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Women and Equalities

Volume 511: debated on Thursday 17 June 2010

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Parliamentary Representation

1. What discussions she has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on constitutional reforms to increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in Parliament. (2700)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to notify the House that, given the cross-cutting nature of the women and equalities agenda, I may be joined on the Front Bench for future questions not only by the Minister for Equalities, but also by the Minister with responsibility for race equality, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), who is present in the Chamber today, and by the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) and the Minister with responsibility for pensions, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), in order to allow Members to receive answers from the Minister with responsibility for the issue under discussion so that we can look at the wider equalities agenda.

On the question, I welcome the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) to the House, and I am pleased to say that following the recent general election there are now more women and black and minority ethnic Members of Parliament in the House. I am particularly delighted that across the governing parties there are now 56 women MPs and 11 MPs from an ethnic minority background, but we do need to do more, and I will be talking to the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that this issue is a matter of concern when we look at our constitutional reform agenda.

I am proud to be one of the 81 Labour women MPs in the House, and it is clear that my party has done more than any other to increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in this House, but progress is far too slow still. As part of the apparently far-reaching constitutional reform package, what will the Government do to make sure this House reflects the people we serve?

As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in his speech of 19 May, our agenda for constitutional and political reform will be a power revolution because it will be a fundamental resettlement of the relationship between the state and the citizen, but it would be a mistake for anybody to assume that constitutional reform in itself can bring about an increased diversity of representation in this House. The first responsibility for ensuring diversity of representation rests with political parties, and with political parties taking action to ensure we have a greater diversity of candidates, and I am very proud to have been involved in the action that the Conservative party took to ensure we have a much greater diversity of Members of Parliament on our Benches.

The Minister is absolutely right to say that constitutional reform is not the only way to improve representation within this House. Many suggestions were put forward in the excellent Speaker’s Conference report, which this House considered in the last Parliament, such as a democracy diversity fund to help candidates to stand for election where there might otherwise be barriers, and reforms to this House. Will she be taking forward some of the recommendations in the Speaker’s Conference report?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and I pay tribute to her for the role that she played in the Speaker’s Conference and to the work that was done by the Speaker’s Conference. As she will be aware, the last Government responded to the report and we responded to it when we were in opposition. We will now consider how to take forward some of the proposals made by the Speaker’s Conference—[Interruption.] Opposition Members should have a little patience. They are shouting “What?” and I am just about to tell them, if they wait. We have made an early commitment as part of our coalition agreement to introduce extra support, particularly for disabled people who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected representatives.

The Home Secretary is absolutely right that there are now more Members from ethnic minorities in the House of Commons—26—than at any time in the history of this country. Sadly, the only party that does not have any ethnic minority MPs is, of course, the Liberal Democrats. The leader of the Liberal Democrats supported my private Member’s Bill to allow all-ethnic minority shortlists. Would the Home Secretary support that Bill if I was to introduce it to the House? She is right—it is up to the political parties to make the changes.

In a sense, I think that the right hon. Gentleman has slightly contradicted himself by suggesting that legislation is the way forward rather than the encouragement of political parties. I am pleased that as part of the 26, we have 11 Conservative Members of Parliament from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, which is a significant increase at the last election. It is right that all political parties need to do more on this issue and that all political parties need to consider the processes that they are using to select their candidates. There is a role for us all in trying to go out there to ensure that people in black and minority ethnic communities see this place as somewhere that is for them, so that they want to come and represent constituencies in this House. That is a job that we can all do.

Parental Leave

2. What recent discussions she has had on plans to reform arrangements for parental leave; and if she will make a statement. (2701)

I have had several discussions with Cabinet colleagues and these will continue. We are committed to encouraging the involvement of both parents from the earliest stages of pregnancy, including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave. Indeed, as we speak my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is making a speech on families and family policy in which he will confirm this commitment.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to consider the needs of and challenges faced by small business employers as well as employees as she develops this legislation?

I can confirm that we will do that. I am conscious that it is important that we ensure that business is consulted when we are introducing such changes to ensure that we can introduce them in as bureaucratically and administratively light a way as possible so that the impact on small businesses is not too great. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will announce this morning that the childhood and families taskforce that he is setting up will consider this matter and consult on how to put it into place.

Has the Home Secretary had a chance to read the Prime Minister’s excellent article in the Financial Times in which he says that the priority for Europe must be full equality in the workplace? I welcome that. Is the Cabinet a workplace, and when will half of it consist of women?

That was a somewhat disappointing question from the right hon. Gentleman. As he will know, the proportion of women who are full members of the Cabinet under the coalition Government is exactly the same as the proportion of women who were full members of the Cabinet under the Labour Government.

Violence Against Women

I welcome the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) to his place. Violence against women and girls remains prevalent in our society. This is unacceptable and a cross-Government strategy is the best way to address this. I look forward to discussing with colleagues across Government how we will take forward our approach in this area.

I thank the Minister for that answer. During the previous football World cup in 2006, there was a 30% rise in domestic violence on the days that England played. What assurances can my hon. Friend provide the House that women will be protected, especially during the current tournament?

The Home Secretary recently stated that such violence is not acceptable under any circumstances, and even the World cup does not give perpetrators the slightest excuse to be violent. The Association of Chief Police Officers wrote to all police forces in May to advise them that they should be aware of that and of the possibility of violence during the World cup. Forces were asked to consider what measures they could implement, and a range of recommendations were taken forward, including visiting the 10 most likely offenders from previous experience.

