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Today is an historic day for this House. Some might not have noticed, but earlier my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House issued a statement outlining that from the next Session of Parliament gender-neutral
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drafting of legislation will be used for new Bills that are introduced. I am pleased that we are able to announce that on international women’s day, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend took up that suggestion, following a conversation that took place with him. That practice will end drafting that reinforces gender stereotypes. It will also bring this House into line with practices adopted by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and with those of other English-speaking countries.

Several Members raised the issue of prisons. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) gave a detailed and knowledgeable speech on that, and the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) also talked about it. The Government are well aware that there are significant issues in respect of women in prison, which is why Baroness Scotland asked Baroness Corston to complete an inquiry into that. We look forward to receiving that report shortly.

Unsurprisingly, Members raised a range of issues to do with violence against women. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made a speech, and I pay tribute to her for the work that she has done in developing the strategy on prostitution. I have had the opportunity to visit Sweden and to learn directly about the issues that are being taken up there. I understand what my hon. Friend says about the importance of the commitment of the police force. I assure her that our inter-ministerial group that looks into this issue is keen to learn from best practice, wherever that comes from. The issue of the Cleveland police force has been discussed. Importantly, my hon. Friend highlighted the role of men in relation to the issue. It is high time that we talked a great deal more about that. That leads to the point that she rightly made. In the year that we are commemorating the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, horrific trafficking in human beings still takes place. We need to tackle that and deal with all the causes, ranging from poverty in the countries from which those people come, on which action is being taken by DFID, to the behaviour of men in this country.

On forced marriages, hon. Members welcomed the Government’s statement this week. It is important to remember that even though there is not a specific offence of forced marriage, a range of crimes are committed now by people who force women into marriage. Hon. Members should be assured that we take the matter extremely seriously.

Domestic violence was covered in some detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho). It was enormously interesting to hear her remarks. I agree that it is important for us to continue to devote substantial resources to the problem. We have spent £6.7 million over the past three years improving services for victims, and there was an announcement this week of almost £2 million for multi-agency risk assessment conferences. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that where we have started to see significant successes emerge from the assessment process and the domestic violence courts, those should be rolled out further so that the benefits are felt throughout the country. My hon. Friend will know that the issue of children witnessing domestic violence is one of the causes of significant harm as described in the Adoption and Children Act 2002, so the link has been recognised.

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Sanctuary schemes are important in making some women safe, although they are not appropriate for all women. We issued guidance in December last year on the right way to go about setting up such schemes. Although there is a cost involved in making a room safe, that cost is significantly less than it can be to re-house women and their children, and the scheme overcomes the problems that women would face as a result of their children changing schools and as a result of moving away from their neighbourhoods and support centres. We encourage local authorities to consider establishing sanctuary schemes and to see how, by saving on their homelessness budget, they could use their existing resources to make women safer in their own homes.

Hon. Members raised the concerning matter of the low conviction rate for rape. The hon. Member for Solihull asked why there seemed to be a significant change in the rate. My hon. and learned Friend informs me that 10 years ago the figure for conviction was 7.3 per cent., much the same as it is at present. There was a higher conviction rate in the 1980s, but in 1992 marital rape was made a crime, and more women who were raped in longer-term relationships started to complain. Those offences have been harder to prove than stranger rape. Clearly, there is still a great deal to be done in that area, and Ministers continue to work on it across Government.

Many issues relating to women in the workplace were highlighted. There was a heartfelt plea from the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) to make this place more family-friendly. Her plea rightly received the support of many other hon. Members. The hon. Lady sent me a note to say that she has left to be with her son on his fifth birthday. I am sure nobody minds that in order to do so, she has exercised the flexibility that we should have.

The pay gap is an important topic. The Women and Work Commission, which reported to the Prime Minister last year, produced a range of recommendations for tackling the many causes of that gap. Skills and part-time working are key issues. We have identified over 100 exemplar employers who operate a range of measures to encourage more women into areas of work where there are few women, such as engineering, and to support women working for them now.

We have seen some positive figures: since we introduced the right to request flexible working, the number of women who change their employer when they return from maternity leave has halved. As the hon. Member for Basingstoke said, that is still one in five women, but I say that that is still progress.

We need to examine the introduction of a culture of greater flexibility by our companies, because the issue involves not only those with small children, but, from April, those who are caring for adults. We want to develop a culture that recognises that, where possible—it is clearly not possible in all roles—flexibility should be offered, because it often increases staff retention, which therefore cuts recruitment costs. Furthermore, people tend to be committed to employers who offer them the ability to combine work with family life.

