welcome to get support from the other side of the Chamber. Once the point is conceded that progress is desirable, we have to consider how it can actually be delivered in practice.

Something that worried me ever so slightly about some of the remarks made by some Members was that I did not hear an understanding of the concept of discrimination, or of the multiple issues that discrimination raises in a society and the consequent necessity of tackling it through legislative means and in other practical ways. However, the fact that we all agree that the gender pay gap and equal opportunities are important is a good basis from which to start.

I congratulate the Select Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). His remarks, though short, set out in full his appreciation of the work that has been done. He clearly made the point that it was not he who did the work, but a Sub-Committee of his Committee. It is excellent that he has taken the time to be here for the whole of the debate, even though he should have been in two other places, and to listen to the follow-through that this opportunity has provided in respect of the work that has been done, which was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). She chaired the Sub-Committee that produced the report. It is excellent that both she, with her erudite and knowledgeable contribution, and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire, who oversaw the entire process in his role as Chairman of the Select Committee, were able to be here. Both contributions were excellent.

I also thank other Members for their contributions and interventions. Not all of those who intervened are still here, but the interventions were all useful, and we have had an interesting debate. I shall take some time to reply to some of the points that have been made, and then I want to say something about where the Government are in respect of the new equality legislation that will be introduced.

There were some exchanges between the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire about whether legislation, some kind of nurturing and support, or some other non-legislative means of making progress were required. They seem to have agreed that all three were required. Given that we still have to overcome centuries of inequality to close the remaining gaps—which, although narrowed are still too wide—I believe that we all accept that. It would be foolish to suggest that there is one easy, magic-bullet solution that would deal with all the problems, not least because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley said so clearly—there is a great deal of evidence and much work has been done in this respect—the gender pay gap and gender inequality are multiple and complex issues that are not susceptible to just one policy resolution.

There are many fronts on which we must fight to deal with the remaining problems, close the gender pay gap and end the gender inequality that we still see in our society. There are many ways to move forward. The Government welcome support from Members across the Chamber on policy that will work to make a difference. We all want to make a difference and close the gap. I shall deal with some of the specific points that hon. Members made and then say a little about our plans for the future, particularly the equality Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley made the point—I believe that other Members did as well—that this is not just about fairness, although fairness in society is tremendously important. There is nothing more off-putting to a young girl than to see she has not been treated fairly because of her gender. Young people and children are susceptible to the issue of fairness; they know when something is not fair. Unfairness can make a deep and lasting impression that can undermine people’s confidence and may, if they think there is no chance to fulfil their potential, remove their capacity to fulfil it. Some of the most powerful experiences that girls have are things that pigeonhole and stereotype them in their early life. That can be a powerful disincentive to trying to break through those barriers and do the unexpected. It is important to tackle such issues at that level.

Hon. Members’ points about education and careers guidance are tremendously important, but so are the points made about expectations among families—those of parents and relatives—about what young people will do when they grow up. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) wanted to be a signalman when he was growing up. I wanted to be a Member of Parliament. I fulfilled my ambition and here he is—an MP, not a signalman. I do not know if he ever was a signalman.

One reason why I am in this place is because my parents told me that I could do whatever I wanted: I just had to decide what I wanted and they would support me. That can make a tremendous difference in anybody’s life. We have to ensure that we focus on these influences, including expectations and stereotyping, which can start early in life.

I agree with what the Minister says, but equally that stereotyping goes on long beyond the point of being a young girl, into being a young woman.

We have all had experience of ringing public companies and our first contact with that company, whatsoever it is, is usually a young woman on the telephone. If that young woman is asked a question that is outside her tick-box paper in front of her, she is completely and utterly lost. The point that I am trying to make is that companies do not spend sufficient time, effort and money training those young women. That underlines, yet again, the young woman’s sense that what she is doing is irrelevant and that for her to want to be anything more than just somebody who answers the phone is a complete waste of time.

I agree with my hon. Friend to the extent that she is right that there are expectations in society and roles and jobs in life that are undervalued or less valued than others. Part of the reason for the part-time pay gap is that women are crowded into jobs that are undervalued and less valued. That is one of the complexities that we face in closing some of these gaps. It is not just easy and simple to say, “Let’s have equal pay.” If 80 per cent. of part-time workers are women and part-time pay is a lot lower, then it is not a surprise that more women are underpaid than men.

