Previous Section Index Home Page

Mrs May: I can confirm that we will do that. I am conscious that it is important that we ensure that business is consulted when we are introducing such changes to
17 Jun 2010 : Column 1019
ensure that we can introduce them in as bureaucratically and administratively light a way as possible so that the impact on small businesses is not too great. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will announce this morning that the childhood and families taskforce that he is setting up will consider this matter and consult on how to put it into place.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Has the Home Secretary had a chance to read the Prime Minister's excellent article in the Financial Times in which he says that the priority for Europe must be full equality in the workplace? I welcome that. Is the Cabinet a workplace, and when will half of it consist of women?

Mrs May: That was a somewhat disappointing question from the right hon. Gentleman. As he will know, the proportion of women who are full members of the Cabinet under the coalition Government is exactly the same as the proportion of women who were full members of the Cabinet under the Labour Government.

Violence Against Women

3. Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to tackle violence against women. [2702]

6. Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to tackle violence against women. [2705]

The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): I welcome the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) to his place. Violence against women and girls remains prevalent in our society. This is unacceptable and a cross-Government strategy is the best way to address this. I look forward to discussing with colleagues across Government how we will take forward our approach in this area.

Mr Jones: I thank the Minister for that answer. During the previous football World cup in 2006, there was a 30% rise in domestic violence on the days that England played. What assurances can my hon. Friend provide the House that women will be protected, especially during the current tournament?

Lynne Featherstone: The Home Secretary recently stated that such violence is not acceptable under any circumstances, and even the World cup does not give perpetrators the slightest excuse to be violent. The Association of Chief Police Officers wrote to all police forces in May to advise them that they should be aware of that and of the possibility of violence during the World cup. Forces were asked to consider what measures they could implement, and a range of recommendations were taken forward, including visiting the 10 most likely offenders from previous experience.

Andrew Stephenson: Does my hon. Friend recognise the advantages of taking a coherent, cross-departmental approach to tackling violence against women, particularly in relation to forced marriages?

Lynne Featherstone: Yes, we do recognise that. Violence against women cannot be dealt with by one Department alone, as it cuts across the whole of government. On forced marriage, we all supported the original Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which was brought
17 Jun 2010 : Column 1020
forward by my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. We will do all we can to work cross-departmentally to make sure that we attack forced marriage, which is unacceptable.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): Rape is an act of violence against both women and men, and for both women and men who are victims of rape, it is often their lack of confidence in coming forward that prevents people from being brought to justice. What are the implications of the proposals to extend anonymity to defendants in rape trials on the confidence of male and female victims in coming forward?

Lynne Featherstone: Obviously, the conviction rate in this country is not good enough and needs to be improved, and the last thing that we want is for fewer victims to come forward, but we have not yet seen compelling evidence that offering anonymity to defendants would reduce those reporting rates. The attitude that the victim is somehow responsible is prevalent in this country, and that is something that we will be looking at. I assure the right hon. Lady that we will be looking at all the options in terms of addressing this issue and debating it in the House.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) on her appointment as the Minister for Equalities, and I congratulate the Home Secretary on hers as the Minister for Women and Equalities. The Opposition will be very keen to work with them on areas in which we can help to support women and to promote equalities.

I am sorry that the Home Secretary did not answer this question, as she will be aware of the extent of concern about the Government's proposals on rape. Will she therefore write to me in reply, in addition to her hon. Friend's response? I wrote to the Home Secretary on 27 May, in her capacity as the Minister for Women and Equalities, about the Government's proposal to introduce anonymity for rape defendants. I received a reply from her officials making it clear that this was not seen as her responsibility and that it was being sent instead to the Ministry of Justice. I urge her to rethink that approach because she will know, as the Minister for Women and Equalities and as Home Secretary, that according to the British crime survey, 93% of rape victims are women. Singling out rape uniquely as a crime for which defendants need greater protection against false allegations sends strong and troubling signals about the way that women should be treated in the justice system. I urge her to reconsider this issue and to say whether she thinks it is right for defendants in rape trials to be treated uniquely differently from defendants in other serious crimes.

