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Women and equality

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 22 March 2007

The Minister was asked—

State Second Pension

18. How many more women will receive entitlements to the second state pension as a result of the Government’s pension proposals. (128967)

As a result of our pension reform proposals outlined in the Pensions Bill, which include extending credits to those caring for children up to the age of 12 and the new carers credits, about 1 million extra people will accrue state second pension entitlement, of whom approximately 90 per cent. will be women.

That is indeed welcome news, but does the Minister agree that women are overwhelmingly the poorest pensioners because of their caring responsibilities, so it is absolutely imperative that the Government act quickly? Will she reassure me that that will happen, and that her proposals will make a big difference? Will she consider including in the proposals women who retire before 2010?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House to the impact of caring on women’s ability to build up pension entitlements for the future. One of the key aspects of the Pensions Bill that is going through Parliament is the fact that it puts as much emphasis on caring as it does on paid work. By 2010, as a result of that Bill, about 70 per cent. of all women will be able to build up a full basic state pension, compared with 30 per cent. now. Of course, more will be able to save as well, through the new personal accounts. Although I am, of course, attracted by her proposal of introducing this earlier—I hesitate, perhaps, to say—I think that we have a package that is both affordable and sustainable in the long term. We will bring in the proposals as soon as is practically possible.

Order. May I say that Ministers seem to have the habit today of courteously turning round to speak to their colleagues on the Back Benches, but they then go off microphone, which is a great disadvantage to those who are trying to record our proceedings?

Will the right hon. Lady explain what the Government are doing about the cohort of women who might have paid too much in pension contributions? Will the matter be resolved in this tax year?

The hon. Lady makes the important point that it is right that we try to resolve and address these issues. The matter is under discussion in the Department for Work and Pensions, and as soon as it is possible to make progress, we will, of course, do so.

At the moment, about 2 million carers, 90 per cent. of whom are women, are accruing entitlement to state second pension. Will the Minister tell us what effect the proposals to extend pension credits to carers will have on that group?

My hon. Friend rightly draws our attention to the impact of the reforms that are going through Parliament on not only the basic state pension, but the state second pension. As a result of the new carers credit, about another 80,000 women will be drawn into the system. They will thus be able to build up state second pension rights, as well as their basic state pension entitlement. It is right that as we do that and reduce from 39 to 30 the number of years’ contributions for women, we provide a system that is fair and, most importantly, that values care not only for young children up to the age of 12, but for the severely disabled, because many of such people’s carers do not have the opportunity to work and pay the national insurance contributions that others do.

I very much welcome what the Minister has said so far about help for women pensioners under the new proposals. However, is she aware that some 600,000 women in the UK today are low-paid, part-time workers, often with more than one job, who will not benefit because they fall below the threshold in each of their jobs? The Government say that that cannot be tackled because it is administratively difficult. Does the Minister agree that that, like so many of the hidden messages in the Chancellor’s Budget yesterday, is simply unfair? In the end, because of that administrative difficulty, it is the poorest, lowest-paid workers in our society who suffer the most under the Chancellor’s policies.

Of course the House will realise that it is the poorest, lowest-paid pensioners who gain the most from the Budget proposals announced in the House yesterday, and from the successive measures that we Labour Members have taken to boost pensioners’ incomes, to tackle pensioner poverty and to make sure that women who care and who have dependent relatives are able to build up pension entitlements. The hon. Lady draws attention to an important point: what about those women who earn less than the lower earnings limit? It is right that we think about them, too, but our pension proposals are a package, and many of those women will benefit from other reforms in the system. For example, if they are spending only a short time outside the labour market on a low income, and have perhaps one or two jobs that leave them below the earnings limit, they will benefit significantly from the reduction in the number of years that they have to contribute. They will also benefit from other measures that take them out of having to pay tax in retirement. Overall, the pension deal clearly benefits women, particularly low-paid women.

Human Trafficking

After consideration, we do not believe that the creation of the office of commissioner on human trafficking is necessary or appropriate at this time. The inter-ministerial group, of which I am a member, effectively leads and monitors cross-Government work on human trafficking, which includes the soon-to-be-launched action plan and implementation of the Council of Europe convention.

