Skip to main content

Support for Women (Economic Downturn)

Volume 488: debated on Thursday 5 March 2009

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of support for women through the economic downturn and for the future.

International women’s day is the day when we celebrate the role of women in their families and at work in this country and around the world. It is a time to focus on our determination to tackle the discrimination against, and oppression of, women and to step up our progress towards fairness and equality. The theme of today’s debate is women in the downturn and beyond it, and I want to say why we have chosen this subject.

People say that the global economic downturn surely affects men and women alike. Yes, the global economic downturn affects both men and women, but it affects them in different ways because women’s lives are different from men’s. Women still do the lion’s share of caring for children and looking after older relatives. Women are still, in many ways, the managers of the family. Women have different patterns of work from men and are more likely to work part time. There are still some jobs that are mostly done by women and some that are mostly done by men. Women still suffer pay discrimination at work.

What has not changed since the last recession is the fact that women are still the main family carers. What has changed is the fact that women’s work is even more important now than it was 10 years ago. Women’s jobs are much more important than they used to be at the time of the last recession. Women’s work is even more important to the household budget than it used to be. More than 30 per cent. of a family’s income in couples’ households comes from women. For more than 20 per cent. of all couples, women’s individual income contributes to more than 50 per cent. of that family income. Women’s work is even more important than it used to be to the household budget.

Women’s work is more important to women themselves. Women have a pride in the work that they do and know that they make a contribution to the world outside the home as well as in the home. Women’s work is more important now in every sector of the economy than it was. In financial services, women make up 50 per cent. of the work force. In the retail sector, women make up 60 per cent. of the work force. Women’s work is vital in public services, too. Some 65 per cent. of public services are delivered by women.

Women’s work is important, too, in lone parent families, so that children are not brought up in households where they never see anyone going out to work.

As the right hon. and learned Lady points out, the debate is about supporting women and families through the downturn. Does she not agree that the Government’s duty is to support everybody through the downturn based on their need, irrespective of their gender, and that men should be given as much support as women if they need it? Is she saying that the need to support women is more important than the need to support single men, gay men or men with families?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening, but I was just explaining that because women are the main family carers, because they are more likely to work part time, because they are more concentrated in some sectors of the economy than in others and because their work is vital to our public services, we need to ensure that we do not overlook the work of women, which has become even more important to our economy and public services over the past 10 years.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the best way to help women at the moment is to introduce the equality Bill and to ensure that it is a robust Bill that introduces all the things that this party and this Government would want to do to ensure that there is fairness in the way in which we treat women, particularly at work?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend’s point.

It is encouraging that the number of children in lone-parent families where the parent works nearly doubled in the past 10 years. For all those reasons—for their importance to the household budget and their importance to the economy and public services—we cannot and will not allow women and their work to become the victims of the recession.

Before the right hon. and learned Lady moves on, does she also want to cover the disproportionate impact that the recession has had on women’s employment and the high levels of redundancy that women have seen in comparison with men as a result of the recession? Surely that is another reason why it is important that we talk about this issue today.

As I have just said, I will keep a very close eye on the situation. We must give women all the support that we can, for the reasons that the hon. Lady has identified.

Both men and women are worried about the effect on our economy of the global economic crisis. Men are worried about their jobs—of course they are—but it appears that women are even more worried.

Women are worried about their own jobs and about those of their husbands. They worry about losing the family home if one of them becomes unemployed, and about their children’s prospects and whether they will be able to get a job or a home. They worry too about elderly relatives whose savings incomes are falling and about pressures on the family budget. It is therefore very important that we take all possible steps to reassure women that we are taking all the action that we can to stabilise the economy and put it on to a strong footing for the future, and that there is real help now for families that get into difficulties.

Does the Minister not understand that the best thing for the Government to do is to ensure that their loan guarantee schemes work? They have made a lot of noise about them, but the schemes need to start safeguarding the jobs that are being lost every week in constituencies up and down the land. That is happening in my constituency as well, and the women in my area who come to see me are concerned to explain how, thanks to this Government, their businesses are failing.

When the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who run businesses go to see him, I hope that he makes sure to tell them how they can be helped with their cash flow. They can apply to defer tax payments, and they can be sure that the Government will pay their bills on time. We are putting money into the economy through the VAT cut and by ensuring that we keep the capital spending programme going. All those measures are being taken, and we will introduce further measures and schemes to help guarantee loans.

We want to reassure women that we are taking the necessary action and that there is real help for families that get into difficulty. That is why we have published the booklet “Real Help Now For Women”, which contains practical advice and information about employment rights and where to go for help if they lose their jobs. It also offers guidance about child care, skills and training. We want to make it absolutely clear that, if a family member loses their job, that will not mean that the family home is lost.

We want to reassure women too that the new school building planned for their area, which they fought for and are looking forward to, will go ahead. The same is true of their new children’s centre, college, health centre or housing, because we do not want a lack of confidence in the future to contribute to the problems of the economy now.

We will make sure that women know their rights, and that we get the message across loud and clear to employers that they cannot make part-timers or women on maternity leave redundant first, as that is unlawful and unfair. They have to treat everyone fairly.

It is vital to safeguard the right to request flexible working, and I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will argue her case against those members of the Cabinet who have been reported as believing otherwise. That right could come under pressure in an economic downturn and affect women both disproportionately and very badly. We all support what she is arguing for in that respect, and I hope that she wins her argument against her Cabinet colleagues.

I can tell the House that we will keep the right to request flexible work, which is so important for parents who have to balance work with bringing up children. Moreover, far from cutting back on that right, we are going to extend it: from 1 April, the right will be available for parents with children up to the age of 16, rather than just six.

We cannot tackle what is a global financial crisis in any one country. We need international action, and that is what the Prime Minister is taking forward in the run-up to the G20 meeting. For many women, however, the appearance on the news of a global economic summit does not inspire in them the sense that the people at the summit are talking about them—their hopes, fears, life and work.

Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon. Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, although tax credits and the national minimum wage have lifted women’s wages to a point that was not considered possible in the early 1990s, the pay gap still exists, especially for blue-collar workers? Is it not time that the salaries and wages paid by all companies were audited, so that equal pay for work of equal value became an absolute fact for everyone?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and that is one of the important issues to be addressed in the equality Bill in a few months.

As I said, we need to take international action, but many women do not think that global economic summits talk about them or really understand their lives. However, April’s G20 summit in London will be different. It wants to listen to the concerns of women as well as men, to act to protect families as well as workplaces, and to hear women’s voices as well as men’s. Women’s voices will be heard at the summit through a big discussion about women and the global economic downturn.

The economic debate is being discussed in unusual channels. The discussion has been storming through the website Mumsnet, and I want to thank each and every one of the women who have posted comments on the site about the debate on the economy. I cannot help noticing that most of the posts are made at 9 pm or later, after the children have been put to bed.

Debate is raging not just through The Economist, as it will also feature in Take a Break magazine. Moreover, bankers and Ministers are not the only ones meeting in No. 11 Downing street to discuss the economy. Yesterday, a meeting in No. 11 was attended by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokespersons on these matters, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone). I thank them both for coming. It was also attended by representatives of the Towns Women’s Guild, the Women’s TUC, the Women's National Commission and the Fawcett Society. Their views, and the views of all the others who attended yesterday, will be fed into the London summit in April.

The matter is also being discussed by women in different parts of the world. It was discussed at the FEMM Committee of the European Parliament, which I was delighted to address last month on behalf of the Government. It is also being discussed at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York, and the Government Equalities Office is playing a part in that. After the London summit, I shall host a meeting of women Ministers from other countries to engage women in a continuous discussion of how we can go forward from the G20.

As well as offering real help now, we need to build a stronger economy and a fairer society after the recession. As I said, we will introduce a new law to give women and men who have children up to the age of 16 the right to request flexible working. Our Government enterprise strategy will support women entrepreneurs, and that very important work will be carried out through the regional development agencies.

We have set up an inquiry into pay discrimination in the financial services industry, which will be carried out by the Equality Commission. The financial services sector needs a major shake-up—that is clear beyond doubt. One of the issues that needs to be addressed is pay, not just for those at the top but for the 50 per cent. of financial services employees who are women.

The gender pay gap in financial services is worse than in any other sector. The pay gap for women in retail is 14 per cent.—that is still too big and unfair—but in financial services it is a staggering 44 per cent. The Equality Commission will give an interim report to me at the end of this month, and will then go on to make further inquiries and use its legal powers if necessary. We will also press on with our equality Bill to ensure fairer treatment of women at work—all women, including minority ethnic women, women with disabilities, and older women.

In conclusion, the task of the Government in these tough economic times is to ensure that the recession is as short and as shallow as possible. We must also protect the most vulnerable during it and ensure that we lay the basis for a better Britain, a stronger economy and—absolutely crucially—a fairer society.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way again. She is addressing the issue of the recession very positively, but will she comment on the statement made by one Opposition Member that recession can be good for us?

I do not agree at all. That minimises the fears and the apprehension that we all understand and know about. We are determined to provide people with the reassurance and help that they need now. As we build for the future—as we build a new economic order—it is imperative that we lay the basis for a new social order, and that means putting fairness at the very heart of what we do. When people feel that their backs are against the wall, it is even more important to press on with equality, and to fight discrimination and prejudice.

Fairness is not just important to individuals, but vital for a strong economy and a cohesive society. In these difficult and painful economic times, we are giving people real help now, and real hope for the future. For Labour, that hope is of a fair and equal society that is strong, stable and prosperous, and in which everyone has a genuine stake. Today’s debate comes at an important time for women and families across the country, and will make an important contribution. I look forward to hearing the comments made.

This is indeed an important debate, and it would have been timely even had it not coincided with international women’s day, which is this Sunday. For all the talk about bail-outs, and bankers’ bonuses and pensions, it is in the homes of millions of families across the country that the effects of recession are most severely felt. Our thoughts must be with families who are struggling to pay bills, or facing redundancy.

Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that we must of course be concerned about the impact of the recession on everyone, but this recession is having a different impact on women from recessions in the past. It is appropriate, in advance of international women’s day, for us to stop and give some thought to the particular effect that it is having on women. However, we must also be clear that the recession’s impact on women is not limited to the workplace. For example, older women—they may also be carers—who rely on savings have been badly hit financially by the interest rate cuts, so the impact goes beyond the workplace. There is no typical woman, and women will be affected by the downturn in different ways—as employees and employers, small business owners, entrepreneurs, mothers, carers, home owners and pensioners. In all parts of the country, women will feel the effect on them and their families. That is the human face of recession, and it is essential that we not only debate the issues, but take the right action to see people through it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for having the grace to give way, unlike the Leader of the House. I do not recall the Leader of the House mentioning women pensioners in her speech. Millions of lady pensioners—there are more women pensioners than male pensioners—will greet with alarm today’s announcement that interest rates are being cut to half a per cent., and there will be real alarm and fear about their financial future.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I was keen to make the point early in my speech that it is not only in the workplace that recession hits women. It is too easy to focus just on that particular group. As he says, many elderly women—women pensioners—are suffering. Some are trying to supplement their income with that little bit of extra savings, and find their income severely reduced as a result of the interest rate falls. That is why I hope that in the Budget on 22 April, the Chancellor will take up our proposal to increase the older person’s allowance and remove the tax on savings income for basic rate taxpayers.

I am sure that everyone in this House recognises that there are real issues for some pensioners with savings, on whom the fall in the interest rate has had an impact. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the introduction of the pension credit has been particularly important in helping women pensioners, as women are less likely to have built up a contributions record that gives them full pension entitlement? We need to recognise and celebrate the achievements of the pension credit, which has had a real impact on women’s poverty.

The pension credit would be better worth celebrating if the Government had not made claiming it so complicated that large numbers of people are simply not taking it up, and not getting the pension credit to which they are entitled.

When I looked at the Order Paper today, I was struck by the fact that the title of the debate has changed in the past few days. Last week, when the Leader of the House announced the debate, it was to be on “supporting women and families through the downturn and building a strong and fair economy for the future”. That has now been reduced to “Support for women through the economic downturn and for the future.” I wonder what has happened to “building a strong and fair economy for the future.” I suspect that the words may have changed because the Government are not building a strong and fair economy for the future; they have not got to grips with how they will get us out of the mess of this recession. There has been a flurry of activity on the part of the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has grabbed headlines but had no real effect. That “headless chicken” approach to policy making will not help women and families, or businesses.

Let us look at some of the initiatives announced by the Government that have not actually come to anything. The working capital scheme is still not operational. The internship scheme does not exist. Recruitment subsidies are not yet active. The guarantee scheme for asset-backed securities is non-existent, and the home owner mortgage support scheme, announced in December, is still not in place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) pointed out, for some women who are running businesses, and some employees of businesses, it is essential that the Government get the loans guarantee scheme up and running if those businesses are to continue and to keep people in jobs. On the “Real help now for women” document, launched yesterday, I note that in the section on “Help to start or grow a business”, no reference is made to the Government’s loan guarantee scheme—because, I suspect, it is not yet in place.

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families says that this will be the worst recession for 100 years, but the Government have not actually put anything in place to deal with it effectively. Later, I shall talk about our proposals to help women and families through the downturn and create a strong economy for the future, but first I want to touch on some of the ways in which this recession will have an impact on women that differs from other recessions. We know that the alarming unemployment figures are affecting families in all parts of the country, and there is certainly reason to believe that women will fare much worse in this recession than they did in previous ones. In the last recession, industries such as retail, hotels and catering, where women’s jobs dominate, fared fairly well compared with manufacturing and construction, but this time it is clear that all sectors of the economy are being hit. That is shown in the fact that although men’s redundancy rates remain higher than women’s, the growth in the redundancy rate for women is double that of men.

The effects of redundancy can be particularly harsh on women, who tend to earn less anyway, and have fewer savings to fall back on. The Leader of the House referred to lone parents who are women; lone parents with children can be at particular risk of hardship, with evidence showing that women with dependent children are more likely than other women to be unemployed. The effect on a family of a woman becoming unemployed could be greater in this recession than in the past, because women’s contributions to family income are now higher than they were. In a significant proportion of couple households, women contribute over 50 per cent. of family income. If their partner is made redundant, there will be additional pressure on women to stay in work, or to get back into the workplace.

There is also a concern, raised at the summit held yesterday in No. 11—I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on getting into No. 11; perhaps next time she will make it into No. 10—that women’s aspirations will be hit. They may pass up opportunities for promotion because of concerns that “last in, first out” arrangements might make it not worth their while to take up opportunities. So the recession will directly affect women in ways that previous ones never have. The immediate priority for the Government must be to take action to support businesses and prevent further dramatic rises in unemployment. That means that we need to get to the heart of the credit crunch and get credit moving again. With businesses threatened with closure every day, it is unforgivable that the Government have still not adopted our proposal for a national loan guarantee scheme of up to £50 billion.

The bank recapitalisation has not worked in getting credit moving, and companies now face huge problems because of a lack of working credit. If the Government are serious about helping women and men, they must guarantee loans to businesses, as we have proposed. It is by getting credit flowing that we will prevent the further rises in unemployment that families fear. There is much more that the Government could do to support families at this time. For example, why do they not adopt our plan to work with councils to freeze council tax for two years? What about reducing energy bills for millions of people by enabling them to set up direct debits through their Post Office card accounts? And what about giving savers the break to which I referred earlier, in response to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone)? That would be particularly useful to those many elderly women who are trying to eke out their income with that little bit extra from their savings.

There is one area where the Government could be doing more in a very practical way to help women, and that is in community learning, helping people who have been out of the labour market for a long time. Owing to Government cuts, there are now 1.4 million fewer publicly funded community learning courses than there were just four years ago, so there are over half a million fewer women in further education or skills training than in 2005—a far greater reduction compared with men, although they have also lost out.

Community learning offers an important, locally based route to training for those who have been away from the labour market, particularly women who have been out of work looking after a child and are now finding it harder to get back into the workplace. Of course, it also helps people across the board who have been made redundant. The courses offered can be particularly beneficial to women because they are flexible—for example, short courses in IT and other skills that are important in boosting somebody’s employability. The Government should adopt our proposal for a £100 million community learning fund, paid for by refocusing the Train to Gain budget. Adult and community learning has immense social value and promotes social mobility, and now more than ever it needs greater support.

Looking to the future, women and families will be hit by the Government’s plan to increase national insurance on everyone earning over £20,000—that is, were this Government to be in place after the next general election. That means higher taxes for every qualified nurse and police officer, not to mention the £2 billion that it will cost businesses. That will fundamentally undermine economic recovery at the very time when the Government talk about building the fair and strong economy to which the right hon. and learned Lady referred.

The Government boast of their “real help” for women, but there is nothing helpful or fair about temporary tax cuts followed by permanent tax rises, particularly not when those tax cuts are simply compensating for the disastrous abolition of the 10p tax rate, one of the singularly most unfair measures implemented by a British Government. The Government are on difficult ground when they speak of building a fair society. We will welcome measures that genuinely seek to build a stronger and fairer economy.

We look forward to the publication of the equality Bill, but it is nearly nine months since the right hon. and learned Lady came to the Dispatch Box to announce details of the Bill, and it still has not been published. I was interested to hear her responses both in business questions and earlier in the debate. In business questions she said that the Bill would be brought forward over the next few months. In response earlier in the debate, she said that it would be brought forward in a few months.

We see further delay in the equality Bill, which was the Government’s flagship equality legislation promised in their 2005 manifesto. The Leader of the House is fast running out of time to get that on the statute book. It is hard to avoid the impression that, as the newspaper reports suggest, the Government are split on the issue. As soon as he was appointed, Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool let it be known that he would be delaying the Bill, and it looks very much as though he is winning the battle.

When, or if, the Bill is published, we will engage constructively with it. I welcome the opportunity that it will present to consolidate equality legislation, making things simpler for businesses and local authorities. But we need to be clear why, over recent years, equality has been given a bad name. To many people, equality has become about bureaucracy and box-ticking, getting in the way of business efficiency, particularly in small companies. Equality should never be the enemy of common sense, and it should not get in the way of businesses, but help them work better. So the equality Bill cannot be allowed simply to sweep existing equality legislation into a single pile, but must improve on what we have.

Something told me that at some stage my hon. Friend might want to intervene on me. If he will allow me to make my next point, I will allow him to intervene.

The point that I want to make is important, and I believe it is shared across the House. There are those who suggest that equality can be swept aside in a recession. My view is that equality is for all times, not just for the good times.

My right hon. Friend said that certain things give equality a bad name. Does she agree that one of those is the fact that the Equality and Human Rights Commission goes round lecturing all sorts of organisations about equality of pay and is given taxpayers’ money to make sure that everyone is paid equally, yet the same organisation, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, pays men more than women, non-disabled people more than disabled people, and white people more then ethnic minorities? Is that not rather hypocritical of that organisation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the point that he makes. The EHRC needs to look at its own practices, as does Government in some of those areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) pointed out in business questions, the disability pay gap in the Government is significant—in some Departments, such as the Home Office, rising above 40 per cent.

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend heard that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) also muttered sotto voce from a sedentary position that the delay in the publication of the equality Bill was to be welcomed. Although none of us could deny my hon. Friend the right to his view, does she agree that our hon. Friend suffers from the notable disadvantage of being wrong, and that the sooner the Bill is introduced, the better?

I hope my hon. Friend will have noted, as I said, that we look forward to the equality Bill when it is published, and we have been chastising the Government for their failure to bring it forward earlier. I am concerned that it may not be on the statute book by the time of the next election. There are some measures that I hope we will see in that Bill—

I shall make a little more progress. Then if the hon. Lady still wishes to intervene, I shall give way to her.

For women, one issue of fairness is equal pay. I know that the Leader of the House shares my commitment to reducing the gender pay gap, which remains stubbornly high at over 17 per cent. Equal pay is not just something for women in the City, or in other highly paid industries. It is about ensuring that women at the bottom of the pay scale also have proper and fair protection—women who work hard to provide for their families, and some who may have the confidence to fight for fairness.

Back in 2007, I made a number of proposals that I believe will make a real difference. I even set up a Facebook group, Theresa May for Equal Pay, although as far as I am aware, the right hon. and learned Lady has not yet joined it.

I thank my hon. Friend. It does, indeed, trip off the tongue rather nicely.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect that where a company has been found guilty of discriminating on pay, it should have to conduct a compulsory pay audit. We do not argue in our proposals that all companies should face a pay audit—only those that have already been found guilty of breaking the law. I offered that as a policy to the right hon. and learned Lady two years ago when we first proposed it, but the Government have not done anything about it.

If the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) wishes to intervene, I will give way to her.

I thank the right hon. Lady. I wanted to respond to her earlier comments, but my point is relevant to what she is now discussing. I know that she understands the complexities of dealing with the pay gap. Just as her party has found it difficult to bridge the gap in the numbers of men and women who are Members of Parliament, so a jibe at Government Departments and the EHRC, although we all want them to do more, reflects the difficulty that they are having in getting women and people with disabilities into more senior positions. That is what we need to deal with. Does the right hon. Lady agree that all political parties, particularly hers, are having similar difficulty in achieving equality between men and women as Members of Parliament? I am pleased that my party has gone rather further in that direction.

