Women and Work — [Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:30 am on 14th March 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean Conservative, Redditch 2:30 pm, 14th March 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered women and work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. May I address you as Sir David? What is your preference?

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

You can. My friends don’t have to, but I think they should.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean Conservative, Redditch

Thank you for that clarification.

Women make up half the population but, for many years, less than half the workforce. The key to female empowerment is economic independence, which is what this debate is about.

Hon. Members will know that it is only comparatively recently that women were accepted in the workplace. When I was growing up, my mum was unusual, because she worked outside the home as a GP. I had to let myself into the house when I came back from school and make my own meals, which forced me to become independent from an early age. I learned great life skills, including how to make a quick, nutritious meal for my sister and myself, as well as how to climb over garden fences and through bedroom windows when I lost my door key, which happened quite regularly. I hasten to add—I am sure hon. Members will be pleased to know—that that is not a skill I have used regularly since that time.

We women have made great strides in society from the days when it was completely normal to say that a woman’s place was in the home, or we had to give up our careers when we became pregnant, or we were forced out due to attitudes and outdated policies or the unwelcoming culture of the workplace. In my very first job after university, in a large high street bank, I was the only woman recruited into my job role, at the age of 22. I remember when I was called into the top boss’s office and was asked what they should write in a maternity policy if I became pregnant. They had never had a female employee in that role, let alone anyone with a baby. How times have changed. Those incidents date me of course, but they also illustrate how things have changed in just four short decades.

Women cannot achieve their potential in society, in the workplace or in the family without independent resources of their own. That is why women and work is a critically important subject and why I have called this debate. I pay tribute to the progress made under previous Governments of all colours to open up the workplace to women. It has been a long journey. Although I accept that there is always more that we can do, I will touch on a few key themes and highlight the major progress that this Conservative Government have made.

As Conservatives, we believe in helping everyone, male or female, achieve their potential. I am proud of the progress that we have made since 2010. Some 15.1 million women in the UK aged 16 and over were working in December 2017, which is 1.48 million higher than a decade ago. That represents a record high employment rate of 70.8%, and results in the smallest gap between male and female employment rates, of just under nine percentage points, since comparable records began in 1971. As we would probably expect given that it is still the norm for women to take on the bulk of caring responsibilities in the family, women are more likely than men to be working part time, but I note that, since 2014, the growth in full-time employment for women has outpaced that of men.

Why does this matter? There is a massive evidence base that diverse teams that include men and women equally perform better. This is not just about doing something to benefit women. It is about action that benefits men and the whole of society. The evidence is overwhelming. Study after study, report after report, demonstrate beyond all doubt that diverse teams overcome groupthink, problem-solve more effectively and build better teams.

What have the Government done to encourage women into the workplace? One critical factor is being able to work flexibly or to stay in work when the alternative would be to give up work, which is very good news for individual employees and their employers, and good news for the economy. Under the Conservatives, I welcome the fact that working patterns are becoming increasingly flexible.

In the three months to August 2016, 23.2 million people were working full time—362,000 more than a year earlier. There were 8.6 million people working part time—198,000 more than a year earlier. Based on 2011 data, around 60% of employees had done some form of flexible working in the previous year, up from 56% in 2006. There is no doubt that the extension of the right to request flexible working has doubled the number of employees who are able to make a request, to more than 20 million. The former business Department—the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—estimated that that would lead to a further 80,000 requests a year, which has led to 60,000 new working arrangements a year.

Let us pause for a moment to consider what that means in a woman’s life. It means that a woman is able to have control over her work-life balance and take on the responsibilities she may face, whether that is caring for children or for elderly relatives, yet still contribute to the workplace without being discriminated against.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Conservative, Aldershot

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has been able to secure this important debate and I am pleased to be here. I agree that having women in the workplace is not just good for women. It is also good for men. I pay personal tribute to the fact that my hon. Friend embodies that maxim through her contributions to parliamentary business. She touched elegantly on her personal experience and mentioned her mother. In terms of what drew her into having a working career, was there a particular role model? Does she think that role models in general are a critical factor in bringing women into the workplace?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean Conservative, Redditch

I thank my hon. Friend for that well-considered question. He touches on the reason why I requested this debate. I have a number of personal role models, the greatest of whom is my sadly departed mother-in-law, Margaret Maclean. She was a fantastic example of a woman who started her own business—not even from the kitchen table, but from the downstairs toilet. Many times we have been in her toilet packing up boxes of books for her book distribution business. I learned the value of hard work and never having a day off. I recognise that she did that and raised her three children, one of whom is still my husband, I am pleased to say.

We have seen in the Government’s recent industrial strategy that they are committed to continue to work with businesses to make flexible working a reality for all employees across Britain and to inform the evaluation of the right to request flexible working regulations. We all know that some barriers remain to requesting flexible working. I worked in businesses for 25 years before I entered the House and I know that there are barriers for women. It is only by making overwhelming change in the culture of business and society that it will become the norm to request and to grant flexible working to women and men with caring responsibilities. It is really good news for women when forward-thinking businesses are able to have a dialogue with their staff and accommodate the reality of our lives. Of course, as my hon. Friend Leo Docherty said, men also benefit from that, along with the whole family.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that apprenticeships are a very good way of allowing women and girls to achieve, progress and reach their full potential in the workforce by working flexibly? I declare an interest as chair of the Apprenticeship Diversity Champions Network.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean Conservative, Redditch

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, because it draws attention to the statistics on women and apprenticeships. Women account for the majority of apprenticeship starts in recent years—53.4% in 2016-17 and 52.8% in 2015-16. That has risen year on year under this Government, and is no doubt a tribute to the work that she is doing in championing diversity and apprenticeships in the workplace. I thank her very much for that.

Having women in the workplace is very good news for men and the culture of businesses as a whole because it encourages a more dynamic, progressive and modern workplace. When the Minister responds, will he touch on the uptake of shared parental leave, which is a fantastic policy supported by this Government and previous Governments. What more can the Government do to encourage more employers to take it up? I am sure hon. Members will agree that it is very important.

I believe that women are natural entrepreneurs, so a debate on women in work would not be complete without a celebration of our tenacity and business acumen. This is a subject close to my heart, because I have spent the past 25 years running my own business. I have battled issues that I am sure we have all faced, including mansplaining and hepeating, which is a new one—obviously, hon. Members in this Chamber are not guilty of those sins—juggling my family and my work, losing my income when my business went bust, and all the highs and devastating lows that came with that journey.

Groups of women, such as the mumpreneurs and others, are increasingly using technological tools to make a living for themselves and to set their own agenda. The latest statistics indicate that there are now 1.2 million women-led small and medium-sized businesses in the UK, which contribute an estimated £110 billion to the economy. The Government are getting behind those women with a range of realistic measures designed to help them. Government-backed start-up loans are one of the ways we are helping women to realise their talents, create jobs and boost the local and national economies, but there is more to do. Only 5.7% of women were involved in starting or running a new business last year—half the rate for men. I think that is a shame, and the Women’s Business Council agrees. If women were setting up and running new businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 1 million more female entrepreneurs.

I am therefore pleased that the Government have recognised the urgency of this mission. My hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary has responded to calls from across the world of business and politics to investigate the funding gap, which women face when they try to access capital. According to the Entrepreneurs Network, men are 86% more likely to be funded by venture capital and 56% more likely to secure angel investment than women. A new study by the Federation of Small Businesses shows that a quarter of female small-business owners said that the ability to access traditional funding channels is a key challenge. Many are therefore forced to rely on alternative sources for growth, such as crowdfunding, personal cash and credit.

