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26 Jun 2008 : Column 505

Allowing employers to discriminate positively when candidates are equal is a good thing and has the potential to effect change in the workplace, but mischief is being made on the airwaves. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that all under-represented groups are covered and that it is for an employer to improve the situation where the current legislation means that they could be sued.

The move to make public sector suppliers more accountable in their equality polices is certainly a step in the right direction, but it raises some concerns. It is one thing to tick boxes on procurement questionnaires, but if there is no realistic chance of any claims being verified, those measures will indeed be a tick-box exercise. What estimates have the Government made of the number of people employed by their suppliers, notwithstanding simply the £160 billion that goes to private sector employers?

What extra resources are being allocated by the Government to their procurement departments, so that they can monitor and verify the claims made by their suppliers? Given that so much public sector work is now out-sourced to private sector companies, will the public equality duty be extended to cover them in full?

The proposals are a step in the right direction, but it is disappointing that the Government have stopped one step short of compulsory pay audits. I would like to know from the Minister the criteria for when the Government would enact compulsory audits, should the softly-softly approach fail. What will it take? How will we know when the moment has come?

Some of the problems with the lack of equality are to do not solely with legislation, but with the queues at the employment tribunals. What extra resource will the Government commit to clear the backlog? On the Bill as a whole, will any exemptions or exceptions to the equality principles in it be explicit, detailed and decided by the House?

Finally, we have jumped from a Green Paper to a Bill without any formal Government response to the hundreds of organisations that participated in the original consultation. Are the Government ever going to publish a response? What confidence can stakeholders have that they will have their say on the Bill?

In conclusion, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches are happy to work constructively on the equality Bill. I will take the Minister up on her offer of discussions before the Bill is published, as we have quite a list of things that we would like included.

Ms Harman: The provisions will not cover people under 18. It is right to treat children and young people differently, for example through age limits on alcohol consumption, and there is little evidence of harmful age discrimination against young people. Harmful age discrimination is basically against older people.

The hon. Lady asked when the duty on age would come into effect. The public sector duty in respect of the provision of health and social care will come into effect as soon as the legislation is brought into effect, but the Department of Health is already working on this issue before that happens. It has conducted research to identify where discrimination exists and it is taking forward action to tackle it, so the process is already
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under way, even before the legal obligations come into effect. Yes, if a particular gender—say, men—is under-represented in a particular area, positive action can be taken in relation to those under-represented groups.

The hon. Lady also asked about the backlog of tribunal cases, and one thing that we are considering is the issue of representative actions. The Ministry of Justice is working with the Civil Justice Council to see whether representative actions could play a role, rather than requiring people to lodge claims individual by individual. Discrimination and unfairness are not mostly about the individual, but about the structure and the employer. We are looking to see whether representative actions can play a part.

We will publish all the replies we received to the consultation, along with our formal responses to them, at the end of this month.

The hon. Lady asked about pay audits. We are adopting a new approach. One problem with what have been described as job evaluation gender pay audits is that we could end up paying consultants tens of thousands of pounds to go around an organisation, re-evaluate every job, tell the employer that everything is fine as there is no unlawful discrimination and issue a clean bill of health. They might then leave without telling anyone in the organisation what the gender pay gap is. We need much more focused pay audits, which actually tell people what they want to know. We could then find out not whether the Treasury has been signed off as non-discriminating, but whether the pay gap in the Treasury is 26 per cent. and what it is likely to be next year.

We are taking a new approach in a more focused direction. We will set out for employers how to comply and then review progress. I think that once we set out the information that employers should be expected to give, they will have no excuse for not producing it. It is very easy to produce, so the only reason for employers not to provide such information is that they want to keep it hidden because it is just too embarrassing. When the pay gap is swept under the carpet, it will be evident that the employer has a great deal to hide. We think that a good culture of openness will emerge from this.

