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16 Oct 2008 : Column 354WH—continued

4.3 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Williams. It is also a pleasure to support the excellent Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), and the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber).

Broadly speaking, this has been a constructive debate. This subject is very important, because it costs this country a great deal of money. When I was thinking about what I wanted to say, I took advice from a friend, telling her that I had to speak on a Select Committee report, entitled “Jobs for the Girls: Two Years On”. She said that the title was patronising, and ought to be “Jobs for Women: Two Years On”. I thought that the difference is that they are girls until they leave school and women afterwards, and that the fact that the report deals with careers advice is probably one reason why that is the title.

Judy Mallaber: I think that the fact that the title has caught the hon. Gentleman’s attention makes our point. Given that the style of Select Committee reports is not very jazzy, we were trying to find something that would attract people. Of course, this issue does start at an early age, because what happens to people starts in childhood, or even before birth. Also, women are sometimes referred to as girls in a slightly derogatory way, as opposed to boys, who are always called men.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I entirely agree. When I was a member of the Select Committee on the Environment, we were the first to have a cover jacket that was slightly more jazzy than the standard green report, so it can be done. I agree, too, that the title attracted attention. It certainly attracted several comments from my colleagues when they knew that I would reply to this debate.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire that the whole thrust of the debate should not be altered in any way as a result of the economic slowdown—let us call it that. This is a serious issue, and we need to take sound, proportionate measures. Since 1997, the Government have introduced 18 Acts and 280 statutory instruments dealing with employment legislation. That is a severe burden on business, particularly small businesses, as it is reckoned that 80 per cent. of small businesses do all their paperwork themselves. It is therefore no wonder that the former Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, who is now the Secretary of State for Defence, has said that we need to

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The purpose of my intervention on my hon. Friend earlier was to establish whether he felt that this matter would best be dealt with by legislation, a change in attitude or good practice. I think that he ducked the question, but that his answer was absolutely correct. The general theme is that all three are necessary.

The new millennium has witnessed a considerable change in the composition of households, particularly with an increased number of lone parents. We need to recognise that equality has changed, and we must change with that change in the general composition of the population, families and workplace practices.

Judy Mallaber: The hon. Gentleman needs to be careful with his argument. Obviously we need action on all fronts and legislation alone does not get us anywhere, but I recall that it was not even regarded as legitimate to put in a claim for equal pay until authority was given to that idea when it was put into legislation. That in itself led to people believing that they had the right to claim equal pay. As a member of the Regulatory Reform Committee, I know about the rather dubious “business barometer”—of the Federation of Small Businesses, I think. I am conscious that the main aim, when talking about burdens on business, is to say almost that women should not have the right to maternity leave. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not stray too far down that path in opposing legislation as an important way of giving rights and of enabling us to bring equality to and make progress in the workplace.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: If the hon. Lady hears me out for the rest of my speech, she will find that I shall deal, and agree with, most of the points that she has just made.

As has been mentioned, UK men earn, on average, 17.2 per cent. more than women, resulting in the average woman losing or forgoing £300,000 in her lifetime, which in turn has an effect on her pension entitlements. Further, male earnings are growing at a faster rate than women’s, despite the fact that women are promoted younger and faster than their male counterparts. Several examples have been given in which a man and woman have applied for similar jobs within a company, and within a short time, the man was earning more than the lady for doing similar work. That is to be utterly deplored. We should promote equal work for equal pay. That is covered in the Equal Pay Act 1970, which was given Royal Assent some 37 years ago. We have come some way in that time, but there is still a long way to go.

We have an ageing population, and it is important to note that women are also discriminated against in the amount of pension that they receive. As my hon. Friend has said, 3.8 million retired women still do not receive the full state pension, and a further 1.1 million will retire without an adequate pension between now and 2010. Will the Minister address that problem? Do the Government have any proposals to deal with it? The fact that for every £1 men contribute to a pension, women will receive only 32p remains grossly disproportionate and something that must be addressed.

Richard Younger-Ross: One of the reasons that women receive less pension is the current contribution system. Is it now the view of the Conservative party that instead
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of having contribution-based pensions, we should have a residency-based pension, which would deal with the inequalities of the state pension?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The whole pensions area is difficult and I will not commit to that on behalf of the Conservative party this afternoon. It is something that requires careful thought before any commitment can be made.

