Equality: Pay and Opportunities — Question
11:23 am

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Baroness Northover (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, the Government are committed to making full use of the skills and experience that women bring to our economy. We are increasing flexibility in the workplace and extending help with childcare. We are supporting women's enterprise through identifying and training 5,000 business mentors. We are encouraging greater transparency on gender equality in the workplace and, with the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, we are helping more women reach the boardrooms of our leading companies.

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Baroness Prosser (Labour)

I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Does she agree that as the reasons for the continuing gender pay and opportunities gap are many and various, the solutions must be multilayered as well? Can she tell the House about any proposals the Government may have to address the unaffordability of childcare, the paucity of good quality part-time employment and the training needs of women working below their capacity?

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Baroness Northover (Liberal Democrat)

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her work in this area and for chairing the Women and Work Commission and its later update, which is an impressive piece of work. She will be aware that the trend is in the right direction. It is very marked. If you look at 1970, there was a 38.2 per cent gender pay gap and in 2011 it was 9.2 per cent. But we cannot be complacent and the issues that she has flagged up rightly identify some of the challenges that face women in work.

Under the universal credit, we will be extending the amount of support to childcare for those working less than 16 hours a week-so those working part-time-and that should assist 80,000 families. We are extending the right to request flexible working to employees. It is also extremely important to note that there are many more apprenticeships, often being taken up by women in later life so that they can more easily get back into work if they have taken time out.

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Baroness Kramer (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that students taking maths at A-level almost always go on to higher education and earn something like £17,000 more a year than their counterparts. That is true also for those taking subjects such as physics and engineering. What are we doing today to try to persuade girls that they can choose this route, which would very quickly close a great deal of the earnings gap?

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Baroness Northover (Liberal Democrat)

My noble friend is absolutely right. Gender stereotyping in schools has tended in the past to direct girls way from the areas that she is talking about. The new National Careers Service will encourage girls and young women to challenge those stereotypes and encourage them to choose from the broadest possible career options. That includes providing good information, which girls, certainly from my experience, are very interested in, about the wide range of career opportunities that studying science and maths can lead to.

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Baroness Pitkeathley (Labour)

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, with the demographics of an ageing population, the provision of elder care and care for disabled people is just as important, if not more important, than the provision of childcare in enabling people to return or stay in the workforce? What provisions are the Government making to help people with caring responsibilities enter or remain in the workforce?

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Baroness Northover (Liberal Democrat)

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. We often debate how we can better develop the support of social care. I look forward to future debates this year on that area, as she knows. She is quite right that many people find themselves trapped in a situation where they are responsible both for the care of children and for elder care. That means that it is extremely important that our extension of the right to request flexible working for all employees-men and women, as we seek to share that responsibility-is taken forward. It is very important that this does not simply fall on women. At the moment, many men support their parents as well, so I hope that this is something that will move forward steadily.

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Baroness Howe of Idlicote (Crossbench)

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most important issues is to ensure that men have equal access to flexible and part-time working and that that is seen as important in all the firms that employ men? That is one of the gaps that still exist. I also congratulate the Government on the progress-there are visible signs of progress-in opportunities and on pay. This Government have done a fair amount to increase that and the previous Government did a great deal to start the climb.

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Baroness Northover (Liberal Democrat)

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for those comments and I also pay tribute to the previous Government for their work in that area. It is indeed extremely important to extend flexible working to make sure that both sexes take full advantage of that and play their part-whether looking after children or helping with elder care, as we have just discussed.

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Lord Boswell of Aynho (Conservative)

My Lords, while in no sense seeking to denigrate the importance of equality legislation, where we must not take our foot off the pedal, will my noble friend agree that it is time to trumpet the positive benefits to companies and organisations of a workforce and decision-makers who are diverse in experience and attitudes? More wisdom will come out of that diversity than out of a monolithic offer.

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Baroness Northover (Liberal Democrat)

I could not agree more with my noble friend. That was emphasised in the debate on women last week. I note that 24 per cent of all appointments to FTSE 100 boards are now women, up from 13 per cent the previous year. That is one area where it is extremely important to carry through the points that my noble friend made.

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Lord Dannatt (Crossbench)

My Lords, on this day when we focus on women and are mindful of the loss of six soldiers in Afghanistan, bringing the number who have lost their lives in that campaign to 404, will the Minister and the whole House join in paying tribute to women- mothers, daughters, girlfriends and wives-who are at home while their men are on the front line? We must also bear in mind that some of those on the front line are women. We pay tribute to women who serve at home by supporting those who are on the front line on this day when we focus on women in particular.

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Baroness Northover (Liberal Democrat)

I am very happy to pay tribute to the men and women who serve for us on the front line and their families at home-their partners, wives and husbands, and their children.