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Women: Public Bodies and Listed Companies

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 15 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they will take to encourage more women to take up places on committees and on the boards of public bodies and listed companies

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as chair of the Women’s National Commission.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s contribution in raising this important issue and to her continued work in the field of equalities. The Government share her concerns on these issues and that is why we have pledged to take action to promote gender equality on the boards of listed companies. However, we have more to do on the detail and in due course will be making an announcement setting out our future direction.

I thank the Minister for her nice comments and for her very helpful reply. However, what action do the Government intend to take to challenge recruiters and encourage them to ensure diversity in the membership of boards? Allied to that, how are the Government going to respond to the growing demand for specific places to be designated for women on boards and in public bodies?

My Lords, it is all about engaging with business and business organisations. We will engage with all relevant partners in developing our programme to fulfil the commitment in the coalition agreement. Head-hunters and recruitment companies will be aware of the stronger provision in the revised UK Corporate Governance Code, published on 28 May this year, on the importance of boardroom diversity. On the noble Baroness’s second question, we are working very hard to encourage people to work with us, rather than enforce an extra regulatory burden.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that almost 30 years ago, when I first came into this House, there was an all-party group whose aim was to get more women onto public bodies? This has been quite successful, although the situation relating to major companies is rather different. Is there not a bit of a parallel with the Equal Pay Act 1970 here, in that it takes years to change cultural attitudes, even though the law has changed?

I thank my noble friend for that question and agree with her completely. Unfortunately, this issue requires a lead by all contributors, and I just hope that the Act that commences in October will be the start of that process.

My Lords, as well as making every effort, as I suspect she will, to get more women on to the committees and boards of public bodies, will the Minister also consider publishing a yearly report on the public bodies for which each government department is responsible, listing the number of women on the boards of each of them and, in particular, the number of women who are chairmen and chief executives?

The noble Baroness raises an issue that we are looking at very seriously. As I said in previous responses, we are considering how to encourage all departments to take on board the importance of ensuring proper representation not just from women but from other under-represented groups.

My Lords, does the Government’s commitment to gender equality extend to great national institutions such as the Church of England? Furthermore, does the Prime Minister intend to have a word with right reverend Prelates and most reverend Primates in order that we may have some female Bishops in this House before the end of this decade?

My Lords, will the Minister welcome the decision of the Church of England General Synod over the weekend to move towards the ordination of women as bishops, which will be the first step towards their appearance in this House?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that despite aspirations with regard to greater gender equality, the appointment last week of the first all-male Monetary Policy Committee is not the right signal to send out? Why were no women economists deemed worthy of joining that body?

My Lords, my noble friend raises a really important issue. The point of this debate is to ensure that, on organisations such as the Monetary Policy Committee and other major organisations, there is better representation. The view will have to be taken that all stakeholders involved are willing to sign up to this.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the distance, both in salaries and status, between those at the top of large companies and at the bottom has grown alarmingly? Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI, has said that people are living in a different galaxy. Would women representatives include women workers’ representatives, including on remuneration committees?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord’s question is slightly outside my briefing. The gender pay gap has fallen over the past 30 years but it still persists. There is lots of work to be done, but we are taking a range of measures to end discrimination in the workplace.

My Lords, my noble friend may recall that some of the shortcomings of the report of the Senior Salaries Review Body on the work of this House might have been avoided if some women had been members of that review body. Can the Minister tell me whether anything has been done to put right that rather shameful state of affairs?

My Lords, does the Minister feel that perhaps the coalition Government could set a very good example in this regard by having more women members in the Cabinet?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. It is a fair question. We have seen an increase in women MPs and we shall ensure that we support those MPs to become Ministers and Cabinet Ministers, but there is a lot of work to be done and, of course, it is up to the Prime Minister to do it.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a head hunter. Does the Minister accept that the recruitment industry takes this issue extremely seriously and that it is standing by to partner government and industry in seeking to ensure the proper representation of women on boards?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. Yes, of course, but that does not mean there is not much more to be done.