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Women and Equalities

Volume 590: debated on Thursday 15 January 2015

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Equality of Opportunity

Women make up almost 47% of the work force, but their representation falls in more senior positions. We want to ensure that women can take advantage of all the opportunities that their workplace offers them. For example, we are ensuring that parents can balance work and family life through measures such as extending flexible working and introducing shared parental leave and tax-free child care. We are also working with business to implement the recommendations in the Lord Davies report.

May I push the Minister on that? We still lag behind France and the Scandinavian countries in how we allow women to release their potential as managers, members of corporation boards, scientists and engineers. We are lagging behind the competition, so why did she and her party not support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) which would at least have provided equal pay in the workplace?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the gender pay gap has narrowed again under this Government. For workers under the age of 40 it has almost been eliminated. He also knows that there are more systemic reasons for the continuing pay gap between men and women. Part of that is about the inspiration and advice that our young women get when they are at school. I am talking about the options, the careers and the subjects that they should be taking. That is a long-term systemic problem, which is part of the reason why, as Secretary of State for Education, I announced before Christmas that we were backing an independent careers enterprise company.

This Government have made the most progress ever on increasing the numbers of women on boards, but does the Secretary of State agree that it is still unacceptable to have only five female chief executives in the FTSE 100? Does she believe, as I do, that there is more to be done on the executive pipeline?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We need only 24 more women on boards to reach Lord Davies’ target of 25% of women on FTSE 100 boards. We now have no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. It is important to bear in mind that not all women want to become FTSE 100 board directors, but we should ensure that equality of opportunity goes right the way through all our workplaces.

On promoting equality, what will the Minister do about the 91% drop in claims for sex discrimination that have gone to an employment tribunal since her Government introduced the fee of £1,200 to take a case?

In 2011-12, there were 1,700 employment tribunal claims which included, for example, maternity rights-based claims. Of those, 900 were ACAS-conciliated, 120 were successful at hearing and 430 were withdrawn. A claim can be launched with a payment of just over £200. It is right that people still have the option to go to employment tribunals, but the fact that the ACAS numbers are so high shows that it is possible to reach agreement between employers and employees.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that greater transparency on pay is vital in giving women in my constituency the best chance to reach their potential?

I very much agree that transparency is extremely important, which is why this Government have backed the Think, Act, Report initiative that encourages companies to think very hard about equality and diversity, including pay, right the way through their organisations. We now have more than 270 employers signed up covering 2.5 million employees.

Female Bishops

2. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the appointment by the Church of England of its first female bishop; and if she will make a statement. (907015)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I congratulate Libby Lane on becoming the new Bishop of Stockport and the first female bishop in the Church of England. I am delighted to see the Church of England moving into the 21st century, at least in this respect.

Does the Minister agree that at last we have a great role model for the Church of England and girls in this country?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. Role models such as Libby Lane are very important, which is why the Government are supporting schemes such as “Your Life” and “Inspiring Women”, which is led by the formidably impressive lawyer, Miriam Gonzales. I believe that her husband has a job, too, but I think we can all agree that she is the role model in that family.

Gender Pay Gap

The gender pay gap is at its narrowest ever and has been entirely eliminated among full-time workers under the age of 40. Of course the gender pay gap is still too wide, which is why we are closing it further by encouraging girls and young women to consider a wider range of careers, including well-paid careers in technology and engineering.

Does the Minister agree that closing the pay gap further means that businesses could still do more to ensure that they recruit, retain and promote the best women?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Successful businesses know that they cannot afford to miss out on the talents and experiences of half our population, and the Government are working closely with business on that, especially through the Women’s Business Council, which was established by this Government in 2012. We are helping businesses to ensure that women can fully contribute to the country’s economic growth.

It is great that the pay gap has been eradicated for women under the age of 40, but if a woman happens to be aged between 40 and 49, the pay gap is 13.9%, and if they are aged between 50 and 59, it is over 18%. That is clearly unacceptable. Will the Minister now direct her attention towards ensuring the eradication of the pay gap for those aged over 40?

As I have already mentioned, research shows that the pay gap is mostly not about direct discrimination, but about the jobs and sectors that women enter and the progress that they make, particularly if they take time out of the labour market. In November, we announced that we were investing over £2 million in helping women, especially women over 40 and those working part time, to move from low-paid, low-skilled work to higher paid, higher-skill work. That programme of work is delivered by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which will start by focusing on helping women to develop skills in science, technology, engineering and maths, retail, hospitality and the agricultural sector.

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development research shows that people stuck in low pay—women who have been in low-paid jobs for 10 years—are more likely to be unable to escape it. I have not heard from the Minister any strategy to help those older women escape low pay. It is all very well talking about money, but what is happening on the ground to help older women?

The hon. Lady did not listen to the answer that I have just given. We are investing money, working with organisations such as the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and particularly looking at enabling women in low-paid, low-skill work to develop further skills, for exactly the reasons that she cited—so that they can have higher paid jobs, which obviously provides more security for them and their families.

I wonder whether the Minister would accept that the Government made a mistake in not implementing compulsory reporting on gender pay. Not enough businesses have voluntarily taken up such reporting. It is not too late to make the change; perhaps she would like to commit to doing so.

We as a Government have always said that we would keep that section under review, but I believe that it will be much better, and we shall achieve much more systemic change, with companies thinking very hard about the pay that they offer their employees and about the diversity in their work force, if we work with them on the voluntary approach—the Think, Act, Report approach—rather than burdening them with more regulations.

