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Women in Wales

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2013

It is good to start early on this hot, sunny July afternoon, Mr Benton.

Last year, I looked at the financial cost for women in Wales of the policies of the coalition Government. The study, which was based on parliamentary questions and Library research, revealed that, directly due to coalition policies, £1 billion would be taken away from Welsh women. It highlighted that more than £700 million would be lost to women in Wales as a direct result of pension changes; housing benefit changes, not including the ruthless bedroom tax, would account for more than £13 million; nearly £40 million would be lost due to changes in working tax credits; and public sector pay restraint would cut £300 million out of families’ pockets.

Have things got any better since then? Clearly, the answer is a resounding no. Things continue to get worse for women in Wales, whether because of the replacement of well-paid jobs by lower-paid ones, sustained attacks on public sector jobs, the increase in zero hours contracts and part-time working, cuts to child care, or direct tax or benefit changes, such as the bedroom tax. Whichever cut it is, women in Wales are being hit hard.

Why is this situation affecting women so badly? Women are, on average, poorer than men. Some 64% of low-paid workers are women and in later life women’s average personal pensions are only 62% of the average for men. Women also live longer, often spending the final years of their lives alone. Women are more likely to be the primary carers for children, older people, the sick or the disabled. Nearly three quarters of carer’s allowance claimants are women, confirming that women take responsibility for the majority of care. Women are also far more likely to be lone parents. Indeed, in Wales 95% of lone parents are women and that group is much more likely to be below the poverty line. Women are also more likely to be the victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Given that women use public services and benefits more than men, it is clear that when provision is cut it will hit women even harder. The fact that women are bearing the brunt of the Government’s deficit reduction plans is proven by Library research. Of the £14.4 billion raised in 2014-15, through changes to taxes, benefits, pay and pensions, £11.4 billion—some 79%—comes from women and £2.9 billion from men. In a Cabinet with three times as many men as women, it is hardly surprising that women’s voices are not being heard at the highest level.

The cuts in the public sector are particularly affecting us in Swansea East, because we have high dependency on public sector jobs. Does my hon. Friend agree that the cuts are impacting much more strongly on women than on men, because more jobs are being developed for men, but not as many for women?

In terms of public sector employment and cuts to it, my hon. Friend is right. I will mention that later.

Let us look for instance at tax and benefit changes. The coalition Government and Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions have consistently described their welfare cuts as fair. Clearly, they are unaware of or are ignoring the disproportionate impact they are having on women in Wales. A recent Office for National Statistics study on the effect that benefit and tax changes have had on incomes by household types demonstrates the negative financial consequences for women and families. That study, which covered the financial years 2010 to 2012, shows that a lone parent household with dependent children is £2,248 worse off. We have already established that the vast majority—95%—of lone parents in Wales are women. For other families, the situation does not get any better. A household with two adults and two children is nearly £5,000 worse off. The stress on parents who are trying to accommodate such an income fall, bearing in mind the huge hike in living costs, adds a great deal of pressure for people who are already working hard to keep their heads above water.

A recent report by the TUC showed that most jobs created since the recession have been in low-paid industries such as retail, the service sector and residential care. That was borne out by the ongoing inquiry by the Welsh Affairs Committee into the Work programme. Nearly 8% of the 587,000 net new jobs since June 2010 have been in sectors where the average pay is £7.95 an hour or less. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that long-term unemployment has increased by nearly 100,000 since May 2010, and a shocking 86% of that increase is among women. Young Welsh women are particularly struggling in the labour market, with one in five out of work. In the figures released in June, the overall unemployment rate in Wales remained unchanged at 8.4% but the number of unemployed women rose again.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is a particular problem for young mums in Wales? According to the House of Commons Library, a couple with a joint income of around £24,000 will lose £1,300 in benefits as a result of the changes to child trust funds and tax credits, particularly the baby element. An awful lot of people in Wales, including many of my constituents, come from households with a joint income of around £24,000. Young mums will be particularly vulnerable and will have very little money to spare for their children.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Young families, in particular, will be hit by the cumulative impact of the loss of the child care element of tax credits, the child trust fund and maternity grants.

In Wales, most part-time jobs are undertaken by women; 27% of public sector employees work part time and 85% of those are women. Although it is true that many women want to work part time, many others have no choice.

I have some sympathy with many of the points that the hon. Lady has made on the welfare reform agenda. On child care, does she acknowledge that the Government have announced a constructive package that will help many young mothers? The figures suggest that 5,700 people in Newport would benefit. Child care is a particular problem, and the Government are taking action. In a spirit of fairness, I am sure that she would acknowledge that that should be recognised.

