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I wish to conclude by making a series of points. What has been learned from the investigations and the exposure of the myths as racist myths is that a small amount of fraud is going on, as often happens in any cash system, and the police and the PTE are dealing with it. But, not uniquely in history, we have a situation that the British National party, which increasingly camouflages itself as an ordinary community activist organisation as opposed to the group of racist thugs that it actually is, has been able to exploit. There are lessons to be learned from this case about fighting racism and dealing with the BNP. When things that public bodies do go wrong—in the first place, the Home Office simply got this wrong—they have to be put right as quickly as possible so that the public service, whether it involves delivering bus passes or dispersing asylum seekers, is effective and can do what it is supposed to do as well as possible.

The system must be open. The most fertile ground for racists is a situation in which they are able to say to people who have lived in this country for a long time that people who have just arrived, in whatever circumstances, are getting a better deal than they are. We must ensure that all our services are delivered as effectively, openly and fairly as possible. We have seen in this case how, over a period of seven or eight years, racists have been able to exploit the situation. There is a by-election in my constituency at present, and the myths that are being spread include myths about bus passes, earlier myths that would be laughable if they were not seriously directed at refugees, and other racist myths that have gone on as long as people have existed.

This is a difficult debate for the Minister to reply to. It is about transport and the Home Office, and also about the big issue of how central Government, local government and local democracy deliver services. I hope that he can assure us that the principles of effective and transparent government will be pursued to expose myths.

4.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on securing time this afternoon to discuss this issue. He and I have discussed transport issues on several occasions since I was appointed as Minister. He will be unsurprised to hear me say that this is probably the first debate in which I can honestly say that I agree with every word that he has uttered. He has performed a valuable service, and I will come back to that at length later.

I understand that there are some local issues regarding the issuing of payment for the travel expenses of asylum seekers in Manchester. My hon. Friend explained the system better than I could have, so he will know that the vouchers are issued to asylum seekers by the immigration reporting centres to be used for travel to the next reporting event—or appointment, which is how most of us would refer to it. The reporting centres purchase the vouchers in advance from the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive.

My hon. Friend has previously met my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration and Asylum to discuss his concerns about the payment of travelling expenses
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for asylum seekers. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister wrote to him in March setting out the background to the provisions. As was explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley, the payment of travel expenses is a fundamental part of the Government’s policy to encourage compliance with our requirements that asylum seekers keep in touch with the immigration and nationality directorate during consideration of their case. We make no apologies for that particular policy—it was the right thing to do because it prevents the use of lack of funds as a reason for failing to comply with a reporting event. Such payments are made to those asylum seekers who live 3 miles or more from a reporting centre or on the grounds of exceptional need. That is a national policy and is not unique to Manchester.

As my hon. Friend said, travel expenses are provided in the form of a scratchcard travel ticket that is made valid for the applicant’s next reporting event. In other words, it is valid only for that particular day and is not a travel card in the normally accepted definition of the phrase. That is the most effective way to avoid waste and the operational risks associated with cash handling. My hon. Friend discussed the issue of fraud with my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration and Asylum, and he confirmed that fraudulent use of the system was not significant, but that his officials remain vigilant. If evidence of abuse on a significant scale comes to light, appropriate action will be taken to counteract it. The information that my hon. Friend has given hon. Members today is extremely useful in nailing one of the many myths surrounding the issue.

Asylum seekers are not being provided with bus passes as some people are claiming—my hon. Friend was absolutely correct about that. To be totally clear, the issuing of travel vouchers has nothing to do with concessionary bus passes and it is certainly not a preferential system. However, it is sadly typical of the extremists of the British National party to try to exploit the fears of ordinary people and to whip up resentment and hatred against a vulnerable group of people purely for political gain. Frankly, that is a disgraceful attitude and all hon. Members are grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting that obnoxious tactic. He deserves the thanks of the whole House. I hope that I can share his optimism that now that we have nailed those myths, the spreading of the lies will cease. However, given the record of the British National party on fact and truth, I am not optimistic that the myths will stop being circulated.

In the meantime, as my hon. Friend has raised concessionary travel it might be helpful to explain who is eligible for the statutory minimum bus travel concession in England. From April 2006, residents of England who are 60 years of age or over and eligible disabled people have been entitled to free off-peak local bus travel within their local authority area, and across the whole passenger transport executive in the metropolitan areas, if that is where they live. Eleven million people in England and more than half a million people in Manchester are eligible for the statutory concession, which is already making a real difference to the lives of many constituents, including those of my hon. Friend—especially older and disabled constituents. In fact, those people account for two out of three public transport journeys, which is more than 4 billion journeys a year in England. As we
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all know, last year my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that from April 2008, people in England who are aged 60 and over and eligible disabled people will be able to travel for free by local bus anywhere in England, not just in the local authority or passenger transport executive area.

To make the national bus concession a reality, the Government introduced the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill to Parliament, which completed its Committee stage last week. Throughout the past year, in the run up to the Bill and since its introduction, we have actively involved members of the concessionary fares working group in our plans for the national concession. The group consists of representatives from all tiers of local authorities, including the passenger transport executives, and is assisting us in the implementation of the national bus concession.

