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Female Employment (Scotland)

Volume 538: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2012

As you will be aware, Mr Hood, Scotland has been much in the news during the past couple of weeks, but I will focus on the real world experienced by its citizens and the new challenges that are emerging, rather than fixate on a process story that fascinates only a small minority of our population but looks set to continue for many days, weeks and months to come.

One major feature of the post-war era has been women’s increasing economic power and growing participation in the workplace. Women are better educated than ever, and girls outperform boys at school and their male colleagues at university. They now populate the ranks of middle management. More than 45% of solicitors in the UK now are women, and it is predicted that by 2017, there will be more female doctors than male. Even during the economic downturns of the 1980s and 1990s, female employment levels were not substantially dented, possibly because women dominated many low-paid and part-time jobs, as they still do today.

However, the current economic downturn has created a serious and potentially permanent shift in the jobs market. Not only has it halted women’s progress in the workplace and our economy more generally, but it risks putting it into reverse. We urgently need greater analysis and a determined political will to ensure that women, who make up the majority of our population, do not find their opportunities for advancement crushed.

The problem exists on either side of the border, but regrettably, in some cases, the position in Scotland is worse than overall UK average, as I will highlight. I have been concerned about it for many months. That is why, along with women from business, academia and the trade union movement, I called last year on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and committees at Holyrood to carry out specific investigations so that we can examine the issue in further detail.

Although there is an understandable focus on the worryingly high youth unemployment—today’s figures showed the extent of the problem—the number of women claiming unemployment benefits in Scotland increased by more than 15% between November 2010 and the end of 2011, rising from 36,300 to 42,100. By contrast, the male claimant count rose by only 1% during the same period. Our female unemployment rate is now at its highest in more than 23 years. When the Scottish Government were asked in December to comment on those figures, their response was that the rate of female unemployment remained lower than the UK average. Funnily enough, that was their response at the start of last year to the general unemployment rate: that is, until the comparison started to go in the opposite direction, when they stopped mentioning it at all.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I only regret that it is such a short opportunity to discuss this extremely important issue. Does she accept that, although there is no complacency in Scotland about any sort of unemployment, the fact that female employment in Scotland has been consistently higher than the UK average must also be taken into consideration? That must be included in the context of understanding why our female unemployment is at the level it is.

With respect to the hon. Lady, to a woman in a low-paid job who has just been made redundant, comparative unemployment levels south and north of the border are immaterial; the problem is that she has lost her income. That is complacency and political gamesmanship. People who face job loss require a much better answer.

I am sorry, but I wish to make progress and give the Minister an opportunity to respond.

The result of this lack of action is now showing in our economy. A TUC report last month showed that long-term unemployment is rising faster in Scotland than in any other nation or region of the UK, and that Scotland has eight of the 10 local authority areas showing the largest percentage increases in long-term unemployment over the past year. Last year, more than 26,000 Scots spent their second Christmas in a row on the dole.

Sadly, it is likely that the rate of female unemployment in Scotland will increase. Women hold about two thirds of jobs in the public sector, and job reductions north of the border are occurring somewhat later than in England. Unfortunately, 2012 looks likely to be a bleak year for everyone, regardless of where in the United Kingdom they live. There are still substantial job cuts to come in the public sector, where women dominate. TUC analysis shows that an estimated 70,225 public sector jobs in Scotland will be cut between now and 2017.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and conscious of her time. Will she at least acknowledge that, given the concentration of women in low-paid jobs in Scotland, and the dominance of women in the public sector, the single best thing that has happened has been the introduction of a living wage in those parts of Scotland’s public sector for which the Scottish Government are responsible? That living wage, and a guaranteed pay increase for people on low wages in Scotland, will benefit women disproportionately.

I certainly agree that the living wage is an excellent way to address issues of low pay. That is why I am delighted that Glasgow city council led the way on that matter. I note that qualification, but it is regrettable that the Scottish Government have not insisted that all employees of local authorities and public agencies in Scotland—not just civil servants, who are by far the minority of public servants in Scotland—also be paid a living wage if they are on low salaries.

