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Single Equality Bill

17. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): When she plans to publish draft clauses of the single equality Bill. [204061]

The Minister for Equality (Barbara Follett): My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has made it clear on several occasions in this House that we would seek to publish some of the clauses of the equality Bill in draft when they are ready.
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If we are to publish those draft clauses, we want to make sure that they are as near final as possible before we do so.

Mr. Harper: I thank the Minister for that interesting answer, although if the draft clauses are “as near final as possible”, it does not sound as if minds are open to having them changed based on contributions from elsewhere. I have a very simple question: given that it is now May and the draft clauses still have not been published, is it still the Government’s intention to introduce the Bill in the Queen’s Speech in November 2008?

Barbara Follett: The short answer to that question is yes, and the slightly longer answer is that one of the reasons for the delay is that we are considering the many hundreds of replies that we had to the consultation. Policy changes have been made that we need to consider carefully.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): What discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government on the single equality Act and on how its provisions will affect devolved matters?

Barbara Follett: My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has been to speak to the Scottish Government and to MSPs, and I will be going there later this year to discuss the matter.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): With regard to the consultations that have taken place on the draft Bill, will the Minister tell us what consultations have taken place on primogeniture and the line of succession? What representations have the Government received from those who may be affected by it?

Barbara Follett: As far as I know, none, but I will check and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Here is a representation for the Minister. Next weekend, Peter Phillips is due to marry Autumn Kelly; she has had to convert to the Church of England to preserve his place in succession to the throne. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish the happy couple well on their big day, but would it not be better to send them a wedding present by using the equality Bill to abolish that institutional discrimination against Catholics?

Barbara Follett: I think that I will confine myself to congratulating the happy couple, and wishing them well in their marriage, which, as hon. Members know, requires a lot of adjustments on both sides at the beginning, middle and end.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): The Minister may be aware that I referred the case of Lady Louise being bumped out of line to the throne to the European Court of Human Rights, and it has responded positively, supporting the principle of getting rid of male primogeniture. The Solicitor-General made positive comments about that change being in the Act, and I congratulate the Government on that and welcome it. Does the Minister agree that it
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is very disappointing when those on the Tory Benches slide backwards and say that because it is difficult in the Commonwealth— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not for the Minister to concern herself with Conservative party policy. The hon. Lady has been called because she is a Liberal spokesman, so she should put her question to the Minister.

Lynne Featherstone: You are right, Mr. Speaker, as always. Will the Minister assure me that the difficulties of working this through the Commonwealth should not stand in the way of its being done? It is right that it should be done, and we have heard from all parties that it should be done, so will the Minister confirm that view?

Barbara Follett: This kind of change in our country, which has a long tradition, is always difficult. Before any change is brought in, we will try to build a cross-party consensus, and a cross-Commonwealth consensus. Primogeniture is a problem, and it is offensive, but we have to approach the matter cautiously.

Women into Business and Enterprise Initiative

18. Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): What discussions she has had with regional development agencies on their support for the women into business and enterprise initiative. [204062]

The Minister for Equality (Barbara Follett): The regional development agencies have a vital role in tackling inequalities, as I know as Minister for the East of England, including delivery of the Government’s new package of support for women that was outlined in the enterprise strategy. That is why the Minister for Women and Equality wrote to the RDA chairs on 1 May to ask about the progress that they had made on this vital agenda.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I thank my hon. Friend for her response. Does she agree that support networks, such as Women Into the Network, which is hosted by the business school of Durham university in my constituency, have a vital role to play alongside the excellent initiatives that the regional development agency, One NorthEast, undertakes in unlocking women’s business skills? Does she also agree that that is necessary if we are to continue to grow entrepreneurship in the north-east and exceed current trends?

Barbara Follett: We women came to networking rather late. We are doing it now in politics and business as fast as we can. I am pleased with the work that Durham business school has done and the partnership that it has forged with the RDA, One NorthEast. The latter has funded Durham business school’s networking initiative and, with Business Link North East, helps to sponsor its annual awards. That is the way forward for women—getting together, mentoring and helping each other as far as we can.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How many chairmen of regional development agencies are women? How does that reflect on the equality agenda?

