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Westminster Hall

Thursday 16 October 2008

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Jobs for the Girls: Two Years On

[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 291 and the Government response, HC 634.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Maria Eagle.]

2.30 pm

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak to a report that comes from my Committee. I did not Chair the Sub-Committee that produced the report—that was ably chaired by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) who is in this Chamber today. She will speak to the report at greater length than I intend to. My remarks are only preliminary to hers.

I am sorry that there are relatively few hon. Members here today. I attach great importance to the report, and we are having this debate because of a solemn promise I gave the hon. Lady, so I am glad that the Liaison Committee found time to accommodate it in its programme. I should be in three places today. As well as participating in this debate, I should be in the Chamber taking part in an important and timely debate on energy providers, and I should be continuing a conversation I was having with the pupils of Blackminster middle school in my constituency. I was encouraged to see that a huge number of young ladies at that school show great enthusiasm for politics. Sadly, I have had to cut short my conversation with them to be here today, but I hope the nobler purpose that I serve by being here—one they heartily applaud—justifies my absence from the school.

As I said, the report was produced by a Sub-Committee of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee. We started the inquiry at the beginning of our Committee’s incarnation in October 2005. At that time, there was a bewildering array of issues for the Committee to consider and, in fact, we formed two separate Sub-Committees on two separate matters. They have both produced excellent reports and I am delighted to be associated with them, albeit at one remove. We have not had Sub-Committees since then, but that does not reflect on the able chairing of the hon. Lady; it is because after that time we got things slightly more under control and were able to have a rational programme of work. I pay tribute to her and the members of her Sub-Committee, whom I think she will thank individually in her remarks, for the extremely good work they did on this thorough and important report.

It is not always appropriate to do this, but I want to put on the record my deep gratitude to the Clerk to the Committee at that time, Elizabeth Flood, who might be joining us later, although I shall draw her attention to these remarks in the printed record. I was going to say that she strove manfully, but that is not the appropriate word in these circumstances, so I shall say that she
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strove hard and diligently to produce the report and some of the detailed work around it. I believe the hon. Lady might mention that work in her remarks.

We are not allowed to use the R-word quite yet, but it is timely that we are having this debate today because the severe economic challenges that the country faces, about which we heard in the Chamber earlier, could be used by some as an excuse in relation to our country’s commitment to climate change. That should not happen. Equally, those economic challenges might be used as an excuse to play down our commitment to equality and fairness in the workplace. That, too, would be wrong. I am glad that today’s debate gives the opportunity for the record to be set right. The issue cannot be swept under the carpet at inconvenient times; it is of great importance to us all.

The debate is not only about discrimination against women; it is about the price we all pay for their exclusion from or lack of full participation in the work force. There is still a significant gender pay gap: it has closed somewhat, but the most recent estimate is that the average pay gap between men and women is about 17.2 per cent. That is a significant figure.

Flexible working and a sensible work-life balance are elusive for many, if not most, women. I am alarmed that 41 per cent. of parents spend two hours or less each day with their children and that only a third of families manage to eat together daily. It is important for those families that we give women the flexibility they deserve. I realise this is not mainstream to the report, but we should not forget the pensioner poverty problem. For every £1 a man receives from a pension, a woman receives on average just 32p. There are big injustices that need to be resolved.

The report has a complicated chronology. I do not know whether the hon. Lady will take us through why the report has taken so long to reach the final stages, but the intervention of a general election in 2005 did not help, truncating as it did our predecessor Committee’s work. I am glad that the report has eventually appeared and that the women and work commission’s report, which it scrutinises, contained a number of recommendations that appeared in the Committee’s original report—the predecessor report to this one.

Before I sit down to allow the hon. Lady to take us through the report in detail, I want to emphasise that it is not just the women who are subjected to discrimination who pay a price. We all pay a price. The abilities, enthusiasm and talents of women are crucial to our economic success: if we want to compete globally in the world, we have to maximise our use of every resource we have. One such resource is those clever and able women who are not being allowed to contribute to the economy or to the society of which they are a part to the extent that they could.

The gender pay gap is partly a problem of aspiration—I am glad to say that I can quote a woman in defence of that argument. The noble Baroness Prosser told the Committee that she

I know that my daughter has received advice from a male colleague that she should not be satisfied with warm words from her bosses when she has done well;
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she should demand a pay increase at the same time. Women tend to take the warm words and walk away and men tend to demand the money. It is important that women are assertive in the workplace and ask for their just desserts.

