I beg to move,
That this House
believes that the Government is failing to deliver a recovery for women and is making women pay three times more than men to bring down the deficit, according to research by the House of Commons Library;
notes that under this Government, women’s unemployment has reached its highest levels for a generation;
further notes that wages are stagnating in jobs where women are predominant;
and calls on the Government to support more women into decent work by extending free nursery places for 3 and 4 year olds from 15 to 25 hours a week for parents at work, provide a legal guarantee for 8am-6pm breakfast and afterschool club childcare, and bring in Make Work Pay contracts to provide a 12 months tax rebate for firms which sign up to pay the living wage.
The test of a successful economy is whether it improves the living standards of ordinary people: families and businesses who want to work hard and to get on. Today, official figures say that working people are on average £1,600 per year worse off than they were at the election. On this Government’s watch, we have seen the biggest fall in workers’ incomes in any G7 country. Families across the country are hurting and it is women who are on the front line of this cost of living crisis. More often than not, it is women who are left trying to make the family budget stretch that little bit further: when the weekly shop costs more each month, but the amount in the purse stays the same; when in the past three years the cost of keeping the kids in nursery has risen five times faster than wages; and when heating bills are 10% more expensive than they were last year. Women understand what it means for prices to rise faster than wages for 40 out of the past 41 months.
There have never been more women saying that they are working part-time and cannot get the hours to work full-time. The female employment rate is lower than it was under Labour before the crash.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are more women than ever before on low wages, more women than ever before who cannot get jobs, and more women than ever before who have to deal with the high cost of living?
My hon. Friend refers to the challenges that women face when budgeting. Does she share my concern that the comments made by the Education Secretary just a few weeks ago—that people who had to go to a food bank were not managing their finances—were an affront to many women?
Those comments were absolutely offensive. I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting them, and for asking the question that exposed the reality of the Government’s position.
Women feel it when their Sure Start centres are cut and the cost of child care continues to rise. They understand that the Government are not doing enough to help them, and they could teach David Cameron a thing or two about tough decisions. The other week I met a different Chipping Norton set: Lisa, Amanda, Toni and Laetitia. Lisa told me that, as a new mum caring for a young child and a husband with cancer, the children’s centre in the Prime Minister’s constituency saved her from having a breakdown. That Sure Start centre is now threatened with closure. Sheila, in my constituency, is in her 80s. She is a widow living alone in Sutton-in-Ashfield, and is worried about how she is going to keep warm this winter. To do so, she has to spend the day at her son’s house. Half of mums surveyed by Netmums said that to save money they turn off the heating when their children are out. This is their Britain.
The hon. Lady is making a compelling case about how the Government’s misguided austerity programme is leading to social devastation and is economically illiterate. Does she agree that cutting public services hits women with a triple whammy—as the group most dependent on public services, as employees of public service and as the ones who have to fill the gap when public services go?
It is absolutely right that women are hit three times as hard, and I will explain later how that has happened.
Half of mums surveyed by Netmums said that to save money they turned off the heating when their children were out. The Government talk about recovery, but these women know it is definitely not a recovery for women. Under this Government, unemployment among women has reached its highest levels in a generation, long-term female unemployment has increased eight times as fast as for men, the number of older women unemployed has increased by more than a third, and black and minority ethnic women are twice as likely to be unemployed as the national average.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the 242% increase in unemployment among women over 25 in Oldham over the past couple of years is a real indictment of the Government and their policies?
That is absolutely right. That is why it is important to tackle long-term unemployment, and that is exactly what a Labour Government would do.
When women do manage to find work, more often than not it is part-time, low-wage or temporary. The number of women working in temporary jobs increased twice as fast as the number of men. Three times more young women are in low-wage jobs than 20 years ago, and the number of women in part-time work is at its highest level ever.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that for women working in jobs not equal to their capabilities and not getting the hours and experience they need and deserve, it will have a longer-term impact on their prospects in the workplace and their income over their lifetime?
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I vividly remember one lady—a mum in her 40s—coming into my office just before a Morrisons opened in my constituency. She was in tears because when Morrisons announced it was recruiting, she kept calling but the number was constantly engaged.
The Fawcett Society has done some important work warning that women are in danger of losing their precarious footing in the work force.
My hon. Friend has already mentioned the problems for women over 50. Does she appreciate that for all women, but especially those over 50, unemployment has a huge impact on their capacity to retire and save for retirement? We are not just saying to women, “You’re not going to earn now”; we are blighting their lives with poverty into old age and with the need to apply for benefits in old age. If they were working now, they could save for their old age.
My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point.
What is the Government’s response? It is to hit women harder. Of the £14.4 billion George Osborne has raised through direct taxation and benefit changes, about £11.4 billion—79%—is coming from women. David Cameron is asking women to pay more than three times as much as men to bring down the deficit, despite the fact that women still earn and own less than men. Scratch the surface, and we see that some of the most vulnerable women are being hit.
Will my hon. Friend also highlight the impact of the cuts on the voluntary sector and therefore on women who use those services? The charity Women’s Aid said yesterday that domestic violence refuges had had to turn away 180 women a day, many of whom were going back to violent relationships. The impact on those women and their children will surely be immense.
That is an extremely powerful point. If as much has been cut from local government finance as this Government have cut, it shows the reality of what we see. If we scratch the surface, we see that some of the most vulnerable women have been the hardest hit. Low-paid new mums lost nearly £3,000-worth of support during pregnancy and in their baby’s first year. Couples with children lost 9.7% of their disposable income and single mothers lost the most—15.6%. The Prime Minister just does not get it. Why would he, when only four out of the 22 in his Cabinet are women? When it comes to women, it is out of sight and out of mind from this out-of-touch Prime Minister.
Is the hon. Lady as delighted as I am that this Government have introduced shared parental leave and time off for dads to support their wives? Does she agree with me that what this Government are doing to support the early years is absolutely commendable and that all parties should get behind it?
We in government extended maternity leave and introduced paternity leave.
The Government are turning back the clock on women’s equality. Progress on the wage gap has stalled, and women’s financial independence is being undermined. Let us look at the Government’s proposal for a married couple’s tax allowance. It is less than £4 and it will not benefit most married couples. For five out of six couples, it will represent a transfer from the purse to the wallet. It is money to the married man on his third wife, while the single mum, left behind to bring up the kids, will not get anything at all. This Government are taking a lot away from the purse to put a little bit back in the wallet.
This matters not simply for women’s lives and women’s equality, given that increasing women’s employment helped the last Labour Government to lift more than a million children out of poverty. All this progress is now at risk, and progress on child poverty has stalled. I look at my own constituency and see that use of food banks has gone through the roof.
I would like to make some progress, if I may.
One food bank, provided by the Eastwood volunteer bureau, is reporting a 400% increase in use, but it is not only former coalmining areas such as mine that are struggling; this is happening up and down the country. Only yesterday, in reading the Witney Gazette, I learned that another food bank was opening in the town of Carterton, just a few miles from where the Prime Minister lives. The Tory mayor of Carterton recognised the problem straight away—utility bills had gone up and the cost of food had continued to rise.
I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend’s powerful speech again. On Friday evening, a lady who works in a food bank in my constituency told me that people were turning down rice and pasta on the grounds that they could not afford the amount of fuel needed to cook it. Are we not in a dreadful position when people are turning away food that they cannot even afford to cook?
That provides extraordinary evidence of why freezing energy bills is so important.
Netmums found that one in five mums are regularly missing meals so that their kids can eat. One mum said:
“If it’s a choice between me or the kids eating, I will feed them. I have lost so much weight my clothes don’t fit but I can’t afford to buy any more.”
This is Tory Britain.
Energy bills have gone up and continue to go up dramatically—not because of green levies, but because of over-charging by the energy companies. That is why we will get tough on those energy companies, introduce a regulator with teeth and freeze energy bills until we sort the market out for good.
The cost of child care has risen by 30% since the election —five times faster than pay. A mum working part-time on an average wage has to work from Monday to Thursday before she has paid off the weekly child care bill.
Does not the impact on women come from the cost of having to look after not only young children, but their elderly parents? Is my hon. Friend aware of the Scottish Widows survey showing that, as a result, nearly 40% of women are not making provision for their retirement?
I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that survey. I shall make sure that I look into its findings.
Many families must decide not when mum will go back to work after maternity leave, but whether it makes financial sense for her to do so at all. According to a survey by Asda, 70% of stay-at-home mums said that in the current climate they would be worse off if they worked, because of the cost of child care. The Government’s response has been to take £7 billion away from families with children, and to remove the ring fence from Sure Start, breakfast clubs and after-school clubs.
The day before the election, the Prime Minister looked down the barrel of a camera and told women throughout the country that he backed Sure Start. Let me repeat his words in full.
“Yes, we back Sure Start. It’s a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this. He’s the Prime Minister of this country but he’s been scaring people about something that really matters.”
What about the Deputy Prime Minister? What did he say on the day before the election?
“Sure Start is one of the best things the last government has done and I want all these centres to stay open.”
The hon. Lady has already intervened, and I want to allow others to speak.
Since the election there are 578 fewer Sure Start centres and 35,000 fewer child care places, and the number of breakfast and after-school clubs has been cut in more than a third of local authority areas. As for the women who have found work, it is the sort of work that leaves many families struggling to pay the bills. A record number of women are in part-time, temporary and low-wage jobs. One in four earns less than the living wage, as opposed to one in six men. The Government are wasting women’s talent, and costing the economy too. Where is their commitment to make work pay? On our first day in office, the next Labour Government will offer employers throughout Britain a “make work pay” contract to help them to pay the living wage.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the number of women in the care sector who are on zero-hours contracts?
The Government have told me that it is 300,000. Is my hon. Friend concerned about all those women with insecure levels of income?
Absolutely. That is why we have pledged to tackle the abuse of zero-hours contracts. Flouting of the minimum wage is also a particular problem in the care sector.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I congratulate her on it.
A high proportion of children who live in poverty in my constituency have unemployed parents, and a high proportion have only one parent. The cheapest full-time nursery place costs more than £160 a week; it takes the vast majority of a weekly minimum wage to pay for that alone, before paying rent. This is the Britain that the Government have given us.
