Support for Women in Poverty — [Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:56 pm on 23 March 2023.

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[Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:01, 23 March 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of support for women in poverty.

First, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate to take place. We are indebted to that Committee for all that it does. It is these debates that enable us as MPs to bring issues to the House for consideration.

My hon. Friend Carla Lockhart was meant to lead this debate, but unfortunately she had to go home for a pressing engagement. As we applied for the debate together, we decided that I should lead the debate on her behalf.

People in every constituency can associate with this issue and fully understand the difficulties and intricacies involved. When my sister Joy decried the lack of help around the house from her brothers, including me, my mother would often say that a woman’s lot in life is what it is. My mother accepted the fact that she worked her fingers to the bone in the shop in Ballywalter we had from the ’60s through to the ’80s, and ran her home. What is more, she revelled in that role. My mother today is a very, very fresh 91-year-old who still tells her biggest son what to do and when to do it. She also gives me her clinical opinion on everything that happens in this place, because she is really, really with it when it comes to what is happening. She is a very capable lady who has thrived on hard work all of her days.

As time has progressed, the expectations placed upon people’s shoulders have escalated beyond bearing. I wish to outline the issues faced by all women. I will speak from the honest perspective of a man, while also reflecting the opinions and views of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann. It should not be that a woman has to accept a substandard quality of life in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as so many do, and changes must be implemented now.

Let me talk about what we are doing in Ards, North Down and Strangford. The Ards community rural network has recently opened a women and family hub at 55 Francis Street, just up the road from my own office. I was really pleased to see it, because it focuses attention on the issues of women, children and families in my constituency. The Ards network has also done a lot of research into the prevalence of poverty in everyday life across Ards and North Down.

The network has collected some lived experiences, which include those of people who live alone and lone parents. Let me give Members an example that I was given the other day in preparation for this debate. A lady called in to see us; she was contemplating whether it was better to give up her job as a classroom assistant because she would be £700 better off if she did so. That is the reality for a woman living in poverty in the United Kingdom, in my constituency of Newtonards.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Nine out of 10 single parents are women. The median gross weekly pay for male single parents is £340, but for women it is £194.40. It cannot be denied that a key factor is gender, as women in general are more likely to be paid less or have to work part time. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Government are not looking at the big picture of why women are more likely to live in persistent poverty? A variety of factors influences their income.

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

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and the statistics from Northern Ireland reflect that. They indicate that what she said is factual and regularly happens to a lot of people.

In Newtownards, we have been working with the Department for Communities and the Northern Ireland Assembly on a women’s development programme. The things that we are doing in my constituency are positive and proactive, and will hopefully lead to the progress that we need.

It is a real pleasure to see the Minister in her place; we look forward to her response. The two shadow spokespeople will, as always, contribute in a very positive fashion and help us to get results from the Minister. I applied for this debate not because I was reminiscing about my childhood with my mum, who was a very, very strong character, but because my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann drew my attention to the issue. We hope it will grasp the attention of Members who can drive for change.

Let me outline some of the facts, which reflect individually and corporately the issues that women in the UK face. Among those who die at working age, 28% of women spend their last year of life below the poverty line compared with 26% of men. Of those who die at pension age, 14% of women spend their last year of life in poverty, compared with 11% of men. That shows another inequality between men and women: women have the greater pain in their last days.

For women in the last year of their life the risk of being in poverty rises by a third compared with women in the general population. Working-age women are three times as likely to be in part-time employment as men. That is a fact of life; I experience it every day in my office and in my advice centre in Strangford. Women are also disproportionately represented in low-paid jobs. More than a quarter of women in work earn less than the real living wage, compared with just 16% of men. As a result, if they lose their job or give up their work, nearly two thirds of working-age women have savings that would last a month or less, and a third have savings that would last less than a week. Women unfortunately do not that much to fall back on. They make very good use of the money that they have, but they do not have that wee bit extra—that wee bit of cream to get them through the harder times. That increases the poverty risk among working-age women in their last years of life.

I will pause for a second to give a Northern Ireland perspective. I always give a Northern Ireland perspective in debates because it helps to formulate opinion, and helps the Minister and shadow Ministers to add their contribution. The unemployment rate for males in Northern Ireland has been consistently higher than for females over the past 10 years. Although the number of employees in Northern Ireland was very evenly spread between males and females, the number of self-employed males was more than double the number of self-employed females, and males were more likely to work full time than females. Furthermore, approximately 60% of employed women with dependent children work full time, compared with 95% of males with dependent children.

The unemployment rate for males in Northern Ireland has been consistently higher than for females over the past 10 years, but the gap is narrowing. By 2019, 44% of unemployed people were female and 56% were male. It is almost like-for-like; that shows the trend. Over the past 10 years, there have been consistently more economically inactive women than men. In 2019, just under a third of working-age women were economically inactive, compared with just under a quarter of men.

