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Women and Low Pay

Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2015

A digital debate has taken place on Twitter ahead of today’s debate on women and low pay, and Mr Speaker has granted a derogation to allow the use of electronic devices in the Public Gallery for the duration of the debate. Devices should, however, be silent, and no photos can be taken.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered women and low pay.

The work that women do is crucial to the functioning of society, but their pay does not reflect that. Despite the fact that their qualifications are as good as, or better than, men’s, their skills are not rewarded to the same level as men’s, and their career progression is slower. We need to ensure equal pay for work of equal value.

This subject is vital for millions of women, and for their families and employers. Living on low pay means that women do not have enough money to give their children nutritious food, let them go on a school journey or take them on holiday. It means not being able to escape a violent relationship, losing much of their pay on the cost of fares to and from work, and not being able to save enough to cover even minor crises, such as the washing machine or car breaking down.

Forty-five years after Parliament passed the Equal Pay Act 1970, we are still to achieve equal pay. Forty-five years later, a 19% gender pay gap still exists. That is 3% higher than the EU average, despite the figure having reduced by a third under the last Labour Government.

When talking about women and pay, we often focus on high-paid jobs and the lack of women occupying positions in FTSE 100 company boardrooms. It is important to ensure that women have career progression, especially when the TUC has reported that the pay divide between men and women is nearly 55% among top earners.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate. She is right: equal pay issues have been around for about 50 years—it is 45 years since the Act was introduced—and that is far too long in my book. More importantly, when women on zero-hours contracts apply for tax credits, they cannot get them, because they are not in steady employment. What does my hon. Friend think about that? Equally, women are discriminated against when it comes to pensions, because a lot of them spend most of their lives being housewives.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct: this is about not just the low pay women receive, but the interconnection with zero-hours contracts, the benefits regime, tax credits and, of course, pensions, because a working life on low pay means a retirement on a low income.

Although the pay gap among top earners is nearly 55%, we also need to ensure, as my hon. Friend said, that we address women’s pay at the other end of the spectrum, among those who are stuck in low-paid minimum wage jobs, who are, too often, on a zero-hours contract. Indeed, the majority of low-paid workers are women, and three in five minimum wage jobs are held by women.

Every major piece of legislation that has improved the lives of women has been introduced by the Labour party. From the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 to the Equality Act 2010, Labour has always been at the forefront of the fight for equality. The Government certainly know how to talk the talk on equality, and the Prime Minister pledged to end the gender pay gap “within a generation”, but with 85% of Government tax and benefit cuts hitting women, Ministers are giving with one hand and taking from women with the other.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She alluded to the Prime Minister’s comments about dealing with the issue within a generation. Does she agree that although successive Governments, including the Labour Government, have made marginal progress—some have made more significant progress than others—our ambition should be about much more than dealing with this issue within a generation? It should be dealt with immediately—within the lifetime of this Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we need action, not words. One of those actions is the living wage—or should I call it the true living wage, so as not to confuse it with the rebranded minimum wage? The true living wage is an hourly rate set independently and accredited annually. It is calculated according to the basic cost of living, not median earnings, unlike the new national living wage. The current living wage is £8.25 an hour, with the London living wage at £9.40 an hour. Employers choose voluntarily to pay the living wage.

Labour local authorities are taking the lead in rolling out the living wage. I am proud of the role I played in Hounslow Council in implementing it for the staff of not only the council, but its contractors, many of whom are women. That is making a difference locally to many women’s lives and workplaces.

During the recent living wage week, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—the shadow Women and Equalities Minister—highlighted the importance of fair pay for women on a visit to a group of school meal staff in Camden who had recently been awarded the London living wage. That pay rise was due to a sustained campaign by the Camden New Journal and Unison, which put pressure on the company that employed the women so that it would give them the living wage they deserved. On receiving her pay increase, one of the women was delighted. She said the extra few pounds a week meant she would be able to save a bit of money each month and eventually have enough to go on a family holiday—her first. That made such a difference to her.