I have nothing to add to what my hon. Friend has said. She has put it perfectly.
The next Labour Government will offer a simple deal to employers: 32p off tax on every pound that they spend on paying workers the living wage during our first year in office. Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means taking action to increase wages and keep the benefit bill down.
I am nearing the end of my speech, so I will continue.
Something is broken when women are being forced to take two or three jobs in order to afford the basics for their families, and are being forced to take out payday loans just to make ends meet until the end of the month. We know that payday lenders target young women with their advertisements, and that the number of women declared insolvent is expected to overtake the number of men in that position for the first time. We need tough action to end the misery of so many women who are facing insurmountable debt. The next Labour Government will cap the total cost of credit. We will place a levy on the profits of payday lenders to double the public money available for low-cost alternatives for families, such as credit unions, and we will ban them from targeting kids with their advertisements.
All that we get from this Tory-led Government is complacency, and sometimes contempt, as I discovered this morning when I read in the newspapers that 42 Conservative Members of Parliament are members of the Free Enterprise Group, which advocates VAT on children’s clothes and on food. Was this some fringe group, I wondered? No. A Treasury Minister is a member, as is the child care Minister, Elizabeth Truss. This is a group that recommends putting VAT on children’s clothes and shoes, baby food, car seats and prescriptions, raising the weekly shop by over £8.
We need a Government who will take on the vested interests, who will stand up to the big six energy companies, reforming the market and freezing prices until 2017; a Government who are prepared to take on the payday lenders, and who will cut taxes for 24 million working people with a lower 10p starting rate of tax; a Government who will cut business rates for small firms; a Government who will provide 25 hours of free child care for working parents of three and four-year-olds and a legal guarantee for every primary school in the country to provide breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, and introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee to bring down the number of women in long-term unemployment: a one nation Britain that values women’s talents, that supports mums back to work, that tackles the pay gap—a Britain where women play their full part. That is Labour’s Britain.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate. My favourite quote is from the UK’s first female Prime Minister:
“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
I am not sure whether today’s debate is a landmark because all the opening and closing speeches will be made by women Ministers and shadow Ministers, but I would hope that we could make it a bit different by having a proper discussion rather than just talking at each other.
The Government recognise that both women and men up and down the country have been through a difficult economic period because our economy has been through, and is now recovering from, the most damaging financial crisis in a generation.
I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Lady. I will come on to talk a little bit more about this, but the difficulty with the Opposition’s figures is that they assume that income is not shared throughout a household but that it is held on to by one parent in a two-parent household. The Labour figures also do not take into account self-employment, the correct inflation figures and any benefits or tax cuts. Therefore, the figure that was stated of £1,600 does not actually stack up at all.
I am going to carry on for now.
As I said, we are now recovering from the most damaging financial crisis in a generation. I am afraid that Gloria De Piero did not mention that financial crisis at all, but it was overseen by the Labour party—although I appreciate that she was not a Member of this House at that time. It was overseen by the last Government, who built a decade of growth on unsustainable debt. When our country is trying to overturn the largest deficit since the second world war at the same time as our largest trading partner, the EU, has been in recession, it is unfortunately highly likely that women and men will feel the pinch.
Does the Minister agree that in her view of the world the last Labour Government must have had tremendous power as they apparently brought about a financial crash not just in Britain but across the world? The situation would not have been any different whichever party was in government—and we must remember that the current Government do not want to regulate anything any more and said we regulated too much.
That intervention shows the extent of the collective amnesia on the Opposition Benches. First, on the banking crisis the point is that the necessary reserves to deal with the unforeseen consequences were not set aside. Secondly, the last Government systematically over many years spent more than they were raising in taxes, so there were not the reserves to deal with this.
I do not agree on either point. The point about the borrowing is that it is called the automatic stabiliser, and it works. When the economy is in the situation it is in, it is helping out the very families the hon. Member for Ashfield was talking about.
The shadow Minister was intent on not taking an intervention from me earlier. Would my hon. Friend the Minister acknowledge that the Government have looked at how households work, and at how income comes into them, and recognised that there is a real cliff edge at 16 hours of work? That means that incomes drop away at that point, and that for every pound earned, 95p is taken away in reduced benefits. We are introducing a fundamental change that will alter the position of women and allow them to take on full-time work. That is something that Labour failed to deal with in the entire 13 years it was in government.
I could not believe that the hon. Member for Ashfield did not want to hear from my hon. Friend, but, having heard his excellent intervention, I now understand why she did not do so.
This Government know full well that the best way for us to raise the living standards of both women and men in this country, and the best way to put money back into the pockets of hard-working people, is to create an environment in which our economy can grow and in which everyone can feel the benefit. That is exactly what we have spent the past three years doing: reducing the deficit, improving our tax system, investing in our skills and infrastructure and ensuring that all schools are good schools.
The Minister brushed aside the question from my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra about the impact of the Government’s changes on women’s pockets and purses, offering instead a presumption that households share their incomes equally. Has she actually read the research into domestic violence and financial control? Does she really think that a simple transfer is made between men and women in every household in this country? Does she think that our concerns about the direct impact of Government policy on women’s purses are not well founded?
I would never want to downplay the effects of domestic violence. Sadly, I see cases in my constituency surgery on a regular basis, as we all do. The point is, however, that that is not happening in every household. Similarly, not every household is made up of two parents or just one parent; there are all sorts of different families. That is what this Government recognise: the situation is not uniform.
Thanks to the changes that we have made, and thanks, most importantly, to the hard work of women and men across the UK, our economy is turning a corner. The UK is now on the path to prosperity. The deficit is down by a third, gross domestic product is rising, and more people—including women—are in work than ever before. The more men and women who are taking home wages at the end of the month—especially when 25 million people’s wages are being boosted by our increase in the tax-free personal allowance—the higher will be the standard of living that we can expect to see in households across the country.
The Chartered Management Institute confirmed today that the bonuses paid to men are double the size of those paid to women doing the same job. Would the Minister consider closing the loophole in the law to ensure that ladies get the same pay and bonuses as men when they are doing the same job equally well?
Actually, we have had equal pay for 40 years. I shall talk in a moment about the pay gap having narrowed. Men and women should of course be paid the same amount for doing the same job. The Government have introduced a provision that, if a successful pay claim is brought, an automatic audit is triggered of the pay structure of the employer who has been caught falling foul of the law. That is something that the hon. Gentleman should welcome.
I want to make a little progress, but I will give way to the hon. Lady in a bit.
The Opposition have thrown a barrage of statistics on female employment at us across the Dispatch Box this afternoon. I should like your permission to throw just one back, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I have said, there are now more women in work than ever before. If I am allowed one more, I shall tell the House that there are nearly 450,000 more women in employment since the Government came to power, and nearly 300,000 fewer economically inactive women. We should be celebrating the fact that there are now so many women in the labour market. Not only are there more women in the workplace, but the pay gap is shrinking, having fallen by nearly 1% last year. It now sits at just 9.6%.
I recall that the Prime Minister is going to write to the hon. Lady with that information, so I shall have to wait to see the letter. On the point about zero-hours contracts, first, the Government have announced that they are launching a review on the issue, and secondly, she ought to be looking at the number of Labour councils that employ people on those contracts first.
My hon. Friend will appreciate, as a Treasury Minister, that the fact that more women are in work than ever before will also help the Exchequer’s revenues. In the last full tax year, men paid more than £90 billion in income tax whereas women paid only £36 billion, so she can see how helping more women work up the income scale really helps the revenues.
My hon. Friend is, of course, right, but we also need to consider the wider argument: it is good for women to have the choice about whether working is the right thing for them to do given their family circumstances and any other responsibilities they may have. We want to make it as easy as possible for women to work, and I will come on to discuss child care.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that half the population are women and the vast majority of them are successful and contributing, not victims, as the Labour party would have us believe. Does she agree that local businesses employing only a small number of people will benefit from more deregulation, which would enable them to offer jobs to even more women, which they can fit in with having children at school?
My hon. Friend rightly says that 50% of the population are female—it would be nice if we saw a few more women in the House of Commons to represent that, but all parties are working on it. She is also right about deregulation. I am sure that she welcomes, as I do, the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which the Exchequer Secretary is taking through the Public Bill Committee at the moment. It will give all small businesses a £2,000 employment allowance so that they can recruit more people.
Is it not concerning that more and more women are being sacked while they are pregnant because they are pregnant, yet this Government are making it harder for those women to challenge rogue employers and to take cases to employment tribunals?
I, like all other hon. Members, would be concerned if any constituent came to me to say that they had been sacked as a result of being pregnant. I would support someone in that position. The research that we have is from 2005. The hon. Lady may have more up-to-date figures, and we are launching a new consultation to look into the rate and scale of the things she has mentioned.
How many women who potentially face maternity discrimination at work will not be able to take their claim to a tribunal because they are being asked to pay £1,200 just to launch a claim for maternity discrimination?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady, whom I regard as a good neighbourly MP in so many ways, is scaremongering. People have to pay the fee only if they actually go to a tribunal, and there are many stages before that in an employment claim.
Let me talk about women and the workplace. As I said, we want to see not only more women in the workplace, but more women rising to the top of their workplaces. I am delighted that the Minister for Women and Equalities is on the Benches today, as she has been doing so much work to promote women in the workplace. I was also delighted to see Fiona Woolf, the second ever female Lord Mayor of London, coming into post earlier this month. I am sure that she will be an excellent role model for women in the City of London. But we need to do what we can to help more women to reach these senior positions and play an even more prominent role in our recovery. As many hon. Members will know, last month we published a Government action plan specifically designed to help women start out, get on and stay on in our workplaces by taking steps on things such as training, skills and flexible working.
There is no doubt that we have been through a very difficult time, and that will have affected both sexes—men and women alike. Is not growth the best way out of a lot of these problems? Is it not irresponsible of a Government not to tackle the problems they are presented with, leaving them to be tackled by our children and our grandchildren?
My hon. Friend is, of course, right about that. The best way to address living standards is by dealing with the economic crisis, so that families can find work in a growing economy. He is absolutely right to say that it is not fair to burden future generations with debt, which is why this Government have taken the tough actions they have.
