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Equality of Opportunity

Volume 590: debated on Thursday 15 January 2015

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.