We have to tackle these issues across the board, not just because of the importance of fairness in our society, as my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley said, but also, as a number of hon. Members said, because it matters to our economy and its health and to our society as a whole that we make the most of the resources that we have. Our biggest and best resource is our people—all our people, not just the men.

I mentioned how other countries are doing much better in terms of training, skills and retention than we are. In considering the problem of how to upskill our work force, whether women or men, will the Minister look at some international comparators? I particularly commend how the Germans manage to retain skills and train people for the workplace.

Yes of course, in trying to solve these problems we should look at international experience and ensure that we have the fullest possible understanding of what needs to be done and what works. There is no point reinventing the wheel. We look at international comparisons and try to find the best way forward in respect of all these matters.

The Minister’s light-hearted jibe a moment ago about my expectation to be a signalman and hers to be an MP touches on a serious point: it is about expectation. When I was a young lad, in my teenage years I lived in a 22 ft by 7 ft caravan. There was no expectation that someone from such a background would become an MP. Changing people’s expectations of what they can achieve is important, whether it is a matter of social inclusion or gender that is the bias.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not for one moment suggest that only gender is stereotyped. People can be stereotyped for other features in their lives. Being from a poor or deprived background may also lead to a lack of aspiration and expectation, but being from a black or minority ethnic community background may not: being the son or daughter of an immigrant may mean that there is more aspiration in the family. These things are not simple and easy to compute and they do not always translate directly from the stereotype into success or failure in job terms. That is one reason why the consequences of stereotyping and discrimination are quite difficult to tackle and remove.

It is indubitable that we are making progress but we accept that we need to do more, and so do all hon. Members in this Chamber. The fact that we wish to do so is welcome. Now all we have to do is work out precisely how and then march forward to a better place, because that is what we are looking to do in respect of this issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley made some points about these matters being cross-Government and she is right. She is right to suggest that it would be a good idea for Select Committees dealing with other Departments to take an interest in this matter. I am sure that she will use her good offices to encourage that and that hon. Members in this Chamber who are involved with other Select Committees will do the same—as Ministers do, by the way. Part of my job in the Government Equalities Office is to get hold of other Departments where equality issues matter and focus their minds on doing something about this agenda in their day-to-day work. That is partly what the Government Equalities Office does and that is, partly, now my role as a Minister.

A great deal can be done, but always and everywhere we have to keep reminding policy makers and civil servants that these issues should be high up the list, not low down the list, or off it altogether, because it is simple for them to slip if those things are not always in mind. It is important to have women at high levels in the civil service and in Parliament across the board—I encourage Opposition parties to get many more women into their parliamentary parties, as we have, although we still need to do better—because women will keep raising this issue. I am not saying that it never happens in a room full of men, but this subject is not necessarily as high up the list if there are no women involved.

We all bring our life experiences to the jobs that we do, whether we are signalmen on the railways or MPs. That is why it is important to have better representation at all levels, whether on company boards, in ordinary work forces in small or large companies, in Parliament, in the council chamber, in policy making or the health service. That is why we need diversity. It is not because we just want some numeric equivalence to the general population, but to try to ensure that we tackle discrimination that has arisen not necessarily deliberately—society has not been set up to discriminate—but as a result of the way in which it has been run in the past. Only by tackling those issues everywhere where we come across them can we eventually make the progress that we want to make.

I do not agree that society was not set up in a discriminatory way: it most certainly was. It has moved on, but we have not gone all the way yet.

Will the Minister raise the idea with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that it could, for example, begin to encourage the people who make television programmes, or those who publish magazines that target young and teenage girls, to set up role models that are not, as someone mentioned earlier, a kind of Barbie doll and begin to proselytise for those careers and professions in an interesting way?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and I shall take it up with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I am sure that that she will take it up with every journalist and editor she talks to, and everyone who is involved in that. We must all take such issues up with those who are spreading stereotypes.

