I beg to move,
That this House regrets that the Government’s policies are hitting women and families hardest, including direct tax and benefit changes, cuts to childcare support and Sure Start which are making it harder for women to work, reductions in domestic and sexual violence specialist support, and their impact on the provision of social care; opposes plans that will make 300,000 women born between December 1953 and October 1954 wait an additional 18 months or longer to receive their state pension; calls on the Government to maintain the commitment given in the Coalition Agreement that the state pension age for women will not start to rise to 66 sooner than 2020; believes that promoting equality for women is vital to building a fairer society; and calls on the Government to commission independent, robust assessments of the impact of its policies on women and to prevent the implementation of policies that could widen inequality between women and men.
I got an e-mail from a woman called Michelle, who lives in my constituency. Michelle is a single mother with a toddler; she works part-time in a bank to support her family; and she studies part-time at the Open university, because she wants to get on and build a better future for herself and her child. Right now, she is very worried. Her train fares are going up and she is afraid that her course fees will go up, but the really big blow for her is that her child tax credit is being cut from 80% to 70%.
“This is really devastating for me. My nursery fees are £530 a month, and my salary is £600 a month. This is an extra £50 each month out of my already very tight budget. This sadly is going to force me out of work and onto benefits, which I desperately don’t want to do. It is so unfair and I am very angry. I want David Cameron, George Osborne and the rest of the coalition to acknowledge this is happening to myself and thousands of other single parents, but that will never happen.”
It is because of Michelle and the stories that we have heard from so many women throughout the country that we have called this debate today. We are deeply worried about women who are struggling to work because of the changes that the Government have made; women who are finding it harder to make ends meet; women who are losing their own income and some of the independence that they value; women who are losing thousands of pounds of their pensions; and women such as Michelle who are finding it more difficult to work because of the sheer scale of the assault on families throughout the country—20% cuts to the Sure Start budget, cuts to child care tax credit and cuts to child tax credit.
The Government are taking more money from support for children than they are from the banks as part of their deficit reduction plan, and mothers throughout the country are taking the strain. Time and again, the Government hit women and families hardest, and I fear that for the first time in many generations equality and progress for women is being rolled back.
All Members know and will celebrate the major advances that we have seen in women’s equality over the past century. When we celebrated the centenary of international women’s day, I met a woman called Hetty Bower, who is already more than 100 years old and has received her telegram from the Queen. When Hetty was born, however, women did not have the vote, and when she had her first child there was no maternity care on the NHS—indeed, there was no NHS. She worked, but she certainly did not get maternity pay, family allowance or child benefit. By the time her daughter started work, it was still legal to pay women less than men to do the same job, and even when her granddaughter started work there was still little child care and little help for women wanting to work part-time or to care for their elderly parents.
When the Secretary of State and I were elected to Parliament, maternity leave was just 14 weeks, compared with 52 weeks today, and there were child care places for only one in eight children, rather than the one in four today. Of course, here in Westminster itself we had no nursery, but we still had a shooting range.
All the progress that we have seen for women over those years has been hard-won, and we should not take it for granted. From the suffragettes to the Dagenham strikers, women have campaigned and worked hard for those changes.
We know that there is still a long way to go, and if we look at the facts we find that, even some 40 years after passing the Equal Pay Act 1970, the pay gap remains at 15%. Women still make up only 12.5% of the boards of the UK’s top 100 companies. One in four women is a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime. Women here still represent only 22% of our Parliament. Some 30,000 women lose their jobs every year because of pregnancy. So yes, we have come a long way, but we have further to travel yet.
I think that the Minister for Women and Equalities and the Minister for Equalities support progress for women and agree that it should go further and faster. The trouble is that their Government are not delivering; instead, they are turning back the clock.
I think that it was right to change the policy on the 10p tax rate, which did cause problems for a lot of women—the hon. Lady is right. However, often the very same women for whom we had to make changes to ensure that they got help because they were being affected by the 10p tax rate are now being affected by what her Government are doing to change the pension age and equalise pensions so quickly. The 10p tax rate did affect women, but not on the scale under this Government of hitting them with more than £10,000 of losses. Yes, she is right to point out the problems with the 10p rate, but she also needs to point out to her Government the serious damage that they are doing not only to women approaching pension age but to many other women across the board.
I will make progress and then take an intervention from the hon. Lady.
In area after area, whether it is income, employment, child care, public services or action on violence against women, we are seeing the clock turned back. Today we want to concentrate on the Government’s reforms to the pension age and what is happening to women as a result. We understand the Government’s concern about rising longevity; of course we are all living longer and that has consequences. However, the nature and timing of the changes they have chosen is hitting women much harder than men. Bringing equalisation down to 2016 from 2018, combined with increasing the age again straight after that, means that women currently in their late 50s are getting a very bad deal. No men will see their state pension age increase by more than a year, but half a million women will do so. Those women, who are already in their mid to late 50s, are suddenly seeing their retirement plans ripped up. A third of a million women will have to wait an extra 18 months, and 33,000 women will have to wait an extra two years.
Let us think about what that really means. These women are already around 57 years old. They have been expecting to get their retirement pension in about seven years’ time. They will already have made financial plans; many will already have made retirement plans. These women are often the rock of their families. They are the ones who stopped work to look after their grandchildren so that their daughters could work, or they are working part-time and looking after elderly relatives. They have worked out how they can manage it, and how they can stretch their savings until the pension kicks in, and suddenly the Government are ripping all that up.
The group of women who, when they started work, would have expected to retire at 60, had already accepted that because of the equalisation of the state pension age they would have to work until they were 64, but it is the two years on top of that which is very difficult for them to swallow.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Those women have already made changes to their retirement plans, but these further changes are very late in the day, when it is extremely difficult for them to rearrange their plans. The consequence is that the equivalent of about £5,000 is being taken from half a million women, £10,000 is being taken from thousands of women, and £15,000 is being taken from those who are hardest hit—and they have less than seven years to work out how to cope. For most of those women it is too late to make changes to their financial plans and their career plans.
Let us take the case of Christine. She was born in July 1954. She is still working as a self-employed bookkeeper, and works about 25 hours a week. Like a lot of women her age, Christine says that she put her career on hold to bring up her children, so she does not have much of a private pension. She does not have extra savings to help her to cope and to make good the gap. Women in their late 50s have average pension savings of £9,100 compared with an average of £52,000 for men of the same age. These are women who took time out to look after their families, who worked part-time, and who started work in the ’70s when the pay gap was bigger. The pension system never properly recognised the contributions that they made to their families and to society, and now, as a result of what the Government are doing, it is kicking them in the teeth again.
The Government cannot tell us that this is being done to cut the deficit, because in 2016, when these changes come in, their structural deficit is supposed to have been eliminated. The best that the coalition has been able to come up with in its defence is to say that some of the poorest male pensioners who get pension credit will be quite hard hit too. I do not think that people such as Christine will consider that much consolation. Today, the Prime Minister tried to claim, “Well, it’s all right, it means that pensioners will be £15,000 better off because this is restoring the link with earnings,” but the link with earnings had already been restored as part of the Turner review. Making such a change now does not provide any benefits for women for many years to come. Instead, in the next few years, it hits extremely hard women who have worked hard for their families and for society.
Women on the Government Front Bench and Back Benches ought to do something about this. They should stand up and be counted; otherwise they are letting down women in their constituencies.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is appalling to suggest that these women can get jobseeker’s allowance, because many of them have claimed very little throughout their lives. They have believed in working hard, doing their bit, and making their contributions to their family and their society, and the state pension was what they had earned—what they had saved for and contributed towards. Saying to them that they should claim jobseeker’s allowance, which is set at a much lower level, or that, having perhaps taken early retirement to look after the grandchildren only now to find that they cannot do so because they cannot make their savings stretch, they must suddenly try to find work after so long out of the labour market, misunderstands the reality of their lives and the pressures they are under. Something needs to change. The Government have done U-turns on issues such as forests; they have paused on the NHS; and they should make a massive change on this policy.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only is this change coming in very quickly but thousands of women out there are not aware of it, despite the excellent campaign, because the Government have provided very inadequate information?
My hon. Friend is right. To the extent that women can plan for such change, they need to know what is going on. At the moment, a lot of women do not know what is happening and are worried. They are starting to hear about the change, but do not know what it is going to mean for them and for their personal circumstances.
Unfortunately, I heard one of the men on the Conservative Benches mutter “Deluded” in response to my call for the Government to U-turn. I have to say to him that he is deluded if he thinks that women across the country will not feel extremely angry. The more that they realise what the Government are doing, the more they will be knocking on the doors of their constituency MPs and asking why their MP is allowing them to lose up to £10,000 as a result of deeply unfair changes.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. As one of the two Conservative men who signed the early-day motion on this subject, the other being my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), I very much sympathise with the point that she is making on behalf of women born in 1953 and 1954—like me; 1954 was a vintage year. Does she not regret that in the motion she has chosen to make a broad sideswipe at the Government that is much less well thought through than her point about that particular cohort of women? Had she focused her attention on that, she might well have found one or two of us joining her in the Lobby.
I apologise for my slightly aggressive reaction to the hon. Gentleman when he stood up; I should have checked the EDM beforehand. I commend him for his defence of his vintage, of all sexes. He is right that this issue is of extreme concern, and I hope that we will have further opportunities to vote on it.
I will turn to the wider points in the motion that the hon. Gentleman criticised, but which I think are important. It is women rather than men who are taking the biggest burden in the Government’s deficit reduction plans. The Government know of our deep concern that they are cutting too far and too fast, and that they are hitting growth and pushing up unemployment, which will cost us more. However, even those who support the scale and pace of the Government’s plans should be worried about the way in which they are carrying them out.
The House of Commons Library has produced detailed analysis of the direct tax and benefit changes in the Government’s emergency Budget and the spending review. A net total of £16 billion is being raised. That takes account of the increase in tax allowances and the cuts to tax credits. It looks at the extra money as well as the cuts. The conclusion is that £5 billion is coming from men and £11 billion is coming from women. Women are paying more than twice as much as men to get the deficit down, yet women still earn less and own less than men. How can that be fair?
The figures include everything, so they do include the child benefit changes, as well as the change in tax allowances, the cuts to housing benefit, the cuts to public sector pensions and a series of other things. The point is that the cumulative impact will hit women much harder than men. Women who are on higher incomes will be hit much harder than men who are on higher incomes. Women who are on lower incomes in households where the man is on a higher income will also be hard hit, even though they may only be on part-time or low earnings. The hon. Lady is right that the analysis does not separate women on the basis of different levels of earnings, but it does show that at every level of earnings, in every sector of the economy and in every sector of society, women are being hit harder than men.
We have said that we think there is a serious advantage in some universal benefits. I do not think that the hon. Lady should be paid child tax credit, and she is not, because it is right that some things depend on people’s incomes. However, it is important that some things are universal. That is why we have said that there are serious problems with what the Government are doing on child benefit. She needs to take seriously the point that at every level of income and in every sector of society, women rather than men are the hardest hit.
As someone who has staunchly defended universal child benefit precisely because of the reach that it secures for the poorest families—better than the means-tested benefits that are designed to reach them—I am pleased to tell the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) that I will certainly campaign for the reinstatement of child benefit for all parents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one reason why it is so important to have benefits that are predominantly directed at women is that even in the best-off households, the way in which income is divided between a couple often favours the man? It is important to give women some independent income to protect their financial independence within the household.
My hon. Friend is right, because who gets the income in the household matters for a lot of women. Child benefit was about giving women an independent income, and it has given women a greater ability to make choices about their own lives.
The Government have dismissed the figures about the impact on women and men. They say that those figures cannot be calculated, but they have calculated no figures of their own. They claim that it cannot be done. That is rubbish, because the House of Commons Library did it, and pretty quickly. They also claim that it is not possible for the Government to come up with such figures, but the Treasury has done it before. When the Minister for Women and Equalities and I were new Back Benchers, I asked Treasury Ministers a written question on exactly the same thing. I asked what was the impact on women compared with men of the 1997, 1998 and 1999 Budgets. Treasury Ministers were able to calculate it then and they can calculate it now. The answer was that men benefited by £2.30 per week and that women benefited by £5.30 per week from the changes brought in by the Labour Government. This is the contrast: the Labour Government’s first Budget helped women twice as much as men; the Tory-led Government’s first Budget hit women twice as hard as men.
The Government say that one cannot look at men and women separately, but that one must look at households. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made. The Government’s plans for universal credit have the same kind of flaw. They are talking about a single payment being paid to a single household member, with the risk that it will go predominantly to the man. What the Government say is just not true. Of course people choose to share their money in the household and in the family, but that is the point—they choose to share their money. Who gets the money in the first place matters. Beveridge understood that 60 years ago. That is why he introduced the family allowance, which led to child benefit. I do not understand why Government Members and the Government are so blind to this issue. Women on the Government Benches would be horrified if suddenly their salaries were paid to their husbands on the basis that it does not really matter because they are in the same household. That is the logical consequence of the Government’s arguments about households and for not being able to do such analysis.
The right hon. Lady is pretending that child benefit is an income for women that is paid to women, but it is a benefit that is paid for the benefit of the child. It is not and never has been income for women.
The hon. Lady does not seem to understand that most women do the spending for the children. That is why, originally, Beveridge wanted to ensure that women got some money. Right now—[Interruption.] Government Members obviously do not talk to women in their constituencies about the way in which child benefit money matters massively as part of their income. Of course a lot of that money is spent on children, but however women spend it, the fact that it is they who get the income gives them choices about how it is spent.