The group advised that there would need to be greater consistency in the assessment of eligibility by local authorities across the country because, for the first time, a local authority will be required to reimburse operators for travel by a concessionaire who may not be resident in its area. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are seeking to improve the guidance that we issue to local authorities on assessing the eligibility of disabled people. Indeed, next week the Department’s officials are holding a workshop with local authorities, to which a passenger transport executive representative has been invited, to explore the issues surrounding eligibility. We intend to discuss the matter with stakeholder organisations as well, with a view to updating and reissuing guidance in the run-up to April 2008.

The Government, of course, share the concerns raised by my hon. Friend. We are constantly in dialogue with local authorities and passenger transport executives through our concessionary fares working group. The Government have an excellent record on concessionary fares and it is important to note that it is all too easy for extremist, neo-fascist groups to exploit for their own political ends a positive policy that offers social inclusion to a vulnerable group of people. I reiterate the gratitude that hon. Members and I feel towards my hon. Friend for raising an absolutely crucial issue. I share his hope that now that we have nailed the myths, they will stay nailed.

4.25 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Workplace Diversity

4.27 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to speak about such an important subject, which is as diverse as the debate title suggests. I appreciate that the Minister will do his utmost to deal with the points that I am raising, but I would be grateful if he would write to me if there are matters that he is unable to address for any reason.

When I trained in personnel management, I remember being confronted with the following question from an old-fashioned recruiter: “Would he fit in at my club?” We were recently treated to the news that the British intelligence services—MI5—had had a record number of applicants from diverse backgrounds because it had advertised on the internet. The days are long gone when someone had to be an Oxbridge graduate who was watched carefully before being hand-selected for MI5—or so John le Carré novels would have us believe was the case. Today we realise that our spies need to look like the population that they are required to blend into and the civilian work force should have the same laudable aim.

Management theory teaches us that the best teams are made up of different types of character, which means that they can perform better because they incorporate different talents, aptitudes and abilities. That is also the case in relation to diversity in the work place. I will make the case for more sensitive employment policies for ethnic minority women. However, the case is just as clear for women generally, ethnic minority men, and people of a different sexual orientation—lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, to which I will refer using the term LGBT.

On ethnic minority women, I am indebted to the Equal Opportunities Commission for its excellent briefing, on which what I will say is based. The EOC research identified several employment gaps facing ethnic minority women, including participation in the labour market. Some 79 per cent. of white men are in employment, compared with 66 per cent. of white women and 62 per cent. of black Caribbean women. Those figures go down to 22 per cent. for Pakistani women and 18 per cent. for Bangladeshi women. On progression, 19 per cent. of white men are in managerial or senior official positions, compared with 11 per cent. of white women, 9 per cent of black Caribbean and Pakistani women and 6 per cent. of Bangladeshi women. On pay, although women as a whole face a pay gap, it is far worse for many ethnic minority women. For example, Pakistani women working full-time earn 28 per cent. less than a white British man working full-time. Surely that cannot be right.

The business case for employing ethnic minority women is clear. They represent a growing pool of talent with better qualifications than white males. Given that the Leitch review in 2006, looking at the UK’s long-term skills needs, highlighted a serious shortage of skilled school leavers, it makes no sense for so many Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black Caribbean women to be working in jobs so far below their levels of qualifications. Furthermore, businesses whose work forces reflect the diversity of the population are in a better position to tap into new markets.

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The Government’s introduction, in April, of the gender equality duty is extremely welcome. It requires public sector employers to look more closely at their gender representation and to identify underlying cultural or other barriers to the recruitment and progression of women in the workplace. That duty extends down the supply chain as well, so at least some private business is covered. However, there is no requirement on private organisations per se to examine their recruitment and promotion strategies in order to tackle unconscious sexism.

Yesterday, the Government published the discrimination law review, which aims to enshrine all anti-discrimination law in one Act. For ethnic minority women, the single equality duty will be a big help because it brings the issues of women and ethnic minorities, which previously straddled two equality strands, under one integrated duty.

There are three main barriers to the progression of ethnic minority women at work. The first consists of racism, sexism and anti-Muslim prejudice. Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black Caribbean women under 35 and in employment are two to three times more likely than white women to be asked in job interviews about their plans for marriage or children. That research, which was carried out by Botcherby in 2006, also found that one in three black Caribbean working women under 35 and one in five Bangladeshi and Pakistani women have experienced racist comments at work.

The second barrier is workplace culture, which was well-documented in a report by the EOC entitled, “Moving on up? Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black Caribbean Women and Work”. To be seen as team players, staff feel obliged to participate in out-of-work activities, which might make them feel uncomfortable—for example, going to the pub, gambling or even adult clubs—if I may dare to even mention them within these hallowed portals. The latter is hardly a Muslim woman’s cup of tea, or indeed that of a lot of other people. That club atmosphere does not exclude people deliberately, but it has that effect, I think. Furthermore, people who speak fluent English but with a foreign accent are often treated impatiently. Managers make assumptions about women’s home life, which is especially damaging if those assumptions affect recruitment or promotion decisions.