That is good for not just the employees, but their employer, which has seen increased staff satisfaction, leading to higher retention rates. Indeed, it previously had high staff turnover, with 40 vacancies to fill last summer; this year, it had only two. That is the point: having a large section of our workforce on a low wage is bad for business and bad for the economy. The Government consultation on the gender pay gap discovered that equalising women’s productivity and employment with men’s could add almost £600 billion to the economy.

The Government have taken some lessons from the last Labour Government. One is that, for most women, childcare is a barrier to labour market participation, and that is even truer of women on low pay. The Sure Start initiative was introduced because Labour recognised that women were more likely to be in low-paid jobs and, therefore, that childcare needed to be subsidised to help them back into work.

It frustrates me that, to help women back into the workforce, there has to be recognition that women’s employment is, on average, less well paid and of less value. Although it is good to see more women able to participate in the labour market, TUC research has shown that more than half the job growth for women since 2010 has been in low-paying sectors. Why is women’s work less well paid? The work that women do is crucial to the functioning of society, but their pay does not reflect that.

Despite the fact that women’s qualifications are as good as, or better than, men’s, they are not rewarded. Women occupy 78% of jobs in health and social care—a sector where the average salary is £40 per week less than the UK economy average. By comparison, men account for 88% of those working in more lucrative sectors, such as science, technology and engineering.

It is harder for women to find good-quality jobs. Evidence suggests that women become “discouraged workers”, resulting in fewer of them working or actively seeking work. They are discouraged workers because they face real challenges in finding decent-quality work, and the work they traditionally carry out, such as catering, cleaning and caring, is too often low paid and undervalued.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that, with 4.1 million children now living in poverty, tackling women’s low pay is a crucial part of improving the opportunities of those young people?

My hon. Friend is right. Children growing up in poverty do not have the same advantages and opportunities as many in their peer group. We cannot have a situation in which the adults of the future are not able to develop as they should in an equal, fair society.

Among examples discovered by the TUC of how brazen companies can be when they employ women was an advertisement in Wales for two seasonal roles—Santa Claus and Mrs Claus. Santa was to be paid a fair wage of £12 per hour, while Mrs Claus was paid the national minimum wage of £6.70 per hour. There was no difference in their job descriptions, and they both did the same amount of work, but the woman’s role was deemed to be of less value. That may seem like an interesting one-off, but it perfectly demonstrates how differently men’s and women’s work is valued 45 years after the implementation of the Equal Pay Act 1970.

Occupational segregation and the devaluing of work traditionally carried out by women, such as caring, directly contributes to the gender pay gap. That must be tackled and the Government must do more to diversify the labour market. As I have said, UK women earn on average 91% of what men earn. To put it another way, as of 9 November, just over a week ago, women are effectively working for free for the rest of the year. That is simply not acceptable in the 21st century. Progress has not been quick enough. Under Labour the gender pay gap reduced by a third—a trend that has, I admit, since continued; but while the gap has narrowed for full-time workers, it has widened for part-time workers and we must not be complacent.

My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way. It is difficult to see how Government policy can narrow the pay gap in the public sector when wage increases are held at 1%. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

The public sector is in particular difficulties, but the reason for that is the incredibly tight constraints on its budgets. Having been a local authority lead member, I know the pressure and how difficult it is to juggle overdue pay increases and the need to retain jobs wherever possible, particularly in such vital sectors as social care.

The gender pay gap affects women from the day when they start work, and for the rest of their lives. Forty-five years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, we still have that gap. Earlier in the year Labour called for a new equal pay Act, acknowledging that the current one has simply not prevented inequality between genders. Indeed, the current Act puts responsibility for enforcing equal pay on women, by allowing a woman to take her employer to a tribunal, rather than making it a collective responsibility. Going to an employment tribunal is a difficult process, and it is now a costly one. First, the employee must be a member of a trade union if she cannot pay for a lawyer or represent herself, and many people are put off at that stage. However, if an employee is successful, the tribunal will instruct the company to do an equal pay audit; but how many women even get to that stage? Yesterday I participated in a Parliament outreach initiative on Twitter, and there was some debate. Women talked about their experiences, and many said they would not challenge an employer, even if they thought they were being paid less than their male counterparts. They feared being sacked. One woman said that equal pay audits might be useful, but that she feared many women would

“stay silent for fear of losing their jobs”.