I have personal experience of that. Before I entered Parliament, I worked for a tech start-up, and I saw for myself the barriers that women in that sector face. There is a massive disparity between men and women in that industry, which is a huge shame because women have so much potential to offer. Statistics indicate that one in eight women want to launch their own business in the UK. I agree with my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary, who said that helping more women access the capital they need presents

“a massive economic opportunity to the UK”.

That opportunity is currently untapped. I therefore look forward to seeing the results of the landmark study announced by the Treasury of the female funding gap. I hope that important lessons are learned, and that the Government do everything in their power to tackle this important issue.

The third key issue I wish to raise is that of returners, which relates to women who find it difficult to interact with the workplace. The group is loosely called returners, but it includes a lot of different women at different stages of their life. Taking a career break can often mean the end of a career or put barriers in the way of progression. I had four children and four periods of maternity leave, so I know how difficult it is to re-enter the world of work after the stress and exhaustion of having a baby. It is a joyful time, but as any new mum will say, coming back to work is hard. They have to contend with not just the sleep deprivation but the challenges of keeping up with new developments in the workplace and in technology, and of course juggling childcare. That is why I am pleased that the Government acknowledge that issue and are leading the way on it.

I hear evidence of large companies such as AXA getting on board. There are many others, but I have singled out AXA because I read the evidence that it recently gave to the Treasury Committee. It has instigated flexible working, maternity buddying and maternity coaching to ease the transition back into the workplace. Such practices should become the norm, not the exception. By constantly talking about the importance of such issues in this place, I hope we send out the signal that the world of work has changed and will change in the future. A woman can be just as effective working from home, with a managed team and open and honest communication with her team.

When I recruited staff for very senior management positions in the business I ran, I never hesitated to recruit mothers, women with children or even dads who wanted to work part time or school hours. That is unusual in many businesses, but I knew that they would be perfectly able to manage by using technology and virtual methods of communication to overcome the barriers of not being present. They do not need to sit at a desk to be effective. I knew that, although they were not physically present every moment of the day, their brains would be working on business problems, even while they were taking care of their children, doing the school run, preparing meals or doing the laundry. If you want anything doing, ask a busy person—especially a mother or a father who is up against a deadline to collect a child. I guarantee they will get the job done.

The Government are supporting hard-working women and businesses in this country. I welcome the fact that in the 2017 spring Budget the Government committed £5 million to support people who would like to return to paid work after spending time caring for others. That funding will help to unlock the potential and benefits of work for those individuals, employers and the economy. Some 2.1 million people, nearly 90% of whom are women, are currently out of the labour market because they are looking after their home or caring for family members, so we can see how important that agenda is. More and more businesses are joining the fight and making this a boardroom issue. Change will come only when directors step up and lead, and put their money and resources where their mouth is. I call on them to acknowledge the reality of the world of work for women today.

I want to touch on the Taylor review, of which I have experience, because I was a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee for a short period. The Government are listening to and acting on the concerns raised in that important review, which looked at the world of work and recommended measures to protect all workers in our economy, including the gig economy, from being exploited. Many women work in lower-paid sectors of the economy, and they are just as entitled to good working conditions, which is why I welcome the Government’s action on this issue. There is more to come.

Working is good for women. It is not just an economic proposition; it is a chance for a woman to make the most of her potential and contribute her talents. There are many other upsides, including a real impact on her health and wellbeing. The fact that being in work has a positive impact on mental health is not talked about enough. In doing research for this speech, I uncovered statistics that indicate that women who work are less likely to be depressed, to live in poverty, to be in a violent relationship or be a victim of domestic abuse, to suffer substance abuse, and to experience family breakdown. They are more likely to live a balanced, happy life. They are also less likely to be offenders or be in prison. If a woman has children and is working, the children are more likely to grow up in a stable home with a stable experience. They are more likely to achieve academically, and are less likely to have mental health problems.

The issue of women and work touches all our lives, businesses and families, which is why I welcome Government action on it. Thank you for allowing me the time to have this debate, Sir David. I hope hon. Members agree that if a woman can work, earn and achieve in her own right, nothing can stop her and the world is her oyster.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. I intend to call the first of the three Front Benchers at 3.30 pm. A number of Members have indicated that they want to speak, so if Members can keep their contributions to about five minutes, I think they will all get in.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:49 pm, 14th March 2018

I congratulate Rachel Maclean on securing the debate and setting the scene so very well. I will give some stats, then some information about my own office and where I stand.

In the period October to December 2017 in the UK, 15.1 million women aged 16 and over were in employment. The employment rate was 70.8% for women, compared with 79.7% for men; 8.8 million women were working full time and 6.3 million part time; and 42% of women in employment were working part time compared with 13% of men—so part-time work for women is far above the norm elsewhere.

The most common sectors of employment for women are health and social work, accounting for 20% of all jobs held by women at September 2017; wholesale and retail, 14%; and education, 12%. Around 78% of jobs in the health and social work sector and 70% of jobs in the education sector were held by women. Around 20% of small and medium-sized enterprises with employees were led by women, and it is good to see that happening. As the hon. Member for Redditch, as a former employer, said, there is a lot more that we can do to encourage that, and I look to the Minister for his thoughts.

Men are more likely than women to be involved in total early-stage entrepreneurial activity, which includes owning or running a business less than 3.5 years old. At February 2018, 29% of directors of FTSE 100 companies were women and at the next stage down, in the FTSE 250, 23% of directors were women.

In 2010 I was elected here, my wife came over and she got a wee fridge magnet. It was a famous quote from Margaret Thatcher, which we all know: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” My wife put that on the fridge for a purpose—I am wondering whether there is a message there that she is trying to tell me—and I am reminded of it every day because it is still there.

The contribution of working women is incredible when added to the fact that many have main care of their children and also run their household—that is something that has to be recognised. As a proud employer of six staff, I must highlight that five of the six are women. One is a lady in her 50s with her children raised who works part time and minds her grandchildren part time, and for whom I provide flexible working. A lady in her 40s with her children mostly grown works full time for me, and another in her 40s works part time. Another lady, in her 30s, with a two-year-old and a three-year-old, works full time doing my speeches and press—as I am sure hon. Members know, I keep her very busy on speeches, and she does a lot of overtime. On her return home, it is not unknown for her to email documentation and speeches to me for the next day at 12.30 in the morning. That is the sort of person she is, and she does it because I have given her flexible hours and she likes doing it. I do not press her about anything, letting her do it as she sees fit. A girl in her 20s also works for me four days a week.

I therefore have a staff with different ages, from different backgrounds and at different stages of their lives, and yet one similar purpose links them all together—not just my office—which is that they wish to work, and work very hard. That is what they do. I might well have lost one of my best workers when my parliamentary aide had two maternity leaves within one year, but we had the discussion of how to make changes to make things happen so that she could be a great mother and still be great in her job. I made it clear that I was willing to work with her to make it work. She has been back at work for more than a year, but I have learned that family comes first—I always believed that anyway—and that she is more than capable of holding everything together. I did not penalise her for her maternity leave, but became flexible to ensure that I did not lose a great worker.

Photo of Julie Cooper Julie Cooper Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) (Community Health)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the barriers to promoting women’s full contribution in the world of work is the sufficient supply of quality childcare?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I am glad the hon. Lady mentioned that, because childcare is very important. For many ladies in my constituency, the availability of and access to childcare mean that they are able to work.

I have another great example of a working women in my mother. She is at pains to let us know—my mother tells this story about when I was born, which was a long time ago—that she was in the shop working again within 48 hours of giving birth. My mother must be a very strong lady. We owned a shop and she worked beside my dad every day. She ran our home and the shop, she helped in the church, and she regimented us with the ability of a sergeant-major or indeed a general, but at the same time she gave us a wonderful example of love and care.