I am so grateful for the comment made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate. I acquired some infamy when I was new to this place because during my first Parliament I introduced a Bill about teenage magazines for girls. My chief objection to those magazines was, and remains, the complete lack of aspirational role models. They portray women as sex objects who dress up and look pretty to win men and to have fun. They contain no aspiration whatever, and I wish that their publishers would include at least a page or two of aspiration with the other nonsense that they carry.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point very well, and I do not think anyone would disagree with him. More power to his elbow when he is talking to the editors of such magazines. We can all do our bit in that respect.

I totally agree with the passion of the last two comments, which were good and strong ones.

Another advantage or change arising from ensuring diversity is that it may lead to a different style of working. I am not suggesting that women may not be incredibly argumentative, tough, nasty and so on, but when I stood as a parliamentary candidate, both my Liberal Democrat and Conservative opponents were women, and I was conscious that, although they were by no means shy or retiring, the style of our debates was slightly different. We did things in a different way, and that may have advantages. A room full of men, as opposed to a room full of men and women, has a different atmosphere, attitude and way of going about things.

I agree with my hon. Friend. The more styles and different approaches there are, and the more they reflect life in the real world, the better.

Reference was made to the causes of occupational segregation, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and Opposition Members mentioned careers advice, work experience and placements that try to tackle segregation when young people are deciding what they are interested in and seeing what the world of work is like. I agree that we can do more, and we are working on that. It is difficult to change the attitudes of parents and families, which may be powerful and influential in forging the approach of young people to their own lives, but we must do more about that, and the Government agree with the Sub-Committee’s approach.

A problem with work placements, particularly in construction, is that boys, let alone girls, are not being taken on because of insurance problems. If we cannot get young people into work experience, we shall not overcome the hurdles. Will the Minister consider how the Government could deal with the insurance issues that arise from people doing work experience on construction sites, in factories and so on?

I will certainly take that up with my colleagues in the relevant Departments who are tackling the issue daily.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley asked about the Ofsted review of practices in flexible adult education. That work is ongoing, and I cannot give a time scale for publication, but I shall try to find out what the likely time scale is. I understand that there is not, as yet, a planned publication date.

Various hon. Members referred to apprenticeships, and in January the Government set out their plans to expand the number and range of apprenticeships in England, including proposals to increase the take-up and completion rates of apprenticeships by learners who are currently under-represented in the programme. We recognise the under-representation, and are trying to ensure that it is tackled. The Learning and Skills Council is spending £16.5 million to fund up to 8,000 adult apprenticeships this year for priority groups, including women and people from ethnic minorities who seek to enter a career in areas where they are under-represented.

The equality Bill—I shall say a little more about that later—provides the capacity for those choosing between equally qualified candidates for jobs to consider the make-up of the work force. That is called positive action in some places, and to my mind it is obviously important that companies that want the benefit of having more women in their work force and a better and more diverse mix of skills and people may want to make that choice, and why should they not do so overtly? We shall consider that in the upcoming legislation.

My hon. Friend also referred to the quality part-time work initiative and the fact that her Sub-Committee had wanted rather more money for that than was found. I acknowledge that that was said. The 12 pilot initiatives that were funded have taken place in different sectors, and we are expecting a final report on them soon. I cannot yet say exactly what impact each one has had, or whether they have been successful and made a difference, but we should have some idea in the not-too-distant future of how they did because they have now finished. My hon. Friend may know that we have reconvened the women and work commission, which can consider the outcome of those pilots, and no doubt it will have something to say to us when the report comes back to us, which we expect to be in the spring 2009.

Does the Minister agree that a serious problem, not just in this area of work but in many areas, is that we are often good at having pilot projects or something that lasts for perhaps three years in our constituencies—we have good ideas—but we are not as good at working out how to roll out the best bits in the long term so that the good ideas stick and last? Is she considering that in the various areas mentioned in the report?

Yes, we need to see how well the quality part-time work pilots went, and I cannot yet give an answer on that because we are considering the matter at the moment and the final report has not come to Ministers. Obviously, we do not want to fund initiatives that do not make a difference and do not work. When we know what works, we shall have the opportunity to use our mainstream funding for training—it will come mainly from the Departments for Innovation, Universities and Skills and for Children, Schools and Families, and the Learning and Skills Council—to try to ensure that we address the imbalance of how well courses relate to the needs of men and women. If we have evidence, it will give us an opportunity to use mainstream funding rather better, and that is very much the answer to my hon. Friend’s question.

