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Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): Will the stations champion have responsibility for defending the legitimate rights of train-spotters? There is a serious civil liberties issue, as train enthusiasts have been impeded
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by station staff and prevented from pursuing an interest that is at least harmless, and at best can add to the security of a station.

Mr. Hoon: There has been much over-writing about the modest changes that are likely to occur as a result of extra security in our stations. We would all welcome that extra security, and it is important that people should be free to go about their legitimate enjoyment of their private time. I know how keen some hon. Members, particularly on the Liberal Democrat Benches, are on train-spotting. I would not want enhanced facilities for security to inhibit in any way my hon. Friend’s pursuit of his leisure-time activities.

T6. [275309] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): From 2011, the increase in public spending will reduce to 0.7 per cent. a year, but many programmes, such as that of the Highways Agency, go on to 2014. How will the Secretary of State ensure that the highways building programme does not shudder to a halt in 2011? There will be considerable dismay in areas such as mine if the improvements to junction 9 on the M40, which have been promised for a long time, are affected suddenly in 2011 by everyone saying, “Terribly sorry, there is no money.”

Mr. Hoon: I am quite confident that the programmes to which the Government have committed of improving our highways, railways and capacity across our transport network can be delivered within the profile of spending that has been allowed by this Government. I am much less confident that that would be the case if the Conservative party were elected and imposed serious cuts on our transport network, including by failing to commit to Crossrail.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give a brief update on a matter of concern to me and many others regarding the rumour about the renegotiation of the franchise on the east coast main line with National Express?

Mr. Hoon: There will be no renegotiation of franchises.

T8. [275311] Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My constituent Jessica Berry attended the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign launch of its Trailblazers report. What more can the Government do to assist handicapped people, in particular young people, to access trains and buses, and to ensure that when they have accessed them they can get off where they want to, rather than sometimes having to struggle in order to reach their destination?

Paul Clark: We take seriously, obviously, the accessibility of public transport for all concerned, in particular for those with disabilities. That is why there are end dates for all buses to be Disability Discrimination Act compliant by a rolling programme of 2015-16, and that is the case for railway stock as well. Programmes such as access for all, which allow people to move on to station platforms and across from one platform to another, are equally important. Those are the programmes in which the Government are investing money to ensure that we make life much simpler for those with disabilities.

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Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Flexible Working Arrangements

1. Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with Ministerial colleagues on awareness among parents and carers of disabled children and adults of their right to request flexible working arrangements. [275274]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): We have been running a campaign since April to increase awareness among parents and carers of the right to request flexible working. This media campaign has been focused on regional radio, newspapers, parenting and lifestyle magazines and websites. We will evaluate the campaign and assess awareness in the light of its results.

Mrs. Hodgson: Flexible working is both family friendly and business friendly. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that those requests should always fall on open ears?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It helps families if parents of young children, or family members who care for an elderly or disabled relative, can continue to go out to work and choose their working hours, or the days of the week on which they work, to suit their caring responsibilities. She is right that it is important that employers respond positively to such requests when they are made.

I can tell my hon. Friend and the House that when such requests are made, employers respond positively to them. I have just looked at the figures that relate to her question. For people who care for an elderly or disabled relative, 96 per cent. of requests for flexible working are agreed. For working parents with young children, 95 per cent. of requests for flexible working are agreed. The problem is that people do not make the request because they do not know their rights. Only 10 per cent. of carers knew they had the right to flexible working. That is why most of them do not make a request. Only 19 per cent. of parents with children under six know that they have the right. The problem is not employers complying; it is that people do not know they have the right, so they do not ask.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): While welcoming the campaign that the right hon. and learned Lady mentioned, and the very positive response from employers, is it not the case that an enlightened employer will not only have to agree to his statutory obligations, but within the flexible working time he has agreed, he will need to be additionally flexible because, unpredictably, those people will need to leave within the flexible hours that have been agreed? Employers will need to go beyond their statutory responsibilities if they are to give the entitlement referred to in the question.

Ms Harman: That is true. However, once employers and managers move from a strict “everyone working nine to five, five days a week” system and start responding
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to such requests, they find it much easier to comply with them that they thought, and that they can be even more accommodating than the law requires them to be.

