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16 Oct 2008 : Column 334WH—continued

Judy Mallaber: That is a huge question. Such a process has to start right at the beginning of people’s lives and in schools and so on. The question has to
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be dealt with right across society. There is no easy answer, but we have to try to tackle it on every available front.

In one of my local secondary schools, there was a girl who wanted to go into construction. The young people do a lot of apprenticeships and vocational training. It was a tribute to her father, who was in the building trade. She wanted to follow in his footsteps, just as someone might become a doctor if one of their parents was a doctor, but he did not think that that was appropriate, so she ended up doing health and social care. There is nothing wrong with that, but the father did not see it as a tribute to him that construction was what the daughter wanted to do, so she missed the opportunity to do that.

That said, I went into one of our local engineering companies and saw a 14-year-old who was on the young apprentice scheme. She was working for Collis Engineering, a firm that makes signal gantries, and the whole factory had just adopted her—the people there almost did not want to let her go back to school because they thought she was doing so well.

It is not obvious how we start to tackle some of the problematic attitudes, but we just have to keep going on. It is about giving people the opportunity to look at different ways of experiencing things. Often, we give people only very limited choices to look at, so they cannot even see that there are other areas that they could manage to take part in.

I return to my theme of needing to take action even when we may be in more difficult economic circumstances. I shall take just one local example. The construction industry tends to be first in and first out of downturns, or whatever they should be called if we are not to use the R-word. In my area, one of the greatest advocates of the skills agenda and the first chair of our learning and skills council owns Bowmer and Kirkland, the biggest privately owned construction company in the country and a major local builder.

Mr. Kirkland has always been proud of the fact that he employs some women surveyors. I was sitting next to him at a dinner hosted by the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett). I challenged him, saying, “Well, it is all right having a few women surveyors, but what about the rest of your work force? Why not survey it to see what is going on?” He took up the challenge; he came back surprised and rather excited because he had more women in positions of responsibility than he realised.

The Government’s latest proposals talk about transparency in the work force, yet Mr. Kirkland, the owner of a company and a positive man, was not aware of what was happening in his company. We discussed getting together with his women employees to try to ensure that their skills and those of other women in the company were fully utilised, and how to bring on more people. It will obviously help Mr. Kirkland to have a work force with a broader base of skills; when the building trade picks up again, he will need those skills, which are often in short supply when demand is high and supply is limited.

Peter Luff: The hon. Lady may like to know that immediately after this debate I am meeting the Minister with responsibility for construction at DBERR to discuss
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our report on construction matters, published earlier this year. It makes significant recommendations on how to address precisely the issue that she mentions. The Minister and I will be pursuing the hon. Lady’s concerns, through another report, in two or three hours.

Judy Mallaber: That is good news.

I turn to the meat of the Committee’s findings on whether the women and work commission recommendations have been implemented. We were rather disappointed with the Government’s one-year-on report, and we were a little fearsome with some of the witnesses because of the lack of a timetable and committed funding in the Government’s initial response to the commission’s report. However, the inquiry and the report extended over quite a period, and there have been a number of developments since then.

Later progress reports were much more encouraging, and we were heartened by the commitment shown by those Ministers who appeared before the Committee: the Minister for Women and Equality; and the then Under-Secretary of State, now the Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). We also took written evidence from the Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden). It was clear that there had been considerable development, even over the period since the initial response, which was not long after the women and work commission reported. It is a developing area and even after we had received the Government’s response—our report was published in February—there were a number of developments. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about further progress.

Among other matters, we wanted to consider the structure of Government and the perennial problem of how easy it is to embed the equality recommendations in all Departments to ensure that action is taken. We strongly recommended all Departments and public bodies to take the issue on board. To that end, we call on other Select Committees to include it as part of their remit. I have been on several Select Committees, and there is great variation in whether they take note of the matter. Most of those Committees have been dealing with economic matters, and they vary greatly in whether they regard it as necessary to ask questions about progress on equality in their inquiries, even if it is directly relevant to their work. It is important that other Select Committees should realise the importance of monitoring Departments in order to ensure that they take such matters on board.