Does my hon. Friend recognise the advantages of taking a coherent, cross-departmental approach to tackling violence against women, particularly in relation to forced marriages?

Yes, we do recognise that. Violence against women cannot be dealt with by one Department alone, as it cuts across the whole of government. On forced marriage, we all supported the original Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which was brought forward by my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. We will do all we can to work cross-departmentally to make sure that we attack forced marriage, which is unacceptable.

Rape is an act of violence against both women and men, and for both women and men who are victims of rape, it is often their lack of confidence in coming forward that prevents people from being brought to justice. What are the implications of the proposals to extend anonymity to defendants in rape trials on the confidence of male and female victims in coming forward?

Obviously, the conviction rate in this country is not good enough and needs to be improved, and the last thing that we want is for fewer victims to come forward, but we have not yet seen compelling evidence that offering anonymity to defendants would reduce those reporting rates. The attitude that the victim is somehow responsible is prevalent in this country, and that is something that we will be looking at. I assure the right hon. Lady that we will be looking at all the options in terms of addressing this issue and debating it in the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) on her appointment as the Minister for Equalities, and I congratulate the Home Secretary on hers as the Minister for Women and Equalities. The Opposition will be very keen to work with them on areas in which we can help to support women and to promote equalities.

I am sorry that the Home Secretary did not answer this question, as she will be aware of the extent of concern about the Government’s proposals on rape. Will she therefore write to me in reply, in addition to her hon. Friend’s response? I wrote to the Home Secretary on 27 May, in her capacity as the Minister for Women and Equalities, about the Government’s proposal to introduce anonymity for rape defendants. I received a reply from her officials making it clear that this was not seen as her responsibility and that it was being sent instead to the Ministry of Justice. I urge her to rethink that approach because she will know, as the Minister for Women and Equalities and as Home Secretary, that according to the British crime survey, 93% of rape victims are women. Singling out rape uniquely as a crime for which defendants need greater protection against false allegations sends strong and troubling signals about the way that women should be treated in the justice system. I urge her to reconsider this issue and to say whether she thinks it is right for defendants in rape trials to be treated uniquely differently from defendants in other serious crimes.

I assure the right hon. Lady that we definitely see this as an issue for women and equalities, albeit that it resides ultimately in the Ministry of Justice legislatively, and that the Home Secretary will contact her directly regarding her questions.

Does the Minister accept that a large number of victims of domestic violence are men? Given that she is a Minister in the Government Equalities Office, will she confirm that the Government treat domestic violence against men just as seriously as domestic violence against women?

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful contribution. I am, indeed, the Minister for Equalities, and both men and women are included in that. Some 4% of men are victims of domestic violence, and given that the figure for women is 6%, those figures are not so disparate.

Science and Technology

4. If she will take steps to increase the proportion of people entering careers in science and technology who are women. (2703)

We are absolutely committed to working with teachers and careers advisers to encourage more young women to enter careers in science, engineering and technology, and to supporting British business to increase opportunities for professional women in this sector. The science and technology sector is critical to the UK economy, and women have an enormous contribution to make.

I thank the Minister for her reply. When I entered Imperial college to study engineering, the proportion of women in engineering was about 12%. More than 25 years later, that proportion is almost exactly the same. Does the Minister agree that that represents a huge failure in the science and engineering establishment of this country and that now, when we need to rebalance our economy towards engineering and science, urgent measures are required?

Yes, I agree with the hon. Lady, who is an excellent role model in her field, and I should be happy to talk with her if she has ideas to share with me. It is important that we take this forward. Many companies have already taken action to increase the numbers of women in their work force, but we are clearly not moving fast enough. British Gas has been quite good. It has doubled its work force of women engineers by recruiting women and retraining them. We have to move further and we have to move faster.

Flexible Working

5. What recent assessment she has made of the effects of flexible working arrangements on gender equality in the workplace. (2704)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Flexible working is positive for businesses because it helps them keep valued members of staff. The evidence is clear that flexible working arrangements benefit women, by helping them to balance their caring responsibilities. The coalition Government are united on extending the right to request flexible working; indeed, we have a commitment to do so in the coalition agreement. We will launch a consultation with business at the earliest opportunity.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on what wider social benefits the Government believe will result from the extension of flexible working rights?

I am happy to do so, although we should make more of the fact that there are considerable benefits to businesses in providing flexible working, including keeping valued members of staff, attracting members of staff and being able to dip into the widest possible pool of talent. There are enormous social benefits for families when both women and men can better balance their home and work responsibilities through flexible working arrangements. We have seen that already. There are enormous benefits for children when parents are able to spend more time with them.

Will the Minister consider looking at the experience of countries such as Norway and Sweden where, as part of promoting greater flexibility and general equality, the Governments have introduced a whole month of parental leave that fathers have to take? This has increased the number of men taking parental leave and helped promote greater equality in the workplace. Will she consider that, as the Government look at their reform of parental leave?

I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. The proposals that we put forward in opposition on flexible parental leave—we are now looking at how we take those forward and improve the arrangements for parents and maternity leave—gave a better offer to men than the one month’s paternity leave that she cites from Norway. It enabled couples to decide who would take the leave that was available and stay at home with the baby after it was born. So I think we can offer fathers and mothers a better opportunity than the hon. Lady suggests.