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Point of Order

12.31 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Could hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly?

Mr. Sheerman: I do not usually raise points of order on matters of House of Commons security, but one of my constituents received an invitation to a reception in the House on 9 November that looked like a written personal invitation from the Prime Minister. After doing a little research, I found that the reception was for Animal Defenders International. The invitation was sent to a large number of people with an advertisement saying:

Given the heightened security in the House, it seems to be quite irresponsible for a Member to book a room to host such an event, especially given that the invitation does not indicate the purpose of the meeting or who that Member is. The invitation has gone out to a large number of people throughout the country. Many have been taken in by it and thought that they had received an invitation from the Prime Minister himself.

Mr. Speaker: If the hon. Gentleman gives me the documents, I will ensure that the Serjeant at Arms investigates the matter and reports to me.

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Sex Equality (Duties of Public Authorities)

12.32 pm

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): I beg to move,

Such a duty to promote equality was introduced for race discrimination in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. The Audit Commission has since described that as the key driver for change to combat the discrimination that still exists against our black and ethnic minority communities. Likewise, the draft Disability Discrimination Bill also contains a positive duty on the public sector to promote equality—and rightly so. It is now time for the same advance to be made for women and men, and my Bill would accomplish that.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 outlaws discrimination between women and men in the workplace and in the provision of goods and services. It was pioneering legislation 28 years ago when the incomparable Barbara Castle put it on the statute book. Her vision and determination put Britain at the forefront of the battle for equal opportunities and key advances were made. However, the Act does not prevent discrimination from happening in the first place, but it provides redress and compensation to those who experience it after the event, so only those who are determined enough to endure the stresses and strains of a legal process, the threat of losing their job or the likelihood of incurring high legal costs get the chance of receiving recompense. Cases can take many years to resolve with the result that women are still sacked for being pregnant and men are penalised at work for taking on caring responsibilities. In Britain today, much illegal discrimination is left unchallenged and unchecked.

A positive duty to promote equality would address that problem by shifting the onus to end discrimination from the individuals who suffer it to the public bodies that provide vital services to all of us and employ many millions to deliver them. The duty to promote will close many of those practical loopholes in the law, and make the fight against unfairness and blighted life chances much more effective. Make no mistake, there is still much to do, as recent figures have confirmed that the pay gap between women and men is stubbornly persistent at 18 per cent. Pay in the public sector is generally better than in the private sector. For example, the gap stands at 13 per cent. in health care, but in banking and public relations it is a staggering 56 per cent., and is widening. The causes are well documented, and women's lack of access to bonuses, overtime and opportunities for promotion are significant factors. Child care and other caring responsibilities often leave women with little choice but to work part-time for pay and conditions that are inferior to those in the full-time labour market, which often leads to men having to work even longer hours to make up the family income. British men work the longest hours in Europe, which is clearly not good for family life.

At work, women are still concentrated overwhelmingly in low-paid occupations and can expect to retire after a lifetime of hard work on a pension
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income that is just over half that of their male counterparts. Once again, the situation is not improving. The Equal Opportunities Commission, which supports the Bill, recently conducted an inquiry into job segregation by gender, and looked at five sectors—construction, engineering, plumbing, information technology and child care. Four of those sectors have a mainly male work force and major skills shortages, and one has a largely female work force and low pay. The commission discovered that the Government's modern apprenticeship scheme has reinforced rather than challenged that gender segregation. There has been no increase in the number of women coming into the four male-dominated sectors in the past ten years. For example, women make up only 1 per cent. of people working in construction, yet only 1 per cent. of modern apprentices in construction are women. Eight per cent. of people working in engineering are women, yet only 6 per cent. of modern apprenticeships in engineering are held by women. In child care, despite the prospective creation of 150,000 new jobs, men are almost completely absent from the sector and pay remains very low. A man who wishes to pursue a career in child care is still considered mildly eccentric or much worse. Overall, 95 per cent. of apprenticeships in engineering and construction are held by men, who earn £115 a week. In social care, by contrast, 89 per cent. of apprenticeships are taken by women, who earn just £60 a week.

Once the positive duty to promote equality is enshrined in law it is inconceivable that the lack of progress in tacking job segregation would be allowed to continue, and the role of the modern apprenticeship scheme in reinforcing that segregation would end. Banishing gender job segregation would offer women more choices and higher earnings opportunities and would also address skill shortages and boost our economic efficiency. It would offer men more civilised choices about their work-life balance. The duty to promote can also be a lever to ensure that public services are redesigned to reflect the life experiences of women and men more effectively. For example, men are much less likely than women to visit their GPs in a timely fashion, and only go to the doctor when their illness is advanced. Primary health services need to be redesigned to encourage men to seek help earlier. Women, on the other hand, rely on public transport much more than men as they have less access to private cars. They also have different patterns of usage, and combine trips to the shops with journeys to take children to school or the childminder, as well as their own travel to work. That is a complex set of journeys, yet bus routes and ticketing are often designed for simple commuting from one place to another. I could provide many similar examples of the scope for improving the design and delivery of public services to meet the needs of women and men more effectively. That can only improve efficiency and value for money.

