Twentieth Report of Session 2019–21 Contents

8Gender equality: Commission strategy and stocktaking53

These EU documents are politically important because:

  • they outline the EU’s approach to gender equality over the next five years;
  • they serve as an important marker for the Government’s own plans; and
  • they raise questions regarding the future of new EU rights that are yet to be given effect to in the UK and have no domestic equivalent.

Action

  • Write to the Minister for Women, Baroness Berridge of the Vale of Catmose, requesting further information on the Government’s views on the documents and the domestic actions that it is taking in the area.
  • Draw this Report chapter to the attention of the Women and Equalities Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and the Work and Pension Committee.

Overview

8.1The documents under scrutiny concern the EU’s approach to the promotion and protection of equality. Document (a)—‘A Union of Equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020–2025’—sets out the von der Leyen Commission’s policy objectives and key actions for the coming five years. Document (b)—‘Report on the implementation of the EU Action Plan 2017–2019 on tackling the gender pay gap’—looks back at the success of the EU’s recent gender pay gap initiatives.

8.2Taken together, these documents give a comprehensive overview of the EU’s progress and ambitions to combat all facets of direct and indirect gender-based discrimination (in terms of employment, pay, care, power and pensions, and continuing violence, harassment and gender stereotypes). They also provide an opportunity to interrogate the Government’s actions in the area: in terms of the EU-initiated work that it has undertaken whilst an EU Member State, and the complementary domestic initiatives that it has carried-over from the previous administration.

8.3Both documents are briefly outlined below—focussing on the headline aspects of the EU’s strategy and stocktaking exercise—before the Government’s response is assessed. As a ‘roadmap’ for future action, document (a) details the Commission’s legislative and policy priorities for the coming five years and calls on Member States to take specific action in certain priority areas. These calls are directly relevant to the UK during the post-exit transition period—when the UK is obliged to follow and give effect to EU law—and afterwards (when the legal and policy responses of the 28 EU Member States will serve as a comparator for the UK’s own approach to equalities).

Document (a) (41124) (A Union of Equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020–2025)

8.4The Commission Communication outlines the EU’s position as a global leader in gender equality (with 14 of the top 20 countries worldwide EU Member States). The EU’s prioritisation of gender equality is explained as a constitutional value of the Union; provided for in the Treaties, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and the recently adopted European Pillar of Social Rights. The pursuit of gender equality is also explained as an important focal point of the EU’s green and digital transitions strategies with gender equality positively associated with higher productivity.

8.5The Communication does, however, note slow progress on the behalf of Member States towards full gender equality with only marginal improvements since 2005. The Commission recognises that full equality is not inevitable and, indeed, that gains made over the last three decades are reversable. With this in mind, the Commission has committed to give new impetus to securing gender equality through targeted measures and strengthened gender mainstreaming.54

8.6The Communication identifies six priority areas which, in the interests of brevity, are summarised below. Specific focus is directed towards forthcoming legislative and major non-legislative (policy) actions and where the Commission makes direct calls on Member States to address particular issues.

1. Being free from violence and stereotypes

Ending gender-based violence:

  • The EU to accede to the Istanbul Convention (the benchmark for international standards in the area)
  • Extend crimes—where harmonisation is possible—to specific forms of gender-based violence in accordance with Article 83(1) TFEU (known as ‘Eurocrimes’)
    • To the extent that they are already covered, introduce additional measures to prevent and combat specific forms of gender-based violence including sexual harassment, abuse of women and female genital mutilation (FGM)
  • Table a Recommendation on the prevention of harmful practices
  • Present a ‘Victims’ Rights Strategy’ building on the Victims’ Rights Directive 55
  • Launch an EU network on the prevention of gender-based violence and domestic violence bringing together Member States and stakeholders to exchange best practices
  • Propose a ‘Digital Services Act’ to clarify online platforms’ responsibilities with regard to user-disseminated content and facilitate the development of a new framework for cooperation between internet platforms
  • Present a new EU strategy on the eradication of human trafficking and an EU strategy on ‘a more effective fight against child sexual abuse’
  • Commission an EU-wide survey on the prevalence and dynamics of violence against women and other forms of interpersonal violence

Challenging gender stereotypes:

  • Continue to support projects promoting gender equality under Creative Europe, including under Music Moves Europe, and present a gender equality strategy to the audio-visual industry as part of the next MEDIA sub-programme
  • Launch an EU-wide communication campaign combatting gender stereotypes

The Commission calls on Member States to:

  • Ratify and implement the Istanbul Convention
  • Ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on combating violence and harassment in the world of work
  • Implement existing EU rules e.g. Directive 2006/54/EU on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation (recast)56
  • Implement the Victims’ Rights Directive, the Child Sexual Abuse Directive and other relevant EU laws protecting victims of gender-based violence57