It is not always the case that one should or could find another £100 million, £12.5 million or whatever is required to do something if one has found out through pilot projects that something works and there is a big programme, such as LSC’s, of rolling out workplace learning and training. There is no reason why the money that it is spending should not take account of what works and what is needed in the economy. One hopes to go forward in that way, but I am not yet in a position to tell my hon. Friend how things have gone.

I appreciate that the evidence is not yet in, but on the precise point about the learning and skills councils and what they discover, it is important that what they discover to be positive should be handed down as quickly as possible to the sharp end of job centres, for example. It is easy for people in such schemes to discover things, but when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley said, it is moved a little down the line, people may not know anything about it and may be ill equipped to deal with what may have been discovered in the individual and what that individual wants to do.

I do not disagree. Of course, there is always an issue about transmission mechanisms and learning. We have evidenced-based policy making, so we need to learn what works, take notice of the evidence and make sure that our mainstream programmes acknowledge and reflect the learning that has occurred. One of my jobs as a Minister responsible for equalities is to make sure we do that, where necessary, across a range of Departments. That is certainly one of the things on my list of roles.

Much reference has been made to flexible working and the importance that that can have in enabling women to access good quality opportunities. I think there has been an acknowledgement from all hon. Members in this Chamber that the Government have a good record in increasing flexibility. Since April 2003, we have been extending the right to request flexible working. It is now acknowledged to be a good thing that employees with disabled children under the age of six have the right to request flexible working. Flexible working has been used more than some thought it might be when the idea was proposed; in fact, many employers have dealt particularly positively with requests when they were made.

I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North who said that there is a difference between the public and private sector in relation to flexible working. I am not quite sure who made the point about the public sector being an exemplar—

I can remember the constituencies; I just cannot remember who made the point. It may have been my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley who said that the public sector needs to be an exemplar—[Interruption.] It may also have been the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire who made the point. I do not wish to do anybody down. It is important that the public sector celebrates its success and is an exemplar. The public sector should show that it has made a difference and has the benefit of more staff commitment because it is a good and flexible employer, and it should say that to the private sector. One cannot tar the entire private sector with one brush, but elements of the private sector might be less convinced about the importance of flexibility and what it can bring to them. It is important to give examples and have cross-fertilisation of ideas and experience between sectors because it can make a real difference. Transparency is one of the aims of the new equality legislation that we are promoting and good cross-fertilisation between the public and private sector in terms of outcomes and improvements is an important part of going forward in all sectors, which is, of course, what we want to do in the end.

I do not wish to be partisan, but I happen to have a Conservative document here that describes some good examples in the private sector where flexible working has improved retention and productivity and has encouraged women to come back to the work force after maternity leave. Good, flexible working has been proven to bring benefits to organisations, and case study after case study demonstrates that the private sector gains when it gets flexible working right.

Certainly my experience as the Minister for disabled people and my work in trying to carry the torch for the employment of disabled people showed that small firms are perhaps more able to deal with flexibility—someone just asks the owner and does not have to go through a huge human resources department. Small firms can be particularly good at arranging flexibility where it does not completely destroy the needs of the business—obviously no one wants that to happen. It is important that where there is good practice—in whatever sector—it is acknowledged and celebrated, and that the word is spread. We can all benefit from such examples.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North made some points about the situation in Wales, why part-time work is undervalued and how important the right to request is. She made some of the points I have already dealt with about work placements, training and careers advice. It does not sound as if the situation in Wales is that different from the one in England; in fact, from what she said, it seems that there have been some of the same experiences.

My hon. Friend asked about black and minority ethnic women’s opportunities and why they are particularly restricted. Certainly, our proposals in the equality Bill include the chance to engage in voluntary positive action, which is one way that that kind of inexplicable—or explicable only in terms of the concept of discrimination—distinction can be tackled. We are currently examining whether we should allow claims for multiple discrimination in the Bill, which might further highlight the issue of ethnic minority people being particularly discriminated against.

