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T6. [251012] Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The “cycle train” at St. Matthew’s primary school in Bishopriggs involves a group of children who cycle to school and back each day, under the supervision of
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adults. Not only does that reduce the number of car journeys, but the children arrive at school alert and energised. However, the idea of children cycling on pavements remains a grey area in legal terms, so will the Minister look again at how the problem can be addressed? We need to balance pedestrian safety with clearer guidance to encourage young children to cycle more.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): Interestingly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggests that I should join in with what the schoolchildren are doing. [Interruption.] I shall decline that opportunity—but the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) raises an important point. We very much wish to encourage cycling for a host of reasons, not least of which is the need to reduce congestion and the number of car journeys, and to meet the requirements of healthy living. We are investing some £140 million in promoting cycling, and we are training an additional half a million young people between the ages of six and 11 in the Bikeability and national standards process. That will help to give children confidence in using roads and cycle lanes—and I am always willing to discuss how we can take forward work with schools to make children’s cycle journeys safer.

T7. [251013] Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the big issue of concessionary travel, and Chorley borough council’s claims that the Government are short-changing it by not giving it enough money. In fact, the treasurer stated to the editor of the local paper that the council is £250,000 short. I do not believe that he has got the figure right; in fact, I think that he is struggling with his sums. Will the Minister meet the council and me to discuss the issue, as I do not believe that the situation is as bad as the council portrays it?

Paul Clark: The simple answer is yes. I am happy to meet any Members and their delegations. Chorley had a 33 per cent. increase over and above outturn last year—some £280,000—

Mr. Hoyle: A huge amount!

Paul Clark: A huge amount, to help to meet the cost of the Government giving 11 million people the freedom to travel the length and breadth of England.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): As I am sure the Secretary of State knows, the A38 between Marsh Mills and Ivybridge in Devon was closed yesterday for six hours. It is the third time that has happened since Christmas, and it causes problems to the local economy. I have on several occasions pointed out that that is a fast and dangerous piece of dual carriageway. When will the Department for Transport do something about the road? Will it be before there are more fatal collisions on that stretch?

Paul Clark: I was not aware that the road was closed yesterday. For investment in roads, the process involving the priority of meeting the requirements is kept under review through the regional funding allocation process. None the less, I will certainly look into the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

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Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Equal Pay

1. Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): What steps she plans to take to facilitate women pursuing claims for unequal pay against employers. [250976]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): A key to helping women bring equal pay actions is transparency. Once the equality Bill and its related policy package are in place, employers will not be able to rely on keeping their pay structure secret. We will ban secrecy clauses in employment contracts, so that women can identify unequal pay and seek redress. Women often have different employment patterns from men, but their input into the economy is essential, especially at this time. Women are equal and they will be paid equally.

Ms Clark: I thank the Minister for her answer. Of course she will be well aware of the obstacles that prevent women from taking up equal pay cases. In particular, she will know of the range of technical defences available to employers, which often mean that equal pay cases take many years. She will also be aware that the trade unions are calling for class actions as a way of making it easier for women to bring equal pay cases. Is that something that she is considering? What else is she thinking of doing to make it easier for women to bring equal pay cases quickly?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend is to be congratulated; when she was a lawyer for Unison, she won what was, I think, the biggest equal pay case in the UK. We intend to clarify and simplify the law, as far as is practical, in the new Bill, in particular as regards the way in which the burden of proof operates, and how technical questions of general material factors are dealt with. The Civil Justice Council has just reported, and it advocates representative actions that would fulfil the same purpose as the class actions that my hon. Friend champions. The Government Equalities Office will consider how representative actions might apply to equal pay and discrimination cases in employment tribunals, and how they might feed into broader work in the Ministry of Justice, because the CJC is advocating representative actions in all civil cases. We think that representative actions may well have helpful application in equal pay and discrimination cases, but of course we will consult on any proposals for change.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): It is pretty widely accepted that the voluntary approach to managing the financial services sector has been an abysmal failure, yet although the Minister just said that women will get equal pay, there is no proposition to bring in mandatory pay awards; there are only to be voluntary ones. What reassurance can the Minister give us that that will be any more successful, and will not end in equal failure?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Lady refers specifically to the financial sector. She will be aware that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is conducting an inquiry,
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which it announced recently, into inequities in pay in that sector, so we can expect greater transparency there very soon. We think that mandatory pay audits are probably too broad and draconian. Sometimes pay audits are very effective, but sometimes they are cumbersome processes that do not always come up with the goods that we would wish them to. Sometimes they are a process rather than an outcome. We prefer different approaches that rely on voluntariness, but let us make no mistake: in the end, if transparency and voluntary measures do not work, we will take stronger measures to ensure equal pay for women.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): As my hon. and learned Friend is aware, the single status agreement in local authorities and Agenda for Change in health authorities were meant to eradicate the problems of unequal pay in both services. Sadly, with the increase in no win, no fee lawyers, many such negotiations have stalled because people are suing not only their local health authorities or local authorities but the trade unions. Will my hon. and learned Friend use her good offices to resolve the problem?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend is right and points to a significant issue. In a way, he supports my last answer, in the sense that those were total pay orders and they still have not got away from tribunal actions. The Ministry of Justice is looking into the role of no win, no fee lawyers in what is still regarded, slightly oddly perhaps, as a non-contentious area, as employment tribunals are. I can, at the very least, say to my hon. Friend that there are many eyes looking at the problem, with a real intention of solving it.

2. Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to reduce the gender pay gap. [250977]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): Because there are many things that lie behind unequal pay for women, we are acting across the board to tackle it, particularly by supporting women who are going out to work as well as caring for families with young children or older relatives, and by strengthening the law to tackle discrimination.

May I say how intriguing it is to see that the Conservative Front-Bench team for women and equality consists of 75 per cent. men and 25 per cent. women—but perhaps it is a good sign that the men in the Tory party are applying to join the honorary sisterhood.

Mrs. Miller: The most recent Government statistics show that women are losing their jobs at twice the rate of men in this recession. Beyond exposing illegal discrimination, what are the Minister’s plans to address the problem, which could further entrench the gender pay gap that women still have to endure in this country?

Ms Harman: We are well aware of concerns across the board about job loss during the recession. Because women are employed disproportionately in retail and in financial services, we have to look at the effect of the recession specifically on women. We have to look at the effect of the recession on women because women
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are still the main managers of the household budget. That is one of the reasons why we will make a focus not only of the work that we do through the National Economic Council and across Government Departments, but of the work on the issues that will be raised in the G20 when it is hosted by this country in April. Everybody is affected by the recession, but women are affected differently, so we need to focus on that.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her characteristically generous welcome to me.

In the other place on Friday, on the Second Reading of our Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill, the noble Lady Vadera said that the Bill was unnecessary because the Government are to introduce an equalities Bill, which will contain measures on equal pay. Can the Minister confirm that her equality Bill will contain all the measures that are in our Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill?

Ms Harman: In our manifesto, we committed to bring forward a new law to strengthen the laws on equal pay that previous Labour Governments had brought into force, and we have consulted since then. It is disappointing that the Conservative party did not put forward proposals for consultation. In the Bill, we will strengthen enforcement and toughen the law. The Opposition should table proposals, if they want to, when we introduce the Bill, or simply support our equality Bill when we introduce it in April.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Can my right hon. and learned Friend explain to the House how changes to public sector procurement practices could help to narrow the gender pay gap?

Ms Harman: Procurement is important for helping to narrow the gender pay gap in the public sector. As well as public authorities having a duty to narrow the pay gap as one of their existing public sector duties, procurement is a public function. They therefore have a responsibility, when they procure goods or services and pay for them under a contract, to take the opportunity to ensure that those with whom they are contracting are making efforts to narrow the pay gap. At present it is not very clear how they can do that. We are working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to make sure that public authorities are able to use their procurement power, which applies to a third of the private sector, to ensure that that is another place where we can take action to narrow the pay gap.

Female Entrepreneurs

3. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When she next expects to meet representatives of small business groups to discuss measures to increase the number of female entrepreneurs. [250978]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality meets business representatives, including those representing small businesses, from time to time, as do I. The Government’s enterprise strategy, which was published in March last year, includes a package of support for women setting
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up and growing businesses. Support for women entrepreneurs and employees in the present global circumstances is a priority, and, as my right hon. and learned Friend has said, we are exploring the scope for an international meeting on the matter in London around the time of the G20 in April.

Mr. Bellingham: Does the Minister agree that during these incredibly tough economic times what women entrepreneurs want above all else is a sensible regulatory regime? Will she confirm that it is still her Government’s policy to resist the EU agency workers directive and any moves to remove the UK opt-out from the EU working time directive?

