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Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): May we have a debate next week on how the Government respond to public petitions? Last July, I presented to the House a petition signed by 15,000 of my constituents who were concerned about the future of hospital services in Banbury. This week, the Clerk of Public Petitions informs me that the Government intend to make absolutely no observations whatever on that petition. Does not the Deputy Leader of the House think it
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disgraceful that Ministers in the Department of Health cannot even bestir themselves to draft a two-paragraph response to a petition signed by some 15,000 of my constituents? In this instance, does not the fact of silence indicate contempt?

Nigel Griffiths: No, it does not. The procedure for dealing with petitions is no different under this Government as under previous Governments, but I do not say that as an excuse. The Procedure Committee examined the matter and I think that there is a strong case for looking at it again. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has already said, in the light of the use of petitions by No. 10 and the Prime Minister, how they may be more effectively vetted and considered by the House so that a response can be given. The hon. Member, who is a very experienced Member and a former Minister, will realise that a massive volume of petitions come before the House. That is not to devalue any of them, but there must be a way of prioritising them. The Procedure Committee may find a means of allowing us better to consider them in a way that neither swamps us nor gives any feeling of a dismissive response. I think that petitions could be handled better and I hope that we can find a way of doing so in the near future.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mike Penning: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A few moments ago, the Deputy Leader of the House was unhappy with my asking questions about the previous role of a Minister in connection with the tainted blood debacle. I seek your advice. When Back Benchers write to Ministers and get no reply whatever and the question is passed on to other Departments, what alternative do we have other than raising the matter on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is entitled to put questions on the Floor of the House and it is my duty to see that that happens on a regular basis.

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Women, Justice and Gender Equality

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Alan Campbell.]

12.27 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): I am very proud to be here today with colleagues, male and female, from all parties to open the debate on women, justice and gender equality in the United Kingdom and to celebrate international women’s day 2007. The first international women’s day was observed in 1909 in the United States: it is nearly 100 years old, so we must have a big do in a couple of years’ time. I cannot find any trace in the modern era of international women’s day debates in this, the mother of Parliaments, until 1997, but now we have them. On this day, women all over the world reflect on the role that they play in the world, and they come together—actually, virtually or simply in spirit—to rediscover their aspirations. From Alaska to Zanzibar and from Rotaruha to Redcar, women celebrate a sort of female new year’s day, the resolution being that they will work together again for another year with yet more energy and in solidarity towards an equal future.

I welcome our male colleagues from all parties. I mentioned this event to a male this morning and I told him that I expected some men to be here. He said over breakfast that that was surprising and I told him that it seemed likely to me that, by 2020, women would rule the world. He said to me, “What, still?” I told him that the only difference that I could see between him—a man—and a battery was that batteries usually have a positive side. Those are, of course, reversible jokes and so they are gender neutral.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Will the Minister give way on that point?

Vera Baird: On that point? [ Laughter. ] I will.

Mark Pritchard: Does the Minister believe that it is time for a lady to be Deputy Prime Minister of, perhaps not the world, but certainly the United Kingdom?

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): A woman.

Mark Pritchard: Yes, a woman.

Vera Baird: A lady? I support gender-balanced leadership.

Gender equality should have a good year in the UK in 2007. In October, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights will come on stream. Historically, a lot of our effort in Britain in trying to make things fairer has been geared towards stopping discrimination. We saw, and wanted to stop, race discrimination, gender discrimination and disability discrimination. Later, we realised that age, sexual orientation and religion could make people equally vulnerable to being victimised. Soon, the disadvantages faced by other groups, such as carers, may present those people as in need of fair protection. However, it is difficult to change a whole culture to a culture of equalities with tools that are intended for blocking piecemeal acts of discrimination. Court cases require the coincidence of a person who is
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wronged also being a person who has the stamina and perhaps the cash to see a case through. The result may be an arcane precedent of which not a lot of shop-floor people see the relevance. More recently, we have moved the law towards promoting equality. Promoting equality will be a major task for the new commission.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Does my hon. and learned Friend—the Minister for Women and Equality is sitting on her left on the Front Bench—share my concern about the appointments that have been made so far to the new commission? There appears to be no ethnic minority woman sitting on that commission, apart from the transition commissioner, who is currently the acting head of the Commission for Racial Equality. There are four more vacancies. Does she hope, as I do, that some of the people who fill those vacancies will be ethnic minority women?