I am happy to say to the hon. Lady that after the next election there will be a step change in the number of women Conservative Members of Parliament sitting in this House. The sadness for Parliament as a whole is that some of those women Conservative MPs will knock out sitting women Labour MPs, so Parliament as a whole may not see that big an increase, but we will certainly see a significantly increased number of Conservative women MPs sitting in the Chamber.

The hon. Lady is right that there is complexity in the gender pay gap issue, which is why the six-point plan that I published back in 2007 does not just focus on legislation, but relates to issues such as increasing flexible working, and also issues such as careers advice to girls, which is a particularly important element of ensuring that girls and young women understand the implications in pay terms of the careers choices that they make. Frustration about the Government’s failure to do anything about this led my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton to propose the Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill in the House of Lords. In the Second Reading debate, the Minister for Economic Competitiveness and Small Business, Baroness Vadera, effectively said that there was no need for Baroness Morris’s Bill because all the measures would be covered by the Government’s equality Bill. I hope that when she speaks later, the Solicitor-General, who I understand will lead for the Government on the equality Bill, will confirm that all our proposals will feature in their Bill, and if not, outline exactly why the Government oppose them.

This is not just an issue of equality for women—it is about fairness for families, particularly those on low incomes. A TUC report last year found that tackling women’s low pay is the key to ending child poverty, not least because half of poor children come from working families. One of the problems is that women with children who are seeking work generally want part-time or flexible working opportunities but find those difficult to come by. That is why the second half of our proposals on flexible working is so important.

I have welcomed the Government’s proposal to expand the right to request flexible working to parents with children aged up to 16, although the proposal originally put forward by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition well over a year ago was to go up to 18. However, I welcome the fact that this April it will at least be extended to 16. It is important that we do all we can to help women with children into work once their children reach a suitable age. This is not just about highly paid professionals but about poorer families, because helping mothers into work will help to tackle poverty. Studies have shown that child poverty would be dramatically reduced if even a relatively small proportion of poorer single-earner families became dual-earner families.

I was struck the other day by a report that suggested that since the introduction of the working tax credit there has been a significant increase in divorce among low-income families. That seems devastating in terms of what we need to do to keep families together, and therefore wealthier.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I was struck by those figures, too. This of course reflects the “couple penalty” in the working tax credit system, which means that for some people it is financially beneficial to be separate rather than together as a couple. That is why I am deeply disappointed that the Government have not adopted our policy to remove that tax penalty for couples in the working tax credit system and improve the finances and incomes of a significant number of families in this country.

Does the right hon. Lady accept that the much talked about “couple penalty” almost entirely ignores the issue of housing costs and the need for both households to set up and run their own homes? It is purely a tax and benefit calculation. All the evidence indicates that although women are particularly affected, generally speaking neither party benefits from the break-up of a relationship. To try to draw a causal link between a tax credit and family breakdown is deeply disingenuous.

The hon. Lady’s attempt to defend the Government’s inability to do anything about this is not very convincing. It is not only the Conservative party that is drawing attention to the impact of working tax credits on separation and divorce among families. That is having a real effect out there on many families. Strong economies rely on strong societies, and we have a responsibility to ensure that we are doing what we can to help bolster families, not bringing in systems such as the working tax credit couple penalty that make it better for many families to be apart rather than together.

Another cause for concern is the fact that about 40 per cent. of parents spend only two hours or less with their child or children each day. That is a particularly important issue at a time of recession, when families face greater strains. Making Britain more family-friendly will strengthen our society, and in doing so strengthen our economy. Business leaders recognise that as well. Many businesses have already embraced flexible working, finding that it increases staff commitment, productivity and retention. On both equal pay and flexible working, it is a shame that the Government did not take sufficient action in the good times and are now playing catch-up during a recession. We should have gone into the downturn with families in a far better position to benefit from flexible working and with more women getting the equal pay they deserve. That opportunity was missed, but we must now ensure that when we come out of recession we do so with more family-friendly business practices operating in a stronger, fairer and more family-friendly economy.

An economic downturn can obviously have serious effects on issues relating to the economy and the finances of a family, but it can go beyond the merely financial. At the women’s summit yesterday, one subject discussed was the impact on domestic violence. The Home Secretary and the Attorney-General have warned that at a time of recession, with pressures on families, we may see an increase in domestic violence. This is not an area for party politics, but I hope that Ministers have had a chance to read the paper that I published just before Christmas on ending violence against women, which makes several genuinely helpful proposals on domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. The Government have done some good work in this area; they introduced legislation in 2004 and the specialist domestic violence courts are a real step forward, but there is much more to do.

I have been calling for some considerable time, as has my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, for a cross-Government strategy on violence against women, and I welcome the fact that the Government have now said they will implement one. However, I hope it will have a particular focus on prevention. As the Home Affairs Committee said last year, the Government’s current approach

“remains disproportionately focused on criminal justice responses at the expense of prevention”.

That is mirrored by services on the ground. Eaves Women’s Aid in Barking and Dagenham has said that it is

“concerned that the government is channelling resources entirely through the Criminal Justice System”

and therefore

“not really supporting the work done by specialist service providers such as ourselves.”

There needs to be a rebalancing of policy towards prevention, working with schools, police, health care professions and the voluntary sector. I very much look forward to more being done on this.

The right hon. Lady says that there is a need to bring forward concerns about domestic violence and violence generally. That is a very important point. It has taken 20 or 30 years to get domestic violence treated properly by the criminal justice system as an offence, and we are still labouring to get rape dealt with properly as an offence. We must not take any pressure off achieving that end, because that is how we make it very clear that society will not tolerate it and men will be punished if they do it. Any rebalancing, as she put it, of that in favour of prevention would be a disaster; we have to do both.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention. She is right that there are still areas of the criminal justice system that we need to focus on. She refers to rape; I personally think that there is also a need to look again at stalking, including the legislation on it and attitudes that are taken towards it. All too often, it is not viewed as seriously as it needs to be. As we saw from the quotes that I just cited, the problem is that so far the Government have focused solely on the criminal justice system. We need to ensure that we are doing the preventive work to ensure that we do not have so much need to use the criminal justice system because we are preventing incidents of violence against women.

As we look forward to international women’s day, there are many other issues affecting women that we will not be able to touch on in this debate. I hope that in future we can return to important issues such as the role of women in international development and conflict resolution. I am sure that the whole House would also join me in wanting at this time to pay tribute to the many women members of the armed forces, who face particular challenges and deserve our continued gratitude for their dedicated service.

It is clear that women and their families are likely to be hit by this recession in a way that they never have been previously. The wide reach of the downturn means that many families today are struggling or fearing for their future. The Government have not done enough to help them. By adopting our plans to support businesses, and our fully funded tax cuts for families, the Government can still achieve their aim of helping women and families through the recession. But when the recovery does come, it must be built on fiscal responsibility, modern workplaces, and lower taxes that last; only then will we see the stronger and fairer economy that we all seek.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I would like to spend a few minutes talking about child care, and its importance in helping families, and particularly women, through the economic downturn. I have concerns about modifications we may need to make to the child care strategy.

Before I do so, however, I would like to mention two issues, one of which has come up already in today’s debate. I was sorry that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was so dismissive of the achievements made in respect of the pension credit because I am proud of the contribution that pension credit has made to families, particularly to women and pensioner couples, in a constituency such as mine. The last time I looked at the figures, I think that we had around 7,000 households in receipt of pension credit, with an average payment £70 a week on top of the old income support level. It has been hugely important in helping women, and as I said in my earlier intervention, women have benefited most because they did not have that full contributions record.

It is of course true that any means-tested benefit will put some people off making an application, especially those who would get only a small benefit from an application. Any means-tested benefit involves a taper, and people at the narrowest end of that will not think that an application is worth their while. There is no real evidence to suggest that any underclaiming of pension credit occurs among those whose income would benefit substantially. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that those who are not claiming are those who would receive only a small amount of money.

I was quite shocked by the statement of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) because the work and pensions people in Stockton, South most certainly will go out and speak to any pensioner who is finding the form complicated or difficult, and will ensure that that lady or gentleman fills it in and gets her or his full entitlement.

That is right, and I am sure that that experience is replicated elsewhere. I pay tribute to Age Concern in Westminster, which has outreach workers who work with pensioners and help them to complete those forms.

Another thing that the Government have done in recent years that I am also pleased about is ensure that there is a better read-across between different types of benefit so that pensioners and other claimants do not have to go through a multiple process of claiming if they are entitled to more than one benefit. We should be pleased with the pension credit, and we should also aim to do more to raise awareness of claims for council tax benefit, which is the single most underclaimed benefit of those means-tested benefits. There is much that we could do to improve the delivery of council tax benefit for the good of pensioners and other low-income households, and I would like to see more work on that. In fact, I would like to see more emphasis on that benefit entitlement than on the freezing of council tax, because higher earners and those with higher value properties need to make a contribution to council tax in order to protect services for the most vulnerable.

Families—particularly women—who are disproportionately over-represented among low earners are at risk of falling into debt as their earnings fall, or as they fall out of employment. Enormously valuable work has been done by advice agencies and debt agencies across the country to help families, and as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Citizens Advice, I would like to pay huge tribute to the work of Citizens Advice in this respect. The great concern is that, if debt levels rise, some families will fall into a downward spiral of debt that is exacerbated by the actions of debt recovery agencies and bailiffs.

My local authority has one of the highest rates of use of bailiffs in the country, and I would like to share with the House the most disturbing experience of a constituent who came to see me yesterday. Unfortunately, I fear that it will be symptomatic of what goes on, and the Government and local authorities across the country need to take more action. The lady who came to see me is a single parent with two children. She is in part-time employment and earns about £500 a month, with tax credit on top of that. She had a long-term overpayment of council tax benefit in the early part of this decade, and ended up with a £3,000 overpayment. The bailiffs came to her to take recovery action, and she was asked to pay £100 a month on top of her current council tax payments, out of a total income of about £1,000 a month. That is utterly unsustainable.

Naturally enough, my constituent fell into difficulty. More worryingly, the later years of council tax benefit, all of which are treated as an individual debt, were passed on to a second bailiffs agency, which is pursuing her separately for further claims of the overpayment. She is in huge distress, but perhaps most worryingly of all, her 14-year-old son is so worried about the bailiffs’ action and threats that they had made about the recovery of property, that he is unwilling to leave the house outside of school because he fears being confronted on the doorstep by bailiffs seeking to get into the house. The mother told me, with tears pouring down her face, that he sits with the lights turned off in the winter because he is terrified that the bailiffs, knowing that there is somebody in the house, will come in and repossess his computer.

I have heard of similar experiences. It is heartbreaking and terrifying that the debt is transferred to the bailiffs so quickly, because they are relentless, and impose extra charges that deepen the debt. Does the hon. Lady agree that the local authority—in my case, Haringey—should be far more willing to sit down with the person in debt to reschedule it? People are willing to pay off such debt over time and should not be forced to deal with bailiffs immediately because the council does not have time for people in trouble.

I totally agree with that. Bailiffs should very much be a last resort. Sometimes their use will be necessary; there will be those who deliberately and persistently refuse to pay their debts, and I understand that they have to be pursued. But the use of bailiffs should be a last resort because, as the hon. Lady pointed out, the charges of the bailiffs and for court fees are added to the original debt, simply compounding the family’s financial crisis. As we face what will tragically be an increase in the level of debt over the course of the global economic downturn, we must, at government and at local authority level, consider a more pragmatic and supportive way of dealing with families—disproportionately, but not only, women—who find themselves in debt. If there is anything that Ministers can do to advise local authorities on a better responsive use of bailiffs for debt recovery, I would appreciate it.

In recent years, the Government have brought about a transformation in the provision of child care. Such provision has acted to help to underpin the increase in women’s entry to the workplace, particularly and obviously lone-parental entry, because, in many cases, that could not have happened without quality, affordable child care. Those two things go hand in hand. Over the past decade, as the national child care strategy has been rolled out, we have seen a £25 billion investment in child care, and the provision of 1.3 million registered child care places, as compared with provision in 1997.

At the core of this process has been the offer of a free child care place for three and four-year-olds, which has a take-up rate of about 95 per cent. That is obviously indicative of the desire among parents for their children to go into child care. The Conservative Government before 1997 chose to leave child care to the marketplace, arguing that parents should be able to buy into it if only they had the resources. We, rightly, utterly rejected that view, saying that child care should be made available more widely as a realistic choice, particularly for low income families. I have been gratified in the past two or three years to see the greater responsiveness in Government strategy to some of the problems experienced in places such as my own constituency in London, where the provision of child care is exceptionally expensive, and where the funding that the Department for Children, Schools and Families has put into the London child care affordability programme has made a lot of difference. For example, we are considering the contribution that parents have to make in the child care tax credits system, and the gap is going to be closed. The contribution that people have been asked to make towards the high cost of child care has been a deterrent, and the changes have been enormously responsive and made a great deal of difference to child care in my constituency.

I believe that it would be fair to the last Conservative Government to point out that they introduced the national kids’ clubs network, which has been highly successful and built on by the current Government.

I do not believe that anyone with any sense would say that no provision existed before 1997. We should have some maturity in a political debate, and that is clearly the case. I acknowledge that, and I do so gracefully—I did not mean to sound surly—but will the hon. Lady respond equally gracefully to the fact that this Government have created 1.3 million child care places with a £25 billion investment? If so, perhaps she will place that on record.

I am sure that the hon. Lady’s figures are correct, and that those places have been provided. However, I might take issue with calling it an investment, because the money has been spent.

The commitment to the expansion of child care has been made and delivered on, and the child care landscape is utterly transformed. That is the most important point.

In addition to the provision of pre-school places for two and three-year-olds and child care places for the children of working parents, as part of an early intervention strategy there has been the unfolding of children’s centres and Sure Start, which did not exist before 1997. I am pleased to say that next week, I will help to open yet another children’s centre in the network in my constituency. They are doing extraordinarily important outreach work, particularly for the most disadvantaged families. They are providing parental support and education and an important early years experience for children. All those things have been put in place, and the extended schools service has been rolled out. It has built upon and dramatically expanded the kids’ club provision that was previously in place, so that there is provision out of school hours and in the holidays. Of course, maternity leave has also been extended.

Those things have been important because, as I have said, they have enabled a significant increase of the proportion of women, and particularly of lone parents, getting into the work force. They have represented a response to the problems of inequality in our society, which have been well captured in the Government’s social mobility White Paper. We know that when an inequality gap starts in the case of children under five, it cannot be closed through investment at later stages in their education. It is in those early years that the seeds of social inequality are sown and that we can do much to close the inequality gap.

There is a danger that we sometimes talk about child care in a slightly instrumental way, mentioning only employment and economic inequality. Most importantly, however, quality child care is an enriching experience for children. The enrichment of children, not parents, employment or anything else, has to be at the heart of our considerations. Seeing children play in a quality child care setting is one of the most delightful things that any of us can experience, and many children have been benefiting from what we have been able to do, and particularly from the expansion of recent years. The Government should be more proud of that than of anything else that we have done.

I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s contribution very much. I certainly agree that we have made huge steps forward in the provision of child care, but in my constituency and in Wales as a whole, most child care is still informal care by relatives, grandparents or friends. Does she feel that any acknowledgment should be made of such care?

That is a difficult one. I totally agree that we will all want to honour the contribution that family and friends make to parents with children. My own mother has been the principal carer for my son in his early years. That is certainly important, but I am less sure about whether we should roll out a financial reward for such contributions. There would be a phenomenal expense attached to that, and there would be a number of risks to formalising a payment system for informal care. Personally, I believe that rather than build such a formal structure, one of the best options is to allow families, and particularly women and lone parents who draw upon informal care, to achieve a certain earnings level through equal pay and the ability to go into the workplace. That will allow them to make a personal contribution. The debate will continue for many years to come.

I know that the hon. Lady is speaking with conviction about the importance of quality child care, about which I fundamentally agree with her. I have also heard her speak powerfully about the importance of affordable child care. In a recent Westminster Hall debate, she cited the fact that only one in 10 eligible families in her constituency had access to the child care element of the working tax credit. Did she share my concern when the Minister who responded to the debate, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, said that there were no clear data on the take-up of that credit, and that extra work was needed on that? Surely that should have a been a higher priority for the Treasury.

I was about to come to that matter, and the mere fact that I raised it in a Westminster Hall debate shows that I am not wholly satisfied with the operation of the child care tax credit. However, it must be said that in comparison with the years before 1997, considerably more money has been made available to many more people. If we acknowledge that, we can evaluate Government programmes and say honestly that some work better than others. In my view, the child care tax credit does not work terribly well. I shall return to that point in a moment.

I wish to get to the heart of the Government’s response to the economic downturn in respect of child care. We need to be aware that there will be some fall-out in child care services, and we are already beginning to pick up on that anecdotally. The single biggest concern is that women—I focus on women for the purpose of the debate—risk having their earnings reduced, perhaps as their hours are reduced. Worst of all, they risk losing their jobs, and those who rely on paid-for child care will find their child care arrangements undermined. Child care businesses, which often work on a tight margin, will frequently be unable to keep places open for parents who can no longer make their contributions. There must be an early evaluation of the impact of the downturn in employment on child care provision.

I believe that we would all recognise—certainly all of us who are parents would recognise it above all—that the very last thing that someone wants, if they are in employment and have a child with a childminder or in a nursery, is for that provision to be disrupted. Children do not thrive on instability, and we need to ensure that parents who already have the trauma of a reduced income or a lost job do not have to go through the further trauma of pulling their child out of a child care setting. Tragically, that is almost certainly what will happen. That is not the Government’s fault, it is simply an obvious consequence of the business transaction that people undertake for paid-for child care. As the number of people affected is likely to rise, at least for a while longer, we need urgently to consider whether anything more can be done in the short term to improve run-on provision. That would bridge a gap in child care and could prevent a child from having to be pulled out of a child care setting in mid-term or at short notice.

The situation will be worst of all for the many people who lose a job but then find alternative employment quite soon afterwards. They will have to go through all the difficulty of finding alternative child care settings, and perhaps finding the deposit that many have to pay. They will therefore have to go through a number of experiences with their children before they can find stability again.

The hon. Lady says that she is providing anecdotal evidence of the impact of the recession on child care. I would urge her to look at the information that is being provided by the National Day Nurseries Association, the Day Care Trust and many other organisations, as that shows that what she is saying is already happening. Indeed, the NDNA said recently that four in 10 nurseries were experiencing bad debt, and that half of all nurseries were already reporting a noticeable change in child care arrangements, so perhaps the evidence is not just anecdotal.

My own experience has been of anecdotal evidence, but I am aware that statistics are beginning to emerge that will confirm this. The hon. Lady has cited statistics from the businesses—the child care providers—and that also raises an issue. We do not want to see child care providers going out of business, because it would be hard for the Government to help them to recover as the recession ends.

Of all the tax credit overpayment problems that people experience, child tax credit overpayments are the biggest problem and involve the largest amount of money. If people lose their job and subsequently find that they have already received the child care element of their tax credit and have to repay it, we will see more people having difficulties. That needs to be reviewed very quickly.

We need to deal with these important short-term issues relating to child care, but they do not in any way detract from the Government’s achievements in early-years investment. Also, over the longer term, we need to recognise that it continues to be difficult to secure affordable child care in the most expensive parts of the country. That sometimes applies to isolated rural areas, and it certainly applies in the inner cities. The child care affordability programme has gone a long way towards rectifying that, but it is a renewable programme, and we need to make sure that it continues.

Of all the achievements in child care, the one that needs to be built on most solidly is the delivery of care for older children. The number of places in out-of-school and holiday provision has increased, but it has not increased at anything like the same rate as the early-years provision, yet it is frequently the older children in late primary school and the early years of secondary school who need to be occupied after school hours and in school holidays. Where the schools, the councils and, indeed, the Government are encouraging those services to be built using a charging policy, under which those who can afford to contribute do so, we run a real risk that the services will be developed least in the areas that need them most. If that was true while the economy was incredibly strong a year ago, it is particularly true now as we go through a downturn. We do not want to see a return to a generation of latch-key children, and provision for that older group is critical. We have gone some way towards delivering it, but not as far as we should have done.

We have delivered for women in terms of child care through this Government, and we should be enormously proud of that. We have transformed the landscape in the past 10 years, but there are specific, practical problems that need to be resolved if we are to ensure that child care continues to deliver for women during the downturn.

Yesterday, as the Minister for Women and Equality said, the Government hosted a group of women to discuss women and the recession. It was a tremendously informative and worthwhile debate, with an amazing group of women, and I should love to see them all here today. It was made clear in that debate that, in a recession, women might choose to stop doing their high-paying job because they can no longer afford the child care as their hours are reduced. They then go back into their homes. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) has just made that point as well.

