Previous Section Index Home Page

The Bill is in the great tradition of Labour Governments. The first equality laws were brought in by a Labour Government more than 40 years ago. First, in the 1960s came the pioneering race laws and then in the 1970s there were new laws on equal pay and sex discrimination. Then nothing was initiated by the Tory Government for 18 years. Then Labour returned to office and introduced
11 May 2009 : Column 555
a range of new laws—from recognising gay and lesbian partnerships, to protecting older people from discrimination at work.

Although progress has been made, the job is not yet done. While the most blatant forms of discrimination are just distant memories, inequality and discrimination persist, so we need the Equality Bill and the related action that I will outline to the House today to build on what we have already done. I shall now turn to the Bill’s provisions.

We have made it easier for women who work, with more child care and longer maternity leave, for example, but there is still entrenched pay discrimination. Despite women forming half the work force, men still earn on average 22 per cent. an hour more than women. We do not accept that that is because women work 22 per cent. less hard or are 22 per cent. less intelligent or 22 per cent. less qualified than men. It is pay discrimination, which is mostly a legacy of the idea that a woman’s job is less important than a man’s, because her main role is in the home. Although the lion’s share—

Mark Pritchard rose—

Ms Harman: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving way. I think that there have been 15 attempts at an intervention since the last time she gave way, when she gave way on the 36th attempt, so perhaps she—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Leader of the House has given way now, so let us hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

Mark Pritchard: As ever, I am grateful to you for your advice, Mr. Speaker.

I am concerned that the Bill is not really about equality. There is a contradiction at the heart of Government policy: while the Leader of the House is setting out the Bill today, Muslim women up and down the country are suffering under the extension of the powers of sharia councils. Under matrimonial, child custody and financial settlements, Muslim women are being discriminated against, so the Government have to change their policy, otherwise the Bill is a complete mockery.

Ms Harman: There is certainly discrimination, and the Bill provides more opportunity to tackle it. There is certainly nothing in our law that endorses, and allows for, discrimination in private contracts or private agreements that may purport to have been made under sharia law; they do not count as the law in this country if they are discriminatory. The hon. Gentleman knows that, because I have answered him on that point at business questions. I have now been deterred from answering questions—

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab) rose—

Ms Harman: Except from my hon. Friends.

11 May 2009 : Column 556

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Does she agree that if the general public are watching the debate they will be surprised to see the Opposition so agitated at the prospect of equality legislation? The point about equality is not just that it offers fairness and justice for every group in society, but that in a globalised economy it will actually enable us to compete better and be a stronger and more effective society.

Ms Harman: I could not agree more strongly with my hon. Friend. Although the lion’s share of caring for children and older relatives still falls to women, women’s income is now vital for their household, and their work is important to the economy, too. It is simply unfair that they should not be paid the same as men for the work that they do. Unequal pay is not the fault of the woman; it is the responsibility of the employer, yet in the past, it has been entirely down to the individual woman to complain, and never down to the employer to explain.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the Bill will finally ban secrecy or gagging clauses, used by firms and companies around the country, that allow and encourage firms to discriminate against women when setting their pay rates?

Ms Harman: Yes, I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Bill will do exactly that. A veil of secrecy over pay allows discrimination to flourish. The Bill will change that by means of a power in clause 73 to require employers to make a gender pay report every year. Fair employers have nothing to fear, but unfair employers will have nowhere to hide. Knowledge is power for employees, their unions, consumers, and shareholders. I hope that employers will compete for the reputation of being fair to their women employees. It is not a burdensome requirement; employers know whom they employ, whether their employees are men or women, and what they pay them.

The public sector will lead the way, with the Bill providing a power in clause 147 to require all public sector employers with more than 150 employees to publish annually details of their gender pay gap. However, 80 per cent. of employees are in the private sector, and gender pay discrimination there is even greater. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will bring together employers and unions to work out how gender pay reporting will operate in practice. In July this year, it will begin to consult, and it will release the first of its annual reports before the end of this year.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Does the right hon. and learned Lady not see that if we require the measure to be consulted on in the summer, but the Bill is to go through the House before the summer, it will mean that we will have to agree to something the extent of which we do not know?