Vera Baird: I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. There is another round of recruitment going on at the moment and I hope that we can do as he suggests.

The new commission is buttressed by the introduction of positive duties on public authorities to promote—currently—gender, race and disability rights. I was a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and we helped to get the human rights element put into the commission. The human rights approach deepens the concept of equality to that of equal respect for the dignity of any individual, whoever they are, by setting minimum standards to which all individuals are entitled. The discrimination law review, led by the Department for Communities and Local Government, is looking at simplification and modernisation of the whole of discrimination law. We intend to consult shortly, ahead of a single equality Bill.

We need these measures. Women need these measures. We have made great progress, but our gains are partial and slow-growing. Let us take Parliament: there have been 100 women MPs for 10 years now, the total having shot up thanks to the decisions Labour took about all-women shortlists in the 1990s. However, at the current rate of progress, it will not be my daughter, or my granddaughter, or my great-granddaughter, but my great-great-great-great-granddaughter—at the earliest—who may see a House of Commons with equal numbers of men and women. That is to say, in royal succession terms, it will happen during the reign not of the Queen—or Helen Mirren—Prince Charles, or Prince William, but of Prince William’s children’s children, who will presumably be called something like George IX, Charles VI, or William VII and who might see that equality in their Parliaments. At about the same time, at current rates of progress, there will be equal pay for women.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The hon. and learned Lady will be aware that, last night, the Commons voted for an elected House of Lords. Would she like her Government to ensure that 50 per cent. of those elected are women?

Vera Baird: In terms of advancing women, we have a lot to tell the Tories, and they have not got a lot to tell us. We are going to think these proposals through carefully and I know that they are going to be helpful.
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Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the only democracy in the world that has 50 per cent. representation of women is the Welsh Assembly. We led the way in the Welsh Assembly to have a 50:50 House. Is that not the future that we should all be working towards?

Vera Baird: I could not agree more. I am grateful for that intervention.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I want to stress the point that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) has illustrated, a new legislature offers the opportunity to come forward with a process of selecting—as opposed to electing—candidates on a gender-balanced basis. All women in the House should press for that in the reform of the upper House.

John Bercow rose—

Vera Baird: I give way. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I appreciate that the Minister might not want to reply at length to the intervention, but it is customary to say a little something, for the simple reason that, otherwise, technically we have an intervention on an intervention. It is nice to have something in between.

Vera Baird: Let me offer my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) the titbit that I agree with her 100 per cent. I must curb my over-politeness.

John Bercow: I hope that the hon. and learned Lady understands why I hesitated momentarily just now.

The 10-year strategy entitled “Choice for parents”, which addresses the important subject of child care, had pledged, in a sense, a renewed focus on the availability of child care. In that context, are Ministers at the hon. and learned Lady’s Department talking to Ministers in other Departments about the rigidities of the planning process? One of the consequences of those rigidities is that there is often an insufficient supply at local level. That is damaging. The nimbys win and the interests of mothers and children lose. That has to change.

Vera Baird: It seems inevitable that consideration for child care must be built in. There is a planning White Paper to come out soon. It does not directly concern my Department, but, in principle, I am 100 per cent. with the hon. Gentleman.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): In relation to the intervention that the Minister responded to about gender balance in the political field, will she undertake to discuss with Stockholm city council how it achieved its 50 per cent. gender balance without any discriminatory means at all? The status of women in Sweden is equal to that of men in the field of employment and in all other areas of society.

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Vera Baird: I am glad that the Tory party visits Stockholm whenever it thinks that it needs to learn—and it does need to learn. We have done what we have done and we will carry on ensuring that women grow in their power and influence.