I shall say a bit about the equality legislation that we are planning. Certainly, since the report was produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, there have been some policy developments. When the evidence for the report was being considered, the discrimination law review was still ongoing. We have moved on a little bit since then, so I shall mention what our future plans are. We will try to make further progress through a combination of legislative and non-legislative measures, which I now know the Opposition will thoroughly approve of. We want to ensure that the gender pay gap does not take another 80 or so years to be closed. We know that if we do nothing more, we will still have that gap. The idea behind the forthcoming equality Bill is to simplify, modernise and strengthen the law so we can close the gender pay gap more swiftly than would happen under the measures already taken. Of course, it is good that the gap has closed to a degree, but we need to close it further.

It is important to simplify the disparate bits of legislation that have come on to the statute book over different time periods during the past 30 or 40 years. The hon. Member for Cotswold referred to the number of pieces of legislation that deal with employment rights, and we need to persuade business that equality legislation is not about burdens on business. I do not accept that rights at work equate or should be equated with red tape, regulation or burdens; such rights equate to enabling employees to do a good job. If one is to believe the weekend newspapers, there is a slight debate going on among the Conservative party about what its policy on that should be during these times. The Observer reported—[Interruption.]Was it wrong? The Observer reported that senior Tories were calling for a

“freeze on new employment rights, in a shift away”

from the previous attitude of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and his

“previous enthusiasm for measures like extra parental leave,”.

The Observer went on to state that senior Tories were

“arguing that the priority was to save jobs by reducing business red tape.”

If that is true—and perhaps the hon. Member for Cotswold will tell me whether it is—it is equating rights at work with burdens and red tape. The hon. Gentleman did not seem to do that in his remarks—although he made some reference to the amount of legislation that there has been. It would be interesting to know whether the report in The Observer is accurate.

The Minister and the rest of the House will know that policy making in any Department and in any Opposition party is a dynamic process and so she will have to wait and see.

Of course I will wait and see, but until then I have to draw my own conclusions. I will wait with interest to see whether the hon. Gentleman’s tendency or the other tendency wins out in the Conservative party.

During the past year I have been on the Select Committee on Regulatory Reform, which is allowed to get rid of red tape without it having to go through other processes. Will the Minister accept this point? There is an issue about red tape and burdens on business, but it is a question of differentiating between what the right or policy is and how it is implemented. We should be seeking to get rid of the three pieces of paper where one would do. The same applies if the mechanism for implementing a policy is burdensome, particularly on, say, a small employer that does not have the people to do all the paperwork and so on. However, that is a different issue from a proper assessment of whether a policy or right is legitimate and helpful. We sometimes muddle the two together instead of being clear about what we are thinking.

Yes, my hon. Friend is right that there is a difference between how a policy is implemented and whether that is burdensome, and whether the policy itself is burdensome. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the discussion going on in the Conservative party. No doubt we will see in due course. Meanwhile, the hon. Member for Cotswold will be at least willing to support the Government when we introduce the equality Bill, because one thing that it will do is simplify and consolidate the law as it has developed over the years, which can only be good. If we put it all in one place, we will reduce the number of provisions, so I am sure that we will have widespread support in the House for that.

We will simplify, modernise and strengthen the law in certain ways. I have referred to one way in which we will strengthen the law, which is by allowing positive action. Where there is under-representation of disadvantaged groups in the work force or in senior positions, employers and service providers should have greater freedom to address that by taking it into account when deciding between equally qualified candidates. Again, I am sure that any sensible person thinking about that would see it as fairly uncontroversial, although it did seem to be controversial in certain newspapers and among certain Members of the House when it was announced, but we will see how that goes when the Bill is published. We will see what everyone’s attitude is. I think that it will be a very good thing. It is one way in which some of the disproportionate outcomes in the work force overall that we have all been complaining about today can be tackled in the shorter term. That has to be good.

I am grateful to the Minister; she has been generous in taking interventions. It would assist the House considerably if she could tell us when the Bill is likely to be published and when it is likely to be discussed by the House.