Ms Harman: No, it will not. We would like to achieve our aim through voluntary action, but if we cannot, we must take a power in the Bill to make sure that we can force companies to be prepared to acknowledge their pay gap. In the first instance, we will ask private sector employers to report without a legal requirement, but because all employers must do so for the system to be
11 May 2009 : Column 557
fair, we will impose the legal requirement on all employers of more than 250 people in 2013 if sufficient progress on reporting has not been made. We hope that it will not be necessary to do so, but if there has not been sufficient openness, we will use that power.

Transparency is important in itself, and in every workplace where there is a yawning gap between the pay of men and the pay of women, it will spur employers to reflect on their practice and take action to change what they do. As a further measure for openness on gender pay discrimination, the Bill will ban secrecy clauses that prevent employees from discussing their pay with their colleagues, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) asked. An estimated one fifth of employers impose secrecy clauses; those clauses will all be banned.

I should like to turn to the equality duty.

Mr. Bellingham: I am extremely grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way, because she knows that I have been a long-term supporter of many of the aims that she mentions. Does she share my view that the Government should have done more to lead by example, and does she share my concern that the gender pay gap in a number of Government Departments is far too high? In fact, it is as high as 25 per cent. in five Departments. Surely the Government should have done more to lead by example and to put their own house in order.

Ms Harman: That is why we have acted to bring transparency not only to the private sector but to the public sector. So long as the problem remains hidden and is swept under the carpet, everybody says, “We’re equal; it must be somebody else who is not,” and we cannot address it. I should be grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support not only on Second Reading but in Committee and throughout the Bill’s passage. I know that he is concerned about age discrimination, too, so I thank him for his support on that.

Equality for women is a public policy imperative, and that is why in 2006 we brought in the gender equality duty, which requires public bodies to tackle discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity. The duty has proved to be a lever for change, but the Bill makes it clear that the new public sector equality duty, which the Bill provides for, will apply when public bodies not only employ people or provide services, but use their £175 billion purchasing power. The duty will apply to public procurement, too. The provision will enable us to take the current duty further into those organisations and companies providing goods and services that are funded by the public purse.

I turn to the issue of positive action, which many Members have mentioned. We will allow employers to use positive action in recruitment and promotion. The purpose of the new power is to tackle the systemic and well-documented glass ceiling that stops women from going up the career ladder in organisations. That is why the Bill includes the power to take positive action. Sometimes a company has many women in its work force, but no women on its management team. Currently, if a vacancy arises and the employer is faced with two equally qualified candidates, one a man and one a woman, the employer cannot actually say, “Right, we’ve got two equally qualified people for this job, but I’m
11 May 2009 : Column 558
going to take you, because you’re a woman and I want to diversify my management team.” The provision, however, will allow employers to address under-representation where they so choose.

We have already legislated for positive action to increase women’s representation in Parliament, and, because we in the Labour party have used that power for all-women shortlists, we have gone from having only 13 Labour women MPs when I was first elected to having 95 now. However, the proportion of women MPs from all parts of the House is still only 19 per cent., and that is why clause 100 extends to 2030 permission for political parties to use women-only shortlists. The Government are proud to have three times more women MPs than all the other parties put together. That is because we have used all-women shortlists, and we will continue to do so. We urge others, if they are serious about improving representation, to follow suit.

The Bill also strengthens the powers of tribunals when dealing with systemic discrimination.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): rose—

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): rose—

Ms Harman: I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne).

Sandra Osborne: Does the Leader of the House agree that, although tremendous progress has been made through all-women shortlists, we have some work to do in Scotland, where we have fallen behind as a party? Things could do with much improvement.

Ms Harman: One thing that was so important and encouraging about Scotland was the formation of the Scottish Parliament and the good representation of Labour women, in particular, as Members of it. We have an excellent team of Scottish Labour MPs, but we need to make more progress in order to have more women Labour MPs in Scotland.

Clause 118 will allow tribunals to make recommendations that benefit the whole work force, not just the individual who won the claim. It will mean that we can stop the waste whereby many individuals in the same organisation take similar action against the same employer.

Mr. Brady: Will the right hon. and learned Lady give way?

Ms Harman: I am about to address the question of breastfeeding. Would the hon. Gentleman like to intervene on that point?

Mr. Brady indicated dissent.

Ms Harman: Okay.

Labour has a proud record of backing mothers at work, but we also do everything that we can to support new mothers. That is why clause 16 will make it clear that it is unlawful to force breastfeeding mothers and their babies out of places such as coffee shops, public galleries and restaurants. That still happens. It will be banned.

