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Women and Equality

Volume 497: debated on Thursday 22 October 2009

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Equality and Human Rights Commission

1. What recent discussions she has had with the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the commission’s co-ordination of its work on different strands of discrimination. (294822)

4. What recent discussions she has had with the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the commission’s co-ordination of its work on different strands of discrimination. (294825)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality wrote to the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on 5 August, setting out the need for the commission to strengthen its relations with stakeholders and to set out clearly what is being done on each equality strand. A follow-up meeting was held on 22 September to discuss the matter. Such meetings will continue.

Given that the Minister for Women and Equality talked on the “Andrew Marr Show” about the need to be able to see the different strands of discrimination, rather than about having an amorphous, overarching human rights concept, will the Minister of State admit that the Government got it wrong in how they set up the Equality and Human Rights Commission?

No, I do not admit that we got it wrong. It was completely correct to bring together the Disability Rights Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, in order to ensure, in addition to the new three strands, that employers and those regulated by the commission know where to go and have only one body to go to. That is completely the correct decision. However, it is also correct to ensure that the underlying causes of discrimination, which can be different for disabled people from those for black and minority ethnic people, for example, are visible and have different solutions, for which the commission can account to its stakeholders.

Does the Minister agree with the chairman, Trevor Phillips, when he said that sometimes the best way to frustrate the British National party is for those who feel able to vote Conservative? Surely that is sound advice.

I do not always agree with what the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission says.

Are not human rights one of the important aspects of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and do they not underpin the whole approach to discrimination? Having that strand running through the commission is another reason why those organisations needed to come together.

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is an important underlying strand of the work of the commission. As the commission moves forward, it will be important for it to make its work on all the strands much more visible than it has perhaps been in the past, and it has undertaken to do that.

I am not psychic. I can be guided only by what has been reported to me, and I had it down that the hon. Lady wanted to favour the House with her views on this matter.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I will therefore do so.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has said that parental rights are so good that women are having a difficult time being employed. I wonder what the Government are doing about that.

I am not convinced that the hon. Lady has accurately cited what that report actually said. The commission is doing a lot of work on parental rights, for fathers and mothers, but not all the reporting of that work is an accurate reflection of what it has said.

In the interview that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) cited between the Minister for Women and Equality and Stephanie Flanders on the “Andrew Marr Show” on 2 August, the Minister said that she did not favour the Equality and Human Rights Commission using the overarching human rights concept. How does the Minister of State think that it should instead deal with recognising the different strands and with making the commission more effective in combating discrimination?

My right hon. and learned Friend did not say quite what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. However, it is important for the commission to be much more visible in setting out its work on each of the strands for which it has responsibility, as well as its work on promoting human rights. It will be held accountable for that by my Department, the Government Equalities Office, as well as by the wider stakeholder community and others in this House.

Corston Report

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on steps to implement the recommendations made in the Corston report relating to women in prison addicted to drugs. (294823)

In my role at the Ministry of Justice as Minister for Prisons and champion for women in the criminal justice system, I discuss this matter regularly with the Secretary of State for Justice. As of February, there are no longer any women prisoners being routinely strip-searched in women’s prisons in England, and we are investing £15.6 million of new money over this two-year period in existing third sector organisations to divert vulnerable women offenders from custody.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. On a visit to HMP Send, a women’s prison, I spoke to women on the rehabilitation of offenders trust who were helping women to rid themselves of the scourge of drugs. The particular problem raised by the Corston report was that dangerous moment when women are released from prison, particularly when child care problems are involved. What further discussions has my hon. Friend had on protecting women at that difficult time?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has seen the excellent programme at HMP Send, which I have also had the benefit of visiting. It is doing sterling work. Much of the £15.6 million of extra resources to which I have just referred is going to one-stop shops and women’s organisations in the community that have an express purpose and ability to offer personal support to those coming out of prison, and to solve problems with housing and with getting children back to women coming out of prison to prevent them from reoffending. I believe that that will be very effective.

Will the Minister give me an update on the drug problem in Styal women’s prison, which is close to my constituency? There have been a lot of problems there in the past. Can she report on the current situation?

All our prisons have certain difficulties with drug-addicted prisoners, whether they are women’s prisons or other prisons. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a record investment is going into drug rehabilitation and support in our prisons—including HMP Styal, to which he referred—with 15 times more money being spent now than in 1997 on drug rehabilitation, and a record number of people engaging with it. That has to be hopeful for the future.

Parental Leave

3. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on plans to reform arrangements for parental leave; and if she will make a statement. (294824)

This Government have transformed support for working parents since 1997—doubling maternity pay, introducing paternity pay and leave, more than doubling good-quality affordable child care places and extending statutory maternity leave from 14 to 52 weeks. Most recently, the Prime Minister has announced new flexibility for working parents, whereby from April 2011, if a mother wants to return to work six months after the birth, the other six months of her leave can be taken by her partner with three months of it paid. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is consulting on the administration of this scheme to make it as accessible as possible for both employers and employees.

I recommend to the Solicitor-General the Conservative proposals for even greater flexibility in parental leave sharing between the mother and the father. Does she agree that that might help to mitigate any negative impact of improved parental leave on the employment prospects of women of child-bearing age?

It is clearly very important to split child care leave between mothers and fathers, not least because if a potential employer is confronted with a man he wants to employ and a woman he wants to employ, he will be unable to discriminate against them if one is capable of having six months leave and the other is equally capable of having that leave if his partner becomes pregnant. The difficulty about the Tories’ leave is that it is totally unpaid.