As far as I can see, the action on child care is too little, too late. Many families in my constituency are struggling with huge child care costs, which are bigger than those in many countries around the world. The Government’s proposals will take time to filter through and will have no immediate impact on those families. In addition, the little bit of help that has been provided for child care is totally offset by the huge cuts to tax credits.

According to the Bevan Foundation report “Women, Work and the Recession in Wales”, the number of people in Wales who work part time because they were unable to find a full-time job has increased by 79% to one in five of all part-timers. In addition, the burden of unpaid work still falls on women. Child care responsibilities or caring for older people mean that many women have little choice but to work part time. Contrast the difference between the Labour Government in Cardiff, who are doubling the number of Flying Start places despite losing £1.4 billion from their budget, with the coalition in Westminster, who have cut the child care tax credit by up to £1,500 a year for low paid women while giving millionaires a tax cut of £2,000 a week.

In Wales, women make up two thirds of public sector employees, so the steady and sustained attack on jobs in the public sector has affected women disproportionately. In addition, the pay freeze has worsened the pay gap between men and women; the full-time pay gap now stands at 14.9%. In many parts of Wales, particularly in places such as my constituency, the public and private sectors are completely intertwined. If money is taken from public sector workers, less money will be spent in the local economy, which in turn hits the private sector. By affecting so many women in such a way, the Government are directly affecting the Welsh economy.

The living wage is one that meets the requirements for a basic quality of life and reduces families’ reliance on Government programmes for additional income. In 2012, it was calculated that 24% of all working women earn below the living wage and 62% of those earning less than the living wage are women. How do we stand in Wales? Wales has the second-highest proportion of people earning below the living wage in the UK, the highest proportion of part-time workers earning below the living wage and, at 44.5%, the highest proportion of female part-time workers earning below the living wage.

In Wales, many women are on zero-hour contracts, which were the subject of a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) in this Chamber last week. Recent UK estimates suggest that 97,000 people in Wales have such contracts, of which at the very least half will be women. I know from bitter experience, however, that Government answers to parliamentary questions on the matter are difficult to come by.

Labour wants universal credit to work, but even the impact assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions states that

“second earners may choose to reduce or rebalance their hours or leave work.”

As a result of pay inequality and time taken out of the labour market to raise children, fewer women tend to be primary earners in their households, so the policy will simply not work for many women. In addition, many people are concerned that women will be sanctioned because they struggle to find the child care to enable them to take a job. That question was raised in the Welsh Affairs Committee inquiry into the Work programme.

Government cuts are not only affecting women disproportionately but cutting off access to advice and legal support. At the same time as all the changes are being made to benefits, swingeing cuts are being made to advice services. Organisations such as Citizens Advice, Shelter Cymru and Consumer Focus Wales provide such services, but the sector is expected to lose approximately £3.36 million from various sources over the next 18 months, which is the equivalent of 50 full-time jobs. In fairness, the Welsh Government have recognised the importance of such services and recently provided £1.8 million of extra money to allow the organisations to adapt to the increased demand for their services.

My local citizens advice bureau in Newport, which does excellent work, has had 745 more cases this year than last, but that tells us only part of the story. The citizens advice bureau can only deal with the numbers for which it has funding and advisory capacity. The staff know that more demand exists, but they cannot meet that demand without additional funding. That is happening at a time when people need more help than ever before. As we all see in our surgeries, demand increases every week.

The changes to legal aid demonstrate yet again that the Government are willing to make cuts irrespective of their impact. I am already seeing heartbreaking cases in my surgery following the cuts to some family and civil legal aid. One mother of three children came to see me because her ex-husband had refused to return one of the children after a stay. The father has a high income but the mother is in receipt of benefits, so she sought legal advice but was informed that she does not qualify for legal aid. Because both parents are considered good parents, a court case will be required to solve the issue, but she does not have the money to pay for it. Her husband can have a solicitor but she cannot. She told me that

“the poor no longer have recourse to justice, only the well off.”

Unfortunately, she appears to be right.

Many victims of trafficking and domestic abuse will no longer be eligible for legal aid. According to research by Rights of Women and Welsh Women’s Aid, half of all domestic violence victims will not qualify for legal aid to help them and their children safely to separate from abusive relationships.

In recent years, we have seen a welcome change in emphasis from the police on domestic violence, and more people are now willing to report domestic violence. If people are being asked, rightly, to come forward, but they are being failed when it comes to legal funding, the situation is serious. I would have thought that people right across the House would regard domestic violence cases as extremely important.

My hon. Friend is quite right. The changes to legal aid require a much higher level of evidence to be provided, and organisations such as Women’s Aid believe that as a result, half of women across Wales will not have access to legal aid if they need it.

