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The main problem with the Bill is that it has some really good intentions that have been muddled by ill-thought-out and, frankly, unworkable proposals that appear to have been tacked on at the last minute. I refer mainly to part 1, which deals with socio-economic inequalities. I know that this is one of the Minister’s favourite projects, but giving people a legal right to a better life will not magic up a better life for them. What
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the Government need to do, but have so far failed to do and show little sign of doing now, is to tackle the root causes of inequality: family breakdown, poor education, and worklessness. To push the responsibility on to local authorities is to duck the issue, and it will achieve nothing. People’s lives will not be changed by the provisions in the Bill, but Ministers will no doubt feel that they have fulfilled their obligations.

Last week’s poverty figures showed that the number of adults living in poverty had risen by 800,000 on this Government’s watch. Surely the Minister does not believe that the provisions in part 1 will change their lives by making new opportunities available to them and lifting them out of poverty. Sadly, in the past 12 years, this Government have failed to grasp the fundamental truth that just passing a law or setting a target will not change things. It takes more than that, as the 4 million children and 7.5 million adults living in poverty right now can tell them. I hope that the Government intend their forthcoming child poverty Bill to do rather more than this Bill does.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): On the point about socio-economic groups, is it not terribly important that the next census has the necessary investment to get the right information? We are already having arguments about population issues in the last census. If such data are to inform part of the Bill, they must be accurate in order for us to have a debate on them.

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend has made an extremely valid point, and I agree that we cannot make any moves unless the data are up to date and relevant, and are the correct data for making the necessary changes.

Dr. Evan Harris: Does the right hon. Lady agree that the best way to deal with inequality in relation to wealth is not necessarily through the measures in the Bill—she has already expressed her concerns about those—but to have policies to improve equality of opportunity and the taxation policies to redistribute wealth? Will she comment on whether she has any tax proposals, other than that on inheritance tax, that would tackle the problem more effectively than the Government have done? As she has rightly said, things have become more unequal under this Government.

Mrs. May: I am happy to mention one policy of ours that would tackle that issue: it is to change the working tax credit arrangements to get rid of the couples penalty. That policy would lift 300,000 children out of poverty, and I commend it to the hon. Gentleman.

Lynne Jones rose—

Mrs. May: I did say that I was going to make some progress, and I am aware that many Members wish to speak. Moreover, the Leader of the House and Minister for Women and Equality said that her speech would be long—and, indeed, it was.

Equality of opportunity in the workplace is something on which I have campaigned for some time, particularly the gender pay gap. The Conservative party put forward proposals to tackle that gender pay gap more than a
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year ago, and my colleague in the other place, Baroness Morris of Bolton, has a private Member’s Bill in progress. After the comments made in the other place when that Bill was debated, I was hopeful that this Equality Bill would include our proposals to address the gender pay gap, which would mean that we could work with the Government. Sadly, however, the proposals in this Bill are clumsy and ill judged. In four years’ time, the Government will have the power to demand that every private sector company with more than 250 employees carries out a compulsory pay audit, regardless of whether or not it has a record of discrimination.

By the way, there is clearly one law for the public sector and another for the private sector. There are no provisions in the Bill that would have a similar effect on public sector bodies, even though the pay gap in the public sector is far from satisfactory. Our own policy, the Conservative party policy, would compel only companies found guilty of discrimination by an employment tribunal to carry out a pay audit—a punishment for those that have offended and a deterrent for those that might. Our proposal is fair and measured; the Government’s is heavy-handed and obstinate.

The Leader of the House and Minister for Women said last week:

I have to say to her that it seems she does not understand her own policy, because her proposals would do exactly the reverse of what she said—fair employers will have to bear just as much cost and inconvenience as unfair employers, and the result will be a bureaucratic nightmare that will set back the equal pay campaign. I think that this proposal shows the Minister’s complete lack of empathy for the situation in which many businesses find themselves. Adding another burden that will be costly and time consuming when many are struggling to stay afloat and keep people in jobs at all is completely insensitive. Even the Business Minister, the noble Baroness Vadera, has warned businesses not to be distracted by the Equality Bill, so I suggest that she, too, does not feel entirely comfortable with its proposals.

