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Cost of Living

Volume 572: debated on Thursday 12 December 2013

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.