I pay my staff the same wage whether they are men or women. Sadly, however, somewhere along the line as a society some people determined that it is acceptable to pay different wages for the same job, due not to job performance or ability, but to gender. I want to say clearly: that is unacceptable to me. I want to see the same wages for men and for women, so let us say that together and get it right.

Yes, there is the potential for a member of staff to take maternity leave or request flexible working hours to suit a family when they are female, but in today’s society men are just as able and willing to take care of their children, and rightly so. The gender pay gap does not simply apply in the BBC or Hollywood; we see it day in and day out, and it is not right. I would take great exception to anyone who decided that my granddaughters were worth less because they are girls—they are strong, bright, courageous and ready to take on the world, and in this day and age they should be allowed to do so without discrimination, based on their ability and not solely on their gender. That is the way that it should and must be, and we have a role to play. I am willing, as the Member of Parliament for Strangford, to do my bit to make that happen.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham 2:55 pm, 14th March 2018

I congratulate my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean on securing this debate, which is so timely, as we have recently passed the milestone of 15 million women in work, with the south-west tying with the south-east for having the highest proportion.

I want to briefly give my two-pennyworth. I believe in opportunities and equality, and it is important to note that if women choose not to work and have the means to support themselves, that is their choice, and one that I respect as well. Many do that to look after their children. The important thing, however, is to ensure that they have the choice and that there is a level playing field. That is why the 30-hour free childcare policy is such a massive step forward, empowering and enabling women to be able to afford to work, and making work pay.

The 15-hour policy rolled out in 2010 helped 93% of three-year-olds and 96% of four-year-olds, and now hundreds of thousands of parents across the country benefit from the increase to 30 hours, which enables and incentivises people to work. I am proud that the Government made that a priority. In fact, by 2019-20 we will be spending a record of about £6 billion on childcare support. We have also invested in supporting women back into work, which is crucial. In the 2017 spring Budget, we committed £5 million to support people who would like to return to paid work after time spent caring for others.

The introduction of shared parental leave in 2015 was an egalitarian move to enable women and men to share leave. I am delighted that the Government are investing money and resource into promoting that scheme. I look forward to hearing more about the awareness campaign from the Minister. I also call on him to recognise and celebrate those companies that offer at least an element of shared corporate parental leave, which is a true step forward towards equality and choice, and one that will help to tackle the gender pay gap. I am keen to know his thoughts. For my part, I believe that fully shared corporate parental leave is the future. We should look at countries such as Iceland for a model. I know its system is very different and based on individual benefits for parental leave, but it provides a starting block and something to build on to truly have equality.

The number of women on FTSE 350 boards has doubled since 2011, and there are no longer any male-only boards in the FTSE 100, which I am proud of, but we still need to go further. I do not agree with demeaning quotas or positive discrimination, and I am not a fan of singling out particular groups. In fact, I believe that further segregation can cause discrimination. Instead, I believe in empowering and encouraging women and all minorities to succeed and fulfil their true potential, and in levelling the playing field so that everyone gets an equal shot in life. That is why I entered politics: to facilitate and open opportunities. That is why challenging stereotypes and career preconceptions is so important.

Did you know, Sir David, that only 5.4% of women are engaged in entrepreneurial activities, compared with double that for men? Yet if women were to set up businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 150,000 more start-ups a year. The lower figure is not due to a lack of talent or to physical barriers; it is mainly because of stereotypes, preconceptions and a lack of encouragement. I do not buy the argument that men are risk takers and women are not, or that men see possibilities and women see obstacles, but constantly asserting that makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Women are capable of anything, so once the financial, legislative and logistical obstacles are removed, what remains are the social barriers that we place in front of women. It is these that we must tear down. We tore down the glass ceiling with equalities legislation, but some have stuck up an umbrella in its place, with negative talk and stereotyped roles. We have been tackling the remaining obstacles with the introduction of 30-hour free childcare and other policies. I want us to continue to do that, but also to foster more of a “can do, will do” attitude among everyone.

That is particularly important in tackling the severe shortage of women in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—which fuels our skills shortage, which is something I talk about regularly in relation to my own constituency. In fact, in 2016, women accounted for just 7% of engineering apprenticeships, and only 20% of A-level physics students were female. If women in the UK had got into engineering at the same rate as men, the engineering skills gap would have been met in 2017. That is being cried out for in Wiltshire, which is a hub of engineering design and technology. Each year, I hold my own engineering festival, targeted at girls and boys, which focuses on challenging the stereotypes and social expectations around these roles, with some inspirational, hard-hitting women from companies such as Dyson, Airbus and Siemens.

I am delighted that the UK is racing to the top of Europe in terms of women’s access to work, sitting 11% above the EU average. That means that women have more of a chance than ever before to be in employment. We have come a long way in my lifetime; in fact, when I was born only 3.2% of MPs were female. It is the policies of this Government that will truly make an impact over time, by tackling the obstacles, especially to childcare and shared paternity leave, enabling women to have a true choice. I urge the Government, industry and fellow hon. Members to continue focusing on dispelling stigma and stereotypes, to truly empower women and to enable them to access the jobs they want to do and that our economy needs them to do.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 3:01 pm, 14th March 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate Rachel Maclean on securing this debate and on the powerful way she introduced the subject. As she said, the world of work is evolving rapidly, and we are seeing a fracturing of the traditional working structures. The large employers with unionised workforces are being replaced by new working arrangements, and it is quite possible that those arrangements will open the door to greater discrimination. We cannot afford to rely on outdated laws to tackle discrimination—laws that, frankly, have never worked for women anyway.

As a former employment lawyer, I am far too familiar with the kind of discrimination that women face in the workplace. When I was discussing with them how they wanted to proceed, there was real anxiety, because whatever has gone on and whatever laws are in place to prevent victimisation, people know that once they raise an allegation of discrimination, regardless of what ultimately happens with that allegation, all too often the employment relationship is never the same again, if it survives at all. That would not usually manifest itself in anything blatant that could give rise to a further complaint, but many women feel that once they raise their concerns, their card is marked and their career at that particular employer is over. That is really about the culture that is created—the feeling that they do not want to make waves; the feeling that next time there is a promotion, they will not stand much of a chance; the feeling that their work colleagues are all talking about them behind their backs, and the risk, which we see in this place, that they could bump into the person they have complained about at any time.

Given that, is it any wonder that people see what happens when they raise their head above the parapet and do not feel empowered to speak out? Is it any wonder that women feel inhibited about raising concerns when, until recently, if they wanted to take a complaint any further, they would have to go into a tribunal system that the Supreme Court has declared discriminatory? We know about the huge drop in the tribunal claims once fees were introduced, and the number of sexual discrimination cases brought dropped even further, with an 87% and a 70% drop in equal pay claims. I do not think that anybody has ever seriously considered that employers have suddenly been 87% less discriminatory. We know what that was: a barrier to justice, and a discriminatory one at that.

I want to say a few words about the success rate of discrimination claims for those who actually take their claims to the tribunal. There can be a considerable tangible impact on a woman’s work prospects, which is no doubt a deterrent for many. The success rate for sex discrimination claims has been around 20% for many years, and many women will look at those odds and think that it is not worth it. The fact is that women are more than twice as likely to succeed in a claim for unfair dismissal as they are in a claim for sex discrimination. There could be any number of reasons for that, not least the complexity of bringing a discrimination claim.

The failure of women to assert their rights is a big problem. Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that up to 54,000 women a year could be forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination. That is 11% of all pregnant women in the workplace who lose their job as a result of pregnancy discrimination. Is that not a scandal? Of the 54,000 potential claims a year relating to pregnancy discrimination, only 790 were lodged in 2015—less than 1.5% of all potential discriminatory acts resulted in a claim being lodged.

