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Women and Equality

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Equality Bill

We are making good progress in preparing the Bill. It is a significant challenge to simplify all the existing legislation and to strengthen protection in the ways that we are proposing. I therefore cannot give a precise answer as to the timing of the Bill’s introduction, but the House can rest assured that we are getting on with it and that the Bill will be introduced when it is ready.

I am grateful for that response, and wish the Parliamentary Secretary no insult when I say that I hope that the Minister for Women and Equality will be back with us shortly and in time for business questions on Thursday. I am interested in the Parliamentary Secretary’s answer, as the director general of the Government Equalities Office suggested in an interview in Whitehall and Westminster World on 27 August that the Bill would be introduced to the House at the end of February or in early March. I received a written answer from the Parliamentary Secretary’s predecessor on 6 October that simply committed to it happening sometime during this Parliament. Perhaps she cannot give us an exact answer, but will she give us some idea as to whether the director general’s suggestion about February or March is accurate, or whether the Bill will be introduced later? That would be very helpful to all the organisations that wish to lobby us about the contents of the Bill.

When preparing legislation, I am a great one for pressing for it to be brought forward as soon as possible, but I am also keen to make sure that it is in a fit state to be dealt with properly by this House. I think that that is desirable, but I have been doing this particular job for only a week and a half and I do not wish to commit myself to a precise date. [Interruption.] No, the Bill is in a fit state, but I and my officials will be pressing to make sure that it is introduced in the best possible state and as soon as possible.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the measures in the Equality Bill should apply in good times and in bad, and that progressive policies that address inequality, such as the right to request flexible working, should not be the first to go when there is a downturn in the economy?

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. I also agree with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said yesterday that we will carry on supporting flexible working, because a whole load of people need it. That is absolutely true, and it is important that fairness is at the forefront of our employment practices at times of economic downturn as well in the good times. We intend to make sure that it remains that way.

The timetable for the Equality Bill has slipped already, and we now hear that the Government are seriously considering scrapping their commitment to the right to an extension of flexible working and paid maternity leave. Given that, and the importance that the Minister for Women and Equality places on the Bill, will the Parliamentary Secretary give a firm commitment that the Bill will be on the statute books before the next general election?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is overreacting to coverage in the newspapers that has gone a bit too far. His own party has also had coverage in the newspapers. On the Sunday before last, The Observer suggested that the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was saying that flexibility should be scrapped immediately and that there should be less regulation of businesses, by which he meant less employment protection. There are different signals coming out of the hon. Gentleman’s party. At the same time, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is proposing a private Member’s Bill—

Order. I must say to the Minister that she should be speaking about the responsibilities of her Department. We will leave it at that.

In reviewing the equality legislation, will my hon. Friend take full account of last week’s debate on the report on women and work by the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, including its recommendations on flexible working, introducing clarification on the use of public procurement to promote such policies, and ensuring that businesses meet their requirements to promote equality?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. As she is aware, public procurement is worth up to £160 billion of business in any particular year. It is sensible that the Government’s commitment to closing the gender pay gap and promoting equality should make use of that purchasing power. When the new Bill gets on to the statute book, which will be as soon as possible, it will ensure that the purchasing power of public procurement can be used to promote these desirable objectives.

Public Service Employment

2. What discussions she has had with the Equality and Human Rights Commission on organisations which discourage people from ethnic minority backgrounds from seeking employment in public services. (228316)

I have not yet had any formal discussions with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I will have a formal meeting for the first time in November.

Does the Minister agree that it is an absolute disgrace for the Black Police Association actively to discourage black people and those with Asian backgrounds from joining the Metropolitan police service? What action would the Government take against an organisation that said that only white people should join a public service?

The hon. Gentleman has every right to that opinion, but the Black Police Association is a self-organised group that is entitled to say what it wishes about the experience of black people in the police, on which it has a perspective. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has strongly supported the Home Secretary’s decision to set up a nationwide inquiry into the recruitment and promotion prospects of ethnic minority people in the police service. It is right that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should have an interest in the fact that ethnic minority employment is 15 per cent. below the national average. The extent to which that is caused by discrimination is a matter for the commission, but the individual views of people in a self-organised group are not.

Adoption

3. If she will review the adequacy of the leave entitlements of those about to adopt children. (228317)

The Government have a strong record on supporting working families, including those looking to adopt children. I am pleased to say that since April 2003 couples and individuals who are adopting children have had the right to take up to 52 weeks’ adoption leave provided that they give their employers sufficient notice. This is equivalent to the rights to maternity leave.

I welcome the Minister to her place. I accept her answer, but is she aware that couples who are adopting are given approximately only 50 per cent. of the paid leave available for couples who have their own children? I have encountered two cases in which that has happened. Does she agree that given that those children often need more support, their adoptive parents should be able to have the same amount of maternity or paternity leave as is given to other couples? That would be a big help.