Over the next two decades the number of people over 85 is expected to double, and the care given to them by their families will be every bit as important as—if not more important than—the care provided by social services departments and health authorities. We do not want loads of people to have to give up their work because they are providing that important family care, so the question of their ability to work and employers’ ability to respond flexibly is a huge one for the future.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend knows as well as I do that we owe a big debt to carers, who lift the burden from the NHS and social services. She has rightly drawn attention to the number of carers who are not aware of their rights. How can we help them to become aware of those rights, and also help employers through difficult times so that they do not punish carers?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has raised many times in the House the question of what happens if people are made to work short time. There are a number of reasons why working practices are changing. According to recent research I have seen, most people who work part time—the majority of whom are women—would prefer to work full time. The position has changed. We have tended to assume in the past that women work part time because that suits them and their family responsibilities, but now most part-time work is involuntary: people would work full time if they could. Increasingly, employers are trying to make people work part time or short time in order to manage until the economy picks up. In that context, awareness of the availability of tax credits is essential. It is also essential for employers to know that they can defer payment of tax to help them with their cash flow.

Gender Reassignment (Equality Bill)

2. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Whether the protected characteristic of gender reassignment proposed in the Equality Bill will protect transgendered people who choose not to seek medical advice or to change their physiological attributes. [275276]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): Yes, the Bill provides an amended definition of gender reassignment which removes the reference to a person’s being under medical supervision that exists in the current anti-discrimination law. In the Bill, the protected characteristic of gender reassignment covers transsexual people who take steps to enable them to live permanently in the opposite gender to the one assigned to them at birth. There is no requirement for them to seek medical advice or undergo any surgery or other medical intervention.

Hugh Bayley: Some transgendered people seek gender reassignment while others do not, but they all face a potential risk of discrimination at work or elsewhere. The Bill makes clear that protection is given to transsexuals, but do the Government intend all transgendered people, including those who do not seek gender reassignment, to be protected?

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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): God preserve us!

Hugh Bayley: You do not need preservation.

The Solicitor-General: Once again, the Tory party has shown how up to date and understanding it is.

One way or another, my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) has made a good point. We will find that most people in that position are protected. As well as the protection I have already described, there is protection by association or by perception, which applies to gender reassignment as well and should cover the people to whom my hon. Friend has referred. I think that the cover is reasonably comprehensive.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Is the Minister aware that transsexuals face an NHS lottery? There are heavy restrictions in, for instance, Oxfordshire, where they can only get part of what they need done. That is akin to the position in the 1960s, when people were forced to go to Morocco or the Netherlands for surgery. Does the Minister agree that that is an appalling situation for them to find themselves in, and will she commit herself to lobbying the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that people who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria need not face such dreadful circumstances?

The Solicitor-General: As the hon. Lady says, that is really a matter for the Department of Health. However, the Equality Bill places a duty on all public sector bodies to ensure that they end discrimination and promote the well-being of all the protected strands. That will be a useful weapon, and will help to ensure that services are spread more evenly across the country.

Cohabitation Bill

3. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): If she will make an assessment of the merits of the provisions in the Cohabitation Bill [ Lords]. [275277]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): I am happy to do so, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this to my attention. The intention behind the Bill is to provide financial obligations to support children on the breakdown of cohabiting relationships. The Government have considered the financial recommendations of the Law Commission’s 2007 report and are considering further what the best approach is for England and Wales.

Mary Creagh: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She will be aware that there are more than 2 million cohabiting couples in the UK, and in 2006 a fifth of all children were born to people in a cohabiting relationship. Does she agree that the part of the Bill that states that on the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship, a judge should be able to decide what is a fair outcome and allocate support to the ex-partner for up to three years in order to seek child care and enable that person to get back into work, provides useful measures? The Government could use them to ensure that we prevent women and their children—it is usually women—from falling into homelessness and poverty when a cohabiting relationship breaks down.

