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Employment: Gender Equality

Volume 757: debated on Wednesday 26 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to address the United Kingdom gender gap, in the light of the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2014.

My Lords, there are more women in employment than ever before, with 713,000 more women employed than in 2010. The Government continue to bring forward measures further to improve equality between men and women in the workplace. A new system of shared parental leave will be implemented from April 2015, and almost 2 million families could benefit from a new tax-free child care scheme from autumn 2015, worth up to £2,000 per child.

I thank the Minister for her Answer, but it does not seem to relate to the reality of the situation. In 2006, after a lot of progress, the UK was ranked ninth in the world on the global gender gap rankings. This year we are 26th, and we have fallen out of the top 20 for the first time in decades, largely as a result of women’s pay falling dramatically and the decrease in their labour market participation. Is the Minister concerned that her policies appear to be hitting women differentially, much harder than men? Why are the Government taking us backwards on equal pay?

The Government are not taking us backwards on equal pay. The UK has indeed dropped from 15th to 26th in the World Economic Forum global equality ranking, but this is due not so much to what is going on in the UK as to the fact that other countries are improving their pay differential. We have the statistics to show that there are more women in employment. The gender pay gap has narrowed and is now at the lowest level since records began in 1997—but the other countries include places such as, say, Tanzania, where men and women are both on subsistence lifestyles and pay, and the gender pay gap is very small, whereas in our country we have a wider differential.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in closing the gender equality gap the Government should lead by example? Can she tell me how many government departments have signed up to the 30% Club—which, as she will know, is a group aiming to improve representation in the FTSE 100 companies at all levels for women? Also, has the number of women ambassadors and high commissioners gone up under this Government?

My noble friend refers to the 30% Club, which, as she is well aware, aims to reach private sector firms. None the less, several government departments and agencies, including the DCMS, the Treasury, DECC and the Department for Transport, are members, so government departments are taking part in it, although it is essentially for the private sector. As to the number of women leading overseas missions, there are now 39, which is 20%. That is an increase from 32 in 2010, and more than one-third of these women are in countries affected by conflict, or in missions dealing with international organisations such as the EU and NATO.

My Lords, I wish the Government would refrain from claiming that there are more women in employment than ever before. There are, of course—because, demographically, there are more women. This is not a credit to the Government, particularly. Since the Government introduced tribunal fees, equal pay claims are down by 84%. So why do they not accept that tribunal fees were a mistake, and listen to our calls to scrap this unfair system and ensure that affordability is not a barrier to justice?

My Lords, I hate to take issue with the noble Baroness, but, in fact, the gender pay gap is at the lowest level since records began. It is now 19.1%, and more women are employed than ever before: there are now 14.4 million in the workforce.

My Lords, does my noble friend not think it strange that, when these gender gap questions come up, there is always a call for more women ambassadors, generals and air marshals or such like; there is never a call for more women to be plumbers, electricians and so on. Can my noble friend also explain why the Government do so much to give incentives and help to women to leave their children at home and go out to work rather than to stay at home and look after their children?

Well, my Lords, the Government are giving incentives to women to be plumbers and engineers. Only around 7% of engineers in this country are women, and there is a whole host of programmes to try to encourage girls and young women to go into STEM subjects. We need more women plumbers, too. Women who become plumbers find that they can be very successful because quite a lot of customers rather like having a woman coming to help them out.

True. My Lords, first, would the Minister care to remind her noble friend Lord Tebbit that part of the reason why so many women need to work is that their mortgages and rents are so high? Will she also please address the question that was put to her by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, and tell us about ambassadors and high commissioners?

I apologise; I thought that I had answered that. We now have 39 women who are leading UK missions overseas.

My Lords, women are not a homogeneous group. Black and ethnic minority women are totally overrepresented in low-paying jobs. Can the Minister say how this is being addressed by the Government?

Indeed, there are certainly problems with particular groups. One such group is the care sector, where women are disproportionately represented and pay is disproportionately low. Certainly, women from ethnic communities would come into the Government’s consideration in trying to encourage all women to improve their qualifications and training, and to aspire to do jobs which really challenge and test them.

My Lords, the noble Baroness did not address the question that I asked her, which was about tribunal fees. Equal pay claims are down by 84%. Why will the Government not accept that that was a mistake and scrap that system?

I think that this is all part of the general agenda to try to get equality through the system. However, I think that I will have to write to the noble Baroness on that particular point.