HL Deb 27 January 2000 vol 608 cc1665-8

3.17 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are their achievements in the pursuit of equality for women.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, the noble Lord tempts me to make a 15-minute speech, but looking at the clock I shall confine myself to an Answer highlighting the Government's achievements which have improved women's economic equality.

First, the introduction of the minimum wage has had the greatest impact on the wages of women and has reduced the gender pay gap. The increase in child benefit of 36 per cent between 1997 and 2000 and the further above-inflation increase expected has been a substantial improvement in payments direct to the purse rather than to the wallet. Women who have family responsibilities and who, in common with eight out of 10 mothers, work outside the home, have also had their circumstances improved by the New Deal programmes, the national childcare strategy and the childcare tax credit. All of these changes greatly increase the economic equality of women. It is a record of which we are proud.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. Does not she agree that the Government's achievements in this area are in no way enhanced by exaggeration or error? Has the attention of the noble Baroness been drawn to a recent report from the Women's National Commission, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, where, on page 11, it claims that this Government include the first woman leader of your Lordships' House, which of course is not the case?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I acknowledge that mistake. My noble friend Lady Crawley has done so also. I would certainly underline the record of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. She has been most helpful to me in my present post.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that although sex discrimination legislation and equal pay legislation have done great work, they are in need of more than temporary repair and requires a substantial overhaul to make them user friendly and intelligible and to ensure that they are effectively enforced by procedures that do not involve only bringing individual cases?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that there is much about the present legislation that is very cumbersome. The Government have said—I am working closely with my colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment on this—that when legislative time allows we shall want to make changes which will make it possible, for example, for individual women to take cases against employers. At the moment it is very difficult for any employee to be successful in such a suit unless they are backed by a major organisation or have, for example, trade union representation on a big scale.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, may I first apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Young—I have written to her in these terms—for the mistake in the Women's National Commission's annual report. I welcome the comments of my noble friend the Leader of the House on the economic benefits that women have gained. Those advances will mean that many millions of women's lives will be improved in this country. Does my noble friend agree that there is still a terrible scourge in this country? I refer to the violence that is meted out to women and children and to many pregnant women. What are the Government doing to combat this culture of violence?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for setting the record right about her organisation's report. The Government regard the strategy Living without Fear, which we published last summer—the first national government strategy on violence against women—as the basis for work that will be taken forward in this field. The report was determined to make it generally understood that violence against women is a crime. In that respect, £6 million of the Government's crime reduction programme has been specifically directed to improving services in this area. We hope also that over the next few years we will be able to establish multi-agency partnerships working at a local level, first, to identify the fact that violence against women is a crime which has to be more widely acknowledged before it can be dealt with, and, secondly, that local services should support the victims, particularly the children of victims, of this crime.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, can the Leader of the House remind us why Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has allowed Mike Tyson into this country?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, that is a question on which there are many different views. I personally have been concerned about some of the aspects of the violence against women crimes which were given undue publicity around the visit of Mike Tyson. But as the Home Secretary himself explained, it was felt that in this instance the economic fall-out, as it were, from not allowing Mike Tyson to visit the country, in terms of the benefit from the sporting activity associated with him, was in a sense something that had to be given the first priority.

Earl Russell

My Lords, following the noble Baroness's reply to my noble friend Lord Lester, is she yet in a position to respond to the proposals of the Equal Opportunities Commission for improving the equal pay legislation; and if not, when will she be?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, we have responded to the quinquennial report of the Equal Opportunities Commission, to which I think the noble Earl refers, on the revision of the Equal Pay Act. As I said in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, it is not the Government's view that total reorganisation of the full legislative package is necessarily the way forward on this matter. There are measures—for example, I mentioned the minimum wage—which have already decreased the pay gap in this country. We still have a long way to go. We will indeed introduce such legislation as I outlined in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to try to improve the ways in which the equal opportunities arrangements are fulfilled.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware of the Steps programme, introduced by a local authority in the north-east, to encourage women onto the local council there? Does she not agree that it is important to encourage women, particularly women from sink housing estates, not only to be involved in their local community but to be involved in local government and, if possible, central government, because of the experience that they can bring?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Earl's point. It is important that we do everything, particularly at the local level, to encourage women to play a proper role. As the noble Earl may be aware, it is the Government's aim to have 50 per cent of public appointments going to women. For example, in the National Health Service I am pleased to say that we have already reached 49 per cent in terms of appointments to NHS boards—a 10 per cent increase since we took office.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, what are the Government doing to encourage women into science, engineering and technology? My noble friend Lord Trefgarne, through the Engineering and Marine Training Authority, runs the insight courses. The previous government set up within the Department of Trade and Industry the Women's Development Unit for Science, Engineering and Technology. The Equal Opportunities Commission, together with the Engineering Council, set up the "Wise Buses", which have helped hundreds of thousands of young girls in schools to have experience of hands-on technology. Those programmes are now coming off the road through lack of money. Fifteen per cent of undergraduates in engineering are now women, but we have a long way to go. If we do not make a greater effort, we shall move backwards. What can the Government do to help?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness about the need to maintain a gender focus in this area. There are particular needs around what one might call the new technology in ICT, e-commerce and those areas where women have not necessarily been the ones who have taken up the opportunities in further education. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Education are looking closely at the development of the curriculum in this field. I have personally been in conversation with Professor Susan Greenfield about ways in which outside organisations, like the one she heads, can be involved in giving a lead in science education.