I suggest that the hon. Member for Corby (Mrs Mensch) listens to the recording of “Woman’s Hour” from soon after the Government’s announcement of their plan to take child benefit from those on the highest earnings. A lot of women called in to describe how they were on a low income, even though their husbands were on a higher income. They spoke about the difference that it made to have some money that came to them and over which they made the decisions, even if it was then spent on the children and their future.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for being generous and giving way to me again. My constituency of Corby in east Northamptonshire has a large proportion of lower-income women. The women who come to my surgeries are delighted that higher-income women and families will not be paid this benefit, because they regard it as fundamentally unfair that rich people receive benefits. They cannot understand why it is the Labour party that is protecting benefits that are paid to the rich.
Are those constituents equally delighted by the cuts to child tax credit, the cuts to the baby tax credit that is paid in the first year, the cuts to the Sure Start allowance, the cuts to their Sure Start centres, and the huge cuts that are hitting low-income women across the country? I bet they are not. I bet the hon. Lady did not ask them about those things when they came in and she started talking to them just about child benefit for higher earners.
Those same women—we are talking about these abstract women—are also extremely unhappy about the massive deficit left behind by the previous Government. Whether someone is a mother or a father, their children are facing an enormous debt. This Government are tackling the debt that the right hon. Lady’s Government left behind.
If we had not had the increase in the deficit during the global financial crisis, we would have seen recession turn into slump. We would have seen huge numbers of women lose their jobs and be stuck in long-term unemployment. We would have seen women and their families lose their homes and savings, so it was right to support the economy during the recession. As a result of our decisions, the economy grew and the deficit came down. Unfortunately, the Minister’s Government have decided to put a political timetable for deficit reduction into place far ahead of the interests of the economy. They are hitting public services far faster than they needed to, but they are also hitting jobs and pushing far more women out of work and on to benefits and the dole, so that they cannot support their families.
Even if the Minister for Women and Equalities believes that the Government should cut the deficit this far and this fast, how can she possibly think it is fair for women to be paying £11 billion of the £16 billion reduction that is coming from tax and benefits, while men pay £5 billion? How can it be fair for women to pay twice as much as men, despite the fact that they still earn less and own less?
Sometimes I think that the Prime Minister has a blind spot about women, but most of the time I think the truth is probably far worse. This is an ideological problem for the Tories and Liberal Democrats. Despite the fact that there are many women in both parties who strongly want to see greater progress for women, the overall ideology of both parties at the moment is that the public sector should not worry about supporting families, about who gets the money within families or about what happens to families, because that is a private matter that the public sector should not engage in. They believe that such things as tax credits are bad, because they breed dependency. The truth is that for millions of women, pension payments or tax credits create not dependence but independence. They give women greater choice about how to balance work and family life, and about whether they can afford to stay at home while the kids are young or cover their child care payments so that they can go out to work.
I know that this is not easy for the Minister, because she does not control what happens in other Departments. She did the right thing at the very beginning of the Government’s time in office when she warned Ministers of their obligations to consider equality and the impact of policies on women. Unfortunately, few of those Ministers seem to have been listening. Several may indeed have told her to calm down.
Even if the right hon. Lady is not fully aware of what is happening across the Government, she does have responsibility in her own Department, the Home Office, and there are serious grounds for concern there. The committee on women in policing, for example, did not meet for more than a year. It would be helpful if she told the House whether it has yet met, and whether it is now doing any work to support more women to get into the police.
The right hon. Lady has followed the previous Government’s example of announcing a cross-Government strategy to tackle violence against women, which we welcome. We also welcome her support for rape crisis centres, but she does not seem to be reflecting what is actually happening on the ground, with one in five domestic violence courts closing; specialist domestic violence officers in police forces up and down the country being cut as a result of her 20% cuts to the police; refuges having to close their doors; DNA not being held in rape cases in which charges are not brought; and sentences for rapists potentially being halved if they plead guilty. We have seen her refusal and reluctance to sign the trafficking directive until pressure mounted in the House, a U-turn on anonymity for rape defendants only after pressure from the House, and her resistance, still, of the Council of Europe’s convention on violence against women.
Those matters have deep consequences in practice. The POPPY project has told me of the story of Lucy, who was heavily pregnant and being treated for a life-threatening disease, and who had been severely beaten by her father. Lucy’s doctor was trying to find accommodation for her. Due to the squeeze on local government budgets, the homeless persons unit said that it could not treat Lucy as being in priority need, and social services wrongly said that they did not need to help her because the baby had not yet been born.
Lucy was getting ready to sleep on the street for the weekend. The doctor could find only one refuge space, but it was too far away. The worker explained to the doctor that Lucy needed a legal letter telling social services and the homeless persons unit that they had a duty of care to her. Experience showed that only that legal threat would make the services act. Unfortunately, as hon. Members know, legal aid cuts are now biting, and solicitors were scarce and none had the space to take Lucy’s case. In the end, her doctor persuaded the hospital contract doctor to write a letter. It was not his responsibility, but he did so, and Lucy was given temporary accommodation. It came in the nick of time, because the refuge workers said that on that day, five other women fleeing domestic violence came in and asked for help, and were not as lucky as Lucy. They tell me that some ended up sleeping on the street. That is the reality of what is happening to vulnerable women at the sharp end of the cuts.
My right hon. Friend mentioned in passing the fact that 65% of public sector workers are women, so they will be hit disproportionately. In my constituency, some 40% of workers are in the public sector. Does she accept, given what she has just said, that further cuts will tend to generate more domestic violence because of the economic pressure put on family life? There is a disproportionate impact on women not just economically but through domestic violence and the lack of funding to support increasing demand for services at a time when there are also cuts to the police budget. That is terrible for communities such as the one I represent.
My hon. Friend is right. There are increased pressures on services, as well as cuts to many resources. Women workers in public services are feeling the strain, too.
The Minister for Women and Equalities will doubtless tell us about the good work that she and the Minister for Equalities are doing to improve women’s lives, which we welcome, but we believe that we need to go further and do more. We want to support them in their work, but we need them to do much more than they are doing now. We need them to start standing up for women in the Government. We will back them if they do, and we will support them even if their colleagues do not. However, they must act. They cannot just stand on the sidelines. They have a duty to stand up for women in this country, and to get in there and fight. They need to undertake some proper, independent research on the impact of the cuts and their reforms on women. They should use the work that has been done by women’s organisations in Coventry with the university of Warwick, because if they do not, we will. We will work with local groups and institutions to monitor what is happening to women across the country.
The truth is that equality for women is not just about women, it is about everyone. A fairer society for women and an economy that uses women’s talents is better not just for families but for everybody. I have always believed that every generation of women would do better than the last, have more opportunities and choices, break through more glass ceilings and challenge more conventions. However, I fear for our daughters and granddaughters as a result of what the Government are doing. We owe it to them to further the march for women’s equality and not to be the generation of women who turn back the clock.
Yet again, we have heard a speech from the Opposition Benches that included no recognition of the economic mess that the last Government left us, no constructive suggestions and no positive policy proposals for the future of this country. That is not constructive opposition, it is shameless opportunism.
Let me remind the Opposition once more why we are having to take action to restore sanity to our public finances. They left us with the largest budget deficit in our peacetime history, and they left us spending £120 million every single day just on paying the interest on the debt that they racked up. That is more than we spend each day on policing, schools or child benefit. They left us with a deficit higher than that of Portugal or Greece, which have had to go cap in hand to the EU for a bail out. The experience of those countries shows that the risks of not dealing with Labour’s deficit are not imaginary but very real.
Does the right hon. Lady think that the Labour Government should have cut public spending in the middle of a recession, and not allowed additional support for those who were unemployed and for businesses? If so, does she think the economy would have been growing at the time of the election if that had been done?
The Labour party, and the right hon. Lady as a former Treasury Minister, knows full well the risks of failing to deal with the deficit today. That is shown not just by what we are doing, but by what the Labour party itself said it would do if it was in government. I am talking about the position that we are in today, which was left us by the Labour Government, and the actions that we are having to take to deal with it. She must recognise that if the Labour party were in government today, it would be cutting £7 for every £8 that the current Government are cutting.
The Opposition understand that the deficit must be dealt with and we want to get growth moving, but does the right hon. Lady think that that will happen if women are forced out of their jobs because they cannot pay their child care costs?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s claim that the Opposition understand dealing with the deficit rings false when we hear what they say the Government should do about the deficit. On the one hand, the Labour party tries to argue that what the Government are doing to address the deficit is wrong, and on the other hand Labour Members remain silent about the fact that a Labour Government would cut £7 of every £8 that this Government are cutting this year. We hear nothing from the Opposition about where those cuts would fall.
The issue for the Opposition is exactly where the cuts fall. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, not only is the bulk of the Government’s deficit reduction programme hitting women, but women’s unemployment is increasing disproportionately compared with men’s unemployment.
In the last three months, the increase in employment for women was greater than the increase in employment for men. Opposition Members, including the hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), have said today that what the Government are doing is wrong. We hear that in debate after debate. Opposition Members stand up and tell us that the cuts in virtually every area of public sector expenditure are wrong. If they were in government, they would be making cuts. In that case, the question for them is where they would make those cuts.
Does the right hon. Lady accept that the deficit was the price we paid to avoid depression? The choice for the Government is whether to make deep and savage cuts that will stop growth, and to increase VAT, which will stoke inflation, or to focus on growth and make more balanced savings over time, and, obviously, to make the bankers pay their fair share. In the case of the police, the Opposition would cut 12% rather than 20%. That is a more balanced approach that would not undermine growth or increase the deficit in the process.
The premise on which the hon. Gentleman began his intervention was incorrect, because he failed to recognise that we are dealing with a structural deficit. This is not about the world recession, but about the structural deficit that was built up by the previous Labour Government.
Order. We must remember that this is a debate about women. We do not want to go too far talking about the deficit. I know that the two tie in, but we are in danger of having a deficit debate rather than ensuring that the women’s debate is heard.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Answer came there none to my challenge to the hon. Gentleman.
The Government’s action is taking Britain out of the danger zone, but we are also taking action to deal with Labour’s record deficit in a way that protects the most vulnerable, whether they are men, women or children. We have therefore had to take some difficult decisions on public spending, but in a way that has allowed us to protect the public service on which women most rely—we are increasing spending on the NHS in real terms every year. The Opposition cannot say that they would do that, because they would cut spending on the NHS.
Yes, we have had to implement a public sector pay freeze, but that has allowed us to protect against more public sector job losses. Even as we implement the pay freeze, we are protecting the lowest-paid public sector workers, almost two thirds of whom are women. Again, the Opposition cannot say that they would do that.
Yes, the Government have had to make tax changes, but as we have done so we are lifting 880,000 of the lowest-paid workers out of income tax altogether, the majority of whom are women. That was opposed by the Labour party, which is surprising given that it claims to be committed to redistribution.
I shall make some progress.
Yes, the Government have taken the difficult decision to remove tax credits from higher earning families, but that has meant that we can increase child tax credits for the poorest families, protecting against increases in child poverty. In fact, that decision has meant that we can increase child tax credits by £180 and then £110 a year over and above the level promised by Labour. Those policies are not just about helping women, but about protecting the most vulnerable.
The right hon. Lady said that the increase in tax allowances helps women. In fact, the figures produced by the House of Commons Library show that the increase in the tax allowance benefited 13,500 women and 16,800 men. Even what she did to benefit households benefited more men than women. In addition, her cuts—in child tax credits, child benefit and so on—all came from women. That is the point. She is taking far more from women, but when she gives some back, she gives more back to men.
It is absolutely clear that the majority of the lowest-paid workers are women, as are the majority of workers who were taken out of tax. The right hon. Lady refers again to the House of Commons Library figures—she keeps quoting them—but they were produced on a remit that she gave to the Library. Interestingly, she earlier spoke of the distribution and sharing of incomes within households. However, the assumptions on benefits made in the figures that she quotes go against what she was saying about what happens within families.
For the first time, people will have the information to judge for themselves whether they think the Government’s decisions are fair. We have been making some difficult decisions, but for the first time the Government published an overview of the impact of the spending review on groups that are protected by equalities legislation, including women. The analysis demonstrated that our decisions mean that services used by women are protected. With our Budgets in 2010 and this year, and with the spending review, we published unprecedented distributional analysis of our proposals, as the IFS has acknowledged. Such analyses were never published by the previous Government. Perhaps if they had thought to publish such information, they would have avoided policies that hit some of the poorest the hardest, such as scrapping the 10p tax rate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) mentioned.
I reject the Opposition notion that we can judge the value of a policy simply by looking at the number of men or women who are affected by it. We should not reduce the amount that we invest in tackling youth unemployment just because more young men than young women are unemployed, but that is exactly what the Opposition’s analysis suggests we should do. They say that spending on tackling youth unemployment would be unfair on women.
We should not stop investment in policies that will return Britain to growth, such as cutting corporation tax, because more men run companies than women. However, again that is exactly what the Opposition’s analysis suggests we should do. I reject that argument. We need to ensure that more women can start businesses as we invest in getting Britain’s economy going. In fact, one symptom of the inequality between men and women is that more women than men rely on state spending.
We need to continue to support all women who need it, which is why we have ensured that we have protected child benefit and tax credits for women on low incomes, and why we will increase the value of the state pension, and protect benefits such as the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes for older women. However, if the previous Government taught us one thing, it is that more state spending might help to deal with the symptoms of inequality, but it does not address the causes. This Government are determined to get to grips with the causes of inequality between men and women, from job opportunities to the number of women in top, senior positions, to tackling the shameful levels of violence against women, and working to reverse the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.