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Barbara Follett: All RDA chairs are charged with taking forward equalities. However, I am sorry to say that I do not know the answer to the hon. Lady’s question. I will have to write to her.

Carers (Flexible Working)

19. Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to increase awareness among carers of their right to request flexible working. [204063]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): The right for carers to request flexible working is important, with the number of those aged over 85 expected to increase by 50 per cent. in the next 10 years. Despite the fact that most of them will be in better health, they will need some care and support. Employers are granting many requests for flexible working, but there is a low level of awareness of the right, which we will tackle with an information campaign.

Ms Butler: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that response. My constituency of Brent, South is the most diverse in the UK. As such, it is tradition that many people look after elderly relatives. However, they do not understand that they have a right to request flexible working. Can my right hon. and learned Friend expand on what the Government will do to ensure that people are aware of their rights when caring for elderly relatives?

Ms Harman: We want to ensure that, in every community throughout the country, people are aware of the right, which the House introduced, to request flexible working if they provide any care for an older relative. Of course, it is important to have good public services to support older people, most of whom live independently in their own homes. However, family care is very important, and the stay-at-home daughter who used to provide that care is now a going-out-to-work daughter. Flexibility for those who are working as well as caring for relatives is therefore important. That will be part of the consultation on the carers’ strategy, which the Prime Minister established and is being led by the Department of Health. It will report later in the summer.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I apologise for not being present at business questions later, but I shall be attending the funeral of that redoubtable parliamentarian, the late Gwyneth Dunwoody.

The Minister previously promised that the Government would follow the Conservative party’s policy of extending the right to request flexible working to parents of all children under the age of 18. Will she guarantee to follow our policy of flexible parental leave, which would allow parents to have parental leave that they could share and give them the opportunity to take it simultaneously?

Ms Harman: It is important for both fathers and mothers to have appropriate leave and flexibility in their work. The Government have led the way on that, and we will take it further. That is why we set up the review under Imelda Walsh to ascertain how we could build on the legislation that we introduced at a time
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when the Opposition called it an example of the nanny state. I am grateful to Imelda Walsh for her work. We will publish her report shortly and, at that point, will look for all-party support. The right hon. Lady is a bit of a Jenny-come-lately on the matter.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I am delighted to hear that there will be an advertising campaign to make people aware of the right to request flexible working. However, when someone suddenly has to become a carer, they sometimes drop out of the workplace. It is then quite difficult for them to get back in, because they have to have worked for an employer for six months before they can make that request. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look into that, to ensure that people with caring responsibilities are not forced out of the workplace in the first place and to make it easier for them to return?

Ms Harman: The question of people who have been out of the workplace with full-time caring responsibilities who need to get back in is something that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is concerned to include in his contribution to the carers’ strategy, which will be published later in the summer. The key thing, as my hon. Friend said, is that people should not have to choose between giving the care and support that they want to give to an older relative and remaining financially independent by going out to work. With the growing number of older people, which is a demographic revolution, we need to ensure that that is recognised in the structure and patterns of work. As for the 26 weeks, my hon. Friend will be aware that it is the normal condition across the board under employment law, and we do not propose to change it in that respect.


The Leader of the House was asked—

Treaty Ratification Procedure

26. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What consideration she has given to the modernisation of parliamentary procedure relating to the ratification of treaties. [204041]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): Proposals on parliamentary scrutiny of treaties are included in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which is currently being considered by a Joint Committee of Parliament. Under the proposals, the Government would be legally required to lay treaties before Parliament for 21 sitting days prior to ratification. A vote by either House against ratification would mean that the Government could not simply ratify the treaty without further steps. In particular, the Government could not ratify a treaty that the Commons had voted against, unless they relaid the same or a revised proposal and the House did not vote against it again. The Government believe that the right of Parliament to scrutinise treaties before ratification should be based on statute. This will transfer power from the Executive to Parliament and make the rules clearer and more transparent.

