HC Deb 30 June 1982 vol 26 cc1017-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooke.]

1.11 am
Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

When the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 were passed there was hope among many women and the men who supported the legislation that we would gradually see the end of inequality in opportunities and the representation of women in various ways.

The Government have a direct responsibility for appointments to public bodies. After a great deal of research into the appointments of women on public bodies, I decided to seek this Adjournment debate to put the facts before the House. For many years Governments have not measured up to the spirit in the country and the ideas behind the two Acts that, wherever possible, women should be given equality with men.

Secretaries of State could make a significant contribution to redress the imbalance. Ministries and the Government generally can make about 14,000 appointments to public bodies, but since 1977 the change has been minimal. Only 23 per cent. of current appointments are held by women. That is only a 4 per cent. increase since 1977. Only 18 per cent. of the names on the list of public appointments units are women's.

A recent survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission of 874 public bodies found that 304 had no women members and 159 had only one woman serving on each. From answers to parliamentary questions that I have put down it appears that in 1981 the Department of Industry appointed 89 men and only one woman. The Department of Education and Science, in which a large number of women are employed, appointed 46 men and four women. The Department of Transport appointed 83 men and four women. The Department of Energy appointed 78 men and two women. The Department of the Environment appointed 148 men and 27 women. The Welsh Office appointed 107 men and 16 women. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is a little coy about providing the information. The Department of Employment appointed 350 men and 66 women. I have not been able to get figures from the Scottish Office. The Department of Trade appointed 306 men and 152 women, so it is doing very well, as is the Home Office, which appointed 364 men and 153 women.

Some of those figures are deplorable. The Department of Energy, I understand, has appointed no women to its nationalised energy boards. The Department of the Environment has appointed no women to the Housing Corporation or to the national park committees and other bodies.

To be fair, some ministries are at least concerned about the need to appoint more women. The Department of Employment has said that women should play a much greater part in public work, and the Welsh Office has made similar statements. Unfortunately, those are not matched by any particular action.

One of the difficulties—the Minister will probably refer to it—is in attracting women to come forward, but the present system and the way it is geared is not making it easy for women. It is particularly geared to a male life style. Meetings of boards are often in the evenings, which precludes many women with children, particularly working women, from attending. Women serving on public bodies cannot claim child minding fees as a justifiable expense. I have always thought that that was wrong in the House of Commons. It makes life very difficult for women who might want to serve on public bodies.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, appointments can come from a variety of sources, which need not be disclosed, such as personal contact and recommendations. That may preclude women, who are not generally part of what is often known as the "old boy network". Some of us would like to see an "old girl network", so that women might be given greater opportunities.

Only a limited number of appointments come from the public appointments list—perhaps 18 or 20 per cent. It is extremely difficult to ascertain the number of women on the list. Unless the current secrecy about the list is lifted, its effectiveness, or lack of it, will not be ascertained. I believe that it is impossible to ask parliamentary questions about the list and its working.

The criteria of appointment are not made known. The Department of Energy says that appointments are to be made from people with experience in industry, finance and administration". Because women do not have that experience on any large scale, such criteria effectively exclude them. However, one could argue that many women who run a home are running a company single-handed; they are likely to be managing director, accountant and production director rolled into one.

The Department of Industry says that there are far too few women with relevant experience at senior level". But if we continue to apply that standard to the appointment of women to public bodies, women will go on being excluded for many years. I should have thought that it was reasonable to accept experience at middle and low management levels as equally valid. Why should "relevant experience" be the sole preserve of those who are at the top and who, generally speaking, because of the way in which our society has worked in the past, tend to be men?

The Department of Employment is concerned with the question of merit alone, and because women are so massively under-represented, it may be that it is a very limited use of the word "merit", but that seems to be the criterion applied. In other words, it does not take into account the contribution of many women—the consumer and lay view, which may bring a new and different experience to the work of public bodies.

The Department of Transport, which appointed one woman last year, is a particularly good example, given that the great majority of those who rely on public transport, particularly during the day, are women. They could make a contribution to a public body of this nature from quite a different point of view.