The Home Secretary will know that some of the key causes of inequality come into play during the very earliest years of a child’s life. Can she explain why her Government are cutting £5 million from the early intervention grant in Leicester, which covers children’s centres and Sure Start, which are crucial to giving all children the very best start in life?
We agree that early intervention is very important and, as the hon. Lady will know, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) produced a very significant report for the Government on the whole issue of early intervention. The Government are ensuring that, within the early intervention budget, there is sufficient funding to provide for a network of Sure Start centres. We are also ensuring—as we are in other areas, as I have mentioned in terms of focusing what the Government spend on the most vulnerable and those most in need—that Sure Start is returned to the early focus it was intended to have by the last Labour Government, which was helping those who are most in need, those on the lowest incomes and those who most need access to the sort of provision that Sure Start and children’s centres can provide.
I want the Government to take a new, more mature approach to engaging with women. I want to see women’s voices in government strengthened. That is why we launched a consultation on how the Government listen to and engage with women, which has already received nearly 900 responses. In today’s world, we need to make full use of communications technology, social media and other techniques to allow us to talk to women directly.
The Government are focused on giving opportunities to women. We need to move beyond just protection from discrimination and help women to get on in modern businesses and modern workplaces. Many women have benefited from the introduction of the right to request flexible working for parents and carers, but by restricting flexible working to certain groups, the idea was perpetuated that this is some sort of special treatment. We will therefore extend the right to request flexible working to all employees. This will not only shift attitudes, but will help to shift behaviour away from the traditional 9-to-5 model of work that can act as a barrier to many women and that also does not make sense for many modern businesses.
Another stereotype we need to shift is the idea that women should do the caring and men should earn the money when a couple decide to start a family. Our policy to introduce a new system of flexible parental leave will make a real difference to working women who want to have children. For the first time, it will allow both parents to choose what is right for them and what is right for their family. If fathers want to take more of a role, they can. If mothers want to return to work earlier, they can. If parents want some time at home together after the birth of their child, they can have it. What matters is that they will have a choice.
I agree with the Home Secretary that we want to maximise people’s choices, but she must be aware that most non-resident parents are men and most parents with care are women, and that the latter have lower incomes. How can she justify putting a charge on those parents with care when the non-resident parent is not paying up on child maintenance?
As the hon. Lady knows, we have had a consultation on how we deal with the child maintenance issue. I hope that she would agree that despite the efforts of both Conservative and Labour persuasions over several years, we have not got the child maintenance system right in this country. There are too many people who do not see the absent parent paying child maintenance and we need to do everything we can to get a system that will work. As she will know, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), is looking at this issue and the alternatives available under the child maintenance proposals.
As well as giving all women better opportunities in the workplace, we need to do more to help those who aspire to the very top. Last year, only 12.5 % of all FTSE 100 board members were women. That is simply not good enough, and that is why the Government commissioned Lord Davies to look at how we can increase the number of women on company boards. We have made good progress in implementing Lord Davies’ recommendations. In May, the Financial Reporting Council launched a consultation on changes to the UK corporate governance code in order to help to achieve more diverse and more effective boards. The head-hunting industry has agreed a voluntary code on diversity, and we are building a strong sense of ownership and action in FTSE 100 companies. We have agreed with them a plan for how company aspirational targets should be published by September.
The latest figures suggest there has already been an improvement in FTSE 100 companies, just by our shining a light on this area. Some 31% of new board members appointed since Lord Davies’ report have been women, up from just 13% last year, and the number of male-only boards has dropped from 21 in October to 14.
We are also helping women to break through the glass ceiling by providing an all-age careers service. The new service will be fully operational by next April, and will provide high quality, professional careers guidance that will be open to all young people and adults. That will help women to make the right choices for themselves and for their careers. For the lowest paid, we will raise the minimum wage to £6.08—two thirds of those on the minimum wage are women.
In other areas we are also making the right decisions to help the most vulnerable. On pensions, again we have had to make some difficult decisions. Yes, we have proposed accelerating the rate at which the state pension age for women becomes the same as the state pension age for men. With life expectancy rising—and one in nine women pensioners is now expected to live to more than 100—and with the overwhelming need to reduce the deficit, this was a decision we could not duck. But it means that at the same time we have been able to commit to a triple guarantee, which will increase the basic state pension by earnings, prices or by 2.5%, whichever is highest.
The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford claimed that the earnings link had been restored by the Turner report. Of course the Turner review referred to the earnings link, but the last Government did not restore it. This Government have restored the earnings link and gone further with the triple guarantee.
Do I take it from what the Home Secretary says that the reason for the acceleration of the state pension age to 66 by 2020 is that the Government can pay for the triple lock on today’s pensions? It cannot be about deficit reduction because it comes after the deficit is supposed to have been abolished.
In fact, by the end of the comprehensive spending review period we will still have a debt of £1.4 trillion, which is three times the debt in 2006-07, so we will still need to look carefully at our public sector finances. It is this Government who have introduced that triple lock on pensions that will benefit today’s pensioners. For too long under the previous Government, older women had to rely on means-tested benefits, with many not claiming their entitlements at all. Our triple guarantee will help to improve the value of the state pension, giving real security and a decent income for all women pensioners. Although women will experience the rise in the state pension age more quickly than previously planned, they will still draw the state pension for an average of 23 years.
To be clear, is the Home Secretary agreeing that the triple lock will be paid for by the 500,000 women who will have to wait longer for their state pension in order to reduce Government debt? That returns us to the essence of this debate—why should women bear a higher proportion of reducing the deficit than men?
It is not the case that there is a simple link between the acceleration of women’s pension age and the expenditure on the triple lock. What is happening with pensions is more complex. Two things are happening in relation to the state pension age. The first is the overall acceleration for men and women, raising the age of state pension entitlement. That will bring in significant sums of money and is a reflection not only of Government finance issues but of increased longevity. When the state pension was first introduced, people lived for a very short period, comparatively speaking—a matter of two to five years—beyond their retirement. Today, people live for a significant length of time beyond their retirement. The Government therefore need to raise the state pension age, as has been recognised by previous Governments—the initial decisions to accelerate the rise and raise the state pension age were taken by previous Governments. We have had to take these difficult decisions. As I said, however, although women will experience the rise more quickly than previously planned, they will still draw the pension for an average of 23 years.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of this point, but in the proposals for 2016 and thereafter will we not be addressing the long-standing problem of women who have taken career breaks being ineligible for a state pension, which is a travesty that we should have sorted out before? Under the proposals we will bring forward, there will be much more parity in that area.
My hon. Friend makes an important point that I was about to deal with. In the longer term, we want to take reforms even further. The state pension Green Paper proposed a single-tier state pension combining the state pension and the state second pension to provide an estimated £140 per week, which would be of particular benefit to women who have had to take time out of the labour market because of their caring responsibilities. The coalition Government are not just talking about this—we have actually made proposals to help women in this regard.
On health, we are pursuing policies that give real help to women. We have stuck to our promise to increase health spending in real terms; we are sticking to our coalition agreement commitment to increase the number of health visitors by 4,200 by 2015; and we are making available £400 million over the next four years to support breaks for all those hard-working carers, many of whom are women.
I have made it absolutely clear, as has my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities, that tackling violence against women and girls is one of my top priorities, which is why in March we published an action plan to tackle the problem; it is why we have provided more than £28 million of stable Home Office funding until 2015 for local specialist services; it is why we have provided £900,000 until 2015 to support national helplines; and it is why for the first time we have put funding for rape crisis centres on a stable footing. We will provide more than £10 million over three years to support their work, and we will open new centres where there are gaps in provision. This should not be a party political issue. It is about helping the 1 million women who suffer domestic abuse each year; the 300,000 women who are sexually assaulted; and the 60,000 women who are raped. As the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford said, one in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, and that will often be accompanied by years of psychological abuse. That is why the Government take violence against women and girls so seriously.
We will only change damaging behaviour, however, after we have changed the underlying attitudes that cause that behaviour. Those attitudes are fundamentally affected by the culture and society in which children grow up. We share the concern of many parents that children are now being exposed to sexualised images and an increasingly sexualised culture from an early age, which is why we commissioned Reg Bailey, the chief executive of the Mothers’ Union, to lead an independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. He has listened to parents’ concerns about explicit music videos, outdoor adverts and the increasing amount of sexual content in family programming on television.
Reg Bailey’s recommendations call on businesses and broadcasters to play their part, and they include putting age restrictions on music videos, covering up explicit images on the front pages of magazines and newspapers and restricting outdoor adverts near schools, nurseries and playgrounds. He also recommends that retailers sign up to a code of practice that checks and challenges the design, display and marketing of clothes, products and services for children. There has been a great deal of goodwill from the broadcast, retail and advertising industries throughout this review. They know that family-friendly practices make good business sense, and the Government will now look to work with business to implement the review’s proposals.
As well as helping women in this country, we are doing more than ever before to help women overseas. We are putting women at the heart of our international development policies, because in development there are few better options than investing in women. In Ivory Coast, for example, an increase of just $10 in women’s income achieves the same nutritional and health outcomes for children as an increase of $110 in men’s income. On international women’s day, the Department for International Development published its new strategic vision for girls and women. It sets out that, by 2015, our international development work will have saved the lives of at least 50,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth and 250,000 newborn babies; will have allowed at least 10 million women to access modern methods of family planning; will have supported more than 9 million children in primary education, of whom at least half will be girls, and 700,000 girls in secondary education; and will have helped 2.3 million women to access jobs and 18 million women to access financial services.
The majority of part-time students studying for first degrees are women. Ten years ago I graduated as a mature part-time student—and I was pleased to note then that the majority of students were women. However, will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government’s decision to extend loan support to part-time students, which will give women the opportunity to advance their careers through further education?
I commend my hon. Friend on his experience and how he got his qualification—I am choosing my words carefully, given what he said about the number of females on the course. However, it is important that we support part-time study, because it is an option that people are increasingly considering. The extra support that we have provided and the way we have dealt with the issue are important steps forward. As he said, such support will have a particularly significant impact on women, given that many part-time students are women.
On students, women in my constituency often tell me about the need for good English language schools. The Home Secretary will know that the co-financing proposals for speakers of other languages will affect women disproportionately— 74% of those affected by the proposals will be women. What conversations has she had with the relevant Minister about that issue?
I have had a number of conversations over time with the relevant Minister on the issue of English language schools and colleges.
I wish to finish the point about tackling violence against women and girls overseas. My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has also been appointed as our overseas champion for tackling violence against women and girls. We have a moral duty to act to support women around the world.
The Opposition’s record on women speaks for itself. They left government with 1 million women unemployed and 200,000 more women unemployed than when they came to power—and that is without even mentioning the deficit. We are sorting out their mess and protecting the most vulnerable, even as we deal with Labour’s deficit, and we are giving women the opportunities they need to be successful: flexible parental leave; more women on boards; careers advice for all; flexible working extended; NHS spending protected; resources for violence against women defended; international development spending centred on women; low-paid people taken out of income tax; pay rises for low-paid public sector workers; child tax credits higher than under Labour; a triple guarantee on pensions; and the minimum wage up. Which of these policies do the Opposition disagree with? Where is their plan to deal with the deficit, to sort out the public finances, and to get Britain back up off its knees? They have no policies that would benefit women, no positive ideas, nothing to say to protect the most vulnerable, and therefore no credibility. All they offer is empty opposition, and that is why their motion deserves to fail.
I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will agree that discrimination and prejudice have blighted women’s lives for many decades and centuries, and we will all have stories of how our own families have been affected by it. In the 1950s, my grandmother, who was a midwife, was nearly forced out of work purely because she got married and started having children. In the 1970s, when my mother was pregnant with me, she was sacked because she was pregnant. She took the case to court, but was unsuccessful. Furthermore, it was only 20 years ago that marital rape was criminalised. It is incredible and horrific to think that until 1991 a man could rape his wife without her having any recourse to justice.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, much progress has been made in recent decades. However, it has been hard-fought, and I worry that it is fragile. Much more remains to be done. Girls do better at school and university than boys, but that is not filtering through into the labour market. Women earn less than men, and women own less than men. Men dominate the FTSE 100 companies, and one in four women at some point in their life will experience domestic violence. I also have to say that for every five men in this Parliament there is only one woman.
The case for gender equality is often expressed in the language of fairness and social justice, but there is also a powerful economic case for gender equality. It simply does not make sense to under-utilise the potential of half the population. A gender-equal society is not just fairer; it will be stronger, too. My worry is that the Government are complacent about the progress that has been made and that their policies might set us back years, or perhaps decades. The devastating economic impact of the Government’s policies on women is particularly distressing. Let us face it, the Government did not get off to a great start. This time last year, they failed to do an equalities impact assessment of their emergency Budget.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford set out, the deficit reduction measures are going to hit women much harder than men. Just as I am worried that the midlands and the north will be less able to cope with the economic gamble of this Government’s deep cuts, with the private sector less likely to take up the slack in those areas than in the south, I am also deeply concerned that women’s employment and pay will be disproportionately hit by the Government’s policies. Of the 500,000 jobs estimated to be lost in the public sector, an estimated 65% to 80% will be women’s jobs. It is not clear that the loss of jobs held by women in the public sector will be offset by an increase in the private sector. Therefore, the employment gap between men and women is likely to widen. Moreover, the gender pay gap is also likely to widen, as the private sector has a much higher pay gap than the public sector, with men earning over 20% more than women.
I have to give my hon. Friend the bad news that in some areas the gender pay gap is even wider. In my constituency the gender pay gap is 30%, partly because a lot of the men have high-paid jobs in the oil industry, whereas the women generally work in the service industry.
The gender pay gap has been a problem for decades. Even though we legislated in this country in the 1970s, there has not been enough movement to narrow the pay gap.