The most common reason for inactivity among women was family and home commitments. That might be society, but, to be honest, from my point of view, when my wife and I got married, we always wanted children, so we had three children in the first five years of our married life and my decision, and Sandra’s decision, was to be with the children. She was a mother who looked after the home and the children, and she did it very well, whereas most of the time I was away from the house. That is probably a conducive factor in a good married life—we spent enough time apart to be able to spend the rest of the time together and not fall out.

The most common reason for inactivity for men was sickness or disability. Some 76% of women with dependent children were economically active compared with 92% of men. The lowest rates for women were those with young dependent children, of pre-school age. That reflects the experience in my society and constituency today. Women are more likely to have dependent children and childcare costs than men. I welcome the Government’s action in the Budget on childcare costs. It is really important that childcare support is increased and women are enabled to gain more active employment, right across the United Kingdom.

Marie Curie research has also shown that, UK-wide, working-age people with dependent children are more likely to experience poverty in their last years of life. Among pensioners, women have lower individual retirement incomes than men, reflecting lower average employment over their working lives and lower lifetime earnings than men, and a higher likelihood of having taken time out of the labour market or working part time to raise children. It is a fact of life, and it is again why the issue of women in poverty in the UK is so important.

Retired women are likely to be living closer to the poverty line than men are. This simply feels wrong. I ask the Minister what we are doing to help elderly women who are nearing the last years of their life and who are feeling the financial pressure. They are in the poverty bracket, and they may possibly have disabilities as well. Women aged over 70 in the UK are more than twice as likely as men to live alone, reflecting the average life expectancy of a lady. Living alone is associated with a higher risk of poverty among both the working-age and pension-age population. Some 29% of single pensioners experience poverty in the last years of life, compared with just 21% of pensioners living as a couple. These are the facts according to Marie Curie’s research, which is detailed and well evidenced.

The higher risk of poverty at the end of life for women of both working age and pension age is representative of the inequalities that have built up throughout their lives. These lifelong inequalities mean women are less well placed, on average, than men to bear the additional costs brought on by terminal illness. Many people of that age group who come to me have disabilities. I always point people to the benefits system—attendance allowance, pension credit and so on. We have a very good working relationship with the food bank in our area as well. Those are areas where we are able to help immediately and try to give assistance.

Inequalities persist and are magnified, with retired women’s risk of poverty at the end of life increasing at a higher rate than that of men. Marie Curie’s research also found that women and people from minoritised ethnic groups are more likely to experience poverty at the end of life than men or people from white ethnic groups. The evidential base is clear that ethnic groups are more likely to have those problems, and I ask the Minister for any further information.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has highlighted the well-established links between women’s experiences and their risk of developing a mental illness. For example, women are more likely to be on lower incomes, at risk of domestic abuse and have additional caring responsibilities. Almost always the lady of the house—the mum—is the carer. All of that increases the risk of developing a mental illness. Around one in five women experience a common mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression, compared with one in eight men, according to the most recent NHS adult morbidity survey. Despite this, there are still thousands of women and girls who struggle alone, and they could miss out on vital support as a result of that bias.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Poverty and food insecurity are not just about going hungry; as the hon. Gentleman said, there are knock-on effects on health and cognitive ability, and therefore educational attainment. People cannot concentrate on lessons or exams when they have not eaten all day, and that can be combined with the other factors that limit women’s chances of breaking out of poverty in adulthood. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government must give due focus to how their benefits policies may perpetuate the poverty cycle?

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

I think they do, but I have no doubt whatsoever that the Minister will answer our questions. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Hopefully, we will get an indication of what the Government are doing to address that.

The Department of Health and Social Care surveyed 100,000 women and found that 42% of women would not feel comfortable talking to a family member about their mental health condition, 36% would not feel comfortable doing so with a healthcare professional, and 30% with a friend. Young adults and women were more likely to report worse mental health and wellbeing during the first national lockdown than older adults and men.

Even before the pandemic hit, mental health services were not keeping up with demand. I ask the Minister: what has been done to improve mental health conditions, particularly for women in poverty? We must focus the resources on where the problems are. This debate is an opportunity to identify that. During the covid-19 crisis, school and nursery closures, and homeworking, became a great problem for women, and contributed to poverty, as the hon. Lady referred to. It also contributed to a greater risk of psychological distress.

Reductions in local authority budgets have meant that a disproportionate number of women have taken up roles as unpaid carers. Again, is there anything we can do to help unpaid carers? I know that the Minister has been working hard on matters of gender equality and will continue to do so, but I honestly feel that the burden of children falls mostly on women, not due to the system we are in but due to a mindset. I think there is a mindset. For instance, whenever Naomi, my office assistant, had to take her daughter for surgery, she got parenting leave while her husband went to work. Without stress, her contract allowed for that first week. That is what a caring employer would do. I did that, but not everyone does.

