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Equal Pay

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2009

A key to helping women bring equal pay actions is transparency. Once the equality Bill and its related policy package are in place, employers will not be able to rely on keeping their pay structure secret. We will ban secrecy clauses in employment contracts, so that women can identify unequal pay and seek redress. Women often have different employment patterns from men, but their input into the economy is essential, especially at this time. Women are equal and they will be paid equally.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Of course she will be well aware of the obstacles that prevent women from taking up equal pay cases. In particular, she will know of the range of technical defences available to employers, which often mean that equal pay cases take many years. She will also be aware that the trade unions are calling for class actions as a way of making it easier for women to bring equal pay cases. Is that something that she is considering? What else is she thinking of doing to make it easier for women to bring equal pay cases quickly?

My hon. Friend is to be congratulated; when she was a lawyer for Unison, she won what was, I think, the biggest equal pay case in the UK. We intend to clarify and simplify the law, as far as is practical, in the new Bill, in particular as regards the way in which the burden of proof operates, and how technical questions of general material factors are dealt with. The Civil Justice Council has just reported, and it advocates representative actions that would fulfil the same purpose as the class actions that my hon. Friend champions. The Government Equalities Office will consider how representative actions might apply to equal pay and discrimination cases in employment tribunals, and how they might feed into broader work in the Ministry of Justice, because the CJC is advocating representative actions in all civil cases. We think that representative actions may well have helpful application in equal pay and discrimination cases, but of course we will consult on any proposals for change.

It is pretty widely accepted that the voluntary approach to managing the financial services sector has been an abysmal failure, yet although the Minister just said that women will get equal pay, there is no proposition to bring in mandatory pay awards; there are only to be voluntary ones. What reassurance can the Minister give us that that will be any more successful, and will not end in equal failure?

The hon. Lady refers specifically to the financial sector. She will be aware that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is conducting an inquiry, which it announced recently, into inequities in pay in that sector, so we can expect greater transparency there very soon. We think that mandatory pay audits are probably too broad and draconian. Sometimes pay audits are very effective, but sometimes they are cumbersome processes that do not always come up with the goods that we would wish them to. Sometimes they are a process rather than an outcome. We prefer different approaches that rely on voluntariness, but let us make no mistake: in the end, if transparency and voluntary measures do not work, we will take stronger measures to ensure equal pay for women.

As my hon. and learned Friend is aware, the single status agreement in local authorities and Agenda for Change in health authorities were meant to eradicate the problems of unequal pay in both services. Sadly, with the increase in no win, no fee lawyers, many such negotiations have stalled because people are suing not only their local health authorities or local authorities but the trade unions. Will my hon. and learned Friend use her good offices to resolve the problem?

My hon. Friend is right and points to a significant issue. In a way, he supports my last answer, in the sense that those were total pay orders and they still have not got away from tribunal actions. The Ministry of Justice is looking into the role of no win, no fee lawyers in what is still regarded, slightly oddly perhaps, as a non-contentious area, as employment tribunals are. I can, at the very least, say to my hon. Friend that there are many eyes looking at the problem, with a real intention of solving it.

Because there are many things that lie behind unequal pay for women, we are acting across the board to tackle it, particularly by supporting women who are going out to work as well as caring for families with young children or older relatives, and by strengthening the law to tackle discrimination.

May I say how intriguing it is to see that the Conservative Front-Bench team for women and equality consists of 75 per cent. men and 25 per cent. women—but perhaps it is a good sign that the men in the Tory party are applying to join the honorary sisterhood.

The most recent Government statistics show that women are losing their jobs at twice the rate of men in this recession. Beyond exposing illegal discrimination, what are the Minister’s plans to address the problem, which could further entrench the gender pay gap that women still have to endure in this country?

We are well aware of concerns across the board about job loss during the recession. Because women are employed disproportionately in retail and in financial services, we have to look at the effect of the recession specifically on women. We have to look at the effect of the recession on women because women are still the main managers of the household budget. That is one of the reasons why we will make a focus not only of the work that we do through the National Economic Council and across Government Departments, but of the work on the issues that will be raised in the G20 when it is hosted by this country in April. Everybody is affected by the recession, but women are affected differently, so we need to focus on that.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her characteristically generous welcome to me.

In the other place on Friday, on the Second Reading of our Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill, the noble Lady Vadera said that the Bill was unnecessary because the Government are to introduce an equalities Bill, which will contain measures on equal pay. Can the Minister confirm that her equality Bill will contain all the measures that are in our Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill?

In our manifesto, we committed to bring forward a new law to strengthen the laws on equal pay that previous Labour Governments had brought into force, and we have consulted since then. It is disappointing that the Conservative party did not put forward proposals for consultation. In the Bill, we will strengthen enforcement and toughen the law. The Opposition should table proposals, if they want to, when we introduce the Bill, or simply support our equality Bill when we introduce it in April.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend explain to the House how changes to public sector procurement practices could help to narrow the gender pay gap?

Procurement is important for helping to narrow the gender pay gap in the public sector. As well as public authorities having a duty to narrow the pay gap as one of their existing public sector duties, procurement is a public function. They therefore have a responsibility, when they procure goods or services and pay for them under a contract, to take the opportunity to ensure that those with whom they are contracting are making efforts to narrow the pay gap. At present it is not very clear how they can do that. We are working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to make sure that public authorities are able to use their procurement power, which applies to a third of the private sector, to ensure that that is another place where we can take action to narrow the pay gap.