Naturally, I am disappointed by the Minister’s reply. The only country in Europe that has such a commissioner is the Netherlands. I am always keen to learn from good things in Europe, and as a result of the Netherlands experiment and the commissioner there, we have learned much more about human trafficking and the evils going on in that country. If we only had such a commissioner in this country, we could start to tackle the problem.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members on both sides of the House for their interest in and concern about the issue. I am sure that he, like me, wants effective action. Of course, we Labour Members are always happy to learn from our European partners about what measures are working, but it is important to consider what progress we can make in this country. The inter-ministerial group that looks into such issues has been in place for some time. It enables us to bring together the work being done in many Departments across Government. There is now a United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which is the first centre of its kind in Europe, and we are bringing together all the work on the issue. We continue to make progress, but we will of course continue to look at what works elsewhere.

My hon. Friend will be aware that earlier this week there was an excellent debate on the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. She attended the entire debate, and will have heard the comparisons that were drawn between modern-day slavery—human trafficking—and slavery 200 years ago. In the light of that, will she let us know what progress has been made in ratifying the Council of Europe treaty to which she referred earlier?

My hon. Friend says that we had an extremely interesting debate, and indeed we did; it was possibly the most interesting and informative debate that I have attended in this House. He rightly draws a parallel, and I am pleased to say that the Council of Europe convention will be signed tomorrow. We will set out the action that we will take to move towards ratification. The Government take signing such conventions seriously, and have not wanted to do so until we were in a position to make rapid progress towards ratifying it. The UK human trafficking action plan will be published at the same time, and that will give hon. Members a great deal more detail on the subject.

Equal Opportunities (Ethnicity)

20. What guidance she issues to other Government Departments on the use of ethnicity as a factor in decision making. (128969)

The Commission for Racial Equality, on behalf of the Government, issues guidance to public authorities on meeting their obligations under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. The commission issued a statutory code of practice in 2002 on the steps that public authorities can and should take to meet those obligations.

My constituents who work at Her Majesty’s Prison Service office at Crown house in Corby are disgusted that the Prison Service should cite as one of the key influencing factors for trying to relocate the office to Leicester the perceived ability to recruit a more diverse work force there. In other words, my constituents are being told that they are too white and too British. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the Commission for Racial Equality issues guidelines to the Home Office and its quangos to say that the Home Office should recruit people on the basis of their ability to do the job, and not the colour of their skin?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue before with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is here on the Front Bench now. The issue, as I understand it, is that there was no alternative to relocation. The building in which the current staff worked was being sold, so there was a need to look at other locations. There was a comprehensive consultation of staff to consider a range of issues that had to be addressed, and the hon. Gentleman’s portrayal is not accurate or true, so he should reconsider his position.

May I confirm that there are lots of white British people in Leicester, and say that we welcome the relocation of those jobs to the city? On the wider point, the Minister is abolishing the Commission for Racial Equality. What discussions has she had with the Lord Chancellor about the Carter proposals, which will have a huge impact on the number of ethnic minority firms doing legal aid work?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about the city of Leicester, and I pay tribute to his representation of all his constituents, whatever their ethnic background. Issues relating to the employment and representation of people from ethnic minorities will be taken over by the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, and guidance will continue to be available on a range of issues, including that raised by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). It is a factor to be taken into consideration, but the notion that it is the only factor in any relocation or change is nonsense.

I was surprised that the Minister did not mention the report by the Equal Opportunities Commission entitled “Moving on up? Ethnic minority women at work”, which paints a dismal picture of the situation facing black and Asian women. What specific advice has she given the Department of Trade and Industry so that it can support firms that want to break down the barriers and employ more black and Asian women, but find it difficult to do so?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am sure that if I tried to mention everything, you would have words to say about the length of my answer, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to that report, which identifies the fact that ethnic minority women, many of whom do better than their counterparts, still have great difficulty finding employment. I am pleased to say that this is not just a matter of my giving advice to the Department of Trade and Industry, as it has long had a committee that looks into such issues and seeks to ensure that exactly what he described takes place. We are beginning to see progress, although it is not fast enough, and we want to see more.