There are so many areas in which women are disproportionately affected, and I have only talked about a few. I could have talked about the abolition of crisis loans, the bedroom tax, changes to tax credits or pension changes. Name a policy and it is likely to hit women hardest. When families are already feeling the impact of more than 7% inflation on energy costs, with Wales having some of the highest electricity bills in the UK, as well as more than 6% inflation on clothing and more than 4% inflation on food, people can see why it is important to address the inequalities.

Equality law states that whenever the Government propose new legislation and policies, they have to give due consideration to the impact that the changes may have on equality of opportunity between men and women. Time and again, it is clear that the analysis is either inadequate or being ignored, as women in Wales are disproportionately affected by the coalition’s policies. Rather than getting the analysis right, the equality duties were highlighted in the Government’s red tape challenge, and there are fears that they might be watered down or dropped altogether by the coalition.

It is now time for the Secretary of State for Wales to carry out an in-depth analysis of the impact of his Government’s policies on women in Wales, because no matter which way we turn or whatever policy we look at, the Government are letting down women in Wales.

It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Benton.

I thank the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for securing this short debate on the important subject of women in Wales and the situation under this Government, or any Government. I thought I was coming in here to listen to a debate in the round on women in Wales, but—I hope she forgives me for saying this—in fact we were treated to a speech that was pretty similar to those we have heard in Westminster Hall and on the Floor of the House numerous times in the past three years: a general attack on cuts and welfare reform, dressed up as a debate about women in Wales. We could have been discussing the role of women in public life, higher education or the legal sector in Wales, or the efforts that we as a Government are making to help women in Wales smash through the glass ceiling and take their place on boards, running companies and being leaders in all spheres of life in Wales. What we actually had was a crude attack, if I may say so, on our welfare reform proposals and our approach to deficit reduction.

Does the Minister not accept that the full title of the debate is “Effect of Government policies on women in Wales” and that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has cited specific statistics about the situation as it affects women and women in Wales? She made that point a number of times. It is about the actual effect on women in Wales and the lack of an impact assessment or, if there is an impact assessment, the lack of sufficient attention to it, because there has been a disproportionate effect on women.

The danger when looking through any particular demographic lens—we could have been debating the impact of policies on young people, older people, disabled people or people from ethnic minorities—is that we are lured into making generalisations and over-simplifications. We have had a bit of that this afternoon, so hopefully I will inject some balance into the debate.

The starting point, of course, is the economic context and the enormous financial crisis that still faces this country. It is worth putting on record again—I know that Opposition Members will roll their eyeballs at this—that the reason why we are having to take very difficult decisions about public expenditure, and the reason why we are having to restore discipline to our national finances, is the financial mess that the Labour party left after 13 years in government. I will go further: future generations of women and girls would not thank us if we shirked our responsibility now and did not address the deficit and the debt. They would not thank us for the burden of debt that we might hand on to them if we did not take the difficult decisions that we are taking.

I say with all due respect that we have had three years of this Conservative-led Government, and the record is now wearing a bit thin. It is no longer valid, if it ever was, to blame everything on the previous Government. Surely to goodness the Minister can form a better argument in defence of what he has done.

The context is important, and it is valid. I reject what the hon. Gentleman says.

The Labour party is committed at the moment to cutting £7 out of every £8 that the coalition Government are cutting. The Labour party has said that it is committed to that level of budget cuts. Of course, it will not say where. I listened to the hon. Member for Newport East give a long list of cuts to which she objects, but she will not say what her party would have cut. She is also not saying that her party, if it were in government, would actually increase spending on any of those services. I hope she will forgive me for saying this, but it is a little disingenuous to attack all the efforts that we are making to restore discipline to our national finances without also being up front by saying, “As a party, if we were in government, we would probably be cutting all of these things, too.”

Let us move away from cuts and look at job creation. In Swansea East, the most recent figures show that between May 2012 and May 2013 female unemployment rose by 13.5%, yet male unemployment fell by 1.5%. Things are just not working for women, are they? That is really what the debate is all about. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) was attempting to say—and I think she said it very succinctly—that it is not working for women. What are this Government going to do on their behalf?

There are communities in Wales in which unemployment among women remains a very serious problem, and I recently spent a day visiting various initiatives in the valleys, looking at job creation schemes and efforts to address long-term unemployment among men and women. I completely recognise the point that the hon. Lady is making, but let us step back and look at the bigger picture.

More women in this country went out to work today than ever before in history. There are now 13.8 million women in employment, which is more than ever before. Female unemployment actually rose under the last Labour Government by 30%. Under this Government, since May 2010, the number of women employed in the UK has increased by more than 350,000; in Wales, the number of women employed has increased by 21,000. The picture is not as gloomy as the hon. Member for Newport East presents. The employment rate in Wales among women is up by 1.2 percentage points, which is good progress. We are not complacent about that, and we need to be ambitious about improving it, but the trajectory is positive.