At the other end of the scale, women who do not have high-paying jobs and who have no resilience to the recession, because they have no fall-back position and no savings with which to pay for anything, can fall into dreadful debt. Many people who have come to my surgery tell me that the bailiffs have been called in very rapidly, and that the council has refused even to meet them to consider rescheduling their council tax or rent arrears. Perhaps the Government and local authorities could take action to relieve the pressure on those who have no ability to deal with sudden debt. They have no way to recover, let alone deal with the compounding debt that results from the bailiffs becoming involved.

Women also need information on where to acquire skills and learning during the recession, and, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, the increase in women’s vulnerability to domestic violence is a key issue. It is also clear that we do not yet have hard evidence in the form of data on the differential impacts that the recession will have on women. In order to prevent any further comments from the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—who is actually no longer in his place—it might be helpful to pull in the statistical data from all the various sources, so that we have the evidence to prove the worse, and differential, impact of a recession on women. Otherwise, we shall get into a pointless competition over who has it worse during an economic slowdown. We need to guard against creating resentment in other quarters, not least among the thousands of men who are going to be victims of the downturn. There is a lot of pain going around, and no one group has a monopoly on suffering as a result of the fallout from a recession.

There are aspects to this recession that make it a unique situation in which women find themselves for the first time, so it is right for the House to consider, in marking international women’s day, whether the Government are doing enough to help the women and families who are going to suffer the consequences of the recession. There are now more women in paid employment than ever before, apart from during the world wars. There is no place in this debate to argue for preferential treatment for women, but our purpose today must be to ensure that women get their fair share and do not get left behind or suffer disproportionately from the recession or from further discrimination.

To understand fully the problems that women now face, we cannot ignore the position that women found themselves in before the contraction of the economy. It is important to acknowledge—recession or no recession—that women face greater hurdles in employment than men. Equal pay is a key issue for me. The preamble of the Equal Pay Act 1970 says that the purpose of the Act is to

“prevent discrimination, as regards terms and conditions of employment, between men and women.”

Yet the Office for National Statistics’ earnings survey spells out the reality in simple terms. In 2008, the average full-time wage for a man was £27,500; for a woman, it was £21,400. The gap has been reduced over the years, but it still needs much further reduction. It has been suggested, however, that there is no point in squabbling about equal pay if there are no jobs in which to be paid unequally.

Women in the service sector, and particularly the retail sector, are going to feel the most devastating effects of the recession. A recent CBI service sector survey revealed that jobs are being lost at the fastest rate in over a decade. That shrinking is putting in jeopardy the one employment sector that is significantly more amenable to the domestic situation of women than other sectors, because of flexible, part-time working. With the retail sector in decline, we should be particularly worried about the effect on employment for women. The work might not always be glamorous, skilled or particularly well paid, but it is practical for mothers.

There are two issues relating to flexible, part-time working that need to be tackled. One relates to educating employers at the other end of the spectrum from the retail sector about employing part-time staff. Such employment is often regarded as suitable only to the retail sector, and employers often fear that it will be more costly to employ people on a part-time basis. I am sure that other hon. Members will have come across an organisation called Women Like Us, whose members go to the school gates and deal with one half of the issue by giving women who have had a career break the confidence, through hand-holding and skills training, to get back into work—part time to start with. The other half of their really important work is to demonstrate to employers at all levels of women’s employment that it is not more expensive to employ people part time, and that it is beneficial to their companies. If we can get companies to spread that best practice, there will be more opportunities for women in part-time work right across the spectrum of the working world.

We can always argue about the quality of work—I spent a fair time myself washing up, serving in shops and table waiting—and we can talk about the burden of child care, as the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North did so eloquently, but given the urgency of the situation, one of my concerns is what is done in an emergency or crisis and where the Government put their money. It would be tragic if the high level of female employment and the advances made on equality were swept away by the recession.

Without going into the issue in a long-winded way, one must say that whatever the business model of Woolworths—it may not have been the most likely to survive in any case, in the face of increased competition from the internet and the way in which the world has generally gone—we could equally criticise the business model of certain car manufacturers that relied on endless supplies of unsustainable credit and allowed consumers to keep buying cars that they could not afford. The key difference between those sectors is that one is to receive Government money and the other is not.

We should, of course, consider the economic benefits on a case-by-case basis, but will the Minister tell me in winding up the debate whether any consideration was given—and if so, what—to the equality impact of the decision collectively to subsidise some industries as opposed to others? I would be grateful if she confirmed whether an equality impact assessment was done? It is my understanding that, under current equality legislation, there is a duty on the Treasury and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to carry out such assessments in respect of any substantive policy change. It would be dreadful if money were used that ultimately turned out to be discriminatory as an unintended consequence. These are important checks and balances to ensure that women and minorities are not ignored or suffer disproportionate detriment in the decision-making process. The mere fact decisions have to be made quickly in a crisis should not be an excuse for processes to be abandoned completely.

I shall now deal with maternity benefits—the risks posed for business, but more importantly, for women. We have to recognise that employers face unprecedented challenges in maintaining the viability of their businesses during an economic downturn. It is difficult to find exact figures, but maternity leave is a significant employment cost, particularly for good employers who pay above the statutory minimum. As employers try to squeeze their costs down, it is not hard to imagine that firms offering maternity pay plus benefits will begin to reduce such benefits.

That is an open and legitimate process. If an offer is made to women not to come back to work after maternity leave and instead to receive some redundancy package, it is reasonable to assume that some will exit themselves from the workplace. They will then face even greater barriers getting back into work in a few years’ time. Those who choose to stay in work rather than be persuaded out of it, and whose maternity benefit is reduced to the statutory minimum, will have to manage on a very low amount. The statutory minimum is £117.18, although most women receive on average £400 a week—a substantial difference. I refer only to companies that are legally allowed to act in that; there are probably darker consequences for women’s employment.

Does the hon. Lady agree that there is also a danger that in the recruitment process employers may favour applicants with no children? In an economic downturn, when employers are worried about the costs that she describes, there will be a disadvantageous effect on anybody with children who applies for a job.

The hon. Lady makes a very good point, which I was about to make. I was talking about the legal reductions that employers can make, but when we get on to interviews and the choices employers make, a young woman of child-bearing age is very likely not to be offered the job. That is true in any case. According to the Equal Opportunities Commission—before it became the Equality and Human Rights Commission—in 2005, 30,000 women a year were being sacked for being pregnant. More recently, Nicola Brewer, the chief executive of the EHRC, said that women were not being employed for the very reason that the hon. Lady states—that it was better for employers not to employ such women, which might mean opening themselves to problems and the risk of further costs. If it is bad now, we can expect that women will find it harder and harder to get jobs as the recession bites.

The hon. Lady might be interested to hear what a friend of mine in the banking world told me. While banks are looking for redundancies, especially at the top end of their staff, women have sometimes been asked to leave before men because the men were deemed to be the principal breadwinners and the women had husbands to look after them.

I thank the hon. Lady—no, I do not thank her, as that is a depressing scenario, which I fear is still too prevalent in the wider world. One might have hoped that we had moved on from that, but apparently we have not.

In the light of the hon. Lady’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), she might be interested to know that research published by the Government Equalities Office shows that that view is widespread: 72 per cent. of men and 72 per cent. of women think it important that family breadwinners’ jobs are preserved first when organisations are thinking about who to make redundant.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good case to demonstrate the importance of equal pay and the Equal Pay Act 1970—that more often than not the principal breadwinner would not be the man; perhaps some of those somewhat old-fashioned values could be left a long way behind.

I started by talking about yesterday’s wonderful event at No. 11 Downing street, the prime intention of which, so far as I can gather, was to raise women’s voices and concerns about the economic downturn with the G20. I say to the Minister that it is equally important that those voices find a resonance and outcome in the equality Bill. I have some concerns about what may be proposed on equal pay, because the differential is still severe. Although the Government are genuinely seeking to make what employers will or will not have to show open and transparent, there will still be a differential between Liberal Democrat and Labour Members on mandatory and voluntary pay audits. There is the further problem that, irrespective of whether those audits are mandatory or voluntary, merely watching something is not enough.

I recently referred Cambridge university to the Equality and Human Rights Commission because it voluntarily published its pay differentials. I believe that the differential between male and female pay is about 32 per cent. It is not enough to have the bare statistics; in the end, we have to drill down to find out the whys and wherefores—what is historic, what is discriminatory, what is rational and so forth. On finding discrimination, we need to know what will be consequent upon that finding. I am anxious that the equality Bill, in its treatment of equal pay, does not simply add a process or a tick box. Such an approach has come into disrepute; too often, the equalities and the environmental impacts of reports that go through various committees or agencies are an afterthought—or just a tick-box. They must have real meaning; equal pay is just such an issue.

I am concerned about the ominous rumblings coming from Lord Mandelson, which the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) also referred to. The trade press and the right-wing press have been littered recently with scare stories: I do not know that they emanate from Lord Mandelson, but I believe that some of them may well do, as he was quoted in some. These scare stories are vilifying various parts of the Bill. If Lord Mandelson seems to be stepping in as the white knight, saving business, it is dangerous and a false dichotomy to pit equalities against the need of the economy. The needs of those who face discrimination do not stop where the needs of British businesses begin.

I read reports of a confidential memo from the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—confidential enough to be shared with The Times and Ministers—that asked them to

“advise on a moratorium on legislation and legislative announcements made but not yet implemented that will entail additional costs for businesses”.

The tone of those briefings to the right-wing press and the business lobby seems to indicate that companies that continue to discriminate will have absolutely nothing to fear from the forthcoming Bill and the equalities legislation.

My sense is that those in the Cabinet who share my sense of urgency about the need for greater action on inequality are fighting against the tide. I am not naive enough to argue that there will be no cost to legislation to tackle equality, but the Government have to have the courage of their convictions, and their own statistics on costs bear out the plain economic sense of tackling that inequality.

The Government Equalities Office estimates in its initial impact assessment—the detailed cost-benefit analysis—that the maximum one-off costs of the Bill will be £221 million. That is the up-front cost to Britain of the new equality regulations.

I am sure the hon. Lady agrees that all of us in the House, especially those who are interested enough in the issue to attend today’s debate, need to go out and make the case for equalities rules and the benefits that they can confer on employers. Yes, as she says, there will be costs that have to be taken into consideration, but, for example, the benefits of introducing flexible working can be clear in increased productivity from a work force who are happier and better able to care for their children.

Yes, I agree totally with the hon. Lady. We have a huge selling job to do here—cross-party—on the benefits to employers of having a diverse and flexible work force, rather than the traditional one that we have always had. We must consider the benefits of home working, conferencing and all sorts of things that can be done that would be money saving. They are the benefits, but the way they are portrayed to business and the media sabre rattling scare business off. We meet that attitude wherever we go, so I thank her for raising that point.

I was doing a little bit on the sums, and £53 million of the up-front costs could be offset by the maximum estimates of immediate benefits. That would leave £168 million. The one-off costs apart, the range of the annual recurring benefit—continued, as has been said—is estimated to be between £122 million and £165 million against a recurring annual cost of £24 million to £53 million. Taking the mid point, for the sake of argument, that would mean about £143.5 million of benefits versus £38.5 million recurring annual costs of the new legislation. That works out as a net benefit of £105 million for every single year the legislation is in force. At that rate of return, it would take just over 19 months to recoup the initial cost of the legislation. The argument is completely specious. We have to go out there and make it, and not let the Government back down, because the legislation is not expensive. I would argue that we cannot afford not to introduce it.

There is no doubt that business is hurting and hostile, but one reason for that might be how the Bill has come forward. I do not know how much discussion the Government have had with business, because there has not been a Green Paper or a White Paper; nor do we know what is coming in the final draft. It is hard to have these discussions. I met the Institute of Directors yesterday. I do not think that it is totally at one with the Bill, but it is more frightened because it does not know what is going to be in it. Indeed, we do not know what is going to be in it. The way to have good legislation is to introduce a Green Paper and a White Paper, and to allay those legitimate fears of business.

We did, of course. The hon. Lady must have seen the extensive consultation, which went on over years, and the consultation document that summed up what we were going to do and tried to achieve a consensus. In the past six months, two documents have set out how business and other stakeholders reacted. There has been a pretty extensive consultation and a great deal of this has an element of consensus around it. Business is fairly chequered in its response, although up in the north-east there have been some pretty positive responses on the basis that she has set out—it is understandable that there is no clash and that there is a benefit involved.

We have consulted pretty extensively, but—this is probably more to the point—as we have gone along we have consistently been in touch with stakeholders. We have meetings practically weekly with stakeholders, either in a group or bilaterally when they have particular concerns. The hon. Lady does not need to worry about that and we look forward to sharing the Bill with hon. Ladies on the Opposition Benches when it is ready.

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that intervention. Perhaps I have gained a false impression because of the lack of information coming my way.

As I bring my remarks to a close, I want to outline the potential for a fairer economy emerging from this recession. I have highlighted some of the flashpoints for women where there are risks. It is a real and present danger that the hard-fought-for equality that everyone has worked so hard for—we have many hopes for the Bill—might be eroded if more is not done to shelter those freedoms from an economic storm.

Many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall not dwell on this point. I do not want to use the word “opportunity” because that is not what a recession is; it is devastating for those who suffer a direct strike. A more apt metaphor would be to make the best out of a bad job. Throughout history, the responses to economic turmoil have led to profound social upheaval—some good, some bad. There is a complete contrast between what happened in America under Franklin D. Roosevelt and the new deal, which is the model I hope we will follow, and what happened in pre-war Germany.

The Prime Minister has made much of his crusade to rewrite the rule books of international financial markets, but he has not said much about the opportunity to rewrite the equalities rule book. The Government have become the insurer of last resort to a wide range of major commercial sector industries, not least the financial industry. As they are now beholden to the taxpayer, it would be reasonable for the Government to make some modest demands in return, given that we have this wedge into the private sector, when normally we are not allowed to stick our noses in so far. The priority must remain re-establishing the financial health of those companies and achieving proper functioning of the credit markets, so surely, in the meantime, we should use the opportunity of owning chunks of the private sector to look under the bonnet and see what we need to see about the inequality that festers there.

We should consider the boards of banks, for example. I do not think that they are particularly diverse. It would be interesting to look beneath that and to find out what the challenges are to the private sector and how diversity could be improved in those hidden places.

The hon. Lady is speaking as if the public sector has an unparalleled reputation in appointing women to senior posts. To be fair, the Government have made that a priority, but I understand that the percentage of senior public appointments held by women has barely moved in 10 years, despite a great deal of effort from the Government.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman—a plague on both their houses on that one—but I am talking about the private sector. If one looks at the Treasury, one might find that most of the top civil servants are of one gender. I am talking about the opportunity that we do not usually get. The single equality duty will apply to the public sector. The private sector and the 80 per cent. of people who are employed by it will not be adequately covered by the protections of the equality Bill in the way the public sector will be, but I am simply saying that while we have the opportunity presented by nationalised or part-nationalised banks, as well as being busy sending in the auditors and the actuaries to work out how to strip certain directors of their pensions and to look at all the stuff that is going on, I hope that the Government Equalities Office will be sending in its own experts to benefit from this unique experience and understand what has been going on with equalities in those industries, as the Minister for Women and Equality, who is no longer in her place, said.

As was said in the group discussion that I attended yesterday, some believe that, had women been more plentiful in the boardrooms of banks—

Is the hon. Lady aware that as recently as the 1960s, any woman who worked in a bank was regarded as temporary staff, even if she remained there throughout her working life and never married?

My goodness! I did not know that it was as bad as that. How far have we moved on, I wonder?

Yesterday, the view was expressed that had there been more women at senior levels in banks making decisions about investment—I do not want to be too sexist or pejorative, but women and men may have different approaches to risk management—some of the gambles that were taken might not have been taken in such a macho way, given that, broadly speaking, women are more risk-averse than men. By saying that, I may have opened myself up to all sorts of comments.

The hon. Lady has made an interesting point, but may I caution her, as a mum who looks at her elder son and thinks “What he needs is a girlfriend to civilise him”? Mothers are known to say such things, but I say them in jest. I should hate to think that women are there to exert a civilising and controlling effect on men. We are there as equals.

I take the hon. Lady’s point. We are equals. However, conflict resolution is an issue, and that may include bank boardroom conflict resolution. I should like to think that I am as able to negotiate and understand risk as anyone else, but I would argue that the absence of women creates a different dynamic in the boardroom. Indeed, we might find that there have been leaders of this country who have been dynamic in a way that I might not describe as wonderful.

Perhaps we have been granted an opportunity by our glimpse into the recesses of a private sector featuring the biggest pay gap between male and female staff, along with a huge discrepancy between the numbers of men and women employed in the top jobs: an opportunity to send the Government Equalities Office away to deal with those problems. We need to find whatever positive aspects we can, given the dire circumstances in which women are likely to find themselves. We cannot allow the advances of recent decades to be so easily washed away. We have experienced 11 years of fat—11 years of consecutive growth—but women clearly failed to share the benefits of those years of plenty, and we have to understand why their frustration is turning to anger as they hear that the extra protections against discrimination for which they hoped and which they need are suddenly too costly in a recession.

The question we must ask ourselves is “When is the right time to make the wrongs of inequality history?” Now is the time to take action, and I beg the Government not to be swayed from their purpose.

In the year since the last international women’s day, we have marked the 90th anniversary of the date on which women first voted. As a member of the House of Commons Advisory Committee on Works of Art, I want to take the opportunity to plug again the suffragettes exhibition by the Admission Order Office, and to try to persuade all Members—including those who are not present today—to take their constituents, particularly their young women constituents, to have a look at the exhibits showing the struggles undertaken by the suffragettes to get us where we are today.

International women’s day itself resulted from the struggles in various countries for suffrage, peace and rights for working women. The exhibition shows Sylvia Pankhurst with working women, as well as Emmeline Pankhurst with the medal that she was awarded, and the suffragettes’ scarf that Emily Wilding Davison was wearing when she fell under a horse at Ascot and was killed while campaigning. Those struggles included the women chainmakers who are celebrated with events in your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I wonder whether the hon. Lady welcomes, as I do, the work being done by the parliamentary education unit in relation to the photographs of women who are now in the House of Commons. Photographs were taken of women Members of each of the parties in the House. The hon. Lady may have attended the presentation of the photographs at the National portrait gallery, when I said that they ought to be taken into schools. I am very pleased that the education unit is working with Boni Sones and others to put together a package of material to teach people not just about the past but about women who are in the House today and to encourage young women to take an interest in entering the House.

It was our Committee that had to agree to the photographs being displayed in Portcullis House and, in fact, the Committee bought them with money from the fund for art works here. I hope that we will secure agreement for them to be displayed permanently in the House. I agree with the right hon. Lady about the work of the education unit. I believe that I am supposed to be involved in the making of a videotape about the suffragettes’ struggle. It is important for us to commemorate our past and to think about how we got here, as well as thinking about our future.

I was struck by what the Secretary of State said about how we should communicate the ways in which we seek to help people in the current economic downturn. She mentioned using Take a Break magazine as well as debating it in The Economist. It should be made clear that we are not merely trying to give special help to women—as was suggested at the beginning of the debate—but seeking to help all people and take account of their specific circumstances. We all know that many of our constituents do not know how to gain access to support and advice. It is important to provide that support and advice in different areas and in different formats, such as the pamphlet that I have with me now.

I do not want to suggest that we know that women will be more or less affected than men when it comes to losing jobs. That will vary from area to area, depending on the gender and industrial make-up in those areas. In my constituency, jobs have recently been lost on the Conservative borough council, in a major manufacturing company and at Woolworths. I spoke to a couple who had worked at the manufacturing company. The woman had kept her job, while the man had lost his. One young man who had been made redundant after 12 years at the company came to see me with his mother and his grandmother, who said that when she had worked there many years earlier and there were redundancies, she had kept her job by agreeing to work full time. She had then realised that, as a result, one of the men would lose his job, because at that stage she was cheaper than he was. That position is no fairer than a position in which women suffer from unequal pay.

The situation is fairly complex. As has been said, Woolworths and the distribution industry have many women employees; on the other hand, Morrisons has substantially expanded its work force. We need to consider the ways in which particular groups and areas are affected, and how we can help.

I was pleased to be able to attend the women’s summit yesterday. I sat at a fascinating table along with representatives of the legal profession, business, the public sector and the organisation Refuge. We agreed that what was likely to happen was unclear, but a number of relevant issues were raised—some of which have been mentioned today—such as benefits, working times and flexible working, provision for child care and domestic violence. I shall say more about some of them later, but I want to focus particularly on what we should do now to ensure that when we emerge from the downturn we are in a fit state, both in terms of what the country needs and in terms of a better and fairer society and a better position for women in the context of many of the issues about which we have argued over the years.

I was stimulated yesterday by a visit to the “big bang” event at the Queen Elizabeth II centre. I do not know whether any other Members visited it, but it celebrated science and engineering, and was aimed particularly at schools. Many school groups were there. A range of organisations had stands there, including the Met Office and Rolls-Royce, which is in my area. School pupils displayed the pioneering engineering work that they had done, which was to be judged later. I believe that the winners are off to Downing street today.

