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Women and Equalities

Volume 572: debated on Thursday 12 December 2013

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Gender Pay Gap

This Government are committed to reducing the gender pay gap. Women have had the legal right to equal pay for nearly 40 years, but there is still a long way to go before we achieve equality in the workplace. The Government’s focus is on driving the necessary culture change in business, in particular through improving transparency.

Forty-three years on from Barbara Castle’s landmark Equal Pay Act 1970, will the right hon. Lady be pleased to be remembered as the Minister who brought in a fee of £1,200 for a pregnant sacked woman to take a case to an employment tribunal on grounds of discrimination and her right to equal pay?

I am disappointed that the hon. Lady continues to follow this line of questioning, as she is at risk of scaremongering with her reference to the £1,200. She will know that the vast majority of individuals who want to bring a tribunal claim will pay a far lower fee and that our remissions scheme will protect those who cannot pay. I hope she will ensure that she is not scaremongering in this regard because pregnant women will want to know the facts about the support available to them.

We will not tackle the gender pay gap until we tackle gender segregation in apprenticeships. May I suggest that the Minister re-examine the conclusions of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee in its “Women in the Workplace” report, and introduce a clear target and reporting strategy so that we can tackle that gender gap?

The hon. Lady is right that we want to ensure that more women see apprenticeships as an opportunity to get into different fields, particularly STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—related occupations. We know that the gender pay gap has a significant link to the career choices that women make, and apprenticeships have a good role to play.

Is it not slightly embarrassing for this Government and Labour to be lecturing about equal pay when the Equality and Human Rights Commission, under the previous Government and still today, pays white people more than it pays ethnic minority staff, pays disabled staff less than its non-disabled staff, and pays women less than it pays its male staff?

My hon. Friend is right to ensure that we are transparent about the reality within public organisations, such as that to which he refers. My Department publishes its pay so that everybody can see how it treats individuals, and I am pleased to say that the gender pay gap in my Department has disappeared. I hope that by ensuring that transparency of salary information we will continue to see more Departments in the same position.

The biggest source of the gender pay gap is the difficulty that working women have in finding well-paid employment that is flexible enough to cope with their child care requirements. What more can the Government do to increase flexibility in the workplace?

My hon. Friend is right that, rather than introducing yet more legislation, the Government have been ensuring that we modernise the workplace and that in doing so we modernise the culture around flexible working in particular. It is a shame that the Labour party in government was unable to put in place flexible working. We have set great store by flexible working for all, and ensuring that everybody, regardless of their care responsibilities, has that option available to them.

Under Labour the gender pay gap fell. This morning’s official figures show that it is now on the increase. What are the Government going to do about it?

The hon. Lady will know that under this Government more women are in work than ever before, that the figures show that salaries are rising, and that we are tackling the long-term issue of the gender pay gap by changing the culture in business. Her party failed to do that by not ensuring that flexible working was available for all. We are making sure that a workplace that was designed by men for men is now designed to accommodate women too.

Cost of Living

We recognise that these are tough times when both women and men need help with the cost of living. As last week’s autumn statement shows, the Government are providing that help—on income tax, fuel bills and council tax bills—to ensure that hard-working people can make ends meet. Critically, we are also taking the necessary steps to rebuild our economy following the financial crisis.

I have conducted research in my constituency, where 83% of women told me that they are much worse off now than they were in 2010. They said that was down to increasing energy bills and the cost of food. Does the Minister accept that there is a cost of living crisis now and that women are bearing the brunt?

I absolutely accept that people up and down the country are facing significant challenges with the cost of living, which is why the Government are taking action to help them. While we are talking about accepting things, I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to start to accept that one reason why families up and down the country are facing such challenges is the financial mess that his party got our country into.

According to analysis from the House of Commons Library and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the married couples tax break of less than £4 a week announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement will be paid to men in five out of six cases. Does the Minister believe that is the best way to support women facing a cost of living crisis?

The hon. Lady and others will be well aware of the differences within the coalition over that policy, as set out in the coalition agreement in 2010. What the Government are doing that will help women hugely is cutting income tax bills for 25 million people—six out of 10 of whom will be women—up and down the country, putting £700 back in their pockets.

Does the Minister agree that one of the costs faced by the record number of women now in work is the cost of government, which they pay for through their taxes? Will she therefore welcome the fact that 1 million women have seen a 100% reduction in the cost of their income tax?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that taking women out of income tax will help significantly. It is important that we cut people’s tax bills and ensure that the Government deliver value for money. That is what this Government are doing, because the last thing that will help women, or indeed men, is leaving this mess for the next generation to clear up.

Does my hon. Friend remember, as I do, a time when women cleaners in the City paid tax at a higher rate than their millionaire bosses and when women pensioners were offered a derisory increase of 75p in their pensions? She has already mentioned the tax thresholds, and we now have the triple lock on pensions. Is that not really good news for many women across the country?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that the £650 a year increase in the state pension resulting from the triple lock will hugely help women and men up and down the country with the cost of living—that is a wide range of people, from newly retired pensioners to those like my wonderful grandmother, who celebrates her 100th birthday today.