I want to underline the importance of the report’s first recommendation on careers advice. In my work as Chairman of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, I have become more strongly of the opinion that careers advice is of huge importance—or at least that the failure of careers advice in our schools is a matter of huge importance. Children are not shown the reality of the modern workplace or modern economy. I passionately believe that engineering deserves a higher profile in careers advice. Manufacturing, too, is being dismissed by too many careers teachers, who are not aware of the realities of modern manufacturing, and women in particular are not being encouraged to pursue careers in industries perceived to be male dominated—particularly engineering, which is a passion of mine. One of the report’s first recommendations states:

The report goes on to state that the Department for Children, Schools and Families must give higher priority to careers advice and work experience, and should provide more support and funding, so that careers advice is not just seen as an extra duty. The report adds that further efforts are needed to build links with employers. Those recommendations are of huge importance.

I found the Government’s response to that recommendation worthy, but a little complex. What we really need to achieve—not just for women, but for the entire UK economy—is a significantly higher quality of careers advice that is much more in touch with the realities of contemporary Britain.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who chairs the Committee so ably, for giving way. He has obviously had much time to study this important subject. In relation to the report’s recommendations, does he think that the gender gap can be closed by attitudinal and best practice changes, or are legislative changes needed; or is a mixture of all three required?

Peter Luff: This is a cop-out answer in the sense that I think it is all three. The idea of relying on only one of those is clearly illusory. We need to ensure that the Government pursue best practice in their own areas of responsibility as an employer and a procurer. A mix of things are needed to drive the matter forward, as the report ably demonstrates.

I promised that I would be brief, and eight minutes is not particularly brief, so I will allow the hon. Member for Amber Valley to explain at greater length the work of the Committee and its important report.

2.38 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I am pleased with that opening to the debate on our report. I appreciate the support that we received from the Chair of our Committee and the rest of the members of the Committee.
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As I recall—although I do not know if I can find it now—somewhere in the report we tucked in a reference that specifically came out of the hon. Gentleman’s daughter’s comments on how one should push oneself or not push oneself. Obviously, we need to make recommendations based on experience, what we see in practice and what happens in the real world. Anecdotes, examples and our experience of what we see around us are very important and central to what we have put forward.

I am pleased to introduce the report. As has been said, I was privileged to chair the Sub-Committee that conducted the inquiry, which focused on the Government’s implementation of the women and work commission’s 2006 report recommendations, particularly in relation to the gender pay gap and occupational segregation. I thank the other Sub-Committee members for their support, hard work, good ideas and enthusiasm: the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who both remain on the Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). We were given a big job and there were just a few of us to do it. As hon. Members will imagine, it was hard to hold meetings at the same time to allow us to see the witnesses we wanted to. That is one reason why the inquiry was extended.

Peter Luff: I should have explained that the hon. Lady is sadly no longer on the Committee. She left us briefly to be a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Minister who has now gone elsewhere. I hope that the vacancies that may be created by the restructuring of Select Committees will attract her to take an interest in our Committee once again. She was an extremely able member of the Committee more generally, not just in her chairmanship of the Sub-Committee.

Judy Mallaber: What an invitation. I thank the hon. Gentleman.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): Make sure you get the proper pay rise.

Judy Mallaber: Yes. I want also to place on the record, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) has, our thanks to Elizabeth Flood, the then Clerk to the Select Committee, who will be joining us later, so I will probably have to thank her again. She somehow created order and excellent drafting out of the large amount of material before us, although of course the responsibility for the report is ours. I also thank Eve Samson, the current Clerk to the Committee, who took on board the last-minute sorting out at the end of the process of publishing the report and was rather better than me at working out how to produce a concise summary and press release. I wanted to include everything and she was slightly more disciplined.

I see that the previous Clerk, whom we were just thanking for her excellent work, is here. I want to draw particular attention to her heroic endeavour—I thought that it was a rather mad endeavour, but she achieved it brilliantly—in managing at the end of the report to produce a table that compares the recommendations of three reports. The Select Committee’s predecessor produced the first “Jobs for the Girls” report on the effect of
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occupational segregation on the gender pay gap before the general election and recommended that the Committee return to the subject when the women and work commission had reported. Second in the table are the recommendations of the commission report, “Shaping a Fairer Future”. It made 40 recommendations. Third is the Government’s one-year-on report on implementing the commission proposals. In a heroic endeavour, which I would not have tried, the Clerk managed brilliantly to tabulate and compare the various recommendations.