I was inspired by that event. A group came down from Heanor Gate science college in my constituency. When I arrived at the centre, I discovered that that group was sponsored by Rolls-Royce, in the neighbouring Derby constituency. I was delighted to note that the science group included as many girls as boys. We have a problem enticing young people, and girls in particular, into engineering, manufacturing and science generally. I also went to the WISE stall—women into science and engineering—which was there to do various interactive things to encourage the girls there to take part. That was good.

We need to look at what will happen when we come out of the downturn, both to ensure that we have people—men and women—with the skills that we need to fill those gaps, so that we are not on the back foot again and so that we come out in the strongest possible position, and to redress some of the imbalances in the skills people can acquire. The one thing that we should not do in the downturn is cut back on training and apprenticeships. I am delighted, therefore, at the programmes that the Government have put forward in those spheres. Indeed, I have positive examples from my constituency.

I am concerned, however, by the Conservatives’ plans to cut spending in the financial year 2009-10, so that they will maintain spending in some Departments but not in others. That means slashing skills, university and science budgets by £610 million and the non-schools budget of the Department for Children, Schools and Families by £300 million. My concern is that people over 19 starting an apprenticeship would not be able to do so. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said earlier that the Conservatives would finance a community learning programme by getting rid of Train to Gain. I do not have with me a copy of the debate on skills that I participated in last year, but I had example after example of the positive ways in which Train to Gain had been used by businesses. Just recently I gave out awards at the Acorn training centre in my constituency to the many people who had gained qualifications and training from the Train to Gain programme, which was very much welcomed by my local businesses. I therefore do not think that the Conservatives’ way of re-jigging the budgets would help us to deal with the problem.

I would have thought that the hon. Lady would know as well as anybody else that our proposals are to increase the number of apprenticeships that are available to young people. She should really be concerned about what her Government have done to apprenticeships. This Government’s redefinition of apprenticeships means that an apprentice will now get a national vocational qualification at level 2, rather than at level 3, which was the traditional definition. The Government have been fiddling the figures, so that it appears that we have more apprenticeships, when in fact those apprenticeships have not been at the skills level that is needed—and the skills level that they will be under us.

I have many positive examples of what is taking place. I am afraid that the figures do not add up. The Conservatives cannot claim that they are going to cut overall Government spending programmes, yet maintain spending programmes in a number of Departments, and then say that nothing is going to go anywhere else. That does not have credibility.

I recently visited Manthorpe Engineering in my constituency, which takes on four or five apprentices a year. This year nearly all the apprentices are male, which I would like to redress. The apprentices train at Rolls-Royce to begin with—Manthorpe Engineering is part of the Rolls-Royce supply chain—and they then finish their apprenticeship with the company. Those are genuine apprenticeships, taking place over three or four years, which means that we are developing a younger, qualified work force who will have the skills to go through and be committed to the company. Rolls-Royce maintains its training in a downturn and is also positive at promoting women into jobs, apprenticeships and training. That is a key point.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her report from earlier in the year. Does she agree that one way of attracting more women into apprenticeships would be to have part-time apprenticeships, which the TUC supports?

I agree with that; indeed, I was going to come to that point. Although I applaud the fact that training and apprenticeships are increasing, there are still a number of issues that we need to take on board, some of which have already been mentioned. I was going to refer to the report by the National Skills Forum, which was published last week, I think—it was meant to be published several weeks before that, but unfortunately the snow intervened. Indeed, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General was one of the speakers at that launch.

The National Skills Forum report, which was produced on behalf of the all-party group on skills, makes a number of points about the work-life balance and, in particular, makes proposals and recommendations about how to ensure that apprenticeships and training fit the needs of women. One of those proposals is to look at how we can increase the number of part-time apprenticeships. “Jobs for the girls”, the report that we on the Select Committee on Trade and Industry produced —the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) was instrumental with me in putting that together—addressed that issue. We made the point that when Ofsted looks at the flexibility of courses, it should also take on board how to provide part-time courses and courses at times when women can access them.

The National Skills Forum report also looked at increasing the financial support available to adult learners in further education and at how the benefits system can discourage carers from taking part in training. That is an important issue, which needs to be looked at more carefully. The difficulty of allowing the carer’s allowance to be available—or not be available—to those on courses requiring more than 21 hours of study a week is something that we should perhaps look at again. Another issue is the different arrangements for financial help for part-time students in higher education from those for students on full-time courses.

Another group that has been active in looking at the issue, and which gave evidence to our Select Committee, is the YWCA. Careers guidance has already been mentioned, and work experience is an important issue that we should look at in opening up opportunities. We are looking at how, when we come out of the recession, we might have made some advances, so that we have a broader range of skills and more diverse opportunities for people to obtain those skills.

One of the YWCA’s proposals for the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill—was it just last week that it was debated?—was for the National Apprenticeship Vacancy Matching Service to play a key role in ensuring that young people are offered as wide a range of apprenticeship options as possible. The YWCA suggested that a duty to promote and ensure equality should also be put on to the new bodies created by the Bill, so that they look at how to ensure that girls as well as boys can take up training opportunities.

There is obviously a problem in apprenticeships. We all know that boys tend to be in the better-paid apprenticeships and that girls tend to be in the worse-paid ones. I would not necessarily want to stop girls going into hairdressing—it is a portable skill that will do them well wherever they go in the world—but it is noticeable that those at the top of the profession are usually men. There are very good opportunities for men at the top of the profession, which the girls never seem to get towards.

A load of reports have been put forward to consider the different things that we could do to ensure that girls and women, including women returners, get the opportunity to enhance their skills in a different way. Now is not the time to cut that; now is the time to give it added impetus, and there is a range of things that we should look at. There are also projects under way at Sheffield Hallam university—on behalf of one of the Government Departments, I think—to look at science, technology, engineering and maths, or the STEM subjects, and at getting women into manufacturing. Using this opportunity to give that extra impetus would be very positive.

The group at my table at the women’s summit yesterday raised a number of issues, some of which have already been referred to, that are slightly broader than the positive issue of how we go forward. One was about how we ensure that advice gets to those who need it, which I have already mentioned.

The issue of domestic violence has already been touched upon. The policy director of Refuge was at my table and talked about the potential for an increase in domestic violence. In fact, I noticed a report in the last couple of days about the Metropolitan police issuing figures in January that suggest that there has been a slight increase in domestic violence in the past year. The police are now looking into how stress from lost jobs could create tension in families.

Is the hon. Lady aware of the breadth of domestic violence, which also includes emotional bullying? We need to find more ways of enabling women who are suffering in those difficult circumstances to report it, particularly when they have responsibility for children, because when there are incidents of domestic violence, there is a propensity for the mother and the children to be removed from the home for their own safety. We need to get that the other way round, so that the perpetrator of the violence is removed and the rest of the family are allowed to stay in their home.

That is right. We also know that people tend to present themselves between 18 and 30 times to various agencies before their case is picked up. There are some good programmes, however, such as the one at my local hospital. Staff in the accident and emergency department take the woman into a side room, saying that it is for tests if the alleged perpetrator is with her. That gives her the opportunity to say something if she wants to. We need to extend such programmes.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, as one would expect. It used to be said that, as a rule, there would be 35 occurrences of domestic violence before anyone reported it to any of the authorities, rather than anyone going to an authority 35 times before action was taken. Happily that figure of 35—difficult though the measurement must be to make—seems to have gone down significantly, so I hope that we are getting through to women the fact that they can come forward earlier. My hon. Friend makes the point that responsibility for doing that is starting to be spread into health, education and so on, where it rightly should be.

I thank the Solicitor-General for those comments.

Of course, in a downturn a man could lose his job, and if he is at home more often, there are more opportunities for violence to take place. A point raised in the summit yesterday relates to the broader situation of a couple who want to split up but cannot sell their house. They have the problem that they are stuck in the same house together, cooped up with all the tensions and difficulties that that creates. That provides an added dimension to the problem.

I have received representations about the issue in briefings from the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and from the Women’s Institute, which specifically draws attention to potential violence in rural areas and the difficulties for women. The issue is of great concern to people and we need to be aware of that. I reiterate the point that it was not even regarded as an offence before Labour took it up. For a long time, it was “just a domestic”, and that attitude was prevalent, although attitudes had started to change, so that when I was a candidate, my local police took a much more positive attitude.

I entirely agree with everything the hon. Lady has said, but I cannot let her give the impression that concern for domestic violence has only been taken on her side of the House. We are all concerned about domestic violence and many Conservative Members have spoken about it, campaigned about it and raised money to combat it. We have done everything we can to stop domestic violence. It is a matter on which there is unanimity in the House, not just on the Labour Benches.

I am sorry. I did not intend to suggest that there was no concern; I was saying that domestic violence was not recognised as an offence. We did not get it into legislation or think that it was something on which we should legislate. I was not just talking about Members when I said that violence against women was regarded as “just a domestic”. That attitude was common among the police until comparatively recently. When I was a candidate, there was a big conference on domestic violence at my local police headquarters, where they had put on the job someone who had suffered from violence as a child and whose wife had suffered violence in a previous relationship. At that stage, understandably, police attitudes were changing, but we needed to reach the point where people recognised the issue.

In an organisation where I worked, which employed variously between 20 and 25 people, two members of staff were victims of domestic violence. For at least one of them, work was clearly a place of refuge—where she could get out of the house. The issue is complex, but if it is more prevalent in a downturn, it is even more important that we do all that we can to support people and that we do not go back on what we need to do in terms of criminal justice.

It is worth us all remembering that one of the most hideous crimes that continues to be committed against women around the world is the use of rape and sexual assault as a weapon in military and paramilitary conflicts. The situation in Darfur is one of the most obvious areas where women are paying a huge price because of those evil practices. Although this debate is focusing on the domestic economic situation, we should never forget the terrible crimes committed against women in many parts of the world.

I agree absolutely. I was an election monitor in the Congo—as was the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—and met many victims of rape as a weapon of war. It is utterly appalling. Amnesty has reasserted its campaign within the last couple of weeks. Such crime is hideous and appalling and we should never forget that.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the change of attitude among the police. I draw her attention to the success in Cardiff in reducing the number of women who are repeated victims. Multidisciplinary working between all the agencies, the police and the hospitals has resulted in a definite drop in the repeat victimisation of women.

I appreciate those comments.

I realise that many Members want to speak, so I shall briefly mention a couple of further points, one of which I raise on behalf of the citizens advice bureau. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) spoke about the benefits of pension credits, but issues have been raised about some of the difficulties people face. The CAB—whose note I will pass to Ministers—has raised questions about the tariffing of income and the impact of falling interest rates on people with savings, where the tariff assumes their income is higher than it really is because of the fall in interest. That is slightly different from the way the issue was presented earlier, but I think it should be looked at. For example, money was deducted from a pensioner because of the assumptions made about her savings, and a lone parent with a young child had to stop working because she was concerned about the reduction in her entitlement to benefits. We need to look again at tapers and tariffs and the implicit assumptions about the interest people receive from their savings when deductions are made to benefits.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North made a powerful contribution about child care. I reiterate the importance of Sure Start children’s centres, which the Opposition do not wish to support. I shall be opening another children’s centre in my constituency.

I shall not take any more interventions because I have already been speaking for too long and other people wish to speak.

May I finish my point? I was just going to say that a report on equality and poverty that Professor John Hills and his London School of Economics team are working on has found that Sure Start has helped in improving child development and parenting and in cutting the attainment gap between rich and poor. If the right hon. Lady wishes to say that those centres will continue to exist and to provide those services, I will be absolutely delighted and will take back any suggestion that her party might be seeking to cut them.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, because Labour Members really must stop plying this incorrect statement that a Conservative Government would get rid of all Sure Start centres. That is not our policy. What we will do is make some changes to how the centres operate, and, significantly, we will use money that this Government are setting aside for Sure Start outreach workers to increase the number of health visitors by 4,200, which will give much needed support to women in the home at what is often a very difficult time for them, and when they are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence because that often starts when a baby is born. This will reverse the health visitor cuts under this Government, who have removed that support from women.

One of the problems with that approach, however, is that there will be less targeting on those who need the help the most. That is one of the difficulties in the proposals, but I am sure this will be a continuing, and lively, debate. Powerful points have, however, been made about the potential impact on children, and about the need to ensure child care is available, so that children do not suddenly lose their whole social circle and their environment if their mother is unable to afford it, perhaps because she has lost her job. We need to make progress on that. We need to make sure that we do not go backwards during the recession, but that we keep going forwards with the positive proposals that we have, and that we use them to try to make a fairer society and address some of the issues on which many of us have been campaigning for many years.

In the women’s summit group yesterday, it was made very clear that flexible working could be a positive way to help employers through the downturn, although there are also issues to do with how that affects benefits. There is a quote, which I cannot find now, from an article about Women Like Us, which operates at the primary school at the bottom of the road I live in when I am in London, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone). It is a wonderful quote about employers getting the benefit of employing somebody with a full brain at half price if they are working flexibly. What employers need is people with the capacity to work and who feel engaged and able to organise their lives. Flexible working can be of great benefit to employers, although it is, of course, also being used in a way that is not so beneficial to people, when companies are having to introduce short-time working. It is a mechanism for maintaining jobs over such periods, however, and employers should look upon flexibility as a way both of helping them deal with difficulties in the downturn and of making sure they get the most out of their employees. It is, potentially, a positive step for them, and we should not seek to go backwards on this. I hope that all Members present will want to make sure we pursue it.

There are opportunities, therefore, as well as the difficulties we face. I hope we will use action on the skills agenda to try to ensure we come out of the recession with a better skilled and more diversely trained work force who are able to meet the challenges that all of us will face in our daily lives.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), and I pay tribute to her especially for the work she has done through the Advisory Committee on Works of Art and the exhibition downstairs to promote awareness of, and education in, the achievements of the suffragettes. It is vital that we do not take for granted the fact that we female Members have the privilege of being Members of this House and taking part in the democratic process, as we have all been able to do since the age of 18, and that we remember that only two or three generations ago our grandmothers had to fight for the right to vote, never mind to sit in this House. Bearing all that in mind, I believe that all political parties are taking every step they possibly can to maximise the number of women representing them in this House, so that the woman’s voice is heard loud and clear in all areas of political activity and the political strata in our country today.

I am sure my hon. Friend would not want to move on to her next subject without also offering congratulations on this year being the 30th anniversary of a female Prime Minister being elected to this House.

My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right, and I will certainly not miss that opportunity. We must not forget that Baroness Thatcher—[Interruption.] The Solicitor-General says that we have not forgotten, and I can see that from the expression on her face. We must not forget that Baroness Thatcher broke the mould. When I was a little girl at school, people said, “Oh, girls don’t go into Parliament. Girls don’t do politics; you should think about being a teacher or a doctor or something else, dear.” Then came Margaret Thatcher, who broke the mould and showed that a woman with determination, ability and energy, and with her enormous talent and flair, can do anything—that has been proved. The Solicitor-General is getting very exercised now—I do not know what she is saying, but I think it is probably better to ignore it.

The Solicitor-General is probably thinking about the fact that not only did the Conservatives have the first female MP to take her seat, but the Labour party was the third party to have an Asian Member of Parliament—the Liberals were the first, the Conservatives were second and Labour was only third.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a very good and utterly relevant point. We are talking about equality, for which we are all striving across all strata of public life.

Just to tease the Labour party a little more, may I also note its glass ceiling—the party has had two female deputy leaders, but no woman in the top job?

Not yet, o ye of little faith; it looks to me as if it might only be a short time before such an achievement is made by a lady on the other side of the House, and Conservative Members would welcome that strongly.

I greatly welcome the fact that we are having this debate today to mark international women’s day on Sunday. I consider there to be no such thing as a woman’s issue—it is rather old-fashioned to put political matters into the box of being a woman’s issue. However, it must be said—sometimes we are not brave enough to say it—that women do things differently from men. There is no reason why women should conform to the way that men have always done things, including in the running of this place—how we conduct our debates and all other matters in the Houses of Parliament. We should be brave enough to say that women do things differently from men and that if we are looked at by men for doing things differently, that does not mean we are wrong—we are just different. We are no less valid than our male counterparts, nor are they less valid than us in any way.

On most policy areas women have a slightly different aspect and slightly different priorities from men. We look at things from a different angle, so it is right that on this one day a year we should focus on how things such as the recession—we are all concerned about that and we talk about it constantly in here—particularly affect women.

The Minister for Women and Equality was kind enough to allow me to intervene on her speech, and I was pleased that she gave this House an assurance that she will fight the corner of women when her Cabinet colleagues suggest, as they are reported in the press to do, that there should be some reining in on the right to request flexible working—that must not happen. It has been Conservative policy for some years that the right to request flexible working is the very basis on which we can start to achieve a work-life balance, not only for women, but for men and women in all parts of this country who have child care and other family responsibilities. If we do not have this, we go nowhere in the right direction on creating any kind of equality in the employment field.

There are those who argue that there is no need for a debate such as this today, and indeed that there is no need for international women’s day—

I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has identified himself as one of those people. I believe in freedom of speech and he is as entitled to his opinion as anyone else, and entitled to express it as vociferously as he likes, but—

That may well be the case. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, but I defend his right to make those points today, or any other day. However, his objections to this debate are not the usual objections to this debate or to international women’s day. Some people, notably women of a certain generation, argue that feminism is a thing of the past, that the battles that started in the last century have largely been won, and that therefore we no longer need such debates or an international women’s day. However, I think that that is a very narrow and selfish view of the world.

The women who sit in this House, the women in our families and many of the women with whom we work are fortunate and privileged, because we have had the advantage of an equal education and other equal opportunities in our working life. Those of us who sit in the House also have the great privilege of being able to speak out for women. We must therefore remember that the vast majority of women live in countries with no equality, but considerable poverty and enormous health problems. Women in such countries are in no better a position than their predecessors a century ago. We must not forgo the chance—indeed, it is our duty—to stand up for those many millions of women and do what we can to improve their lives, as well as considering the lives of women in this country. I strongly refute the arguments of those who say that debates on women’s issues should be a thing of the past. That is complacent in the extreme, because it is essential that we take the opportunity to speak up for women who need our moral, practical and financial support all over the world.

I wish particularly to address the issue of maternal health. I appreciate that the motion before us concerns the effects of the recession, but if the effect of the current recession is to require the Government to cut public expenditure, I make a plea here and now that overseas aid for international development should not be the subject of cuts. There are many countries, especially in Africa, that utterly depend on the financial, practical and political support that they get from our Government, and it would be a tragedy if this Government’s mismanagement of the economy meant that people in developing countries who desperately need our help were deprived of it.

My hon. Friend is right. The looming problems of the economy led to the situation in my constituency in which there were no midwives to give advice to first-time mums before they had their babies, because of a shortage of midwives and of funding to provide antenatal classes—and it has taken a long time to get those classes back. That was an example of cost-cutting that was detrimental to new mums.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I shall come to that point in just a few moments, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will talk about it, too, in her speech.

I recall that in the debate on international women’s day last year, I mentioned that I, along with a couple of other Members, had been the previous week to the annual UN conference on women in New York. I had met a large number of women from Africa and other parts of the third world who very bravely stood up for their rights, for women’s rights and for the welfare of children in their countries against all the odds. I was struck by the enormous contrast between the problems that they faced and the problems that were talked about by women from the privileged part of the world, such as those from our own country.

I noted that a year ago, and last month I was fortunate enough to be in Uganda. I was not on an official trip; I went with the Malaria Consortium, which is an excellent charity founded to combat malaria, as is clear from its name. Indeed, its purpose is to eradicate malaria in the parts of Africa where it can be eradicated, because that would make an enormous difference to the lives of almost all the population in the countries where malaria is endemic. I was in Uganda for just over a week, and while I was there I was taken to see outlying parts of the country districts near Kampala. The poverty, the lack of opportunity and the disease in such places is shocking. It struck me, not for the first time, that of course it is women and children who suffer most.

In observing the effects of malaria and doing the work that I was trying to do with the Malaria Consortium, I also came across the effects of HIV/AIDS and the dreadful dilemma in which millions of women find themselves when they discover only during the birth of a child, when they receive their first medical attention, that they have HIV/AIDS. Of course they would not have known that before, because they have never had access to a doctor. In one of the areas that I went to, the population is estimated to be approximately 300,000. Only six doctors cover that area, four of whom are in the towns. Most of those 300,000 people were spread throughout the countryside where women who desperately need medical attention have no chance of getting it.

The Malaria Consortium is doing terrifically good work in trying to set up a network of small local units, looked after by a local person who will have absolutely no medical training but will be a volunteer who will undergo a few days of training in how to test for malaria, how to advise about HIV/AIDS and how to administer drugs to relieve malaria, to cure it and to stop it.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Let me bring her back to the economic downturn and its impact on such work. Does she agree that the drastic reduction in interest rates and the big fall in the stock market that we have witnessed in recent times will have a big impact, as it will reduce charities’ incomes and therefore their ability to spend money on worthwhile projects such as that which she has described and many others besides?

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct—and I am glad to have the chance to say that in this debate! In the economic downturn, the effects of Government spending strategies, the reduction in interest rates and the fact that so little money is in circulation are very worrying. As always, the least privileged and those at the bottom of the pile suffer the most. That has happened throughout history, and I do not suppose that it will ever change.

