In the current economic circumstances, we need more than ever to maximise the full potential of the diverse talents in our work force. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed last week that we will legislate to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees, ensuring that the benefits of flexibility are available as widely as possible. In addition, more than 50 leading employers are signed up to our “Think, Act, Report” initiative, covering more than 1 million employees.
The Government state that the new employment tribunal fees for claims relating to the national minimum wage will attract the lowest level of fee—£390—yet the average payout to workers who make a claim enforcing the minimum wage is just £165, which is less than half the cost of pursuing a claim under the new fee structure. Does the Minister agree that the new system of employment tribunal fees will unfairly punish women, disabled people, and black and ethnic minority workers, who are disproportionately represented among the low paid?
The hon. Lady raises the issue of access to justice, which I agree is important. That is why, in addition to the fee regime, there will be a remissions regime, which will mean that the people on the lowest incomes will not have to pay. The key point to remember about employment tribunals, highlighted by the figure she gave on the average payout in those minimum wage cases, is that they are often not the best route to resolving disputes. That is why the Government are legislating to make sure that there is more early conciliation, so that for employers and employees alike the stress, time and money involved in employment tribunals can be avoided in all but the most necessary circumstances.
Will my hon. Friend look at the cohort of older women who are being asked to work longer before they can claim their state pension? They are particularly difficult to place in the workplace. What measures will the Government consider to assist them?
This group of women is very talented and we need to be using their talents in the economy. The additional plans for flexibility are helpful not just for those with caring responsibilities for young children, but for people as they get closer to retirement age. Rather than falling off the cliff of working full time and immediately going into full retirement, being able to reduce hours and work flexibly can be helpful in that transition.
The Synod rejection of women bishops will have deeply disappointed the talented women who work in the Church of England, the vast majority of Church members who had expressed their support, and those in Parliament and across the country who supported women bishops. Does the Minister agree that we should urge the Church to look again at this swiftly, and that it cannot be left to lie for another five years? The Church is the established Church, so the issue affects bishops in Parliament and Parliament has to agree to the changes. She and the Secretary of State will know that many in
Parliament will feel uncomfortable if new proposals come forward that further water down plans for women bishops, when the majority of those in the Church have already shown their strong support for these plans. Will she ask the Secretary of State to convey to the Church the willingness and readiness of Parliament to work with it and to support the views of the majority of Church members in support of women bishops?
The right hon. Lady will know that there is due to be an urgent question shortly, when this issue will be discussed in more detail. Personally, as a strong supporter of women’s equality, I share her disappointment and that of many others. As a Scottish humanist, I recognise that I may not be the best person to tell the Church of England what it should be doing. All our religious institutions are important. She raised the issue of the role of Parliament. She may be aware that I have not been a supporter of all-women shortlists for Parliament. There is an irony in that there is a continuing all-male shortlist as a result of this decision. She is right to highlight that a significant majority in the General Synod supported the move to women bishops. The fact that 95% of dioceses supported it gives some reassurance to those who would like to see this change happen.
Women are routinely paid less than men—15% less on average nationally; 23% less in London. However, the Davies report found that organisations with more women on their boards outperformed their rivals by 42% in sales, and significantly on return on capital and on equity. Does my hon. Friend agree that to promote greater equality in the workplace, companies must be far more open about their employment practices so that they have better outcomes?
Of course, the pay gap figures have just been updated and published this morning and they have come down slightly, but my hon. Friend is right to highlight that they are still too high. My hon. Friend highlights the fact that having more women on boards can help companies’ performance. I encourage employers to sign up to our “Think, Act, Report” initiative, so that they properly use the talents of women within their businesses at all levels.