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Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for that answer, but in a previous case where we had parliamentary scrutiny of a treaty—namely the Lisbon treaty—it was not a rip-roaring success. The Government broke their promise on having a referendum and then we were promised detailed line-by-line scrutiny in the House, which was also not delivered. If the Government are going to bring forward the proposals that the Deputy Leader of the House described, they had better listen, learn from those experiences, deliver on their promises and ensure that the House has a genuine say in the ratification of treaties, because if the Lisbon treaty process is any example, people will be left feeling let down by the Government yet again.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman has not taken account of the fact that European treaties will not be covered by the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, because they have a higher barrier to pass. European treaties must be incorporated into a piece of legislation and go through all the normal legislative processes of the House, and that is precisely what the Government did with the Lisbon treaty.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The statement by the Deputy Leader of the House on the Government’s plans for the future is welcome. However, she will be aware that even since the beginning of this Session, the UK has entered into five international treaties, including an important one on sentencing with the International Criminal Court. Will she consider a proposal to allow us to look at treaties that will come down the pipeline between now and the eventual passage of a Constitutional Renewal Bill, which could take two or three years to come into effect? All colleagues, in both Houses, would welcome the chance to see the treaties in draft and express a view on them, and that cannot be too difficult to arrange.

Helen Goodman: As the hon. Gentleman understands fully, the procedure for treaties currently follows the Ponsonby rule. The convention is that they are laid on the Table in both Houses for 21 days. Obviously that will continue until we have the Constitutional Renewal Bill. As he may also be aware, on some occasions there are time limits that make giving full notice particularly difficult. However, I will look into the suggestion that he made.

New Technology

27. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): If she will propose to the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons that it inquire into the use of new technology to connect Parliament with the public. [204042]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): The Government and the House attach great importance to promoting parliamentary engagement with the public. There are no current plans for the Modernisation Committee to examine the specific issue of the use of new technology in support of that, but the Committee has frequently examined it within its other work—for example, in the recent reforms to the legislative process.

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Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for that answer. There are many ways in which new technology can help Parliament better to connect with the public, as highlighted by my own campaign to allow parliamentary video clips to be shown on YouTube and other websites and also by the “Free our Bills” campaign to make legislation more easily accessible, searchable and understandable online. Will the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House further consider asking the Modernisation Committee to undertake an inquiry specifically on that issue, taking into account the two subjects that I have mentioned?

Helen Goodman: I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is aware that television proceedings and subsequent use on Members’ websites are subject to a licence issued by the Speaker. The licence stipulates that material must not be hosted on a searchable website and must not be downloadable. The reason for that is to ensure that it is not re-edited or reused inappropriately for campaigning or satirical purposes.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of mySociety’s “Free our Bills” campaign and it is obvious that great strides have been taken recently in improving the parliamentary website. She is right to suggest that if our constituents can gain easier access to the progress of Bills, it will enable them to intervene as they wish. That work is ongoing. The specific proposals of mySociety, however, have some disadvantages. It wants to be able to provide explanatory material and to reorder some material, but before we went that far we would need to look into it in much greater detail.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The most important way in which the public can access the parliamentary system is by accessing their MPs. I want to commend those who organise the IT system, or—as it certainly went through difficult times—those who are now running a much better system. Will my hon. Friend make it clear—it may have to be done through parliamentary procedures—that we really should not be shutting down the system? When we are trying to work through remote access, it is very annoying when neither our constituents can access us nor we them.

Helen Goodman: Like my hon. Friend I have a rural constituency, so I understand the particular difficulties faced by Members whose IT access collapses, if only temporarily. I will take up my hon. Friend’s points with the Parliamentary Information and Communication Technology department.

Draft Legislative Programme

28. Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s publication of a draft legislative programme. [204043]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): May I first apologise, like the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), for the fact that because I will be attending the funeral of my good friend and doughty parliamentarian, Gwyneth Dunwoody, I will be unable to remain in my place for the conclusion of these questions I will leave the
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business statement in the competent hands of the Deputy Leader of the House.

Following the publication of last year’s draft legislative programme on 11 July 2007, the Government published in November a summary of the consultation carried out and the comments received in “The Government’s Draft Legislative Programme— Taking a Wider View”. As Leader of the House, I contributed to the Modernisation Committee’s inquiry on the draft legislative programme. That Committee reported in January 2008, and the outcomes from those exercises have informed the consultation process for this year’s draft legislative programme, which will be published shortly.

Mr. Burrowes: While the Government are now apparently full of empathy and listening, does the Leader of the House recall the fanfare greeting of last year’s draft legislative programme, which said that it was all about

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