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Glenda Jackson: I appreciate that the evidence is not yet in, but on the precise point about the learning and skills councils and what they discover, it is important that what they discover to be positive should be handed down as quickly as possible to the sharp end of job centres, for example. It is easy for people in such schemes to discover things, but when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley said, it is moved a little down the line, people may not know anything about it and may be ill equipped to deal with what may have been discovered in the individual and what that individual wants to do.

Maria Eagle: I do not disagree. Of course, there is always an issue about transmission mechanisms and learning. We have evidenced-based policy making, so we need to learn what works, take notice of the evidence and make sure that our mainstream programmes acknowledge and reflect the learning that has occurred. One of my jobs as a Minister responsible for equalities is to make sure we do that, where necessary, across a range of Departments. That is certainly one of the things on my list of roles.

Much reference has been made to flexible working and the importance that that can have in enabling women to access good quality opportunities. I think there has been an acknowledgement from all hon. Members in this Chamber that the Government have a good record in increasing flexibility. Since April 2003, we have been extending the right to request flexible working. It is now acknowledged to be a good thing that employees with disabled children under the age of six have the right to request flexible working. Flexible working has been used more than some thought it might be when the idea was proposed; in fact, many employers have dealt particularly positively with requests when they were made.

I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North who said that there is a difference between the public and private sector in relation to flexible working. I am not quite sure who made the point about the public sector being an exemplar—

Glenda Jackson: Just point at them.

Maria Eagle: I can remember the constituencies; I just cannot remember who made the point. It may have been my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley who said that the public sector needs to be an exemplar—[Interruption.] It may also have been the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire who made the point. I do not wish to do anybody down. It is important that the public sector celebrates its success and is an exemplar. The public sector should show that it has made a difference and has the benefit of more staff commitment because it is a good and flexible employer, and it should say that to the private sector. One cannot tar the entire private sector with one brush, but elements of the private sector might be less convinced about the importance of flexibility and what it can bring to them. It is important to give examples and have cross-fertilisation of ideas and experience between sectors because it can make a real difference. Transparency is one of the aims of the new equality legislation that we are promoting and good cross-fertilisation between the public and private sector in terms of outcomes and improvements is an important part of going forward in all sectors, which is, of course, what we want to do in the end.

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Peter Luff: I do not wish to be partisan, but I happen to have a Conservative document here that describes some good examples in the private sector where flexible working has improved retention and productivity and has encouraged women to come back to the work force after maternity leave. Good, flexible working has been proven to bring benefits to organisations, and case study after case study demonstrates that the private sector gains when it gets flexible working right.

Maria Eagle: Certainly my experience as the Minister for disabled people and my work in trying to carry the torch for the employment of disabled people showed that small firms are perhaps more able to deal with flexibility—someone just asks the owner and does not have to go through a huge human resources department. Small firms can be particularly good at arranging flexibility where it does not completely destroy the needs of the business—obviously no one wants that to happen. It is important that where there is good practice—in whatever sector—it is acknowledged and celebrated, and that the word is spread. We can all benefit from such examples.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North made some points about the situation in Wales, why part-time work is undervalued and how important the right to request is. She made some of the points I have already dealt with about work placements, training and careers advice. It does not sound as if the situation in Wales is that different from the one in England; in fact, from what she said, it seems that there have been some of the same experiences.

My hon. Friend asked about black and minority ethnic women’s opportunities and why they are particularly restricted. Certainly, our proposals in the equality Bill include the chance to engage in voluntary positive action, which is one way that that kind of inexplicable—or explicable only in terms of the concept of discrimination—distinction can be tackled. We are currently examining whether we should allow claims for multiple discrimination in the Bill, which might further highlight the issue of ethnic minority people being particularly discriminated against.