Let me turn to the commitment in the coalition programme to
“promote equal pay and take a range of measures to end discrimination in the workplace.”
When the Minister winds up, I would like her to explain exactly how the actions that I have described will further that commitment. I fear that we will go backwards, not forwards.
The benefit cuts and changes also have a disproportionate effect on women. I support the eventual equalisation of the pension age for men and women, but again, we have seen the Government’s total disregard for the 500,000 women aged between 56 and 57 who, at very short notice, will have to wait two years longer before receiving their pensions. Also, cuts to child benefits and the working family tax credit, which involve help for child care costs, will make it harder for women to combine parenthood and work. For women with children, those benefits do not create dependence, but give them independence and a real choice of whether to stay at home or work part time or full time. Now that choice will only get harder.
My constituents have told me that one of the problems with the current system of tax credits—and the reason why the universal credit is needed—is that a number of women in receipt of tax credits found that if they worked even one or two hours extra, they immediately started to lose more benefits than they were gaining. The point is that we want to encourage women’s independence, as the hon. Lady says, which means the ability to be flexible and take on more work if it is available, yet the current tax credits system seems somehow to stop that.
I share the hon. Lady’s sentiments, but I do not agree with her conclusions. The child care element of the working tax credit is particularly important, especially for parents on middle incomes, yet it is being cut quite substantially. Those cuts in particular will reduce parents’ opportunities to work if they want to. I want both parents to have the choice of working, if they so desire, as well as balancing family commitments. Indeed, a civilised society should provide that framework, so that both parents can, if they want to, combine work with parenthood. Again, this is not just about fairness; it also makes economic sense.
However, this Government are guilty not just of attacking women’s economic empowerment, but in their work on tackling violence against women. We have seen many ill-thought-through policies that seem to be targeted at women. For example, this time last year, when considering anonymity for defendants, the Government chose to introduce it for rape cases. I know that they have dropped the idea since, but why choose rape, a crime predominantly committed against women? We also had an interesting debate about whether the Government should increase the plea bargaining discount, and again, the crime chosen to illustrate this was rape. Again, why choose a crime that affects more women than men?
I also have deep concerns about the Government’s reluctance to do anything concrete about the modern slave trade. Although I am pleased that they have finally seen the light and signed up to the EU human trafficking directive, I fear that it took them so long that they are now behind, rather than leading from the front, blinded by a degree of Euroscepticism. I also want to know what the Government are preparing to do ahead of the Olympic games next year. Unfortunately, international sporting events are magnets for pimps and traffickers. I would like to know what specific measures the Government are putting in place to stem the probable increase in trafficking due to the Olympic games. There is also much evidence that the national referral mechanism used to identify victims of trafficking is not fit for purpose. The UK Border Agency is in control of the mechanism, often treating women as illegal immigrants instead of victims—that seems to be the assumption made even before the women involved are interviewed.
In opening, I talked about the discrimination that my grandmother and mother suffered, and the progress made since. I sincerely hope that this Government will start to take seriously the risk that their policies will make women’s life chances worse, not better, for the next generation.
I am very glad to be called to speak in this important debate. Let me start by saying how much I agreed with part of the concluding sentiments of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), when she said that this debate is not just about women, but about everybody. That, of course, is where all the Opposition’s arguments fall down, because they fail to perceive—she said this was ideological; I agree with her: it is ideological—that by returning the country to prosperity, we will be returning women to prosperity. She fails to perceive or acknowledge what the former Prime Minister and Member for Sedgefield, Tony Blair, has acknowledged—along with James Purnell and her right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field)—which is that her Government failed to reform the welfare system, and in doing so, failed so many of the women and children in this country, who suffered from being below the poverty line.
What a shocking indictment to hear from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the right hon. Lady’s Government left office with 1 million women unemployed. We heard a list in the right hon. Lady’s opening arguments of all the ways in which women had fallen behind men in equality. I would say to her and other Opposition Members that Labour had 13 years in power to do something about the inequalities that women suffered, about the welfare system or about children below the poverty line, yet they signally failed to do so, just as they signally failed to tackle our structural deficit. Again and again, we heard her right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) talk about taking tough decisions for the long term, yet he never took any of them. It has taken the two parties on the Government side of the House to fix the mess that the one party on the other side left behind.
How astonishing that the Labour party actually dared to call for an Opposition day debate on women’s issues. When I look at my research brief from the Government I see measure after measure designed to protect children and families. I see a relentless focus on women, children and the most disadvantaged among the dispossessed. This Government must try to perform the incredibly difficult balancing act of fixing the deficit while protecting the most vulnerable, and we are coming up with creative and flexible solutions to a problem that was left to us entirely by the Labour party.
Labour Members talk of Sure Start provision. It is a fact that under Labour 50% of Sure Start centres were failing to reach out to the most disadvantaged children. It is a fact that Sure Start provision had moved away from its original purpose, and was failing to reach the most needy and the most vulnerable. Our proposals for Sure Start provision will include payment by results, and rewards for incredibly effective Sure Start centres such as the Pen Green centre in my town of Corby in east Northamptonshire, which has just received a massive amount of investment for research from the Department for Education. We will see extra health visitors, and we will see a relentless focus on children.
I find it amazing that, yet again, what we are hearing from Labour Members is naked opportunism. My right hon. Friend made a point that has been made many times on the Government Benches and has always gone unanswered: Labour’s spending plans involved cuts of £7 in every £8. When asked for specifics, Labour Members always respond with platitudes. They get to their feet and say, “We agree that the deficit needs to be tackled”, but when Government Members ask them precisely how they would tackle it, they reply, “We would not make your cuts.”
The women of this country are not stupid. They know that a blank piece of paper is no answer, and they know that we are fighting at every level for women. They see that there are to be new rape crisis centres in Hereford, Devon, Trafford and Dorset. They see stable funding for rape crisis centres: £10 million a year for the next three years. The Government are dealing with the important issue of violence against women, and they are taking action against rape. We are seeing deeds rather than words from this Government.
I believe that the proposal to reduce legal aid funding was in the hon. Lady’s party’s manifesto. She will know, or she should know, that the legal aid system is incredibly inefficient and incredibly costly. Once again, we hear from Labour Members objections to a particular cut; once again, it is a particular cut that Labour also proposed in its manifesto; and once again, Labour Members have no specific proposals whatsoever to offer the women of this country on how they would implement their policy.
As my right hon. Friend pointed out, universal credit is an attempt to tackle not the symptoms but the root causes of women’s poverty. According to statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions, it will take an estimated 350,000 children and 1 million people out of poverty. That is genuine progress. We know that women and children suffer in workless households, and we are finally grasping the nettle and tackling the problems that Labour refused to tackle.
As I look through my statistics, I see programme after programme directed at women. We have talked about the massive investments in existing rape crisis centres and the new ones that are being built. We have talked about the increase in the minimum wage—and so many of the 890,000 people affected by the increase to £6.08 will be women. Under Labour, it was perfectly legal for Jobcentre Plus offices to display advertisements for sex workers. It is absolutely appalling that Labour allowed that to continue, but this Government have stopped it.
What about the extra investment in the national health service? Labour is very quiet about the fact that it would cut funding for a service on which women increasingly rely. How bizarre to sit here—
May I please tell the hon. Lady that ground work is simply not good enough? For 13 years under a Labour Government, you allowed sex worker jobs to be advertised in Jobcentre Plus. The hon. Lady is embarrassed about that, and so she should be. It is an indictment of her Government that it was ever allowed.
First, at no point were what the hon. Lady describes as “sex worker jobs” advertised in jobcentres. Secondly, the advertisements were not displayed for the entire term of the last Government. There had been a court decision that jobs in the broader sex industry ought to be advertised in jobcentres, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and I pressed for it to be changed. I think that the hon. Lady’s claim that that was an achievement by the present Government is fundamentally dishonest, and that it was equally wrong for her to say that the advertisements continued for 13 years. [Interruption.] I am sure that it was done by accident.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I must tell her that I reject her assessment. In the Welfare Reform Bill, the Government have introduced legislation to close the loophole. If the Labour Government did not like the direction in which the courts were moving, it was always open to them to introduce legislation and to do so quickly. They would have been supported by my right hon. and hon. Friends, but they chose to sit on their hands.
I commend the hon. Lady for having done some of the work, but I condemn her party’s Government for not having done it quickly enough. Labour Members cannot escape the fact that it is this Government who have put right that shocking affront to women’s dignity. It is also this Government who are introducing flexible parental leave between parents, and this Government who are working with businesses to bring about transparency in pay so that the massive gap between men’s and women’s wages—which was 16.4% under Labour—can be reduced.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) made an opportunistic reference to plea bargaining and shorter sentences for rape. It may be an idea that will not go very far, but the present Government are at least trying to introduce measures to tackle the appalling rates of rape conviction that we saw under the hon. Lady’s party. We saw zero ideas from that Government, and zero action to tackle those conviction rates.
I believe that it might have had an effect, but I also believe that the root cause is the fact that sentences overall for violence against women, rape and sexual offences are far too low, and that if necessary the House should direct the Sentencing Council to increase those overall sentences. In that wider context, the proposal might have made more sense. Let me point out to the hon. Lady that the entire left-wing press, including The Guardian, roundly condemned her right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for his naked opportunism over the issue of sentencing and rape. As with rape crisis centres, it is this Government who are trying to do something about it.
Since December the number of mixed-sex wards has fallen by some 77%, and many women are no longer having to suffer that indignity. There is more investment in the NHS. Sure Start centres are protected under law from arbitrary closure by local authorities, which now have great flexibility to spend their budgets as they wish. Extra intervention means that there will be new health workers to help mothers to breastfeed, and to help the most vulnerable families. Sure Start is being targeted at the women who need it most.
When we look at the overall reforms of the economy, universal credit, the lifting of women out of poverty and the creation of opportunities, we see a Government who are not anti-women but, in fact, relentlessly pro-women, and who are doing all the things that the Labour party failed to do during its 13 years in office. Let me say to Labour Members that if they are not satisfied with the position of women in our society today, they have only themselves to blame.
On the issue of women as on so many other issues, it is the two parties in the coalition Government who are taking action and making progress. When an Opposition Member gets to their feet and levels with the House and the country about where precisely they would make some cuts, they might begin to have some credibility.
I am very fond of the hon. Gentleman, as he knows, and we have great fun serving together on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, so I will go easy on him by saying that I will take that intervention in the light-hearted spirit in which it was intended, because the country is in a very serious state, and the state women are in is very serious too. The fact that we have to make these cuts is a serious matter, and it does affect women, yet all we hear from Opposition Members is excuses and all we see is blank paper; there is no admission that they would cut too, and no notion of where they would cut.
In conclusion, how unutterably strange it was to hear a good portion of the opening speech of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford and of the contribution of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—who is no longer in her place—spent trying to defend the payment of child benefit to prosperous women such as me. If that is what they have got to say to the women of this country, it is frankly no wonder that they are sitting on the Opposition Benches rather than the Government Benches. It is this Government who are committed to women; it is this Government who are making progress for women; it is this Government who are committed to tackling the deficit and at the same time protecting women and the most vulnerable. The Opposition have nothing to say, and I am sure their motion will be defeated in the resounding manner that it deserves.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a tremendous privilege, and perhaps a little daunting, to have this opportunity to speak in the Chamber for the first time, not least because this is a debate on women and Government policy, and I do hope that I do not turn out to be the token male in the debate—although as a father of a two-week-old baby girl, and as someone who has just returned from paternity leave, I feel slightly more confident about speaking in it than I might have done a fortnight ago.
As is the custom, I start by paying tribute to my immediate predecessor, Sir Peter Soulsby, who stood down from Parliament to contest the election for Leicester’s first directly elected mayor—which, indeed, he won. Sir Peter was much admired in the House for his independence and integrity, and although I make no criticism of those who remain in this House while seeking election to other bodies, it is testament to Peter’s devotion and commitment to the city of Leicester that he resigned his seat before seeking election as Leicester’s mayor, not after. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will wish him well—and look on enviously at his 37,000 majority. I look forward to working closely with Sir Peter in the years ahead.
I also want to say a few words about Parmjit Gill and the late Jim Marshall. Parmjit Gill served briefly as Member of Parliament for Leicester South. He was also very briefly my opponent in the recent by-election. I and many others were sorry when he withdrew as a candidate, as he is respected across the constituency, but I know he has a young family and I wish him well for the future. I never knew Jim Marshall, but throughout the by-election campaign I met many who did. Jim served Leicester South for nearly 25 years in total, with an unfortunate four-year break thanks to the will of the electorate. Many still speak warmly of Jim’s compassion and commitment to social justice. He is hugely missed across Leicester South.
I am privileged to represent a constituency of huge diversity, vibrancy and tolerance, and while we must never be complacent, our communities generally live harmoniously together. We are part of a city renowned across the world for welcoming incomers. Families have come from across the globe to make their home in Leicester South, such as our Asian communities from Gujarat, Punjab, Pakistan, east Africa and Bangladesh, as well as our Caribbean community, our communities from Somalia and, most recently, those from elsewhere in Africa, the middle east and eastern Europe. Our diversity enriches our cultural, social and civic life, and contributes immensely to our economy, too.