I shall now discuss child care. For any mothers and fathers to succeed in the workplace, we need to have the right policy in place to support them. The Labour party is right to draw attention to the importance of parental leave and child care, but let me remind the Opposition that we were the Government who recognised the current system of leave and pay for parents as being not only old-fashioned and inflexible, but as playing a role in reinforcing the idea that women are the primary carers of children. Our new system will give real choice to families, and, from 2015, will allow working parents to share leave once the mother feels ready to end her maternity leave.
I remind the Opposition that we were the party that made sweeping changes on flexible leave and that they were the party that presided over child-care costs rising to the second highest level in the developed world. We are working hard to address that and to make child care more affordable for parents across the United Kingdom. A recent survey showed that 2012-13 was the second successive year in which the price of full- day care and nurseries stayed flat in real terms
The Minister is right to draw attention to concerns about the cost of child care. Will she look carefully at what a group of organisations have recommended, which is that instead of giving a tax break to better off parents to pay for their child care, the proportion of child care costs that is covered by tax credits should be raised from 70% to 80%? That would have a significantly more beneficial effect for low-earning mothers.
I am always happy to receive submissions on this issue from Members from across the House. We have already committed an extra £200 million for people on universal credit so that coverage of their care costs will go up from 70% to 85%.
Let me remind the House that we are increasing free early education places for three and four-year-olds to 15 hours a week. We are enabling low-income families to recover their child care costs and providing all families with support for 20% of their child care costs from autumn 2015.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The increase in the personal tax threshold meant that 57% of those who benefited and who were taken out of tax were women. That is 145,000 women who are no longer paying income tax. That money is staying in their households and they are able to spend it on themselves and their families, which should be welcomed.
I will make some progress. There will be an additional 100,000 families who will eligible for child care support under universal credit. We have also ensured that our changes help the record number of women who have entered self-employment under this Government. That is a critical step. If women started businesses at the same rate as men, we could have an extra 1 million female entrepreneurs and a million more entrepreneurs, which would mean a million more people creating wealth, jobs and growth for our economy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is a critical point. The tax-free child care policy that we have announced will, for the first time, benefit self-employed women, and that is something that the current voucher system does not do.
In conclusion, it is clear that, despite some of the claims put forward by the Opposition, the Government’s plan for recovery is the only plan that will create sustainable long-term growth for our country. It is the only plan that will support employment. It is also the only plan that not only puts faith in the abilities of the women and men of this country to help us work our way back into prosperity, but puts money, through our rise in the personal allowance, back into their pockets. I, like the hon. Member for Ashfield, want to see even more women working, setting up businesses and rising to the top of businesses. The Government want to make that happen, so I ask the House to reject the motion before us.
Order. Before I call the next Member to speak, I must tell the House that, as there has been a large amount of interest in this debate and there is only a limited time available, I have had to impose a seven-minute limit on speeches from the Back Benches.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to say a brief word about three groups of women. My hon. Friend Gloria De Piero has already done a sterling job of opening the debate and it is important that we pay attention to those groups of women who are often not spoken up for sufficiently in this Chamber: single mums, care workers and older women.
It is something about being a woman in politics, I suppose, but because we are a slightly rare breed women in my constituency often approach me relatively quietly and say wonderful things such as, “I have told my daughter about you.” I hope that that is for good reasons. With that comes a duty to speak up for those women whose voice is not always loudest, and it is not always loudest because, to be honest, those women are quite busy. On this point, I must disagree with the Minister. She quoted the first female Prime Minister, who apparently said, “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” The women I know in Wirral are quite good at talking. I think that if you want something said, ask a woman; if you want something done, ask a woman.
Single mums, in particular, are incredibly busy and deserve all the support we can muster. Frankly, they do a brilliant job bringing up children and young people. That is why it is incredibly distressing to me that research on the impact of Government policies up to 2015-16 produced in September by the Women’s Budget Group found that women living on their own would lose the most from the combined impact of changes to taxes and cuts to social security benefits and public services. To me, it is horrendous that the Government’s economic policies will hit women living on their own the hardest. I know many such women in my constituency, and they work incredibly hard, do a good job bringing up children or looking after older loved ones, and they deserve our support and backing. They should not bear the brunt of this Government’s economic policy.
I must say a word about the marriage tax allowance.
I would have listened hard to what that lady had to say and would have asked her some more questions about her circumstances—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that that was under my Government, but I would point to the success of the previous Labour Government on women’s employment. I remember only too well my mum’s experience of being a childminder and setting up a pre-school in Wirral, in my constituency. I remember the absence of support under the previous Tory Government. I will take no lessons whatsoever from what the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position.
I know that the hon. Lady does not like to hear facts, but the fact is that today this Government have delivered more jobs for women than ever before in history and certainly more than under 13 years of Labour. More women are in work today than ever before.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened to patronise me and say that I do not like to hear facts—[Interruption.] I am glad that he intervened to patronise me in that way, because—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Mr Newmark tells me that I do not like to hear facts, and then he confuses the population of women in employment with the unemployment rate. I am sorry—[Interruption.] Madam Deputy Speaker, it is incredibly frustrating in this House when people shout things like, “More women in work than ever before,” when we all know that the rate of unemployment is what matters. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman acquaints himself with some of the facts. If the population increases, that will increase the population in work. It is the unemployment rate that matters, most importantly the long-term unemployment rate. That is the most damaging thing, as I know from communities such as mine. Long-term unemployment has increased eight times as fast for women as it has for men, so I would instruct the hon. Gentleman to acquaint himself with the facts rather than coming to this House to patronise me.
Unfortunately, I am not surprised by that fact. I am only too aware of it. I suggest that the hon. Member for Braintree acquaints himself with the facts before he intervenes again.
I intervened to mention care workers and zero-hours contracts. I see this a great deal in my constituency, so I make no apology for raising the issue in the House again. The Government estimate that 1,750 people are working in the care sector in Wirral. It is my assumption from experience, although we do not know, that many of those are women. It is my guess that many of them are older women. I hope the Ministers on the Treasury Bench might at some point go and talk to women working in the care sector. I am sure they will do so in their constituencies. They will hear about the heartbreaking experience of women who face local government cuts, which creates low wages in the sector and means that there is not always good training.
Local government cuts have had a severe impact on care, which has affected not only those who receive that care and support, but those working in the sector and their ability to make ends meet while they do an incredibly stressful job, sometimes caring for older people at the end of their life, which I know Ministers will agree is a terribly important job. I am sure they will look at that issue with great care and attention.
Finally, I want to say a couple of words about older women. I believe that my generation stands on the shoulders of the generation that was born in the 1950s. That group of women saw none of the benefits of the legal and social change that they fought for, but they fought for it none the less. They are now being punished by this Government because of pension changes that have gone through too quickly. They are also a generation of women who, as I mentioned in response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Braintree, have seen much greater unemployment by proportion compared with men. As my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman has pointed out so eloquently, they are a generation of women who always seem in danger of being counted out.
Let us not do that economically. That generation of women fought for the rights that have enabled people like me to see any success in my life. Let us make sure that we back them up, not just in terms of pensions, but in terms of their living costs now, and make sure that they do not face the severe and significant unemployment that hurts their chances now and as they move into later life.
It is regrettable that Labour likes to portray women as always victims. It is important that this Government see women for what they are—people with all sorts of different ambitions, different needs, different aspirations and so on. It is impossible to define what women want, other than to say that they want to be able to choose and not to be punished for their own choices. Choosing to stay at home and raise children; to work part time and use informal child care; to use nurseries or childminders; to have a stunning career running a FTSE 100 company, or as a pop star or a brain surgeon; to retire early or volunteer for a charity; to care for elderly relatives or disabled children; to be a teacher or, yes, even a politician—what women want is utterly varied, and I am proud of the way that this Government have made efforts to create choice and opportunity for women.
We all know that times have never been tougher economically. Austerity has limited our ability just to keep spending, but it has not stopped the Government’s desire to reform, and to support women in their own choices. There is no escape from the appalling mess that Britain was in in 2010, but the Government have been committed to raising the tax-free allowance for the lowest paid to £10,000 per annum by 2014. In spite of being almost half the work force, women are by far the lowest earners, so keeping more of their income is vital for them. Freezing fuel duty and council tax has helped all families through these tough times. But above all, dealing with the deficit has been and should be the key goal.
My hon. Friend talks about the deficit. Does she think it is responsible for a Government not to tackle that and to pass it on to our children and grandchildren so that they have to deal with the problem?
My hon. Friend is quite right, and I was coming on to say that our deficit is not some airy-fairy statistic; it is the debt that is growing from it that is the biggest threat to our children and grandchildren. If we do not sort it out in our lifetime, it will wreck their future. That matters not just to loving mums, but to loving dads and loving grandparents. The Opposition must stop making light of it. It is real; it is there; it has to be dealt with.
Unemployment rose by 29% for women under Labour. Now there are more women in employment than ever before. The unemployment rate for women has fallen to 7%. At all levels we are helping women to build and develop successful businesses. The Women’s Business Council, set up in 2012, is taking many different actions, including providing business grants and mentors to female entrepreneurs. We are promoting business to girls in school and providing student enterprise loans. In the boardroom, under this Government female representation has risen from 12.2% to 17.3% in three years. We have a long way to go, but it is real progress in what women want.
Women and men are working parents. We have just had a debate on child care, and our policies to support the cost of child care through tax breaks, as well as a raft of measures to encourage new childminders to professionalise the nursery work force and to give parents the confidence that they are getting quality child care as well as helping with the cost of it, are vital.
I was not in the Education Committee, but I am absolutely passionate about child care for the very young and the support that we provide to them. As chair of the all-party group on Sure Start children centres, I can tell the hon. Lady that in our year-long inquiry into best practice in Sure Start centres, there was no evidence of wholesale closures. In fact, there is a real focus on improving the outcomes for families and children. I assure her of that. I urge her to read our report.