A lady who worked in the retail sector came to see me. Her daughter took sick, and she had to take annual leave, as sick pay would not kick in for four days. Those are issues of unfairness in the equalities system. I was able to do the right thing; perhaps, other employers were not. That lady then had to work Christmas and new year, as she did not have the time off. To me, that is evidence of a clear inequality and is something that we need to address.

The reality is that the toll of poverty on women can be seen in the most despicable of ways. This is rather a sad case, but it is a factual case, and I used it without any names as an example in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. A lady took out a loan with a local loan shark to replace her cooker. She came to my office in tears. She had paid £500 back for her £300 cooker and yet was defaulting, according to the loan shark, and had been told—this is rather difficult to say in this Chamber—that she could pay off her loan in another way. She came to me in desperation. I was able to step in and point her to the help that she needed at that time, but I often wonder how many others find themselves in that particular predicament and how many women in poverty have been forced to do unspeakable things by people in their own community. That must end.

These women are hard working. Their poverty is nothing to do with their choices; it is to do with their circumstances, and we must work in this House to alter those circumstances. It is about the help that we can give. I believe that the Government must consider “women in poverty” funds within communities and that we must ensure that this Minister and her portfolio are funded appropriately, which must translate to help on the ground for the low-income mother who faces in-work poverty; for the lady who is asked to debase herself to provide a cooker for her family—how hard that must be for that lady, and for us in this House to be aware of that; and for the ill lady who has worked all her life, but is not entitled to enough help to deal with her illness and bring her out of poverty.

I support the calls of Marie Curie, which are particularly relevant for women in poverty, to give all terminally ill people access to their state pension regardless of age. It cannot be right that people who are forced to give up work due to their condition are left significantly more at risk of poverty in their final months and years simply because they are not yet old enough to claim the state pension. On average, terminally ill people in working age have made 24 years’ worth of qualifying national insurance contributions by their last year of life. The hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West have also spoken about the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women on many occasions; again, I feel we have an example of that. Research shows that the Government could deliver change on those pensions for just 0.1% of the annual state pension bill. I am ever mindful that this is not the Minister’s ultimate responsibility, so if she was able to send this matter on to the responsible Minister, I would very much appreciate it.

I conclude with this: the question of women in poverty is a real issue in the UK and the solution must be real. I encourage the Minister to liaise with her Cabinet colleagues to find other ways and find additional funding that makes its way straight on to the ground for those women in dire circumstances and make the future brighter for children in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, like my three granddaughters, who deserve the best that can be offered. I thank you, Mr Sharma, for giving me the opportunity to play a part in the delivery of that goal. I look forward to others’ contributions, and in particular the Minister’s response. I find that the Minister always genuinely tries to respond in a positive fashion. I think she grasps the issues. Today, I have hopefully—in a very stuttering way—been able to put forward the case for women in poverty across this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Farming, Agriculture and Rural Affairs) 3:22, 23 March 2023

I thank Jim Shannon for bringing this debate forward; he is something of a legendary season ticket holder for Westminster Hall.

The ongoing cost of living crisis has no end in sight and is wreaking terrible damage on household incomes, families and even relationships across the United Kingdom. Particularly shameful is in-work poverty, when people are going out to work day in, day out and still cannot meet all the financial demands that they face.

We know that women are more likely to be living in poverty. They are more likely to be in lower-paid jobs, more likely than their male counterparts to be single parents, more likely to have caring responsibilities and even more likely to rely on social security. We also know that women are much more impacted by austerity measures, as they are more likely to rely to a greater degree on public services, which themselves are already under great pressure.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that families with younger children and lone-parent families, which are predominantly headed by women, face a disproportionate risk of poverty. Having younger children impacts on a parent’s ability to undertake paid work, the hours they can work and their pay, although it is important to say at this juncture that raising a child or children is work—something that often goes unrecognised.

Of course, women being able to undertake paid work when they have young children must be an option open to everyone who chooses to take it. Childcare has an important role to play here. Scotland is leading the way in childcare provision across the UK, although there is still more to do: there is no room for complacency. Scotland provides up to 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare a year—about 30 hours a week for three or four-year-olds, with some two-year-olds also eligible. In England, three and four-year-olds can access only around 570 free hours a year, which is about 15 hours a week.

We had a lot of fanfare around childcare in the recent Budget, but it does not really amount to much because it will be at least 18 months before it can happen and it was not accompanied by any detailed plan about increasing staff levels or infrastructure. Some people have said, quite cynically, that the reason for the announcement was less about substance than about what can be put on an election leaflet, which would be really sad if it were true.