The Committee undertook a survey of Departments. Their replies are included in the report, and they make interesting reading. We asked what Departments were doing to promote gender equality, what changes they had made in their processes and what they had done about public procurement. We received replies from 12 Departments; they did not all reply and, as one would expect, the depth of their responses varied. It might be enlightening for people to see which Departments have been making more progress.

I turn to some of our specific proposals. I cannot go through them all, as there are too many. The first was the fact that the causes of occupational segregation start with the assumptions that are made by families
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and schools, as was said by the Chairman of our Committee, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire. I reiterate the importance of giving careers advice and work experience more support and funding. All too often, they are seen as extra duties, and teachers do not want to take them on. I have had people doing work experience in my offices, both here and in my constituency, and there is great variation. Some monitor their pupils, telling them what to do and what they are expected to achieve in their placements; and others simply turn up to ensure that the pupils are there—it is clearly a bore and a chore. There is a great difference in how work experience is treated. Placements can be invaluable—for example, in breaking down barriers, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). If students go to only one work placement in one area—a placement that fits into a traditional area of work—they will not have any experience of what else might be open to them. Often, it depends on whom their parents or their friends know, and they have to sort it out for themselves. They do not necessarily have the opportunity to break down any of those barriers or to think about other sorts of placements.

We heard some interesting evidence from the YWCA, which has considered the matter closely and is talking about the need to have varied work placements and the possibility of opening people up to a different range of experiences. That is obviously one of the ways in which we can start to break down some of the assumptions about what jobs girls and boys should take up. There are also assumptions about what jobs boys should do and what they are able to do, so it is not an issue only for girls. It would be wrong to say so; however, people can be channelled into the areas that are expected of them. That is true in relation to expectations about educational aspirations as much as to expectations about where they will be in the labour market. Given the gender divide, those expectations result in boys and girls, and men and women, tending to go into separate areas of work.

I would like to hear more from the Minister on another matter. We were told in evidence that Ofsted is reviewing practices in order to ensure flexibility in adult education. We recommended that there should be additional funding, so that colleges would find it easier to run projects to enable older women who may want to change their work direction, as well as younger women with family commitments, to be able to do undertake such education—and a little pot of money to enable them to take that road might be a good idea. Such a review is important. Adult education can allow people to start again, to try something new and to have the opportunity to move on. We understood that that report would be available in April, but it has not yet appeared. The Minister may not know why; if not, I hope that she can find the answer.

Thirdly, we considered apprenticeships—another important area. We recommended that the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Low Pay Commission should consider the gender pay gap for apprentices. Girls and boys tend to go into different apprenticeships. Again, the YWCA found in a survey that the lowest paid apprenticeship was for hairdressing, which as expected is more than 90 per cent. female; and the highest paid electro-technical trades paid twice the average, and is 100 per cent. male dominated. That will come as no surprise.

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One development that has taken place since we reported was the Government’s commitment to a massive expansion in apprenticeships. When I first saw one of our internal party political briefings, I threw up my hands in horror because it made no mention of equality. Ministers were upset and referred me to the proper document on apprenticeships, which included an entire paragraph on equality. I was heartened also at the announcement made at the TUC by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham): he announced an increase in the minimum pay for apprenticeships. We had asked that the Low Pay Commission consider the agenda pay gap. It was asked also to consider whether apprenticeships should be excluded from the minimum wage. However, the Government have announced that, pending the work of the Low Pay Commission, there would be an increase in the minimum pay for apprenticeships from £80 to £95 a week.

What pleased me was that the Department has the issue in its consciousness sufficiently that the Secretary of State pointed out in his speech at the TUC that young women—apprentices such as those in hairdressing and care—would benefit most. Clearly, there is concern, but that does not mean that it will be easy, if we have a massive expansion of apprenticeships, to begin to break down some of those barriers and get girls a broader range of choices of what they want to do. That is important.