Mr. Bellingham: Surely what my right hon. Friend is saying makes a great deal of sense. What we should do is move towards a system of compulsory pay audits only if the situation does not improve. As she rightly points out, we need to change the culture, and placing oppressive burdens on all businesses at this stage would make no sense at all. Audits should be carried out only on companies that have broken the law.

Mrs. May: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. If a company—

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend allow me?

Mrs. May: May I respond to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) first? I entirely agree with him that it is right for companies found guilty of discrimination to pay a price for that—and I believe that the price should be having a compulsory pay audit.

John Bercow: I am extraordinarily grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. May I beg to differ with my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk
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(Mr. Bellingham), and, indeed, with my right hon. Friend? I put it to her that unless there is universal transparency, as opposed to a selective policy, none of us in the House will be able confidently to say that there is not widespread undetected and unreported discrimination taking place.

Mrs. May: I have to say to my hon. Friend that I believe a proportionate response is necessary, which is what we have proposed. I also say that it is not possible to be sure that the positive impact that my hon. Friend suggests will result from its clauses will indeed happen. We do not know exactly what information the companies are going to be publishing, as that will be a matter for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to determine in due course. The Bill may not therefore have the impact that my hon. Friend believes it will. I do not believe that company pay audits will have the desired impact. What is important is ensuring that we have a system under which people can take discrimination cases to a tribunal and if companies are found guilty of discrimination in individual cases, action will—unlike at the moment—be required of them. I think that those companies should be required to pay a price—effectively by having a pay audit.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab) rose—

Mrs. May: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman so that I can have a drink of water.

Mr. Dhanda: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I hope that she enjoys her drink of water.

I have been listening carefully to what the right hon. Lady has been saying. Her argument seems to be, “We can’t do this because it is too difficult and too technical, and businesses would suffer.” I put it to her that most fair-minded employers would support these changes. She is backing herself into the same corner as her party, as she will see if she reads the Hansard report of the debate on the minimum wage a few years ago.

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of what I said is not entirely accurate. What I want is a change in the equal pay legislation that is proportionate and requires companies that have been found guilty of discrimination to undergo a compulsory pay audit, which I believe will serve as a punishment for those who are found guilty and as a deterrent for those who may consider discrimination.

Lynne Jones rose—

Mrs. May: I want to finish this point. I did not say that the proposals in the Bill were impossible to implement for technical reasons. The technical aspects have not yet been agreed on, decided or discussed. What I did say was that requiring every company of a certain size to undergo a compulsory pay audit, regardless of whether it had been practising discrimination, would mean that fair employers would have to pay a price despite not having been guilty of discrimination.

Lynne Jones rose—

Lynne Featherstone rose—

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Mrs. May: I am going to make some progress now.

Lynne Jones rose—

Lynne Featherstone rose—

Mrs. May: I have said that I am going to make some progress.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has made it quite clear that she is not going to give way at this point.

Mrs. May: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I say to the Government once again that I hope they will consider our own proposals on equal pay, which I believe to be more measured and more workable. We also appreciate that the gender pay gap is about more complex issues than discrimination in the workplace. It is also about issues such as the careers advice given to young women and girls, and the choices that they make.

We will press the Government to look beyond the figures and think about how we can make workplaces more female and family-friendly—although I have to say that I suspect that the Minister for Women and Equality herself will have a view on how to help women to deal with overbearing male bosses who do not allow them to progress, and who force them to give up their promotion ambitions. We will also be pressing the Government to reconsider their wider proposals on employment tribunals. Giving tribunals vast, sweeping powers that affect all employees would place too much power in their hands. We do not know the exact nature of the powers or how stringent they will be—the Bill is very scant on detail in that regard—and we intend to press for more information in Committee.

Much has been made of the provisions on positive action, and the Minister paid a great deal of attention to it in her speech. She made a point that she has made many times before about the difference between the numbers of women on the Conservative and the Labour Benches in the House, and the importance of all-women shortlists in having delivered the current number of women Labour Members of Parliament. I repeat what I have said on many occasions in the past: we support the extension of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. [Interruption.] The Solicitor-General says, from a sedentary position, that we are not going to use it. That suggests that the Solicitor-General does not understand what the legislation does. What it does is enable political parties to use positive action of a variety of sorts. It is what has enabled us to introduce our priority list. It is not necessary for a political party to start imposing all-women shortlists under that legislation.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. May: I will make one further point, and then I will give way to my hon. Friend.