It would be useful, therefore, to have an advisory body which was concerned with the promotion of women in public life, and to advise on the setting of targets by Government Departments. I know that the precedent for this was established by the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, which said that those appointed to the Scottish children's panel must represent a ratio of men to women which approximates to that in the general population. That is a good guideline. If that were applied to other Ministries, we might begin to make some progress.

An example of where targets could be set is the medical appeals tribunals. Women represent 21.5 per cent. of the membership of the BMA. We could go for the same representation on the medical appeals tribunals. The same could apply to law.

I should like targets to be set and progress monitored, so that where women are obviously under-represented, additional measures to attract women could be considered—for example, in advertising, and in magazines that are more likely to be read by women than men. That would help to overcome the present imbalance, particularly in Ministries. Some Ministries such as the Home Office have a reasonably good record, and others could do well to follow their example. Ministers and Secretaries of State should actively encourage the use of the public appointments list, and ensure that more women are put on that list, and that women are encouraged to come forward.

The criteria for appointments should be published and clarified. That would give the Secretary of State and civil servants an opportunity to reassess what is relevant experience. In many industries, job evaluation schemes are being changed in that respect. That would open the way for a greater understanding by the public of what may be demanded of people going on to public bodies. We know that there is great interchange between one public body and another. The Equal Opportunities Commission spoke of a stage army of quango members who continue to circulate from one public body to another". There is an element of truth in that. We want more people generally on public bodies, but particularly women, who have been pretty well excluded. The Government, with the exceptions that I have mentioned, have not measured up to what was expected by the passing of the two Acts that I mentioned.

There has never been a time in the history of this country since the suffragette movement and the gaining of the vote by women, when women have been so active and so concerned with equality and getting themselves accepted as full participants in society at every level. The Government can make a sizeable contribution in ensuring that women are given opportunities in this way, but they have not measured up to the task. I hope that tonight the Minister will take on board what I have said and do his best to ensure that if there is a review of the matter in a year's time, we shall see a marked improvement in women's representation on public bodies.

1.24 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) for bringing to the attention of the House the question of women's appointments to public bodies. I doubt if there are many who need to be reminded of the important role that women can and do already play in many instances in all aspects of public life. It is a subject well worth airing in the House.

In general terms, the responsibility for appointment to public bodies rests with departmental Ministers who seek recommendations from a wide variety of sources—other Ministers and hon. Members, Government Departments, the public appointments unit in the Management and Personnel Office, representative organisations and last, but by no means least, from members of the public. I should like to say more in a few moments about the way in which this process can be improved with a view to securing greater representation of women on public bodies.

At this stage, I emphasise the importance that the Government and I attach to seeing that the high potential contribution that can be made by women serving in public appointments is not wasted. I am at one with the hon. Lady in saying that there is plainly a degree of wastage of that potential. No one suggests that there should be an exact proportional representation. But the disparities to which the hon. Lady has drawn attention suggest that there is a wastage of potential. It follows that we must always go for merit and not simply look to the sex. We must look to the quality of the individual. That must greatly depend upon qualifications and experience.

The hon. Lady drew attention to the figures produced by Government Departments and published by the Equal Opportunities Commission. These figures indicate that while there have been some increases over the past five years in the number of women appointed to public bodies, they are still under—represented in some areas of public life. She has quoted figures, some of which may, at first sight, suggest that women have been overlooked in the appointments procedure. I do not believe that to have been the case.

There must inevitably be public bodies whose membership has to be drawn from candidates with special knowledge or qualifications. In some cases, women will be favoured as a result. But in many more, it will be men who are appointed on the basis of their particular qualifications and experience. Until we achieve full equality of opportunity for men and women in all spheres of activity, that state of affairs is bound to continue I take the point made by the hon. Lady that it is no good saying "You have not got the experience" if one does not give to people the opportunity to acquire the experience in the first place.

