Oral Answers to Questions — Innovation, Universities and Skills
Theresa May (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Parliament; Maidenhead, Conservative)
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement and for giving me prior sight of it, although I got more notice through her appearances on television and radio this morning. I agree with the Government that there is a need to streamline and update equalities legislation and I welcome the direction that the Government are taking with the Bill. I look forward to working constructively with them on ensuring that we have workable and practical legislation to provide for a fair society.
However, today's announcement has been a long time in coming. The Government first announced their commitment to a single equalities Bill in their 2005 general election manifesto. On
"we will produce a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny over the coming year".—[ Hansard, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c.1009.]
Subsequently, there have been promises of draft clauses of the measure. Now we have an announcement lacking in detail with no specific time commitments, and more discussions on action in the coming months. Why has it taken the Government so long to introduce the sensible and practical measure for which we are all looking?
We welcome the broad thinking behind the approach to age discrimination, but again, the lack of detail on implementation and exemptions is baffling and disappointing. We support fair provision of services for older people and we need to ensure that the proposals will genuinely benefit them. The right hon. and learned Lady has recognised that the health service is a key area that will be affected by the age discrimination proposals, yet she has carefully avoided going into detail about that. Will she now confirm that the proposals will affect not only the planning of health services for older people but decisions about the treatment of individuals? On the radio this morning, she also talked about the need for planning applications to take age concerns into account. Does she propose to change the Planning Bill that is currently going through Parliament to accommodate those proposals?
In her statement, the Minister said that the Government would consider using procurement contracts to deliver transparency. In her media interviews, she was more specific, saying that companies bidding for public contracts would have to publish pay gap figures. The implication of that was that if the figures were bad, the company would not get the business. What exactly is the Government's position on this? Those proposals are far removed from the compulsory pay audits that the right hon. and learned Lady has supported in the past, and continues to support on her website. Can she therefore confirm that she has lost the equal pay battle in the Cabinet, and that the Bill will not include compulsory pay audits?
In her statement, the right hon. and learned Lady said that employment tribunals would be able to make wide-ranging recommendations when an employer was found guilty of discrimination. We have proposed compulsory pay audits for employers who are found guilty of discrimination at an employment tribunal. Are the Government adopting our proposals? If not, what does today's statement mean?
The statement talks of the public sector leading by example, yet many Government Departments have failed to meet their own diversity targets. As the "Framework for a Fairer Future" document makes clear, there are Departments in which the gender pay gap is well above the average, including Her Majesty's Treasury, where it is 26 per cent. We are told that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will conduct inquiries into the sectors where most progress needs to be made, starting with the City. When will the EHRC be invited into the Treasury to look into its record on this issue?
I welcome the extension of the legislation on positive discrimination in the selection of parliamentary candidates. We have already said that we would support that move. However, the issue of allowing employers to exercise positive discrimination needs clarification. For example, if the head teacher of a primary school with only female teachers wanted to discriminate in favour of a male teacher, would that be permitted under the proposals? One area covered by the EHRC to which the Minister's statement has made no reference is religious discrimination. Do the Government intend to include religious discrimination in their new equality Bill?
Until now, the Government have rightly sought to stamp out discrimination. The Bill takes a different approach. It will include measures to prevent discrimination, and measures to allow discrimination in certain circumstances. It introduces further complexity and confuses the Government's message. After all these years, this is a huge missed opportunity. The Government could have introduced a revolutionary approach to equalities legislation, promoting fairness and diversity within a positive and sensible framework. Instead, the right hon. and learned Lady has been quoted as using phrases such as "empowering the resentful". The Bill should seek to unite, not to divide. It has good intentions, but its lack of detail and clarity is disappointing. I am willing to work with the Government on this matter, because the issue of equalities is one that deserves to be looked at above and beyond the emotions of party politics. I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will join me in endeavouring to ensure that we can do just that.