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman precisely when that will be. I can tell him that progress on getting the Bill written is good, but he will understand the complication involved in the consolidation aspect.

It is always a dynamic process. Trying to get this right is a very complicated process. It is important to get right the simplification and consolidation aspects of the Bill, but that is not easy. Parliamentary counsel is working extremely hard, and Ministers are ensuring that policy issues are dealt with. As I said, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer, but I can tell him that we are progressing well and that the House will be the first to know when we get there.

Is it the Government’s view that there has been so much consultation that it will be just a straight Bill, not a draft Bill, or will there be a draft Bill process, too? This is a hugely complicated area. Some forms of “discrimination”—for example, allowing Saga to offer holidays to the over-50s and allowing Club 18-30 to offer holidays to young people—are not entirely disadvantageous. The way in which the Bill is framed in detail will make a great difference to its impact on a wide variety of groups. I am not sure: what will the process be in parliamentary terms?

We are not planning a draft Bill. There has been a lot of consultation on this issue, and we want to get on and do it. I acknowledge that there may be complications and difficulties—there always has been on every Bill that I have been involved with—but I am sure that we will find a way through. We want to get on with it.

The Government have listened carefully to the arguments made by the Select Committee and others that appropriate bodies should be able to bring representative actions on behalf of groups of individuals in discrimination cases. We need to co-ordinate action on that proposal in the light of work taking place across Government in respect of other courts and administrative tribunals. We will consider carefully the results of the work being undertaken by the Civil Justice Council, which is examining the issue in other contexts. It is assessing the case for representative actions, and we will take decisions in the light of that. We are certainly considering the issue seriously.

We have all been alluding to transparency, if not talking directly about it. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality explained to the Select Committee when giving evidence that we cannot tackle inequality if we cannot see it and how it is working in particular places. The Bill proposes to prohibit an employer from taking any action against any person who chooses to disclose their pay to a colleague, so we will get rid of secrecy clauses. In addition, we are proposing that, under the public sector equality duty, public authorities should publish important equality information about their work force, including the gender pay gap. That will aid transparency and enable us to shine a light into the dark corners where lights need to be shone. We will work with business and trade unions to encourage private sector employers also to be transparent about their progress on equality. There is no reason why they should not respond positively to that. As hon. Members have said, businesses increasingly recognise the advantages that can be gained from improving performance on equality so that they can attract and retain the best talent, so there is no reason why we should not be able to make progress on that.

We are exploring a range of other legislative and non-legislative options for furthering equality outcomes through the power of procurement. The Government spend £160 billion a year—that is the latest figure I saw—on procuring things. There is no reason why that should not be used to help to deal with some of the issues that we have been discussing. We are examining ways of doing that, and the Bill will take some steps in that regard.

A lot has been said about occupational segregation, and I ought to say something about that. It accounts for a significant proportion of the gender pay gap, but also constitutes a loss to the economy. That was identified by the women and work commission in its 2006 report, which estimated that removing barriers to women working in non-traditional areas and increasing women’s labour market participation could be worth more than £15 billion to the economy. We would all acknowledge that that is something worth pursuing.

Following our work to implement the recommendations of the women and work commission, we are building on a number of the recommendations to tackle occupational segregation. For example, we announced this year that we were extending the women and work sector pathways initiative beyond the period covered by the recommendations in the original report. We have committed £5 million a year over the next three years to the initiative, which will mean that up to 15,000 women receive assistance that aims to help them to secure a new job, a more senior position or higher pay. That support is targeted in sectors and occupations where there are skills shortages or where women are under-represented. That type of targeted action can make a real difference by providing role models and giving real opportunities to women who perhaps have not had chances in the past because of occupational segregation. That should receive widespread support from hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I am sure that it will.

We have now reconvened the women and work commission to assess the progress in implementing and building on the recommendations that it originally made. We look forward to seeing the result of its investigations next spring.

I shall finish by saying how valuable and how welcome the Select Committee’s report has been and how much the Government welcome the ongoing debate on this issue. We hope to develop as much consensus as possible about the way to deal with the issues of gender inequality to ensure that, at last, we start to close the gender pay gap.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Five o’clock.