2. Thriving in a gender-equal economy

Closing gender gaps in the labour market:

  • Continue to monitor gender equality metrics through the European Semester
  • Develop guidance for Member States on how national tax and benefits systems can impact financial incentives or disincentives for second earners
  • Develop targeted measures promoting the participation of women ‘in innovation’ under the Horizon Europe ‘European Innovation Council’
  • Promote the presence of women in decision-making positions in private equity and venture capital funds though the InvestEU programme

Achieving equal participation across different sectors of the economy:

  • Update the ‘Digital Education Action Plan’ to take better account of female underrepresentation in training and the digital economy
  • Use the ‘Women in Digital’ scoreboard more systematically
  • Ensure that the ‘Updated Skills Agenda for Europe’, Youth Guarantee and various policies on education—i.e. the forthcoming Council Recommendation on vocational education and training and Communication on the European Education Area—take account of gender-balance and correcting measures in education and training
  • Promote women’s and girl’s participation and leadership in sport and physical activity through the renewed strategic framework for gender equality in sport

Addressing the gender pay and pensions gap:

  • Table binding measures on pay transparency
  • Launch a consultation on equal pay for equal work
  • Explore with Member States the provision of pension credits for care-related career brakes in occupational pensions schemes

Closing the gender care gap:

  • Propose to revise the Barcelona targets for the provision of early childhood education and care arrangements for children
  • Launch a proposal for a ‘Child Guarantee’ focussed on addressing the most significant barriers preventing access to services
  • Work with Member States on improving the availability and affordability of quality care services for children and other dependents
  • Publish a ‘Green Paper on Aging’

The Commission calls on Member States to:

  • Correctly transpose and implement the Work-Life-Balance Directive58
  • Follow-up on the Council conclusions of June 2019 ‘Closing the Gender Pay Gap: Key Policies and Measures’
  • Ensure adequate investments in early childhood education and care services
  • Implement the Ministerial declaration of commitment on ‘Women in Digital’

3. Leading equality throughout society

Achieving gender balance in decision-making and politics:

  • Push for the adoption of the 2012 proposed Directive on improving the gender balance on corporate boards59
  • Launch the ‘EU Platform of Diversity Charters’ as a network for the exchange of best practices on addressing gender balance on executive boards and in managerial positions
  • Promote the participation of women as voters and candidates in the 2024 European Parliament elections

The Commission calls on the Member States to:

  • Transpose and implement the proposed Directive on improving the gender balance on corporate boards
  • Develop and implement strategies to increase the number of women in decision-making positions in politics and policy-making

4. Gender mainstreaming and an intersectional perspective in EU policies

  • Integrate a gender perspective in all major Commission initiatives
  • Create a Commissioner for Equality and a ‘Task Force for Equality’
  • Investigate and address the intersectionality of gender with other grounds of discrimination across EU policies

5. Funding actions to make progress in gender equality in the EU

  • Ensure the integration of a gender dimension in programme funding through:
    • The European Social Fund Plus
    • The European Regional Development Fund
    • Creative Europe
    • The European Maritime and Fisheries Fund
    • The Cohesion Fund
    • The InvestEU Programme
    • Erasmus+
    • Horizon Europe
  • Press ahead with the Common Provisions Regulation which includes specific gender equality enabling conditions as a precondition for funding
  • Publish guidance on socially responsible public procurement targeted at fighting discrimination and promoting gender equality in public tenders
  • Look more broadly at the gender impact of the EU’s activities under the EU budget

6. Addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment across the world

  • Launch the next iteration of GAPII (GAPIII) (the EU’s action plan on gender equality and women’s empowerment in external relations)
  • Launch the ‘#WithHer’ media campaign targeted at challenging harmful gender norms and stereotypes which perpetuate violence against women
  • Adopt the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy
  • Continue to implement the EU Strategic Approach and Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2019–2024
  • Make use of the External Investment Plan to promote women’s entrepreneurship and labour market participation

8.7The actions described under each of the priority areas will be taken forwards by the Commission over the next 5 years. It is expected that as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic those that were initially slated for late 2020 will be somewhat delayed. It is not though that the pandemic will lead to a change in priorities for the EU—as in other policy areas—but rather will necessitate faster and more radical action: as commentators have highlighted the disproportionate impact that the crisis is having on women and girls (in terms of lost employment and decreasing job opportunities, falling pay and reports of increases in incidents of domestic violence).60

Document (b) (41123) (Implementation of the EU Action Plan 2017–2019 on tackling the gender pay gap)

8.8The Commission report outlines the implementation of the EU action plan on tackling the gender pay gap reviews relevant legislative and non-legislative initiatives that were undertaken between 2017–19. The Commission notes that 24 action points were outlined in the plan and that the majority of these have been completed. The report is positive in tone; detailing how the work that the Commission has initiated supports the objectives of the EU and its commitment to tackling the gender pay gap.