For many of my constituents, faith is important. A sightseer on a tour through Leicester South would no doubt visit our cathedral and beautiful churches, numerous mosques, gurdwaras, Hindu temples, synagogues, and the Jain temple. We are all proud that all our faith groups promote mutual understanding and solidarity, focusing on what unites us, not on what divides us. There can be no greater example of this than what happened when the English Defence League came to Leicester last October in an attempt to stir up hatred and division. The people of Leicester—all faiths, all cultures and all backgrounds—united in rejecting the EDL and what it stands for. Our community leaders, our city council leadership, the police and, most importantly, the people of Leicester should be commended for what we have achieved in Leicester. Although my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is not in his place, I also want to pay tribute to him for his outstanding contributions on these matters over many years. As the Member for Leicester South, I will play my part in celebrating our diversity and promoting mutual understanding in the years ahead as well.
Many people from across the world and the UK come to study at our two great universities—Leicester and De Montfort—both of which are situated in Leicester South. Our universities help to make Leicester the dynamic city it is today, while our student population is considered so significant that just over 12 months ago the Deputy Prime Minister visited the campus of De Montfort university to make a certain pledge on tuition fees, to much student acclaim. My by-election campaign was boosted by no less than three visits from the Deputy Prime Minister, but on each occasion he seemed somewhat reluctant to return to the campus he visited a year ago; I can’t think why.
My constituents rightly take the NHS very seriously. Many of them hope that the Prime Minister will drop his proposed changes to the NHS, and are deeply worried about his “top-down reorganisation”. Although Glenfield hospital is in Leicester West, many of my constituents have told me how strongly they feel that the children’s heart surgery unit at Glenfield should remain open, and I agree with them. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) has, along with the Leicester Mercury, been at the forefront of the campaign to keep the unit open, and today I want to make clear my support for that campaign and assure my constituents that, alongside my hon. Friend, I will do all I can, locally and nationally, to back efforts to maintain the children’s heart surgery unit at Glenfield.
My constituency boasts much cultural and sporting heritage. The ’60s playwright Joe Orton grew up on the Saffron Lane estate, and I believe that the singer Engelbert Humperdinck—the legend who made the song “Quando, quando, quando” so popular—grew up in Leicester South too. As a sports fan, I am lucky that my constituency contains the grounds of Leicester City football club, Leicestershire cricket club and Leicester Tigers rugby union club. I look forward to visiting them all regularly in the future—on constituency business of course—although I hope Tigers fans will not hold it against me that I was brought up a Salford rugby league fan; I know you will approve of that, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Although there is much to celebrate and we are proud of our achievements, many families are, as I heard in the by-election campaign, uncertain about the future. My constituents—and women in particular—are feeling the brunt of the coalition’s fiscal policies. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) so eloquently outlined in her opening remarks, many women are feeling the effects of the tax credit changes. In the by-election campaign I met a family living off Aylestone road who are feeling the squeeze thanks to a VAT increase, rising inflation and tax credit changes, and who are now worried about their jobs as well. They told me they were “doing just nicely” until this Conservative-Liberal Government came along.
We have many Sure Start centres in the constituency. Thankfully, because of our Labour council, they are being saved, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West outlined in an earlier contribution, the Government are cutting the early intervention grant. I heard many heart-breaking stories from younger people—many of them young women—from poorer backgrounds who are doing well at school but now think university is not for them. Many of my constituents hope that the Government will think again and introduce a fairer and more equitable way of funding higher education.
Our jobless rate is too high; it is the highest in Leicester. Traditionally, Leicester has had a good record in employing women, but with the public sector cuts set to hit us, many women in my constituency face a precarious future. Tackling our unemployment problem will require the Government to implement a strategy for growth, with investment in skills, training and work-readiness schemes. I especially hope the Government will reconsider the cuts in ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—which will have a detrimental effect on the ability of many of my constituents, particularly women, to move into work.
Pockets of my constituency too often show up in annual surveys of high deprivation. Poverty and lack of opportunity too often blight lives in St Matthew’s and parts of Highfields, Spinney, Saffron Lane and Eyres Monsell. Many of those will be women. It is a matter of great shame that in Leicester we have one of the highest levels of child poverty in the UK. With the changes to the tax and benefits system that have already been discussed, I fear things will get worse. Pushing for measures to tackle child poverty in Leicester will be a priority of mine, as I know it is for my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West, as well as our mayor, Peter Soulsby, and his able deputy Rory Palmer.
However, the people of Leicester South, whether living on those estates or living elsewhere—in Aylestone, Knighton, Stoneygate or Castle—are a proud people. We are at our strongest when we are united in supporting one another, and we are proud that we can boast of countless voluntary organisations that do just that—the Sharma women’s centre, the Pakistan Youth and Community Association and the Bangladesh Youth & Cultural Shomiti, to name just a few—or when we celebrate together, whether at a religious festival or a community event such as the one held this past weekend, celebrating national family week, at Eyres Monsell’s “picnic on the park”.
I come to this House from a modest background. My mother and father, when they had work, were employed in low-income jobs—they might be described as the modern working class—but I was lucky in life. I did well at my comprehensive school and I am the only one in my family ever to have made it to university. Before I was elected to this House I worked within it for a previous Prime Minister and for the current Leader of the Opposition. I also worked briefly for my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)—which perhaps explains why I chose to speak in this debate.
I am honoured to have been elected as the Member for Leicester South. I will dedicate myself to representing all my constituents, to fighting for those across Leicester South whose voices too often go unheard, and to playing my part in articulating the concerns and aspirations of those in my constituency, many of them women, who know that there can be and must be a better way.
May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth)? He demonstrates, as in so many cases, that often there is a lot more that joins us than divides us in this House. He spoke about his constituency, and defended it, with great passion—and I have heard almost every Member of this House do the same thing in terms of their own constituencies. The hon. Gentleman might also be interested to know that we share more than that. My family hails from 19 Narborough road south, my nephew is studying at De Montfort university, and I remember many a trip to Leicester market to buy vegetables—from Gary Lineker’s parents—and eat Eric’s ice creams. I therefore suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I will have a lot to talk about in the Members bars over the years to come.
I was enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech—until the point where it got rather political. We Government Members were sitting on our hands in order not to contravene the policy of not intervening on maiden speeches. But when I heard him say that his former employer was the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), all became clear, and I understood why he could not help himself. However, it is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman.
I want to ask the question: why are we here today? It seems from what we have heard from Labour Members that we are here to listen to a bandwagon. All we have heard from them so far is a desperate and disparate series of criticisms of individual policies, in an attempt to create a fictional narrative about this Government targeting women and those who need help most in society. It is a fictional construct that I reject entirely, as I think every Government Member does.
There is also a flagrant disregard for the mistakes and missteps that the Labour Government made in 13 years. We heard a tiny apology from the shadow Home Secretary for the 10p tax rate fiasco, which caused so many people on low incomes, particularly women, such incredible hardship.
It was a disaster, and was recognised as such. However, we have not heard much about the hollowing out over the previous 13 years of the health visitor profession. The health visitor is often the only point of contact that a young mother, particularly one from a disadvantaged community, will have with the medical profession. Health visitors are the most trusted people involved with pregnant women’s and young children’s lives, yet that profession was hollowed out and almost entirely disregarded. Indeed, its professional status was completely downgraded by Labour.
We have not heard anything about the complex, byzantine welfare system that was built up over 13 years—a welfare system that now costs every family in this country £3,000 a year. Yet in my constituency, it appears to trap people on welfare—particularly single mothers who would love to get back into the work force—and trap them in poverty.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that it was in fact Labour’s policies that got 350,000 single parents back into employment? Yes, before that we had a very bad record compared with other European countries—I fully endorse that point—but it was Labour’s polices that made inroads into that.
I agree with the hon. Lady, who I know has campaigned on this issue for years, that some progress was made, but it was not enough. The welfare system is incredibly complicated and provides huge disincentives to work. Yes, women were helped back into the work force, and the hon. Lady and I both completely support that. However, we hear time and again about women who do not know if it is even worth their while to work—who cannot work out, given the complexities of part-time and voluntary working, whether they should even look for child care for their daughter or son in order to go to work. It is simply an expensive mess that has not helped the women and men across this country in the way that it should.
I would be interested to know whether the hon. Lady has actually gone through a “better off” job calculation, as I have. It is one of the most complicated, ridiculous pieces of analysis I have ever seen. In many cases, the jobcentre advisers simply say, “We actually don’t know.” It can take 45 minutes to make a “better off” calculation, and if someone’s circumstances change by one or two hours a week, they have to go back to the starting point. If the hon. Lady is suggesting that the “better off in work” calculation is something to be proud of after 13 years in government, may I suggest that she fundamentally misunderstands what we need to do to get men and women back into work? In fact, the work that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is doing will massively reform the system.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the adoption of the universal credit and its 65% taper means that people can now be absolutely certain that they will be better off in taking on more work, particularly on the other side of the current 16-hour barrier, beyond which so many benefits drop away?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As a mother of young children, I cannot emphasise enough how difficult it can often be for women to take those steps—to think about child care for their family if they are not sure that it makes sense financially. As he says, there will be far more certainty under the system that we are proposing.
We are here today, therefore, because of a mass outbreak of bandwagonism on the Labour Benches. We are also here because of a heavy dose of hypocrisy. As I think most Labour Members acknowledge, the Labour Government would have had to make £7 of spending cuts for every £8 of cuts that we are making this year. Are they telling us that they would somehow have ring-fenced those spending reductions, or made them in a different way?
If they are, we are all ears. [Interruption.] Tell us! The only thing we have heard is that they would restore child benefit for families with a median income of £75,000 a year. I do not think that that is fair or progressive; nor do hard-pressed working women and women on benefits in my constituency. They think it is outrageous—and that is the only Opposition policy we have heard today that would deviate from what the present Government are doing.
I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), and then to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds).
My hon. Friend is right. Moreover, despite the state of the public finances—for every £4 we spend, £1 is borrowed—Labour would like to borrow that money from other countries in order to restore my hon. Friend’s child benefit, thereby putting that debt round the necks of all of our children and grandchildren. How can that be a rational policy? It is sheer, rank hypocrisy—and on that point I will happily give way to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East.
I thank the hon. Lady for such a kind introduction. The Government plan to fund the deficit reduction through a proportion of 20% tax rises and 80% spending cuts, whereas our plans are for 60% to come from tax rises and 40% from spending cuts. Does she accept that because women earn less and own less, the spending cuts being introduced by her Government hit women much harder than ours would have done?
It would be helpful if we understood a little more about what the hon. Lady’s spending reductions would be. Only the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Chancellor’s wife think that Labour’s economic policies are correct. Everyone else, including the International Monetary Fund, the CBI and the OECD, thinks that what the Government are doing is the way to restore the health and credibility of the British economy.
I wish to make a little more progress, and then I will be happy to give way.
We are hearing a lot of hypocrisy about spending cuts and about pension ages. Let us not forget that the Labour party commissioned the Turner review, which recommended a rise in the state pension age for men and women, and pointed out that the disproportionate longevity figures for men and women meant that the age for women had to rise more quickly. We must ask whether there is an alternative proposal. Does something need to happen about state pensions? We would love to hear Labour’s plans, but we never do.
The Labour party also missed more than 50% of its own equality targets. We know that the Labour party loves targets, but we do not hear very much about the fact that it missed 50% of its targets in this important area. We have also not heard much from Labour Members about Sure Start. I love Sure Start, and I am incredibly proud of the three Sure Start centres in my constituency. They are doing incredibly good work, particularly in places such as Tidworth, an area to which dozens of soldiers and soldiers’ wives come. The centre provides a real lifeline there. We have just opened the Sure Start centre in Pewsey, and thanks to the financial management skills of Wiltshire council it will remain open and funded.
Can the hon. Lady, or any of her colleagues who wish to contribute, tell us why previous Conservative Governments never introduced anything like Sure Start? Sure Start is an amazing achievement of the Labour Government, and she should bear that in mind.
One might just take the hon. Lady’s intervention back a little. Sure Start was invented in the United States in the early 1990s, where it was targeted, as she knows, at the children who needed it most, and it was a great success. If I had been in Parliament when Sure Start was introduced I would have supported it in its early incarnation. It is a very sound idea, but of course it had to grow from something that was very useful when targeted to something that became a universal political point.
Let us hear what happened. In 2010 the National Audit Office found that
“there was no reduction in inequality between child development achieved in the 30% most disadvantaged communities and in the rest of England, against a target to reduce the gap by four percentage points”.
We must remind ourselves that Sure Start was introduced to intervene in the lives of the most vulnerable and needy children and families, and that that target was completely missed. Did any discussion take place about how to target Sure Start better? Was there any acknowledgement that one of the huge issues related to the lack of trust going out and reaching in to the most disadvantaged communities? We know that more than half of the Sure Start centres were failing to reach out to vulnerable families. What should people do in those circumstances? Should they think about how to change that, or should they keep spending and criticise a Government who want to target the money better? The 4,700 extra health visitors jobs—almost 5,000 of them, which will largely be filled by women—represent the way to get from the Sure Start centre out into the community and really help the most disadvantaged children, who absolutely need that intervention. That is what we are planning to do, but we hear no support for it. Again, that is because of the rank hypocrisy that we are hearing from Labour Members today.
The other thing we are hearing today is that the Government have no policies in the area of equality. This is a House of very intelligent people—I keep saying that so it has to be true. There are Members in all parts of the House who work on a cross-party basis on unbelievably important issues, be it child protection or trying to stop the pernicious influence of pornography on the lives of our families. We should be working together on how to make Sure Start centres more effective —on what we can actually do to make a difference—instead of getting involved in this bandwagonism. I find it incredibly demeaning for the House to be participating in that.
We are dealing here with unbelievable hypocrisy, given that it is coming from a party that maxed out on the nation’s credit card. Its approach means that we are spending 39 times the annual operating budget of Sure Start on servicing Labour’s debts. That is the legacy that we are having to deal with. Do we hear any innovative or sensible suggestions about how to deal with it? No, we do not.
