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House of Lords Hansard
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03 March 2004
Volume 658

2.45 p.m.

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to appoint a Minister for men.

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My Lords, the Government have no plans to appoint a Minister for men.

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My Lords. I am grateful to the noble Lord for that succinct reply. Does he accept that in my Question there is no intention to suggest that there are not significant categories of women who suffer severe disadvantage in our society in a variety of ways? Does he agree that there are also significant categories of men and boys who suffer disadvantage for one reason or another? Examples that come to mind are in education, in employment and even in the legitimate wish of men to see their children under certain circumstances. Can the Minister explain how the Government reconcile with their equal opportunities policy the fact that the Government have appointed a powerful Minister to support the problems of disadvantaged women, but are not giving the same advantage to men?

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My Lords, the Government, as the noble Lord has indicated, take the issue of unfair discrimination, wherever and to whoever it occurs, very seriously indeed. That is why we are very keen to promote the effectiveness of our equality institutions and why we have the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which applies to men as much as it does to women in areas where there has been discrimination against them.

One instance of that is that while maternity rights have been recognised for some considerable time, it is only recently that it has been recognised that fathers play a very important part in the early days of a child's life and that fathers are entitled to paternity leave and some support. I hope I have given the noble Lord a positive response to his Question.

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My Lords, given that on Monday the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, told the House that 50 per cent of the population in this country are men and 50 per cent are women, would the noble Lord care to reconsider his answer and refer to his noble friend the Lord Privy Seal?

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My Lords, I am not sure that that is necessary. The Lord Privy Seal is all too well aware of the facts of the position. The reason that legislation is often needed to advance the position of women is because, historically, women have received lower pay than men for the same kind of work and they have received less support than men from the wider society. We make no bones about the fact that there were historical injustices that needed to be put right through our equality legislation.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for those last words. Surely, the interesting fact about the Minister for Women is that she is the Minister for Women and Equality. On the equality side, or the lack of equality for women in access to senior positions, in pay, in promotion and in a whole range of issues, we still need positive help from Government to assist women. Perhaps the Minister will join me in looking forward to the day when the level of institutional disadvantage to women has been abolished and we no longer need ministries for men or women, or for other people who suffer from unequal status in our society.

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My Lords, I join the noble Baroness in looking forward eagerly to that day. It will be a day on which there will almost certainly be equal numbers of men and women in our elected House.

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My Lords, while agreeing with the Minister that there will not be a Minister for men, which I am pleased to hear—not that I do not like men; I just do not think that it is necessary to have a Minister for men—I have some sympathy with the noble Lord who asked the Question. Men are definitely discriminated against in cases of divorce, where it seems that mothers are automatically given custody of children, and it is sometimes difficult for fathers to get access. I speak with some personal knowledge of this. I wonder whether that could be borne in mind in the general feel of the Question.

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My Lords, the noble Baroness raised some important points. It is not the case that the law automatically discriminates in favour of women; it is a fact that judgments are often in favour of the mother, for reasons that we all recognise. The point that is becoming clear is that the issue of fathers' access rights needs to be approached by the courts more actively than in the past.

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My Lords, going back to Monday, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, said to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, that positive action was a good thing where there was not equality of gender. Does the Minister believe that that should be extended to the teaching profession—where men are very much in the minority, particularly in primary schools where they represent only 15 per cent—the nursing profession, the legal profession, and, coming up, the medical profession? Do the Government believe in positive action in those cases? Would the Minister reconsider his Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about a Minister for men? It is about time that we had a Minister for men, because they are being hard done by these days.

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My Lords, of course there will be some professions, and sections of some professions, that may be more attractive to one sex than the other. More women apply for teaching roles in junior schools than is the case for secondary schools. That is, rightly, often lamented by educationists, because we see the advantage of having significant numbers of men and women in each school as regards providing a balanced educational experience for children. It is not an area on which direct action is possible. We need men to come forward for those roles in greater numbers. That is often the case with other professions in the other direction. We need more women to come forward, and we certainly need to remove barriers where actual discrimination takes place, as it does in some cases.