Skip to main content

Women and Equality

Volume 483: debated on Tuesday 25 November 2008

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Equality Impact Assessments

1. What estimate she has made of the effect on the expenditure of public bodies of replacement of the requirement to undertake separate equality impact assessments with a requirement to undertake a single assessment. (238582)

The new single public sector equality duty will ensure that public bodies are fair employers and that they design and deliver public services that meet the needs of the whole community. We expect that the costs will be mitigated by the efficiency gains of integrating the existing three duties into a single new process. The new duty is just one part of the simpler, stronger and more effective legal framework that the Equality Bill will deliver.

Will the Attorney-General’s “Race for Justice” declaration help public sector organisations, not least universities, to meet their single equality duty obligations? Does the Minister agree that there will be quite some kudos in being the first university so to do?

I agree that a university that took that opportunity and seized that initiative would gain a good deal of kudos. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does in the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism. Although “Race for Justice” is a criminal justice declaration, it is infinitely adaptable. It is there to expose systematically, and help to work away and erase, discrimination. It will read across excellently to universities.

Will the Solicitor-General address the point about low-paid women, particularly those in public sector bodies such as Government Departments? Will she assure us that the single equality impact assessment will deal directly with that issue?

An equality impact assessment was carried out when “A Framework for Fairness” was launched, and another will be carried out on the Equality Bill. I should make it clear, however, that we intend to tackle low pay for women in the public sector and also in the private sector. We have set out a number of models for how we intend first to expose it and secondly to tackle it. I believe that the hon. Lady will join cause with us, and I look forward to working with her.

I know that my hon. and learned Friend will agree that paving the way for equality carries costs, but does she also agree that we should measure the benefits as well? Should we not be especially vigilant at a time of economic difficulty when it is only too easy for things to slip, which would surely cause many more problems in the long term?

I entirely agree, but let us be clear about one matter: in business terms, diversity is dynamic. Involving people with different life experiences and different perspectives with which to frame their talents strengthens business, as well as matching it better with its consumers. Yes, of course we must be especially vigilant at this time of pressure, but there is no dosh in discrimination.

I am keen for equality impact assessments to be effective, but I fear that in some cases they have been more about going through the motions. Can the Minister tell me what work is being done to assess the value and change that result from such assessments, and what extra resource she will provide under the new legislation to ensure that there is effectiveness, not just a tick-box approach?

We have been examining, in specific terms, the impact that, for instance, going through a whole gender pay audit can have. Sometimes it is a process rather than an impact. That is why we have hesitated rather than going wholesale for impact assessments, assuming that they are the key to all mythologies and will put everything right. They do not necessarily do that.

We are working on this, and we consider that the watchword for the Equality Bill and for equal pay in particular is transparency. We will pin a number of proposals on to that basic bedrock as we take the Bill forward.

It does not matter whether one duty is involved or three: public authorities, especially local authorities, must have bought into their obligation to carry out those duties. What does my hon. and learned Friend think about Aberdeen city council, which, when it found that it had a £50 million budget deficit in February this year, cut services for disabled people in particular without conducting a disability impact study, any kind of assessment or any consultation? That was a despicable action by a Liberal-SNP administration. Will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that other local authorities, particularly those facing cuts in their budgets, do not—

Apart from the fact that that was obviously an utterly reprehensible way in which to behave, Aberdeen city council, like others, has a duty to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people. It therefore behaved not only in a disreputable way, but almost certainly in an unlawful way. We must make it absolutely plain that that kind of discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated as we move into a new era in which everyone starts to appreciate the importance and value that are to be attached to diversity.

Domestic Violence

We are continuing to back up and work with the police, prosecutors, courts and voluntary sector in their work to tackle domestic violence and we will change the law to abolish the provocation defence to homicide.

Mrs. Jennie Davies, the president of the Prestbury branch of the Women’s Institute in my constituency, has drawn my attention to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes campaign to end violence against women. What are the Government doing to develop and implement an integrated strategy to raise awareness of and prevent violence against women?

I would like warmly to congratulate and pay tribute to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes on its campaign to tackle violence against women and its participation in the End Violence Against Women coalition. This morning, I spoke at a conference that it is having just down the road on that very subject. Some years ago, the Government set up inter-ministerial groups to tackle domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual offences. We have brought them all together so that we can work strategically across Government on tackling violence against women. In January, we will publish a consultation on how we make further progress.

One third of incidents of violence against women are domestic, and the period between reporting a crime and the conclusion of a court case is often very long and one of increased risk. Too often the perpetrator of the violence remains in the family home and the mother and children are removed to a hostel. What more can be done to introduce justice into the system so that women can have the courage to report such violence and are not faced with having to take their children out of the family home while the proceedings are going on?