We have a benefits system has been created to trap many women in the sorts of poverty from which we would all want them to get out. We know that the benefits system is costing everyone £3,000 a year, but do we get any positive recognition and support for our welfare reform policies and the universal credit that we are proposing? I do not think so. Let us put aside this bandwagonism and hypocrisy, and let us talk about what this coalition Government are actually doing.
First—this is obviously the elephant in the room—the Government are taking action to pay off the previous Government’s crippling debts, which did not pop up overnight as a result of the credit crunch. The Labour Government spent more than they took in taxes every year from 2002, wishfully thinking that post-endogenous growth theory—I went to Nailsea comprehensive school and do not have a clue what that means—would somehow bring us out of the mess. Well, guess what: it does not. A Government have to live within their means if they are not to burden our children with debts, as the profligacy of the Labour Government did. This Government will live within their means. We are making the spending reductions that the Labour party left us with in a way that focuses the scarce resources on those who need them most.
We are facing a public sector pay freeze, and that is tough. Some 35% of the employment based in my constituency is in the public sector, so Members should not think that I do not get a lot of letters about that. However, I also hear from the women, many of whom work part time, who are grateful to be excluded from the pay freeze because they are low earners. They recognise that in these scarce times things have to change, but they think that it is important that the pay freeze excluded the lowest paid, and so do I. The Government have also taken 880,000 people out of taxation completely and definitively with a one-off move—it was not the fiasco of the 10p tax rate—and that benefits lower-income women and families in this country hugely.
We have heard a lot from Labour Members about child tax credits—I am confused, because I thought that the Government were raising child tax credits in absolute terms and ahead of indexation for the most disadvantaged families, who need them the most. I believe that that benefits 4 million of this country’s poorest families. We are examining Sure Start centres, ring-fencing the funding and investing in 5,000 additional health visitors, who can stop Sure Start centres being a nice thing thrown on the wall and make them work.
As the hon. Lady knows, it is for the local authority to decide what it does. I do not know what her local authority is doing, but in Wiltshire not one Sure Start centre is closing and funding is being maintained completely. I might submit that political machinations further down the system are leading to these changes, but the funding and the additional investment is certainly there. If her local Sure Start centres would like to operate better and have some additional health visitor investment, that money is also there.
We have also heard about a Government who are protecting NHS spending. We know that in general women consume more NHS resources, and that money is being protected. International development spending, which I particularly support and about which we heard so eloquently from those on both sides of the House during the international women’s day debate, is also being ring-fenced. It is my belief that investing in schools for women in Pakistan is a sensible thing to do locally and it will increase overall economic security and prosperity. Having a women-focused aid policy, as we have, is the right thing to do.
We have heard about the universal credit, which will bring 1 million people, including 350,000 children, out of poverty. We have also heard about the sustainable funding for the rape crisis centres. I have been involved in some of the discussions that have taken place on rape, sentencing and tariffs and the policy person from the head of the UK rape crisis centres says, “This is the first time we have had sustainable funding for our centres for as long as we can remember, and we absolutely support this.”
Does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that over the next three years nearly £250,000 will be put into developing a rape crisis centre in Exeter, serving the women of Devon, who have been disgracefully under-resourced over the past 10 years?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Of course, under the previous Government nine out of 10 local authorities did not have a rape crisis centre. At a time of significant fiscal constraint, we are managing to find new money to invest in that incredibly important area and I thank her for her intervention.
Finally, as regards an area on which many of us in this House have campaigned together, the Government are taking active steps to deal with the oncoming tide of sexualisation and the commercialisation of childhood, whether by getting retailers to act in a responsible way or by getting internet service companies to consider a system that allows us not to have pornography piped into our homes and makes getting it a choice. Work is happening under this Government that I applaud.
This is a bit of a depressing debate to be involved in. Many Members share many of the same aspirations and campaign on important issues, but all we have is the bandwagonism and hypocrisy of the Labour party. What I have enjoyed most in this debate has been listening to Ministers who have told how we are focusing scarce money on those who need it now while taking steps so that the profligacy of the previous Labour Government does not leave our children and our grandchildren with debts to pay off.
I pay tribute to the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth). He was passionate about his constituency and warm in his praise of his predecessors and colleagues in the city. May I thank him for his support for Salford Reds? Among the many football and rugby clubs in his constituency that he could have talked about, he still remembered Salford Reds. I hope that he will enjoy visiting the clubs he mentioned in his own constituency and he will always be welcome in my constituency, where the new Salford Reds stadium is fast taking shape. Each week when I go back there is more of it. He is very welcome to come back to Salford.
On a more serious point, let me refer to a letter from a constituent affected by the pension age change. My constituent wrote:
“Recently I applied for a pension forecast and found that I will not receive any pension payment until I am 64. I am worried and appalled. I have worked full time since leaving school, progressed my nursing career so I could remain employable and reared 2 children. I do not drink or smoke and I have paid for our children’s university fees so that they could enter ‘the big society’ with something to offer, ensuring their employability. I have not been given any time to plan for receiving my pension at 64. Successive governments have encouraged people to save for their retirement which I have done with the view of retiring at 60. I cannot stress strongly enough how I feel let down by people who are supposedly managing our country. I will certainly join in a campaign opposing this”.
She also said:
“How can I stop this happening? It is unfair and penalises all those people who are loyal and hard working.”
Women such as my constituent are worried and appalled and it is time that Ministers listened to them.
I did not intend to touch on that, but wanted to take the opportunity to read out my constituent’s comments so that Ministers understand the worry and concern.
I want to focus more on women and jobs and social care. I share the concerns expressed by many organisations and individuals about the disproportionate and unfair impact of the Government’s policies on women. As we know, women make up 60% of the public sector work force. Nationally, 40% of women’s jobs are in the public sector compared with 15% of men’s jobs. In my constituency, women’s jobs in the public sector are in local government and the NHS—in the primary care trust and in local hospitals. Local councils are now having to manage the swingeing front-loaded budget cuts made by this Government and thousands of jobs are being lost. Salford council, my old council, will have to cut 500 jobs this year. Wigan council will lose more than 800 jobs and Manchester council 2,000. All the interventions made by Government Members have not made much mention of those swingeing front-loaded cuts to council budgets, but they are very important and they are affecting things.
Will the hon. Lady illuminate the House with how many of the job cuts to the various councils she identified are redundancies or post eliminations rather than straightforward compulsory redundancies? Can she tell us about the profile of those people? Are they at the top, middle or bottom level of the organisations?
It hardly matters, I think. We are talking about three or four years of cuts and this year’s cuts will be followed by similar cuts next year and the year after. I am surprised that Government Members can look with such equanimity at something such as the 2,000 job cuts that are happening in Manchester.
The hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) talked about protecting the NHS, but in reality hundreds of jobs are being lost in the NHS, as they are in local councils. Jobs are being lost through the abolition of our primary care trust in Salford and that change is also causing turmoil to local services and decision making. At Salford Royal hospital, 720 jobs are being cut, including those of 146 nurses. The Christie, our regional county hospital, is to reduce its staffing by 213—one in 10 of the current work force—including 40 nurse-grade jobs and 50 health care support or assistant jobs. I am sure that none of us would look with equanimity at that level of job loss.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that her own party did not campaign on the basis of ring-fencing or protecting the health budget? Does she not accept that it is highly likely that the situation would be far worse had her party been elected?
No, I do not accept that. The turmoil that has been caused by the unnecessary top-down reorganisation, as well as the £3 billion cost of that reorganisation, is not helping.
Finally, and close to home in my constituency, Royal Bolton hospital is losing 60 posts, including 32 nurses, with 92 jobs going next year and 95 the year after. At Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh hospital, 533 jobs are going—a 13% reduction. These are the jobs and careers of my constituents, and women’s jobs are disproportionately affected because all those organisations employ significantly more women than men.
In recent months, there has been quite a focus on women’s jobs that are being lost, but the cuts also mean the loss of services that women use more than men. Women, as we know, are more likely to use libraries and health services and they need support from social care for family members and themselves as carers. Women will carry a disproportionate burden of the spending cuts that are affecting social care services as 58% of carers are women, and of those carers who combine caring with part-time work, 89% are women.
Next week is carers’ week, which has great support across the House, and the theme will be the true face of carers. Carers are being asked to talk about the reality of their lives as carers—how hard they can find it to be a carer and what could really make a difference to their lives. A report by the Care and Support Alliance in March showed that levels of unmet need were increasing even before the cuts to local council budgets. That is a great cause for concern. In the alliance’s survey of 1,000 people, nearly seven out of 10 respondents felt that they needed more support, more than two in 10 said that services had been cut back even though needs might have been increasing, and more than two in 10 said that the person cared for needed support but was not receiving any services.
That is not surprising, given that councils have been cutting their eligibility criteria for social care for some time, increasing charges for services and removing caps on charges. I am proud of the fact that, despite the swingeing 27% cuts to council budgets at Labour-run Salford city council, it has managed to retain eligibility criteria for social care at a level to help people with moderate needs as well as those with substantial or critical needs. Salford is now one of only 15% of councils that provide that level of care. That is in great contrast to councils such as coalition-run Birmingham city council, which recently tried to set its eligibility criteria to a new level of “personal critical”. More than 10,000 people would have seen their care packages downgraded and more than 4,000 people would have had no care services or support whatever.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) reported the distress of constituents who came to him for assistance: people who were extremely vulnerable themselves or caring for someone who was elderly, ill or disabled. Women carers were disproportionately included. The Care and Support Alliance survey revealed that changes to services that happened even before the cuts had led to
“a negative impact to the person with care and support needs.”
The report quotes one female carer talking about the impact on her life. She said:
“I am unable to go out with my husband because one of us needs to remain at home with my mother. Unable to go out with my sister (also disabled) because if I go out she needs to stay home to support my husband in caring for our mother. Unable to visit friends, have a weekend away or take a holiday. Feel abandoned by the state—Carer’s Allowance withdrawn when I reached 60 last year, Carer’s grant reduced by Local Authority from £400 pa to £100 pa this year, top-up fees now payable for the 3 hour respite per week, no extra help available.”
Of course, such extra stresses also put further pressure on the health of many women who care. Another female carer is quoted in the Care and Support Alliance report as saying:
“I care for two and I am disabled myself. Although they have increased the care for my father, he still needs extra care from me. I get no help with my husband, who is also becoming more demanding and no help for myself. So my life gets harder and harder and my health is deteriorating as a consequence.”
Women who are carers are also worried about the Government’s plans to cut £1 billion from disability living allowance over five years by reducing the number of people who are eligible. Tightening the eligibility criteria for DLA will mean that many carers will not be eligible for carer’s allowance, which will be available only for those who look after someone who is in receipt of the middle or higher level of DLA. As three quarters of the recipients of carer’s allowance are women, that is yet another area in which women will bear the brunt of the cuts.
Carers UK has estimated that seven out of 10 women will be carers in their lifetime. We know that social care services for older people are underfunded and that the number of over-80s is increasing, so the pressure on family carers, who are mainly women, is bound to increase. Once again, women will be disproportionately affected.
Women are more reliant on the services that the public sector provides and therefore stand to lose more from cuts to services and from the loss of jobs that I have talked about. That affects my constituents and women who are carers. I have campaigned since I have been in the House to improve services and support for carers, six out 10 of whom are women. More could always be done, but Labour gave primary care trusts extra budgets to fund respite care, introduced the carers grant and provided £770 million in new funding for disabled children.
Of course, every move to provide extra respite care to help carers is beneficial, and all those moves were started by the previous Government in support of the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign. As I said earlier, there has been very little mention of the fact that the swingeing cuts to council budgets cancel out everything else being done. Perhaps that is not the case in places such as Wiltshire, but it certainly is the case in the north of England.
Finally, let me mention some things that were going to happen but will not now happen.
I am just about to finish.
The Government have abolished the measures in the Personal Care at Home Act 2010, which would have helped 400,000 of the people in the greatest need, and they have cut the budgets to local councils, as I have mentioned, which will potentially have a great impact. Those changes come at a time when we know that more services are needed given the horrendous cases we have heard about in recent months. It is time to develop unanimity across the House. I know that many hon. Members on the Government side are concerned about social care, but the impact of the changes that I have mentioned will cause a loss of quality of life for carers, as I have outlined.
Let me begin by adding to those of others my congratulations to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth). I can see that he is no token man, as I know that he has a two-week old baby and I can see the shadows under his eyes from here. I welcome his comments celebrating the cultural diversity of his constituency. Clearly, he is going to be a great advocate for Leicester South.
I think that the previous Labour Government and this coalition Government have a lot in common. We both want to redress the imbalances between men and women through public policy. It is fair to say that Labour did many things that benefited women, such as increasing the maximum age for children at which parents could apply for flexible working. That change followed a very similar private Member’s Bill that I had introduced the year before, which would have extended the right of request to the parents of children up to the age of 18. My Bill was unceremoniously voted down by Labour, which then reintroduced the measures in a form that applied to the parents of children up to the age of 16. I do not mind the previous Government’s doing that: they saw a good idea and grabbed it. Indeed, I think we should all work together more to pool our best ideas, particularly in the current, grave economic circumstances. That might be too radical a notion for this debate and this Parliament given the way things have been going so far but it is an aspiration of mine. I am very glad that this Government are consulting on extending the right to request for all employees. That will remove the stigma when some staff have a right that is denied to others. It will also acknowledge the fact that employees are more loyal and productive when there is an acknowledgement that they should be able to have a reasonable work-life balance.
