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The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality (Jacqui Smith): The Government welcome the draft proposal for a new gender equality directive. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women has spoken to Commissioner Diamantopolou to express our commitment to it and to share the positive UK experience of successful domestic legislation that outlaws gender discrimination in goods and services. The UK looks forward to working constructively with the Commission and other member states.
Mr. Syms : Does the Minister know that there are concerns, especially in the financial services industry, about the directive's implementation? Car insurers judge women under 35 apparently to be better drivers and consequently give them better insurance premiums. There is anxiety that the directive might place higher costs on women drivers.
Jacqui Smith: First, the hon. Gentleman is right that it is proposed that the directive, like the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, will rightly cover financial services. It is unacceptable that pregnant women could be disadvantaged when accessing mortgages simply because of their pregnant state. It is unacceptable that married women could access credit only if their husbands acted as guarantors, and that part-time workers, most of whom are women, should not be able to apply for loans. In all those cases, British women already enjoy protection rights under the Sex Discrimination Act. We want other European women, including British women who live abroad, to have those same basic rights.
I am however aware of the specific anxieties of the UK insurance industry about the new directive and its effect on risk-based pricing on the basis of gender. I recently met representatives of the Association of British Insurers and we have heard and will continue to listen to their concerns and those of other stakeholders. We shall negotiate constructively when developing the directive to ensure that the final agreement fully reflects UK priorities and concerns, including those of UK business interests.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Will the Minister join me in commending the Belgrave Beheno project in Leicester for its work on promoting the gender equality directive? It is in my constituency, but my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women has visited it many times. Will my hon. Friend condemn the decision of the Liberal-Conservative council to cut the grant of £129,000 to the project? That will have a serious effect on its ability to campaign on the directive and other women's issues.
Jacqui Smith: I am reassured that the project must be very good if both my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women speak so highly of it. My view is simple: it is no good people talking about a commitment to tackling inequality and discrimination if, as apparently happens with Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, when they are in power, they cut the money to support it.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): All too often, the Government enthusiastically embrace European directives without doing a proper cost-benefit analysis or working out their impact if implemented here. Perhaps their enthusiasm for the directive may be tempered by considering the ways in which women in Britain will lose out. The financial services industry traditionally recognises the reality of the difference between the sexes, for example, through car insurance. It acknowledges the greater longevity of women and awards them an advantage. The directive creates an artificial position: it removes the differences, but also some of the financial advantages that women enjoy. Beyond simply listening and being aware, will the Government seek to derogate in line with the advantages of both sexes?
Jacqui Smith: First, the hon. Lady makes an important point about ensuring that we push for full regulatory impact assessment, to which I referred earlier, of all European directives. We are doing that throughout Europe and will continue to do it. It is important to acknowledge that we already have a significant advantage in evaluating the effect of the directive because it replicates many of the rights for men and women that we already take for granted in the Sex Discrimination Act. However, alongside my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I undertake to listen to the insurance industry's concerns on the specific issue of risk-based pricing in relation to gender and, as I said earlier, to negotiate constructively to ensure that UK concerns are represented as the directive progresses. We must none the less make progress with the directive, because it will be an important step forward in terms of equality for men and women across the whole of Europe.
Mr. Heald: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us that business, but he will recall that he was asked last week about the presiding officer on the Woolsack. Has he seen early-day motion 444, and does he have anything further to report on it?
[That this House notes the report prepared by the House of Lords' Select Committee on the Speakership of the House of Lords and its recommendation that the senior Lord presiding on the Woolsack should be known as the Lord Speaker; further notes that the Committee recognized the argument that this might lead to confusion with the Speaker of the House of Commons, but dismissed it; respectfully consider that there would be considerable scope for such confusion to occur, particularly in respect of Mr Speaker's role in representing this House at home and overseas; and calls upon the Government to facilitate consultations between both Houses about this important and sensitive issue.]
The Leader of the House will remember that I asked him for two days in which to debate the Higher Education Bill. Given the great interest in that matter in all parts of the House, does he agree that his decision to allow just one day is misconceived, particularly when one considers what other business has been allowed a long prime-time allocation? On Tuesday this week, the debate on truancy did not last its course, and there was a very light House. The Times ran the story of that
I know that the Leader of the House is currently considering the structure of the debate on the Hutton inquiry, but he has announced only one day for it. Given that the business for the week after next is still provisional, will he accept that many right hon. and hon. Members, including those on the relevant Select Committees, will wish to take part in that debate, and agree that it needs at least two days? What assurances can he give me that he will look at setting aside adequate time for that debate?
Does the Leader of the House accept that there will inevitably be a need to investigate in a separate debate how we can improve the effectiveness of our Select Committees so that they can obtain the kind of documents and witnesses that have been denied to them but were made available to Lord Hutton? Surely that would involve a detailed review of how Select Committees are treated by the Government and how the rules do not seem to give Select Committees real teeth. What plans does the right hon. Gentleman have for a debate on that important subject?
Finally, there will be justified outrage in the House and the country if we have an inadequate debate on the Hutton inquiry but are then faced with yet more feeble, poorly attended Adjournment debates on matters considered by hon. Members, including the Leader of the House's own Back Benchers and some Ministers, to be less important. Is it not right that in this place we should have a serious amount of time set aside for us to debate really serious subjects?