As I have said, on a number of occasions the Minister has referred to the discrepancy between the numbers of women on the Conservative and Labour Benches. Because of our use of positive action, we have selected a far higher proportion of women in winnable seats than we had previously.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): How many?

Mrs. May: As I was about to tell the House, if the Conservative party wins the next general election by only one seat, the number of women Conservative Members will increase from 17 to 55. The issue for the Labour party is that some of those women will have defeated Labour women. The issue for the House is that the overall number of women in this House may not rise as a result of that increase in the number of Conservative women Members.

Mr. Boswell: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Just for the record, is she aware—I suspect she is—that my own seat, from which I retire at the next general election, is to be split in two, and as a result of the well-conceived A-list system that we have come up with, there are to be two candidates who are both of very high quality, one of whom is a man, while the other, who will be my MP in the future, is a woman?

Mrs. May: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. They are, indeed, two very good candidates, and I am sure they will make a very positive contribution to this House when they are elected.

On positive action, I must say that there seems to be a discrepancy between what the Leader of the House has said in public and what the Bill was originally supposed to do. One example that is often given on the wider issue of positive action and its use is that in circumstances where a primary school that has only female teachers has a job vacancy for which there are two candidates of equal merit, one of whom is a man and the other a woman, the head teacher or school governors could be allowed to appoint the man in order to address the imbalance in the work force. That must only be allowed as a tie-breaker in situations where there are two genuinely equally qualified candidates. In such circumstances, I would be happy to support the proposal to allow companies to take into account the diversity of a work force when making appointments, so long as that applied only where there are two candidates of equal merit—although I suspect that it might be hard to find many circumstances in which the candidates were genuinely absolutely equally qualified.

However, that is not the approach that the right hon. and learned Lady has been taking when explaining the proposal, because last week we learned that she wants to use it to pack the boards of nationalised banks with women, saying:

That is precisely what this proposal should not be about. The right hon. and learned Lady has given the impression that this proposal will allow widespread positive discrimination, and if that is the effect, then we oppose it. Indeed, the explanatory notes to the Bill, prepared by the Government Equalities Office, state that this proposal might allow a police service to give preferential selection to candidates from an ethnic minority where there are

I am not sure that there would ever be a situation where there are “a number” of genuinely equally qualified candidates, but the note continues:

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Taking into consideration the merits of other candidates is not the same as allowing positive action only when there are two candidates of equal merit. The Government therefore seem to be confused about this proposal: either it is a limited measure to be used only as a tie-break in rare cases, or it will allow positive discrimination as a widespread recruitment policy. We therefore intend to examine this proposal further in Committee.

We also need more detail on the proposals relating to public sector procurement. I understand the Government’s intention in this area, but the Bill is, again, worryingly vague. What exactly will be required of a company in order to demonstrate that it is meeting acceptable equality levels? Indeed, how are acceptable equality levels to be defined, and who will define them? We all agree that there needs to be fairness in the business world and that the public sector should always take care in procurement, but as the Government have spent so much time preparing the Bill, we expected more detail. Given the concerns raised by the Glover review about small businesses and procurement, we need to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck so that equality flourishes in our business sector, but without placing unfair burdens on small companies.

I welcome the inclusion in the Bill of age discrimination measures. Unfair discrimination on the basis of age should be as unacceptable as any other form of discrimination and we welcome the action to tackle it. However, I want to press the Government on a few points to ensure that there are no unintended consequences of the legislation. We all want to tackle age discrimination, but I am sure Members would accept that

Those were the exact words of the Government’s discrimination law review and that principle is maintained by the Government’s correct decision to exclude under-18s from the age provisions of this Bill. The Minister for Women and Equality will be aware that there is concern that the Government have ignored that principle, particularly as regards insurance.

The discrimination law review stated that there was a need for the continuation of

as well as a need to allow

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