Another thing that Labour did that particularly benefited women was allowing any years they spent caring for others to count towards pension entitlements in future. Why the Labour Government never restored the earnings link during their 13 years is beyond me. Why would they not have done that if they believed that the economy was strong, not knowing that the so-called growth was based on a house of cards and unsustainable debt? How much more difficult has it been for us, while we are trying to deal with the biggest deficit in peacetime history, to redress some of those injustices at the same time? We put our actions where our mouth was and immediately committed to restoring the earnings link with the triple guarantee. A much fairer and better pensions system that will raise the level of a single person’s pension to £140 in today’s money will be introduced by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), who has responsibility for pensions. That system will help the poorest pensioners more than anything that was introduced by the previous Government. Of course, the poorest pensioners are mostly women. Two thirds of people on pension credit are women and the average woman receives £40 less per week in her state pension compared with men. Even with the changes brought in by Labour, it would have been 2050 before pensions were equalised between the sexes.
Something else that will greatly help is the move to the universal credit system of benefits, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members, rather than the complex system that we currently use. That change will mean that work always pays and will encourage people to return to work rather than stay at home on benefits because that is more financially beneficial.
The Government are investing more than £3 billion in this, but every single factor cannot be taken into account in determining whether the outcome will be better or not. The Government are looking into what we can do about child care costs. The hon. Lady raises an important issue, which I know is being taken very seriously by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench.
Under the proposed system, 31% of women who are entitled to benefits will be better off than they are at the moment. In addition, women returning to work after having children will be able to build up their hours gradually without being unfairly penalised by the system. It will also help take-up. In 2008-09 only 80% of people took up child tax credits. There has been much discussion about that today. I hope that changing to a simpler system will ensure that those who need the money get it.
However, I agree with the sentiments expressed in the motion about the disproportionate effect of the planned increase in the pension age on women born between December 1953 and October 1954. I am delighted to see that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate, has come into the Chamber. I declare an interest: I am one of those women. Although I expect still to be going like a train at the age of 70, I entirely understand where those women are coming from and the unfairness of imposing change too late for many to do anything about it. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Pensions Minister to do all he can to ensure that the proposal is reconsidered and a measure introduced that will be a little fairer to that tranche of women.
I am glad the hon. Lady has made that plea to her party colleague, the Pensions Minister. I am sure that many other colleagues will make the same point. Does she agree that women who are upset and worried about the change need a decision soon? It is causing many of them great anxiety and stress, and they cannot be expected to go on for months wondering whether there is to be a change or whether they will have to put up with the unfair increase in their pension age.
I agree, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Pensions Minister listened to every word that the hon. Gentleman and I have said.
Let me move on to Sure Start centres. I am amazed that the Opposition have the temerity to accuse us of closing centres, when the centres that have been closed were predominantly in Labour-run council areas. The Government are not cutting Sure Start centres and have made sure that there is enough funding in the early intervention grant to retain a network of Sure Start centres. Not a single Liberal Democrat council has closed a Sure Start centre, and in my own patch, in Solihull, we have extended their remit from the narrow strictures prescribed by Labour.
Does the hon. Lady think there might be a connection with the fact that many Labour councils, particularly in the north, had seen cuts of something like £100 million in their budgets? It is hard to protect any services in that situation, and no services can be left out.
Perhaps it is a matter of priorities. Economic inequalities still abound in this country. Despite the good old Equal Opportunities Act now reaching its fifth decade, women working full time still earn, on average, 15.5% less than men. That is not good enough. Raising the tax threshold has helped women, who made up 60% of the 900,000 people lifted out of tax altogether. In the spending review we ensured that the lowest paid public sector workers, 65.5% of whom were women, were protected from the public sector pay freeze, as the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) mentioned.
The world of work is therefore one area of public policy that we can use to try and level the playing field between men and women, but let us also consider self-employment and women-owned companies. We know that a third more women-owned start-ups fail in the UK than in the US; we know that 20 years ago the US took affirmative action on procurement; and we know that today there are proportionately twice as many women-owned businesses in the US as in the UK. One area where the Government have taken action is in the field of procurement, with reference to small businesses. We aspire to achieve 25% of goods and services procurement for Government Departments from small businesses.
But women-owned businesses are not even on the Government’s radar. If we are spending taxpayers’ money, should we not know who we are procuring from? If we are measuring how many small businesses we are procuring from, how much more difficult would it be to measure how many women-owned businesses we are procuring from? It makes good business sense to procure from companies run by people who look like those being supplied to. It makes good business sense for boards of directors to have a critical mass of people who think with the left side of their brains, as well as those who think with the right side—I caricature.
We have had the Davies report on women on boards, and I wait with bated breath to see whether companies will respond. The Home Secretary said that the early indicators are positive, but companies had better shape up, otherwise I will be pressing the Government to get tough with boards that think that certain people have a monopoly on innovation, creativity and plain old common sense.
I have already mentioned flexible working. I want to commend the Government for their work on flexible parental leave, for facilitating better solutions for parents and companies in how that leave is taken and for modifications to the working time directive affecting the interaction of annual leave, sick leave and family-friendly leave. It is good news that the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 100,000 more women started work, compared with 18,000 men, so it is not all doom and gloom.
There is probably no single aspect of Government policy that does not affect women in some way. We are short of time so I will refer to only one more point: the suggestion in the media today that we are to rethink the proposal to reduce sentences by half for those who plead guilty to rape charges. I worry about that policy. Of course it is good to have a confession that avoids the added trauma for rape victims of having to testify and be cross-examined, but halving a rapist’s sentence just for confessing sticks in my craw. We must consider why only 6% of rape reports result in a conviction. There is no glory for any Government in this respect. We must do better and there has to be some kind of cultural change.
We all want the same thing: a more even playing field for women. The Government are striving to maintain and increase fairness in the most difficult and trying circumstances. I certainly do not think that we have everything right, but with a little good will on all sides we can work together to do this. I will be lobbying my hon. Friends to do the right thing.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth), who is no longer in his place, for making his maiden speech. I will keep my remarks short and so will not take interventions.
Some people may wonder why we are having this debate and considering the impact of the Government’s policies on the needs and issues facing women, rather than any other group, and they have a point. When we develop policies, we should consider the differential distribution of their effects on a range of different population groups, not just women, but obviously including them. Importantly, we should look at whether those policies improve the circumstances for those groups and how that might happen, whether by improving their educational and job opportunities, through access to minimum income standards or through opportunities to achieve a healthy life expectancy and so on.
Most importantly, we should look at ensuring that those policies reduce rather than exacerbate the inequalities that persist between different population groups in our society. It is about ensuring that those policies are fair and that our society is fair. On that basis, it is appropriate for us to debate the issues that women increasingly and disproportionately face as a result of the Government’s policies. That is the crux of the debate. It is about how the policies are affecting women now. We should not be harking back to the past. The policies are unfortunately affecting women in an unfair, unjust and even discriminatory way and we must be mindful of that.
We have already heard that, more than 40 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970, women are still more likely to be paid less than men for the same work and to live in low-income households. Although Labour did much to address income inequalities in recent years—there is evidence to prove it—the pay gap between men and women remains, at around 16.4%. We have heard different figures today for the pay gap, but it is even worse for women in high-paid jobs. Women are also more likely to work part-time, and half of all part-time workers, both men and women, are paid less than £8 an hour. One in five women, compared with one in 10 men, earns less than £7 an hour, but whichever low-pay threshold we use, we find that the number of low-paid women is approximately double that of men.
On top of that, Equality and Human Rights Commission research shows that approximately 30,000 women a year lose their jobs as a result of pregnancy. Those income and other inequalities persist for women throughout their lives. Lone mothers and single female pensioners are more likely to be in low-income households than their male equivalents, although the evidence indicates that that situation improved under Labour.
This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, but unfortunately it has been exacerbated by the policies that this Government have introduced. Despite earning less and owning less, women are set to lose an average of £8.80 a week, compared with £4.20 for men, because of the Government’s deficit reduction programme. Reductions in tax credits, benefits, pensions and attendance allowance will all hit women harder, and, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows, last year’s regressive spending review saw families most detrimentally affected, with lone parents worst affected of all.
This year’s Budget did nothing to compensate part-time working mothers, and women pensioners got nothing from the increase in tax allowance. The threat to universal, affordable quality child care, including the removal of ring-fenced funding for Sure Start, is a major hit to women as well as to their children. Child care is probably the biggest issue for women juggling work and family, and similarly the provision to exempt some organisations from the requirement to provide maternity and paternity leave is a retrograde step.
The measure in the Welfare Reform Bill to incentivise separated parents who currently use the Child Support Agency to make private arrangements in the future for child maintenance, and to place financial penalties on them if they do not, is another example whereby support for women is being eroded. Ultimately, support is needed to address the latent discrimination that women face.
Pensions are another crucial area where this Government have penalised women. In the past few weeks, hundreds of women in my constituency have contacted me about the Government’s decision last September to accelerate the equalisation of the state pension age for women to 65 years old in 2016 instead of 2020.
The Government also announced an increase in the state pension age for men and women to 66 years old by 2020 instead of 2024. The Library estimates that in my constituency the changes will affect 4,300 women, compared with 3,800 men, with a notional loss of income from state pensions of up to £10,700 for approximately 200 women.
We all agree that women are living longer, and that we need to change the state pension age, but the issue is about the time being taken to do so.
The hon. Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth) is no longer in his place, but I too pay tribute to him for a very assured and interesting maiden speech. It was a privilege to be in the Chamber to hear it.
I had not planned to speak today until I saw this patronising and paternalistic motion on the Order Paper—this drivel that we have had to debate all afternoon. I am absolutely incensed by it, because the way in which we address the fact, which we all acknowledge, that women earn and own less on average is not by ensuring that they continue to receive a stream of benefits throughout their lives or only state-sponsored child care options.
From some interesting points that Opposition Members made, we learned that at the next general election the right hon. Members for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) will stand on a platform of restoring their household’s child benefit, which is worth £2,400 a year tax-free, despite their combined income being well into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. That will be a difficult message for them to sell on the doorstep, but it was certainly a fascinating insight into planet deficit-denial on the Opposition Benches.
I also thought that I was living on a different planet when we heard no acknowledgement of the fact that over the past 12 months more than 530,000 jobs in the private sector have been created, with 400,000 more, net of the necessary reductions, in public sector employment. How is it good for families and women to be paying £120 million a day in interest? How is it good for families and women if Opposition Members put their heads in the sand and refuse to identify a single cut or alteration that they support? This Government are introducing welfare reform that will incentivise the economic choices of women in recognising that at the end of the day only additional work will help them to address the earnings gap and the asset gap.
As someone who has fought all my life for greater equality for women in the workplace, I feel somewhat differently about pensions. I think that we should welcome the fact that men and women will be retiring at equal ages and that women and men will be treated equally as regards pensions.
I agree that the equalisation of pension rights and ages is an important and necessary thing that we should all support. Does the hon. Lady accept, however, that the real crux of the issue for Opposition Members is the amount of time that certain women will have to prepare for the change because the goalposts have been moved so quickly?
We should bear in mind what these women are preparing for. An average 55-year-old woman today will live to 88, on average, and many more women will live to see their 100th birthday. Having the extra year to prepare for saving for that very old age is not at all a bad thing. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), I have absolutely no intention of retiring in my early 60s, and I welcome the fact that men and women will be treated equally regarding pension age.
I am sorry—I do not have enough time to give way.
I acknowledge that equalising the pension age means that there is a group of women who are disproportionately affected, but I would like to hear proposals on how we could avoid that and still end up in what we all agree is the right place, where we have longer to prepare for a much longer old age.
Some newspapers have an item where they talk about the word of the day or word of the week. For the Government Whips Office, the word is presumably “bandwagon”, because expressing opposition is suddenly seen to be jumping on one. I do not think that the Government have necessarily gone about a deliberate policy of targeting women, because I do not believe in conspiracy theories, but some of their policies, when added together, are having precisely that effect. Perhaps people have not realised or noticed.
I want to take a slightly different tack. I will be very brief in the hope that I get other opportunities to amplify these issues, because they are important. What happens to women, in particular, when they separate from a partner in coming out of a relationship? There is a lot of research that says that women in that situation end up worse off anyway, but some things that are happening will exacerbate it. For example, legal aid is going to be taken away from family cases. In my experience as a family lawyer, it is not going to court and getting embroiled in some dramatic procedure, but good, solid legal advice that will get people the kind of financial settlement that enables them to get back on their feet more quickly. If that is not available, they will be financially worse off.
In addition, there are changes to child support that will require people to go through an obstacle race to get it. I urge the Government to remember why the child support system was introduced in the first place—precisely because people were not getting that form of support.
As well as not getting a good financial settlement and not getting easy access to child support, what else is going to go wrong? The big thing that people need when they are separating is housing, because two into one will not go, so what is happening on the housing front? People in the private rented sector who need housing benefit will get less of it. We are not even sure how mortgage costs will be covered under universal credit. The homelessness rules are changing so that more people will end up in the private rented sector. That costs more money, so it is not actually a cost-saving measure. It will also not give people the long-term security that they want. Women who separate from their partners will therefore find themselves in a more difficult position in terms of housing.
Finally, I turn to benefits. Women will have to re-enter the work force at a younger age because the age at which the youngest child will affect their benefit is being reduced to five. There are also changes to tax credits and to the amount of money to cover child care.
If one thinks about the journey that a woman makes from separating from her partner to re-establishing herself in her new life, I contend that the effect of those Government policies will make her much worse off. I am sorry that I do not have time to amplify those points, because I certainly could. I look forward to having another opportunity to do so.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth) on his excellent maiden speech. I commend him for choosing this debate in which to make it. By doing so, he will have kept half his constituents happy. That is a positive thing for any Member.