Well, it is almost totally unpaid. That is very clear. The right hon. Lady would be better off if she explained to those thinking of having their children now that they had better be careful, because those benefits are going to be slashed under the Tory pay cuts ahead.

The right-leaning think-tank Reform has today published a report calling for the abolition of so-called middle-class benefits. Has my hon. and learned Friend been able to consider that report, and does she know the impact on working mothers if we were to abolish maternity benefits?

This issue relates to the point that I have just made. The level of these benefits is such as to provide very good support to working and middle-class people who want to be able to have families and to have optimal choice between flexibility at work and home care. If, as a result of the unhappy occurrence of a Tory majority at the next election, which according to the polls is looking less and less likely—we are now down to a very limited possibility, if at all—these benefits were assaulted and slashed, many of my constituents are very well aware of the dangers that they would face.

Married Couples (Armed Forces)

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on application of the Government’s policies on equality to married couples in the armed forces with children. (294826)

I have had a number of discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence and met ministerial colleagues to discuss how to support service families. I also recently met service families at RAF Wittering and Swinton Army barracks and plan to visit more bases to discuss service families’ concerns.

There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the Ministry of Defence to allow flexible working for the parent left at home when their partner is on active duty. As a result, the MOD is losing experienced personnel who are leaving the service rather than leaving their children without either parent at home. Will my right hon. and learned Friend speak to the MOD about how best to support serving couples who are also the parents of young children?

This is a growing issue. Commanders are required to manage their personnel in a flexible manner to ensure that family responsibilities as well as military duties can be discharged. As well as supporting the responsibilities of married service couples, it is important to support their families. I pay tribute to the three service families’ federations—Julie McCarthy of the Army Families Federation, Kim Richardson of the Naval Families Federation and Dawn McCafferty of the RAF Families Federation. They work closely with the Ministry of Defence and with us, and they do a magnificent job.

A 20-year-old British soldier is about to be posted back to Afghanistan. He has a wife and children, and the wife happens to be a foreign national. Because the soldier is 20 and not 21, he does not have the security of knowing that his wife and children can come to the United Kingdom. Is that right?

If the hon. Gentleman is raising an immigration issue, he should probably raise it with the Home Office.

Race Inequality (NHS Staff)

6. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on levels of race inequality among NHS staff. (294827)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has no direct discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on levels of race inequality, as responsibility for race inequality lies with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. His Department, however, works with key delivery Departments, including the Department of Health, to support them and challenge them to promote race equality. The Government Equalities Office tackles discrimination in a series of different ways, improving advice and promoting awareness of their rights among employees.

May I ask the Under-Secretary or the Minister for Women and Equality to have those discussions? May I also declare my interest as a diabetes sufferer? The south Asian community is six times more likely than the mainstream community to suffer from diabetes. The discussions are important, because they are the only way in which we shall be able to deal with racial inequality in our health service.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister is well known to be a champion of equalities in this context. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the national health service constitution, published this year, puts equality at the heart of the NHS. However, he has raised an important issue, and I know that my colleagues in the Government Equalities Office will wish to continue to discuss it with the Department of Health.

Women in Power: Milestones

7. What her role was in the compilation of the Government Equalities Office’s recent publication “Women in Power: Milestones”. (294828)

The “Women in Power: Milestones” fact sheet was produced in January 2008 by the Government Equalities Office to mark the 80th anniversary of women’s gaining the franchise in 1918 and the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928. The fact sheet was cleared through internal channels and officials only, not by Ministers. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] It is true, though.

We shall be publishing an updated fact sheet shortly, but there will be a new one today which will interest the hon. Gentleman. It is about black, Asian and ethnic-minority women in public life, because we are now in black history month.

—and the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, and one of this country’s greatest ever Prime Ministers, would the Solicitor-General like to apologise to the House for the fact that her name was omitted from the fact sheet that her Department published?

It is a pity that she was missed out. I am prepared to go that far but not much further, since she did not do a great deal to advance the cause of women. I really do not think that the hon. Gentleman has a political point. [Interruption.] I have made it very clear that the fact sheet did not come to Ministers. If Members would listen instead of just shouting, they would realise that there is no political point here. The first woman Speaker was a Labour Member, and I am afraid that she was missed out, too. So it really is not about politics, and the hon. Gentleman is barking up the wrong tree.

Equality and Human Rights Commission

8. What research the Equality and Human Rights Commission has undertaken to assess the effect of the recession on the level of funding available for the support of disabled people. (294829)

In June, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Government Equalities Office jointly published research that examined the impact of the recession on disability, age, gender and ethnic minorities. The report found that over the 12 months since its publication, the employment rate for disabled people fell slightly, from 48 per cent. to 47.7 per cent., which was less than the fall from 74.7 per cent. to 73.5 per cent. in the overall population.

One of the effects of the recession is rising unemployment. As we—hopefully—begin to emerge from the recession, what action can be taken to ensure that disabled people are not left at the back of the queue for jobs?

The answer for all people is to make the right investment decisions, as the Government are doing, to ensure that there is no increase in unemployment overall. However, as the Equality Bill takes its place on the statute book, the new socio-economic duty will play an important role in ensuring that the economic outcomes for disabled people are particularly taken into account. That is something for the future that we all deserve.