The gender pay gap is another aspect that we need to think about when we are talking about women in poverty. It stands at around 15%, which widens dramatically when women have children. One way to close the gender pay gap—I know the Minister will be listening to this—is to mandate employers to report on the issue. It is, if you like Mr Sharma, effectively naming and shaming, putting the onus on employers to explain the gender pay gap in their organisations.

I am once again going to make a plea to the Minister to deliver a real living wage for workers, instead of the wee pretendy national living wage. It is both misnamed and misleading, since it is not based on the cost of living.

In addition to helping to support women in poverty, the UK Government must recognise that the policy of making single payments of universal credit to households can increase inequality in the welfare system and act as an enabler of domestic abuse or financial coercion. The Scottish Government continue to work with the UK Government to deliver split payments. I know that split payments are available in certain cases, but we really must ensure that we keep pushing so that it becomes the norm, so that we can protect more women financially.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Economic abuse is a term that has only begun to creep into our vocabulary in recent years, and it is different from financial abuse because it is a restriction of access to resources alongside money, and disproportionately impacts women. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a great deal of work to be done to raise awareness of that problem, particularly for women who may be victims but do not realise?

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Farming, Agriculture and Rural Affairs)

Absolutely. Abuse becomes the norm for too many women if they have suffered it over many years, regardless of what form that abuse may take. So, yes, we really need to raise awareness. I think that automatic split payments for universal credit, unless otherwise specifically requested, is one of the ways that we could help to protect women from financial control.

I also ask the Minister to study closely the Scottish Government’s Scottish child payment, which is now delivering £25 per week, per child, for those on the lowest incomes. It is projected that it will lift 50,000 children out of poverty in 2023-24. It has been hailed as “a game changer” by anti-poverty charities, backed up, as it is, with £442 million of funding from the Scottish Government in the next financial year. While the Scottish Government are doing all they can to support household incomes—despite an increase in the block grant of a miserly 0.6%—they do so with one hand tied behind their backs, shackled, as they are, to this broken system.

Of course, as the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned, there is also the gender pension gap. In old age, women are likely to be poorer than their male counterparts. Of course, that is easy to understand, because women are more likely to have had breaks in their working lives to raise children or undertake caring responsibilities, more likely to have been on low pay in their working lives, and more likely to have undertaken part-time work. As a result, women will suffer greater poverty in old age, living longer and suffering more years of poor health.

Age UK has shown that one in five women pensioners were living in poverty. Indeed, research shows that women, on average, would have to work an additional 16 years to retire with the same pension as men. Many of us have campaigned on the issue of the gender pension gap and are still waiting for the UK Government to expand auto-enrolment by removing the earnings threshold, a fairly simple step that would have an impact on women’s pensions.

We cannot talk about women in poverty without acknowledging the great injustice inflicted on women born in the 1950s, who were robbed of their pensions and had their retirement plans thrown into chaos when the retirement age was raised with little or no notice, depriving them of tens of thousands of pounds of their rightful pensions. I pay tribute to the dogged determination of the WASPI women to campaign against the injustice they have suffered. As a result of that injustice, many have been thrown into poverty after a lifetime of low pay. Many have faced financial ruin, and, worse, many have died due to ill health without ever receiving their rightful pension.

While we are debating women in poverty, it has to be said that there is a widespread view that the way in which those women have been cruelly treated would never have happened to men. The truth is that those women were seen as an easy target for a Government wishing to cut spending, which is shameful. The fact that a whole generation of women had their retirement age increased with little or no notice is beyond shocking. Alongside that came poverty, indignity and hardship, which those women will not easily forgive. It would never have happened to a whole generation of men.

There are a number of things that this Government could do, and I urge the Minister to work with the WASPI women to work out how they can be compensated when the ruling on the matter is made. There are a number of things that the Government could do to support women in poverty. They could do more, but they are not. The UK Government control 85% of welfare spending, so I urge the Minister to use her office to ensure that the powers that lie with the UK Government are used judiciously to support women living in poverty. I have set out some of the ways the Minister might consider doing that; I hope that she takes note.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:32, 23 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate Jim Shannon on securing the debate. His regular appearances in this Chamber give us happiness, and we like to listen to him. It is good to be here again. I also congratulate Patricia Gibson on her speech.

Let me begin by mentioning the anniversary, last week, of the birth of Margaret Bondfield, who was born on 17 March 1873. As you well know, Mr Sharma, Margaret Bondfield was our nation’s first woman to serve in the Cabinet. Her life serves as a reminder to us all of how important it is for women to take leadership roles in politics. She was born in the south-west of England, and she knew and understood poverty in rural parts of our country. She moved to Brighton, where she worked as a shop worker—just like many women today work in retail. She saw how women workers were treated and she could not put up with it. She did not want to see women continuing to earn their poverty with little opportunity for change.