There is more evidence that, unlike in previous recessions, men are now more willing to take on part-time work, which again has historically been female-dominated, or work in sectors such as retail and caring. The Scottish Trades Union Congress pointed out the growing problem of under-employment in a comprehensive study in September. It estimates that, in Scotland, more than 17% of the working-age population are either unemployed or under-employed: that is, working part-time but seeking full-time employment. That equates to more than 460,000 Scots who are currently unable to access the quality full-time work opportunities necessary to provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. The STUC’s latest analysis for December increased that figure to more than 500,000. More and more Scots must rely for lengthy periods on a string of temporary contracts, agency work and the much-abused zero hours contracts. Such working arrangements form an increasing slice of low-paid work in which, again, women are the clear majority.

Both the UK and Scottish Governments are obliged by the Equality Act 2010, passed by the last Labour Government, to give due consideration to the implications for gender equality of their policies. So far, the lack of rigorous gender impact assessment of the many complex changes made over the last year has pushed many women into substantial economic hardship. The Institute for Fiscal Studies report commissioned by the Fawcett Society last July revealed that, overall, single female households will be significantly harder hit during 2010-2015, in terms of net income loss, than their male equivalents, largely because more than 92% of lone parents in this country are women. Although the female rate of unemployment is still lower than the male rate, the impact of female unemployment can often be more considerable. For example, it has more effect on children living in single-parent households.

An analysis of the June 2010 Budget by the House of Commons Library found that women will pay roughly 72% of the net cost of the changes in taxes, benefits and tax credits set out in the Budget. The subsequent comprehensive spending reviews in 2010 and 2011 ushered in further cuts and welfare reforms that have shifted yet more of the burden on to women and families. Of the £18.3 billion a year raised through net direct tax, pay and pension changes since the 2010 election, £13.2 billion comes from women. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that, as a direct result of the UK Government’s tax and benefit changes, the average family of four will see a deduction in their income of £1,250 per annum by 2015.

Both Governments accept the argument that good-quality and affordable child care is key to allowing many women to fully access the jobs market. It should be a matter for serious concern that Scotland has the highest child care costs in the United Kingdom, and the UK Government have compounded the problem by cutting the proportion of child care costs that are covered for families eligible for working tax credit from 80% to 70%. Research published by Aviva last summer shows that, already, thousands of women have left the workplace to look after families because work is increasingly considered to be uneconomical.

In November, The Scotsman reported that the number of Scottish youngsters attending child care services has fallen after a quarter of registered crèches closed in two years. A number of holiday play schemes, out-of-school clubs, play groups and children and family centres have also shut their doors, as cuts to public services hit harder. In October, the Scottish Government launched a new fund for child care projects, but £1.5 million over three years for the whole country is grossly inadequate if we are serious about our children’s future and the ability of their mothers to work their families out of poverty.

As well as the failure to assess the impact of current policies on women over the next few years, there is also an urgent need to assess where women will be in any new economy.

Does my hon. Friend think that there is a correlation between the increase in female unemployment and the increase in child poverty?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who is an expert in this area, that there is a direct correlation. It is no surprise that there is an increase in child poverty at the same time as that in female unemployment, even though both Governments have a statutory duty to make sure that they reach demanding targets. That is another good reason why this issue needs to be addressed.

We need to assess where women will be in any new economy over the next few years. That economy will apparently be less reliant on the service sector and will involve the engagement of a greater proportion of the work force in science, engineering and technology occupations, both at graduate and, just as importantly, college and craft levels. Although women make up more than 45% of the UK work force, they remain under-represented in those SET occupations. In 2010, only 12% of all SET employees were female, and the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in the European Union, at just less than 9%. Gender segregation is especially extreme in SET skilled trades, such as electrical work, with women forming roughly 1% of the work force. It is deeply regrettable that the UK Government have stopped funding the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology. That has been handed over to the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. I have nothing against either of those eminent institutions, but they are not accountable to our electorate or to this Parliament, and their fellowships are both more than 90% male.

Scotland is rightly proud of its scientific and engineering history and its strong academic reputation, but why is there utter silence apparently on the role of women? A look at the Scottish media might point us towards one of the sources of the problem. Not one of our main Scottish print titles has a female editor, and there are very few female journalists in news. The vast majority of columnists and bloggers are male, too. Even the BBC is not without fault. During last year’s Scottish Parliament election campaign, “Newsnight Scotland” ran an entire extended half-hour programme with a panel of eight men and a male presenter. That is not an exception, but too often it is the norm. In too many areas of our public life—the media being just one example—the rate of increase in female representation remains stubbornly low, and without proper focus it can easily fall back.

