Through the measures that the Government have introduced, women—and men—now have more choice and support than ever before to balance work and home life in ways that benefit employees, their families and employers. The UK now has the highest levels of employment ever, with women making up more than 45 per cent. of the work force.
I have heard that the right hon. Lady is a great fan of Lauren Bacall and has seen every single one of her movies. Has she read the article in the Daily Mail headlined, "You can't have a husband and a career, says Bacall"? Does she agree with Lauren Bacall, will she continue to watch her movies and what does her husband have to say about it?
I have seen the headline as well as the movies. It reminds me of my first job interview many years ago, when the interviewer, who was a woman, asked me whether my husband minded my working. I said, "No, and I don't mind him working either."
My right hon. Friend will be aware that many women choose to achieve work-life balance by setting up their own enterprises. However, there is still an insufficient number of women doing so, despite good examples such as diva, an enterprise run by women in my city. What can the Department do to ensure that more women take that step and have the confidence to run businesses, because they often prove to be excellent at doing so?
My hon. Friend is right. I am pleased that the number of women who have taken the step of setting up their own businesses has grown significantly in the past few years. It remains the case that fewer women in Britain are starting up businesses compared with the proportion of women doing so in the United States. Indeed, if we could close that entrepreneurship gap 100,000 more new businesses would start up in Britain every year. Through the Phoenix fund, the Business Link network and women's business clubs we are making that investment and giving support so that more women will take the step into self-employment by setting up and growing their own business.
I should celebrate the last women's questions of this Parliament by sticking up for men, because their work-life balance is important too. The reality for many families is that men work full-time and that women often choose to work part-time. The pay gap is 46 per cent., so it make financial sense for the men in such families to go out to work rather than the women. The Government have signally failed to tackle that aspect of the pay gap, which is extremely disappointing. Can the Minister tell us what she has done to address the problem?
The first thing that we did was introduce the national minimum wage, which has almost eliminated the pay gap for low-paid workers. With tax credits on top, that has made an enormous difference to women, particularly lone mothers, who work part-time, as they can now secure a living wage for themselves and their children. We have ensured that part-time workers receive full-time rights—a hugely important step that was opposed, I seem to recall, by the Conservative Opposition—and through our new laws on flexible working rights we are seeking to make sure that part-time working is not confined to low-paid, low-skilled, undervalued jobs but is available all the way up to the most senior, well-paid jobs. By making sure that men as well as women have more choice and control over their working hours, not only will we make it easier for both fathers and mothers to balance work and family but we will reduce, then eliminate the pay gap.
My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on setting up the women and work commission. I pay great tribute to her and the Prime Minister for appreciating the complexity of the pay gap and setting up Baroness Prosser's commission to try to get to the root of a very difficult problem. Can she confirm that the next Labour Government will act on the recommendations of Baroness Prosser's report so that female talents can be properly used and rewarded?
I am delighted with the progress of the women and work commission, which will report to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister before the end of the year. I have no doubt at all that we will want to act on its recommendations, The commission is looking at the underlying causes of the pay gap, particularly the different choices that girls and young women make about the subjects that they study and the training that they undertake. Well over 90 per cent. of hairdressing apprenticeships, for instance, are taken by women, but well over 90 per cent. of engineering apprenticeships are taken by men. Those young women do not have any information at all about the pay consequences of their choices. We must tackle those underlying problems if we are going to make the progress that we all want to make to eliminate the pay gap.
I wish to press the Minister on single women who have carried a load through life and have often been forgotten about in carrying responsibility for aged parents and others. Does she share my concern about job sharing, particularly in Departments where there does not seem to be a working arrangement for sharing knowledge, so that people who are looking for information find it difficult to get it?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. Across government, we have been doing a great deal more to support the single women and others who have a caring responsibility for elderly parents or adult disabled children. That includes the introduction of the state second pension, for instance, which will protect the pensions of women in that position for periods when they have had such family responsibilities. We have ensured that job sharing and other part-time work opportunities are available, certainly in my own Department and across government. As he will know, we are consulting on the possible extension of our very successful flexible working laws beyond parents of young children to people caring for older relatives.
My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the fact that evidence is emerging that women in middle management are now out-performing and out-earning many men. Surely, that is partly down to the pioneering work done by her and the DTI. Is she also aware, however, that when the Institute for Fiscal Studies was assessing how much money students pay back, it pointed out that female students would pay back very little over the period involved because they would be earning such low wages over their lifetime? While there are signs of very good things happening, we still face some problems and the battle goes on.
My hon. Friend is right that the battle goes on. Women in middle management are doing exceedingly well, which is a tribute to their efforts. Women students at school—and we are beginning to see the same thing at university—are out-performing their male counterparts. The reality is that when the majority of graduates in law, medicine, accountancy and many other subjects are women, we need to ensure that those women can make the full contribution that their skills will allow, for the sake not only of them and their families, but of our economy as a whole. I assure him that we on the Labour Benches at least will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that equal opportunities are available to women and men throughout the country.
I congratulate the Minister on her original answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant. Does she agree that there is one profession in which women and men are not represented in equal numbers—our very own profession as Members of Parliament? Since this might well be the very last question of this Parliament, does she share with me the happy anticipation that, when my party occupies the Government Benches in only a few weeks' time, there will be more than 40 women on our side, while on the Labour Opposition side there will be fewer than 60 women and the Liberal Democrats will be lucky if they have just one? Does she agree that we must all keep working to ensure that we have more and more women as Members of Parliament?
I congratulate the hon. Lady. Indeed, I commiserate with her on the efforts that she and the very small number of women on the Opposition Benches have been making to try to persuade their party to select more women candidates. I am sure that she agrees that it is a great pity that her party has already—indeed, it did so before the election campaign started—deselected three of its feisty women candidates. Apparently, they were too feisty for the men in their constituency associations. We were the Government who introduced the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to enable any political party that so chose to take positive action to ensure proper representation of the women of our country in Parliament and other elected offices. I am proud of the fact that our party took advantage of that Act to take such positive action. I regret that the Opposition parties did not do so.
Since this is the final question of the Session, may I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your unfailing courtesy in presiding over our proceedings, and may I ask you whether we will now get a chance to sing "Jerusalem"?