We were disappointed, as was the women and work commission, with the Government response on quality part-time work. There has been an excellent quality part-time work initiative to create projects to get women into quality part-time work. When we asked Baroness Prosser at the first meeting what she thought was the most important issue, the first thing that she mentioned was that quality part-time jobs are essential. It is, or can be, easy to get part-time work, but it is hard to get part-time work of quality; all too often, women, even those in good career jobs, who go back to work after having a child, say, if they are able to go back part-time, find that they are demoted or that they have slipped down the career ladder. It is hard in general in a whole range of occupations to get decent quality part-time work. That also means that some of the experience and skills of older women is lost.

In their response the Government said that they will be reviewing the matter and deciding what to do, but we said that the amount of money available to the programme should be increased. That is still important. It raises the general point, which is relevant to other things, that we can do good projects and pilots, and get a range of employers as exemplars, as we have, that try to do positive work, but the difficulty is extending it. I do not think that the Committee had an answer to that, but we need to be conscious of moving beyond saying, “We did jolly well. We had some pilots”, to working out how we extend them.

One of our main recommendations—we were rather bold in this—was that the Government consider a gradual extension of the right to request flexible working to the whole work force. We thought that we would be bold but, obviously, we understand that the commitments of people with young children and carers are paramount. However, at the end of the day, there is no reason why we should not be able to offer more flexible working
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patterns to the population. We know that that is a long-term aspiration, but it was important for us to consider it. Obviously, there has been an extension to the right to claim flexible working since then.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I support the recommendation in my hon. Friend’s report to extend the right to request flexible working to all members of the work force. Will she comment on a meeting that I had with trade union women last week? A number of the women said that they thought the right to request flexible working worked well in the public and white collar sectors, but not in others. They cited examples of women who were nervous about asking for the right to flexible working because they feared that they would be discriminated against in their jobs.

Judy Mallaber: I tend to take the view that that reflects badly on people’s management rather than on the needs of the work force. I ran a small work force in a voluntary organisation of 20 to 25 people, and quite often people would sidle in with a look that said that they were either pregnant or wanted to change their working hours for another reason—one can quite often tell when someone is pregnant. It was often possible to arrange for them to work different hours. Obviously, it depends on the nature of the work force, and it will not be possible in some jobs, but it is perfectly reasonable that an employer should look at the possibility. The point is that they should be required to take it seriously and to have serious reasons for their decisions, is it not?

This example is striking. The Select Committee on Education and Employment, which was the first Select Committee on which I served, back in 1997-98, did a report on part-time workers. We invited people from supermarkets and shops such as Sainsbury’s and Thorntons that have quite a good record of allowing flexible working, but we also invited people from the textiles industry. The latter said to us, “You don’t understand about production lines. It isn’t possible to have people working part-time.” Some people who had worked in textiles for donkeys’ years went off and had children but were not allowed to go back and work part-time. To my mind, that showed why the textile industry was in difficulty, because the management were not able to cope with organising a production line that could cope with flexible working arrangements.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): The points that my hon. Friend raises on the management of work forces are interesting. However, the reason why I support the idea of flexible working for the entire work force is that, anecdotally, I have learned that problems arise because some fellow workers resent the fact that some of their colleagues have a right to flexible working. Their argument is always, “Why am I not allowed that? Is it because I do not have children or caring responsibilities? It is unfair.” It is not exclusively on the management level that this problem arises in the work place; flexible working can strike other workers as unfair, therefore the right to flexible working would be a great benefit all round.

Judy Mallaber: I agree with my hon. Friend. Interestingly, officials from the Graphical, Paper and Media Union came to see us during one inquiry. That industry features
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very traditional attitudes among the work force, but the officials talked openly about changing working patterns and flexibility, how it could be done and what they were doing to educate and work with their members to allow it. That was an interesting and surprising example. I think that that happened when we were taking evidence for this report, but these things sometimes seem to be seamless over the years.