We know that charities are suffering because of what has happened to their investments, but they are also being hit by the fact that companies that are usually generous and which try to be philanthropic in their outlook when they can are not providing investment. A company that cannot pay its shareholders and employees or invest in its own future will not have money left over for philanthropy and charity. That is precisely why I am so concerned about this issue.

Many volunteers who work in charities are women, but the recession is altering their economic situation at home so much that, for instance, it is becoming difficult for them to afford to use their car to deliver meals on wheels or take people to hospital. Does my hon. Friend agree that if such costs become disproportionately high for their family budgets, many women volunteers will be tempted or forced to withdraw the charitable support that they give? I thank and pay tribute to the volunteers in St. Albans, because if they all packed up and went home, the town would cease to function. Most of the people who come to the thank-you party that I hold for my volunteers are women, and I fear for some charities if they cannot give their services free because their family budget will not allow it.

My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely correct. Charities and good works in this country and around the world will suffer, because people view donations to charities as discretionary giving and of course they feed their children before they put money in the Red Cross box. Both at home and abroad, it is those who most depend on charitable works who will suffer in a recession. It is very sad that the Government’s handling of the economy has brought us to this point, as the United Kingdom could have been in a much stronger position had they managed things differently.

The hon. Member for Amber Valley rightly mentioned the importance of combating domestic violence. I recall that domestic violence rates in the UK are somewhere around 30 per cent.—

The Solicitor-General rightly asks me to clarify my statistics. At some point in their life, approximately 30 per cent. of women have suffered domestic violence of some kind or other. If she disagrees with that statistic, I will of course give way to her, but my recollection is that we are talking about a rate of about 30 per cent. That is enormously high, and we are all well aware of how much has to be done to combat that.

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point, but does she agree that much domestic violence goes unreported, with the result that it is difficult to estimate its absolute level?

Yes, I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and that is exactly the point. Although Home Office or police statistics on the reporting of domestic violence and the number of resulting convictions do not suggest that one in four—or even as many as one in three—women in the UK suffer domestic violence at some point in her life, the excellent work done by organisations such as Refuge shows that the proportion is in fact somewhere around 30 per cent.

The figure usually quoted is one in four, or 25 per cent., and I have no reason to think that it has gone up. Indeed, before the slightly disturbing figure for the Met area came out—my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) mentioned that figure—domestic violence was going down. It had reduced by about 58 per cent. in the past five years, which is a real tribute not only to our policies but, I think, to changed attitudes. We look at the British crime survey and at helplines, and domestic violence organisations give us lists of how many complaints they get. That is probably the best that anybody can do to estimate the figure.

I will happily concede that point, especially if, as the hon. and learned Lady indicates, the figures suggest that rates of domestic violence have reduced. I hope that that is so. I will happily concede that we are talking about 25 per cent. rather than 30 per cent., but 30 per cent. is still far too high. The point that I really wanted to make is that just two weeks ago I met the First Lady of Uganda—the wife of the President, who has just been made a member of the Ugandan Cabinet herself—and she told me that rates of domestic violence in Uganda are about 70 per cent. My point is that where there is poverty, deprivation, lack of education, hunger and disease, women, and of course children, suffer the most. I was shocked to find, during my work on malaria, that those who are most susceptible to malaria are babies, young children and pregnant women. Once again, we see that women are disproportionately those who suffer in society. In this case, they are already in a weak position, as pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to disease, including malaria.

I realise that I must not stray from the subject just because I was so moved by what I saw in Uganda and want to take action to combat it. However, I commend the Government on the work being done through the Department for International Development in countries such as Uganda. To refer to the exact wording of the debate title, if, due to the economic downturn and the Government’s mishandling of the economy, there are to be cuts to public expenditure—as, indeed, there must be—I sincerely hope that those cuts do not fall on the DFID budget, where they would lead to catastrophic effects; I make that plea to the Government. At present, 320 children in Uganda die every day of malaria; if we were not doing a lot to help, think how much worse the situation would be.

I come back to the home front and the subject of maternal health, which is extremely important, not just for women but for society as a whole. The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society, or SANDS, held an excellent meeting in the Palace of Westminster yesterday. It produced a report entitled “Saving Babies’ Lives”. Hon. Members may not be aware that every day in the United Kingdom, 17 babies die just before, during or just after birth. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) made a powerful point about the need for more midwives and maternity services. There is certainly such a need. Many of the 17 deaths a day are preventable. Here in the United Kingdom, we have the great advantage of being well-educated about matters concerning pregnancy, maternity and birth. Every woman in this country has, or should have, access to the medical care that she needs, yet on 17 occasions every day, babies are dying. Something has to be done about that.

My main point is that when we consider the effects of the recession and the Government’s mishandling of the economy on our society and, for the purposes of this debate, on women particularly, we must remember that as a society, we require many, many women to do two jobs. We require them to bear, produce and take care of the next generation in its childhood and adolescence, and at the same time to be economically active in the general economy.

It might be the choice of the individual woman to have a child at a particular time, and it might be her choice how many children to have, or not to have children at all. That might be a matter of personal choice at an individual time for an individual person, but we need to populate our country for the future, and we need women in general to produce children. That is not a matter of personal choice, and it is a fact that is often forgotten. If we allow the attitude to prevail which tells women, “You’ve chosen to have a child, so you make your own child care provisions. You’ve chosen to have a child, so you give up your job,” and if every woman who was doing an important job and was economically active chose not to have a child, society as a whole and the economy would be in a dreadful mess and in a state of imbalance.

It is not a matter of individual choice that women who are already doing a job should also become mothers and carers for their children. Given that we as a society have to accept responsibility for the next generation, we as a Parliament must support women in their double role in life.

My hon. Friend is making a hugely powerful point and I am reluctant to interrupt, but it could be said that women have a triple role. Many women are carers, and as a result of delaying having children, for whatever reason, many women find themselves in a dual role of looking after elderly parents as well as children, and also being economic contributors. That is not to say that men do not have a caring role; many do, but the expectation is that women, often with a young child, will take on caring roles, should the need arise at that time.

As ever, my hon. Friend is correct. Whenever we talk about parents as carers, we do not mean only mothers of small children, although that has become common parlance. We mean men and women who have family responsibilities, as I said earlier in a different context. Often, the responsibility of caring for elderly relatives is far more difficult, emotionally draining and time-consuming than the responsibility of caring for small children.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. Will she reflect on the fact that despite what she says and despite all the rhetoric on the issue, we spend more time in the House talking about whether we should breastfeed our children in the Chamber than providing child care facilities for Members and Members’ staff here in the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. We are often sidetracked on to the issues that do not matter, and we have never come near resolving the issue that does matter. We all go out there and say that we want more women in Parliament, more people from different and varied backgrounds, more people who do not have great economic advantages, and people from different parts of the country. We get the people here and they are told, “Oh well, that’s your responsibility. Too bad. If you have a child, you can’t vote, and you can’t speak. You’re not getting to play in the first team like the rest of us, because you have a child and you’ve got to go and look after it.” The attitude is still that it is one’s own responsibility—as of course it is. If I suggest that it is not the responsibility of a parent to look after his or her children, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley will rightly pick me up on that.

However, we need to have a shared responsibility for the work-life balance that this place requires if we are to succeed in having a truly representative House of Commons where there are men and women in almost equal numbers and people from all over the country representing different parts of it. I can easily see that it is far more difficult for someone to represent a seat that is three hours’ travel away than to represent a seat in London. There is much talk about the representation of ethnic minorities and of people who are not from a professional background, but often what we really mean is “people who don’t have private means”. The systems in this House make it very difficult for someone who is surviving entirely on the salary of the House of Commons to look after their children, and indeed other members of their family, properly. No attempt has been made to offer proper child care facilities in this House. Personally speaking, although I do not extrapolate from that, it takes two thirds of my net salary to pay for my child’s child care; I will not go into the arithmetic any further. That means that we are a hypocritical establishment in saying, “Yes, we want you to come here, but when you get here we won’t support you or pay you properly, and make it difficult for you”—which it is.

Let me conclude on the point of the motion: the effects of the economic downturn. I appreciate that the Minister for Women and Equality, who introduced the debate, and her hon. Friends have meant to do so much for women; I entirely concede that their intentions are good. It is sad that because of the mismanagement of the economy by some of their colleagues—notably the Prime Minister, as he is now, and when he was Chancellor—there might not be the economic resources to do all that they would have wished to do. Baroness Thatcher was mentioned a little while ago; I had meant to do so at this point because it is not reasonable to have this debate without her being mentioned at all. When she was Prime Minister, she pointed out that the Good Samaritan, great example though he was and great intentions though he had, could not have done what he did unless he had also had money. Her point then, which I echo now, is that there is much to be done in increasing equality, improving welfare, and enhancing family life, work-life balance and opportunities for women in our country, and in an economic downturn it will be far more difficult to do everything that we would all wish to do.

This Government, given their mismanagement of the economy and the state that it has got this country into, will bear a heavy burden if things go wrong, the equality agenda is derailed, and we find in five years’ time that we are standing here looking at statistics showing that the position of women and families has got worse—as I fear that it might but hope that it will not.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate to celebrate international women’s day both in this country and internationally. I am glad we have had some mention of the achievements of women internationally and the plight that such women find themselves in. I was pleased yesterday to meet the youngest woman Member of Parliament from Afghanistan—I do not know whether other Members had the opportunity to meet her—and to hear about the huge efforts that women are making in that Parliament to make their agenda succeed. They do, of course, have a 25 per cent. quota for women’s representation in Parliament, so they have more women Members of Parliament than we do. That was an inspiring meeting, and it is important that on international women’s day, we remember women all over the world.

This international women’s day has had more attention than normal. I have been invited to many more meetings and there seem to be lots of things going on. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality for holding the women’s summit yesterday. I was able to attend for a short time, and it highlighted women’s issues. I believe that international women’s day should be marked by a bank holiday. That would be an important thing to do. In this country, we have eight public holidays a year, while the European average is 11—even the United States has 10. It would be a great boost to women in this country if we had a bank holiday in honour of them. Bank holidays are a great time to stop and to take stock, and for families to get together. I would look to other hon. Members for support on that.

I would like to speak up on behalf of small businesses. I urge the hon. Lady to ensure that, when she is advocating more days off and more this, that and the other, she does not lose sight of the fact that businesses are struggling. We do not want to give another reason for them to say, “We don’t want to employ women, or consider them, because it will mean giving them even more time off with a bank holiday.” I suggest that we can commemorate the day in many ways, but more days off and fewer days work is probably not the way to do it.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Any bank holiday that celebrated women would also, obviously, benefit men as well. I draw her attention to the fact that we have so few bank holidays in this country, and they are important. In Wales, we have failed to make St. David’s day a public holiday—so far—but perhaps the Government might consider a public holiday that celebrated more than half the population.

Today, we are looking at supporting women and families through the downturn in the economy, and looking to the future, and it is appropriate that we do so on international women’s day. When we look at the history of international women’s day, we are aware of the strikes by women garment workers in New York in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when they demanded better working conditions and rights. It is important that we use this day to debate this subject, and again, I would like to congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady and her team on making this such an important, high-profile issue this week.

Why should the economic difficulties we are experiencing be different for women now than at other times in the past? As other Members have said, there are now more women employed in the workplace. In Wales, there is a small difference in the employment rates of men and women. There are 679,000 men in employment, compared with 589,000 women—a difference of only 90,000 people. We can see how the trends have been going; the employment rates of men and women are becoming more equal. It is hard to say how that will continue to develop, given the economic downturn, but there is no doubt that the pattern of employment in this country has radically changed. When we get over the downturn, I think it very likely that more women will end up being employed than men, and the implications of that for our pattern of family life are important to consider.

The figures show that 8.3 per cent. of men in Wales are out of work, compared with 5.2 per cent. of women. We have to be very sceptical about those statistics, of course, because many women are not registered for work and do not claim jobseeker’s allowance, so we do not know exactly how many women are out of work.

Many women are in vulnerable jobs. As so many more women are now in employment, and so many more families therefore depend on their income, women are much more vulnerable during the current problems than they have been in the past. Some 40 per cent. of women in Wales are in part-time work, compared with fewer than one in 10 men, and 29 per cent. of women are in low-paid work, compared with 16 per cent. of men. The fear is that part-time and low-paid staff will be disproportionately affected, as they might be seen as the easiest to get rid of. As was mentioned earlier, the last in may be the first out. Of course, women’s employment tends to be focused on certain sectors. The catering, retail and service sectors have all been mentioned. It has also been said that all parts of the economy are being hit in the current recession, including the parts in which women in particular tend to work.

The Government have made an admirable response to the difficult situation so far. They have gone out of their way to think of ways to help struggling families, and that is true of the Welsh Assembly Government as well as the Government here in Westminster. It is important that we shift the focus and consider the fact that the recession is affecting women as well as men. In my constituency, the Quality hotel in Tongwynlais suddenly closed, virtually overnight, after the chain that owned it collapsed, and many women were thrown out of work immediately.

In Wales, we have set up a scheme called the ProAct scheme. It has been set up with great swiftness and is designed to provide funding for employers who are facing difficulties during the recession. The support is intended to help businesses to prepare for economic recovery by upskilling their work force while they are on short-time working and by retaining skilled staff who might otherwise be made redundant. The good thing about it is that it offers people the opportunity to gain skills while they are on short-time working or out of work altogether, instead of sitting at home. Importantly, it gives people the opportunity to take advantage of that time to train and improve their opportunities for employment when the inevitable upturn comes.

However, ProAct is a pilot scheme, and it appears initially to have been aimed at the automotive industry. Its initial recipients will therefore probably be men. I urge the Government to ensure that any such schemes are equally available to women and spread over all sectors. I went to a meeting of the Federation of Small Businesses last night, and it said that it hoped that the scheme would be taken up in England as well. I know that the Prime Minister is considering doing that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) said, now is the opportunity to prepare for the inevitable upturn by providing women with skills. That is why apprenticeships are important, and I feel strongly that we should try to make them less segregated. As I have said, we should encourage part-time apprenticeships to encourage older women and those with children to get involved. We all know that apprenticeships can be in various sectors, and the pay might be very high in one sector and pretty low in another. That dictates the pay gap that exists for the rest of people’s lives. Apprenticeships are vital, and we must ensure that they are more equally divided. That can be done through work experience, which can make certain that girls and boys have experience of work that is non-traditional to their sex. That applies to boys and young men as well, as there are sectors in which it would be a huge advantage to have men involved. An example would be child care, as this would provide male role models for children from an early age. These are among the important things that we can do at this difficult time.

The gender pay gap has been mentioned several times. It is difficult to bridge that gap, for reasons that I have already given. It is deeply embedded, and it will take a long time and a great deal of effort to do so. In Wales, it has got slightly worse, which is a matter of concern. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is working with Swansea university to investigate why the pay gap has worsened in Wales, and to determine whether it is just a blip or whether something fundamental is happening that would require an even greater effort to narrow the gap.

It is also a matter of concern that there are more women than men on short-term, flexible contracts. It has already been pointed out that that might mean that employers are more willing to use such contracts during difficult times. There is also a great fear, however, that people employed on such contracts will be the first to go. The TUC is worried that women might be prepared to take jobs at almost any price, because they are so concerned about their families and children. The number of women who hold jobs that pay below the minimum wage is significantly higher than the number of men in such jobs.

Women’s jobs are vulnerable. We all know about the discrimination that pregnant women have suffered in the workplace, even before the economic downturn. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has given many examples over the years of pregnant women being discriminated against. This week, I heard a story about a woman in Cardiff who told her employer that she was pregnant. His response was, “I don’t think you’re meeting your targets at work.” My fear is that such incidents will continue to happen, and we must do all that we possibly can to prevent them.

It is also a fact that 90 per cent. of single-parent households are headed by women. We know that the way out of poverty is to enable people to work, and the Government have worked very hard to achieve that. The tax credit system has been targeted to help people, particularly low-income families in work, but if those jobs go, the families will be very vulnerable. We have made efforts to give more opportunities to lone parents, and it is important to ensure that those opportunities remain.

Another area of concern is that of child care, which has already been raised today. There is no doubt that a number of child care businesses, where many women work, are vulnerable in these circumstances. In Wales, we have introduced the foundation phase, an early-years programme in which children learn through play until they reach six years of age. That programme has resulted in a big increase in the number of women being employed, because a lot of support workers have been taken on to work in small groups with children in the programme. That is an example of an increase in women workers, and I have no doubt that those people will stay in jobs.

I mentioned informal child care in an earlier intervention. I do not know what the answer is, but I believe that the issue should be addressed. In Wales, two thirds of child care is done on an informal basis, by friends, grandparents or other relatives. That is often the most suitable kind of care, if people can get it, because it is flexible. The children know the family and families can be trusted; such care can be provided around people’s work. How people arrange finances, work and benefits around that is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) said earlier, something that we should look at. I believe that there would be huge benefits for the country as a whole if we enabled more women to be free to work as a result of their children being taken care of. That is an important issue.

Wales has developed a number of policies that will stand up well during this recession. I particularly draw the House’s attention to the fact that schools in Wales have free breakfasts available in their breakfast clubs, which are taken up in a significant number of cases. They run from early in the morning and the parents face no additional costs for the breakfasts; they provide another aspect of child care in difficult situations.

I have some specific suggestions for the Government to take up. The Westminster Government should look at the ProAct scheme in Wales and see whether it can be extended to England. All schemes should be looked at in terms of their impact on women as well as men, and efforts should be made to extend them to women as well as men. Apprenticeship schemes should be viewed with reference to their availability to women. We also need to reflect more on informal child care.

It is particularly important to protect the women’s voluntary sector. I had a meeting yesterday with representatives from the women’s voluntary sector, who feel under enormous threat at the moment. Part of the reason for that is the lack of understanding by local authorities of the funding for organisations that work only with women, along with their lack of understanding of their gender equality duties. I was extremely concerned to find that so many women’s voluntary organisations felt that they were struggling in really difficult times. It is important to reflect more on that.

Most importantly of all, we must keep going ahead with our equality agenda. Many Members have already said this in today’s debate, but the recession must not in any way be used as an excuse to send women back to the kitchen; we will never go back to the old traditional family style with one male breadwinner and the woman based in the kitchen.

Let me point out that, like her ministerial colleagues, the hon. Lady expresses a good intention with which we all agree—that we must not go back and that we must drive the equality agenda forward—but how will she do it if a small business has to cut costs or go under? That choice is being faced everywhere because of the economic downturn and the Government’s mishandling of the economy, so how will she persuade people not to get rid of the women in their work force?

It is a matter of ensuring that all the different initiatives from different levels of Government are used to help and encourage small businesses through these difficult times. I accept the hon. Lady’s point, but programmes are in place that will help small businesses.

Let me gently chide the hon. Lady on her point about women in the kitchen. I would not want any women who are in the kitchen by choice to be undervalued in any way, shape or form. My only concern is that a woman should not be disadvantaged in the workplace if that is where she chooses to be. If she is doing the most valuable job that I think she can possibly do—looking after her family, supporting home life and perhaps cooking proper food for her children, when we all complain about people buying the ready-made stuff—I would really hate it if she felt that that job was not valued when people keep saying that she must be at work.

I accept the hon. Lady’s point. If a women wants and is able to afford to be at home, that is fine and her choice, but we know that the vast majority of women want to go out to work and need to, because of the money and for many other different reasons. I am not devaluing those people who are able and want to stay at home—it is an enormously important job—but I also think that the majority of women want to go out to work.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) makes the point that some families choose for the mother to stay at home, which should be a perfectly valid choice. If they can afford to do that, we should not criticise them for it.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We do not want the progress of the last 50 years to disappear because of the difficult economic situation we are in, nor must we prevent the progress that we are planning to make or the equality legislation that we are planning to introduce. I look forward to the legislation very much. It is sure to improve things even more.

It has been interesting to hear what has been happening in other countries at this time. Everywhere in Europe and in the United States, voices are saying how important it is that we continue our strive towards equal opportunities. It is worth quoting the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities:

“Discrimination produces inefficiency… Only by reaping the potential of all our talents can we face up to the crisis.”

There is no doubt that, for the country and for different companies to flourish, we need to use all our talents. For a company to flourish, it needs the best talent available. We have made a lot of progress, but we know that women and ethnic minorities often still find themselves discriminated against when they try to get jobs. If we produce a more level playing field, that will allow for the best people to get jobs, whatever their background, and that can only serve to help businesses and the economy.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who always speaks eloquently on behalf of her beautiful part of the world and country. It is good to hear her.

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friends because, unlike the other parties, we have on our Benches three men who have come to the debate on international women’s day and what is happening to women in the economy. [Interruption.] The Solicitor-General is pointing out that, were it possible, or even desirable, for my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Buckingham (John Bercow) to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, she would see just what a diverse and broad church we are. I hope that we might look forward to that, although it is at your discretion.

