Public Company Boards

Women and Equalities – in the House of Commons at 9:30 am on 18th October 2012.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 9:30 am, 18th October 2012

What steps she is taking to increase the number of women in public company boardrooms; and if she will make a statement.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

The Government are working to implement a voluntary and business-led approach. We are supporting the excellent work of Lord Davies, which has resulted in an unprecedented increase in the number of women on boards. We are also putting in place a range of measures to ensure equal opportunities for women in the workplace, including help with child care, extending flexible working and introducing a new system of flexible parental leave.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Although those measures are undoubtedly welcome, can the Minister explain why we fall so woefully short of our competitors in other European countries and elsewhere? Will she reflect on how many new members of boards will be appointed as a result of those measures, bearing in mind that, as my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley said, they should be appointed on the basis of merit and ability?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

The Government’s approach is showing that encouraging businesses to take the issue seriously is paying dividends. Indeed, more than a third of new appointments to boards over the last 12 months have been women. There is certainly more to do, but that shows that the approach we are taking is the right one. In fact, we are doing well on this matter compared with many other countries. They have been looking at our approach in the Lord Davies review, often to see how they might be able to take on board some of the best practice that we have already developed, and our officials have been sharing that with officials in other countries.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

The Minister is incorrect: this 1% rate of progress means that the girls are not yet born who will benefit from it. Will she look at the Australian model—both at what the Australian Prime Minister has said and at the federal Government target of 40% men, 40% women and 20% of either gender?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I certainly think that many across the House would do well to look at what the Australian Prime Minister says and at her rather excellent recent speech on the issue of equality. I disagree that quotas are the right way to proceed, and I do not recognise the figure of 1% that she mentioned. The percentage of women on boards has increased to 17% from 12% since the election, and as I have said, a third of new appointments in the last year have been women.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

May I say what a brilliant Women and Equalities Front-Bench team we have now? I really think that the women of this country can take heart from that. Will my hon. Friend continue to hold the line against the EU’s determination to introduce a quota of 40% of women on boards? We simply cannot have quotas for women; they have got to get there under their own steam.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I can certainly give that reassurance. The approach that we are taking through the Lord Davies review—a target of 25% on boards by 2015—is showing itself to be successful. In fact, we are ahead of schedule in hitting that target. Our approach is showing itself to be successful and the right one to take, and we will resist the EU calls for quotas.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

Andrea Leadsom talked about the Front-Bench team today, but there are only four women in the Cabinet and 23 across Government. Does the Minister accept that the private companies out there on whose boards we want to see more women will not see a Government who are leading by example? It is simply not good enough.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

Clearly a range of new women joined the Government in the latest reshuffle. There is a wealth of talent among the women MPs on the coalition Benches, and I am sure that in future that will result in additional women joining the Government.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Rather than having politically correct targets, is it not better for companies in the private sector to decide for themselves who are the right people to be on their boards, irrespective of gender, race or religion? Should not all such appointments be made on merit, rather than trying to meet the politically correct targets that the Minister has referred to?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

It is always a delight to hear from my hon. Friend. He perhaps does not fully recognise the benefits that businesses gain from having more diversity on their boards. The fact that fewer than one in five board members are women shows that there is a wide talent pool out there that is not being drawn upon; businesses could benefit hugely from ensuring that those talents are used in their boardrooms.