I am pleased that the Royal Society of Edinburgh, with the involvement of Professor Anne Glover, the chief scientific adviser for Scotland, has established a working group to develop a cohesive and comprehensive strategy for Scotland to increase both the proportion of women in the science, technology, engineering and maths work force, and the number who rise to senior positions in universities, institutes and business. The report is due shortly and I hope that both Governments will give it the attention it deserves.

As I mentioned earlier, the picture in non-graduate STEM employment is even grimmer, and I am struck by how few public agencies in Scotland have given this any attention, but, given that we have only three female council leaders out of 32 in Scotland, should we be surprised? I have been impressed by the good example set by the Olympic Delivery Authority in its procurement processes. It introduced a business charter for inclusion, which, as well as pushing contractors to do more, also, crucially, provided them and their employees with support and training. The charter rightly calls for diversity and inclusion to be at the heart of an organisation’s culture, including the way in which it recruits and treats its own staff. The impact of that initiative has been considerable. As of last year, more than 1,000 women were directly involved in the construction work on the site. Can hon. Members imagine if we could reach those sorts of levels with the forthcoming work on the new Forth road bridge? The question we need to ask in Scotland is: why are we so far behind the curve?

This is an example of how Government—national and local—can help to change culture and practice. I believe that even in the toughest of economic times it is not impossible to look at, first, an action plan to combat women’s unemployment, and secondly, a nationwide code of conduct in the public, private and voluntary sectors driven by public procurement to increase diversity. My challenge to both Administrations is to start working together now in 2012 for a fair work arena for women, because we deserve it.

It is a pleasure, Mr Hood, to serve under the chairmanship of a constituent. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this debate about female employment trends in Scotland. It is one of a number of debates relating specifically to Scotland that have been held recently in both Westminster Hall and the main Chamber, and such debates are welcome. Following on from some of the hon. Lady’s remarks, I congratulate Johann Lamont on becoming the leader of the Scottish Labour party, which relates to the hon. Lady’s arguments. Moreover, at the end of last year, my colleague Ruth Davidson became the leader of the Scottish Conservative party, so the political process in Scotland has some female leadership. I am sure that both ladies will bring significant influence to bear in the months ahead.

The fight against unemployment is a priority for the UK Government. We are committed to getting Scots off benefits and into the workplace. Work remains the best and most sustainable route out of poverty. The UK Government have measures in place to support all claimants to find work. These measures are not gender specific. We want women and men to get the job opportunities that they need.

Nevertheless, this challenge must be set against the context of the UK recovering from the biggest financial crisis for generations and the deepest recession of almost all major economies. The uncertainty and instability in the eurozone area, where unemployment is higher than in the UK, continue to have a chilling effect on our economy.

Despite the difficult environment, we are still trying to help women. Many of the 90,000 Scots who have been lifted out of tax at the lowest end are women. The measures that we are taking on additional child care are helping women south of the border, with Barnett consequentials for Scotland. At the same time, our reforms of public service sector pensions will mean that lower-paid public sector employees, including many women, will get better pensions. On top of this, the UK Government have announced new support for women’s enterprise, with funding to provide 5,000 mentors for new and existing female entrepreneurs. Similarly, the establishment of the Women’s Business Council is geared towards helping the Government to maximise women’s contribution to future UK economic growth.

I recognise that there are concerns that women are being disproportionately affected by unemployment. Fears have been raised because of the predominance of women in the retail sector, in local government employment, in the NHS and in part-time work. However, as John Philpott, the chief economic adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said last month, it has been tough for both sexes in the 2011 jobs market. He commented:

“What we do know is that the relative position of women has not so far worsened as much as commonly perceived or as widely anticipated given the high concentration of women workers in the public sector and in part-time jobs more generally.”

Labour market analysis published last month by the Scottish Government shows the trend in Scotland over the past year is for women moving out of unemployment and inactivity into employment. As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), said today,

“The latest figures reflect the current challenging economic climate but also show more women entering the workforce.”

That was backed up by the Prime Minister, who told the House earlier this afternoon that 59,000 more women are now in the workplace than at the time of the 2010 general election.

Female unemployment in Scotland has increased by 25% in the last quarter, so would the right hon. Gentleman not acknowledge, given the statistics that he has just quoted, that there needs to be a much more thorough analysis, so that we can get to the root of the reason why there has been such a rapid increase, whether that is likely to be a permanent shift in the job market and what sectors will be particularly affected?

I agree with the hon. Lady that analysis is important to getting to a full understanding of what the situation is. I assure her that the Government are not complacent in that regard.

