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10 Mar 2009 : Column 151

T5. [261728] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Among the Secretary of State’s many visits to far-off stations, last week he attended the Omega project event, where there was an update from leading climatologists on the extent of aviation’s contribution to climate-changing emissions. How do officials in his Department and elsewhere in Government plan, in calculating the true environmental impact of that form of transport, to use the latest scientific evidence of aviation-induced cirrus cloud, which has four times the adverse impact of CO2 alone, as he knows?

Mr. Hoon: I am tempted to respond by suggesting that I send a copy of the speech that I gave on that occasion to my hon. Friend, but I anticipate, in the light of his observations, that it might not persuade him. In it, I set out the importance of recognising that his constituents and mine continue to want to fly, and of ensuring that that ambition is matched by a genuine commitment to reducing carbon emissions. The practical measures that I outlined are designed to ensure that not only can people take the opportunity of visiting family and friends and travelling for business, as they increasingly wish to do, but that they are fully conscious of the consequences of their actions for our environment. I will send him a copy of the speech after all.

T6. [261729] Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Does the Minister have any message for my constituents in Cheadle Hulme, who have waited patiently for years for long-promised improvements to their railway station? Does he agree that commuter stations where the only current access is via a steep staircase should be given absolute priority in the improvement programme?

Paul Clark: In earlier answers we indicated that there is a programme to work on our stations to improve accessibility. I understand the frustration that the hon. Gentleman may feel, but that programme costs money. The money must be found and the priorities—ensuring better and more reliable services, ensuring that they arrive on time and ensuring affordable fares—must be set. We continue to roll out the access for all programme, as well as the smaller schemes, to make stations more accessible to all concerned.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): We did not quite get to Question 10 on the Order Paper, which was my question about which sections of the M4 and M5 around Bristol it would be possible for people to use the hard shoulder on. Can the Minister tell the House how the proposal squares with the Government’s environmental objectives? Some people would interpret it as encouraging road use, rather than tackling the problems of congestion in the Bristol area.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I can reassure my hon. Friend that the proposal meets the Government’s objectives on climate change and reducing emissions. First, using hard shoulder running will mean fewer emissions than there would be if we had to widen the motorway. Secondly, more consistent travel times will mean fewer emissions from vehicles, because there will be less congestion. More reliable journey times will also mean that vehicles will reach their destinations on time, which means better planning. The proposal will lead to a reduction in emissions, which is fully consistent with the Government’s climate change programme.

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T8. [261731] Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Yesterday, Ministers floated in the press the idea of reducing the national speed limit to 50 mph on single carriageway roads. There is not a single stretch of dual carriageway road in my constituency, which is the eighth largest in England. Instead of introducing a blanket ban and causing frustration for all the drivers in my constituency, would it not make much more sense for the Government to target resources on known accident blackspots?

Jim Fitzpatrick: No decision has been taken—we will shortly be consulting on the post-2010 road safety strategy—and there will not be a blanket ban either. Currently, local authorities may exercise discretion to reduce or increase the speed at which vehicles can travel on a particular road, depending on the nature of that road. However, 62 per cent. of deaths occur on A roads that carry only 40 per cent. of traffic, so it would be wholly inappropriate for us not to examine whether the opportunity exists to save lives and reduce serious injuries. The information and the data from the Transport Research Laboratory show that if we make the speed adjustment, we can save 250 lives and prevent 1,000 serious injuries. We have to look at the proposal, but we have not made a decision yet, although it may be part of the consultation, which will be out shortly, on formulating our road strategy for 2010 onwards.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): With regard to the new high-speed rail network, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to be ambitious? Instead of looking at a single line serving Manchester and Leeds by a rather convoluted route, will he look at an alternative, which is to have two lines—one going to Manchester and the north-west and the other branching off at Rugby, serving Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield and Leeds, which are the major population centres of the east midlands, south Yorkshire and west Yorkshire? That option would have major economic advantages.

Mr. Hoon: As my hon. Friend will be aware, I do not lack ambition in that respect. Personally, I am very attracted to what he has outlined, but it is for High Speed 2 to advise the Government on the practical steps that will be necessary, and we will draw its attention to his observations.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Equality Duty

1. Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Whether the proposed new equality duty will apply to equality of opportunity in respect of religion and belief. [261694]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): Yes, the new single public sector equality duty will require public authorities to advance equality of opportunity for people of different religions or beliefs and for those of none. As part of being committed to creating a fair society with fair chances for everyone, we will tackle the discrimination and disadvantage that people can face because of their religion or belief or because they hold no belief, as well as the barriers that they can face when accessing public services such as health care. Extending the duty to cover religion or belief will also end the discrepancy whereby Sikhs and Jews are covered by the duties, but atheists, Muslims and Christians, for instance, are not.