I will make a few brief points because there is not much time. First, I want to say how disappointed I was at the speech of the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities. All we heard was a rant of negativity about what was not being done, instead of a recognition of the positive things that the Government are doing for women. Labour Members kick-started the work that has been done for women, and I congratulate them on that. I thank the Minister for Women and Equalities, who is in her place, for her positive, inspiring and visionary speech about what the Government are doing to make things better for women, no matter who they are or where they come from.
The shadow Minister for Women and Equalities said that the Prime Minister had a blind spot when it came to women. That is a scandalous comment given that it was the Prime Minister who put his name on the line before the last election to get more women on to the Conservative Benches. The Prime Minister, the Minister for Women and Equalities, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who helped to campaign in my seat, and other people all helped to increase the number of women on the Conservative Benches from 18 to 49, and I thank them for that.
I believe that the Government are working hard to support women and families, and to promote equality. We are focusing on giving what we can to the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Of course, the majority of those people are women. We have heard much today about financial support. The key area for me is that the Government are lifting 880,000 of the lowest-paid workers, the majority of whom are women, out of income tax. I look forward to the time when we increase that even further, because these are the people who most need our help.
We have discussed the welfare reforms and the way in which we are trying to incentivise and encourage people to get back into work. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) discussed that matter eloquently. The coalition agreement states that we will look at ways to encourage shared parenting such as flexible parental leave. That is real equality. I have worked for 20 years in business, and for people such as me, these policies are about bringing real equality into the workplace.
Having women in business is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) spoke about Lord Davies’ important report. I was pleased to hear from the Minister for Women and Equalities that progress has been made on that. I will be one of the people who follows this matter closely to ensure that more is done. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) spoke about the new flat pension rate, which will come into effect in 2016. That will take account of the fact that women take career breaks and will ensure that doing so does not affect their pensions, which is very good. We also have to consider women in small businesses, of whom we want more. If we were setting up small businesses at the same rate as men, we would have 150,000 more businesses, so there is much more to be done.
There is a lot of great work on domestic violence, about which we have heard today.
In summary, I believe that the Government have demonstrated their full commitment to women through financial support for families, by helping women in business and by protecting vulnerable women. We have amazing women and fabulous female role models across the country, and the Government will build on what they are doing to create a much stronger, safer, fairer and more equal society for all of us.
This has been a lively and welcome debate, and a rare occasion on which women have outnumbered men in the Chamber. That said, it was a privilege to be here for the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth). He will be a tremendous asset to the House, and he is one of my longest-standing friends in politics. I congratulate him on his election, and also on the birth of his daughter. It will be a busy time ahead for him.
My hon. Friend feared that he would be the token male in today’s debate, and overall the debate has been sisterly, although when my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) was referred to by the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) as simply the shadow Chancellor’s wife, that was language that one would perhaps have expected more from the Justice Secretary. [Interruption.] Members are saying that that is cheap, but I think it was the hon. Lady’s comment that was cheap rather than mine.
One thing is clear: whether by ignorance or design, the Government are disproportionately hitting women with their cuts, their pensions policy and what is happening in the jobs market. Until now, every generation of women have enjoyed greater opportunity than their mothers or grandmothers. My great-grandmother was a cockle picker on the south coast of Wales, my grandmother worked in shoe factories and my mother is a primary school teacher. However, that expectation that women of the next generation will do better than those of the one before is now threatened, largely by the choices that the Government are making. They risk turning back the clock on women’s equality.
I wish to address some of the specific points that have been made today. My hon. Friends the Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), for Newport East (Jessica Morden), for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) all mentioned the state pension age for women, as did the hon. Members for Solihull (Lorely Burt), for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) and for Belfast East (Naomi Long). Earlier today, the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) challenged the Prime Minister about it.
The changes that the Government plan will mean that women have to wait up to two years longer for their state pension, whereas no man will have to wait more than a year longer. They will mean a loss of income of up to £15,000 for up to 33,000 women, yet the coalition agreement states that the parties agree to
“hold a review to set the date at which the state pension age starts to rise to 66, although it will not be sooner than…2020 for women.”
Yet under plans in the Pensions Bill, the state pension age for women will start to rise to 66 in 2018.
As the hon. Member for Belfast East said, MPs of all parties can show that they understand the fierce concerns and aspirations of women by opposing the Government’s proposals to increase the state pension age at such a pace. A petition with more than 10,000 signatures has been presented to the Prime Minister, and Age UK and Saga are calling on the Government to think again. I welcome the chance to hear what the Minister for Equalities has to say about that, and I welcome the fact that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), is also in his place. I hope that they will listen to the concerns that women are raising.
As for incomes, either by accident or by design the Government’s policies on tax and welfare changes will, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth mentioned, have twice as much of an impact on women as on men. All incomes are being squeezed during these difficult economic times, but some are being squeezed more than others. That is particularly the case for women and children. Does the Minister for Women and Equalities really believe that it is fair that women are paying the highest price for budget deficit reduction? If not, will she look again at some of the Government’s policies?
My hon. Friends the Members for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and for Worsley and Eccles South spoke passionately about Sure Start and its tremendous work in all our communities. Many mothers and children rely on the services that Sure Start and our children’s centres offer, and although the hon. Member for Corby (Mrs Mensch) thinks they are failing families, the women and children I talk to in Leeds West and across the country believe that they are making a massive difference. The Government say that that money is protected, but in reality, particularly in northern cities where there are cuts of up to 27% of total spending, it is not possible to ring-fence that money. I ask the Government to look again at ensuring that vital services such as children’s centres and the Sure Start offer are protected.
The latest job figures show that jobseeker’s allowance among women is at its highest level since 1996. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, 474,000 women are now claiming it. Those problems are only likely to get worse. Sixty-five per cent. of public sector workers are women, as are 75% of those working in local government. If the Office for Budget Responsibility’s predictions of 310,000 job losses in the public sector in this Parliament are correct, we can expect a large proportion of those to be among women, meaning that the highest unemployment among women since 1996 will get worse, not better, in the years ahead.
There are three issues. First, the speed at which we cut the budget deficit; secondly, the timing of the cuts; and thirdly—this is critical to today’s debate—whether the cuts are made fairly. I do not believe that it is fair that two thirds of the cuts fall on women. All Members of the House believe that that is unfair. That is the key point.
The cuts to women’s pensions, Sure Start, child benefit and local services are not inevitable; they are choices that the Government have made. As hon. Members have reminded us this afternoon, they are unfair choices—they penalise women pensioners, mothers, women students, women carers and women in the labour market. By choosing to cut too far and too fast, the Government have embarked on a slash-and-burn approach to the services, protections and benefits that provide the most support—in good and bad times—to women up and down the country.
The Minister will have a chance to respond shortly, but surely the question is this: where was she when the Chancellor decided to slash child benefit? Where was she when the Secretary of State for Education decided to cut Sure Start?
Will the hon. Lady confirm that the restoration of tax-free child benefit of £2,400 for the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) will be in the Labour manifesto?
I will perhaps ask the hon. Lady—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I will answer the question, but does the hon. Lady believe it right that a family in which one person in work earns £45,000 should lose their child benefit, while a family in which two people earn a total of £80,000 still get their child benefit? If the Government’s plans for a fixed-term Parliament go ahead, the election is four years away, and as we do not know what the circumstances of that time will be, it would be inappropriate to write our manifesto now. The hon. Lady would not write hers now.
Where was the Minister when those choices were made? Given those policies, she was not campaigning and fighting for the women whom she ought to represent. If, as some have suggested, women’s equality is a blind spot for this Government, I hope that their eyes have been opened today. I hope not least that the Minister has had a chance today to hear the strength of feeling about the effect on women of the increase in the state pension age. Will she send a message of hope to the 500,000 women who face a delay of more than a year before they receive their state pension, with just five or so years to prepare? If the Government can U-turn on forests—and today they have U-turned on sentencing—surely they can listen and act to protect women approaching retirement with fear and trepidation.
Women must no longer be the shock absorbers for this Government’s cuts. I urge Ministers to move forward in a fairer way—in a way that does not turn the clock back on women’s equality, for which generations of women have fought and will continue to fight.
We have had an interesting and lively debate, and I thank Members on both sides who made contributions, including the hon. Members for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), and my hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Mrs Mensch), for Devizes (Claire Perry), for Solihull (Lorely Burt), for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). We also heard a maiden speech by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth). I thank them all for their contributions and I will address as many points as I have time for, although I do not have that much time.
It is a bit sad that we have heard some inaccurate and empty speculation about the impact that Government policies will have on women. I welcome the opportunity to respond to this debate, and draw a line under the myths that are endlessly perpetuated by Opposition Members. As the Home Secretary made clear, this Government’s commitment to women is clear and unequivocal. From the moment the coalition was formed, we stated our determination to tear down the barriers to opportunity and build a fairer society for all. It is not just that we believe equality to be the right of every individual: we believe it goes to the very heart of our ambition to build a better society and a modern, prosperous economy of the future which genuinely draws on the talents and abilities of all. In fact, we are clear that unless we capitalise on the contributions that women can make, our chances of full economic recovery will be seriously hampered.
Of course, because of the mess we inherited—Labour Members hate us repeating that fact—we have been forced to make some difficult decisions. Let me be clear, for those who have not yet managed to get to grips with the state of our public finances, that the mess I refer to—as many of my hon. Friends have mentioned—is the biggest structural deficit in Europe and the biggest peacetime deficit we have seen in our history. But fairness will always be at the heart of all these decisions.
The point is that we are dealing with the structural deficit. If we do not get our house in order now we never will, and it will be future generations who suffer because of Labour’s failure to address it—[Interruption.] Chuntering away at me will not help the right hon. Lady.
Fairness is the reason why in April we lifted 880,000 of the lowest-paid workers out of income tax—and it does not stop there, because more will be added to their number every year of this Parliament. It is why we are protecting the lowest-paid public sector workers—the majority of whom are women—from the public sector pay freeze, and they will get pay rises. It is why we are increasing child tax credits for the poorest families by more than the level promised by the last Government. And it is precisely why we are getting to grips with the deficit so that we do not fritter away more and more on debt interest, and destroy the crucial public services that so many women need and depend on.
Cuts—and the impact that Opposition Members say they have—are not all that we care about for women. We care about being ambitious and about taking them out of poverty. We care about giving them the tools to lift themselves out, not just continuing what went on before. If fairness were simply a matter of benefits, taxes and snapshot comparisons of income, it would be easy to achieve—
No, I do not have time.
I echo the Home Secretary when I say that it is extremely patronising, and frankly absurd, to lump together 31 million women in this country as the prime victims of the deficit reduction. Women are not a homogenous group, but different individuals affected by different experiences and coming from different walks of life. So no matter how well intentioned, packaging out prescriptive solutions that fail to recognise that reality will not work. What do work are policies designed for all the roles that women play, tackling not just the symptoms of inequality but its causes. I shall try to address some of those points.
First, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leicester South, who made his maiden speech. I thank him for his kind words about Parmjit Singh Gill and congratulate him on being in the Chamber while he has a two-week-old baby. When shared parenting comes in, that could have been his wife, if she were able to walk. And as for Engelbert Humperdinck and “Quando, quando, quando”, I would have liked to say that I did not know what the hon. Gentleman was talking about, but sadly I did.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East mentioned impact assessments. I have to say that Labour never published equality impact studies for its Budgets, and I do not think it did one on the 10p tax or the 70p pension rise. She also mentioned the gender pay gap. Yes, we are introducing voluntary pay reporting, but that was started under Labour in the Equality Act 2010. However, we will also impose mandatory pay audits on anyone found guilty of discrimination, if it is appropriate, and we have introduced the gagging clauses in the Equality Act. She also asked about trafficking and the Olympics. Work is being undertaken by the Metropolitan Police Service, which has a specialist unit that has received extra funding to prioritise activities to disrupt and monitor trafficking in the run-up to the Olympics.
Hon. Members asked about whether we were opting in to the European directive on trafficking. Well, we are opting into the directive, but we wanted to consider the matter and get it right to ensure that we could deliver on it. However, the coalition Government are going even further with our own human trafficking strategy, which will be announced shortly, and which will aim to disrupt activity in the country of origin, and then on our borders and in this country. As we have heard from many hon. Members, we are putting that support in place. We have also extended the Sojourner project
No. I forgot that I was not going to give way. I was seduced by the siren voices behind me.
An important point was made about the Government’s commitment to women. Extending the Sojourner project, and finding a long-term solution with the Department for Work and Pensions, mean that such women will not again be put in the position of not knowing where the support is coming from.
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull said that we should work together. Well, I am very happy to work with her, and I am happy to work with Opposition Members too, because we need to get past these attacks about blind spots and what they say the coalition Government are and are not doing to women. We all care passionately about the position of women in this country. I find it difficult to accept Opposition Members’ criticisms, given how much we are doing. The Home Secretary laid that out quite clearly in her introductory remarks when she gave a long list of things that we are delivering for women.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby on what was a powerful speech, if not a tour de force, in which she pointed out Labour’s failure to reform the welfare system. She talked of our relentless focus on children’s well-being, and the fact that we are taking 1 million children out of poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes talked about health visitors and the importance of Sure Start, and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull pointed out that not a single Liberal Democrat council has closed any children’s centres—[Interruption.] Sometimes it is quality, not quantity. Much as I would like to work with Opposition Members, I am afraid that it might not happen.
I wanted to respond to all the points that have been raised, but unfortunately I will not have time. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South asked about support for carers. The Government have provided £400 million to the NHS for respite care over the next four years.