Lynne Featherstone: I assure the right hon. Lady that we definitely see this as an issue for women and equalities, albeit that it resides ultimately in the Ministry of Justice legislatively, and that the Home Secretary will contact her directly regarding her questions.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does the Minister accept that a large number of victims of domestic violence are men? Given that she is a Minister in the Government Equalities Office, will she confirm that the Government treat domestic violence against men just as seriously as domestic violence against women?

17 Jun 2010 : Column 1021

Lynne Featherstone: I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful contribution. I am, indeed, the Minister for Equalities, and both men and women are included in that. Some 4% of men are victims of domestic violence, and given that the figure for women is 6%, those figures are not so disparate.

Science and Technology

4. Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): If she will take steps to increase the proportion of people entering careers in science and technology who are women. [2703]

The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): We are absolutely committed to working with teachers and careers advisers to encourage more young women to enter careers in science, engineering and technology, and to supporting British business to increase opportunities for professional women in this sector. The science and technology sector is critical to the UK economy, and women have an enormous contribution to make.

Chi Onwurah: I thank the Minister for her reply. When I entered Imperial college to study engineering, the proportion of women in engineering was about 12%. More than 25 years later, that proportion is almost exactly the same. Does the Minister agree that that represents a huge failure in the science and engineering establishment of this country and that now, when we need to rebalance our economy towards engineering and science, urgent measures are required?

Lynne Featherstone: Yes, I agree with the hon. Lady, who is an excellent role model in her field, and I should be happy to talk with her if she has ideas to share with me. It is important that we take this forward. Many companies have already taken action to increase the numbers of women in their work force, but we are clearly not moving fast enough. British Gas has been quite good. It has doubled its work force of women engineers by recruiting women and retraining them. We have to move further and we have to move faster.

Flexible Working

5. Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the effects of flexible working arrangements on gender equality in the workplace. [2704]

17 Jun 2010 : Column 1022

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Minister for Women and Equalities (Mrs Theresa May): I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Flexible working is positive for businesses because it helps them keep valued members of staff. The evidence is clear that flexible working arrangements benefit women, by helping them to balance their caring responsibilities. The coalition Government are united on extending the right to request flexible working; indeed, we have a commitment to do so in the coalition agreement. We will launch a consultation with business at the earliest opportunity.

Karen Lumley: Will my right hon. Friend comment on what wider social benefits the Government believe will result from the extension of flexible working rights?

Mrs May: I am happy to do so, although we should make more of the fact that there are considerable benefits to businesses in providing flexible working, including keeping valued members of staff, attracting members of staff and being able to dip into the widest possible pool of talent. There are enormous social benefits for families when both women and men can better balance their home and work responsibilities through flexible working arrangements. We have seen that already. There are enormous benefits for children when parents are able to spend more time with them.

Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab): Will the Minister consider looking at the experience of countries such as Norway and Sweden where, as part of promoting greater flexibility and general equality, the Governments have introduced a whole month of parental leave that fathers have to take? This has increased the number of men taking parental leave and helped promote greater equality in the workplace. Will she consider that, as the Government look at their reform of parental leave?

Mrs May: I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. The proposals that we put forward in opposition on flexible parental leave-we are now looking at how we take those forward and improve the arrangements for parents and maternity leave-gave a better offer to men than the one month's paternity leave that she cites from Norway. It enabled couples to decide who would take the leave that was available and stay at home with the baby after it was born. So I think we can offer fathers and mothers a better opportunity than the hon. Lady suggests.

17 Jun 2010 : Column 1023

Legal Aid Payments

11.33 am

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD) ( Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the consequences of the timing of legal aid payments to the charity Refugee and Migrant Justice.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): Refugee and Migrant Justice entered into administration earlier this week. It wrote to me a month ago warning me of the risk, and has since made requests for substantial assistance from public funds. The organisation was one of many that provide legal advice and representation to individuals on asylum and immigration matters funded by legal aid. The Legal Services Commission is confident that there is widespread provision of legal advice in this area and that overall capacity will not be affected by the closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice. More than 250 offices nationally are currently providing this type of service.