What are the Government doing to tackle this rampant discrimination in the workplace and the inability of our system to protect women and assert their rights? It is evident that many women simply do not feel confident in asserting their right not to be discriminated against at work. Is there not a risk that this perpetuates the cycle of discrimination? Perhaps some employers do not know that what they are doing is wrong. Perhaps some will feel that they do not have to change their ways until they are forced to. Either way, the women lose out, and the employer loses out too, by demotivating and hindering people whose talents would make a significant contribution to the business if they were allowed to.

There should be no glass ceilings; everyone should have just as much chance of realising their potential. Childbirth should not be a barrier to success, and women should have the security of knowing that if things go wrong, they have a realistic avenue to seek redress and that there will be no adverse consequences for them if they challenge what they consider to be discriminatory acts.

We have a system in place that already puts security near the bottom of the pile in terms of priorities. Security should be the cornerstone of any settlement on how the workplace operates. Kosovo, Estonia, and Mexico are all rated by the OECD as having greater individual employment protection than this country. I would like to think that we could set our sights a little higher than that. Women’s rights are not just about individual dignity and respect in the workplace; they bring important social and economic benefits to this country. They help to encourage a committed and engaged workforce and the retention of skilled workers. They allow people to plan their lives and to plan for a future, knowing that if they do a good job and if their employer runs its business well, they will be rewarded.

We have a responsibility to challenge discrimination wherever it appears. The evidence tells us beyond a scintilla of doubt that discrimination in the workplace is out of control. To stamp it out, we need to fundamentally question whether the current system is doing the job that we want it to.

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

I asked Members to keep their speeches to five minutes, but everyone has exceeded that a bit. That means that someone may not get the chance to speak, so please keep your contributions to below five minutes.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester 3:06 pm, 14th March 2018

Thank you, Sir David, for the opportunity to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean on this debate. This is an important subject that we need to continue to talk about.

Historically, women have been under-represented across many employment sectors. My experience throughout my 30-year corporate business career affirms that, as more often than not I was the only woman in the room in every business meeting, in every country I worked in—and that was a lot of meetings. I am happy to say that the tide is turning. In 2010, the 30% Club, founded by Helena Morrissey, who is Chichester born and bred, launched a campaign to get a minimum of 30% women on FTSE 100 boards. Today, that goal is close to being achieved, as women make up 28% of all directors of FTSE 100 companies. That progress is something to celebrate; however, there is still a lot more to be done to support women in the world of work.

Women commonly juggle multiple commitments and disproportionately take on family obligations, whether that is raising children or caring for elderly relatives. Part of the issue is the long-standing social constructs that we as a society have put in place. It is just as important to look at the roles of men at home and as it is in the workplace. When the women and work all-party parliamentary group looked at this, the expert panel felt that improving the affordability of shared parental leave would help to create a cultural shift, by encouraging more men to share caring roles. One proposal was for shared parental leave to be paid at a greater rate than statutory maternity leave, to ensure shared parental leave is truly affordable.

In many countries, extended paternity leave schemes are already in place and are deemed to be a success. For example, in Iceland, both parents are entitled to three months of statutory leave and a further three months that can be shared between them. Consequently, women there enjoy a very high employment rate, at just under 83%. Sweden leads in the EU, with more than 75% of women in employment. Fathers receive 90 days of paid leave, which is a lot in comparison with the UK, where men receive one to two weeks. Those modern systems support women, enable them to return to the workplace and help to achieve a better gender balance in business. They will have a business case.

Last year, the employment rate for women over 16 in the UK reached a record high of 70.8%. However, these positive figures do not tell the full story: 42% of those women work part time. The effects of working part time can often mean that opportunities for promotion are limited, which has an impact on the gender pay gap. It does not have to be that way. The all-party group on women and work heard examples of good practice at the University of Sussex, which promoted Alison Phipps to a professorship, despite her being a part-time worker after having two children. I personally witnessed an excellent example of good practice when my fellow classmate at the London Business School was promoted to partner level at PricewaterhouseCoopers while she was on maternity leave.

Another factor to consider in the 21st-century workplace is self-employment. There are 1.6 million self-employed women, which accounts for the majority of the newly self-employed as well, probably because of the flexibility that comes with that option. At present, self-employed women may be eligible for maternity allowance of £140.98 a week, but not statutory maternity pay, meaning that they will receive a lot less than an employee. Similarly, casual workers or zero-hours workers do not have the right to paid leave or perhaps even to attend antenatal appointments with a healthcare professional. Such barriers negatively impact on women, and more needs to be done to address those issues.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Conservative, Aldershot

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done, both before coming to the House and while here, to encourage women to engage in politics. It is the duty of all parliamentarians to encourage that. It is a matter of regret to me that we have only ever had male MPs for Aldershot. That is not something I want to change too soon, but I am pleased to have some female constituents here today whom I would encourage to maintain an interest in politics.

How important does my hon. Friend think it is to encourage young women to get involved in business careers, given her experience of being an apprentice? Does she think that we are doing all that we can to encourage awareness among young women of school age of the opportunities for work and apprenticeships at that critical stage in their school career when they consider what career to go into?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

I think that for both men and women the availability of high-quality apprenticeships needs to be better understood by all children and parents, and from a young age. I did an apprenticeship at 16 and I was the only woman. There were four guys, so I was the token 20%, which is a figure we often find. It is a great way into the workplace, particularly degree-level apprenticeships, which means that people do not have to choose between education and work experience, and certainly it propelled my career.

I have mentioned self-employed women, zero-hours contracts and the barriers that women face. Millions of women have taken time out of work to raise a family, and others take time out to care for loved ones. For them it is often difficult to get back on the career ladder. Of the people who are out of paid work to care for family, 90% are women. That is a huge loss, not only to those individuals, but to our economy and businesses all over the country. I welcomed the announcement by the Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend Amber Rudd, that £1.5 million is being made available to support people, particularly women, to get back into work after time out.

The fund will offer grants to help people return to work in the private sector by updating their skills and supporting businesses with guidance and a toolkit to increase employment opportunities. That is just part of the £5 million commitment made by the Prime Minister last year to help people back into employment after a career break. Similar returner schemes are already up and running in the public sector, in the health professions, social work, and the civil service. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is using the cyber-security skills impact fund to help women who have been out of the labour market to get jobs in cyber-security.

It is crucial that women have the opportunity to reach their potential and that our industries do not lose out on their valuable skills and experience. The Government have championed the rights of women in the workplace, with gender pay being just one area widely commented on. We are moving in the right direction, and I am pleased that we are having debates such as this one to address the barriers that are still present for women in work.

Photo of Laura Pidcock Laura Pidcock Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour) 3:13 pm, 14th March 2018

I thank Rachel Maclean for securing this extremely important debate. I am sure it will not be a surprise that some of the interpretations that I have of the world of work are somewhat different from what has been expressed. For many of the women in my constituency, work is not a choice or a health benefit, but an absolute necessity for survival.

Last Thursday we marked International Women’s Day: a day when we celebrate the victories that women have achieved so far on the path to liberation, and a day when we remember how far we have to go. That one day in the calendar is when we focus on women’s issues and they are thrust into the limelight. It serves as an opportunity to briefly scrutinise our collective experience. The Labour party used the day to announce that we would fine employers who not only fail to audit their gender pay gap, but fail to take decisive action against it.

