In the final days of this Government Lib Dems are still delivering our agenda against the odds, and against Conservative obstruction.
Under the coalition government the gender pay gap had fallen to its lowest level, at just under 20% – but this is still 19.1% too high. Despite our high levels of women’s employment the UK has the 8th highest gender pay gap in the EU.
Not only is the gender pay gap socially wrong in modern society, but economically it’s nonsensical not to reward our most talented female employees properly. We should value the contribution of women and men in the workplace equally, so our goal has to be eliminating the pay gap completely.
As a Business Minister and Minister for Women, I have worked very hard to persuade my Coalition colleagues of the virtues of tough action to tackle this long-term inequality. Their traditional resistance makes it all the more remarkable that Nick Clegg has, in the last few weeks of our term, secured a government amendment that guarantees all large businesses will have to publish the difference between average pay for their male and female staff. So today (Tuesday) I will proudly vote for our party’s manifesto commitment – for large companies to publish the difference in average pay between male and female employees – to become law.
This is a significant win for women, and a political win for Liberal Democrats in Government. Amendments to the Small Business Bill, [approved in the House of Commons yesterday (Tuesday),] will fast-track our manifesto plans for gender pay transparency within the next 12 months. This will mean large companies – over 250 employees – will be legally required to publish the average pay of their male and female staff. It is our intention to create pressure from staff and customers to account for and close any pay gap that exists between men and women in large businesses. Women will know whether they are being properly rewarded for their endeavours: a situation that is good for competitive businesses and good for the economy.
As readers of Lib Dem Voice will know, we have argued for mandatory pay transparency since before the coalition was formed. We were the first major political party to commit to enforcing gender pay transparency by law. Labour might try to claim now that they would have done this in 2010 but actually their proposal was for voluntary publication for four years. This was something our champion for women, Lynne Featherstone objected to at the time – arguing against Labour’s delay that “pay audits are necessary and must be mandatory. We cannot wait another four years… voluntary pay audits are like waiting for Godot.”
In the wake of entrenched Conservative opposition, and in the context of Labour’s commitments while in government, we had to agree to try a voluntary approach first. We did so only on the condition that the decision would remain under review, and if this approach did not lead to more companies publishing the difference in pay between men and women, mandatory reporting would be introduced for large companies. During our time in government just five companies have chosen to publish their gender pay gap voluntarily. While I take my hat off to those who do – this is just not good enough.
Of course, the gender pay gap is not exactly an issue that the Conservative Party gets out of bed for. They were content to kick this issue into the long grass time and time again. Nick and I have made increasingly urgent appeals to our Conservative colleagues to address this. Which is why, today I am proud that we will go further than I expected. By securing a government amendment, Nick Clegg has successfully ensured that ministers on the government payroll will vote in favour of gender pay transparency, despite the Conservatives’ consistent efforts to block the proposals over the life of the coalition.
I could speculate about why the Tories have caved just weeks before the election – maybe the International Women’s Day celebrations caught the PM in a jovial mood? Or perhaps he feared that history (or the voters) would judge him for being on the wrong side of this argument. It may be that with some help from the Liberal Democrats, he simply read the political runes and didn’t want to countenance any risk to the successful passage of the Small Business Bill as the firm deadline of Parliament’s dissolution approached. Liberal Democrats can be proud that we have been the drivers of reforms to modernise the workplace to give women a fairer chance to get to the top of the career ladder. By extending flexible working to all employees, introducing Shared Parental Leave and revolutionising childcare, we are ensuring that there is greater equality at home and at work.
We can also be proud that – thanks to our term of stability in government – there are more women in work than ever before and women’s gross weekly earnings have increased between 2013 and 2014. Additionally we have banned pay secrecy clauses and introduced mandatory pay audits for companies that lose equal pay claims. The Government is also committed to tackling occupational segregation, and the outdated view that certain jobs are for “men-only”. Only 13% of engineers in this country are women – substantially lower than other European countries like Latvia, Sweden and Bulgaria. Through initiatives like “Your Life” we are encouraging young girls to get into STEM-related careers.
We have achieved a lot, but there is still much more to do. Equal pay and better gender representation in business is good for the economy as well as helping to create a fairer society. So any future coalition that contains Liberal Democrats will ensure this remains front and centre of our efforts in government.
* Jo Swinson is the Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire and is a Minister in hte Department Business, Innovation and Skills and Equalities Minister