8.9This having been said, the figures provided in the report paint a disappointing picture of pay inequality in the Member States. During the implementation period of the plan, the average gender pay gap in the Member States decreased from 16 per cent in 2017 to 15.7 per cent in 2018 (a drop of only 0.3 per cent).

8.10At the same time, the initiatives undertaken by the EU have been characterised by efforts at policy coordination, the creation of forums and networks, and the rearrangement of funding programmes to support reducing pay inequality. Very little legislative progress has been made. The exceptions are the adoption of the Work-Life-Balance Directive and the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive.61 These instruments, although important, are somewhat limited in terms of the rights that they give effect to and are not comparable to cornerstones of the EU equality framework such as the 2006 (recast) Equal Treatment Directive.

8.11It is perhaps with this in mind that the incoming Commission has published document (a) (the EU’s Gender Equality Strategy 2020–25). As outlined above, an important plank of the EU’s strategy, with regard to gender pay disparities, will be the introduction of binding pay transparency measures.

The Government’s position

8.12The Government wrote to the Committee on document (a) and document (b) by way of separate Explanatory Memoranda (EM) on 8 June 2020. Disappointingly, the EMs prepared by Baroness Berridge of the Vale of Catmose, Minister for Women, are of poor quality and, in places, read as though they have been copied verbatim from the Commission’s own documents.

8.13Worthy of particular note is the ‘policy implications’ section of the EM on document (a). The Committee is of the opinion that such a significant document warrants full and considered analysis rather than the cursory information that has been provided. As mentioned above, at the end of the transitionary period, the EU will become an important comparator for the UK’s own equality efforts.

8.14More critically, the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol to the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement lists six EU law equality Directives that must be complied with in Northern Ireland beyond 31 December 2020.62 Any suggested revisions to these instruments will be trialled in EU documents like the Commission Communication and report under scrutiny, speaking to the continued importance of this category of EU document after the end of the transition period.

Comment

8.15The Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy is a significant document and conveys the seriousness with which the EU plans to treat the issue in coming years. Especially noteworthy is the Commission’s commitment to gender mainstreaming across all areas of EU action. The Minister does not offer any assessment of the merits of this approach nor does she explain the Government’s thinking on gender mainstreaming.

8.16The documents under scrutiny, in particular, the Gender Equality Strategy, make direct calls on Member States to take action in a number of policy areas. The first covers ending gender-based violence. The Commission calls on Member States to ratify and implement the Istanbul Convention, and the ILO Convention on combating violence and harassment in the word of work. The Committee understands that the Government is working towards the ratification of both instruments. The Government has made ratification of the Istanbul Convention dependent on the progress of the Domestic Abuse Bill (which had its first reading in the House of Lords at the start of this Session). A timetable for the ratification of the ILO Convention has, however, not been forthcoming form the Government.

8.17The Commission’s action areas for closing the gender pay gap are especially pertinent to the UK where, over the last decade or so, a number of reviews have been undertaken and new initiatives launched. In this regard, the Minister explains the introduction in 2017 of mandatory gender pay gap reporting for covered organisations.63 The Commission’s suggestion of legislating for pay transparency measures would appear to go beyond what is currently required under UK law. Furthermore, linked EU plans for mandating a certain percentage of women on corporate boards would also be more onerous than current voluntary schemes—endorsed by Government—for large organisations based in the UK. In its 2019 ‘Gender Equality Roadmap’ the previous Government pledged to:

[Review] the enforcement of equal pay legislation to ensure [that] it is working as effectively as possible, including considering the circumstances where mandatory equal pay audits could be appropriate and proportionate.64

The Minister does not mention any progress on this commitment or whether it remains a priority for the current Government.

8.18In the previous Parliament, the Committee’s predecessor considered the negotiation and adoption of the Work-Life Balance Directive and the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive at EU-level. These instruments constituted the first update of the EU’s social acquis in a number of years and introduced new substantive employment rights in Member States. Both are covered in the Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy and are viewed by the EU as important mechanisms for furthering equality.

8.19Notable rights not available in UK law covered by the Directives include: two months paid non-transferable leave per parent (set at a level to be determined by Member States); and the restriction of probationary work periods to six months. The Directives must be transposed by Member States by 2022 (after the end of the transition period under the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement).