I am pleased that, under the gender equality duty, public bodies will address the causes of the gender pay gap. That is part of what they have to do. It is right that they should take proactive steps in their roles as employers and service providers positively to promote equality of opportunity, rather than just taking steps to prevent discrimination. When Trevor Phillips launched “Fairness and Freedom”, the equalities review, the headlines were that, notwithstanding the biggest package of rights ever for working mothers—let us imagine what it was like in the Tory days, when there was not any of that—with extended and better-paid maternity leave, new paternity rights, the right to request flexible working to help parents balance their family responsibilities with work, child care provision and child care support, the most discriminated against people in the workplace were still working mothers. That was not a surprise to any of us.

We are about to do a women and work commission one-year-on programme for progress. Privately, it seems to me that all jobs should be available on a part-time basis unless it is impossible. The low status of part-time work, which many mothers in my constituency will choose to do for some part of their lives, will always result in discrimination while it is seen as a subsidiary way of working. It is seen as an employment B road travelled by people—we call them women—who are deemed to have no ambition, no interest in a career, and few training needs. The common view is that their pay need only be low, as it is a second wage to top up the earnings of the standard two-child family, to take them from Asda clothes and pale ale to Benetton and Beaujolais. Part-time work is viewed not as necessary, but as extra. That treatment of, and attitude towards, part-timers is still firmly in place in work situations, and it alone almost justifies a separate strand of positive duty.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): What is the Minister doing to help women who have taken a career break to look after children at home, and are looking to return to work? What sort of support and training are the Government giving those women?

Vera Baird: Perhaps the hon. Lady missed it—if so, I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, who will sum up, will tell her more about it—but there is a whole strategy to support women through career breaks. This debate is about justice; that is what my Department is concerned with, and we are committed to promoting equality. We must publish a gender equality strategy by the end of April. We already have race and disability strategies, but the Department for Constitutional Affairs intends to go further and produce an overall equality strategy as soon as we can to promote equality in the Department holistically.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Does my hon. and learned Friend think that it advances the cause of women if lone parents who take a positive decision to stay at home and look after their children of
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ages 11 or 12 face sanctions? Would it not be much better to pursue a voluntary approach that gives women opportunities to enter the workplace, if that is what they choose to do?

Vera Baird: I sympathise with my hon. Friend, but it is bad for children to be brought up in workless households. When I had just entered Parliament, I was lucky enough to do a short internship with one-parent families, and it is clear that in most one-parent families the parent wants to go out to work.

Let me come back to the subject of my Department for what will no doubt be a pretty brief interlude. The DCA has a good foundation of supportive networks to help staff achieve their potential, including the DCA’s women’s issues network, which I have just had the terrific pleasure of addressing. Strong staff foundations are important, and we have them, so we can now look outwards and ensure that our services are delivered fairly.

To turn to the justice system, we are making progress in the number of women appointed to judicial office. Year on year, the statistics show that the figures are going up. In 1999, women represented only 24 per cent. of judicial appointments to courts and tribunals. I am pleased to say that figures published by the Department today show that overall, by 2005-06, the figures for the appointment of women had increased to 41 per cent. That is a result of initiatives to encourage greater flexibility and ensure that a wider range of candidates apply. Those initiatives have included a career break scheme for salaried judiciary at below High Court level, and the extension of part-time working to the majority of salaried members of the judiciary.

Interestingly, there is a tradition of part-time working in the courts. Practitioners, from deputy district judges at the bottom of the system to recorders and deputy High Court judges, sit for days or weeks, while continuing to practise the rest of the time. As court lawyers earn reasonable pay, the rates for such part-timers have had to be good to attract people to do work that is in the public interest, instead of otherwise more profitable work. It is ironic that, contrary to its reputation for conservatism, the judiciary might help my Department to lead on, and demonstrate success in, promoting flexible working patterns. My guess is that some of the new women judges are at the junior end of the judiciary, but that might be apt for younger women anyway. There is increasingly a career structure within the judiciary, in which people are promoted from district judge to circuit judge, and from circuit judge to High Court judge. It is important to get women into that career structure, to kindle their ambition for promotion, and to provide flexibility in movement up the chain.

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