Margaret Bondfield became part of what is now the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. She worked her way up to become the first woman president of the TUC, before becoming a Cabinet Minister. I mention her because her life is a lesson on how we can stop women being poor. First things first: I hope the Minister agrees with me that we should put women in charge. However, it is not just about women being in charge but about what we do in this place for women. Margaret Bondfield campaigned for maternity benefits for mothers when that was seen as at the fringe of British politics, yet here we are talking about women’s poverty as an important issue that we all, from whatever party, care about.

I would like to make a number of points, particularly on the structural underpinnings of women’s poverty. We have heard a lot of granular detail from other speakers about the position of women in Britain today. Being a woman is a risk factor for being poor. All that we do to try to improve the position of women in British society is about taking apart those risk factors.

The central risk factor and the reason why women are put at risk of being poor is the historical economic assumption that care is done for free. Women’s work looking after children, older members of the family and people who need care has traditionally been assumed to be done for free. As I say, all we do to try to prevent women from being poor is about making that assumption less certain. We all want to look after our families, but we should not assume that women should do this double duty of going out to work to earn an income and doing the caring for free. That is why over the years we have seen consensus that we need more and better childcare in this country, as well as much better adult social care.

Reflecting on the Budget, I think the Chancellor’s announcement on childcare is welcome. I could make all the political arguments in the world about it being too slow and not enough, and I will ask the Minister some questions about the role of the Department for Work and Pensions in developing childcare in this country, but I am glad to have a cross-party consensus that we need to build up our childcare system, make it effective and make it anti-poverty, so that it helps support people who are most likely to be poor so that they earn enough to have dignity and a good quality of life.

On childcare, I ask the Minister what role the DWP plays, because we know the Department has to change. The national minimum wage provides a floor below which nobody who is working for a living should fall, but unfortunately pay progression has absolutely stalled. When we think of where women are and about their ability to leave low-paid work, we see that pay progression is crucial for them. Has the DWP undertaken a study or analysed universal credit data to work out how it can play its part in developing a workforce strategy that will not only support all women in our workforce, but ensure that those who work in childcare are not at risk of poverty? The same is true for adult social care—it has to change. It can no longer be the case that women who cared for people who were suffering with covid or who, in many cases, died during the pandemic are the same women who are being paid poverty wages and are at risk of having to go to a food bank. That is not morally right, and I would love to know what work the DWP is doing to prevent that.

Women’s rights at work have to be better. We know this from the lives of Margaret Bondfield, Barbara Castle, my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman and all those women who, from positions of leadership, have improved women’s ability to earn. We want to see flexible working as a day one right. Having seen some of the evidence from the US of the impact of sexual harassment on women’s incomes, I would be interested to know what analysis the DWP has done on whether women’s lack of rights is holding back their earning abilities.

On the gender pay gap, it was absolutely galling to see companies applauding themselves for being part of International Women’s Day and producing self-aggrandising content, when what we want to see is their gender pay gaps closing. We do not want woman of the year awards; we want better annual pay awards. Again, there is cross-party consensus that gender pay gap reporting has been a good thing, but we need to go further, and I hope the Government will support that.

Finally, on retirement, we have a shared ambition to increase the take-up of pension credit, which was introduced by the Labour Government to recognise that some people would have small pension entitlements, and that should be recognised. No one should be poor because they worked hard. Will the Minister say something about that? The take-up of pension credit is better for couples and worse for single people of both genders. Do we have any analysis as to why that is, and what can we do about it? Whether it is a parent of a young child, a parent of a teenager, or a woman in retirement, we want to make sure that step by step we remove all of the structural factors that make a woman a risk factor for being poor. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 3:40, 23 March 2023

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate Jim Shannon and his colleague, Carla Lockhart, who is not here today, for securing this important debate. I followed the debate as a fellow Dolly Parton fan and it is a pleasure to engage on this matter. Alison McGovern talked about happiness, and happiness is indeed Dolly Parton. Those who do not know what I am talking about should look at the early-day motion.

We are all here in Westminster Hall on a Thursday because we are passionate advocates of women’s rights and want to improve their lives. Like the hon. Member for Wirral South, I pay tribute to the many ladies before us who trailblazed and gave us the opportunity to be here. On behalf of the Government, I commit to continue to support women at all ages and career stages. I fully recognise that, as the hon. Patricia Gibson said, supporting children is an important role. Family life and that support is important.

I hope to cover quite a lot of the questions—I am keen to make my speech, too—but I want to point out that over the last decade the gender pay gap has fallen from 19.6% to 14.9%, although I fully recognise that, as the hon. Member for Wirral South says, there is more to do. The percentage of women in employment has risen from 66.1% to 72.2%. In practice, that means 2 million more women in work since 2010. The Government have overseen increased numbers of women in full-time work and introduced shared parental leave. I absolutely believe in shared parental responsibility, supporting children and being there. We have doubled free childcare for eligible parents and passed our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 to protect and support women and all those, including children, affected by that heinous crime. We will continue to build on that proud record of supporting women to provide a level playing field where everyone has fair and equal opportunities. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Wirral South.