There are those who will argue that the positive duty to promote will just be a bureaucratic nightmare that will have no effect on improving fairness and efficiency. These criticisms are usually made by people who do not wish our equality laws to be effective or modernised. In
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reality, the introduction of a new requirement to promote equality in the public sector can be delivered as part of the core planning inside an organisation. It should lead to greater equity and a more effective use of existing resources. It need not introduce extra complexity or expense, or endless paper trails, but it should encourage strategic analysis that results in more user-focused provision. That will create public services that fit the shape of more people's lives and that offer people equal opportunities to benefit.

I believe that, in due course, it is only right to extend these positive duties to prevent discrimination and promote equality to the private sector too. There is no reason why the efficiency and equity gains that they deliver should not benefit the whole economy and all our population. The Bill could be a small part of a third term Labour agenda to simplify, harmonise and extend equality protection to all. That would make our law simpler to understand and use for employers, employees and service providers alike. It would make protection from illegal discrimination a reality for all, and it would finish the work so ably begun by Barbara Castle by extending and opportunity further than ever before.

12.41 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): There is, of course, always a temptation when these worthy measures are brought before the House on these occasions for us to allow them to pass. Procedurally, you know as I do, Mr. Speaker, that measures brought to the House at this stage in the Session have no chance of reaching the statute book, for which I for one am grateful. There are occasions, however, on which I believe hon. Members should express a view when they think that the measure is ill-founded and ill-directed, as, sadly, I think this one is.

Although we always respect the motivation of hon. Members when they introduce such measures—I certainly respect the motivation of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle)—I believe that going too far in an area such as that with which the Bill deals can be just as damaging as not going far enough. For example, I was struck by her comment early in her speech that much illegal discrimination goes unchallenged. I think that she was referring to the existing law and suggesting that it was perhaps not being used to the full. I immediately wondered whose fault it was that such discrimination went unchallenged. In my view, one of the main duties of a trade union, for example, should surely be to use every opportunity under existing law to represent its members, be they male, female or whatever, in the context of the very law that she praised so highly.

If the hon. Lady is saying that much illegal discrimination is unchallenged, I ask her—and this applies to so much new legislation that is brought before the House—why we should not concentrate on using existing legislation more effectively before seeking to introduce yet more. That is a matter of important general principle, and I doubt very much from what she said whether she has spent quite enough time considering whether existing legislation is being explored to the full, not least by the trade unions, before seeking to introduce yet further measures of the sort that she is talking about.

The worrying thing is that the hon. Lady and her Government would be the first to say that, in the context of historically low unemployment in this country, which
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I applaud, and the fact that this country has one of the highest proportions of women in work in the western world, any measure that even risks diminishing those conditions could be highly counterproductive. There is always a risk that, if well-intentioned measures such as the Bill are carried too far and reach too far into the workplace, they could start to have a counterproductive effect. That danger cannot be over-stated.

We are familiar with the phenomenon by which a quango set up under previous well-meaning legislation uses the resources given to it further to justify its existence and to extend its remit, which is a natural thing for people in quangos to do and we see it all the time. However, simply because a well-funded quango says, "We have discovered more things to do," or, even worse, "Another new quango should be set up," does not mean that we should say, "That's all right then." That is one of the weakest parts of the hon. Lady's argument.

The hon. Lady went on to make an interesting case about apprenticeships. She said that far too few women avail themselves of apprenticeships in engineering and that too few men work in child care—I do not know how one arrives at "too few" in that context. I do not know whether the hon. Lady expects an equal number of men and women to enter engineering apprenticeships and child care, or whether the number of women on engineering apprenticeships is not quite enough to satisfy her.

Leaving that matter to one side, how can one intervene in the structure and running of apprenticeships in order to change that balance? Such arguments always miss that point. It is easy to say, "There are too few women in engineering apprenticeships." I am intrigued to know the mechanism by which the number of women in engineering apprenticeships, or indeed the number of men in child care, would be increased. It is not good enough to state the problem and then assume that the solution will be made available.

Even more intriguingly, the hon. Lady went on to discuss lifestyle changes, which sound very trendy. Were the legislation to reach the statute book, it would allow some sort of quango to intervene in transport and many other arrangements in order to fulfil the requirements set out in hon. Lady's motion. Again, we must be careful before we go too far in that direction. It is difficult enough to improve our public transport arrangements, whether tubes, buses or railways, without the
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nightmarish thought that some well-meaning quango will say, "We have identified some necessary lifestyle changes in the population. We think that our railways should run differently and that our buses should run on different routes in order to try to improve people's lifestyles."

The resolution is far reaching and ambitious. It has the potential to reach into all aspects of employment, the public sector, transport and many other areas. As for the duty to promote—I pick out that phrase because the hon. Lady stressed it—she did not give any details, perhaps because of lack of time, on how it would bear on employers and the workplace. The phrase is easy to deploy and sounds attractive, if it is said fairly quickly, but when one starts to examine the implications and ramifications of a duty to promote, which would no doubt be policed by a quango, reaching out into the workplace and interfering yet further in relationships between managers and the managed, one sees scope for severe disruption of the employment process, of which the Government are rightly so proud.

I urge the hon. Lady to think again about the implications of what she is suggesting. Such measures are always well motivated, but the implications and the adverse effect on the workplace are extremely worrying. If the hon. Lady is not prepared to do the decent thing and withdraw her proposal, I hope that the House, having given the matter careful consideration, will say, perhaps with regret, that it is not persuaded that the measure, radical and far reaching as it is, is remotely justified and should therefore not proceed.

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