I would like to thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) for welcoming the proposals; I know she will work constructively with us. I am sure that she and her party will make good proposals. Unlike some Conservative Members, the Liberal Democrats have not been a drag anchor on this agenda over the years. Far from it. Some Liberals in the House and people such as Lord Lester in the other place have been champions of the equality agenda. Although the Labour party has taken this forward in government, important contributions have been made by voluntary organisations and all sorts of people outwith the Government to deliver on the equality agenda. That is what we will do.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Some companies in the private sector have a gender pay gap that is double that of the public sector and they may well resist moves to become more transparent. How will my right hon. and learned Friend encourage such companies to become more transparent about the pay of their work force?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have discussed this with the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and other employer organisations. It
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is the easiest thing to add up the average pay of men and the average pay of women to find out the difference. There is no bureaucratic or administrative difficulty in doing so, so there is no justification for refusing to do it. If employers do not do it—they obviously have no excuse for that—we have the power under the Companies Act 2006 to require that information to be made public. I hope that we will not have to use that power, but it is there if we need it.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Is the right hon. and learned Lady aware that, despite what she said, what she proposes will be an extremely harsh burden on smaller businesses because of the extra amount of red tape and bureaucracy with which they already have to deal? The Bill will be a further blow. I come from a small business background, so I know that better than some on the Government Benches who have never had any experience of running a small business. May I say that I am completely at odds with my own party because I have never believed in positive discrimination? But it will reassure the right hon. and learned Lady to know that her plans for older workers will perhaps protect me from any retaliatory action.

Ms Harman: We do not plan to place any additional burden on businesses, big or small. By bringing all the legislation of the last 40 years together in one piece of legislation—heavens above, it is even going to be written in plain English—the Bill will make it possible, in a way that is not possible now, for employers and employees to read the provisions and understand their rights and obligations. That streamlining will make a big difference to business, which will not have to employ an army of lawyers and consultants to tell them whether they are complying with the law. This is a major streamlining that will reduce red tape, not increase it. I take it then that the hon. Lady welcomes the provisions for extra duties, obligations and rights on age discrimination.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Arising from that last question, is it not the case that, 40 years ago, it was a Labour Government who legislated amidst tremendous controversial opposition to outlaw race discrimination, which many of us had strongly urged? The current proposals are intended, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, to deal with various outstanding forms of discrimination against women and the disabled and certainly against age prejudice. Without in any way wishing to be misunderstood, would it not be a good thing if we took it as normal that there should be people in the Cabinet of pensionable age? That would certainly give a lead against age discrimination.

Ms Harman: I will make sure that the Prime Minister gets to see my hon. Friend’s comment. He is absolutely right to point out that whenever we have introduced legislation to tackle discrimination, there has often been a huge row. But yesterday’s controversy becomes today’s conventional wisdom. We are confident that we can work with all sides to ensure that our proposals are as easy to apply as possible. It is a modern society that is a fair society and a modern economy that is a fair economy.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): This Bill has nothing to do with equality. It is the most politically correct Bill ever, proposed by the most politically correct Minister
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that this country has ever seen. If she were so bothered about equality, she should have enshrined in law the fact that people should be given a job and candidates selected on merit—irrespective of their gender and irrespective of their racial background. How on earth can she justify in an equalities Bill a provision that allows people to be selected solely on the basis of their skin colour or their gender? That is completely and utterly outrageous. The party that, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, introduced anti-discrimination laws is now reintroducing discrimination into the workplace. How many of the Minister’s hand-wringing white male colleagues have offered to give up their seats in the House to make way for more women and more ethnic minority MPs?

Ms Harman: When only 3 per cent. of MPs were women, the House of Commons was not representative. When John Major’s first Cabinet had not a single woman in it, what did that say about the merit, talent and ability of women in this country as he saw it? The point is that it is not about doing a favour to individuals; it is about tackling discrimination and patterns of unfairness and making sure that our institutions and our businesses are not just entrenched in the old boy network, but face the future and recognise that everybody can play their part. I suggest to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), in her place on the Front Bench, that she should induce a bit more political correctness in her Back Benchers.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): May I warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on a set of proposals that will come to be seen as a major landmark in the long march to equality? Will she also ensure that the Government do everything possible to support the French presidency in its attempt to get early agreement on proposals for a European framework directive on equality, which will set minimum standards for all European citizens, across the European Union?

Ms Harman: I can certainly assure my right hon. Friend that that will be the case. I pay tribute to our Members of the European Parliament, particularly Michael Cashman, for their pioneering work at European level. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all her work as a Secretary of State and Minister for Women, and for introducing a right for those with families to request flexible working. Her comments today remind me of our happy days when she was the director of Liberty and I was its legal officer, and we were together on the women’s rights committee.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): The right hon. and learned Lady has referred to the Scottish Parliament, but the Welsh Assembly Government will have a key role in delivering the equalities agenda in health and education, also as an employer and a major source of work for the private sector as third parties. Does she intend to include framework powers for the Welsh Assembly Government in the Bill, or will they have to apply using the legislative competence order procedure, which entails inevitable delay?