The Government also have an ambitious agenda to reform the benefit system and to support those who are able to go back into work. The increase in female jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Scotland can be partially attributed to the change in the rules for lone parents. Most lone parents with a youngest child aged seven or over are no longer entitled to income support purely on the grounds of being a lone parent. They must now claim jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance or find work. There are plans to apply that rule to lone parents with a youngest child aged five or over from this year. Our policies for lone parents strike a balance between the right to benefit to support the family and wider responsibilities to support themselves and lift their children out of poverty when that is feasible.

We also understand the importance of flexible working. It is the Government’s intention that the law will better support families juggling work and life, and the businesses that employ them. We are currently developing our proposals for extending flexible working legislation and will be consulting with stakeholders on how best to implement them.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that more lone parents are coming into the job market because of changes to regulations. Will he tell us what dialogue he has had with the Scottish Government about the fact that, in Scotland, child care costs are so high? Proper, affordable child care is absolutely vital if people, particularly those on lower incomes, are to get back into employment.

The Secretary of State and I have had ongoing discussions with the Scottish Government on employment and wider economic issues and on how we can dovetail our policies to ensure that they work in the best way for people in Scotland. The hon. Lady clearly highlights a significant issue, which I will take up again with the Scottish Government the next time I have the opportunity to do so. I appreciate the importance of the issue that she is raising.

The UK Government recognise the issue of child care and are implementing measures geared to helping more women into work. The hon. Lady will be aware that, following the autumn statement, the Scottish Government will receive more than £500 million in addition to the sums that they had anticipated they would receive. In relation to that funding, the Scottish Government will have the opportunity to invest more in child care and skills development.

Looking forward, the integration of child care into universal credit when it is introduced in 2013 will protect work initiatives and ensure that support is focused on low-earning families. As I have said, we know how important child care is in helping mothers into work. Child care costs will be supported through an additional element in the universal credit. Support for the costs of child care within the universal credit will be made available to all lone parents and couples, where both members are at work, regardless of the number of hours they work. On average, families with children are more likely to have a higher than a lower entitlement under the universal credit.

More broadly, the Department for Work and Pensions is taking a number of measures to assist all claimants into work. The advisory support in job centres across Scotland is tailored and personalised to the individual’s needs. Claimants of both genders have access to a range of “Get Britain Working” initiatives, including work clubs, enterprise clubs, the work together scheme, work experience, new enterprise allowance and sector-based work academies. Similarly, work trials allow employers and employees the chance to try out employment opportunities.

The Work programme is a key part of our reforms and, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North knows, it went live in June. We are also helping to break down the barriers to employment through the flexible support fund, which can assist with child care expenses, travel costs and clothing costs. It also targets support to particular groups of claimants. The DWP is looking at bids for grant funding from bodies that specifically support lone parents and women with special needs, such as mental health issues.

Across Scotland, there is huge concern about youth unemployment and, obviously, a significant number of the people affected by that are female. Youth unemployment has been rising since 2004.

Does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government’s commitment to ensuring that every young person in Scotland between the age of 16 and 19 has an apprenticeship, college or university place or training opportunity is a good thing and that it is the right direction to be moving in to tackle youth unemployment?

I can certainly assure the hon. Lady that I accept that many things the Scottish Government do are good. What I do not accept is the often presented premise that, if the Scottish Government do something, it is a good thing, and if the UK Government do something, it is a bad thing. We need to work together, particularly on issues such as youth unemployment.

As I said, youth unemployment has been rising since 2004 and is an issue on which we all need to take an interest. That is why I am particularly pleased that John Swinney is going to join the Secretary of State and me at a national convention to consider the issue of youth unemployment, with all other relevant stakeholders from throughout Scotland. In terms of identifying issues and concerns, we have undertaken a number of very successful events in Irvine, Hawick and Falkirk to date, and a national event will take place in Dundee in March.

We have also announced the youth contract, which will bring an extra £1 billion of extra investment into supporting the young unemployed, whether through wage incentives, additional work experience and opportunities or money to the Scottish Government. There will also be the offer of a work experience place for every 18 to 24-year-old who wants one before they enter the Work programme.

The UK Government cannot solve the employment challenges facing Scotland alone. The Scottish Government have many policy levers, with important responsibilities for education, skills, business tax and enterprise, which can be used to improve the employment situation. Scotland’s two Governments must work together to achieve this.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.