In the narrative around women at work, the focus is not always on workplace issues that affect women the most. In recent years we have seen the agenda—it is as though I knew what Gillian Keegan was going to say in her speech—that applies only to women at the top. Women in this room will be aware of campaigns such as the 30% Club, which aims to get at least 30% of women on the board of large public companies, and similar campaigns. I do not wish to discredit such campaigns, but I do not think it is unfair for me to say that they are irrelevant to the majority of working women in this country.

Pictures of gender-balanced boards or of women chief executive officers might be glitzy, but they are a distraction from the material reality of working-class women in this country.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

I simply want to say that I am a working- class woman who left school at 16 but still aspired to be on a board, so I would say they are relevant. They are just one part of the picture.

Photo of Laura Pidcock Laura Pidcock Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour)

Those campaigns do not focus on the reality of most working-class women in work at this point in time in our nation. As with most things, success at the top does not trickle down. [Interruption.] I will not take any more interventions because of time constraints.

What good is it if a woman becomes a CEO, only to rely on an army of women on precarious contracts and on poverty pay to make her sandwiches, look after her children and clean her offices? The success of élite women does not facilitate the emancipation of lower-paid sisters in the economy. In fact, some would argue it prevents it. The experience of most women, after all, is that of a worker, not of a boss. Our obsession with boardrooms has not only failed to close the pay gap for working-class women, but produced another kind of pay gap—the gap between women at the bottom and women at the top. Professional women earn on average 80% more than unskilled women, while the difference between professional and unskilled men is still huge, at 60%.

Although a few élite women succeed, the experience for most working-class women is of a system that is completely rigged against them. It is a system in which women are on zero-hours contracts and are scared that they will not get adequate maternity pay if they want to start a family. As a proud pregnant working woman, I know that my position protects me from many of the forms of discrimination that pregnant women face in the workplace. It is a system in which women are still the main childcare providers. They represent 90% of lone parents and are terrified that they will not get enough hours to provide for their children.

It is a system in which 230,000 jobs held by women pay less than the minimum wage. The Government—let us be honest—do not even give adequate notice to women about changes to their pensions, leaving them in fear of their retirement, and then think it appropriate to suggest that those women expecting to reach retirement take an apprenticeship. It is a system in which women in low pay and poverty reduce their meal portions to allow their children to eat in the school holidays. It is a system in which unaffordable and inaccessible childcare forces women to work fewer hours or accept poorly paid, poor quality part-time positions—and, of course, as has been mentioned, they are at risk of dismissal while on maternity leave.

It has been mentioned many times in the Chamber that the fact that we have had two female Prime Ministers satisfactorily explains that the Conservatives are the party of gender equality. That is an affront to the women in my constituency and across the UK who experience much inequality. It is important that there are women in the highest positions, of course, but it is never enough to just stop there. There have always been women who have succeeded in the face of structural sexism and women who buck the trend, but we cannot and must not be satisfied with the achievements of a minority of women while most women bear the brunt of poverty and austerity.

Some Members might not know that International Women’s Day started as a campaign for the rights of women garment workers in New York. Women’s issues have always been inextricably linked with class issues. Only by punishing the bosses who exploit women and only by creating a social security system that recognises the inequality faced by women, will we have any hope of genuine equality at work. Fundamentally, we must give all workers the ability to collectively bargain for their own pay and terms and conditions. We need a system that challenges the gender-segregated nature of employment. I am glad that the hon. Member for Redditch secured the debate, but I can tell the House that women in my constituency will not be grateful for the way the Conservatives have treated them.

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus 3:19 pm, 14th March 2018

I thank my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean for bringing this important matter to the House, particularly in view of the journey that she went on in her working life. It was good to hear about the positive changes she experienced.

The influx of women into the workplace is one of the greatest social revolutions of recent decades. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch mentioned, in 1951 only a third of women were economically active—employed or unemployed. Today the proportion is about three quarters of women. Thanks to that remarkable change in society, workplaces across the country have benefited from the talents and contributions of women who just decades ago would not have entered those workplaces. Today women are free, and the country as a whole is more prosperous. However, there is still more to do to create equal opportunity between men and women, both in the world of work and across society.

We must make sure that no industry is closed to women because of sexist prejudice, and that no woman is paid less than a man for equal work. I was delighted to visit my local primary school, Whitehills, in Forfar, on Monday morning to discuss the correlation between science, technology, engineering and maths and career opportunities. When I asked the 400 pupils about their career goals, it was heartening that there was no evidence of gender-specific jobs. There were would-be scientists, engineers and architects a-plenty. Those young people had their minds wide open and we need to ensure that as they grow up and develop we do not narrow them in any way. All jobs are open to both genders. That is why I am proud to support the UK Government, who have required companies with more than 250 employees to publish data on their gender pay gap. It is important that we get to the root causes of the overall gender pay gap and introduce the appropriate measures to deal with them, so that the young girls I met on Monday will enter a workplace where gender discrimination is a thing of the past.

Childcare is a massive financial burden on any working family. It is no coincidence that the gender pay gap widens considerably after age 30, or that relatively few women have broken into high-ranking positions that require considerable experience. Indeed, when I decided to stand for Parliament, the question of how I would be able to have a family in years to come was raised. However, no job in this country should force any female to make a choice between career and family. Of course, individual families know best how to organise themselves and balance childcare with work commitments. However, it is crucial that the Government should offer parents the childcare support that makes achieving that balance easier and allows them to do so without being pressured by antiquated societal assumptions.

I therefore commend the Government on doubling the amount of free childcare available to parents of three and four-year-olds in England and Wales, introducing shared parental leave and pay, and encouraging more flexible working, including in the armed forces. I also support the increase in childcare hours brought in by the Scottish Government, although I believe that the roll-out was slightly ill-thought-out, and that further flexibility is required to increase parents’ ability to take up the provision.

All the measures I have mentioned will help more mothers to remain in work. That will help more women to rise to the top of their field, which will help to reduce the gender pay gap. While there is certainly more to do to encourage a culture of more flexible working and of mothers and fathers sharing responsibility for childcare more equally, the measures in question are a strong start.

Women must also have an equal opportunity to use their expertise through enterprise. As has been mentioned, only 5.7% of women were involved in starting or running a new business last year. That is half the rate for men. For that reason I recently joined the Telegraph campaign for the Government to boost female entrepreneurship in Britain. There is a need for easier access to capital, higher levels of funding, and support from experienced mentors to guide people through that life-changing process. Astonishingly, the Federation of Small Businesses has suggested that Britain is missing up to 1.2 million new enterprises because the business potential of women remains untapped in the sector. Another poll demonstrated that two thirds of female business owners were not taken seriously when trying to secure funding for start-ups. That leaves them two options—to self-fund or to walk away. That is simply unacceptable.

I say those things with optimism about the future. Let us consider the progress that we have already made, which our great-grandmothers would not have thought remotely possible. I wholeheartedly believe that the progress we want can be made quickly. It will take action in this House and in wider society, but we should go forward with confidence that it can be done. A post-Brexit Britain has to back British businesses and I look forward to continued progress in that area.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice) 3:25 pm, 14th March 2018

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate Rachel Maclean on securing it, and agreed with much of what she said, although however much progress has been made, there is still a huge amount to do.

I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on women and work, which Gillian Keegan co-chairs. Ironically, I am the secretary of the group. It is one of the most informative and best organised that I have been a member of in my past three years in Parliament. Sadly, I have not been able to attend as frequently as I did at the outset. It has done a fantastic job, complementing the work of the Women and Equalities Committee, illuminating workplace issues that affect women and bringing cross-party consensus to the search for ideas and solutions.