To be frank, this area has been swimming in reports and recommendations over the years. We have discussed endlessly the barriers and inequalities faced by women at work and the difficulties that exist but, as has been said, although progress has been made, the gender pay gap persists, despite 30 years of equal pay legislation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality estimated that at the current rate of progress it would take 80 years to eliminate the gap—she was possibly being a bit optimistic.

When the women and work commission was set up in July 2004, there was a gap in mean hourly earnings between men and women of 18 per cent. among full-time workers and 40 per cent. among those working part-time. According to the last Office for National Statistics survey, the gap has narrowed to 17.2 per cent. for full-timers—or 12.6 per cent. if we strip out the extremes and put it at the mean—and to 35 per cent. for part-timers. It is hard to eliminate the pay gap for a number of reasons, but particularly because men and women tend to work in different occupations, and traditional female occupations tend to be lower-paid and less valued than those of men.

However, it is important to reiterate that the pay gap and segregation are not just unfair to women. The Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee—I do not know whether the Committee has found a quicker way of saying that.

Peter Luff: The Business and Enterprise Committee.

Judy Mallaber: The Business and Enterprise Committee and its predecessor in this area, the Trade and Industry Committee, had an economic remit, so they were considering the issue not just as a question of fairness. When I said that we should examine such issues, I presented my argument in a way that focused on the economy. The Committees’ concern was the health of the economy, as well as fairness and proper behaviour. Occupational segregation limits the pool of recruits available to employers at a time when harnessing and extending the skills of all is increasingly vital for the economy.

In our report, we were not seeking to reinvent the wheel. As I said, there have been many reports. We wanted to consider what action had been taken and proposed. There were 40 recommendations about tackling job segregation, the gender pay gap and related issues. Many of those had been made in our predecessor’s report, so we were not trying to amass a new lot of evidence, although we did take evidence from various bodies. We started with Baroness Prosser, who chaired the women and work commission. She gave us an extremely useful estimate of where she thought implementation had got to and what she regarded as the key proposals. It is important to keep returning to these issues, and we will do so again and again, because
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we will not eliminate this problem overnight. There will be more reports to come, and it is very important that we keep producing reports.

Our report focused on the issues under three main headings: education and training; the workplace, including the type of work available, the role of management and unions and the legislative framework; and Government as an exemplar, including in public procurement. That issue was of interest to us in this inquiry and has been of continuing interest to the Business and Enterprise Committee and its predecessor. We have raised the question of being able to use social objectives in public procurement on a wider basis than just in relation to equalities—in relation, for example, to safety and other areas. That issue has been the subject of separate reports by the Committee. It tied in very clearly with this report, again showing the links between equality and economic issues.

I will go on to highlight some of the recommendations, but first I want to say that a very determined effort will be required on all fronts if we are to tackle the stubborn pay gap and inequality in employment. That requires a culture change among employers and unions and in educational institutions and the whole of society, including families. As we all know, that will not be easy to achieve; none of us would dream of pretending that it will.

It is also important to acknowledge, as the Chairman of the Committee has, that we drew up the report in different circumstances from those that pertain now. I can hear now the voices that will tell us that the actions proposed and those that the Government and others are taking are a luxury in this difficult period and that therefore we should put them on the back-burner. That is similar to what we were told earlier about the danger of climate change. It would be a mistake, because if we do not tackle the skills and education gap now, we will find that we are still under-skilled and still wasting the talents of a huge proportion of the population when we come out of any downturn. In straight economic terms, we need to be doing this work now. Issues relating to the changing nature of the work force, family relationships and so on do not just disappear in hard times; if anything, they become even more difficult and even more important for us to address.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Of course, this is not just a matter of skills and education. I declare an interest as the father of four daughters who has always taken a close interest in this area. I am pleased to be the only male Government Member here today. In my pre-MP existence as a freelance accountant, I noticed—this is still the case—that women have a much weaker propensity to form businesses and become self-employed. Even when they do, those activities and occupations tend to be at the less well-paid end of the spectrum. There are many exceptions to that, of course—Steve Shirley in computing and many others since—but there is that weaker propensity among women. How does my hon. Friend think that a cultural change in that respect might be brought about?

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