I agree that across the board, whether it is the police, local government, prosecutors or courts, we still have a long way to go, but we seem to be making real and substantial progress on tackling incidents of domestic violence. The British crime survey, in which women report to a confidential survey rather than to the police, shows that in the last 10 years the incidence of domestic violence has fallen by 58 per cent. We still need to tackle the great deal of suffering caused by domestic violence, but by working together and challenging the myths that domestic violence is just one of those things and that nothing can be done about it, we are making real progress.

Does the Minister agree that in the light of the experiences of Southall Black Sisters in my constituency, more needs to be done to support specialist domestic violence support services, especially those helping black, Asian, minority ethic and refugee communities?

Across the board, support for victims of domestic violence, as well as for its prevention, is very important and I pay tribute to Southall Black Sisters, an organisation that I know my hon. Friend has supported and worked closely with over the years. If someone does not speak English, is thousands of miles away from their family and is not working outside the home, it might be even more difficult for that person to escape from violence. We need to have the right support services on the ground and, once again, I pay tribute to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, which is looking at how it can tackle domestic violence in rural areas. Whether it is in Southall or in a rural area, we need to make sure that victims have the right support so that women do not have to put up with violence and children do not have to live in fear of it.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the support that I received in making sure that the new court in Bridgend had a domestic violence court. As the three years of funding for the independent domestic violence adviser ends in March 2009, what help will Bridgend get to ensure that that invaluable help for women going through court proceedings is still available?

A lot of lessons have been learned from the pilot projects that have taken place in many courts—including at my hon. Friend’s—which show how we can ensure that the perpetrators of domestic violence are brought to justice. Just a few years ago, only half of all domestic violence cases brought to court resulted in a conviction. That is now up to three quarters, and all courts, prosecutors and police recognise that it is important to bring offenders to justice so the level of violence does not escalate.

The cost of domestic violence is huge; in Leeds, it is estimated at £332 million a year. That is often not reflected in the funding from central and local government and the charitable sector that goes to domestic violence organisations, such as Behind Closed Doors in my constituency, which does a wonderful job in helping women in this very difficult situation. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that this issue should be looked at across the piece, and does she also agree that there is concern that some funding organisations do not prioritise domestic violence charities and organisations, because that is not seen as high profile or fashionable?

For the Government’s part, we have backed the campaign against domestic violence at national level. We have supported the police in expanding their work on domestic violence, and over the past decade there has been a transformation in how they respond to domestic violence. We have backed up specialist prosecutors—and I pay tribute to prosecutors for now taking cases that might previously have been dropped—and we work across the health and education services as well. On delivery of local services, however, it is important that local authorities fund local organisations. For our part at national level, we have made this a priority. It is down to local authorities to recognise the scale of the problem in their area, and to make sure there are local services for local women.

But does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in societies where women can be bought and sold like objects there is a greater risk of violence towards women, and what is she doing to try to combat this kind of exploitation of women and the consequent violence which leads to prostitutes, for example, being 40 times more at risk of a violent death than the rest of us?

My hon. Friend might well be referring to the fact that in local newspapers across the country we see women for sale for sex. It is important that we do not accept that as inevitable. Who wants to see in the back of their local newspaper, alongside “skip hire” and “lost pets”, advertisements such as, “New Thai girls. Choice of two avail., satisfaction always…nr Jct 11 M4, parking,” or, “Brazilian girls. Barkingside…£60 Full Service”? These are exploited women being sold for sex, and it is about time that local newspapers stopped taking advertisements from sleazy gangs exploiting women.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to publishing a consultation on a Government strategy on violence against women, but I regret the delay in bringing this forward. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition called for such a cross-cutting Government strategy more than a year ago. All the groups involved in this area—including, so it would seem from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the Prestbury branch of the Women’s Institute—have been calling for such a strategy for some time now. Indeed, the End Violence Against Women coalition has even published a blueprint for such a cross-cutting Government strategy. Following the consultation, when will this Government strategy be put in place, and what on earth has taken the Government so long?

There has been no delay. We have been taking action across the piece, whether on domestic violence, sexual assault or human trafficking. We have been tightening the law, we have been backing up the police and we have been changing the court processes. That is producing results; now, for example, 45 per cent. more men are convicted of rape than 10 years ago. We are also challenging the myths and assumptions that go along with that. After 10 years of hard work on the issue—work which has made a difference in both rape convictions and in protecting women from domestic violence, and has highlighted the new threats such as human trafficking—the Home Secretary will launch a consultation in January on how we can make yet further progress. I urge the right hon. Lady not to undermine, or deny, the progress that has already been made, because we should be building the confidence of women in the criminal justice system, and we should be saying, “Yes we will take action, and it will make a difference.”