Through my membership of the all-party group I have learned about excellent programmes such as those at Centrica, which has a fantastic female engineering apprenticeship programme, and Royal Bank of Scotland, which does brilliant work on mentoring and female returnships. To my mind, too much intervention of that type happens in isolation. Encouraging as it is, we need more structural intervention to help to address the gender pay gap—and the gender employment gap: women still struggle to get on in traditionally male-dominated sectors. That is why I want more ambitious Government intervention on easily accessible and affordable childcare. I take the point that has been made about the expansion that has taken place already. The Scottish Government currently offer the most ambitious and far-reaching childcare support package in these isles; and that is to be welcomed.

I also want the UK Government to go further to provide greater encouragement and incentive for the take-up of shared parental leave. It was a worthy but, I believe, unfinished policy success of the coalition Government’s time in office. I want more men to be confident about requesting—and to be encouraged to request—shared parental leave. However, that will happen only when there is intervention to that effect, as the hon. Member for Chichester mentioned. The change would help women in competing with men for jobs. Right now, if a man and a woman in their mid-twenties with similar credentials are job candidates and go to an interview panel, there will, sadly, although it will not necessarily be publicly articulated, be an unconscious bias away from the woman, in case she needs maternity leave. If fathers were to take on more responsibility in that area, it would clearly rebalance and equalise the opportunities for women to get on—and help them to be better fathers.

As someone who is proud to “talk flexible working” with my staff, I want more action from the Government to define what flexible working means. All employees currently have a right to request flexible work, but there is no definition of it. Sometimes that leaves both employer and employee in a difficult position in discussions. Guidelines would help both of them to know where they stand. They would strengthen the position of women and men in securing flexible work, and employers in retaining staff and increasing productivity and morale. We are doing what we can in Scotland to make things more progressive, although we cannot act on all the areas where I would want us to.

I understand the points made by Laura Pidcock. However, we have lowered the reporting threshold in the requirement on companies to publish their gender pay gap, so it now applies to those with more than 20 employees, rather than 250. We currently have the lowest gap in the UK, at 6.6% compared with 9.1% overall. We want more progress, clearly. I understand the concerns of Michelle Donelan, but we have led by example in matters of gender balance. We have the first female First Minister in Scotland, who chairs a gender-balanced Cabinet. We are also committed to legislating to ensure gender balance in public sector boardrooms by 2020, and to campaigning for gender balance in the boardrooms of private sector organisations that have signed our business pledge.

We welcome the debate, and understand the positivity of the hon. Member for Redditch, but there is much more that we could and should do to make sure that all of society and the whole economy can benefit from the closing of the gender pay and employment gaps.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

I will now call the last Back-Bench speaker but I expect a tiny speech—no more than two minutes.

Photo of Jo Platt Jo Platt Labour/Co-operative, Leigh 3:29 pm, 14th March 2018

I will do my best, Sir David. I thank you for calling me, and I congratulate Rachel Maclean on securing this debate. It is a particular honour to speak on this important subject in the year of the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. While we celebrate the advancement of women in society, politics, and the workplace, we must also reflect on progress that still needs to be made, because especially in the workplace, women do not have parity with their male counterparts. There are many reasons why women have not secured the great progress that we deserve in recent years. I will try to address as many of those reasons as possible, and set out why I believe the Government have a duty to take action.

The first and most obvious disparity is pay. The Office for National Statistics found that men earn, on average, nearly 20% more than women, and 48 years after Labour passed the Equal Pay Act 1970, men are still paid substantially more than their female counterparts. Those figures are simply unacceptable. The gender pay gap exposes the multitude of barriers and other daily challenges that women face in the workplace. Women are unlikely to progress up the career ladder at the same speed as men. Employers may discriminate against women when recruiting due to the maternity leave they may take in future, and research published today by the Equality and Human Rights Commission states that six in 10 employers—59%—agree that a woman should disclose whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process. That is unacceptable; that is not what we are fighting for.

As a single mother I have experienced at first hand the enormous challenge of juggling parenthood with a sustainable career. With two young children at primary school, the only work available to me was in retail, and I met many single mothers in that position who were struggling on low pay. Many also had poor working conditions, which is something we need to combat, especially for single women. I am pleased that an all-party group for single or lone parents will soon be launched.

We cannot begin to achieve gender equality or improve social mobility across society when half the population face a different set of social rules from the other half. We have a duty as parliamentarians to do all we can to level the playing field and support women in the workplace, and we know that Government intervention in that area works. I therefore hope that when responding to the debate, the Minister will set out in detailed terms the measures to be taken to address the inequalities that women face in the workplace. We cannot strive to move forward as a country when half of employees are held back. Time is up on unequal conditions and treatment; we need action now for a fair workplace.

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Everybody pinches a minute. I will now call the Opposition Front-Bench speakers, but I ask them to limit their speeches to under nine minutes to allow the Minister an opportunity to respond.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 3:33 pm, 14th March 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David. It is also a pleasure, as a woman with all the privileges of an MP, to get up on my pins in this place and talk about issues that affect women all around us. We have a moral obligation to speak for women who do not have the same opportunities to speak out, and that includes many women who work here but are not Members. Dignity at work for women everywhere should be one of our core demands in politics. This is not about women getting a special deal; it is about dignity and respect.

I commend Rachel Maclean for securing this debate. She made the important point that the key to female empowerment is economic independence. She shared some of her own experiences with us, and said that fairer treatment for women is good for the culture of any business as a whole. Jim Shannon shared the experiences of some of his colleagues and family members and—as often happens in this place—such examples can illustrate political points better than any number of statistics from the Library. The hon. Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) spoke about looking elsewhere in the world for inspiration to tackle the UK’s problems in this area, and I hope to provide some ideas from Scotland that the Minister may wish to contemplate. Justin Madders gave us the benefit of his legal background and experience and called for greater employment protections for women against discrimination. Laura Pidcock spoke with characteristic passion about the pay gap between those at the bottom of the pay scale and those at the top, and of structural sexism—very important points.

I am particularly pleased to speak in a debate secured by the hon Member for Redditch because I remember her in November last year advising 65-year-old women to get an apprenticeship—that was also mentioned by the hon. Member for North West Durham. I am not sure why those women would want to undertake an apprenticeship if not to begin a career that would last a few decades, but perhaps things are a little different down Redditch way. The speech by the hon. Member for Redditch was very complimentary about the UK Government’s track record in this area, but sadly I would argue that the Government she supports are very bad at supporting women in work. I could run through the entire gamut of failures, but I will settle for just a few.

First, the two-child cap for child tax credits. Whoever thought that that was a good idea? Who sat down one day and thought that the third child costs nothing to bring up? Who thought that the best way to help parents survive in a challenging job market is to cut the amount of money they have to live on? How does that help children to grow up strong enough to be productive members of society and contribute to the economy? Women’s Aid calculated that that move alone put 200,000 children below the poverty line—that is 200,000 children going hungry because this Government lack simple human decency.

Library research from last year showed that 86% of the impact of austerity cuts lands on women and will continue to do so in future. WASPI women who are not too busy doing an apprenticeship will tell you just how unfair the sudden hikes in retirement age are. Indeed, the costs to individuals associated with the gender pay gap continue into retirement because female retirees end up with smaller pensions than their male counterparts, but still there is no action to address that.

Law firm Travers Smith reported yesterday that the pay gap between its employees was 14.7%—women are paid only six-sevenths of what men are paid in the same firm. For bonus pay, women are paid 37.8% less. Those figures are not because women do different jobs. Female associates are paid less than male associates, and female senior associates are paid less than male senior associates. It is the same in other big law firms. Women are the poorer sisters again and again and again.