I also urge all parties to get behind the 1001 critical days manifesto, which looks at what more we can do to support the earliest relationships in families. It is through creating those secure early bonds that we go on to help families to build and develop the emotional resilience that they need to be secure and happy adults. That does not affect only women, but with one in 10 women suffering post-natal depression, and with so much family breakdown as a result of poor early relationships, I urge all colleagues to get behind our manifesto, which was launched by me, Mr Field, Caroline Lucas and Paul Burstow. It is a truly cross-party manifesto, and I urge all hon. Members to look at it. We should all call for support in the earliest years. That would really support women.
However, women are not just parents and they are not just in business; they are also carers pretty much all the time. Most of the caring in this country falls to women. Women look after the elderly, the young and the disabled. They are also very often the volunteers. They do the brilliant work in food banks and in all the charities. I chair the charities PIP UK, the Parent Infant Partnerships UK; NorPIP, the Northamptonshire Parent Infant Partnership; and OxPIP, the Oxford Parent Infant Project. They provide help for post-natally depressed women, and in those charities it is largely women who volunteer. So many women come to my surgeries to talk about their caring responsibilities. Our policy to combine health and social care for the elderly is incredibly welcome to many as it means that their elderly relatives will have a greater chance of longer independent living, and our policy to introduce personal independence payments for disabled adults and children is welcome to many families who recognise the independence it gives them in making those choices.
Above all, our education reforms will give children a real chance in life. Between 2000 and 2009, under Labour, England fell from seventh place to 25th in international school performance in reading, from eighth to 28th in maths and from fourth to 16th in science. Those things—the future of our children—matter desperately to women and men, but very much to women. It is a priority for our Government, as are our 250,000 new apprenticeships and our superb new university technical colleges, ensuring that children are supported in their future choices.
Then, of course, there are women as pensioners. Our pensions system is complicated and serves women badly. On average, women get £40 less in state pension than men and are much more likely to live in poverty, so they welcome our new single-tier pension. It will disproportionately benefit women, ensuring that those who took time out to raise a family do not suffer in their retirement as a result.
In conclusion, women have so much to offer and so many needs. I want to highlight a few other things the Government are doing for women, such as our determination to tackle female genital mutilation, to build and support rape crisis centres, to support refuges for victims of domestic violence and to tackle human trafficking. All these, and many more, deeply held aspirations and needs of women are being addressed and sorted by this Government. I am incredibly proud of our focus on being the future for women in our society. I hope that the Opposition will come to recognise that it is this Government who are helping women to achieve their dreams and that, in order to achieve the equality we are all striving for, they have to stop seeing women as victims.
A few weeks ago I was listening to “The Morning Show” on Radio Nottingham. They were discussing whether people felt better off now that the economy is growing again. A mum rang in. She was working but finding it a real struggle to make ends meet. She admitted that sometimes, in order to get by, she had to ask her son if she could borrow some money from his piggy bank. That is just one story—an anecdote—but I think that it says a lot about life under this Government. Government Members talk about intergenerational fairness. What is fair about a mum having to borrow money from her child to manage until her next payday?
Of course, it is not just one mother who is struggling to get by; millions of women are, and not just in Nottingham, but up and down the country. It is not just women who are struggling, because families up and down the country are facing a cost of living crisis, but it is women who are being hit hardest of all, through cuts in public services, cut in public sector jobs, cuts in the real value of their wages and cuts in the social security benefits they rely on. It is women who are unable to access or afford care for their children or disabled or frail relatives, who are being denied adequate support when they experience domestic abuse, who are losing good jobs in the public services and who are unable to cope with longer waits for the social security benefits they have earned.
The hon. Lady talks about responsibility. Does she think that it was responsible for the previous Government to borrow £1 of every £4 they spent? Is that not one reason for the problems we now face?
I am not going to take any lectures from Government Members who have doubled the amount of debt in this country.
Of the £14 billion the Government are taking from people’s pockets to pay down the deficit through changes in tax, benefits, pay and pensions since the general election, £11 billion is from women, even though they still earn less and own less than men. More than 40 years after Labour’s Equal Pay Act 1970 outlawed paying women less than men for the same work, women still face a lifetime of earning less. For every £1 a man takes home, a women takes home just 85p.
Under this Government, the situation is likely to get worse. The cuts mean that women are losing employment in the public sector, but they are not getting comparable jobs in the private sector. The Women’s Budget Group analysis shows the following: although unemployment across the whole UK has fallen by 0.6% for men, it has increased by 0.8% for women; the number of women who are unemployed has increased by nearly 15% to over 1 million, the highest level for a generation; and long-term unemployment has increased eight times faster for women than for men. For older women aged over 50, the situation is even worse: unemployment is up by 42,000—more than a third—since the general election, while for older men it has fallen. As my hon. Friend Gloria De Piero said, unemployment rates are particularly high among black and ethnic minority women.
Some jobs have been created in the private sector, but overall 63% of them went to men and only 37% to women. For women who are still working in the public sector, while wages have been frozen, at least progress was being made year on year to close the gender pay gap, with the difference between the hourly pay rates for men and women narrowing from 18.2% to 14.2% in recent years. There has been no comparable reduction in the private sector, where women earn, on average, 25.1% less per hour than men. As the Fawcett Society warns:
“Unless the government takes urgent action, women will lose their precarious footing in the workforce. We face a labour market characterised by persistent and rising levels of women’s unemployment, shrinking pay levels for women and a widening of the gender pay gap.”
Even the recent return to growth will not necessarily help if the Government do not act. Professor Diane Elson of the Women’s Budget Group says:
“Our big concern is that…women are going to be so far behind they will not be able to catch up.”
Is there any reason to hope the Government are listening and will act? Not if recent announcements are anything to go by. The Tories’ Free Enterprise Group wants to extend VAT—a deeply regressive tax that hits the poorest hardest—to essentials such as food, children’s clothes and bus fares. The Lib Dems tell us that the answer is to increase the income tax threshold. The Deputy Prime Minister claims that that will help those on low incomes, but any gain will be far outweighed by the Government’s tax rises and unfair changes to tax credits—and of course the very poorest will not benefit at all.
As a member of the Free Enterprise Group, I want to put it on record that I oppose the suggestion that was made by one individual in that group. We should not impose VAT on children’s clothing and food, in particular, as that would be regressive and punitive. It was not said by the Free Enterprise Group but by one individual in that group, and I certainly oppose it.
I am sure we have all read about the proposed changes and know who to believe.
The Government’s own impact assessment on the tax threshold rise to £10,000 shows that 57% of those gaining from the measure are men and only 43% are women. The Women’s Budget Group notes that three quarters of the gain will go to the better-off half of all households. On average, households in the poorest 10% of the distribution gain just £6 per year; in contrast, the richest 10% of households gain an average of £87 per year. What has the Government’s priority been? A tax cut for those earning over £150,000 a year and a massive giveaway to millionaires, while child benefit—a lifeline for many mums—has been frozen not once but for three years in a row. Tax credits and other benefits that many low-paid women rely on will rise by just 1%, condemning families to falling living standards and increasing the pressure on women, who are most often responsible for making ends meet. It is not a record to be proud of.
These changes threaten women’s economic autonomy. Women who live on their own lose most from the combined impact of changes to taxes and cuts to benefits and services.
No, I am not going to take another intervention.
Single mothers lose out the most, losing 15.6% of their disposable income compared with single fathers, who lose 11.7% and couples with children who lose 9.7.%. Among pensioners, single women lose 12.5% compared with single male pensioners losing 9.5% and pensioner couples losing 8.6%. Even among working-age families with no children, single women find that their spending power is cut the most. No wonder Mumsnet found that women of all ages and all backgrounds are fed up with this Government.
It does not have to be this way. Governments can act, even in tough times, to support women rather than making life harder. They could support more women to get into work or stay at work when they start a family by extending free nursery places for three and four-year-olds from 15 hours to 25 hours a week. I remember what a difference it made to me and my friends when our children started at nursery, and that was in better economic times. Now, under this Tory-Lib Dem Government, the cost of nursery places has risen five times faster than pay, with Sure Start centres closing at a rate of three per week and child care places falling by more than 35,000. The Government could support the parents of school-aged children by providing a legal guarantee for breakfast and after-school club care. Instead, they have scrapped Labour’s extended schools programme.
In Nottingham, a rise in pupil numbers has left an increasing number of parents and children without access to the care they need. An e-mail from a mum in my constituency, who wrote to me on behalf of a group of parents at her children’s school, says it all:
“The problem is that we need after school childcare provision for our children and are running out of options—the likelihood is that some of us will have to give up jobs or take career breaks to fit in around available childcare provision”.
This Government could provide real incentives to reward firms that sign up to be living wage employers. Earlier this month, I was proud to join Nottingham Citizens and Nottinghamshire living wage employers to launch the new national living wage for the country. At that launch, Jhudari Scholar, who is 18 and head boy at his school, explained how hard it was for his mum, a cleaner working three jobs on below living wage rates. It is just shocking. KPMG reported recently that the number of people earning less than a living wage has risen by more than 400,000 in the past year to 5.2 million, and it is women who are disproportionately stuck on those wages.
Women in my constituency deserve better. They deserve better than a Government who stand by as their living standards are eroded. They deserve a Government who are on their side. I just wish they did not have to wait another 534 days to get one.
The Liberal Democrats are doing what they can to build a stronger economy and a fairer society. We recognise that households are under pressure, which is why we have taken action to try to support women with the cost of living.
The Lib Dems want to help women on low and medium incomes by letting them keep more of the salaries they earn. By April 2014, 1.5 million women—60% of the overall figure of 2.7 million people—will have been taken out of paying tax altogether by the rise in the tax threshold to £10,000. We are also giving a tax cut of more than £700 a year to more than 20 million lower and middle earners, the majority of whom are women. The Deputy Prime Minister is planning to put a further £100 back into people’s pockets through the workers’ bonus, which could increase the tax allowance to £10,500 by the next election.
The problem with the hon. Lady’s presentation of the issue is that it is very one-sided, because in order to pay for that tax cut there have been cuts to tax credits and other benefits, so on balance the lowest earners have lost, not gained.
I could not disagree more. The most important thing is that we raise the tax threshold so that those women who are working get the benefit of keeping the money they earn.