Homophobic Bullying

4. What steps her Department is taking to reduce homophobic bullying of young people in England and Wales. (907017)

Homophobic bullying is absolutely unacceptable and we are committed to eliminating it. That is why we have announced £2 million of grant funding to support schools to address the issue more effectively. That, of course, complements the £4 million that the Department for Education currently provides to charitable organisations to tackle all forms of bullying. Schools policy in Wales, including bullying, is a matter for the Welsh Government.

Only yesterday, another concerned Clacton parent contacted me about bullying. Obviously, and quite rightly, academies are self-governing. Notwithstanding that, is there specific advice that the Minister might like to give to academies to try to address that problem?

There is plenty of guidance available, but the point of the work that we are funding is to help develop further the evidence base on the most appropriate and effective forms of intervention, which we will be able to share more widely with schools, so that they know how best to tackle such bullying. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to these important issues; I only wish that the rest of his party’s members took the same approach.

According to Stonewall’s latest figures, more than half of secondary school teachers fail to challenge homophobic bullying, while 17% feel they are inadequately trained to tackle such bullying. Therefore, does the Minister acknowledge that the Government’s failure to make sexual relationships education compulsory in the curriculum in mainstream teacher training has failed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young people, as teachers feel ill equipped to deal with homophobia in the classroom, or to advise children who approach them in confidence?

Sexual relationships education is compulsory, but the hon. Lady raises an important point about training, and about ensuring that teachers feel comfortable in discussing these issues and know the best way to do so. We recognise that more can be done; that is why we have announced the project to develop that evidence base, so that teachers can see what best practice is, and how they can develop the confidence to tackle these issues effectively in the classroom. [Official Report, 21 January 2015, Vol. 591, c. 2MC.]

Under-occupancy Penalty: Disabled People

5. What assessment she has made of the effect of the under-occupancy penalty on disabled people. (907018)

The spare room subsidy is about ensuring that the same rules apply in the social housing sector as in the private sector. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have made available significant amounts of discretionary housing payments so that local authorities can deal with cases in which they think the specific circumstances are appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman is a good Minister, but he will know that that is a nonsense answer. According to the Government’s own interim evaluation report, disabled people in adapted homes hit by the bedroom tax are not being awarded discretionary housing payments, because their disability benefits are causing them to fail the test. The Minister needs to look at this a bit more carefully.

The hon. Gentleman is a little churlish in his response to my answer. I have looked at the discretionary housing payment guidance in significant detail and it gives local authorities complete discretion. Local authorities are the ones considering specific cases and they are in possession of all the facts. I trust them to make good, sensible decisions.

Is there a list of local authorities that compares the number of disabled people who might require such discretionary help with the discretionary help they are receiving?

My hon. Friend raised a similar question at the previous Question Time and I put in the Library information on the amount of money the Government have made available to each local authority in the country compared with what they are spending. We do not have a list broken down by local authority of every single person affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy and their level of disability, so I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact information he requires, but I think I have done the best that I can.


7. What steps her Department is taking to reduce inequality arising from socio-economic background. (907020)

The Government are committed to improving social mobility. That is why we have extended free early education to disadvantaged two-year-olds, introduced a £2.5 billion a year investment in the pupil premium, delivered 2 million apprenticeship starts within this Parliament and have more than 180 major employers signed up to the social mobility business compact to inspire young people and improve access to employment opportunities.

Bristol’s fairness commission reported last year and described Bristol as a “tale of two cities,” with some areas facing “persistent deprivation.” When the Government entered power, they refused to implement clause 1 of the Equality Act 2010, the socio-economic duty, which would have placed a duty on all public bodies to have awareness of the effect of economic inequality on their policies. Will the Government reconsider that, because it is an issue that they have completely overlooked?

It is not the Government’s intention to do so at the moment, but of course local authorities have plenty of discretion, powers and tools to tackle these issues. The hon. Lady rightly highlights that there are important issues of deprivation within local authorities and it is vital that they are tackled.

Low-paid Work

According to the annual survey of hours and earnings, 24.6% of women were paid below two thirds of the median wage in 2014. Although that is still too high, we are making progress as the percentage of women in low-paid work is falling compared with 2010, when the rate was 25.9%.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but she will know, as we do, that according to the House of Commons Library women have lost six times as much financially as men under the policies of this Government. Does she think that is fair and what is she going to do about it?

I would be very interested to see the report, which I understand has been requested by the Opposition and has not been forthcoming. We have cut income tax for people on low pay, many of whom are women, and in particular, the majority of the 3 million people who have been taken out of paying income tax at all are women. The Government take these issues seriously to ensure that women and indeed men are protected in these difficult economic times.

I was reading about the case of a woman who is told by her boss each day whether or not she has work by a text with a picture of a happy face or a sad face. Should those practices be banned?

As employment relations Minister I certainly would not endorse that as good employment practice. There are clearly significant issues with zero-hours contracts and the Government recognise that, which is why we are legislating through the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill to make exclusivity clauses illegal. It is also why we are taking further steps to work with industry sectors to produce guidance so that best practice is followed in using such contracts, which work for some people, as the surveys from the CIPD clearly show. We need to ensure that the contracts are used properly and I agree with the hon. Lady when she points out that there are examples of bad practice in that area.