I shall say a bit about the equality legislation that we are planning. Certainly, since the report was produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, there have been some policy developments. When the evidence for the report was being considered, the discrimination law review was still ongoing. We have moved on a little bit since then, so I shall mention what our future plans are. We will try to make further progress through a combination of legislative and non-legislative measures, which I now know the Opposition will thoroughly approve of. We want to ensure that the gender pay gap does not take another 80 or so years to be closed. We know that if we do nothing more, we will still have that gap. The idea behind the forthcoming equality Bill is to simplify, modernise and strengthen the law so we can close the gender pay gap more swiftly than would happen under the measures already taken. Of course, it is good that the gap has closed to a degree, but we need to close it further.

It is important to simplify the disparate bits of legislation that have come on to the statute book over different time periods during the past 30 or 40 years. The hon. Member for Cotswold referred to the number of pieces of legislation that deal with employment rights, and we
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need to persuade business that equality legislation is not about burdens on business. I do not accept that rights at work equate or should be equated with red tape, regulation or burdens; such rights equate to enabling employees to do a good job. If one is to believe the weekend newspapers, there is a slight debate going on among the Conservative party about what its policy on that should be during these times. The Observer reported—[Interruption.]Was it wrong? The Observer reported that senior Tories were calling for a

from the previous attitude of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and his

The Observer went on to state that senior Tories were

If that is true—and perhaps the hon. Member for Cotswold will tell me whether it is—it is equating rights at work with burdens and red tape. The hon. Gentleman did not seem to do that in his remarks—although he made some reference to the amount of legislation that there has been. It would be interesting to know whether the report in The Observer is accurate.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister and the rest of the House will know that policy making in any Department and in any Opposition party is a dynamic process and so she will have to wait and see.

Maria Eagle: Of course I will wait and see, but until then I have to draw my own conclusions. I will wait with interest to see whether the hon. Gentleman’s tendency or the other tendency wins out in the Conservative party.

Judy Mallaber: During the past year I have been on the Select Committee on Regulatory Reform, which is allowed to get rid of red tape without it having to go through other processes. Will the Minister accept this point? There is an issue about red tape and burdens on business, but it is a question of differentiating between what the right or policy is and how it is implemented. We should be seeking to get rid of the three pieces of paper where one would do. The same applies if the mechanism for implementing a policy is burdensome, particularly on, say, a small employer that does not have the people to do all the paperwork and so on. However, that is a different issue from a proper assessment of whether a policy or right is legitimate and helpful. We sometimes muddle the two together instead of being clear about what we are thinking.

Maria Eagle: Yes, my hon. Friend is right that there is a difference between how a policy is implemented and whether that is burdensome, and whether the policy itself is burdensome. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the discussion going on in the Conservative party. No doubt we will see in due course. Meanwhile, the hon. Member for Cotswold will be at least willing to support the Government when we introduce the equality Bill, because one thing that it will do is simplify and consolidate the law as it has developed over the years, which can only be good. If we put it all in one place, we will reduce the number of provisions, so I am sure that we will have widespread support in the House for that.

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We will simplify, modernise and strengthen the law in certain ways. I have referred to one way in which we will strengthen the law, which is by allowing positive action. Where there is under-representation of disadvantaged groups in the work force or in senior positions, employers and service providers should have greater freedom to address that by taking it into account when deciding between equally qualified candidates. Again, I am sure that any sensible person thinking about that would see it as fairly uncontroversial, although it did seem to be controversial in certain newspapers and among certain Members of the House when it was announced, but we will see how that goes when the Bill is published. We will see what everyone’s attitude is. I think that it will be a very good thing. It is one way in which some of the disproportionate outcomes in the work force overall that we have all been complaining about today can be tackled in the shorter term. That has to be good.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the Minister; she has been generous in taking interventions. It would assist the House considerably if she could tell us when the Bill is likely to be published and when it is likely to be discussed by the House.

Maria Eagle: I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman precisely when that will be. I can tell him that progress on getting the Bill written is good, but he will understand the complication involved in the consolidation aspect.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: It is a dynamic process.

