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Gender Equality and Rights in the Workplace

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the United Kingdom maintains gender equality and rights in the workplace in line with other European Union member states.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I refer noble Lords to my pension as a former MEP, which is in the register of interests.

My Lords, the UK has a proud record of supporting workers’ rights and some of the strongest legislation on equalities in the world. We have committed to maintaining these rights but we already go beyond EU requirements in many areas: our ground-breaking gender pay gap reporting regulations and public sector equality duty, to name just two. Our new strategy, to be published later this year, will restate the Government Equalities Office mission on gender and set out the ambitious work taking place across government on this agenda.

I thank the Minister. We can agree that current UK gender equality legislation is indeed in good health, although I am sure she will agree that it is not always complied with. However, does she agree that we are where we are only because the EU has been a backstop—if noble Lords will excuse the expression—against the unilateral lowering of standards by member states? I am aware of the Prime Minister’s announcement today but how can we be confident that her Government will protect women and workers’ rights when members of her own party have regularly voted against them?

I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree that the UK has a long-standing tradition of ensuring that our rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling our international rights and obligations. The decision to leave the EU does not change that.

My Lords, what steps, events or campaigns are Her Majesty’s Government undertaking to encourage more female entrepreneurs?

I thank my noble friend as the epitome of a female entrepreneur in this House and commend her on her recent app, Connect 2 Michelle Mone, which provides mentoring to would-be female entrepreneurs. Of the start-up loans that the Government have provided, 39% have gone to women and, through our industrial strategy, we are focusing on barriers to women in business.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the majority of carers in the UK—an estimated 58%—are women, and many struggle to find and hold on to good jobs. A reported 76% felt that they were forced to make changes to their job or quit. A recent survey by the Disability Law Service discovered that, of those carers who have applied for flexible working, a shocking 52% have had their request refused. A simple amendment to the Equality Act 2010 could resolve this by giving carers the same rights to reasonable adjustments as are currently given to disabled people. This would send a powerful message to both carers and the business community that a carer is to be accommodated in a similar way.

I am sorry, my Lords; the noble Baroness seemed to stop mid-sentence. The first point that she made—on low-skilled, low-paid women—is very important. Those women tend to be stuck in that low-skill/low pay situation both at the beginning of their potential career and at the end. Graphs very clearly show that pattern. We have a ring-fenced returners fund for marginalised women, and we are actively encouraging women and girls to take up STEM subjects so that they can get involved in things such as engineering. In addition, the economic empowerment strategy that I talked about will very much focus on women throughout their career journey and on how to get them out of that low-skill/low-pay rut.

My Lords, compared with our fellow Europeans, the UK lags behind quite a lot in terms of the number of women on boards and in leadership positions. At the moment, only a third of companies place any emphasis on this, but it is clearly crucial to provide good role models for girls coming up through the business community. Last year, research showed that there were more people called David or Steve running FTSE 100 companies than the total number of women and people from ethnic minorities. For the record, there were five minority-ethnic bosses and seven female CEOs, versus nine bosses called David and four called Steve. What are the Government going to do about this?

David and Steve must be listening. The noble Baroness really pinpoints how far we have to go, but at this point I must also talk about how far we have come. I think that way back in 2014 12% of board members were women; now, over 30% are women. The noble Baroness talks about women in leadership positions. Of course, leadership is provided by ensuring that women are on boards, but I think that at this point in time there are no male-only boards. That may be a small step but it is a step none the less.

My Lords, the Minister talked about the “proud record” but analysis by leading scholars from Manchester University shows that,

“far from being a pace setter in the area of European gender equality law, the UK has usually sought to stall, dilute or divert legal measures”.

Therefore, how can we have confidence that these rights will be real? As a minimum, can the Minister give us an assurance that we will implement the work-life balance directive currently under consideration by the European Union and, in particular, following on from the earlier question, introduce paid leave for carers?

My Lords, we are sixth out of 28 in the EU’s equality index. The noble Baroness is absolutely right to talk about carers—they are the typical low-skilled, low-paid people who often cannot get out of that situation. The noble Baroness talked about another directive—we have implemented all relevant directives into UK law. In many ways, we have gone further with our gender pay gap and public sector equality duty.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the TUC has said that the current deal does not protect existing rights or guarantee that the UK will not fall behind in future? The TUC described the Prime Minister’s promises today as “window dressing”. Promises to do the right thing are not enough. What plans do the Government have to give a legal guarantee that there will be no regression on existing rights for women?

As I explained, we have implemented the transfer of all relevant equalities directives into UK law. I am not concerned about that. We leave the European Union with that intact. However, even if we were not leaving, I am very satisfied that on equalities we punch well above our weight. Far from falling behind the EU, the EU is falling behind us.