The third barrier is the lack of support for working parents and carers. Finding affordable child care and a job with flexible working arrangements is critical for black Caribbean women, who are more likely to be lone parents, and Bangladeshi and Pakistani women, who are more likely to have larger than average families. There are still far too few jobs available on a flexible basis. Another EOC investigation, published this year, found that 35 per cent. of people not in work said that they would be encouraged back into work if flexible working was on offer.

So how can the Government and employers address that unfairness?

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate on a crucial topic. Has she had a chance to read the recent Select Committee on Work and Pensions report addressing participation by minorities in the workplace? The report
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identified not only the issues that she has mentioned, but a number of other vital points and difficulties experienced by many in minority groups trying to enter work, such as not having English as a first language and in some cases a lack of community support for entering work in the first place. Those are crucial issues as well. Does she have something to say about them, as well as ensuring proper employer attitudes?

Lorely Burt: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am afraid that I have not read the report, but I shall do so. Clearly, it is breaking new ground in a difficult area, particularly in relation to the attitude of local communities towards entering work. I am minded to recall the situation of women who have difficulties entering a job. Perhaps they would be interested in self-employment. A number of extremely valuable micro-finance initiatives compliant with sharia law are available. Starting up, even on a small scale, does wonders not only for women’s confidence, but for interaction with the local community. I am in total agreement with him and thank him for his intervention.

I would like to make some suggestions about how the Government and employers can redress the unfairness. I have three main solutions. First, we need to develop cultural intelligence in the workplace; employers need to confront racism, sexism and anti-Muslim prejudice. That could be done by up-skilling managers to facilitate better awareness, understanding, confidence and competence in relating positively to employees from diverse backgrounds. Given the critical role of line managers in determining whether ethnic minority women thrive in an organisation, such cultural intelligence is essential.

Cultural intelligence cannot be learned in a one-off diversity training course. It needs to be embedded in management practice and organisational values so that people can deal effectively with any incidents of racism, sexism or anti-Muslim prejudice by staff, customers or clients and adopt open and transparent recruitment practices for all job opportunities.

The second method would be to improve careers advice and guidance. Careers staff need a better understanding of the specific barriers facing ethnic minority women, and advisers should be trained in cultural intelligence. Equality should be built into the new quality standards for careers information, advice and guidance in schools. The new careers service for adults proposed for England and Wales should have access points at community venues, and the marketing of the service should specifically target unemployed Bangladeshi and Pakistani women. Employers should be linked into careers advice services, to promote job opportunities more widely and to set up opportunities for work placements.

The third strand is to improve support for working parents and carers. We should use Jobcentre Plus advisers to help women to find employment that fits with their child care responsibilities. I am sure that that is done to an extent at the moment. This year, I introduced a ten-minute Bill, the Flexible Working Bill, which deals with extending the right to request flexible working to parents with children under the age of 18. However, the issue is more the cultural attitude among employers towards employees. Employers who introduce such
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measures find that retention is improved, the absenteeism record is much better and employee loyalty is much enhanced.

The community company initiative Women Like Us is fantastic. That organisation works exclusively to match the work needs of mothers returning to the workplace after having children with the needs of employers who are willing to offer flexible working in return for the huge talent, flexibility, loyalty and retention that they get in return. Let us have more of that, please, and give Women Like Us and organisations like it the funding to develop throughout the United Kingdom.

I am indebted to Stonewall for its research relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people comprise about 6 per cent. of the population, according to Government estimates. That is roughly 1.7 million people in the UK work force. Stonewall found that 36 per cent. of gay employees say that they will change careers if discrimination continues. One third of gay staff conceal their sexual orientation from their employers and co-workers for fear of discrimination. Not surprisingly, at least 55 per cent. of gay employees facing discrimination report a direct negative work impact, so employers who do not deal with these problems will find their productivity decreasing. Most worryingly, approximately 20 per cent. of gay employees facing discrimination at work will consider suicide.

Sexual orientation is not yet within the auspices of the discrimination law review in so far as it applies to the equality duties being recommended for employers. Under present legislation, there are three separate duties in respect of race, gender and disability. The discrimination law review has one solid proposal to integrate those three into one duty, which I have already mentioned. It is considering extending that approach to sexual orientation. We certainly urge the Government to include that arrangement, as has already been proposed in Lord Lester’s Equality Bill of 2003.

Such a move would go a long way towards the measures that Stonewall is calling for. Will the Minister comment on what the Government have done so far to address the following solutions, proposed by Stonewall? It proposes measures to ensure that employers recruit and select fairly. Recruiters often have stereotyped notions of what LGB people are good or not good at. Stonewall proposes measures to ensure that recruiters understand fair selection criteria and apply them consistently.

Stonewall also proposes measures to tackle issues of workplace bullying and harassment and to make staff feel confident about using complaints procedures, even if that means revealing their sexual orientation. It proposes the establishment of employee networks—forums for staff who share one or more aspects of their identity. Employers increasingly appreciate the benefits that such forums can bring to the whole organisation. Also proposed are monitoring and evaluation on whether an organisation’s diversity policy is being implemented.

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