I want to begin by saying something that will please my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. After all, we are fellow Yorkshire folk. We are discussing the impact of the recession on women, but it is important to say that the impact of the recession is simply devastating for all our fellow citizens when they are on the rough end of it, whether they are men or women. I would hate anybody outside who looked at the proceedings of the House to ask, “Why are they talking about women?” We are talking about women because it is international women’s day, but also because we are concerned about all our citizens, including men, and the impact on their families if they lose their job or their house.

The issues might be different or might disproportionately affect women, and there might be other reasons to talk about women, but we are having the debate because we are concerned about the plight of all British citizens—as well as citizens across the world, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) so eloquently set about explaining—and the impact that the economic crisis will have on us all, and disproportionately on some of the more vulnerable in our society.

Some of those vulnerable members of society are women. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North said that 90 per cent. of single-parent households with children are headed by women. The economic livelihoods of such people are on the margin at the best of times, given their part-time jobs, family tax credit and the need to pay the mortgage, or simply to make the budget cover something very expensive—the cost of children, who always come home from school saying that there is something that they want. They may want new trainers, or something that they have seen on television, or a new Nintendo game. Mothers want to provide such things, but when the economic situation becomes difficult, difficult economic choices have to be made. Many women must achieve a difficult balance in reconciling the family budget with the other priorities that they would like to make for their families.

We are in a dreadful state. We have heard some announcements today that will have a further impact, and to which I may well refer later, but at present a family, with a 125 per cent. mortgage because the rules allowed it when the property market was at its height, may be living in a house that is quite likely to be repossessed. Families were encouraged to believe then that the boom times would go on for ever and to take out loans amounting to much more than the value of their houses. Not only has the property market fallen in value, but such families must carry an additional millstone because they took out mortgages of more than 100 per cent. at the top of the market, and will walk away from their houses—or, perhaps, will be evicted by bailiffs—with a massive debt hanging around their necks.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest pointed out, the Government must bear some culpability for our present state. We know that there is a worldwide economic recession, and that every country from America to China has been affected by it, but it is simply not true to say that the actions of our own Government did not contribute to a significant extent.

This week we heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer some suggestion that culpability lies in the way in which the financial sector was regulated. The person from whom I am really waiting to hear, however, is the Prime Minister, who was the architect of our present financial regulation. The centrepiece of his first year in office was his proposal to change the regulation of the banking system, which had been regulated by the Bank of England for more than 200 years. The Bank of England would tap on the proverbial shoulder a bank that was getting into trouble in the same way as Northern Rock and say “Look, we do not think that your business model is particularly sustainable.” It would deal with the situation before it got out of hand. Now, however, three bodies are in charge: the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. As we all know, if a job is given to three people, it does not always get done, because everyone thinks that it is someone else’s responsibility.

That system of financial regulation certainly did not disapprove of mortgages of more than 100 per cent., and it did not tackle some of the excesses of the banking system. A huge amount of culpability for the situation in which we have ended up lies with the “bust” of the financial sector.

My hon. Friend made a valid point about 125 per cent. mortgages. When the Communities and Local Government Committee took evidence on the delivery of affordable houses, it became clear to us that the Government were driving more and more people towards the idea of buying homes—even if their incomes were much lower than those of most people entering the property market—while reducing the construction of social housing and affordable homes. An increasing number of people were encouraged to believe that their properties represented an ever-growing pension pot on which they could rely in their old age. The Government made much of that.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Yes, we did have a wonderfully prolonged period of economic well-being and growth that started, as we on the Conservative Benches often say, well before this Government came to power, under the wonderful stewardship of the present shadow Business Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). He handed over to this Government a golden economy—an economy that any incoming Government would have bitten your hand off for, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Government were pleased about that. One would have said until now that they had done jolly well in maintaining that economy, keeping inflation relatively low and interest rates at a reasonable level. Indeed, the Prime Minister encouraged that idea, with his incredibly hubristic boasts about how he had ended boom and bust. He said that many times at the Dispatch Box, and for a time even I started believing that somehow he had the magic wand to make things all right. I am meant to know a little about economics—I read a bit of economics at university—and in this House one is certainly expected to know a little about such matters. However, people outside were told by the then Chancellor that the “never had it so good” times were here to stay. They were told, in effect, “Don’t worry, it’s all going to be all right—we’ve cracked inflation and boom and bust. You can carry on assuming that you don’t really have to save very much, because those rainy days that you used to have to worry about aren’t going to come along.” That was simply not true.

It is therefore not surprising that people took out big mortgages that they could not afford and that were worth more than the houses that they were buying, so that they could add a new car or perhaps take a foreign holiday. We are still waiting—the press have been salivating for this all week—for the Prime Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and say sorry for encouraging people in the belief that things would be all right and that they did not have to take sensible precautions in their family budgets.

It is also worth bearing in mind the fact that—I am sure that lots of hon. Members will make this point very eloquently when we have the debate on the economy next week—the then Chancellor and now Prime Minister is also culpable for changing the way in which we benchmark inflation. The housing market—historically, the biggest dynamic of inflation in the UK economy—was taken out of the official inflation rate, so that when the Bank of England set interest rates, it did not have to take into account the fact that the housing sector was on a roll. That has added to the nation’s indebtedness, encouraged more people to take on debt, either for their homes or on their credit cards, and, sadly, helped to create the state that we are in today.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Does she also recall that one of the very first things that the now Prime Minister did when he became Chancellor in 1997 was change the way advance corporation tax worked, thereby taking enormous amounts of money out of pension funds? He has pulled the wool over the eyes of generations of pensioners, who now find that the money in their hands is much less than they expected to have. They wonder where it went. It is not just the downturn in the economy that is to blame; it is the Chancellor’s positive action in changing taxation, taking money away from the individual and putting it in the Treasury.

Again, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who has passionately explained what the then Chancellor did to devastate the pensions industry, possibly as his first act of vandalism on coming to office. Clearly the list goes on, but perhaps we will not be able to cover all the areas of culpability in this debate.

As my hon. Friend will know, many businesses are going under, particularly small businesses. St. Albans is not alone in seeing a number of small retail units becoming empty because the business has folded. Many of those businesses were started by women and are now being hit by the extra tax that the Government have slapped on businesses with empty commercial premises. That measure is not delivering what the Government thought it would deliver; it is delivering an extra financial burden on people during the recession. That is hitting businesses, families and women very hard.

Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although I think there is some relief in this financial year for smaller business premises, we very much hope that when the Chancellor gives his Budget, he will recognise the error of his ways for introducing that tax in the first place. It is devastating given the state of the economy.

As was mentioned earlier, the trajectory of job losses for women is becoming much greater, with the likelihood that more women than men will lose their job. Retail is just one of the sectors that has been particularly badly hit. I suspect that Woolworths was a good example of an employer more likely to employ females than men. Earlier, I was struck by something that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) said. I think she was proposing to Ministers that when the Government look at giving help to businesses—the most obvious examples are in the banking, manufacturing and car sectors—there should be an equality audit of the effect on male jobs compared to female jobs. I wondered what she meant by that. There is financial support from the Government in the current predicament but it has to have limits—the taxpayer cannot take much more—so we have to look at the areas that are most vital to the economy. Although we are all incredibly cross with the banks, we all grudgingly accept that they needed to be bailed out.

I was saying that as money is handed out to bail out any industry and as we move away from the banks—I think there is universal agreement that there was no choice but to bail them out—and turn to the private sector, there is a legal duty on the Treasury and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to examine any substantive policy change. I submit that giving vast sums of money to any industry involves a policy change, so proposals need to be examined in that light. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that every case has to be judged on its economic benefits, but it might also be right to include a judgment of the equality benefits, to avoid unintended consequences if money always goes automatically to the most obvious case. However much of a rush we are in and whatever crisis we are in, that is something we should consider.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for explaining her point a little further. There has been speculation that the Government will introduce a Bill that allows them to help businesses more directly and we could pursue that debate at that time.

I want to add my voice on the gender pay gap, which has already been mentioned by many Members, but as we are predominantly women in the House today and as we feel particularly strongly about it, I do not want to exclude the subject completely from my speech. I was incredibly struck by the comment of the Minister for Women and Equality that although the gender pay gap is 17 per cent. across the UK economy in general, it is 44 per cent. in financial services, which is simply outrageous. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley might think that was a bit wrong. The statistics are a red rag to a bull. The men have all been bailed out for their recklessness, because one can only assume that the pay gap roughly means that the high rollers the men—the people—

Indeed. Those who earn loads of money in the dealing rooms and the high-value investment banking sector are men, with perhaps a smattering of women, but the people who will be feeling the cuts in the banking sector, in the struggle to find cost efficiencies and savings to rescue the industry, are presumably bank clerks on much lower salaries, which creates that huge discrepancy as females are made unemployed. A precious other income in the family budget is thus taken away, with the subsequent impact on the whole household. It is a very depressing picture.

The Leader of the House was keen to tell us in her opening remarks that “fairness” was “at the very heart of what we do”. I broadly accept that women’s issues are close to the right hon. and learned Lady’s heart, but I therefore simply do not understand why, given that there is much progress to be made on the gender pay gap, she has set her face against our pay audit proposal. It would not apply to all companies, because we have to be worried about the bureaucratic burden at present, given all the other worries about earning money that individual companies currently have. However, although there would not be an overall requirement for companies to conduct pay audits because that would be asking too much in the current economic climate and I would not want to have to justify it, I do not see why companies that have been taken to an employment tribunal and found guilty of an offence on equal pay grounds should not be obliged to do one, because I think that would be pretty reasonable punishment for what they have done, and it might encourage better practice in general. Perhaps we will further debate this when—and if—the famous equality Bill actually reaches the Floor of the House. We would be optimistic that we could persuade the Government on that measure.

I want to talk about a group of people who have not been much mentioned yet, because we are rightly concerned about families and the vulnerability of children and the responsibility for them—which rests mainly on the shoulders of women, although men take their responsibilities in that regard as well. This other group of people is being really clobbered by the recession, and might be clobbered for a considerable period. This group is women pensioners. I am not talking about those who are poor enough to be eligible for the pension credit, which applies very low down the income scale, but those just above that. They are often now widowed and relying on the money they made as a family. They might hold a few shares in the banks—which are now almost worthless if invested in the wrong bank, but what a solid investment they used to be! So, savings that were held as bank shares have gone, although I am sure they were bought with the thought, “Well, it is the one sector that will be okay and that we can trust to buy shares in.” If they are lucky enough to have put their savings into non-banking shares, their dividends will have decreased, along with the value of the investment; even if they have invested in blue-chip shares such as the supermarkets, they will be suffering.

A lot of these people will, of course, simply have their savings in cash, and almost no interest at all is being paid on such investments. Added to the insult of pretty much no interest being paid on them, someone sitting at home with not a lot to do will be worried stiff about whether the cash that they hold in the bank is now safe. Indeed, there have been moments in the past few months when that was a legitimate worry, and I would certainly urge any of my constituents to make sure they are cognisant of the Financial Services Authority guarantees on cash deposits, so they can be absolutely reassured that their savings are safe.

This category of people was relying on dividend income and the interest on their bank savings to top up their pension and not only to pay for the holiday, or running the car, or for other things that are considered a luxury by many retired people, but in many cases to pay the council tax or their regular food or fuel bills. That income has disappeared. As a Labour Member pointed out earlier, the Government currently assume the interest received on savings held in banks at a ridiculous level—some 10 per cent. That rate simply cannot be found for any investment vehicle anywhere in the country, or the world.

So these people are really suffering. They cannot fall back on pension credit if they are within those parameters, because their savings are deemed to earn more interest than they can ever possibly secure. There are those who are just above that level but who are still finding it very hard. These people did not have it so good even when it was so good, because they were not in the market earning better salaries; they were living on fixed incomes. They had been clobbered over the past 10 years by whacking great increases in council tax—in my area it has more than doubled. They struggled to find that money and now they will struggle even more, and I feel greatly for them.

It is only a modest measure because interest rates are so low—0.5 per cent. as of midday today, when the Bank of England made its announcement—but it is at least a sign that we are concerned, so I very much hope that the Government introduce in their Budget our idea that for basic rate taxpayers the interest on savings should be tax-free. We have to do something to increase the savings ratio. The recession will help that, because people are scared and they want to save money to pay the bills. If I look at that little list of culpabilities, which I mentioned earlier—

My hon. Friend rightly corrects me, because it is a long list of culpabilities of the then Chancellor—now the Prime Minister. He absolutely did not care about the collapse of the savings ratio over the past decade. All these things are coming back to haunt not only him—it is right that they should—but, much more worryingly, the people whom I represent and the people of my country, who are really hurting. I worry for them because another announcement made today— disgracefully, it was not made on the Floor of the House—was that there will be quantitative easing in the UK economy. Back when I was learning economics, that used to be called the Government printing money, and that is what it amounts to. We have to hope that it works—it is a desperate measure brought on by desperate times, and thus we desperately need it to have an impact and to work.

I am probably the only Member of the House who welcomes that announcement, because it is good for jobs in my constituency—the Bank of England printing works are situated there.

It always gives me pleasure to see my hon. Friend take pleasure in something, so to that extent I welcome her welcome. For the rest of us, however, it is not such great news that we have come to this state of affairs.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Does this not bring us on to another area where the then Chancellor has been to blame: spending money like a drunken sailor in the good years so that there was nothing left in the cupboard when we got to the bad times?

I thought that my hon. Friend’s contribution would be something on which I could disagree and show what a broad church the Conservative party is, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham might even have agreed with that particular sentence.

It is, of course, a very sad state of affairs that we have reached a position in which we have to contemplate and, indeed, give the go-ahead to quantitative easing, but does my hon. Friend accept that it might now be the least worst option? Is it not significant that no lesser a monetarist economist than the distinguished Patrick Minford, from the University of Liverpool, has said that it is the right thing to do in the circumstances?

With a hugely heavy heart, I agree with both of the contributions that my hon. Friends just made. We have reached the point where we have no choice. The point that I was going to make was that, in all likelihood, this measure will, over time, lead to inflation—the thing that we used to dread. At the moment, a bit of inflation in the UK economy would be very welcome, because we face the diametric opposite. But over time, unless it is dealt with very skilfully, we will have inflation, which hits the people on a fixed income in retirement, whose savings are decimated. We remember the 1970s only too well, when exactly that scenario was played out, and people will worry that that will happen again as a result of this announcement.

Because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said, we spent so much, both recklessly in the past when we should not have increased public expenditure by so much, and more recently when we have had no choice but to increase public expenditure by so much to rescue the banks and other important sectors of the economy, even the Government—although getting them to talk about tax rises is like extracting teeth—have had to admit, to reassure the financial markets, that national insurance contributions will rise for both employers and employees in just two years’ time. What will that do to help women’s employment—or men’s employment—at the time? Employers will be reluctant to take people on. We are in a recession now, and climbing out of it will be made much harder by the Government’s unwillingness to consider the impact of their public expenditure plans, including the £12 billion that we have wasted on the VAT cut.

The Government should be a little more respectful of the taxpayer’s purse, because all that money will have to be paid back in the end. Some of it will be paid back through inflation, but some will have to be paid back in hard-earned cash that will have to be raised through taxation. We should also look at the other side of the balance sheet, or what we can save to prevent such tax rises in the future, because tax rises will slow up the recovery and make it much harder, especially for women—whose employment is more marginal, as we have all said today—to obtain jobs. The job opportunities will not be available as we come out of the recession because of the mistakes made in the economic management of this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest talked about her visit in February, and I want to tell the House about my trip as part of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Zambia. While I do not wish to diminish the problems experienced in the UK, it is sobering—as my hon. Friend most eloquently explained—to go to other countries to see how much worse things could be. Zambia is a beautiful country with very talented people—I was pleased to see, in the interesting and important meetings that we had, that women were in very senior positions—but it is a very poor country, and many of its citizens struggle to survive. I echo my hon. Friend’s remarks about the aid budget, and DFID does an important job giving straightforward financial support to Zambia to be spent by the Government.

I congratulate Zambia on understanding that the AIDS epidemic is taking out its most resourceful citizens, so controlling the disease is the right way forward. Zambia now has a programme of voluntary testing and if someone receives a positive diagnosis, there is a fully funded antiretroviral drug programme available. That is a great achievement for such a poor country, where even the cheapest drug—needed in the earlier stages of HIV infection—costs $200 a year per person. That is a large expenditure for the Government to sustain, and sadly the number of cases continues to rise. I hope that it will start to stabilise, but the programme is only just starting and therefore identifying more sufferers. The Government of Zambia are right to introduce that programme, because it is an investment in their own people.

The thing that really struck me, which is where the issue of women particularly came into play, became clear on a visit to the border post of Chirundu on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. Of course, if we think that we have economic problems then Zimbabwe is in a different league. The Zambians are generous in that they have pretty lax border controls when it comes to allowing people to cross their borders. Traditionally, of course, people have come to market by crossing the border every day. They cross the lovely bridge across the Zambezi that was paid for by the Japanese, as it turned out—we have done other things. Traditionally, people would have gone across on market day to sell their goods, but nowadays many people want to come out of Zimbabwe for economic reasons—to earn some money so that they can go back and help their families—but because they cannot afford a passport, which they need to travel legally, they travel illegally. The minute they are illegally in Zambia that creates a problem, because they are much more vulnerable to the police and other authorities, who do not always respect their rights.

The economic position of many of those women is absolutely dire. They have walked—or taken a lift—hundreds of miles out of Zimbabwe to come to Zambia. They have tried to find work in the agricultural sector to earn some money to take back and while they are in Zambia they are illegal and therefore very vulnerable. Of course, some of them do not find work picking crops in the fields. As the town is a major crossing point for many of the trucks coming down from the copper belts in Congo and Zambia, there is one trade that is always available to a female who is desperate to feed her family. That trade is prostitution. Inevitably, many of those women find themselves in what I would call voluntary prostitution, although of course it is not voluntary as it is driven entirely by economics. For example, it might be a case of a driver saying, “If you want me to give you a lift, darling, how about it?” Those women have no choice but to offer that service.

It was a very sobering experience for those of us who were lucky enough to be born in the UK to see that, for many women, that is what the economic choices boil down to. I have praised DFID for its work, and it is supporting an international organisation’s migration project on the border. It is sympathetic to the local population, which is not very wealthy either. It provides somewhere where anyone—women or men—can take a shower, go to the toilet, which normally has to be paid for in Zambia when people are on the street, and sort themselves out with advice before doing whatever they have to do to try to raise funds so that they can take them home and feed their families.

I pay tribute to those women, some of whom I met at the market, who were very stoic in the face of the disadvantages in their lives. For them, worldwide economic recession can only be pretty poor news. It makes their difficult predicament even worse. We all do what we can to support our families, and on international women’s day I pay tribute to all women across the world for what they do.

Several hon. Members rose—

Order. Perhaps this might be the moment to remind hon. Members that the average length of Back-Bench speeches has been about 30 minutes. If that average is maintained, only three more hon. Members would be allowed to participate. Perhaps there could be a slight quantitative easing.

It is a great pleasure to be in the Chamber again for what has been an excellent debate. This might be my last debate celebrating international women’s day and I admire the fortitude of the three male Opposition Members who have been present for much of the time. However, I must remind the Opposition that their party has a much larger proportion of male Members than ours has. I appreciate the presence of the hon. Gentlemen, particularly since one of them is my own MP. However, my own party has a couple of male Members present now.

It is also excellent to hear from other hon. Members who have been to Africa. We have heard about visits to Uganda and Zambia: I visited Kenya in October, and I think that our experiences of the position of women are very similar. I was deeply concerned to learn that female genital mutilation is still a problem in Kenya. The men do not like to talk about it, but I managed to extract some information on what is a pretty awful practice. Anything that we in this House—and especially the women here—can do to discourage such activity in African countries will be appreciated by women there.

We may also achieve greater diversity. At least two of my colleagues from the Speaker’s Conference on diversity are present in the Chamber. We will all work together to achieve greater diversity and, although I am not sure how that will happen, I certainly hope that it will.

This debate is about supporting women through the economic downturn and into the future. Women are now getting support from Sure Start, extended school hours, the minimum wage, tax credits and the availability of flexible working. Many of those things are likely to disappear or wither on the vine if the Opposition get elected.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has said that women must know their rights, but many do not. In that regard, I want to ask a question that many people consider to be something of a taboo subject—although that has never stopped me before. How many women from various ethnic communities where cousin marriages are the norm are aware of the availability, free through the NHS, of genetic counselling and screening prior to marriage? I have been unable to persuade the Bradford and Airedale teaching primary care trust of the need to make the availability of those services known through advertising in medical and community centres, hospital out-patient and accident and emergency departments, or even in schools. It just will not do so, believing that the subject is too politically incorrect.

As always, my concern is for the very young women who have entered this country as young wives. They have no English and are very vulnerable. In some families, they go on producing children even after having given birth to children with severe problems. Often, they get little help from the in-laws who arranged the marriage. Those young women, most of whom come from Mirpur in Pakistan, are the victims of a rural culture. I want to emphasise that this problem has nothing to do with religion or the fact that they are Muslims, but that it is just what happens in the rural culture whence they come.