Maria Eagle: Now that the agency workers directive has been agreed, the Government are moving ahead with plans to introduce the necessary legislation. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that there will be detailed consultation on the UK implementation of the directive in the near future. I am perfectly happy to meet him and anybody he cares to bring with him to discuss any concerns in that respect.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): One of the difficulties that female entrepreneurs face is varying patterns of employment, which can have knock-on effects into retirement in terms of national insurance stamps. What steps can the Government take to make sure that female entrepreneurs and other female workers have full national insurance stamps at retirement?

Maria Eagle: The Government have a good record on trying to make sure that women get fair pensions and do not face poverty in old age simply because of their caring responsibilities. Although women entrepreneurs have led a small percentage of UK enterprises thus far, that number is increasing, which indicates that self-employment is becoming increasingly attractive to women.

Corston Report

4. Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on steps to implement the recommendations on women’s prisons contained in the Corston report. [250979]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): As champion for women in the criminal justice system and as a Minister in the Department, I regularly talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice. Last December, I issued a written ministerial statement to Parliament reporting the substantial progress in delivering the Government’s response to the Corston recommendations and wider work on female offenders. That includes a commitment to provide additional resources to divert women from custody. We are also piloting a women’s conditional caution with Together Women centres, which presents a chance for diversion at an early stage from custody. The Secretary of State for Justice and I recently visited the Together Women project in north Liverpool, and I know that he was impressed by what he saw.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Will my hon. Friend say whether progress has been made in tailoring community support services better to address women’s needs on release
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from prison? In particular, are voluntary organisations, such as the excellent Open Gate project in my constituency, being used to provide specialist services to women?

Maria Eagle: I can reassure my hon. Friend in that respect. The Open Gate project, which she has mentioned, does good work with women before and after their release from Low Newton prison in her constituency. It is a fine example of the kind of multidisciplinary, wraparound support that women leaving custody often need to prevent them from sinking back into a cycle of reoffending, which can be avoided with a little bit of help and support. I anticipate that any resources that we announce in due course will be focused on boosting that kind of help.

Shared Parental Leave

5. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What recent representations she has received on shared parental leave; and if she will make a statement. [250980]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): In recent months, I have not received any particular representations on shared parental leave. However, I can confirm that the Government intend to extend the right to request flexible working to parents of children aged up to 16 from April this year. That demonstrates the Government’s continuing commitment to supporting parents in balancing their work and family responsibilities.

Jo Swinson: A recent Netmums survey found that 28 per cent. of dads would like to share the child care equally with their partners, although only 5 per cent. managed to do so. Surely we will achieve proper equality for men and women as parents only when the state stops prescribing that it must be mothers who stay at home to look after the children and lets families themselves decide how to split the parental leave.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Lady forgot to compliment the Government on our record on producing and increasing just that flexibility. The Government have extended paid maternity leave, introduced paid paternity leave,
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given parental leave to mothers and fathers and introduced the right for mothers and fathers to request flexible working. That, in addition to £25 billion of investment in child care, is surely something on which she should have complimented the Government.

Domestic Sexual Abuse

6. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What steps she plans to take to encourage women who are experiencing sexual abuse in their own homes to seek help; and if she will make a statement. [250981]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): Sexual abuse is almost always present in domestic violence, although that is not widely appreciated. It plays a role in why women are often slow to seek help. We are making real progress in encouraging agencies involved in health and education to identify vulnerable victims earlier and ensure that they access the support services that they need.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her answer, and I commend her for the work that she has done. Would she like to visit Glasgow to see what we are doing to make sure that women who deserve help get it? Our success with convictions is increasing all the time, and women are getting pleas now rather than having to go through the courts. Is it not important that all women, no matter where they come from in the United Kingdom, are treated fairly? Should we not all use best practices such as those used in Glasgow?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend is right to say that zero tolerance started in Scotland, so there is a good deal to celebrate. I have visited Glasgow many times, and I would be very glad to go again. The city has a system of specialist domestic violence courts similar to the ones that we have here. They have proved very successful in increasing the conviction rates when complaints of domestic violence are made, largely because complainants are befriended and supported so that they sustain their complaint and are not frightened off. That sends out a powerful message to deter such offending in the first place.

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