Ms Harman: We will discuss the matter with the First Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales. Many in Wales will champion the agenda, work with us and take
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it forward. I pay tribute to women Members of the Welsh Assembly who have led on issues from child care to human trafficking, and to partnership organisations such as Chwarae Teg. I hope that what the House and the Government are doing will strengthen their arm in Wales.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on what could be an epic, historic piece of legislation. I am sure that Help the Aged and Age Concern will welcome it with open arms. I cannot say that the elderly will be dancing in the streets tonight, because of functional problems, but I am sure that they will welcome it too. [Interruption.] I eliminate myself, of course.

On the implementation of anti-age discrimination in terms of goods, facilities and services—it is a big problem—is there an end implementation date, because some of us do not have a lot of time left?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning Help the Aged and Age Concern, and I pay tribute to the persistent and dedicated work of those organisations, which have been determined advocates for tackling this unfairness and discrimination, and have produced the evidence that has made it imperative for us to act. As for old people dancing in the streets, has my hon. Friend not seen “Strictly Come Dancing”? Does he know how old Bruce Forsyth is? Of course, we will get on with the implementation.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Under the positive discrimination aspects of the Secretary of State’s proposals, will it be legal for an employer to choose a white woman over an equally qualified black man?

Ms Harman: We are just allowing for a permissive measure, so that if an employer with a number of equally qualified candidates wants to promote diversity in their team, either because women are under-represented or they have too few black and Asian people, on that basis they can choose the under-represented group. There is also the question of the discrimination against black and Asian women, which would not happen in the same way against black and Asian men, or against white women. Given the hon. Gentleman’s question, I hope that he will back us in solving such problems of multiple discrimination.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I welcome this new push on equality, including on tackling age discrimination and the issues raised by the cross-party reports from the Business and Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committees on tackling the gender pay gap and public procurement. Will she confirm that no specific legislation will be needed on public procurement? Does the Office of Government Commerce, which has been too timid in the past, now accept the Select Committee’s view that public bodies are required to pursue their equality duty when putting out contracts for goods and services? If progress remains slow on the gender pay gap, will she consider whether the equality duty needs to be extended to the private sector?

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Ms Harman: As I said, we will expect the private sector—including private firms doing work with the public sector—as well as the public sector to play their part. We are working with the OGC and the Treasury. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary and to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) for leading the work of the Select Committee in making proposals on such issues. On procurement, there is detail to be worked out, and we will consult on it. We are clear, however, that spending public money is a public function, and that the equality duties must apply to that every bit as much as they apply to direct employment and direct provision of services.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Although her statement meets with denunciations that are as furious as they are predictable from Members of the Taliban tendency, may I tell the Minister that her statement does right by those who have long suffered discrimination, and is right in the interests of the country as a whole? Will she confirm that the equality Bill will contain robust measures to tackle homophobic bullying and to deal equally robustly with the gender pay gap among part-time workers in the public sector, and that the legislation will be on the statute book by the summer of 2009?

Ms Harman: I think that I can confirm all those points to the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for his question. He has proved that not all Conservative Members are still stuck in the stone age. Given his comments, I would say—although I would have to reflect on the matter with my colleagues—that he ought to be regarded as an honorary member of the sisterhood.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s comments on outlawing age discrimination in goods and services, which would give effect to one of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ report on the treatment of the elderly. May I press her, however, on the timetable for the transitional period, particularly in relation to the health service? I fully accept that a transitional period is necessary, but what number of years is being considered?

Ms Harman: Just as when the Labour Government introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970 and said that because of entrenched patterns of discrimination it would not be brought into effect for five years, at the outset we will discover the extent of discrimination in the public services through the equality duty, so that we can make determined progress on sorting it out. We will work closely with the Joint Committee, and I pay tribute to its work in that respect.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): In the recruitment and employment process, it should not matter which group an applicant happens to belong to. People should be recruited and employed on the grounds of their merit and capability. To employ somebody for any other reason would be discriminatory. On all-women shortlists for parliamentary seats, the suggestion is that women can succeed only if men are excluded from the process, which is demonstrably untrue, discriminatory and offensive to women.

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