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Women and Equalities

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 19 April 2012

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Unemployment

The Government are supporting women to move into employment through the Work programme and into self-employment through our business mentoring scheme. Over 10,000 mentors have now registered, 40% of whom are women. We are also encouraging more women to enter apprenticeships, and the latest figures show that record numbers of women have started their training.

Does the Minister believe that when the Prime Minister addresses his hand-picked audience in Dumfries this afternoon he will say anything about the 20% increase in female unemployment in Dumfries and Galloway in the past year, and about what a waste of talent, skills and experience it is?

I am well aware of the need to help women into the workplace, which is why we are putting in place a number of programmes that do that. The Work programme will give tailored and much more individual assistance to people to get them into the workplace. The hon. Gentleman quotes the figure for those who are unemployed in his constituency. Obviously, unemployment is a matter of concern, but I gently remind him that under the previous Government unemployment among women rose by 24%.

Will the Minister explain why the Government said yesterday they were encouraged by employment figures showing that women’s unemployment is still increasing, that unemployment among women has risen at twice the rate of men’s unemployment and that, over the past year alone, women have lost a further 100,000 jobs?

The labour market is still difficult. We understand that. That is why we are providing support specifically for women. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that there are 61,000 more women in work today than in May 2010. I would have hoped that, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, who failed to do so yesterday, the hon. Gentleman welcomed the overall fall in unemployment that took place yesterday.

At the end of last year, the Minister announced the creation of the women’s business council. Will she assure the House that the council will advise the Government on how they can maximise the contribution of women to the UK?

I have indeed set up the women’s business council. I have announced that its chair will be Ruby McGregor-Smith, the chief executive of Mitie, with whom I have had very constructive discussions. She wants to bring forward a programme for delivery that will improve the pipeline for women in the business environment and increase their contribution to the economy.

My right hon. Friend has reminded the House that female unemployment rose by 24% under the previous Government. Does she agree that our Government are taking robust action through the Work programme and the youth contract to remedy the problem for both men and women?

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us of that figure. There are usually about 400,000 job vacancies in the economy. It is important that we help women to take up those vacancies. That is why the youth contract and the Work programme are so important in delivering the support that individuals need to overcome whatever problems they have in getting into the workplace.

Unemployment among women has been rising for more than two years since the election and since the economy first started to grow again. Unemployment among women was up by 8,000 in the last quarter and 100,000 more women are unemployed than a year ago. The increase in unemployment over the past 12 months has been three times higher than the drop in inactivity. With women’s jobs still being hit hard by Government policies, does the right hon. Lady agree that in asking the House to welcome yesterday’s unemployment figures, she and the Prime Minister are again demonstrating their blind spot about what is happening to women, to women’s lives and to women’s jobs across the country?

No, the right hon. Lady is wrong. It is, of course, a concern that so many women are unemployed. That is why the Government are taking very necessary action to help women into the workplace and to set up their own businesses. As I said in response to an earlier question, 61,000 more women are now employed than in May 2010. We are providing real support to women, and that will continue through the changes that we make by introducing universal credit, the changes that will make it easier to access child care and various other proposals that we have put forward. However, our concern about women’s unemployment does not mean that we cannot welcome an overall fall in unemployment when it takes place. I would have thought that, as a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Lady would do that.

Just a quarter of the 3.2 million self-employed people in this country are women, and at the end of last year the Hertz report presented worrying evidence that banks are discriminating against female entrepreneurs, charging them higher loan rates or being less likely to offer them finance than their male counterparts. I know that the Government have made it clear that they will examine the issue further, but will the Minister update the House on the progress of that and on what they intend to do about the problem?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue. One reason we have specifically recruited business mentors to work with women who want to set up their own business is that access to finance is often much harder for them. My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has had some constructive discussions with Noreena Hertz, on which we will be able to report soon.

Child Care

4. What assessment she has made of the effect on women's employment of providing support for child care. (103788)

6. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the role of child care for working mothers. (103790)

The Government fully recognise the importance of child care in helping parents—not just mothers—to move into or stay in work. Under universal credit, we will for the first time extend help with child care costs to those working under 16 hours, benefiting some 80,000 families who previously had no such support.

Since the Government cut the rate of support for child care a year ago, 44,000 fewer people have claimed support, women’s unemployment is now at its highest for 25 years and 50,000 more women are economically inactive than before the cut was made. Is it not now clear that cutting support for child care is a false economy?

We have announced that under universal credit we will support an extra 80,000 families with child care, and that we are doubling the number of two-year-olds getting free nursery care. If the right hon. Gentleman is asking us to reconsider his Government’s policy of increasing support for child care to some 80%, perhaps he will explain where he will find the £600 million that the Daycare Trust feels it would cost to implement the policy.

This month, 212,000 couples face losing their working tax credit if they cannot find more working hours. Many parents will be forced to give up work, and they may be forced to give up their child care places as a result. What will the Government do to monitor the impact of the changes to family support on the child care market, to ensure that when women can return to work they will not be left struggling to find a child care place?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is important that there is a supply of child care places. I am sure he knows that there is a duty on local authorities to ensure sufficiency of supply, and I remind him that with the new local authority early intervention grant, there is money to ensure the necessary supply for just the families he is talking about.