Maria Eagle: It is always a dynamic process. Trying to get this right is a very complicated process. It is important to get right the simplification and consolidation aspects of the Bill, but that is not easy. Parliamentary counsel is working extremely hard, and Ministers are ensuring that policy issues are dealt with. As I said, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer, but I can tell him that we are progressing well and that the House will be the first to know when we get there.

Peter Luff: Is it the Government’s view that there has been so much consultation that it will be just a straight Bill, not a draft Bill, or will there be a draft Bill process, too? This is a hugely complicated area. Some forms of “discrimination”—for example, allowing Saga to offer holidays to the over-50s and allowing Club 18-30 to offer holidays to young people—are not entirely disadvantageous. The way in which the Bill is framed in detail will make a great difference to its impact on a wide variety of groups. I am not sure: what will the process be in parliamentary terms?

Maria Eagle: We are not planning a draft Bill. There has been a lot of consultation on this issue, and we want to get on and do it. I acknowledge that there may be complications and difficulties—there always has been on every Bill that I have been involved with—but I am sure that we will find a way through. We want to get on with it.

The Government have listened carefully to the arguments made by the Select Committee and others that appropriate bodies should be able to bring representative actions on behalf of groups of individuals in discrimination cases. We need to co-ordinate action on that proposal in the light of work taking place across Government in respect
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of other courts and administrative tribunals. We will consider carefully the results of the work being undertaken by the Civil Justice Council, which is examining the issue in other contexts. It is assessing the case for representative actions, and we will take decisions in the light of that. We are certainly considering the issue seriously.

We have all been alluding to transparency, if not talking directly about it. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality explained to the Select Committee when giving evidence that we cannot tackle inequality if we cannot see it and how it is working in particular places. The Bill proposes to prohibit an employer from taking any action against any person who chooses to disclose their pay to a colleague, so we will get rid of secrecy clauses. In addition, we are proposing that, under the public sector equality duty, public authorities should publish important equality information about their work force, including the gender pay gap. That will aid transparency and enable us to shine a light into the dark corners where lights need to be shone. We will work with business and trade unions to encourage private sector employers also to be transparent about their progress on equality. There is no reason why they should not respond positively to that. As hon. Members have said, businesses increasingly recognise the advantages that can be gained from improving performance on equality so that they can attract and retain the best talent, so there is no reason why we should not be able to make progress on that.

We are exploring a range of other legislative and non-legislative options for furthering equality outcomes through the power of procurement. The Government spend £160 billion a year—that is the latest figure I saw—on procuring things. There is no reason why that should not be used to help to deal with some of the issues that we have been discussing. We are examining ways of doing that, and the Bill will take some steps in that regard.

A lot has been said about occupational segregation, and I ought to say something about that. It accounts for a significant proportion of the gender pay gap, but also constitutes a loss to the economy. That was identified by the women and work commission in its 2006 report, which estimated that removing barriers to women working in non-traditional areas and increasing women’s labour market participation could be worth more than £15 billion to the economy. We would all acknowledge that that is something worth pursuing.

Following our work to implement the recommendations of the women and work commission, we are building on a number of the recommendations to tackle occupational segregation. For example, we announced this year that we were extending the women and work sector pathways initiative beyond the period covered by the recommendations in the original report. We have committed £5 million a year over the next three years to the initiative, which will mean that up to 15,000 women receive assistance that aims to help them to secure a new job, a more senior position or higher pay. That support is targeted in sectors and occupations where there are skills shortages or where women are under-represented. That type of targeted action can make a real difference by providing role models and giving real opportunities to women who perhaps have not had chances in the past because of occupational segregation. That should receive
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widespread support from hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I am sure that it will.

We have now reconvened the women and work commission to assess the progress in implementing and building on the recommendations that it originally made. We look forward to seeing the result of its investigations next spring.

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I shall finish by saying how valuable and how welcome the Select Committee’s report has been and how much the Government welcome the ongoing debate on this issue. We hope to develop as much consensus as possible about the way to deal with the issues of gender inequality to ensure that, at last, we start to close the gender pay gap.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Five o’clock.

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