On childcare and support for families, particularly for women, the Budget package for childcare has exceeded the expectations of many stakeholders. I welcome the points made by the hon. Member for Wirral South. I have spoken to many parents and visited nurseries. I also just met Save the Children. The increase of universal credit and childcare caps by around one third will help families, and those caps will continue to be uprated by the consumer prices index. I am meeting the Minister for Children, my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho, at the Department for Education next week, and I applaud the work that she has done.

The new free entitlements for working parents of young children can be used alongside the universal credit offer. That means full-time working parents on benefits across the country should not face childcare costs that exceed their free entitlements and caps. The DFE is also funding additional wraparound support for school-age children, and that can be used alongside universal credit. That is groundbreaking for those caring for children, and the reforms will revolutionise the amount of support that low-paid parents can receive.

We have spoken about some of those low-paid jobs and low-perceived sectors; the hon. Member for Wirral South made those points. It is really important that we tackle that issue. These are really important jobs that we particularly appreciated during the covid times—these people are doing the difficult jobs. It is really important that we support the people who go out, day in and day out, to do the difficult roles.

The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned mental health. He may have noted in the Budget that we will be embedding tailored employment support within mental health services and extending the well-established individual placement support scheme. That is really important. My hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work is focused on this particular area and on carers. The Health and Safety Commission is also doing work in that area.

I say to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran that in the approach we showed throughout the pandemic and our response to cost of living pressures, we have been absolutely focused on acting to ensure that households get the support that they need. I am delighted that the powers that the Scottish Government have through the Scotland Act 1998 are being used to support the most vulnerable; that is exactly what they are there for. The partnership with DWP is welcome and has been very much strengthened. I am keen that we should continue to keep it under review and work strongly together. For those people who are struggling, I remind people that there are 1.1 million vacancies out there and we at DWP have all sorts of interventions that can help people to get into those roles. I will come on to that shortly.

I am very mindful of our particular role at DWP in mental health and wellbeing for women. Menopause has been a particular focus for me, particularly when it comes to anxiety and the impact on work. Menopause does not only affect women in their 40s or 50s; it can come at any age and at any career stage. Again, we have recently appointed the menopause employment champion, who will work collaboratively with businesses to ensure that the necessary information and resources are out there to support women. That champion is Helen Tomlinson, who is already cracking on with working with employers. NHS England’s national menopause care improvement programme is also focused on improving clinical menopause care in England and on reducing disparities in treatment. Changes from April will provide support with prescription costs as well. I am very alive to the impact of menopause.

We also discussed carers. I have shared before that my family has been a caring family and shared the impact of that. I look back on the mental health and wellbeing of my mum with some shame, to be honest, about the lack of recognition of the support that people need. I listened to my constituents on Carers’ Rights Day just recently. Disability, and the impact it has, can happen at any age or career stage. It could affect a child, or anyone later.

Carer’s allowance provides a measure of financial support and recognition for people who give up the opportunity of full-time employment to provide regular and substantial care for anybody who is severely disabled. Just under 1 million people receive carer’s allowance, which will increase in April, and receiving a means-tested benefit can be a passport to other support, including help with fuel costs and help through other schemes, such as the warm home discount scheme.

That is why I say to any constituent and to those who are watching: please have a look at the benefits calculator on gov.uk. People should make sure that they are claiming everything that they are entitled to. Many carers do not recognise that they are carers and that there is additional support out there for them.

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

I thank the Minister for her very detailed response. Sometimes people, for whatever reason—they may just have a busy life—perhaps do not have the opportunity to pursue the suggestions she has just made, which were very positive. In many cases, I suspect that if they did make inquiries they would qualify for money. But is there any way that the Government could be more proactive on the issue, perhaps even by chasing the carers to ask whether they are aware of all their entitlements? Even a small leaflet through the post can make a big difference to a person who wants to understand what they could gain.

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Charities such as Carers UK do an incredible job to help people in exactly that way; I know that as a former co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on carers. I will pass the point about communications on to the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work. I remind people that, through DWP, we have the Help to Claim service, and if people head to the Help for Households website, that can help them as well.

Discussing this issue gives me the opportunity to talk again in this Chamber about our amazing caseworkers—those who signpost and support people in need and help them to recognise and understand the support that is out there.

The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran spoke about domestic abuse and coercive and financial control, which Margaret Ferrier also mentioned. Tackling violence against women is an absolute priority for this Government. These crimes are harmful; they have a profound effect on victims, survivors, loved ones, families and our wider society. The hon. Member for Wirral South was absolutely right that one’s gender should not have an impact on how safe one feels or how well one can do. Times have to change.