Women are half as likely to be involved in start-up activities as men, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) said. Although the number of female entrepreneurs rose by 3 per cent. between 2003 and 2005, a report by the small business survey has found that the new female-run businesses are replacing rather than adding to the existing male-run stock. Indeed, in the words of the Home Secretary and former Deputy Minister for Women and Equality:

In addressing the issue it is interesting to look at what is going on in the rest of the world, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge did. At present, the UK has one of the lowest ratios for female-established business ownership compared with the rest of the G8. In contrast, in the US, as the hon. Gentleman said, female entrepreneurs are twice as likely to run their own firm as their British counterparts. Other countries such as Canada, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy also boast a smaller gap between the number of female and male entrepreneurs.

Even with the changes to the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the equality Bill, it is clear that the Government are not going far enough. I am sure that it will be a surprise to many that in the past three years the number of female councillors has fallen 16 per cent. and we have a lower proportion of women MPs, at 19.5 per cent., than Iraq, Afghanistan and Rwanda, where I was for two weeks in the summer.

Maria Eagle: I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman highlighting that issue. What is his party going to do about it?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I was not going to say this, but if one examines the number of female prospective parliamentary candidates in the Conservative party, there could be many more female Conservative MPs after the next election than at present. I happen to believe that a number of them are in seats where they will be elected.

Peter Luff: I must give an advertisement for my own county. I am glad to say that should we sweep the board in Worcester as I expect we will at the next election, there will be three men and three women. That is an ideal model for the whole country: three-all, very good.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am delighted to concur with my hon. Friend. Having met at least one such female candidate, who will become my immediate constituency neighbour, if my knowledge of the map serves me, I can say that she is a very competent lady indeed, and we will certainly benefit from her presence in the House.

I would like to go through one or two of my party’s proposals to deal with the problem of discrimination and the gender gap. We need to ensure that employers
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cannot discriminate against women in the workplace in any way. At present an employee who wins a tribunal case against their employer on equal pay may receive redress, but other employees who have been similarly discriminated against in that same workplace are not automatically helped by the tribunal finding. There are no requirements or encouragement for the employer to change its pay policy. That is something that we would like to see addressed.

The Conservatives recognise the importance of a transparent and stable regulatory framework. We would introduce new rules, so that an adverse tribunal decision against an employer would automatically trigger a pay audit—something that the hon. Member for Amber Valley mentioned. I am proposing not a universal pay audit, but one that would be triggered by an adverse tribunal adjudication. The employer would have to carry that out according to agreed guidelines. This approach is a proportionate measure to protect employees against unscrupulous employers, while also minimising the burden on companies following a tribunal decision. Currently, employers can claim the pay gap is due to a material factor but the tribunal does not have to decide whether that is reasonable. We will change that.

It is often women who seek to work flexibly because they are much more likely to have caring responsibilities. However, jobs currently available on this basis tend to be more poorly paid and have therefore significantly contributed to the gender pay gap. The right approach to tackling this problem is to extend the option of flexible working, where possible. That would broaden the variety of jobs available on a flexible basis, including better paid jobs, and would also help to reduce the stigma too often associated with flexible working.

The contribution that flexible workers provide to the economy is often understated and undervalued, not only by employers. I take the point made earlier that often women undervalue themselves. As my hon. Friend said, not only do they undervalue themselves, they are sometimes not strident enough at standing up for themselves on pay and conditions with their employer. We need to acknowledge that such workers are helping the economy by investing their time and energy in bringing up the future generation—good citizens help the economy by working and paying taxes. Their performance levels are also of an excellent standard: 90 per cent. of employers believe that their flexible workers often outperform their traditional full-time colleagues.

Considering those benefits, it is important to support flexible workers as much as possible. That is why as the Select Committee proposals state in a paragraph that we support, the Conservatives are committed to extending over a period of time the Employment Act 2002 to all parents with children aged 18 or younger. With reference to paragraph 19 of the Select Committee’s conclusions, we support the gradual extension of child care entitlement to the parents of two-year-olds in the most disadvantaged circumstances. Our child care costs are the among the highest in Europe and Labour’s approach to child care restricts the choice for those parents who decide they want to work.