Some so-called community leaders—all of them men—argue that consanguinity has no impact on the number of children born with severe disabilities, and I agree that such children are born to couples who are not related and that many perfectly healthy children are born to cousins. However, the statistics reveal that, although 2 per cent. of children from all communities are born with genetically transmitted disorders, the percentage doubles to 4 per cent. in the communities that favour first-cousin marriages.

I am absolutely not asking that cousin marriages be outlawed. I simply want us to discuss the matter and to encourage PCTs to make known the availability of genetic counselling and screening. That could be an enormous help for these young women who, as I said, are not aware that such services are available.

I shall try to be brief, but I should like to pay tribute to the paediatricians of Bradford and Keighley, who are so expert in diagnosing and caring for children with diseases that are often very rare. I should also like to put on record my appreciation of the introduction by my Government of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007.

I am proud to be the hon. Lady’s Member of Parliament; she is incredibly courageous and has done an awful lot on such issues, speaking out when other people would not have done, and she deserves huge praise. On first-cousin marriages and the health problems that flow from it, does she agree that we hope that the Born in Bradford scheme, which is being run in hospitals in Bradford, will lead to more information being known on the subject, so that the problem can be tackled better?

I do agree, but the Born in Bradford scheme is not that up-front about what it is there for. It is careful not to say that it is about consanguinity and cousin marriages. I can understand why that is; it does not want to put off women from informing it of the nature of their family.

I was talking about the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act, which the Government introduced. I recognise that it was the party of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)—

Yes, it was Lord Lester, in the other place, who introduced the measure as a private Member’s Bill. The measures are up and running, and certainly helped to return a very young doctor from Bangladesh a few weeks ago. I appreciate the fact that the Government are changing immigration regulations, which will greatly help young women to refuse to go into forced marriages. I also appreciate the fact that the Forced Marriage Unit, which is funded partly by the Home Office and the Foreign Office, has been up and running for many years. It is doing an extremely useful job in areas such as mine.

Talking about this subject today will not do me any favours with many of my community leaders in Keighley and Bradford. It is a difficult subject to broach, but then again, 10 years and a few weeks ago, it was the anniversary of a very important Adjournment debate, which Alice Mahon, then the Member for Halifax, and I requested. We decided that we had to go public on the issue of forced marriages. The debate was supported by Members—mainly women—from all parts of the House. We moved from that situation to the current situation, in which we have the Forced Marriage Unit, and great recognition, across the country, of the fact that forced marriages do happen, and of the idea that we should be talking families out of adopting that sort of attitude to their daughters and sons. I think that we achieved that, so I hope that it does not take 10 years to talk families out of going on with consanguinity—that is, first-cousin marriages.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), with whom I have made common cause on a number of issues in recent years, and to whose courageous contribution I listened with immense respect.

I would like narrowly to focus my remarks on the national minimum wage, to the compelling case for the introduction of which I long ago publicly converted. Before its introduction, too many people suffered too much for too long with too little done to help them. Since its inception, it is estimated that approximately 1 million people a year benefit from the annual uprating, of whom no less than two thirds are women. It is worth emphasising to boot that for those beneficiaries of the national minimum wage who are sole earners, it has been especially significant. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that its introduction has been an economic kiss of life to significant numbers of women who were struggling at the margins, and of whom it cannot reasonably be said that they lived their lives; they rather fought daily to continue to exist. That is a dramatic achievement.

It is instructive to look at the reports of the Low Pay Commission. Its sixth report, published in 2005, observed—probably en passant, while raising all sorts of other points—that although it was not the prime rationale for the introduction of the national minimum wage that it should reduce the gender pay gap, in practice it had had a major impact on that gap. That is especially true at the lower end of the income scale.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) referred to the sharp disparities in income in the financial services sector, and I think she would almost certainly be right in surmising that the sharp disparities are especially sharp at the upper end of the scale. It is to the credit of the Government that for people at the bottom of the pile, the introduction of the national minimum wage and the constant increase in its rate has narrowed that gap.

The ninth report of the Low Pay Commission in 2008 significantly observed that the evidence demonstrated that there was no adverse impact upon employment as a result of the introduction of the wage or from its annual uprating, in contrast to the predictions of the doom-mongers, among whom I readily number myself. It is easy to be convinced by one’s own rhetoric, or drenched in one’s own propaganda, and for an indefinite period of time to be convinced of one’s own preconception. I admit that I thought the introduction of the minimum wage would be hazardous, that it would lead to terrible consequences, that there would be a huge increase in unemployment and so on, and that has not proved to be the case, principally because the Government were politically and economically savvy enough to introduce it at a relatively low rate and then to look gradually and affordably to increase it.

The point that I want to make today in relation to the level of the wage, in the context of economic downturn and the particular problems that beset women, is this: I recognise that every year the Low Pay Commission looks at the wage, the state of the economy and what scope there might be for an affordable increase. It normally makes its recommendation to Government in February, with a view to the uprating taking effect in October.

As the Solicitor-General knows, this year the Low Pay Commission has sought permission from the Government, which was sensibly granted, to take a little longer in its consideration of the economic numbers before making a recommendation as to what, if any, increase there should be. My understanding is that the Low Pay Commission intends to furnish its advice to Government by May this year, though importantly and justifiably there is to be no delay in the annual uprating taking effect. That should take effect, if there is to be such, in October.

Over the past 10 years there has been a compound increase in the national minimum wage of roughly 59 per cent., if my arithmetic serves me correctly. Several years have witnessed increases of 4 per cent. or thereabouts, although I think I am right in saying that in 2001—I pluck that arbitrarily from the annals of election history; I am sure it was purely a matter of serendipity that there was an election in 2001—the Government chose to increase the national minimum wage by about 10 per cent. There are people who will say to Government, “It is very difficult. Times are tough. We can’t afford very much. Let’s have a stay on the increase of the wage or increase it only very modestly.”

I want to lob into the debate the radical but alternative suggestion that the Government should consider a sharp increase in the national minimum wage this year. That would conduce to the economic good, it would greatly increase the spending power of people who are languishing at the bottom of the economic pile, and there is every chance that it would be capable of being afforded by the public purse. I observe in passing that the public will be both bewildered and horrified by the massive public largesse that is shelled out in the direction of failed, incompetent and greedy bankers who have to be paid huge fortunes to go off, and are apparently not remotely embarrassed about taking such great departure payments.

It surely should not be beyond our economic competence or our moral sense to say of those who receive the national minimum wage, “These are people who are really struggling. Let’s give them a sharp increase.” From £5.73, we could increase the minimum wage by 10 per cent.—57p or thereabouts—to £6.28 or thereabouts. I hope that the Government will seriously consider that, and I challenge all the political parties to accept that there would be a powerful ethical case for behaving in that way.

That deals with the subject of the national minimum wage and its prospective increase, but there is another related issue concerning the large numbers of people, among whom women are disproportionately represented, who are currently paid below the national minimum wage. That has been referred to once or twice—and only once or twice—in the course of this afternoon’s debate. It is important to put it on the record that when that happens it is not merely undesirable, unethical or unreasonable, but palpably illegal. There ought to be some sense of moral outrage in the House if employers are paying people below the minimum wage. My understanding is that the annual survey of hours and earnings undertaken under the auspices of the Office for National Statistics showed that in 2008 no fewer than 185,000 women—1.4 per cent. of the female work force—were being paid below the national minimum wage. That is, frankly, an unconscionable state of affairs.

I recognise that, not least through the device of the Employment Act 2008, the Government have committed a considerable resource for the purposes of publicising people’s entitlements and facilitating an effective enforcement regime for the national minimum wage. If memory serves me correctly, the Government are currently spending about £850,000 a year on publicity and about £7 million a year on enforcement. It is absolutely right that that should happen. My anxiety is that when times are tough, there can be an inadvertent green light for the skinflint, the rogue, the cowboy to behave even worse than he would otherwise be inclined or feel able to. If this House exists for no other purpose, it must surely exist, convene and debate with a view to extending the greatest possible protection to the disadvantaged people in our community. We should always strive to help most those who have least.

I hope that the Solicitor-General will say to her right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform that they should keep a close watch on this budget and see whether, from time to time, it might be necessary even to increase it. I recollect that the Government established the vulnerable worker enforcement forum, which was a useful opportunity to exchange views about what needed to be done. I suspect that a greater resource will be required, and there will be people who will try to renege on their responsibilities. This is a big problem, particularly for women and not least for home workers, who are notoriously difficult to track and whose ill treatment is especially difficult to identify and expose. That problem must be addressed.

I know that the hon. and learned Lady will understand when I say that among home workers there is another factor—that of ethnicity. Significant numbers of people from the ethnic minority communities work as home workers. Let us be clear: there is a difference between people in this House, in the political class, whose familiarity with the regulatory regime, with entitlements, with what is due, with the legal position, is quite strong, and people out there, especially those for whom English is an additional language, who are more often than not, I would go so far as to say, unaware of their rights or, because of the economic circumstances in which they find themselves, frankly too frightened to claim and insist upon them. It is not good enough simply to respond in a legalistic sense. One very senior colleague in my own party once said to me, “Well, this is a matter to be pursued in a legal manner, John—it is not something about which we need to make speeches or anything of that kind. If people are dissatisfied with the way in which they are being treated, of course they have legal recourse.” I am afraid that that sort of reactive approach simply will not do.

I want to finish by saying that I applaud the national minimum wage and its continued uprating. It seems to me that it is economically justified, it is morally right, and for whichever party wins the next election it has to be an integral part of a counter-poverty strategy. In saying that, I emphasise that it is critical to the fight against poverty both of women and of children as well. There is a long way to go and I hope that we will see real and meaningful progress in the years ahead.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), and he made an interesting case about increasing the minimum wage.

I start by reassuring the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who is not in her place, that she should not read too much into the change in the title of today’s debate. Building an economy for the future is very much on the Government’s agenda and my party recognises that we need to include women fully in building that new economy. Conservative Member’s comments this afternoon show that they do not understand the global determinants of the recession that we are in, and so I have no idea how they will construct a new, properly functioning economy that will meet people’s needs.

I recognise that it is not just women who are suffering in the economic downturn. Obviously, men are suffering as well. Nevertheless, we meet today to debate issues relating to international women’s day, and it is worth taking time to reflect on the impact of the recession on families, particularly women, especially as so much time has been spent considering the actions of the mostly male bankers who got us into this situation in the first place. Much as I really do not want to dwell on them today, I want to say something on that subject a little later.

We know from research conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Government Equalities Office that the economic downturn has affected women in particular ways. The results are interesting, but perhaps not surprising. It noted that 75 per cent. of British adults were concerned about the impact of the economic downturn on family life, but, notably, 80 per cent. of women were concerned and 70 per cent. of men. It is also perhaps not surprising that in the discussion groups that were part of the research, men tended to focus more on who was to blame for the downturn, rather than on dealing with the aftermath. Unfortunately, that finding has not been replicated in the Chamber this afternoon. I counted the amount of time that hon. Ladies in the Opposition spent looking at the impact of the downturn on families, and the amount of time that they spent trying to blame the Prime Minister for the recession. About two thirds of their time was spent trying to blame someone, and about a third was spent on considering the impact on families.

The results of the research showed some variation according to age, employment sector and social grades in the extent to which people consider the impact of the recession on families. Some 33 per cent. of men were worried about losing their job compared with 40 per cent. of both women and men who thought that unemployment was one of the main issues facing the country.

I shall digress for a moment or two to take up a point that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) made. We are in danger of becoming a little more depressed than we need to be about people’s feeling that women’s jobs may be the first to go. I also want to cheer up the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), who is sitting alone on the Liberal Democrat Benches, by saying that the situation is perhaps not as bad as we have been led to believe.

A finding of the GEO research was that both men and women believed that it was important that the jobs of family breadwinners were preserved first. The survey did not actually specify that they had to be male breadwinners. However, when people were asked whether it was

“important to make sure all employees and workers are treated fairly when it comes to redundancy”,

some 94 per cent. of men and 95 per cent. of women said that it was more important to be fair than to protect the breadwinner’s job. That is an important finding, and it is different from the position as the hon. Member for Forest of Dean stated it. It means that people want fairness during the recession, not only in redundancies but in the policies to tackle the problems.

A particularly interesting finding of the research was the high level of concern about the recession among young people. Its authors put that down to the fact that young people had not witnessed a recession before. However, older people, more than others, believed that their personal financial circumstances would worsen in the next financial year. It is interesting that young people are very concerned about the recession but do not believe that it will have an immediate impact on them. That may have something to do with the fact that the Government have continued to put a great deal of money into education, skills and training to try to protect young people from the effects of the recession as much as possible.

Concerns about the price of food and utilities were, of course, mentioned more frequently by women respondents, and the most worried were women with children and those with caring responsibilities for elderly or disabled relatives—in other words, those who had caring responsibilities of any kind. Some groups of respondents also reported that family life had been made worse by the economic downturn. Interestingly, the women who highlighted financial concerns were particularly those who rely mostly on a male wage. One might think that perhaps they felt that they had less control over the family income.

What makes this recession different from others is that women now comprise 45.8 per cent. of the economically active population. I suppose that that is why we are considering the matter today. For the first time, it is very likely that women will lose their jobs in considerable numbers. We need to ensure that arrangements are in place to get those women help and support from their jobcentre. Their need for retraining and re-employment must be seen as being as important as men’s.

The research that I have mentioned is very recent, having been conducted in February. It probably concurs with what all of us who have been knocking on doors, and telephoning and speaking to our constituents have found in the past few months. We know that many women are trying to keep a family together through these difficult times and that they are worried about being able to put food on the table and pay bills and about losing their home. They are also concerned about the impact on their families of having to scale back on treats such as holidays or trips to the cinema. Women are experiencing a great deal of distress as a result of trying to keep some of those positive aspects of family life going at this difficult time.

About one third of women—compared with a quarter of men—thought that the quality of family life had been reduced because of the economic downturn. Nevertheless, many of the women I speak to recognise the huge support that the Government have given to families through tax credits and increases in child benefit. That was noticeably not mentioned by the Conservatives this afternoon because, as they probably do not want to recall, child benefit did not increase in line with inflation under the previous Conservative Government. Perhaps they should have applauded this Government for having supported family life in a way that the Conservatives have not done so far.

There are now better schools, so parents do not have to worry so much about their children’s education, and many parents benefit from the Sure Start children’s centres in their communities, not just as places that provide additional resources and facilities for children, important though that is, but as places that give much-needed support, counselling and health advice to mothers, including young mothers, and that point them towards other sources of support in their community.

Many families are also benefiting from the Childcare Act 2006, which was introduced by this Government, and under which local authorities have a responsibility to secure adequate child care provision in their area and to ensure that it is of good quality and meets the needs of the local population. That represented a huge step forward by the Government. I am not saying that all the problems relating to child care and affordable child care have been solved by that legislation, but it represents a huge step forward, and I think that there could have been more recognition of that today.

Lastly, I want to talk about domestic violence. We hear women talking about a reduction in the quality of family life, and there is also a wide recognition throughout society that domestic violence can increase in times of recession. That is a matter of great concern to all of us. We should also note, however, that the landscape of domestic violence and the way in which it is tackled in our society has changed massively in the past few years. That is very much as a result of the efforts of my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General who has run very successful campaigns to change the law on domestic violence. I know that she wants to take the legislation further.

These changes have meant that in my own area, for example, there is now specific training for police forces in dealing with domestic violence, and there is widespread recognition by all the key agencies that sit on the multi-agency task groups that they have to work together, to share information, and to be very sympathetic to the victims of domestic violence and do everything that they can to minimise its effects on women and children. In particular, they have to try to protect their housing, if that is possible. I know that domestic violence is a real problem, and that it presents a real threat, but we will have to see how the improved services for dealing with it play out over the coming months.

I also want to say something about the Government’s “Real help now” campaign. We have all rightly raised various problems connected with the economic downturn. We all recognise what women and families are experiencing as a result of the downturn, but it would be very wrong to suggest that nothing is being done to help families cope or to support businesses at this time. I have listened to Conservative Members and noted their reluctance to acknowledge some of the steps the Government have taken to minimise the effects of the recession on families and businesses. I am not sure that that is very helpful in the overall context of getting information to people so that they do not have to suffer unnecessarily.

The “Real help now” campaign for families points to the following: £145-worth of tax cuts for every basic rate taxpayer; an additional £60 given to pensioners this winter; VAT cuts worth about £200 to every family; £3 billion of investment to protect jobs; and a £75 above- inflation increase in the child element of tax credit from April 2009, which could be worth a lot to some families, particularly those on the lowest incomes from earnings.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), but the suggestion of the Lib Dems that we should have a cut in tax credits and other multi-million pound cuts to public services is no way of helping families that are feeling the pinch.

I must refute that suggestion. The cuts that the hon. Lady mentions apply to things such as identity cards, not to front-line services.

As I understand it, the Liberal Democrats announced cuts to tax credits just last week, and I am saying that that will be of no help to families that are feeling the pinch. It is also worth remembering that the Labour party has made tremendous advances on maternity pay and maternity leave, and although I know there is still some way to go, that should be acknowledged this afternoon.

We know that many women are concerned about the increased risk of losing their homes, but help is available and more of it is coming on stream in April 2009.

My hon. Friend is aware that support to help people pay interest on their mortgages is available only to people on contribution-based rather than income-based jobseeker’s allowance. Will she join me in pressing the Minister to urge our colleagues in government to link that support to working tax credits because it gives more help to unemployed families that risk losing their homes?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a very interesting point, and I hope that the Government will take it into account when they are putting in place additional packages of support after April.

I have just a brief question. The hon. Lady referred to the importance of improvements to maternity benefits, so how does she react to Lord Mandelson’s suggestion in the other place that enhanced maternity leave provision will be delayed?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point, but Lord Mandelson is, I think, entitled to an opinion and to have a debate on that subject. I am sure that Labour Members, who have been arguing for this provision for very much longer than Opposition Members, will manage to persuade him that we are right and he is wrong.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Is she telling the House that she believes that the noble lord was giving a personal opinion or does she, as I think, agree that he was giving an opinion on behalf of the Government? He is a member of the Cabinet and Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, I am not a member of the Government so I could not possibly answer that question.

As I was saying, a lot of women are concerned about losing their home. It is important that we try to concentrate on the real issues that are affecting people, not the parliamentary tittle-tattle that we have heard from Conservative Members. The mortgage rescue scheme is designed to help to stop people losing their home through repossession. Indeed, building societies and other lenders have been asked to consider repossession only as the last option.

We know that many women will benefit from the increased investment in the public sector. Therefore, unlike the opposition parties, which seem determined to make cuts in public services, we realise that women rely—disproportionately, sometimes—on public services for help with child care, caring for elderly relations, help with benefits and, of course, training and education.

I am particularly pleased that, in my own region, £6 billion of public spending has been allocated and brought forward to deliver infrastructure projects. That is crucial, because it will support jobs in the regional economy. Indeed, the investment is directly related to regeneration and supporting jobs and skills in some of the sectors that we need to develop in the future, such as renewable energy and, I hope, a new generation of low energy use cars.

I also want to emphasise the fact that the Government are listening to women’s concerns and the concerns of families at this time. That is much to do with the work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, who, with her ministerial team, has shown tremendous determination to focus Government attention on the issues that matter to families.

To respond to the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), we see the ministerial team taking forward the equality Bill. As we know, it is intended as consolidating legislation, but nevertheless legislation that will create a new equality duty on public bodies to ensure that the public sector pays due regard to equality when buying goods and services. It will provide additional funding to support the work being done by the trade union equality representatives and consider how Parliament can become more representative of society as a whole. I hope that that answers the question that the hon. Lady raised about whether there is determination on this side of the House to take those issues forward.

I hope, too, that the hon. Lady agrees that the fact that we have the Bill coming before the House should be supported by all parties. It will also help us to achieve greater flexibility in the work that is available to women and men and enable us to consider whether, as a society, we do enough to promote the rights of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people.

I return for a moment to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, because in addition to acknowledging that she has done a great deal to promote the rights of women and families—both in the House and outside it—I want to say that she has also had the guts to stand up to the bankers. She should be thoroughly applauded for making it absolutely clear that they must pay back their outrageous bonuses. After all, she has simply voiced publicly what many people feel: that huge pensions of £700,000 per year are simply immoral, and should not be tolerated. My constituents have told me that they want the Government to take action, including using any money that is clawed back from bonuses or pensions for front-line services to support families, particularly when a family member has lost a job.

I think that the stance adopted by my right hon. and learned Friend has been really strong and really courageous. I simply do not understand why the media have responded to her as they have. It seems to me that if they want to support hard work and decency—although I am a bit sceptical about that—they should support her campaign to make bankers, and others who have received outrageous bonuses, recognise that they owe it to society to pay much of the money back.

My right hon. and learned Friend supported all of us who want to create a much fairer society and—when we emerge from the present economic recession, as we will—an economy that is fairer, paying more attention to the need to care not just for our society but for the planet as a whole, and to ensure that future employment is, as far as possible, in green energy or elements of industry that do not pollute the planet.