I am going to continue.
We are creating more jobs for women, which is the best way of helping them with the cost of living. There are 427,000 more women in employment and almost 100,000 more women in self-employment since 2010.
We have helped create more than 1 million apprenticeships, of which more than half have been taken by women. We are taking steps to narrow inequality in the labour market. The proportion of female FTSE 100 directorships has increased by 50% since February 2011, and the gender pay gap has fallen from 20.2% in 2011 to 19.7% in 2012. That is small but undeniable progress.
The Liberal Democrat pensions Minister has helped women by introducing a new single-tier pension. Under the existing system, many women have lost out because the years they spent raising children were not properly counted towards their national insurance contributions. Under our scheme, those years will now count in full. That is so much fairer for women, who currently receive, on average, £40 less than men from their state pension.
We have helped drivers and consumers by freezing Labour’s fuel duty escalator for 41 months. At present, this is saving the average motorist about £7 every time she fills her tank, and it is likely to save her £10 a time by 2015. In my area, where there is little or no public transport, and in most rural areas in general, that, of course, directly affects women who spend a lot of their time needing to use a car, particularly to transport elderly parents or younger children around.
The Lib Dem policy of free child care has started to assist families of about 130,000 two-year-olds to become eligible for an early education place. As well as helping to improve living standards, our scheme will transform children’s life chances. The Deputy Prime Minister has announced that the scheme will double in size from September 2014. We recognise that looking at child care can be key to building a stronger economy.
Perhaps the Minister will give the hon. Lady a glass a water to help her throat. May I just ask about pensions for young people today, and what will happen to them in the future? Child care today does not mean that those young people will get a pension tomorrow—in fact, quite the reverse.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for intervening. At least we are making sure that young people have a better chance to access a better education early on. Everybody knows that the money put into education early on can transform children’s life chances so much more dramatically. Those children will be the ones paying my pension and his, so it is important to concentrate on education.
For parents who wish to return to work and, through the Lib Dems, are given recognition and respect for choosing to do so—just as we respect parents who wish to stay at home and look after their children—the importance of good-quality child care is paramount. We know that child care is very expensive and is a problem for families. It was a problem for many years under Labour, and when I was bringing up my children under the preceding Conservative Government.
We are helping mothers with the cost of child care. We are providing 15 hours of free early education for all three and four-year-olds, which we will extend to 260,000 two-year-olds from next year. We are planning to introduce tax-free child care that, when fully implemented, will save a typical working family with two children under 12 up to £2,400 per year. In total, the coalition Government are investing about £1 billion a year in additional support for child care by 2016-17, including £750 million for the new tax-free child care scheme and £200 million in expanded support through universal credit.
The Lib Dems are wholeheartedly committed to shared parental leave, which creates more flexibility for parents, locks female talent into the labour market and will ultimately achieve a fairer balance for both men and women at home and in the work place. That Lib Dem priority for Government is one that we have delivered. Flexible working and shared parental leave is important in helping to create a fairer society, and the coalition Government have already implemented their commitment to extending flexible working to all parents with children under the age of 18. We now intend to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees.
The Lib Dems welcome the fact that in many modern families, child care is no longer the sole responsibility of the mother. Fathers and male partners play an increasingly vital role in raising children, and it is important that the Government should accommodate that by providing for shared parental leave. The system of maternity, paternity and adoption leave and pay that we inherited from the previous Government was inflexible and outdated. The coalition’s reforms will ensure that, for the first time, mothers can go on maternity leave or shared parental leave at the same time—during the first weeks after a birth—as fathers.
We are working hard to help improve living standards, but we cannot get away from the fact that they started to decline under the previous Government. It was a painful symptom of their disastrous economic record, and the fact that they left us with an annual deficit of £160 billion.
To conclude, the Lib Dems are on record as saying that economic sustainability is important and that we want
“an economic system where the current generation can enjoy the fruits of its endeavours without relying for its living standards on a legacy of debt left to the next generation.”
That means that we have to deal with the huge financial crisis with which we are faced. That is why we are committed to the changes that we are making. The Deputy Prime Minister was campaigning on the effect of the current situation on women more than a year ago, before the Labour party focused on it. He said that
“despite rising since the 1960s, female employment has stalled over the last decade. It is, however, a problem we can no longer afford. Just as working women drove up living standards in the latter half of the 20th century, all the evidence suggests that living standards in the first half of the 21st century will need to be driven by working women once again and this absence of women from our economy is costing us dearly.”
Several motions on this issue have been passed at Liberal Democrat party conferences and we are committed to improving child care and extending free child care. We will face the next election with that commitment in our manifesto.
The Government’s response to all questions about falling living standards and rising costs is to talk about the raising of the income tax threshold. At least one part of the coalition is promising even more of the same and saying that that is how we help the lowest earners, many of whom are women. However, if the main aim is to assist the lowest earners, it is an extremely poorly targeted policy. It is an expensive tax cut. Three quarters of the billions of pounds that have been spent on raising the tax threshold have gone to the top half of earners in our country.
I will continue with what I was saying, because it is important to realise the cost of this policy to many women.
This generous gesture, which has advantaged more people on upper earnings, has been balanced by taxes and cuts elsewhere, such as the raising of VAT. Many of the cuts have affected women in particular. The cuts in tax credits have more than cancelled out the rise in the tax threshold for the lower-paid. People who have been affected by that will not be saying, “It was great that the tax threshold was raised.” They would probably rather have stayed in exactly the same position as they were in before.
Indeed; the work incentives that were provided by tax thresholds, particularly to single parents, cannot be underestimated.
Tessa Munt brushed aside my intervention in which I said that the gains from raising the tax threshold had been more than cancelled out for the lowest-paid, but they have been. The argument is made that raising the tax threshold allows people to keep more of their earnings, instead of tax being taken away with one hand and paid back with the other. The problem is that the policy has not been even-handed. Some people have ended up worse off as a result of it. Those who used to benefit and have lost out are predominantly women.
The hon. Lady has told the House that the path onwards involves more raising of tax thresholds, regardless of who will or will not benefit from that. A further rise in tax thresholds, however, will do absolutely nothing for many who already earn below that level, particularly women who are part-time workers. How will that further generosity—which, as I have said, benefits more those whose earnings are in the upper brackets—be paid for? On the basis of the past three and a half years, presumably it will be paid for by yet more cuts to benefits and services that help a lot of women.
I will not give way again.
In future—assuming, of course, that universal credit ever materialises, which is far from certain at the moment—low-paid people will benefit even less as the tax threshold increases. Universal credit will be calculated on net, rather than gross earnings. Therefore, if a taxpayer who claims universal credit receives a tax cut of £100, they will automatically lose £65 of benefits. The lowest paid taxpayers are going to suffer more, and a solution would be to commit to increase the amount someone can earn before universal credit payments are reduced every time tax thresholds go up. Those who advocate the solution for low-paid workers have told us time and again that the reason for raising tax thresholds is not to benefit everyone but to benefit low-paid workers. However, it will not benefit those workers to anything like that extent—indeed, for many of them probably not at all.
We are constantly being told that we have to make tough choices—Stephen Metcalfe, who wanted to intervene, has constantly risen to speak about the need to deal with the deficit. Choices are being made in the way the Government are proceeding, including the choice to give those generous tax cuts and want to continue to do so, but that does not sound like a terribly tough choice for some people to make.
There are other uses for the money if it is available. We could give a tax break to businesses that agree to pay the living wage, which would benefit women in particular. We could increase help with child care costs now. Child care tax credits were cut from 80% to 70% by the coalition. I know the Government say that they will restore that for recipients of universal credit when—if—it comes in, and the new child care tax relief starts in 2015. Why not now, however, especially with universal credit receding somewhere over the horizon? Further to that, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission suggests that the Government should reallocate the
2013 Budget funding for child care tax relief from higher rate tax payers to those on universal credit. That would be over and above existing plans—this is a recent report from the commission—to help those who want to work and need help with child care.
Gingerbread, which will obviously advocate on behalf of families with one parent, 90% of whom are women, has made proposals for improving universal credit that would make work pay and encourage the progression through employment that is desired by us all. The old 16-hour rule that Government parties tend to dismiss was to ensure that going back to work really improved people’s situation, rather than the mini-jobs that, frankly, leave people poor.
Gingerbread has suggested that we increase the amount a claimant can earn before universal credit starts to be withdrawn, and reduce the rate at which benefits are reduced—the taper rate. Those proposals cost money, but if money is available—clearly it is for those who advocate another increase in the basic tax threshold—I urge the Government to consider measures such as those advocated by Gingerbread genuinely to help the lowest earners improve their position.
One point I completely refute is the suggestion that if we say that life under this Government is hard for many women, we are calling women victims. Far from being victims, women are struggling to bring up their children despite the difficulties that they face. It is completely wrong to suggest that we are therefore painting them as victims—far from it.
It is a pleasure to follow Sheila Gilmore, a former colleague on the Work and Pensions Committee, who is one of the most diligent attendees in the Chamber. However, I shall disagree vehemently with her and demolish a number of the arguments that are inherent in today’s motion. I urge all hon. Members to vote against it at 7 o’clock.
I shall start with some of the macroeconomic arguments and make the case that the way to destroy a country’s wealth, and to plunge people into many years of poverty, is to do what the previous Government did to the economy—create the largest recession for 60 years and the most significant banking crisis ever. I shall also outline the course of policy to follow for economic prosperity.
The secret of economic prosperity is not hard to find, but it is hard to achieve. The first ingredient is obviously a strong central bank maintaining sound monetary policy and a prudent Chancellor who maintains sound public finances. That is the framework that provides the environment in which businesses can invest, grow, export and create jobs. It is not politicians who create that wealth and those jobs, but we can damage the cost of living and the growth of businesses with bad monetary policies, high taxes, irresponsible borrowing, excessive regulation and the high interest rates that we saw under the previous Government.