8.20The Government consulted on aspects of the Work-Life-Balance Directive in response to the ‘Taylor review of modern working practices’.65 As of yet, it has not outlined its findings or suggestions for the reform of pay and parental leave. In her EM, the Minister states that the UK will not be under an obligation to transpose either Directive—after the end of the transition period—and gives no indication of whether the Government will introduce paid parental leave.

8.21Also of note in the Commission’s action plan is the priority given to promoting equality in the EU’s external action, in particular, the relationships it has with third countries (non-Member States). In terms of the UK’s future relationship with the EU, before the Council adopted its negotiating mandate on a future relationship agreement with the UK, the European Parliament stated that:

[An] ambitious chapter on trade and gender equality should be included, the consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU on gender equality should be taken into account, including by ensuring a level-playing field for EU actions protecting and advancing the role of women in economy, for instance in terms of measures combatting the gender pay gap...66

8.22The Government’s view on including a chapter on trade and gender equality in a future UK/EU trade agreement is not known (such a chapter does not appear in the UK’s draft comprehensive trade agreement text).67 Furthermore, the Committee is not aware of the Government having committed to promote and protect gender equality as an objective of future relationship negotiations with the EU.

Action

8.23The Committee has written to the Minister thanking her for her EMs on the documents under consideration and has requested further information on:

8.24This Report chapter has been drawn to the attention of the Women and Equalities Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and the Work and Pensions Committee.

Letter from the Chair to the Minister for Women (Baroness Berridge of the Vale of Catmose)

The Committee have asked me to thank you for your Explanatory Memoranda (EM) on the two above listed documents of 8 June 2020. The Committee was somewhat disappointed with their content with neither EM providing a satisfactory assessment of the Commission’s plans for combating gender discrimination over the next five years. Indeed, in parts, it appears as though sections of the Commission’s documents have been copied verbatim in your EMs. We are sure you will agree this is not what is expected of Government Departments and falls short of what is required for effective Parliamentary scrutiny. Should your Officials have any queries regarding the expected content of EMs, the Committee secretariat is on hand to offer advice.

The Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy is a significant document and highlights the seriousness with which the EU intends to treat all facets of direct and indirect gender-based discrimination over the coming years. The importance of this document to the UK is clear: the calls for action it makes of Member States are directly relevant to the UK during the post-exit transition period—when the UK is obliged to give effect to EU law—and afterwards (when the legal and policy responses of the 28 EU Member States will serve as a comparator for the UK’s own approach to equalities).

More critically, the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol to the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement lists six EU law equality Directives that must be complied with in Northern Ireland beyond 31 December 2020. Any suggested revisions to these instruments will be trialled in EU documents like the Commission Communication and report under scrutiny; speaking to the continued importance of this category of EU document after the end of the transition period.

The Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy raises a number of questions concerning the EU-initiated work that the Government is undertaking whilst the UK remains bound by EU law, and the complementary domestic initiatives that it has carried-over from the previous administration. As such, we request further information on:


53 Document (a) — Commission Communication: A Union of Equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020–25; Council and COM number: 6678/20 and COM(2020) 152; Legal base: – ; Department: Government Equalities Office; Devolved Administrations: Consulted; ESC number: 41124. Document (b) — Report from the Commission on the implementation of the EU Action Plan 2017–19 on tackling the gender pay gap; Council and COM number: 6648/20 + ADD 1 and COM(2020) 101; Legal base: – ; Department: Government Equalities Office; Devolved Administrations: Consulted; ESC number: 41123.

54 The idea of gender mainstreaming was pioneered by the EU and refers to the systematic inclusion of gender considerations in all stages of policy design and, for the EU, relations with third countries.

55 Directive 2012/29/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2012 establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, and replacing Council Framework Decision 2001/220/JHA.

56 Directive 2006/54/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 July 2006 on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation (recast).

57 Directive 2011/93/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 December 2011 on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, and replacing Council Framework Decision 2004/68/JHA.

58 Directive (EU) 2019/1158 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 June 2019 on work-life balance for parents and carers and repealing Council Directive 2010/18/EU.

61 Directive (EU) 2019/1152 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 June 2019 on transparent and predictable working conditions in the European Union.

62 Council Directive 2004/113/EC of 13 December 2004 implementing the principle of equal treatment between men and women in the access to and supply of goods and services; Directive 2006/54/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 July 2006 on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupations; Council Directive 2000/43/EC of 29 June 2000 implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin; Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation; Directive 2010/41/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 7 July 2010 on the application of the principle of equal treatment between men and women engaged in an activity in a self-employed capacity and repealing Council Directive 86/613/EEC; and Council Directive 79/7/EEC of 19 December 1978 on the progressive implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security.

65 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, ‘Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices’ (July 2017). Also see Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, ‘Good work plan: proposals to support families’ (July 2019).




Published: 16 September 2020