Split payments are available in the universal credit system for all claimants who need them. A split payment is when the household universal credit award, which would normally be paid to the nominated account, is divided between two claimants. Split payments can be made to two separate members of a household, with a larger percentage allocated to the person with primary caring responsibilities, to ensure the health and wellbeing of the majority of the household.

That is a reminder for me to point out that if anyone is in need of any support—if they are under any control or are worried at all—a jobcentre is a safe place for them to disclose that, by using the “Ask for ANI” scheme and talking to their work coach. Departmental training and awareness are now better than ever, and there are now jobcentre staff who are specifically trained to support people experiencing any kind of domestic abuse, as there are in the Child Maintenance Service. That allows jobcentre staff to proactively identify, support and signpost victims of abuse. We are committed to the best possible support for our claimants, including those experiencing domestic abuse.

The hon. Member for Wirral South mentioned pension credit. That is vital financial support for pensioners on low incomes, which is why we launched a £1.2 million nationwide campaign in April 2022 to increase awareness and take-up, particularly for women who may be on a low income, whom we have discussed today. The most recent figures show, out of the pool of people who are entitled to pension credit, an estimated take-up of 66% for the financial year 2019-20. With the beginning of the pension credit awareness campaign in April 2022, weekly pension credit claims volumes increased by 73% compared to the previous 12 months, so this is working. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady.

We are undertaking further communications activities, and we are absolutely determined to have a broad reach. The DWP is writing to more than 11 million pensioners to notify them about the upcoming state pension uprating, and last year that notification was accompanied by a leaflet promoting pension credit. We plan to spend another £1.8 million until the end of this financial year communicating with those who might be entitled.

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

I welcome that. In my office—I am sure it is the same in yours, Mr Sharma, and those of all hon. Members—whenever pensioners come to see me, I always ask whether they are getting all their entitlements. The first thing we check is whether they are getting pension credit. They might not qualify for it, but we always check it. The other thing is that if age is not on their side and they are getting older, they may not be as physically strong as they once were, and attendance allowance is a benefit that is not emphasised enough. Could we put a wee bit of emphasis on that?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I note the hon. Gentleman’s point, which I shall take back to the Department forthwith. I hope that that pleases him.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Farming, Agriculture and Rural Affairs)

I am prompted to intervene by the comment from Jim Shannon. In my constituency, Money Matters is an organisation that offers a free, confidential, comprehensive service by providing benefit checks to all constituents who are concerned about making ends meet. Does the Minister agree that the DWP is best placed to carry out those comprehensive benefit checks to make sure that people are receiving their full entitlement of support?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Interestingly, though, people do not particularly want to be labelled. Sometimes it is hard to make people understand that they are entitled. Alongside DWP’s responsibility, we all have a responsibility in respect of that, through our constituency surgeries and through the third sector. It is a group responsibility, although I absolutely see her point.

There will be further accessible radio, print and digital advertising to make sure that we reach people who may not be online, as the hon. Member for Strangford noted. On his point about ethnic minority women entering and advancing in the workforce, that is an issue I am absolutely passionate about—if you cannot see it, you cannot be it. A recent roundtable at No. 10 very much focused on that issue.

At the end of 2022, there were more than 2 million ethnic minority women in employment. That has risen from more than 1 million in 2010—a 79.6% increase. We know that some ethnic minority women can face specific and challenging cultural barriers to moving into and thriving in employment. Therefore, our outreach work links up with organisations and employers to help those furthest away from the labour market to move into employment.

I was recently in Birmingham, a brilliant area for reaching out to those groups and working to understand the opportunities, where there is support with work experience to really help to build up confidence and employability. We are rolling out learning from a proof of concept, targeted at ethnic minority women, who may fail to engage and thrive in the labour market for many cultural and traditional reasons. In four local authority areas, jobcentres have appointed a women’s community co-ordinator, offering wraparound support to help women with an ethnic minority background to thrive in employment, and we are looking to extend that further.

The hon. Member for Strangford spoke delicately about sex for rent and other behaviours that some women may feel that they need to engage in to secure themselves. That is a focus of my colleague in the Home Office, the Minister for Safeguarding, my hon. Friend Miss Dines. When I was there very briefly, we took some steps to focus on the challenges and why people might feel pushed into something such as that.

I think I have answered most of the questions, and I will make a little progress with my speech. Northern Ireland has the second lowest unemployment rate in the UK at 2.4%, which is quite remarkable—a whole 1% lower than the UK average. As we know, work is the best way to earn more and move out of poverty, and that is reflected in the two statistics of low poverty and low unemployment. I take the point that for people for whom the barriers are highest, that probably makes no difference, and that is where we need to put our focus.