The decision to make the Bank of England independent in 1997 was just about the only decision made by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath
(Mr Brown) with which I agreed. The mandate to keep inflation at 2% has meant some predictability and stability from the inflationary ravages that we all remember from the Labour Governments of the 1970s. It is essential that the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, is able to unwind the current additional monetary stimulus that has been needed since the crash of 2008 without allowing any major deviation from that 2% target. Sound money will mean that the pound stays strong. Given the UK’s dependence on imported goods and fuel, a strong pound keeps our cost of living down.
The Government also need to play a part. The Chancellor has taken the tough and necessary steps to bring the public finances back into structural balance.
My hon. Friend talks about the Chancellor making tough decisions. Do you think it would be right to abandon the programme that we have adopted and to increase the amount of borrowing? Do you think that would be the right way for the country to move forward?
Order. I do not think anything about these matters, although I am sure that the hon. Lady does.
Some Opposition Members think that the Chancellor has tightened too fast, but others might argue that he could have tightened faster. I say that he has been a Goldilocks Chancellor, and this has been a tightening at the pace at which job creation has been allowed to flourish. I also want to put on record that there has been no recession in this country since 2009. At all points in this fiscal responsibility, the Chancellor has looked for measures that have helped hard-working families keep their cost of living under control. He has helped councils freeze their council tax, he has raised the tax-free threshold for working people and he has avoided the 13p fuel duty increase that Labour had planned—
Today we have been talking about health care assistants, and there are 1.3 million women—it is an almost entirely female work force—doing that incredibly important job. All of them are likely to benefit from a rise in tax thresholds and very many of them from extra assistance with child care.
The previous Government, as we heard from the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, thought it was appropriate to tax people earning only £6,500 per year, and to give them their own money back in the form of tax credits. I believe it is more important that we do not take that money in the first place.
I want to demolish what Gloria De Piero said on disposable incomes. Since the start of the economic downturn, the average equivalised household income has fallen by about £1,200 since 2007-08. The Opposition talked about the average fall, but the richest fifth of households have seen largest fall. In contrast, after accounting for inflation and household composition, the average income for the poorest fifth of households has grown in the same period by 6.9%—a statistic from the Office for National Statistics. I refute the argument inherent in the motion that we have had a particularly serious impact on the cost of living for women.
I would also like to demolish the claim in the motion that the Chancellor has made
“women pay three times more than men to bring down the deficit”.
I have taken the trouble to look at the Full Fact website, which I recommend to Opposition Members. It makes a line-by-line demolition of their claims. For example, women such as me, who earn more than £60,000, no longer receive child benefit. That is counted as a negative, but I would argue that that is a sensible way to reallocate scarce resources. The Opposition count it as a negative that the income tax cut does not help women as much as men, whereas I think it is a good thing that women are given a tax break.
The third point I would like to demolish is that it is a problem for more women than ever before to be in work. I welcome it. One reason this has been a successful area of welfare reform is that the number of lone parents out of work—I accept that the number of lone parents out of work declined under the previous Government—has declined sharply since 2010, falling by 26% to just under 500,000. I agree that that is still too high and we have more to do, but we are doing an enormous amount—providing free child care and helping lone parents into work—to help them to lift their own families out of poverty. There are other positive aspects of welfare reform for women in the workplace. Although well intentioned, a terrible consequence of Labour’s approach to welfare is that it trapped many women in 16-hour-a-week jobs. I have met many women in my constituency who have said, “I have been offered more hours, but it does not make economic sense for me to take them.”
I do not have enough time, I am afraid.
In fact, we were paying a lot of women to maintain 16-hour-a-week jobs. That may be ideal for some people’s family situation, but it sends a poor message, through the welfare system, that we need to tackle. We need to allow women to progress up the income scale in the same way as men so that—I do not often argue for higher taxes—men and women pay the same amount of income tax. At the moment, women pay approximately 60% less income tax and I would like to see progress on that.
The motion is full of holes. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to vote against it.
I agree with Harriett Baldwin that the Chancellor is a Goldilocks Chancellor—he goes around people’s houses nicking all their porridge. He and his colleague the Prime Minister are very much the brothers Grimm of Parliament at the moment.
I want to talk about the unquestionably disproportionate impact many of the Government’s policies are having on women. The north-east region, which includes my constituency, is particularly hard hit. I hope that Ministers take our points onboard and take the necessary steps to rectify the many issues in the region. I will focus on three areas: first, the unemployment rate among women, particularly the rate of long-term unemployment—those claiming for more than 12 months; second, pay equality; and lastly, the broader issue of the cost of living crisis currently facing women.
In May 2010, there were 20,657 female unemployed benefit claimants in the north-east. Last month, that figure was 25,973. That is a 25.7% increase. In my constituency, long-term unemployment among women has increased by 144% since the general election in May 2010. That is a shockingly huge amount and one that I am sure my colleagues would agree is completely disgraceful. The picture across neighbouring Teesside seats is no better. In Redcar, the figure is almost 157% worse, but worse still, in Stockton South, the increase has been a mammoth 205%. That is the increase in long-term female unemployment between May 2010 and October 2013.
While the Government might be able to present figures that show a small increase in employment, the jobs have tended to be in the south-east and clearly are not helping those unfortunately in long-term unemployment. More broadly, historically, the north-east economy has been built largely on male-dominated heavy industry, and while the more traditional industries, such as chemicals and steel, have had tough times recently, under the previous Labour Government, the area saw an increase in smaller scale, but highly-skilled industries and a diversification into other industries.
Is it not time perhaps that big industry, particularly the STEM industries—science, technology, engineering and maths—offered more job opportunities to ladies rather than men to make it equal?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I will come to that later.
Women, particularly young women, are more likely to find themselves in low-paid work, such as customer services, retail, care work and the leisure industry—sectors offering fewer progression opportunities and lower pay.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he has already admitted that there are considerable differences in the UK—in my constituency, the situation is very much brighter—which suggests a structural imbalance. Would he agree that the last Government did nothing, in any real terms, to address that structural balance, which is one of the reasons for the situation he is describing?
I cannot agree with that at all. The structural imbalance—I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the staple industries in the north-east—has had a long-term effect primarily because of his party’s record in the north-east of decimating heavy industry back in the ’80s and ’90s. The increase in female unemployment is unprecedented. I have never before seen these levels of female unemployment. Previously, we had long-term male unemployment in my region. That was difficult, but families still had a working mother.
Now, these families have unemployed mothers and fathers, meaning far more significant long-term consequences for my area. That is what I am frightened about.
There is a big gender split in apprenticeships, because young women take a much narrower range of apprenticeships than young men, yet there remains a skill shortage in these new industries. It seems only logical, then, that all the stops should be pulled out to encourage young women seriously to consider these industries as a career. Increasing the number of women working—or at least taking up apprenticeships—in these male-dominated industries would go a long way to stem the flow from short-term to long-term unemployment. We must challenge the stereotypes in careers advice for young women and encourage more girls to take up higher skilled apprenticeships, but that has been made increasingly difficult by a Government who have undermined careers services. One of the Government’s first decisions was to get rid of Connexions, which was a careers advice service in schools giving children guidance on career paths.
On equal pay, the gender pay gap stands at 15%, unchanged on the year before. We know that the reasons for the persistent gap are varied and complex, ranging from occupational segregation to a lack of well-paid part-time work and, even in this day and age, discrimination in the workplace.
In August, the Chartered Management Institute found that women who have reached management positions can expect to earn only three quarters of the pay of their male colleagues. Even more staggering was the finding that the more highly skilled and highly paid the profession, the greater the gap between men and women’s pay. In modern Britain, undervaluing the talents and skills of women is a loss to the whole economy, so the issue of equal pay is a tough nut that needs to be cracked.
Several actions could be taken to help that situation. For example, the introduction of mandatory pay reporting, including the Equality Act 2010, would highlight the differences between what businesses pay their male and females colleagues. We should improve the law on flexible working and do more to encourage businesses to utilise flexible working practices. However, the revelation that up to 50,000 women a year could be losing their jobs while on maternity leave is a shocking one, yet far from doing anything about it, Ministers are making it worse by charging women £1,200 for challenging discrimination at an employment tribunal.
To address the specific barriers that single mothers face, we Labour Members will support women who have to juggle work and child care by restoring breakfast and after-school clubs in primary schools from 6 am to 8 pm for every child, and provide 25 free hours child care for three and four-year-olds of working parents. Those are simple actions that the Government should seriously consider.
My final point is on the broader issue of the cost-of-living crisis that women currently face. As we all know, women are struggling as prices continue to rise faster than wages, and the latest figures show that working people are on average £1,600 a year worse off since May 2010.
The Government’s change to the tax credits rules means thousands of families will have lost out on their working tax credits unless they have been able to increase their working hours significantly. Any woman or any couple earning less than about £17,700 will need to increase the number of hours they work from a minimum of 16 to 24 a week—otherwise, they will lose working tax credits of about £3,500 a year. According to the House of Commons Library, this has hit 212,000 low-income families.
Of course, the situation was supposed to have been compensated for by the March 2012 Budget’s introduction of universal credit that was to come into force last month. To a certain extent, it would have restored families to a parity with what was seen with working tax credits under Labour. Due to the ongoing chaos in the Department for Work and Pensions, that has not happened. Some of my hon. Friends have mentioned the Tory free enterprise group and its proposals to increase the price of food and children’s clothes by 15%.
This group of 42 Tory MPs see it as necessary to raise VAT on gas and electricity to 15%, which would add £120 to the average energy bill. Let me remind the House that when the Prime Minister was an adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer under the previous Conservative Government, he advised that Chancellor to bring in VAT on fuel. He also advised that Chancellor to bring in air passenger duty and the fuel duty escalator. VAT has risen under every Conservative Government since it was introduced—another fact for Government Members to ponder. That is an illustration of the Tory addiction to indirect taxation.
For women, there is an even harsher reality. There is an increasing financial burden on women with many, particularly over 40-year-olds, prioritising supporting their children over building up a pension pot. Many have to find the money for family caring responsibilities or to pay off debts. Disproportionately stuck on pay below the living wage rate, 27% of women are not paid the living wage, compared with 16% of men. This gap is especially distressing now that mothers are either the breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families in many households.