11 May 2009 : Column 559

I am sure that the whole House will agree that, in this day and age, it is not acceptable that places exist where women can be treated as second-class citizens. Part 7 will outlaw private members’ clubs discriminating against their women members. So, down at the golf club, every day will be “ladies day”.

I turn to how the Bill will tackle discrimination against older people. In 2007, pensioners outnumbered children for the first time, and in just 20 years’ time half the adult population will be over 50. Today we can expect to live a quarter of our lives in retirement. That is a seismic demographic change, and it demands action to tackle the prejudice that still constrains older people. Our ban on age discrimination in the workplace in 2006 was important, but we need to go further.

Older people are being discriminated against by those providing goods and services. We all know of examples of that from constituents’ complaints. For instance, a constituent of mine came to see me after he had booked a holiday to go and see his daughter in the United States. He had arranged travel insurance for £175 and then had to postpone the holiday for a fortnight because his daughter was ill. During that time, he had his 70th birthday and the insurance went up from £175 to £831. He simply could not afford to go.

The Bill will prohibit such unjustifiable age discrimination in the provision of goods and services. It will mean that an insurance company will not be able to discriminate arbitrarily against older people. We will outlaw the discrimination and unfairness that still persists against older people in social care and in the national health service. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has initiated a national review led by the South West strategic health authority to look at how to implement the ban on age discrimination in health and social care, so that we can be sure that, whether treatment for mental illness or back pain is involved, older people get care every bit as good as that for younger people.

As the Bill goes through the House, we will consult on how the measure will be put into practice. The new provision will not prevent the justifiable preferential treatment of older people, such as free bus passes or cheaper ticket prices for pensioners.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): As one who opposes all forms of discrimination, I have a lot of sympathy with the right hon. and learned Lady’s point about age discrimination. However, will the Bill have any unintended consequences? Saga, for example, provides lots of great services for people over 50. Will its operations have to cease? Lots of older people get cheaper car insurance by virtue of the fact that they are older. Will that now end? There may be unintended consequences.

Ms Harman: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has asked that question, because it gives me the opportunity to reassure older people that justifiable, preferential treatment such as he has described will not be banned—far from it. Unjustifiable treatment and discrimination against older people will, however, be banned under the Bill. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on the point raised by Saga.

11 May 2009 : Column 560

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): There are some concerns about the issues raised by Saga, which is keen for there to be exemptions in the Bill. Can my right hon. and learned Friend give the House an assurance that, as the Bill goes through Committee, it will be made absolutely transparent, by one means or another, that those exemptions will exist?

Ms Harman: There will be a consultation, as my hon. Friend requests. There will be able to be exemptions, sector by sector, in the regulations that bring the measure into force. We all agree on the principle that unjustified, unfair treatment against older people is wrong. However, we all want some preferential treatment, such as free bus passes, to continue. The House will know that we will go forward on the basis of agreement.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): The measure is indeed excellent. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, it continues the work of all the anti-discrimination Acts passed by Labour Governments, although never by Tory ones.

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend about the injustice to people—not MPs, fortunately—who are forced to retire at 65? In Committee, could we not strengthen the approach to the issue of the national default retirement age? As it stands, all employers need to do in such cases is consider applications to continue working.

Ms Harman: As my hon. Friend will know, when we outlawed discrimination against older people in employment, the default retirement age was set to one side. We undertook to review it in 2012; the issue is on its own separate track.

The public sector equality duties that already apply in relation to race, gender and disability will be extended under the Bill to ensure that public bodies will also have to take action to tackle discrimination and promote equality for people of different ages—for example, by offering free IT lessons to older people, as Dame Joan Bakewell and I saw today at Age Concern’s Great Croft resource centre in Camden.

It is important to consider not only those who are older but the position of the growing number of people who care for an older relative. For most people, the care they get from their family is every bit as important as the care they get from health or social services, if not more so. The Bill will outlaw discrimination against carers. Most people who are caring for a relative also go out to work. So the woman who applies for a promotion at work will no longer be allowed to be told, “Sorry—we’ve given the promotion to someone else because we know you have your hands full looking after your elderly mother.” We will back up people who are doing the important work of caring for children and older and disabled relatives as well as going out to work.

Next Section Index Home Page