The gender pay gap is not the only problem. The Government had to be dragged through the courts in order to scrap employment tribunal charges that prevented access to justice for lower-paid workers—a policy that adversely affected far more women than men. Losing the employment protections afforded by the threat of effective enforcement would have been one more poke in the eye for female workers. Discrimination against working women is rife. As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission stated that 11% of mothers reported that they were either dismissed, made compulsorily redundant when others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly that they felt they had to leave their job. That could mean as many as 54,000 mothers a year facing pregnancy discrimination. About twice as many mothers—one in five—said that they experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer and/or colleagues. That could affect as many as 100,000 mothers a year.

As for the thought that some gender balance might start to creep into the boards of top companies, or indeed the civil service—dream on. The European Institute for Gender Equality released an update to the gender equality index which for the UK showed no progress in many areas over the past 10 years, including for decision-making powers in the business sector. Of 18 permanent secretaries in the UK civil service, only five are women.

The UK Government seem to be doing little to help to rebalance gender opportunities. By contrast—this was mentioned by my hon. Friend Neil Gray—the gender-balanced Cabinet in the Scottish Government is leading the way. It has established a fair work convention aimed at developing a fair employment and workplace framework for women. It has committed to achieving gender balance on private, public, and third sector boards by 2020, and it has established a strategic group on women and work to tackle the barriers faced by women in the labour market.

Let me offer another example to show that things do not have to be this way. Microbusinesses offer real opportunities and could have a significant economic impact on women. One example of good practice is the Etsy platform for the creative industries, which gives people with internet access and a good idea the opportunity to trade globally. Its flexibility and ease of access has brought forward a whole range of artistic women entrepreneurs. A whopping 86% of Etsy sellers are women, in stark contrast with just 20% of small and medium-sized business owners generally. A large chunk—32%—are from rural communities, and they are younger: the median age of the workforce is 38, with 67% under 45. Most microbusinesses are outside traditional full-time employment models: 62% of their owners are part of the independent workforce, and only 21% have full-time jobs elsewhere.

That shows that providing small-scale opportunities for flexible working is massively beneficial for women entrepreneurs and the economy, and leads to a good geographical spread of income. It also suggests that employers are missing out on the huge productivity that they would get from their female employees if only they embraced more flexible working. When barriers are reduced, traditional stereotypes and gender imbalances in the workforce disappear and women are shown to be just as productive as men. The Government should work to remove those barriers and enable women into work, not just in microbusinesses but across all sectors.

Let me make a very important final point. Women have to be able to work with dignity. That means that they have to be able to work free of harassment, abuse, sexism and misogyny. We know that a lot of work needs to be done to make that a reality. The Scottish National party is not immune to that, as the recent case of Mark McDonald demonstrates, and nor is any other party in this place. I am glad that my party took action when that issue was brought up, but none of us has a halo. We may need more than encouragement and good intentions. We may very well need new legislation. Perhaps the Minister will indicate whether the Government are open to that.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 3:41 pm, 14th March 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate Rachel Maclean on securing this really important debate and on her wide-ranging speech. It is clear from the contributions we have heard that we are all aware of the importance of equality, to put it in a nutshell, and I thank Deidre Brock in particular for giving such a thorough account of all those contributions.

It is hard to believe that until 1946 a marriage bar prevented married women from joining the civil service, and women civil servants had to resign on marrying unless they were given an exemption. It is even harder to believe that the Foreign Office did not remove that bar until 1973. Although we have come a long way in some respects, the continuing gender pay gap, the greater prevalence of zero-hours contracts among women and the Weinstein scandal remind us how limited progress has been in others.

Women born in the 1950s have lived through major changes in the workplace. They should have the right to a decent pension, but instead their state pension age was changed without sufficient notice for them to prepare properly. Labour would extend pension credit to the women affected and allow them to retire at 64 on a reduced state pension, rather than wait until 66, if they chose to do so. Will the Government act, even at this late stage, to give women born in the 1950s justice?

Many Members mentioned the gender pay gap. It was of course a Labour Government who passed the Equal Pay Act 1970, following the brave fight for justice by Dagenham women who were employed sewing car seat covers. It is less well known that a factor behind the introduction of that Act was the expectation that the UK would soon accede to the European Economic Community, so UK legislation needed to be in line with the treaty of Rome, which requires that men and women receive equal pay for equal work. That helps to illustrate why the Opposition have fought so hard to amend clause 7 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which was designed to give the Government the power to amend by statutory instrument, primary legislation such as the Equal Pay Act.

The gender pay gap has narrowed over time, but it remains more than 9% for full-time employees and more than double that—18.4%—for employees overall. Men are more heavily represented in highly paid occupations: 72% of chief executives, 70% of managers and directors, and 92% of people in skilled trades are men. For example, easyJet reported a gender pay gap of just under 52%. The main reason for that is that most of the airline’s pilots are male and the average salary for a pilot is £92,000 a year, but more than two-thirds of easyJet cabin crew are women and the average salary for that job is £25,500. Women far outnumber men among health and social work professionals, yet the gender pay gap in that sector is nearly 19%. Some 58% of students accepted on to medicine and dentistry courses in 2016 were women, but only around 16% of consultant surgeons were. Paediatrics was the only specialty where more than a quarter of consultants were women. In contrast, in 2016 only around 11% of registered UK nurses were male.

Companies with more than 250 employees are required to complete a gender audit of pay by April 2018, but the legislation has no teeth. They are not required to do anything about their gender pay gap: the only sanction they will suffer is reputational damage, significant though that may be. Will the Government introduce tough new rules, as Labour would, to fine companies with large gender pay gaps that do not take action to close them?

Another part of the explanation for the overall gender pay gap is that, in general, a far higher percentage of women than men are in part-time employment. Part-time work tends to be paid less well than full-time work, and it offers fewer opportunities for progression. At the last count, 42% of women in employment were working part time, compared with 13% of men—more than 6 million women, compared with 2.25 million men. That difference is especially marked from the age of 30 onwards. That no doubt reflects the fact that women still overwhelmingly play a greater role in bringing up children, caring for other family members and doing household work. Among people over 30, the percentage of men who work full time is around a third higher than the percentage of women. The gender pay gap also rises among older age groups: it is around 2% for full-time workers in their 20s and 30s, but increases to nearly 14% for full-time workers aged 40 to 49.

Those figures should not be allowed to disguise the reality that part-time and flexible work can still be difficult to find. Since last April, mothers whose youngest child is aged three, rather than five as previously, have been required to look for work if they are claiming social security. Many mothers with very young children want to work, but affordable childcare that fits around work is extremely difficult to find in a lot of places, as is work that fits with childcare. Under universal credit, childcare costs have to be paid up front and then reclaimed, which is not the case with tax credits. That is a major outlay for parents, who would not be claiming universal credit unless they were on a low income in the first place. Citizens Advice has also highlighted problems with the online system for universal credit, which does not accept receipts for childcare unless they are in a specific form. Can the Minister assure us that those problems have been resolved?

A study by Gingerbread of employment opportunities for single mothers found that very few part-time jobs were advertised on the Government’s own job search portal, which all jobseekers are required to register with. Will the Government ensure that the claimant commitments of parents of very young children—in particular single parents—reflect the availability of childcare and part-time work?

Women are more likely than men to be on a zero-hours contract: 3% of women in work are on one, compared with 2% of men. They are also more likely to be in temporary work: 5% of women are, as opposed to 4% of men. Insecure work can have different implications for women. Caring responsibilities are difficult to fit in with insecure work, because a parent or carer may not be able to drop everything at short notice for a shift. Will the Government take action to ban exploitative zero-hours contracts, as Labour would?