The future is not too bright either. Research by insurance firm, Scottish Widows found that only 40% of women put enough money aside for an “adequate” retirement—down from 50% two years ago, and the lowest amount since the number started to be tracked under Labour in 2006. On average, women who are saving are putting aside £182 each month, compared with £260 for men—a pensions “gender gap” of £1,000 in contributions each year. The continued squeeze on the cost of living has made it much harder for many women not only to live an adequate and healthy lifestyle now, but to consider saving for their future and retirement. The gender pay gap, the opportunity gap and the oncoming pensions gap have played a significant part in explaining why it is imperative to bridge those gaps sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate, and a pleasure to follow Tom Blenkinsop. He and I will have been the only two males who have made formal speeches in a debate on women and the cost of living, and I think Parliament should celebrate that.
Following every election there is an increase in the number of female Members of Parliament, and I think we should be positive about that as well. I am a natural optimist, and I always look for the positive aspects of events. Today I was rather saddened by Opposition Members’ attempts to create a Dickensian view of our present society, because that is not a view that I recognise. I understand that there are challenges to be faced, and I understand that some families are struggling, but I think that we take a step backwards when we try to create an issue between men and women, and between women and men. In my opinion, we should look after every member of society irrespective of gender, and extend the range of the equality laws that have been passed over the past few years.
The issue of women and work has been raised in the debate. This morning I had the pleasure of opening the Hertfordshire Business Expo at Knebworth house in Stevenage. A large number of local businesses were represented, and many of the stands were staffed by females. Moreover, many of the business owners were female. In my constituency, nearly 30% of new businesses are started up by females. That too is a positive development that should be celebrated, and we should see more of it.
I am interested in issues such as the employment of women in engineering, My constituency contains the headquarters of the Institution of Engineering Technology. Thousands of people are employed at Astrium, which builds 25% of the world’s telecommunications satellites, and at MBDA Systems, which builds complex weapons systems. Just under 4,000 are employed at GlaxoSmithKline, which develops pharmaceutical drugs, and whose research and development facility is the largest in Europe. We also have Fujitsu, and a range of other companies. However, 93% of the companies in my constituency have a turnover of less than £1 million, and many of them are led by females.
I am proud of the contribution that women make to my constituency and to society as a whole. I think that a suggestion that women are victims has been allowed to creep into today’s debate, but I agree with Sheila Gilmore that they are not victims—although of course domestic violence is an issue: I deplore it, would support 100% anything that could be done in my constituency and throughout the country to reduce it, and believe that it must be stamped out.
It is clear that young women often achieve more than boys at school, and that needs to be encouraged, but why is there a gap later on? Why do those young women not also achieve more in the workplace? Some Members on both sides of the House have tried to suggest that there is a structural issue, and that may well be the case, but I am never very interested in playing politics. What interests me is trying to resolve the issue that is in front of me, and trying to create an holistic society in which people can succeed. What interests me is aspiration. I want every young woman in my constituency who is at school or a college of further education, who is going off to university or who wants to set up a new business, to go out there and think “Yes, I can succeed.”
I accept that I am an optimist. When I was growing up I saw a poster in the 1992 election which read “What does the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton? They made him Prime Minister.” So I will maintain my approach. [Laughter.] I am not setting my stall out; I am merely saying that we need to aspire, and to encourage aspiration. We need to say “Whether you are male or female, if you think you are good enough and want to give it a go, then give it a go, and let’s see how far you get. If you fall down along the way, so what? We will try to help you get up again so that you can have another go.”
That, I think, is what the Government are doing. They are trying to help by increasing the personal tax allowance, cutting tax for 25 million people and taking 2.7 million out of tax altogether. I do not care which party does this, but I should like income tax thresholds to rise by as much as possible, because I believe that the best way of making it easier for people to deal with challenges involving their personal finances is to put money in their pockets and allow them to choose how to spend it, because they know what is important to them personally. I should like the threshold to rise to such an extent that no single person on the minimum wage need pay income tax. That would be a positive step for British society, and something I would wholeheartedly endorse.
There has been a lot of talk about what we are doing in terms of child care. Some 800,000 three and four-year-olds are benefiting from the 15 hours a week of child care we give them at present. That is fantastic, and from next September we will be expanding that to disadvantaged two-year-olds, which is wonderful. I sound a note of caution, however. I worry about primary schools having extended hours where a five or six-year-old is dropped off at school at 6 am, perhaps, and then collected at 8 pm. That is a very long day, especially for someone aged five, six or seven, and we need to think about impact of that on the child and their family as they are growing up.
I celebrate the women in my constituency, just as I celebrate the men in my constituency. We need to do everything we can to ensure that everybody does their best. I stand here incredibly proud that when the unemployment figures came out last week they showed that unemployment in Stevenage is now down to 3.7%. I have more women who are employed than men who are employed in my constituency. Anybody who is unemployed is one person too many, and we need to do all we can to support everyone.
I want to celebrate the contribution women, whether working or stay-at-home mothers, make to society, to my constituency and to the families up and down this country as they go out every single day. The reality is that they are all contributing in their own way and we should be proud of them and do everything we can to support them.
In Rotherham, unemployment among women is far too high. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, 13.4% of economically active women in Rotherham are unemployed. That is significantly higher than the regional figure of 8.1% and the national figure of 7.3%. While there has been some fluctuation in this figure, it has averaged almost 15% across the lifespan of the current Government.
Unfortunately, these figures are symptomatic of a national trend. Female unemployment is at its highest for a generation. Over 1 million women in the UK are out of work, an increase of 82,000 under this Government. When we look at long-term female unemployment, the situation is much worse as it is rising eight times faster than for men. The number of women out of work for more than 12 months increased by 79,000 between May 2010 and August 2013, while the number of men out of work for more than 12 months increased by 10,000. The number of older women—those aged 50-plus—who are unemployed has increased by 42,000, which is up by more than a third, over the same period, while male unemployment in this age group has fallen by 15,000. Black minority ethnic women also have a disproportionately high level of unemployment than men.
Where women are finding employment, their pay continues to lag behind that for male colleagues. Changes to in-work benefit left many women in Rotherham struggling to earn a living, in sharp contrast to the Government’s oft-repeated aim of making work pay. Furthermore, the increase in the cost of living has left many women facing an extremely insecure existence, and an even bleaker future.
A constituent I met recently shared her experiences, which are no doubt repeated across the country. A single parent, she desperately wants to return to work, but the huge costs of child care and cuts to in-work benefits mean that it is simply untenable.
I am sorry, but I do not have the time.
She is thus forced to choose between short-term, part-time and low-paid work or to stay at home. To make her situation worse, local amenities on which she relies are facing closure as a result of Government cuts to local authority budgets and to national programmes like Sure Start.
I want to mention two other issues related to the increasing unemployment of women. The first is the lack of role models for young women. It is very noticeable that this Government have only four women in a Cabinet of 22. Only 23% of this Parliament’s Members are women, the vast majority of them being Labour MPs. When we look at chief executives and board membership, this situation is, unfortunately, common. That is compounded by a lack of consistent careers advice in schools, and in some schools no careers advice at all, so how are young women meant to make informed career choices?
The other key consideration in respect of why more women are unemployed has to do with their caring responsibilities and lack of Government support for them. For younger women that is likely to be child care, while for older women it is more likely to be care of their parents or their partners. The support for both those groups of women to enable them to both care and work is being systematically chipped away. Not only is this bad for the women; it is also bad for the country economically. The ultimate irony is that of the £14.4 billion raised in 2014-15 through the additional net direct tax and benefit, pay and pension changes announced since the general election, £11.4 billion—or around 79%—is coming from women and £2.9 billion is coming from men.
House of Commons Library analysis shows that women will be hit four times harder by the new direct tax credit and benefit changes announced in December’s autumn statement, with women shouldering £867 million of the £1.1 billion raised. This situation is immoral and unfair, and it needs to change.
We have had a high quality debate today, and it has been superbly led by my hon. Friend Gloria De Piero. I also congratulate the Economic Secretary to the Treasury on winning the opportunity to open for the Government. I say that because it must have been a fiercely fought competition if it has resulted in the Minister for Women and Equalities—the one voice for women at the Cabinet table—and her Tory junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Mrs Grant, both being sidelined in favour of the Economic Secretary. It is just a shame that, having won that battle, she gave such a complacent speech. Anyone listening to her would think that everything in the garden was rosy for women. However, as we have heard in many excellent speeches, especially from Labour Members, that is far from being the case.
I want to pick the Economic Secretary up on one point. She accused my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood of scaremongering when she pointed out that the £1,200 fees were putting women off taking their employers to a tribunal when they had been wrongfully sacked because they were pregnant. I fear that the Minister might have been trying to play down the problem. Maternity Action, whose representative I met just a few hours before the debate began, submitted evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that showed that only 3% of victims of pregnancy discrimination took their claim to an employment tribunal, and that the fees involved were cited as one of the significant barriers that women faced. I recommend that the Minister meet Maternity Action to learn some facts about the impact of this Government’s policies on women’s lives. I am sure that its representatives would be happy to meet her.
It is clear that the Prime Minister’s cost of living crisis is hurting everyone except the millionaires who are enjoying their huge tax cuts. It is women who are bearing the brunt of the pain and who are seeing their financial support slashed the most. New mums have lost thousands, £7 billion has been taken away from families with children, and nearly 500,000 mums have lost up to £1,500 a year in support for child care. It is women who are seeing the services that they value being hollowed out. Sure Start funding has been slashed by more than half in real terms over this Parliament, and there are now 578 fewer Sure Start centres as a result. Many of those that remain are cutting back their services and opening hours, or charging for sessions that used to be free. It is women who are facing the greatest pressures in trying to make ends meet.
Does the hon. Lady therefore disagree with the Office for National Statistics when it says that the equivalised, after-tax income for the poorest fifth of households has risen under this Government, and that that income has fallen the most for the richest fifth?
I just do not recognise those figures. Our figures from the Library—and any other figures that we have seen on this matter—show that women are £1,600 a year worse off under this Government—[Interruption.] It is true, and I will write to the hon. Lady and give her the figures.