When it comes to the pay gap and the cost of living, the people who are often under the most pressure are women between the age of 30 and retirement age, where the pay gap is biggest. What is the Minister doing to help older middle-aged women to carry those burdens?

I will not be drawn into giving exact descriptions of women at different stages of life, but I think that the hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that there is a particular issue for women in that age group. Opportunity Now has recently been undertaking Project 28-40 to research the barriers that those women, in particular, face in the workplace—if Members want to contribute to the survey, I understand that it is open until Sunday. Obviously, the changes we are making for shared parental leave and flexible working will be particularly helpful for those women.

We all send our love and congratulations to the Minister’s grandma today. Will my hon. Friend assure us that there are rigorous equality impact assessments of all Government policies for women in general, and for black and minority ethnic women and women with disabilities in particular?

My right hon. Friend makes the important point that all policies need to take into account the impact they will have on equality. Every Department has a responsibility to ensure that that is taken into account when it brings forward a policy, and not just as some kind of afterthought when it is going through a checklist at the end, but to embed that right through the policy-making process so that those things are considered at the beginning.

Office for National Statistics figures show that women working full-time have seen almost £2,500 wiped off their real earnings since the election. Does the Minister accept that this shows that her Government’s cost of living crisis is hitting women particularly hard; and why, then, are Ministers continuing with economic policies that hit women three times harder than men?

The statistics that the hon. Lady uses are entirely partial. They do not take into account, for example, the changes to the taxation system that disproportionately help women through the income tax cut that we have made. The point that she really needs to understand is that the best way to tackle the cost of living crisis is to ensure that we get on with building a stronger economy that will support jobs and growth. That is what this Government are doing, whereas Labour’s plans just rely on ever more debt that the next generation will have to clear up and pay back.

Violence Against Women

The coalition Government is strongly committed to tackling violence against women and girls. Some £40 million of funding has been ring-fenced between 2011 and 2015 for specialist domestic and sexual violence services. We have created two new offences of stalking, introduced legislation to criminalise forced marriage, and re-launched our successful national “This is Abuse” campaign. On 25 November, we also announced the roll-out of domestic violence protection orders and Clare’s law to provide greater protection for victims.

A clear majority of women in prostitution experience serious violence in an exploitative trade that promotes wider gender inequality. Will the Minister commit to reviewing the European Union’s draft report on sexual exploitation, which makes it clear that the burden of criminality should shift from seller to buyer, and write to me with his reflections?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of vulnerable women involved in prostitution. The Government is particularly concerned about women who have been trafficked who end up in that situation, and that is the primary concern that we are taking forward.

Last year 1.2 million women were victims of domestic violence. It is well known that the police do not prioritise dealing with these crimes, so what more can be done to encourage them to take them seriously and deal with them properly?

I assure my hon. Friend that we have made our concerns known to the police and to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and we are taking matters forward with them. Yesterday the Home Secretary and I met the DPP and the national policing lead to try to make sure that we understand why there has been a drop in referrals. However, it is also worth pointing out that the number of successful prosecutions for domestic violence has risen to 73%—the highest ever.

8. The recent report by the Children’s Commissioner into child sexual exploitation found really shocking levels of sexual assault and rape among children, and that young people had a very limited understanding of consent. I listened to the Minister’s response, but he said nothing about how we inform the next generation. Why are the Government refusing to implement the Children’s Commissioner’s recommendation and make sex and relationship education compulsory in all our schools?

It is a bit unfair to say that I did not mention such matters, because I referred to the re-launch of the “This is Abuse” campaign, which has already been very successful, with 85,000 visits to the website since it was launched last week and 19,000 plays of the “Hollyoaks” TV advert. We are getting through to young people through that campaign. I agree with the hon. Lady that child sexual exploitation is a very serious issue indeed, and I congratulate the deputy Children’s Commissioner on the work she has undertaken, which we are taking forward in conjunction with her.

Female genital mutilation is a particularly pernicious form of violence against women. Why has nobody in this country yet been convicted of being a party to this appalling practice?

That is a question I have asked the Director of Public Prosecutions, because the legislation has been on the statute book for 28 years and throughout that time there has been no successful prosecution. I think that that partly relates to the reluctance of children to give evidence against parents. I assure my hon. Friend that we are considering the matter. The DPP is looking at existing cases and reviewing whether we can reopen some of them, and I am hopeful that there will be prosecutions in the near future.

Effects of Economic Climate on Ethnic Minorities

4. What assessment she has made of the effect of the economic climate on people in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. (901596)

The Government’s policy is to help disadvantaged communities and disadvantaged areas. It does not prioritise any particular race or ethnic background.

On Monday, Members from across the House spoke passionately about what Nelson Mandela had done to make the world a fairer place, but those words are meaningless if they are not followed up by deeds. It is unacceptable in 21st-century Britain that black men are more likely to be unemployed than white men, and that women from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are twice as likely to be unemployed as the national average. Why is there not a comprehensive racial equality strategy to address these issues?

The hon. Lady makes important points, but I must tell her that there are more ethnic minority people in work in the UK—3.1 million—than ever before. More, of course, needs to be done, which is why the Government have in place a range of tailored support through Jobcentre Plus, the Work programme, the youth contract and our Get Britain Working measures.