But the picture of public appointments in the EOC's annual report is by no means one of failure on the part of this Government to appoint more women. It is heartening to be able to record that since this Government took office, the proportion of women appointed to public bodies has increased. Women now comprise 23 per cent. of all appointees. It was 17.6 per cent. in 1977, 19.5 per cent. in 1978 and 22 per cent. in 1979. I accept that the increase has been a gradual one, and that there is no cause for complacency in the figures, but it is a trend in the right direction. I am pleased that my Department, as the hon. Lady has fairly acknowledged, heads what might be termed a league table of Government Departments with women occupying 30 per cent. of the appointments to those bodies for which my right hon. Friend has responsibility.

The Government are firmly committed to a policy of equal opportunities for women, and are fully aware of the need to increase the numbers of women appointed. But that, in turn, demands an increase, in terms of quantity and quality, in the number of women willing to come forward to participate in public life. The public appointments unit, which has the responsibility, when asked, for suggesting to Ministers candidates for public appointments, is anxious to know of suitable women. To date, women represent about 16 per cent. of the total number of people on the unit's register of those regarded as suitable for public work. That is encouraging, given the small number of women who, through their work and other interests, enter the areas from which candidates are likely to be chosen.

The unit is certainly taking positive steps to improve the position. Since July last year, when an article in The Guardian specifically asked women to come forward, more than 100 women have expressed interest. During the past two years the unit has been actively encouraging representative organisations to recommend women. Some 13 women's organisations have been approached, resulting in 39 recommendations, while a further 135 women have come forward as a result of recommendations from organisations with both male and female membership.

Getting on to the central list, or any list from which candidates are selected is, of course, only the first step. The second step is to be selected from that list to be recommended to Ministers. I assure the hon. Lady that no opportunity of putting forward qualified women is knowingly missed.

Although there are many women who have shown an interest in public appointments and have not so far been asked to serve on a public body, to improve on the 16 per cent. already quoted, the public appointments unit would be glad to hear of other suitable women whose names might be added, to give Ministers a wider selection of names to choose from when they are considering making appointments.

The hon. Lady referred to secrecy about the relevant criteria. I am not aware of any. In case there is doubt about what constitutes suitability, the sort of people who might be expected to be appointed are those who have a general ability to analyse problems, to assess evidence impartially and to contribute effectively to group discussion, with a reasonably wide range of interests and experience, including some experience of committee work at a fairly high level, and an ability to apply the knowledge and experience that they have gained in one area to another specific area or to general problems.

The public appointments unit would be glad to hear from anyone, female or male, who feels that he or someone he knows meets those general requirements. I can assure the hon. Lady that my colleagues and I will continue to take account of the need for public bodies to represent fully and with equality, if that is possible, all sections of the community.

It is sometimes suggested that we should ensure that every public body has at least one woman appointed to it. It is our impression that women and women's organisations would not thank any Minister for appointing "the statutory woman". I know that the hon. Lady did not suggest that. I rather imagine that we have moved beyond that concept. As to the possible suggestion that we should consider increasing the number of women on public bodies by issuing an edict that a percentage of the membership of every board, committee or commission or whatever to which Ministers make appointments should be female, I believe that that would be regarded as an insult to the women of this country who believe that they have a good claim on their own merits. In any event, quotas could themselves be unacceptably discriminatory if any attempt deliberately to achieve or maintain a given balance led to a refusal to appoint an individual because of his or her sex. The possibility of adopting targets for such appointments raises rather different considerations. It creates the danger that, should strenuous efforts be made to meet specific targets, the standard of quality may be sacrificed in favour of quantity and that, in the long term, would not be helpful to the women's cause.

I have spoken about some of the problems that we face in identifying suitable women to serve on public bodies and of the measures that we are taking to invite women to come forward. I cannot pretend that dramatic improvements will be achieved overnight or indeed in the next year. As part of our policy of promoting equal opportunities for women, we shall do what we can to improve upon the present position and to ensure that women are given every opportunity to take their place as members, and chairmen, of public bodies.

I say that not simply out of a sense of fairness and what is fitting towards women but out of a sense that the public interest requires the potential that women have to serve the nation in these important positions and which at present, not to a precisely measurable extent but to some significant extent, is being wasted. It is in the interests of the country as well as of women as a sex that that wastage should be remedied.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Two o' clock.