It may help if I explain the background to this unfortunate situation. The Legal Services Commission has worked closely with Refugee and Migrant Justice for the last few years to help the organisation to make the change to a system of payment based on units of work, the graduated fees scheme. As a result, Refugee and Migrant Justice has received substantial support-over and above the support given to not-for-profit and other organisations-to help it transfer to the current payment system.

However, it is crucial that the Government achieve value for public money. The fixed fee system introduced three years ago by the last Government is already being successfully used by the vast majority of not-for-profit organisations in this area of law. As other organisations have successfully made the transition, it is only reasonable to expect Refugee and Migrant Justice to do the same.

It has been suggested, and is implied in the hon. Gentleman's question, that under this system payments to Refugee and Migrant Justice have been delayed. It is not a question of any late payments. Refugee and Migrant Justice was paid what was due. However, it did not make the efficiency savings that other providers made.

There is significant long-term interest in the work from other providers, both not-for-profit organisations and private solicitor firms. The Legal Services Commission is currently running a tender round for new contracts for immigration and asylum services from October 2010. There has been an increase in the number of offices applying to do the work. Providers have also bid to handle more than double the amount of cases currently available. It would be wrong to divert legal aid funds to one of the bidders in the middle of the bidding process.

In my opinion, given this unfortunate situation, the highest priority must be the vulnerable clients of Refugee and Migrant Justice. Now that the organisation has left the market, the Legal Services Commission will work with it and other providers to seek to minimise disruption and ensure that clients continue to receive a service. I have checked this morning and I can assure the House that the LSC is working closely with the administrators to ensure that any disruption to clients is minimised.
17 Jun 2010 : Column 1024
Even today, LSC staff have prioritised the approximately 20 clients of Refugee and Migrant Justice who have court appearances.

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), will ensure that LSC staff continue to prioritise that area. He and I agree that the main task now is to ensure that the interests of that vulnerable group are properly protected and that no one is left without the legal assistance they require.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his full and careful response. On behalf of colleagues who have huge numbers of asylum and immigration cases involving people who use those services, may I say that I hope he appreciates the importance of the subject to them and to our constituents?

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that currently-so I am advised-13,000 clients are being looked after by Refugee and Migrant Justice, including nearly 1,000 children, who are of course very vulnerable? Does he accept, too, that the reason for the financial problem is the change in the payment system? Although there has been a reduction in income because the payment system has changed, Refugee and Migrant Justice has also reduced its costs by the same amount-I am advised that it is by 40%-and is now being paid in arrears rather than up front, a system that the Law Society and immigration law practitioners have said is unsustainable. I should be grateful if, in time, the Secretary of State would discuss with those organisations how we might improve the system.

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give an assurance that he or his hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State will make sure that all clients who have been the responsibility of the organisation are given the assurance that their cases will be fully looked after in the immediate days ahead? Are there any other charities in the field with the same sort of problem? If so, there needs to be some continuing and widened support. Will he or our hon. Friend be willing to meet those of us with a direct interest, and the organisations where appropriate, to make sure that there is a stable and secure footing in the years and months ahead for this most important legally aided work?

Mr Clarke: I am grateful to the hon. Member. Certainly the problem arose as a result of the change to the graduated fees scheme in 2007, but I do not accept that the failure was necessarily caused by that. Every other organisation, including the other not-for-profit organisations, has coped with this. I do not criticise the 2007 decision, but it was designed to improve the efficiency of the use of public funds in providing large amounts of money to give legal aid to those making asylum claims or facing threats of deportation, or whatever. As far as I am aware, this is the only organisation that proved in the end unable to manage its affairs and its finances to avoid the demise that has occurred.

I know that the system is not popular; I know that the Law Society does not like it, but in these difficult times I am not going to go back on it, because it does provide value for money. We have just invited tenders under the system, and the number of people who want to provide services in this area has actually gone up.

Next Section Index Home Page