The hon. Gentleman will have to talk to me outside about individual cases, which I am happy to take up on his behalf. Women who have given birth are required by law to take time off—a minimum of two weeks if they work in an office or four weeks if they work in a factory. Maternity pay for the first six weeks after a mother has given birth is now 90 per cent. of her pay. He may be referring to the fact that that is different for those who are adopting. If I have got that wrong, I am happy to talk to him about the precise circumstances of his constituents and try to provide him with an answer. He will recall that until April 2003, those adopting children had no right to any leave or pay for that purpose. I hope that he therefore accepts that this is an advance.

I welcome the Minister to her place. Given the change in the law, what monitoring are the Government doing to ensure that same-sex couples are not excluded from adoption, particularly by religious agencies and particularly in light of recent reports that the Catholic Children’s Society (Westminster) is openly trying to dodge that new law?

The law relating to that issue applies equally to all adoption agencies. There was a 20-month transitional period, as the hon. Lady may recall, for the Catholic adoption agencies, which had particular concerns, to adjust their policies and procedures to comply with the law. That is due to end on 31 December 2008. It would be unacceptable to have an exception in the law for any agencies that were offering publicly funded services in respect of regulations designed to prevent discrimination. Statistics are collected about adoptions, and I can assure my hon. Friend that it will be possible to use them to check whether any discrimination is taking place.

Equality Panel

The Government have a proud record of tackling inequality. By introducing the national minimum wage, extending flexible working and expanding access to child care, we are seeking to level the playing field. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality set up the national equality panel to help us do more. Its objective is to close the gaps in our current understanding of inequality and to examine, for instance, why even today, by the age of six, talented children from poor families are overtaken by less talented children from richer families.

I accept that, as my hon. Friend says, the Government have a good record on the entire equalities agenda, but there is still much to do, particularly in relation to the gender pay gap and, as she said, the life chances of children brought up in poverty. Will she confirm that it is the Government’s intention to carry on making sure that the equalities agenda is at the top of their agenda, especially as in times of economic downtown, that may be one of the areas to which less attention is paid?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is still more to be done and we intend to do it, not only through the provisions that will be enacted in the Equality Bill when it is taken through the House, but by increasing the transparency of what goes on so that we can better understand the causes of inequality. She knows that across Government we have a number of public service agreement targets, which are designed to make sure that we reduce health inequalities, close educational attainment gaps between those who are deprived and those who are less deprived, narrow the gap in employment for those who are disabled, lone parents or members of ethnic minorities, and increase equality generally. We are setting ourselves tough targets to ensure that we do that, and I can assure her and the House that we will continue to make progress.

As a former Minister for disabled people, my hon. Friend is aware that traditionally there have been people across Government in various Departments who have championed different equalities issues. Now, in her present role in the Ministry of Justice, she is expected also to take responsibility for equalities. Is she able to call on champions in every Department to ensure that all these issues are mainstreamed in every Department?

I certainly hope to be able to do that. Going into my eighth year as a Minister, I am starting to feel as though I have been in every Department and had to deal with these issues. I am able to call upon that experience. The public service agreements and targets across Government, which are cross-cutting and which I mentioned in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), indicate that the whole Government are committed to the equalities agenda and that we are increasingly mainstreaming our efforts in that regard.

Trafficked Women

5. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the number of places made available in refuges to women who have been trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. (228319)

The interdepartmental ministerial group on human trafficking, of which I am a member, regularly discusses that subject. This year, the Government invested a further £1.3 million in the POPPY project to support these vulnerable victims, taking the total to £5.8 million since 2003. That provides 35 supported accommodation places. The Government will expand the support services for the victims next year as part of our commitment to implement the Council of Europe convention against trafficking in human beings.

I am grateful to the veteran Minister for her response. Does she agree that 35 places are far too few, given the thousands and thousands of victims of human trafficking? There is a great imbalance.

I agree that we need to do more. In fact, we are now developing a national referral mechanism that will enable the POPPY project or similar accommodation projects to take referrals from other areas to ensure that we develop more capacity for helping the vulnerable victims of a horrific offence.

Is not the imperative now to expand the model created by the POPPY project across the country? We do not want young women who have been sexually exploited coming to just one area—basically, south London—and putting pressure on housing, although we hope that they are granted leave to remain. As we consider rolling out the model, is it not important that joined-up agencies work together for those women, who have often been the victims of violent and sexual crime?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the POPPY project takes referrals from areas other than just London. Via the interdepartmental ministerial group on human trafficking, I am liaising with my ministerial colleagues on funding to try to make sure that we can expand our capacity to deal with the victims of those horrific offences and ensure that the women get proper support once we have managed to get them out of the exploitation into which they have been trafficked.