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Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is again asking me to assess the merits of the Bill’s provisions, and I have said that I will do so; I will certainly have a look. The Law Commission proposals were about addressing hardship. There is legislation in Scotland—the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006—which looks more at compensating parties for losses incurred as a result of cohabitation. There are many different approaches to trying to deal with this problem. The Government are considering the matter but have not yet come to a final decision on the best way forward for England and Wales. I am, however, happy to discuss this matter further with my hon. Friend.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): As you will know, Mr. Speaker, common law in Scotland has always recognised a man and woman living together as having a common-law marriage. Will the Minister look carefully at the Scottish situation to see what we in England and Wales can learn from it?

Maria Eagle: Indeed, we will. One reason why we have not yet come to a final conclusion in assessing the different approaches to what we accept is an important issue is that the Scottish legislation came into force in 2006 and there is ongoing research on its impact; it will be useful to have some of the research’s conclusions before coming to a final decision on the best way forward. The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of the myths associated with what is often known as common-law marriage, which, of course, does not carry any rights at all beyond the ordinary property rights and rights within law. While we are coming to a conclusion about whether legislation is appropriate in this respect, it is important that we continue to provide advice to cohabiting couples—there are 2.3 million such couples in the UK—about what the current rights are, and, perhaps more importantly, are not.

Public Sector Employment

4. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What plans she has to increase the number of women employed in senior positions in the public sector. [275278]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): We have made some progress in increasing the number of women in key senior public sector positions; for example, women now fill 32 per cent. of senior civil service posts and 20 per cent. of local authority chief executive posts. Those are increases of 17 per cent. and 10 per cent. respectively compared with the situation in 1997, but there is still a lot more work to do. The Equality Bill will introduce positive action provisions allowing public authorities, as employers, to address this under-representation at senior levels if they choose to do so.

Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that response and in particular for her reference to the civil service, but is she aware that over the last three years there has actually been a decline in the number of women appointed to the most senior positions in the civil service? In 2007-08, 24 per cent. of the top 105 senior appointments were filled by women; that was down on the year before, which was down on the previous year. Therefore, there appears to be a decline in the very top civil service positions. What can we do about that?

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Maria Eagle: If we look across a number of public sector organisations—of course, the position is worse in the private sector—we see a general pattern of advance, then stalling and now a slight slipping back. It is therefore clear that we need to do more and take further steps to improve the situation. May I also just emphasise that this is not all about arithmetical equality, but about using properly the talent of all our people in the top jobs in this country? It is not, therefore, about trying to get the numbers right; it is about trying to facilitate proper opportunities for talented people. We need to persuade as well as enable, and lead by example as well as exhort, and that is what we seek to do.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am very encouraged by what the Minister says. Does she agree that, where there is a male in a top job and a talented female deputy has been in place for a considerable time, done a very good job and has stood in, at times, for the boss, she should automatically get the next job? Can the Minister think of anyone close to her to whom that might apply?

Maria Eagle: I think I know what the hon. Gentleman is getting at, and I do not wish to get drawn into the individual circumstances in particular workplaces—he is inviting me to walk down a very difficult path. We need to do better overall in order to use the talents of all our people, including the women.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): First, Mr. Speaker, may I apologise unreservedly to both you and the whole House for having been a little late in arriving for women and equality questions?

In some departments there is very much a glass ceiling for women, but another issue that women face in state institutions and departments is the gender pay gap. In some public sector institutions men are being paid 25 per cent. more than women, the national average being 17 per cent. The Equality Bill specifically does not include the public sector in the provisions the Government are proposing on gender pay audits. The Minister for Women and Equality is very keen to accuse the private sector of problems regarding the gender pay gap, but what are the Government proposing to do to end the gap in the public sector?

Maria Eagle: I am glad that the right hon. Lady is, like Labour Members, concerned about the gender pay gap. The Equality Bill will put an obligation on the public sector, and a more onerous obligation where there are 150 or more employees, to produce more information than we will be asking the private sector to produce. The public sector will therefore be leading by example, and it is important that we ensure that we do. Perhaps she was a couple of minutes late into the Chamber because she was reading the Bill—the provision is in there. We will make sure that we place this obligation on the public sector. May I remind the House that the public sector generally does better than the private sector? However, having transparency—seeing what the position is in a meaningful way—is the real way, as we have all discovered over the past couple of weeks, to find out what is going on.

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