In the hon. Lady’s constituency of Newport East, there are now 2,400 more women in employment than two years ago. Surely she must welcome that. The employment rate among women in her constituency is up by more than 6%. Some positive things are happening.

Does the Minister appreciate that long- term unemployment among women and unemployment among young women have risen?

I do not have the specific statistics to hand, but as I said to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James), there are certainly communities in which the trends are not as positive as the broader Welsh trend that I have presented here. We need to be more ambitious and redouble our efforts to see unemployment fall across all categories of women in Wales. I hope Members of all parties can agree on that.

Beyond just the positive signs we are seeing in the employment market, we as a Government absolutely recognise that many, many families face real financial pressure at this time. Many of those families, as the hon. Member for Newport East rightly says, are headed by single women, which is one reason why we are absolutely committed to assisting with the cost of living. We have seen some significant increases in the cost of living, which have placed huge burdens on families in recent years. That is one reason why we are doing one of the most effective things that can be done to put cash back in families’ pockets, which is to take the lowest-paid workers out of income tax altogether. We have now cut income tax for more than 1.1 million working people in Wales by increasing the tax-free personal allowance. By increasing it to £10,000 in 2014, we will lift 130,000 of the lowest-paid workers in Wales out of income tax altogether. Let no one be in any doubt: the majority of those 130,000 people lifted out of income tax—57%—will be women.

The hon. Member for Newport East spoke in great detail about some of our welfare reform measures. The introduction of universal credit is central to our welfare plans. Why are we reforming welfare? First, we cannot begin to think about cutting the deficit and the debt burden unless we are serious about welfare reform. Also, we all have communities in our constituencies where there are people who have not worked a day in their life—we have 200,000 such people in Wales, and worklessness is still a huge problem in many of our communities. If we care about those communities and are bothered by that, we must be serious about welfare reform. We as a Government are certainly bothered by it, which is why we are putting so much energy and focus on welfare reform.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East said, we support the idea of making work pay, but it seems to us from the figures presented by professional organisations that universal credit may actually provide a disincentive for the second earner in a household to go out to work or take on more hours. Can the Minister take that back as a serious message to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and ask them to consider it, so that the introduction of universal credit does not create a disincentive for people to go out to work?

If that is a real concern and there is evidence to back it up, I will certainly take it to my noble Friend Lord Freud, the Minister responsible for welfare reform, and discuss it with him. I sit with him and discuss the impact of welfare reform in Wales, because I am concerned about it. The whole purpose of introducing universal credit is a more simplified system, which we want to incentivise more work. We hope that more women will choose to re-enter the labour market, partly on the back of the introduction of universal credit. Some of them will be in work already, but we want them to take on more hours if they choose to do so. We want people to be able to make the right choices for them in their circumstances at that point in time, and we want a welfare system that supports those choices rather than creating negative incentives that work against the interests of the families and individual women that we are discussing.

Households with single women and couple households will be better off on average after the introduction of universal credit. We are clear that that is what the modelling shows. Single women will receive an average increase in benefits of about £13 a month, and the figure for couple households will be £16 a month.

The impact of child care costs has been mentioned. We recognise that, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for putting on record some of the measures that we as a Government have taken to assist with child care costs, most notably the introduction of the tax-free child care scheme, which makes child care simpler and more affordable for parents to access. From autumn 2015, working families will be able to claim 20% of child care costs, up to £1,200 per child under 12. We believe that that will contribute significantly to helping women who want to go out to work in Wales by encouraging those who want to do so to get back into the labour market and take the jobs that are being created.

To respond to the point made by Opposition Members, I absolutely agree that more women than men have been affected by public sector job losses, due to the proportion of men and women who work in public services. Nevertheless, it is true—even in Wales, where Opposition critics said that it could not happen, because we were led to believe that the private sector was too weak—that more private sector jobs have been created in Wales to offset public sector job losses. Women are taking up those new jobs. Some of them will need extra skills training, and we are committed to helping provide that, but I genuinely believe that the employment situation is not nearly as grim as Opposition Members say.

There is a general problem in the economy at the moment that real wages are falling as a consequence of the recession. We are seeing that across sectors. Actually, a great many women want to work part-time. When I go around and talk to unemployed men, one common complaint that I hear is, “A lot of the new jobs being created are much more suited to women with families.” A great many women in Wales have been able to benefit from that structural change in the labour market.

We could also talk about pension reforms such as the introduction of the single-tier pension and tackling the historic inequality between men’s and women’s pension receipt. We could talk about the efforts that this Government are making to tackle domestic gender-based violence, a point raised by Opposition Members. We as a Government are absolutely committed to, and serious about, breaking down the barriers that women face in all spheres of life, so that women can play their fullest role in work and have equality at home, in educational institutions and—

We will try to fix that. The hon. Lady will have to wait and see. On that point, I will end.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.