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Lyn Brown: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. The issue has been raised with me by constituents who are a little concerned, so can she emphatically tell the House that it is not about promoting any particular religion, but about protecting those who suffer adverse discrimination because they practise their religion?

The Solicitor-General: Yes, I can. That is an important distinction to make. We are interested in getting public authorities to think about those individuals who, as a result of their religious belief, or the manifestation of that belief, face discrimination or disadvantage, so the duty should act as a spur to public authorities to take action to address the under-representation of Muslim women, for instance, or to tackle the health barriers that disadvantage some people because of a religious limitation on from whom they are prepared to take health advice. That is an important distinction to draw. It is about making sure that no one suffers when there is evidence of need.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Will this new duty cause the Government to address the inequalities that women suffer in the state pension?

The Solicitor-General: Forgive me; I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to ask me a question about religion or belief, and I am having a problem linking that to the state pension and women. However, some pretty clear steps are being taken in legislation to try to equalise that position, and I am perfectly happy to get someone else to write to him about those.

Equality Bill

2. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): What safeguards she plans to include in the equality Bill to protect employees and service users against discrimination by religious organisations providing public services. [261695]

The Solicitor-General: Existing legislation already protects employees and service users against discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, disability, sex, gender reassignment, and religion or belief; it also protects employees on the ground of age. The equality Bill will maintain all that and extend protection on the ground of age to the provision of goods and services. Religious organisations providing public services are subject to the requirements of discrimination law in the same way as other organisations, save for very limited exceptions designed to ensure that people’s rights to hold or manifest a belief are not interfered with. Religious organisations carrying out public functions will be fully subject to the new equality duty.

Dr. Harris: I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. Does she accept, however, that there is concern among people in the lesbian and gay community, for example, that as employees of organisations that are tendered out to religious organisations—as the Government propose, not unreasonably—they might be the victims of discrimination? Is she at least willing to meet people from that community—and, indeed, from religious organisations—in an attempt to reassure them that the legislation that she describes will have an impact and prevent this kind of discrimination?

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The Solicitor-General: Yes, of course. I will be very happy to meet anyone with concerns about what we are proposing to do. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we have already spent an extra period of time consulting on this particular provision. In July, we announced that we were unsure whether to proceed with the requirement that we should fully implement the entire duty in favour of religious organisations. We then consulted 11 religious and non-religious organisations and re-consulted 20-odd public authorities. We also took in the views of four lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups and women’s groups. There was more or less a clear consensus that the provision should progress in the way that I have set out, and that there were no major problems with it, but if, despite that, there are still concerns, of course I will see people again.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the women working in the Church—particularly women clergy; I have had a case in my constituency—do not have the same safeguards against discrimination and harassment in the Church? Will she therefore work with the Church Commissioners and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has a working party on this subject, to ensure that women clergy and vicars are protected against discrimination and harassment at work?

The Solicitor-General: Yes. I suppose that this question deals primarily with religious organisations delivering public services, and, in that situation, they will be entirely subject to the whole of the law. But, of course, if there are workers who are entitled to bring discrimination and harassment claims against Churches, we must ensure that they are adequately protected against that kind of unacceptable treatment.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will the Minister accept that there must be a sensible balance in this debate? There are many religious organisations that provide valuable public services, but they have long-standing, genuine, sincere beliefs and philosophies. It would be a great shame if, for whatever reason, they had to stop providing those public services. There is always an alternative organisation to help those people who feel that they might be discriminated against. Should there not be a balance in a sensible country?

The Solicitor-General: In a sense, there is a balance, in that if it is a genuine occupational requirement that someone should, for instance, adhere to a particular religion—a vicar in the case of Christianity—an exception is made for such a thing, but it is really not conceivable that we can allow public functions to be delivered in a discriminatory way.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Does the Minister share my concern that equality legislation is in danger of being brought into disrepute by cases such as that of nurse Caroline Petrie, who was disciplined for offering to pray for her patients. Do we not need to tackle the concern of many with religious beliefs, and of Christians in particular, who themselves say that they are facing increased discrimination?

The Solicitor-General: I do not think that that question was about the equality legislation that we are bringing into force. Clearly, everybody has to behave in a balanced
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and sensible way, and the whole point of the legislation is to promote good cultural relations and good relations among people of all kinds and all faiths. We will drive on with that purpose.