I was delighted to see that our interventions in the cost of living Bill—the Social Security (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill—received Royal Assent today; we are, again, focusing on the most vulnerable. I reiterate our absolute commitment to a sustainable, long-term approach to tackling poverty and better using the welfare system. In this coming financial year, we are uprating all benefits and state pensions by 10.1%. To increase the number of households who can benefit from those decisions, the benefit cap level is also increasing by the same amount.

A key area for us at DWP is focusing on low-paid work. We want to give people a range of options to help them to be better off, boost their skills and gain interview assistance, whether it is through our 50-plus interventions or by tackling additional barriers, disabilities or health conditions and extending our support through jobcentres.

Next month, the national living wage will be increased by 9.7% to £10.42 an hour, and that will benefit more than 2 million low-paid workers. That represents an increase of more than £1,600 in the annual earnings of a full-time worker who receives the national living wage.

The hon. Member for Wirral South spoke about childcare and the barriers to parents returning to work. The Budget measures and all those other things are being done at once. One of the challenges she laid down for me and my Department was to focus on the impact. She asked about the evaluations, which I am happy to share with her, and I will write to her further with some of those responses.

Members will be pleased to know that at the Budget, we announced an extension of the existing redundancy protection offered during maternity leave so that it will also apply to pregnant women and to new parents on their return from maternity or parental leave. It will provide security to an estimated half a million more people at any one time.[This section has been corrected on 27 March 2023, column 8MC — read correction]

I am conscious that I have spoken for some time, but there was a lot to cover; I appreciate Members’ forbearance. The Government are fully committed to providing opportunities for women across the whole United Kingdom so that they can be successful in whatever they do. We want them to flourish and not be impeded by unfair and unjust barriers. We will continue to ensure that our support is targeted effectively to provide stability and certainty for everyone in these challenging times.

I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to respond, and to discuss the support available to women to lift them out of poverty and help them and their families lead fulfilling, productive and rewarding lives.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:01, 23 March 2023

I thank each and every person who contributed. Patricia Gibson and I are always in debates together. That is the nature of our lives; we probably have the same interests. We are very interested in these subjects. She said that women are impacted by austerity even more than men are. She referred to the figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and she reflected on the necessity of closing the gender pay gap. She spoke about split payments and said that it is time to name and shame, and I agree. If someone is not doing it right, they need to do it right, and they need to be reminded of that. She also referred to what is being done in Scotland. We are often reminded of things that the Scottish Government are doing, and today we were reminded again of some good points that we should be taking on board. She also referred to the gender pension gap, and to compensation. Like her, I feel strongly that there is an anomaly that has to be addressed.

Margaret Ferrier referred to those who keep homes together—mums and lone parents who look after the children. She referred to the pressure they are under and said that she sees that in her office, as we all do.

The shadow Minister, Alison McGovern brought a wealth of information to the debate. I really appreciated her contribution. She referred to Margaret—forgive me; I just could not make out the lady’s name.

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

I thank the hon. Lady. I asked the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran about it, but we could not make out the name. Margaret Bondfield set a trend for powerful women who made a difference. She became the first female president of the TUC and a Cabinet Minister. Those are the people who led the way —the pioneers—and it is important that we remember them.

The shadow Minister also referred to the gender pay gap and to those in retirement. She talked about the structural underpinnings for women. Those are all important objectives; that is what we should be trying to do. She also referred to the working poor. She spoke about looking after the home, earning an income and looking after families—the challenge for women is worse, and it is harder than that of the menfolk. She also said that women’s rights at work must be better, and she referred to flexible working. She made all those points well, and I really appreciated her contribution.

I thank the Minister, who came with a positive attitude. She said that everyone here was a passionate advocate for women’s rights—that includes her, by the way. Looking after children is an important role in itself, never mind keeping the home going, and she spoke about childcare caps for women in poverty. We welcome the childcare measures, as did the shadow Minister and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran. The Minister referred to the work that has been done to ensure that full-time working parents benefit. She talked about the need to help the low-paid and she mentioned mental health pressures, which we all brought up; she recognises where such support needs to be. She referred to the extra moneys that were set aside in the Budget for that, for the carer’s allowance—I have a massive interest in that—and for cost of living help. She referred to wellbeing and the menopause, and how women have to deal with many other things in their lives.

The Minister also referred to domestic abuse, as did the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, and to pension credit. We need to help people a wee bit more with attendance allowance and other benefits. I appreciate the Minister’s commitment. Sometimes what people need is just a wee bit of a nudge in the right direction. That is why when people come into the office, I always ask them what they are getting, so that we have an idea of what they should be getting but might not be. I think we can all be encouraged by the Minister’s response.

I say to everyone who took part, and particularly to the Minister, that I hope that with this debate we can move things forward for women in poverty across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I believe that we have a big task, but it is always easier when we have a Government and a Minister who are also committed.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the matter of support for women in poverty.

Sitting adjourned.