Child care bills are rising five times as fast as incomes under this Government. Energy bills are shooting up at similar speeds. The weekly shop is getting even more expensive, and real incomes are down by between £1,500 and £1,600 as prices have outstripped wages in 40 of the 41 months of this Government. Women’s long-term unemployment is up 80,000 since the election, compared with a figure of 10,000 for men. Older women’s unemployment is up by a third, while the figure for men has marginally fallen. More than 1 million women are unemployed, and countless others are stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs.
It is women who are struggling to get by over the long school summer holidays, with extra child care to pay for, school uniforms to buy and extra food to put on the table, yet we hear from the Government that they want to slap 15% VAT on the school uniforms on our children’s backs, on the cereal in their bowls and even on the electricity that lights their homes. How out of touch can the Government get? Despite all that, women hold the key to building a sustainable economic recovery that works for everyone. Millions of women want to get back into work or to increase their hours.
My hon. Friend is giving a great speech. Are women who work in social care not one of the most tragic cases of women struggling with the hours? Often they are not even paid the minimum wage any more, because they get an hour here and an hour there and do not get paid for travel. These women may want to work 45 or 50 hours a week but end up working only 20 hours. Is that not something we should be ashamed of: the most important job we have, yet that is how they are paid?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and I commend her on the excellent work she does and has done in this area for more than eight years.
If we could support carers and the other women we have been talking about in finding extra hours and finding a job we could add more than £1 billion to our tax receipts, yet still it is women who face the biggest barriers to progressing in their careers. The reason for all that is because women are sidelined and ignored by this Government—and why should we be surprised? This Government have more millionaires in the Cabinet than women—in fact, women outnumber Davids at the Cabinet table by only one, and let us not forget the Lib Dems, the party with as many knights as women MPs.
We have another autumn statement coming up soon. The Chancellor could use that opportunity to make amends for the disproportionate impact of his decisions so far, but if it is anything like last year’s we will just see that unfairness entrenched. I am aware that the Economic
Secretary was not in the Treasury at that time—in fact, no hon. Ladies were in the Treasury at that time. Perhaps that accounts for the gross imbalance in where the Chancellor’s axe fell. If it does, I hope she will be able to tilt the balance back in women’s favour this year.
The hon. Lady quoted the late Baroness Thatcher, so let me reciprocate. This may be the first time, and will probably be the last, that I quote the former Prime Minister, but this one line sums up perfectly everything that is wrong with this Government. In 1979, she said:
“Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.”
I may have spent my early life suffering because of the policies she implemented, but I have to say that she had a point. Does it not explain why this Government have such a poor record? They are a Government led by a rich boys club completely out of touch with the problems that so many ordinary women face just to keep the money coming in, a roof over their child’s head, clothes on their child’s back, food on the table and their energy bills paid. They are a Government who cannot tackle the cost of living crisis women face because they have no idea what that crisis means to the people they are supposed to serve.
The Prime Minister knows that he has a problem with women. He even had to hire an extra adviser to tell him why women do not like him—as a women, I call tell him that for free. The Prime Minister has a problem with women because we know when we are being let down and we know when promises have been broken. Even if his party chairman tries to wipe any evidence of their ever making any promises off the internet, women have been let down and seen promises broken time and again by this Prime Minister, as we have heard today. These are promises on affordable child care, decent jobs, energy bills, tax credits, financial support, Sure Start and public services. Time and again women say they need help, and time and again they are ignored.
Government Members should be under no illusion: those same women will be looking at what they do tonight. These women will see the proposals Labour have put forward to help: real help now with finding and affording early years and school age child care; capital projects that create good quality jobs for women, not just men; and businesses supported to boost the incomes of women on the lowest wages. Those are the kind of policies that will help to tackle the cost of living crisis that women are facing now, today. They are kind of policies women want and women need. They are the kind of policies that women deserve to expect from any Government. But at the same time they are the kind of policies they know they can get only from Labour. Every vote against this motion from those in the Government parties—every Tory and Lib Dem who would rather please their Whip than stand up for women in their constituency—will be yet another reason for those women to give this out-of-touch Government the boot in 2015.
I welcome the opportunity to respond to this debate. How we manage to assist people—particularly women as that is our focus today—with the cost of living is undoubtedly an important issue, and it is a positive thing to have debated it. It is always a great pleasure to be in one of the debates in which so many women want to contribute and speak. It reminds us of how it would be a much better Chamber if we had a better balance of men and women on both sides of the House.
We have had some interesting analogies. My hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin conjured up an image of the Chancellor as Goldilocks. I must say that I found it slightly distressing to imagine the blond pigtails. The analogy was continued by Tom Blenkinsop. Perhaps the fairy tale theme is relevant to the debate. Unfortunately, many of the contributions from the Opposition Benches had something of the fairy tale about them and a bit of a reality bypass. Underlying the speeches was the suggestion that we can somehow wish away the deficit and avoid the difficult decisions that are necessary to get our economy back on track. I want to take a minute to remember the scale of the situation that we have been facing and trying to deal with for the past three years.
Our economy is recovering from the most damaging financial crisis in generations after a decade of growth built on debt. Of all the major economies, only Japan had a deeper recession. When we came into power, the Government inherited the largest deficit since the second world war. Our largest trading partner, the eurozone, has been in recession. We have had to deal with a significant set of challenges, and we need to look at this matter within that wider overall context. Of course it is important that the Government take action to help with the cost of living, and I will go into more detail on exactly what we are doing about that. The broader context is vital, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire made a powerful contribution in which she demolished some of the myths and set that context out. The best way to help people with the cost of living is to build a stronger economy to create the stability that we need for employers to prosper and to create new jobs. That will help more people into work. Those are exactly the things that the Government’s policies are delivering.
The hon. Lady will be aware that we have the fastest growing economy in the developed world. I hope that she will not be as churlish as some of those on the Opposition Front Bench—although not those on the Front Bench today—and welcome that news rather than feel glum at the idea that the Government’s economic policies might actually be working.
Employment and work are the best way to drive up living standards. We have 446,000 more women in employment since the general election. We had some interesting exchanges about the numbers of women in employment and employment rates. Different individuals bring forward different figures to support their arguments. I argue that both the numbers and the rate are important.
We have more women in work than ever before—fewer women are economically inactive—but the employment rate is also increasing. It has gone up 1.2% for women to 66.8% since May 2010, which is very close to its highest rate ever.
The Minister stated that work is the best way for people to progress and improve their position, but, as she will see if she reads the work of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, the problem is that the rate of poverty among children in working households is going up and three quarters of people in such households are in full-time work.
We absolutely need to help more people into work. When people want to work extra hours, we need to make that easier and we have a raft of measures aimed at assisting people into work. Yes, we also want to ensure that when people are in work their jobs are of a higher quality and that they can have higher pay, but we need to do that in a way that does not threaten to increase unemployment figures.
The pay gap has been mentioned, and rightly so. The Government have given employment tribunals the powers to force equal pay audits on rogue employers who have been breaking the law on equal pay. Our Think, Act, Report initiative now covers nearly 2 million employees across 130 major companies to drive forward standards in gender equality in the workplace. The recommendations of and the Government’s actions in response to the Women’s Business Council report, the extension of the right to request flexible working and the introduction of shared parental leave are all important factors that will also support women in work.
Various Members raised the issue of pregnancy discrimination. I do not know whether I need to declare an interest in order to say that I think that is an appalling and horrendous practice. I have met Maternity Action on these issues and we have commissioned research through the Equality and Human Rights Commission to ensure that we have up-to-date figures on which to take the issue forward.
I want to reply to the point made by some hon. Members about the £1,200 fee for employment tribunals. It is simply misleading to suggest that that is what any woman will have to pay in order to take up a claim. That is not what they have to pay to lodge a claim—that figure is £200. There is a remissions regime for people who cannot afford to pay that amount and only in cases that go to a full hearing—a tiny percentage of the number of cases overall, and only about 300 each year—will the full amount be paid. Even in those cases, if people win it is likely that costs will be awarded and they will not have to pay. Although I accept that the Opposition should make legitimate points, it is important to be clear about the facts.
My hon. Friend Stephen McPartland talked about women in sectors in which they are not usually well represented, such as engineering. We recently had Tomorrow’s Engineers week where that was a major theme. The Government also launched the Perkins review, which outlined how important it is to get more women and girls interested in engineering.
Sarah Champion mentioned role models and they are important throughout the STEM industries. Of course, there is the Inspiring the Future initiative, which I encourage hon. Members and those watching the debate to sign up to so that they can go into schools and act as a role model by talking about their careers and what they do. That will inspire the next generation so that they know that there is no glass ceiling and that they can do whatever they want.
We are providing significant support for child care, increasing early education for free for three and four-year-olds to 15 hours a week and extending it to four in 10 two-year-olds from the most hard-pressed households, as well as providing the £1,200 per child per year tax rebate on child care costs. The rising cost of child care is an issue and it was not addressed under the previous Government. We are addressing it by extending the support for new child care businesses and increasing the number of childminders by making childminder agencies possible.
I want to mention Labour’s plans a little. Some sound very good, but one wonders where the costing comes from. Things will be paid for by the bank levy, but Labour’s bank levy has now been spent more than 10 times over. Here are the things that will be paid for by Labour’s bank levy: the youth jobs guarantee, reversing the VAT increase, more capital spending, reversing the child benefit savings, reversing tax credit savings, more regional growth funding, cutting the deficit, turning empty shops into community centres, spending on public services, more housing and child care. The same money cannot be spent twice, let along 10 times. The numbers do not add up.
We have improved the situation for older women, particularly pensioners, who suffered previously. Those who have taken time out of work to look after children faced significant injustice under the previous system. Our triple lock, which is raising the state pension—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I have certainly received no indication that the Foreign Secretary is planning to come to the House to make a statement on the matter, but the hon. Gentleman’s timing is either well designed or fortuitous, because he is in the presence, as he raises his concern, of both the Government Chief Whip and the Leader of the House, so his words are on the record and will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench. He will have patiently to await events.
Order. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is asking whether the point of order did any good or whether patiently awaiting the development of events does any good. He should not be too cynical; he has a service uninterrupted in this House of 30 years, and therefore I know that he believes passionately in Parliament.