We rightly heard a great deal about entrepreneurs. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North talked about the need to grow businesses. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole
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(Annette Brooke) made an important and interesting contribution, in which she talked about how micro-finance could help women develop their own businesses. We also need to keep our eye on the problems that women have in accessing finance from the main sources and do more work on that issue.

The hon. Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and for Basingstoke talked about what we are doing to ensure that women have the skills to move out of lower-paid jobs, which my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) described as “sticky floors”. We have introduced various initiatives, including the new deal for lone parents, the train to gain programme and a women in work sector pathway initiative, which will provide £10 million over two years from 2006 for sector skills councils. That money will be matched by employers to develop and test new recruitment and career pathways, which will benefit more than 10,000 women.

A number of other issues have been raised, including infertility, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Basingstoke and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). The issues are complex, and a number of concerns have come to light about fertility services around the country. Because of the complexity of the issues, those points should be responded to by the relevant Health Minister, and I will seek to obtain an appropriate response to those concerns.

We spent some time discussing representation, which is, perhaps, unsurprising given that it is close to all our hearts. I will not enter into the earlier banter and debate, but it is clearly important that the Government have implemented the means by which political parties, if they choose to do so, can take measures that involve positive discrimination in order to encourage a greater gender balance. The Labour party enacted that legislation in 2002, which led to 65 per cent. of new Labour MPs at the last election being women. We want to see more women on both sides of the House.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is looking at the barriers for women in local government, which is an enormously important area. We are increasingly looking at more devolution towards local government, and we want to ensure that there is proper representation for not only women, but people from black and minority ethnic groups. That work will be ongoing, and hopefully it will give us more ideas about how local government can examine reforming itself in order to improve representation.

Several hon. Members discussed maternity services. Our commitment is that by 2009 all women will have choice in where and how they have their baby. We want every woman to be supported by the same midwife throughout her pregnancy and for that support to be linked closely to other services that will be provided in children’s centres. Our overarching aim is to improve the quality of services, safety and outcomes for all women. That requires skilled maternity professionals with the required level of experience and training. We believe that it is right that decisions about service reconfiguration are for local NHS organisations to make for themselves.

International women’s day is an opportunity not only to celebrate the progress made by women but to reflect on what still needs to be done. We have heard
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about hon. Members’ experiences not only in this country but abroad, about the need to tackle as well as to break through the glass ceiling and about women in lower-paid jobs and in poverty. We should never forget that issues related to women in poverty have an impact on our target—yes, an ambitious target, but one that we should all support—of lifting children out of poverty, because if women earn what they should be earning, that will improve the income of the family and lift more women and children out of poverty.

Fifty per cent. of women in part-time work are working below their skill level and have the ability to do better, and another 30 per cent. would take on training in order to do higher-paid, higher-quality jobs if they had that opportunity. It is enormously important to tackle that issue, which has been focused on in the work of the Women and Work Commission. As we agreed, we will respond to its report later this month.

Closing the pay gap is not the work of one year or even a few years—it is a much longer job given the occupational segregation that girls and women learn from an early age. Nevertheless, I think that hon. Members will see that it is being taken seriously not only by the Government but, importantly, by a whole range of organisations in the public and private sectors that are putting in place measures to ensure that women can continue to work in their organisations either full-time, with the flexibility that supports their needs.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) rightly noted, next month the ground-breaking gender equality duty will come into force. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford found reticence among those responding to her questions because Departments are in the process of developing further what they have already done to ensure that they comply with this important piece of legislation. Public authorities will need to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment and to promote equality of opportunity between men and women, both in the services they provide and in their employment practices.

The duty is not just about service delivery, although that is enormously important—it puts equality between
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men and women at the heart of our public services, ensuring that they are delivered so as to meet the needs of men and of women. It also means that public authorities must, in terms of their employment practices, consider any causes of a gender pay gap and any impediments to progress through the career grades for women members of their staff. If enacted properly—there is a role for monitoring that—it should prove to be ground-breaking and make a huge difference to how our public services are delivered. It demonstrates, along with many other measures that are being taken by this Government, that we will continue to pursue equality.

We are all grateful to the men and women who have fought for equality and social justice in the past, and we are committed to continuing that fight.

Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury (Mr. Frank Roy): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


Banking Provision (Higham Ferrers)

5.59 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I wish to present a petition, which is based on the fact that a major town in my constituency is to lose its only surviving bank The petition was organised through the hard work of our excellent councillors in Higham Ferrers—Councillor Anna Sauntson, Councillor Barry Sauntson, Councillor Pam Whiting and County Councillor Derek Lawson.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Local Government Funding (Poole)

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

6.1 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): It is not the first time that I have raised the subject of funding and finance in Poole, and I suspect that it will not be the last. The problems will not go away and I want to make a case for a better deal for Poole.

It is great to have the support of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has changed her plans to be here. I do not know whether she will intervene or catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and speak for a few minutes later, but the important thing is that we both feel strongly about the way in which Poole is funded.

Poole council is a good council. High quality people, from all parties, serve on it and it attracts high quality officers. I have always been impressed by the way in which they conduct their business. The council has been under the control of different parties but I have never had any great concerns about it. Matters have always been properly debated and efficiently dispatched.

However, life is becoming harder in Poole because the grant settlements that we have received over a series of years put great pressure on the local authority. Poole is a beautiful place. It is also a place of extreme contrasts. Parts of it have some of the highest house prices in the country yet several wards are in the worst 25 per cent. for deprivation. One has to envisage some of the contrasts in London to appreciate what life is like in Poole.

Poole receives only £169 per head of Government funding—it is in the floor. That is less than 50 per cent. of the average figure for unitary authorities. Although council tax in band D is slightly lower than the average—in 2006-07, it was £1,233—that was achieved by superhuman efforts by the local authority, which placed a high priority on keeping council tax down. We have many retired people who are on fixed incomes and, Poole being in the west country, salaries are not especially high. Council tax is therefore a live issue for our constituents.

In 2007-08, the council’s net budget requirement was £84.542 million, of which £61.333 million—72 per cent.—was raised from council tax. Our funding from Government was £23.209 million—27 per cent.—through the general funding formula. The balance between Government support and locally generated council tax leads to a feeling of unfairness about the system of grant distribution.

Since 2003, average unitary authority funding per head has increased by £114 but only by £44 in Poole. We therefore feel not only disadvantaged by being towards the bottom of the league tables—though nobody would expect us to be at the top—but that we are falling behind other authorities because of the operation of the funding formula.

I want to make a specific point. I was here when the Minister for Local Government made his announcement about the grant settlement. He said that no authority would be below 2.7 per cent. The local authority in Poole feels that its grant in the current year has gone up
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by only about 1.7 per cent. It says that revenue support grant was £22.82 million in 2006-07 and £23.209 million in the current year, which represents an increase of only 1.6 per cent. I understand that there has been some correspondence and debate. Will the Minister point out where the discrepancy lies, as there is a feeling that we are missing out on 1 per cent. of that grant—£235,000, I think—which would make some difference?

In December 2004, the Minister for Local Government announced that he had overhauled the system used to distribute formula grant to local authorities and increased the level of resource equalisation. That has had a substantial detrimental effect on authorities such as Poole, which has high house prices and is assessed as having a relatively greater ability to raise council tax locally. In previous conversations, I think that he acknowledged that that element in the formula is one of the factors that disadvantages Poole.

Resource equalisation was intended to reflect the higher need for spending in authorities that have a weak tax base. However, the difficulty is determining the extent to which higher spending is genuinely the result of higher need, or whether it is attributed to factors that should not be compensated for through the grant system, such as higher levels of service or demand for discretionary services. Increased resource equalisation would appear unfair to lower-spending authorities, where local voters favour lower taxation over a higher service level. That is a key issue for people in Poole.

If there is to be a high level of resource equalisation, the targeting of significant amounts of direct Government funding to deprived and declining areas could also be brought into the resource equalisation system. Without doing that, areas such as Poole, who miss out on much funding, will consider it unfair.

Poole acknowledges that it has received funding to support the regeneration project in the town. One of the main capital projects is the building of a second bridge in the harbour. There is also a building schools for the future project and, more recently, a local authority business grant has been received.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Poole has recently benefited from several extra grants, which have helped the town enormously. The underlying problem, however, is the funding formula for Poole. I was a councillor for many years, and I know that the case for fair funding has been made for a long time. Why cannot the system be more transparent so that the people of Poole can understand why it is funded as it is in relation to other places? Given the number of times that the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) and I have raised the subject of the high ratio of house prices to wages, is there any prospect of daylight in any subsequent reformulations for the financial settlement?

Mr. Syms: The hon. Lady makes some good points. The capital projects have helped Poole, but they are relatively small compared with those in some authorities.

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