Clearly, it is difficult, and it is just as bad for an employee simply to assume that they can have anything that they want as it is to assume that they should not be listened to at all. There has to be a balance between the needs of the job and the needs of the employee. That balance can be to the benefit of the employer when it is possible to offer flexible employment. It should at least be considered.

Interestingly, one of my real interests in getting the report done was giving a boost to publicity for the women and work commission. We have to keep going back, getting publicity and keep the pressure going, as has been said, if we are going to change attitudes. I was pleased that when the report was published, we got a massive round of publicity. I went on loads of TV, radio and all the rest of it, only to find myself being asked what I thought about Alan Sugar. I assumed that he made some comment on flexible working, but it turned out that he had made some rather unguarded comments, having been asked about the issue off the back of our report, that got a massive amount of publicity. He had said something about how people would not take on women and how employers should be able to ask about their life situation, children, whether they would have children, and said that there was a disincentive to employing women. He tried to row back on what he said by saying that he had employed some good women, but it was an interesting furore. Different attitudes have been put forward.

One of the members of the Committee was very keen—she was absolutely right—to say that although we were looking at occupational segregation, it is also important to look at the undervaluation of traditional women’s jobs. There is nothing wrong with traditional women’s jobs—they are important, but they are undervalued and underpaid often. What is more important than bringing up children and being involved in nursery care or primary school teaching, which mostly involves women? Many such jobs, including caring jobs; are among the most important, yet they are undervalued. We wanted to highlight that. The minimum wage is important in that respect, but we were given examples of projects within traditional areas of work by which efforts were being made to assist getting women higher up the scales. I am interested in what the Minister has to say on that.

We moved on to enforcement and legislation. There is a great deal of controversy—I will not to go on too long because otherwise, nobody else will have a chance to come in—over whether pay audits should be made compulsory, and we decided to take evidence from the TUC and CBI at the same time. That was interesting, partly because the CBI was saying that making pay audits compulsory, so that what is going on in the firm or in that area of employment can be seen and whether any changes should be made, was much too difficult and bureaucratic, and that it was one of the classic burdens on business.

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At that point the people from the TUC said, “Actually it is very easy; you can do it in quite a light-touch way. Would you like us to take up a commission? We can come and do it for you at a fairly small fee. We will be happy to come and do some audits for your companies.” That was interesting as a potential exchange, with the TUC setting up as an agency and sending its experienced officers to do pay audits elsewhere.

The issue of compulsory pay audits has not moved on, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will probably want to comment on our current position in relation to the equality Bill and the current big push for transparency and encouraging employers voluntarily to be transparent about, and publicise, pay structures. We felt that we could not at this stage conclude that pay audits should be mandatory, but we looked at the alternative possibility: we are still making our way on whether the gender equality duty in the public sector will have an impact, but another way forward could be to extend the gender equality duty to the private sector. We reached the conclusion that we would not recommend either course at this time; but that if the pay gap continues to decline only at the terribly slow rate at which it has declined until now, the Government should consider some of those further measures.

We took evidence originally at a time when people were putting their evidence to the Discrimination Law Review, which most people, including the Committee, were rather disappointed with. It turned out that by the time Ministers came before us they were rather disappointed with it, too. We moved on from some of the issues that were then being discussed. However, we thought that several of the issues that were raised should be examined, with respect to whether changes in legislation would help, including hypothetical comparators, representative actions and the role of equality representatives. I should be interested to know whether those issues are still on the table, and where we may be going with them.

We made some comments on no win, no fee lawyers, but if I get on to that territory I shall probably be here for the next hour. I did not like being ambushed when I was speaking about the report at a conference for Incomes Data Services. There were questions from the back, and I discovered that those concerned had not told me they were some of the lawyers raking in a fortune by taking up relevant cases. However, that is another story. It is an area of considerable concern.

I mentioned the survey of different Departments. One of our recommendations, which I suppose rests with the Minister for Women and Equality and with Select Committees, is to examine the extension of best practice beyond Departments.

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