Women (Public Appointments)

3. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What steps she plans to take to increase the number of women in public life; and if she will make a statement. [261696]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): Action by the Government, and particularly by the Labour party, has increased the number of women in Parliament. However, the under-representation of women in public appointments has improved only slowly. Indeed, there has been a recent drop in numbers, which shows that there is more work to be done by all of us who believe that increasing diversity improves decision making across public services. I hope that the hon. Lady and her party will join us in doing that work.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for that reply. She will know that research by the London Business School found that the best-performing teams are of an equal mix of men and women. In fact, a recent study of French companies found that the fewer women managers a French company had, the bigger the drop in its share price since January 2008. Of the 39 directors in the Government-owned bank, just three are women, so why have the Government not acted to put more women on the boards of banks and will they now do so?

Maria Eagle: I am interested to hear the conclusions of the research that the hon. Lady mentions. It is, of course, important to have diverse representation across all public appointments, which is what the question is about. We are shortly to introduce new diversity targets for public appointments, and I believe that the public sector should lead by example. I will pass on the hon. Lady’s comments to my right hon. and hon. Friends in other Departments.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): I think that there is no other party in government than Labour that has ever done more to promote women in public life. What I am most concerned about for women is the impact of the economic downturn, which might be leading to an increase in domestic violence. What will the Government do to put in place plans to support women—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The question is about women in public life, so the hon. Lady is straying from it.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): As well as doing what the law requires, will the Minister use her good offices to interview any Church of England bishop who says that he will not appoint a suffragan who is prepared to ordain women?

Maria Eagle: I have to be careful about getting too involved in the internal affairs of the established Church, but I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the
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appropriate people. He will no doubt be aware that the Second Church Estates Commissioner has questions on 19 March.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report, “Who Runs Wales?”, which was published at the weekend? It shows that there is still good female political representation in the Assembly, with 70 per cent. of Labour Members being women, but it painted a dismal picture in other sectors—for example, there were no female chief executives in the top 100 private companies in Wales. What would the Minister advise to deal with that information?

Maria Eagle: We hope to lead by example, and I think that the Welsh Assembly has done a good job in ensuring that there is more equal representation. I believe that we all have to make more effort and one of the ways we can do that is by this Parliament showing a lead. In that respect, the conference that is looking into the representation of women, disabled people and ethnic minorities here in this House has a very important role to play. We must ensure that we make progress on such matters and show the rest of society—civil society, but also organisations in the private sector—the advantages that increasing levels of diversity can provide for the future.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Part-time and flexible working allow many women to carry out dual roles, but most of that work is available only in the service or retail sectors, so employers need to be educated as to the benefits at all levels. Does the Minister agree that that should also apply to the senior grades in the civil service? How many jobs at the highest level are offered part-time?

Maria Eagle: We need to make more progress on appointments, although the civil service is better than many other organisations in trying to improve its diversity and promote job shares and part-time working. It is much more flexible than some organisations in the private sector, for example. The points that the hon. Lady makes are good. We need to make progress in all those areas across the public and private sectors if we are to make a reality of equality and if we are to reap the full benefits that we all understand diversity can bring.

Rape Crisis Centres

4. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of funding arrangements for rape crisis centres. [261697]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): This financial year—in addition to local authority funding and £1.25 million from the victims fund—the Government have paid out £900,000 from a £1.1 million special fund for rape crisis centres. Since the special fund was announced in March 2008, no rape crisis centre has closed. My officials have been working closely with Rape Crisis England and Wales and the Survivors Trust to shape how this year’s special fund will work. We will announce details of the fund shortly.

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Christopher Fraser: Many local authorities do not receive the funding that they need to establish rape crisis centres. Will the Minister commit to instituting a three-year funding cycle for rape crisis centres in all local authorities?

Ms Harman: As I have said, we have increased the funding to local authorities and through special funds. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that it is important that he and all hon. Members look at what their own local authorities are doing and whether they are providing the services for which they have been financed. I would also say that the money and the investment in those much-needed services come from the Department for Communities and Local Government budget and the Home Office budget. Those are two budgets on which his party has not offered to match the funding that we are promising to put in. We want more funds to go in, but Opposition Members express concerns while not even being prepared to match our spending. I think that that lacks conviction.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): The horror of rape goes on for many years, as my right hon. and learned Friend knows. The crisis arises at the beginning, but the pain goes on. Within that examination and the welcomed increased spending, has she looked at excellent services such as that provided by the rape and sexual abuse centre in Guildford, which serves my area and many others in helping women through many years of after-effects following the original rape?

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