Does my hon. Friend agree that removing the minimum hours rule for child care support, so that all families receiving universal credit will be eligible for financial help, will mean that families on low incomes will receive more help and support to keep them in work?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The best way out of poverty for most families is work, and helping women in particular to stay close to the labour market when their children are young is an excellent way of helping to ensure that they can continue to progress in their work and support their families.

Affordable and quality child care is essential to allow women to enter or stay in the work force. What additional investment are the Government putting into child care to ensure that women can make that choice if they wish?

My hon. Friend raises the important point of the affordability of child care. It was disappointing that under the previous Administration, child care costs went up by some 60%. We are trying to ensure that there is practical help for families. We are already investing some £2 billion in child care through the child care tax credit and the early education grants, and through universal credit there will be an extra £300 million to provide 80,000 extra families with child care support that they did not have before.

Same-sex Marriages

The Government believe that if a couple love each other and want to commit to a life together, they should have the option of a civil marriage regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. We published a formal consultation on 15 March, which considers how to enable same-sex couples to have a civil marriage. The consultation runs until 14 June. That timetable would enable us to make any legislative changes before the end of this Parliament. Our current priority is the consultation, and we want to hear from all those with an interest in this matter.

I personally support the proposal to allow gay marriage in civil ceremonies. I am concerned, and constituents and local clergy have also expressed the concern, that, by redefining marriage, we may—may—expose churches and other religious institutions to legal challenge and force them to marry gay couples under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. Will the Minister give a clear assurance that our churches will not end up in the dock in Strasbourg?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for equal marriage. When we consider proposed legislation, we will ensure that there is no risk of successful legal challenge against religious organisations that do not marry same-sex couples. It would not be religious organisations, but the United Kingdom Government in the dock in Strasbourg. We respect and understand the concerns of religious organisations, and we want to work closely with them to give them that reassurance. Just as we were able to reassure Members of this House and the House of Lords about civil partnerships being registered on religious premises to the point where they felt that they could let that pass, we will do the same in this case.

Has the Minister spoken to the Archbishop of Wales following his address, in which he said that he believes that the Church should welcome long-term, committed relationships between gay people? Can she perhaps engage people such as him in the debate to deal with some of the, I am afraid, prejudice, which some of us have faced in our inboxes?

I have not spoken to him personally, but I recognise that voices have been raised from the religious community in support of that view, and that some religious leaders express the more moderate and quite common view that same-sex marriage is to be welcomed.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I, too, am moving towards supporting many of the proposals in the Minister’s consultation paper, but I am puzzled by one aspect. Under her proposals, why should gay couples have the choice of something called gay marriage or gay civil partnership in a register office, whereas heterosexual couples must, by law, only be married?

My hon. Friend raises an issue that is in the consultation paper. We recognise that people will wish to ask a range of questions. For example, issues have been raised about humanist weddings, straight civil partnerships, civil marriage on religious premises and religious marriage on religious premises for same-sex couples. It was clear in the lead-up to the proposal becoming part of the Government programme that the priority—and the glaring discrimination—is the inability of same-sex couples to have the same rights to civil marriage as other people.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government do not intend to redefine religious marriage, but that they intend to extend equal marriage to civil and religious ceremonies?

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. That is exactly the case: we are not touching religious marriage or redefining marriage. Religious people may continue to believe that marriage can be only between a man and a woman. That is not the state’s view. We do not take the Orwellian view that

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”.

Age Discrimination

I discuss age discrimination, as appropriate, with my ministerial colleagues, and my officials hold discussions with industry bodies and others. Earlier this month, the Government endorsed an insurance industry agreement to make motor and travel insurance more accessible to older customers through “signposting” arrangements.

I remember serving on the Committee that considered the Equality Bill with the Minister, and that she was keen to push forward the age discrimination provisions. What has happened in the two years since the Bill received Royal Assent? She has been a Minister, yet the age discrimination legislation has not been implemented.

I have not changed one bit my view that we should push that through. Our consultation proposed a ban on age discrimination in health and social care, and that there should be no exceptions to that, unlike other issues. It is an important lever, and the delay has come about because we want to make sure we get it right. We have consulted on the exceptions, and we are taking our time on them to ensure that we get it right. We will come forward as soon as we have made a decision, and I am sure that that will be soon.

Will the Minister welcome the statistic in the most recent employment figures showing the growing number of women over 50 entering the labour market? They are clearly overcoming age discrimination.

It was good to read that female employment for over-50s has increased by nearly 200,000 in the past 12 months. I understand that most of those jobs are due to business start-ups, which the Government are keen to encourage.

Are not many of those older women trying to enter the labour market because they realise they do not have the pension provision they had hoped for and that they need to stay in employment for longer, as Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, has shown? They are choosing self-employment because it is clear that there are not enough jobs available to them.

At the same time, the gender pay gap is increasing with age. The Equality and Human Rights Commission says that at age 40, the gap between women and men is 27%, compared with an overall full-time gap of 15.5%. Rather than being complacent and saying that older women are choosing to set up new businesses, should the Minister not take active steps to tackle the toxic combination of ageism and sexism that is hitting older women?

This Government are taking many steps to support women. It would be far more benevolent if the Opposition welcomed an increase in female employment. I do not think women are over the hill at 50; it is shame the hon. Lady does.