It would be something worth celebrating on international women’s day if today, in this Chamber, we undertook to concentrate our collective will on the task of producing an economy that is fair throughout the world: an economy that does not exploit developed countries, does not exploit workers at home, and does not exploit the planet.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should point out that we probably have little more than half an hour left, and at least four Members are seeking to catch my eye. I will leave the arithmetic for Members to work out for themselves, but unless speeches are much, much shorter, some Members will be disappointed.

I apologise for not being present throughout the debate. Unfortunately, I was detained in a Committee.

I join the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) in commending the focus of the Minister for Women and Equality, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), on the issues that we are discussing. It can be very difficult to continue to do such things in government, and the right hon. and learned Lady has shown some resilience in that regard. I believe that we can all work together to achieve a better deal for women, but it is not easy in government to ensure that such issues remain priorities, especially when there is clearly a mood in some parts of Government that favours changing those priorities.

A report issued by the Fawcett Society in advance of today’s debate explicitly refers to the society’s concern about the comments of the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and particularly about the suggestion of an attempt to roll back the extension of flexible working and delay the enhancement of maternity leave provisions. I hope that the Solicitor-General can lay the House’s own concerns to rest. We need to understand the Government’s position on these matters. It is clear from the response that I received from the hon. Member for City of Durham that their Back Benchers are not yet clear about the Government’s policy on, in particular, maternity leave and flexible working.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) rightly pointed out that the issues we are talking about today, to do with the economic downturn and its effect on women, do not just affect women in the workplace. They also affect women pensioners, such as those in my constituency, who are more likely to be living in poverty and have often not made the best arrangements for their retirement. It is right that the House should include that important group of people in today’s debate.

How is the recession hitting women? “Real Help Now for Women”, the document that the Government have issued, probably in advance of today’s debate to try to focus our attention, crystallises the problem, which is that women feel vulnerable, especially if they are pregnant or in part-time work. The figures suggest that their feelings are backed up by reality and that those fears are well founded. Figures from a number of sources suggest that women are perhaps at a higher risk of facing redundancy or losing their jobs. Again, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that, to ensure that we have clarity on where the Government are in interpreting those figures.

We know from our constituencies how important women’s salaries are. I am sorry, but the issue is not about women having a career or wanting to get away from the home; it is about women helping families to make ends meet. When the Government’s figures show that women’s incomes make up, on average, around one third of family income, we know that women being adversely affected by the recession will have a tremendous impact on family life.

Why do women feel so vulnerable? The answer is simple: caring is still seen as a women’s issue. The Government, the Opposition and, indeed, all parties in the House need to think about how we change that. Outside this place, families have changed well ahead of political parties. Families see that there is a shared role for mothers and fathers in bringing up their children. We need to ensure that that clarity, in the families in the constituencies that we represent, is reflected in the policies that all of us bring forward in this place.

I am proud to be a member of a party whose leader puts family-friendly working at the centre of our agenda for government. I represent a constituency that has a high number of both big and small employers. Many of the employers in Basingstoke know at first hand how important it is to put family-friendly working at the heart of their businesses, because if they do not, they cannot get the best employees.

The hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not give way; a number of other hon. Members want to contribute and time is running out.

The adverse implications of the recession for women are broad and far-reaching. I would like to bring the House’s attention to a number of areas, particularly the impact on the family. We know that the loss of a job will mean the loss of income. Relate has done a great deal of research into the impact of a loss of income on families and the pressures that it can exert. Relate’s figures show that money and money worries can be the top cause of arguments among couples. Indeed, almost one third of couples who divorce do so because of financial problems or problems with financial management. Extensive research has been done elsewhere, particularly in the US, to show that financial pressures can be tremendously destructive for families. We need to pick up on that.

The second issue that I want to address is the impact on the long-term development of child care, a point that was picked up well by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). Without good-quality, available and affordable child care—such care has expanded tremendously in recent years, which is one good thing that has happened in the past decade—women’s role in the workplace will continue to be limited.

Before the recession hit, there were already tremendous concerns about the viability of the child care sector that has developed in the UK. Since 2003, there has been a 68 per cent. increase in the number of day-care places closing and over the past decade there has been a 40 per cent. fall in the number of child minders. There has been an increase in the number of vacancies in day-care centres; the National Day Nurseries Association said that four in 10 nurseries are experiencing bad debt problems and half of all nurseries report a noticeable change in child care usage. All those changes took place before the recession hit, so the Government should look carefully at how we can ensure that the expansion of child care is sustained and does not wither away under what Labour has said will be a recession of the gravest kind.

As we have already heard, another reason the child care sector will be struggling relates to problems with the child care element of the working tax credit. In an earlier intervention, I mentioned my concern about the Government’s lack of action on something that could demonstrably support families at this very difficult time. We need to look at how we can sustain private nurseries, so that when women come back into the workplace, they will find good-quality child care. It is deeply concerning that almost two thirds of private nurseries are still not being paid the full cost for delivering the Government’s free entitlement to child care. We are still many months—if not years—away from resolving that issue.

How can we improve the situation for women? I shall keep my comments brief as other Members want to contribute. We need fundamentally to reduce the vulnerability of women in an economic downturn such as this. A clear way of doing so is by normalising many of the family-friendly policies that Members have talked about today. Whether it is parental leave or flexible working, we need to make sure that the policies are not just for women but for families—men and women together—to look after their children in the future. By doing that, we could help to take away that feeling of vulnerability and take the spotlight off women in these difficult times.

Another thing the Government need to consider far more carefully is how we can help support families through this difficult time. The Conservatives have announced robust policies to point newly-weds towards family support through the registrar system. I urge the Government to do as we have done and look at the work of organisations such as the Bristol Community Family Trust, where people such as Harry Benson are delivering good, solid support for families suffering relationship problems in these difficult times. Of course, the Government need to do everything they can to ensure that child care is sustainable in the future. We cannot ignore the growing problems in that area.

The measures I have outlined would really help to support women and families, and make the UK the sort of family-friendly place we would all like it to be. Even more important, they would make sure that the talents of every person in the country can come to the fore. If we do not do that, this country will not be the success we need it to be in the future.

I am grateful to be called to speak. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) who has replaced me in Westminster Hall, where I was supporting the Minister responding to the debate on the report “A Life Like Any Other? Human Rights of Adults with Learning Disabilities”.

I was heartened by the contributions of both Front-Bench speakers at the start of this debate. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality outlined the staggering number of policies introduced by my Government that have most definitely changed the lives of many women. Equally, I was pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) open with a constructive and careful analysis of what is required by industry if it is to grow, and how that growth will ensure good employment.

I was taken aback by that statement for the simple reason that I was unemployed during the 1980s. Although I made many applications I did not succeed in getting a job for some time. I remember all too well the statements members of the Conservative Government made to me and the other 4 million people who were unemployed. Lord Tebbit told us to get on a bike and find work. Others in the Conservative party said unemployment is a price “worth paying”. I was, therefore, pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Maidenhead open the debate in such a constructive way, but sadly for her I also remembered the statements of the shadow Conservative health spokesman, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who in November 2008 wrote in his blog that recession can be “good for us”. That was a very disappointing and thoroughly unacceptable statement, and it made the right hon. Lady’s warm and constructive words seem nothing more than warm words—and also unconstructive ones.

I want to talk about some very ordinary and definitely low-paid women and families who live in my constituency. The Church of England “Thrive” project of the Church Action on Poverty group has started up in one of my deprived areas, Thornaby. It brought to my attention—and is bringing to the attention of many other Members—the fact that many ordinary people on low incomes or benefits believe that the only way they can purchase essential goods is to buy them from doorstep salesmen. I wish to make it clear that these doorstep salesmen are not behaving illegally: Buy As You View, a company that was brought to my notice, is not behaving illegally, but it is exploiting very vulnerable people. The project has brought it to my attention that ordinary people are paying interest rates of 40 per cent. and upwards of 100 per cent. for goods that are essential to them. An example was given to me. There is a family of a lady who looks after two disabled adults. She bought a fridge and a washing machine. The actual price of those items was probably in the region of £300, but she paid more than £3,000. Obviously, she needed both items.

It is more than time that we looked at this situation. Therefore, I ask my Government what they are doing about it. It is long overdue that action is taken. Ordinary folks sign up to agreements because they are desperate, and they might pay over two or three years and end up with astronomically high interest rates. They rarely understand the small print of these agreements. Nobody is there to explain it to them. Desperation forces them to sign, as they need the goods. It is long overdue for someone to step up and say, “No more small print; when you sign up, you must know exactly what you’re signing up to.” The Government and the local authorities can move in very neatly to stop this exploitation. There are trading standards departments, but they have no authority to investigate these companies or to issue warnings. We should use trading standards; that is long overdue. They are there to be used, and want to be used, to ensure that ordinary folk on limited incomes or tight budgets who are buying essential goods are not exploited in this way.

My Government and the House could also support the credit unions in a significantly more persuasive way. We should give them some status and get them more confidently located in our communities, so that people know they can go to a group they can trust, and that they will pay no more than an appropriate sum, and not the exorbitant rates that have been outlined by Church Action on Poverty. Now is also the time to say to the banks, “Provide a service to these people. You have the opportunity to do so. They are high risk and low wage, but they are capable of paying back.” We need the banks to work accordingly.

I am conscious of the time, and of the fact that other Members wish to speak. I wanted also to talk about the fact that women are not very visible in the world of apprenticeships and high-skilled labour. It is, again, more than time to address that. We are talking about the economy, and we should talk about women having such good, skilled, highly paid jobs, giving them some stability of employment. I do not have time to address this, but I say to my Government that these are crucial issues to women’s lives. We are talking about the economic downturn, of course, but we should also talk practically about the circumstances of many ordinary families, and support them.

I am conscious of the time, but I particularly wish to draw attention to one of the greater pressures affecting families across the country: overcrowding. Unfortunately, this Government have presided over a complete sclerosis in both the delivery of social housing and help to deliver housing that is affordable to rent. They went down the fundamentally flawed route of saying that everybody needed to buy, buy, buy. I wish to discuss housing and overcrowding, and its effects on women and families, because I believe that in this economic downturn, when people are going to lose their homes and when people may well be taking back “boomerang children” and other members of the family who are returning for whatever economic reasons, the pressure of overcrowding in homes will get even greater.

One thing that has not been mentioned is the fact that today is world book day, which got me thinking of a very famous essay that was made into a book. I, like many others, read it as a teenager as part of my school course for O-level, as it was at the time. I am talking about “A Room of One’s Own”, which is a sort of stream of consciousness, written by Virginia Woolf, about how if a woman had a room of her own and a small amount of money, she would be in an empowered state to be able to study, to better herself and to progress. I wish to read a little extract, because the book was written in 1928 and it is amazing how the sentiments are still so valuable today.

Virginia Woolf tells us that she had just received through her door a legacy of

“five hundred pounds a year for ever”

from an aunt who had died in India and that she had also been made aware of the fact that she could vote. She continued:

“Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important.”

She wondered why there were no colleges endowed for women to study, to better themselves and to get on. She came to the conclusion that the reason was that women who might have endowed colleges were busy bringing up children; they had not made wealth themselves to give to colleges. She concluded that without a small amount of money and a small amount of personal space to call one’s own, one would never be able to progress, to think and to write great literature; one would instead be burdened with the responsibilities and worries, as a woman was then, of running a family, with little hope of making money and having independence.

That is why I wish to return to the idea of overcrowding. The Government set themselves an extremely ambitious target of building some 3 million houses, but more than 500,000 households in England still live in overcrowded conditions—those are Government figures. The survey of English housing and the 2008 labour force survey showed that 565,000 households live in cramped conditions. The tragedy is that the situation has got worse, and it is has done so in a boom time. It has got worse at a time when the Government were throwing money into supposedly relieving poor conditions and overcrowding. Only 1 per cent. of owner-occupiers were classed as being overcrowded, yet social overcrowding has become worse under this Government’s watch.

Shelter, the housing charity, has said:

“It’s shocking that in the 21st century we are seeing a rise in the number of people trapped in cramped, squalid conditions that have more in common with the Dickensian era than those of a modern nation.”

Given that more and more people may well, as I have said, be living in overcrowded conditions, and more children will be staying at home, the Government have to accept that they have been part of this problem. The failure to provide enough housing for those most in need has been well established. Less housing has been built under this Government than under previous Conservative Administrations. The current level of construction of social housing is running at a fifth of what it was in 1997.

Women are being disproportionately most affected by this situation. The number of single women waiting on social housing lists has increased year on year since 2003—it has been rising by 77 per cent. across those councils that have specifically recorded information on women. The increase in the number of homes being repossessed, which will also mean that more and more will be seeking those scarce social housing vacancies, will, I am sure, lead to increased pressures and increased hidden homelessness, whereby women, particularly young women, will end up sofa-surfing or staying with inappropriate partners or in inappropriate relationships simply to have somewhere to lay their head for the night.

It was very interesting that the “Homes Fit for Families” report by the Family and Parenting Institute pointed out that the increase in house repossession may lead to a rise in family arguments, sleep deprivation, lack of privacy for parents and poor attainment at school. Nothing much has altered since 1928. Why have the Government burdened the housing market with the home information pack, which does not work, and why did they encourage people to take out inappropriate mortgages, when they should have been in either private or social rented housing that was affordable and within their means?

The report highlights the serious emotional turmoil of living in a cramped house. One survey found that as many as 74 per cent. of parents living in overcrowded homes are sharing their bedroom with children, which naturally leads to a lack of privacy. The stress of domestic tension caused by overcrowding affects women more, as was revealed in the press yesterday. Marital stress increases heart disease in women, but not in men, according to the medical profession. A strained relationship affects women’s mental health, increases their blood pressure and the risk of obesity and leads to high cholesterol levels. All those factors contribute to increased risk of heart disease. How much will those problems increase if the Government do not deliver enough social housing or relieve overcrowding by freeing up the housing market?

The Government have to take responsibility. It is no good saying that all the bad loans started in the US: we were culpable here. Adam Sampson appeared before the Communities and Local Government Committee and I asked him whether we were enshrining a rump lower class by saying that people had only made it in life if they had bought their own home. He more or less agreed with that statement. When people were told that they must buy, no matter whether they could not afford to do so or how little a part of a house they could afford, very little emphasis was placed on delivering social housing, so this Government have presided over a massive increase in statutory overcrowding. That is not a record of which to be proud. It will haunt us in the future, with people facing job losses, home repossessions, returning to live with their mum and dad—who may be very elderly—or putting up members of their extended family. When people lose their homes, they lose their security. We will see a return to Dickensian conditions and, as Adam Sampson of Shelter said, the Government should be ashamed of that. In years to come, we will see the results.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is not in his place, because I want to start by agreeing with his intervention in the opening speech when he pointed out that the economic downturn affects everybody and not just women. In a way, it grieves me that we need to have this debate, because women are 50 per cent. of the population, if not slightly more. I venture to suggest that we probably do slightly more than 50 per cent. of the work.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) is in her place, because I want to disagree with her. She said that women think differently and do things differently. I could not agree with her less. I like to think that we are all, male or female, individuals. There is an enormous spectrum of behaviour and opinion, and sweeping generalisations about enormous groups of people can be a bit inaccurate.

The one really significant difference between men and women is that women have children and men do not. I want to concentrate my remarks on how that affects women’s working and social lives. There is an inextricable link between women’s reproductive lives and their financial welfare, and that is the root of the problems that all the previous contributions to the debate have described. What we need is fair treatment, and what we do not want is positive discrimination.

I want to concentrate on one aspect of the debate that has not been mentioned today: unplanned teenage pregnancies. When that happens, the girl’s economic future is in ruins. We need to look at the reasons the incidence of unplanned teenage pregnancy in this country is so high. I understand that in 2007, which is the last year for which statistics are available, there were roughly 8,000 unplanned teenage pregnancies, three quarters of which were to girls under the age of 15. We need to look very seriously at why that is happening and at what we can do about it.

One reason for those pregnancies is a lack of aspiration and ambition among girls who have been brought up in workless households, where they have been shown no good example or good practice, where there is no work ethic and where the parents might not have had a good experience at school, have not achieved and have not gone on to further and higher education. We need to do much more for those girls, who think that the easy route to life with a free flat and free benefits is to have a baby. They do not realise how isolating and difficult that life will be or that it is not nearly as glamorous as they thought. Living in isolation in a council flat with the responsibility of a baby 24 hours a day is not a glamorous lifestyle option. We need to give these girls aspiration and ambition so that they can move forward in their lives and leave having families until they are emotionally and financially secure and mature enough to handle it.

In the 1950s, careers advice for girls in schools went along the following lines: there were only two respectable occupations for girls, which were teaching and nursing. A girl who did not want to do either of those things was a lost cause. Thank heavens that careers advice is very different now and that the whole spectrum of employment is available and open to girls. They need to be encouraged to consider jobs that have either not been traditionally for women or have not been favoured by women in the past. The television programmes about cooking at the moment feature a range of male chefs, which might encourage boys to follow cooking as a career. We need to get away from gender stereotyping in the employment world.

I tried to bring in a ten-minute Bill last year that would have obliged anybody who gave advice to an under-age child—that is, a child under the age of 16—on contraception or abortion to inform the parents first. It was a very small proposal, and I thought that it was a very common-sense Bill to introduce. I was taken aback by the opposition to it and it did not proceed. I think that it would have been a very important step in helping girls to consider how to manage their reproductive lives wisely and to delay becoming sexually active until they were old enough to cope with the outcome.

If any girl stood on the corner of the street with a collecting tin, shook it, and said “I might be going to have a baby because I’ve got careless sexual habits, will you contribute towards looking after it?”, how many people do hon. Members think would put money voluntarily into that collecting tin? Girls have to be taught real-life sex education in schools so that they know that if they become pregnant they will be left with the responsibility of that child. They may or may not know who the father is, and the extended families of the two young parents should be taking responsibility for that baby. Too often, the girl is on her own at a tender age. She has not finished her education and she is not equipped for work. She is barely equipped to look after herself, let alone a baby, but she is left with that huge responsibility. Her employment prospects are set back for years, and her further education prospects are set back for many years, until the child is old enough and she can pick up her life again. These are very important points to consider, because the incidence of unplanned pregnancy in this country is shamefully high. A lot of talent is wasted because women are diverted into bringing up children when they are far too young and before they are ready to do so.

Employers should be aware that women with children are a very good deal in the workplace, because they are all multi-taskers. Any woman with several children and a job who runs a home will do a million things every day. She will get out of bed in the morning and get herself ready, then make sure that the children are having their showers and cleaning their teeth. She will put out all the clean clothes that they need, and then make their breakfast. She will make sure that they have all the cookery equipment, sports gear and everything else that they need to take to school. She will give them their breakfast, and possibly even prepare a casserole and put it into the oven so that it can cook all day while she is out. She will take the dog for a walk and the children to school, and then she will go to work.

When she is at work, a woman will switch off. She will take her domestic brain out and put her working brain in and do her job for the rest of the day. When the day is over, she will probably do some food shopping on the way home, then she will welcome the children home, give them their dinner and help them with their homework.

It is like being on a treadmill, but women can do all those things. They can do half a dozen things at the same time, and all their skills are transferable. They are immensely valuable in the workplace, but women do not sell themselves aggressively enough so that employers realise what multi-taskers they are.

The debate is about supporting women through the economic downturn and in the future. The best support that we can provide now is to enable women—and especially those running homes and families—to make every pound do the work of two. There is a great talent in that, and anyone who has experienced difficult times when money has been tight will know how to cut a halfpenny in half. We need to look to the older generation, as they remember the post-war years when everything was in short supply. They know how to cut the cost of living.

The older generation has a wealth of information and knowledge about such matters. Young people brought up in the days of plenty and the throwaway economy, when everything could be replaced and there was never a shortage of money, may never have had to economise in their entire lives. They could tap into the wisdom of older people because, suddenly, they are having to go through an enormous culture change in their lives. Now, they are short of money and they need to keep their homes and families going. They should look to the older generation, because the oldest people in our communities can give them a huge amount of information, help and advice about how money can be saved.

We also need to make sure that young women get individual advice about finding employment and retraining. We should use the innovation and expertise available in the private and voluntary sectors to help women get into the workplace. In many families, the husband is the main breadwinner. If he loses his job, the wife will have to try to get back into work. However, she will need help: women returners are often low on confidence and do not understand what they have to offer. They need help and retraining so that they can present themselves to employers as the very valuable employees that they will be—reliable, multi-tasking, and of enormous value to any organisation.

I am sorry to press the rewind button, but my hon. Friend made an extremely interesting point about the older generation’s expertise in managing effectively but frugally on tight budgets. Is she suggesting that some sort of informal—or even formal—grouping could be put together from extended families of aunts, uncles and grandparents? They have a lot to offer, but they might not share their expertise as widely as they could if they merely exist independently.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. While he was speaking, I started to think of those organisations, such as Age Concern, that concentrate on older people. We should tap into their experience and knowledge, as I am sure that they could be enormously helpful to the younger generation.

For the future, the best support that we can give