Aside from implementing measures to ensure that women receive equal pay, more needs to be done to support young women to make broader and more ambitious career choices, helping them to achieve their full potential. That would also add greater value to the work force by
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helping to solve the current problem regarding skills shortages. I support the important points made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) about careers guidance. Too often, careers guidance is given by somebody on a part-time basis who does not have the up-to-date skills to provide a broader and more imaginative horizon, which can guide women into less traditional areas of work such as engineering. Yesterday I was with the Chemical Industries Association, which said it is terribly important to encourage women to continue to do unpopular subjects at school, such as chemistry, physics and mathematics, so that they can go on and do jobs that would not necessarily be associated with women, for example in engineering and the chemical industries.

Laura Moffatt: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Will he clarify something for me? He is reading us the policy response to the Select Committee’s report. Is he saying that his party would only allow two-year-olds to have access to child care if they were from poorer families, unlike the Government’s proposal that there should be universal care for two-year-olds?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Obviously, the aspiration must be for all two-year-olds, but we want to start with the most disadvantaged families first, because they are the ones in greatest need and least able to afford the current high cost of child care, so that is where we have got to at present.

We agree with the Select Committee’s recommendation in paragraph 10 that more must be done to realise

Providing advice for women from a young age is essential. As stated in paragraph 11, it is particularly useful for small and medium-sized enterprises that normally do not have a human resources department and therefore find it much harder to forge positive business-education partnerships at the local level.

Judy Mallaber: On the hon. Gentleman’s previous points about flexible working, I find his party’s change of heart on some issues quite remarkable, given its previous voting on them. Is he also looking at giving advice on talking to business about the advantages that he portrayed so well? Are he and his party now seeking to point out to businesses that there are advantages in that sort of flexibility and in those proposals?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Lady may know that international trade is part of my Front-Bench responsibilities. I spend a great deal of time speaking to business people, and, obviously, the subject of the gender gap frequently comes up. The lack and loss of skills that result from not employing enough women in various sectors is a frequent topic of conversation. So, yes, the whole gamut of what we need to fill the gap comes up in discussions held by me and others in my party.

As the Select Committee’s report states in paragraph 29, there are currently insufficient training opportunities, and the few that are available are geared specifically towards younger, less-qualified women. They fail to help the more experienced women who are eager to
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return to the workplace after fulfilling caring responsibilities. The report states that that is unfair, particularly considering that

and therefore need less guidance from those who are older or younger than them.

So, where do we go from here? Providing equality in the workplace must remain at the forefront of our agenda. The principle of equality needs a simple, clear philosophical approach that enshrines fairness, common sense and clarity. I agree strongly with the Select Committee’s comments in paragraph 67 that both the trade unions and management must be involved in bringing about cultural change. Like the Select Committee, we, too, are

Judy Mallaber: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I anticipated that that would bring one of the Government Members to their feet.

Judy Mallaber: As I recently attended a TUC conference of equality representatives which was strongly supported by Ministers, many of whom attended, and as I have in the past spent a whole morning in a Committee in which his party opposed our having trade union education representatives who actually benefit education in the workplace, I find his comments rather surprising. Such measures are strongly supported by the Government.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The comment that was critical of the Government’s support for equality representatives in trade unions was in paragraph 67 of the hon. Lady’s own report. I find it a little hard to understand why she is criticising her own report.

We must continue to encourage similar efforts in all businesses so that the gender gap begins to narrow at a much faster rate. Not only is it important for women that that occurs, but equality of opportunity underpins a strong economy, and a strong economy enables everyone to play their part. Quite simply, unless we make substantial progress to close the gender gap, we are wasting valuable talent, hindering social mobility, failing to deal with family breakdown and, above all, failing to deal with the poverty gap. Why is more not being done when the Equal Opportunities Commission calculates that increased women’s employment could benefit the economy by up to £23 billion? It will be interesting to hear from the Minister how she proposes to deal with the problem.

4.24 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): It is a pleasure to be here in a new role—as of last week—as one of the Equality Ministers. I have, of course, dealt as a Minister with equality issues in the past: between 2001 and 2005, I was the Minister with responsibility for disabled people. Consequently, I have a background in dealing with equality issues, not to mention the sort of experience that those hon. Members on this side of the Chamber, all of whom happen to be women, have had in their lives.

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