In her Mansion House speech on 2 March, the Prime Minister said that the UK would

“not engage in a race to the bottom in the standards and protections” of workers’ rights. We should be far more ambitious than that. The EU is looking to extend those rights by, for example, requiring employers to give workers on zero-hours contracts a written statement of their pay rates and expected hours of work. Will the Government ensure that they match such advances in employment rights, so that UK workers do not have less protection than workers in other parts of Europe after we leave the EU?

The Government estimate that universal credit will bring as many as 1 million people under in-work conditionality by the time it is fully rolled out, which means that people who are in work but on a low income will be asked to increase their hours. However, some sectors, such as retail, where women workers are heavily represented, tend to offer extra hours at weekends or evenings, which are much more difficult to fit around caring responsibilities than daytime hours during the week. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of in-work conditionality on the number of women at risk of being sanctioned?

There is also evidence that women on zero-hours contracts or in temporary work may be at a higher risk of sexual harassment at work, because there is a greater power imbalance between an employer and someone who does not have a permanent contract. Women in that situation may be more reluctant to report harassment, for fear of losing out in future on work that they desperately need, and there may not be a proper HR structure for people to report abuse. In 2014, an employment tribunal imposed £19,500 damages on an employer in a case of that kind. The level of those damages in part reflected the employer’s failure to follow up the complaint, but the tribunal also gave weight to the fact that the employee was on a zero-hours contract and so could be said to be more vulnerable.

It is illegal to treat women less favourably at work as a result of pregnancy or maternity leave. Statutory rights to maternity leave and maternity pay were first introduced in 1975 under a Labour Government. While it is true that domestic legislation predated European directives in this area, European legislation has also led to the extension of rights, such as improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers, and workers who are new mothers. Here again, will the Government ensure that workers in the UK do not come to have lesser rights than their European counterparts as European legislation develops in the area of parental leave?

Rights are one thing; the exercise of those rights and enforcement is just as important. A survey for the TUC shows that one in 10 women found that when they returned to work, they were given a more junior position. In the five years from 2008 to 2013, more than 9,000 women brought tribunal claims on the grounds of unfair dismissal or unfair treatment as a result of pregnancy. It may be even more common than those figures suggest, as many women may not be aware of their rights or simply decide it is too much trouble to fight against discrimination.

Pregnancy and maternity claims fell by a quarter following the introduction of fees, which highlights how important a factor fees were in dissuading people to fight for their rights. Labour pledged to abolish tribunal fees at the last election, and thankfully the Supreme Court ruled in July 2017 that fees were illegal. Statistics published a few days ago show that in the six months after that judgment, the number of employment cases overall taken to a tribunal rose by 100%—although that increase is on a number reduced as a result of fees. Even so, a senior employment lawyer at the solicitors Kingsley Napley recently highlighted that the system is struggling to cope with the increase, as funding for tribunals was cut in the wake of the introduction of fees. At London South tribunal, for example, current estimates are that the parties in a discrimination case that may last two or three days will have to wait until late this year or early next year for it to be heard. The basis of the Supreme Court judgment was that fees impeded access to justice, but so does excessive delay. Will the Government ensure that the tribunal system is properly resourced?

What of the future? As has been said, since 2010 more women than men have started apprenticeships, which is a sign of positive change. A major factor in that was the announcement by the last Labour Government in 2009 of 50,000 new social care apprenticeships and more than 5,000 apprenticeships in the NHS.

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. I think the Minister needs a chance to reply.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My final line is that we must fight for equal rights at work, because they are essential if we are to have an equal society.

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 3:52 pm, 14th March 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean on securing this important debate. In her speech, she spoke with passion and from the heart about her own experiences. It is often our shared experiences that drive us to bring about change and improvements. There was a discussion about role models, as raised by my hon. Friend Leo Docherty, and he is right: they matter as well.

Many colleagues noted that last week we celebrated International Women’s Day, when we reflected on the achievements and progress of women not only in the workplace but in everyday life. This year’s theme encouraged everyone, regardless of gender, to press for progress—to think, act and be more gender-inclusive every day. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch that it is important that we celebrate the success and the progress that we are making for women in work, but I also agree with many colleagues that, as my hon. Friend Kirstene Hair noted, there is more to do.

Jim Shannon and others talked about the joint-record high for female employment, which, at 70.8%, is five percentage points higher than in 2010. I have no wish to introduce any note of rancour in the debate, but I point out that under the last Labour Government the highest rate was 67%, back in 2008. I agree that all of us—politicians and businesses—should be working together to improve the employment rate further.

Photo of Laura Pidcock Laura Pidcock Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour)

It is irrefutable that there are more people in employment, but does the Minister acknowledge that work is more precarious, and that people have to do two or three jobs?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Unfortunately we do not have time for a long debate on this, but as I have said previously in the House, the welfare changes we have brought forward actually ensure that work pays. The hon. Lady will disagree, but I am sure that she will welcome the money made available in terms of childcare costs, as the hon. Members for Burnley (Julie Cooper) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and for Angus did. When I was first elected in 2010 and talking in my constituency to many parents—especially mums—of young children, the cost of childcare was a key barrier to returning to work and increasing their hours. We have acted by introducing 30 hours’ free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds and tax-free childcare, and under universal credit the Government will cover up to 85% of childcare costs for eligible claimants. It is worth noting that an independent evaluation of the early roll-out of the childcare offer shows that parents are working much more flexibly and about 23% of mothers have been able to increase their hours as a result of that support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch and others referred to returners. Of course, putting in £5 million to fund specially designed programmes to help returners to the workplace both in the public sector and the private sector is very important. We should encourage that.

I do not think anyone mentioned the issue of women of black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, but we should be celebrating that the employment rate for BAME people is at its highest rate since records began, at 64.8%. An extra 1.1 million people of BAME backgrounds have got into work since 2010, and almost exactly half of that increase is women. However, there is much further to go. Women from some BAME backgrounds have an employment rate of only 51.6%, and as part of the Government’s race disparity audit follow-up we are working on pilots to see how to address that issue in the 20 challenge areas identified around the country.

We discussed the gender pay gap. The Prime Minister has made it clear that tackling injustices such as the gender pay gap is part of building a country that works for everyone. I am proud that last year we introduced groundbreaking regulations requiring large employers in all sectors to publish the differences between what they pay their male and female staff in average salaries and bonuses.

Margaret Greenwood talked about what we are doing further. Of course, we are encouraging organisations to go beyond the mandatory requirements and, for example, publishing an action plan that sets out how they will close the gender pay gap in their companies. She is right that reputation does matter. In my role as Employment Minister, I talk to people who run companies, and they recognise that having a workforce that is representative of the country is important, so they will take this matter seriously.

We had a discussion about the increase in the percentage of women on boards, which Laura Pidcock did not think was making a difference. Actually, if the people at the top of a company are representative, that makes a huge difference. I have to say, I really welcome the fact that we have a second female Prime Minister.

I am fast running out of time, but we had a discussion about the Taylor review and flexible working. One of the review’s key outcomes is a recommendation for employers to offer more flexible working.

A number of points were raised on shared parental leave by my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham and for Redditch. I confirm that the Government Equalities Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have launched a £1.5 million campaign to promote shared parental leave. There was also a discussion on encouraging women into science, technology, engineering and maths jobs, and the Government are making more funding available for that.

Justin Madders spoke about discrimination. He will be aware that maternity discrimination is against the law, and the Government are working with ACAS to update guidance. As I said, there was a discussion on the Taylor review, and the Government have launched a number of consultations, which will make a difference.

We are almost out of time, but we have had a really thoughtful and comprehensive debate. Hon. Members have highlighted the significant progress made since 2010, but we should be under no illusions: there is further to go, and it is absolutely imperative that all of us strain every sinew to ensure we have a workforce in Britain that reflects the modern, diverse country that we are.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered women and work.