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Volume 543: debated on Thursday 19 April 2012

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.