The Government cannot simply point to the existing measures and say they are tackling the gender pay gap, when people do not have access to the tools that are provided. More needs to be done to make the tribunal process accessible, and to give women the confidence to challenge their employers about fair pay. There is also a need to move away from putting the responsibility on the employee to fight for equal pay, and towards collective responsibility. That is what Labour argued for at the beginning of the year. It is impossible for a woman to demand equal pay if she does not know what her male counterpart is earning. An equal pay audit should come at the beginning, not the end, of the process.

Where can we go next? In July, the Prime Minister proclaimed that he would end the gender pay gap in a generation. I welcome any efforts to address the hopeless situation we are in, but we need more attention paid to women on low pay, rather than simply focusing, as I fear the Prime Minister may have done, on women in highly paid jobs. I recognise recent efforts to address the pay gap between men and women, which are commendable. Legislating for companies that employ more than 250 people to publish the difference between men and women employees’ pay is a good way to push companies to pay men and women equally, to avoid embarrassment and public naming and shaming. However, traditional women’s employment in the five Cs—clerical, catering, caring, cashiering and cleaning—is often in smaller companies, which will not need to publish that information.

We must also acknowledge the need to address not simply the discrepancy between wages but the value of women’s work. The Government need a strategy to boost the esteem and pay of the jobs typically undertaken by women. Raising the minimum wage by the end of this Parliament and rebranding it does not fool me, or those women working for wages below the true living wage—the wage calculated as enough to live on. Cutting tax credits for millions of working families does not fool them either. The Government may talk the talk on equality but, while 85% of their tax and benefit changes fall on women, the cuts agenda compromises any chances of improvement for women on the lowest pay.

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

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) for securing this important debate. It provides an opportunity to discuss how low pay affects women’s lives. As we have heard, there are many reasons why women are more likely to receive low pay. They are likely to be paid less than a male colleague for doing the same job, and many women work in low-paid sectors. Of course, more women work part-time.

It is interesting to think about the impact of age on women’s pay. Women in their 60s earn nearly 14% less than men, and women in their 50s earn 18% less than men, which is the highest difference for any working-age group. That has a significant impact on women’s income during their working lives, but also on their income in retirement. That is what I want to talk about. Low pay means that fewer women can save for retirement. If they take time out to have children or care for close relatives and friends, that affects the contributions that they can make to a pension, which means that women face additional disadvantages with retirement income.

I have recently been working with the campaigning group Women Against State Pension Inequality, which campaigns against the way state pension age equalisation has been imposed on women born in the 1950s. For many women reaching retirement age, the state pension will be the main or only source of income. Until 1995, women who worked part time could not join their company pension schemes, or they did not qualify because of time taken out of the workforce for ill health or to fulfil caring responsibilities. Even when a court judgment in 2000 apparently meant that access to employers’ pension schemes was possible, legal technicalities meant that it was too late for thousands of women to benefit. Women who worked part time between 1976 and 1995 should have been allowed access to company pension schemes, but they needed to claim within six months of leaving a job, and many women left jobs without knowing that they could claim. Also, women who worked for less than two years for the same employer did not qualify.

Despite such unfairness continuing to 1995 and beyond, state pension equalisation was started with the Pensions Act 1995 and accelerated with the Pensions Act 2011. Women born in the 1950s have been hit particularly hard, and changes have been enacted without appropriate notification. Many women received little or no personal notification of the changes to the state pension age, so they were left with inadequate time to plan for the change in their financial circumstances. As I have said, older women are more likely than men to be in lower-paid, insecure or part-time work. I have met women in their 60s who are now struggling on zero-hours contracts or jobseeker’s allowance, when they had expected to be able to retire at the age of 60. I met a group of women campaigning about this on Saturday, and one woman told me how, at the age of 62, she had been placed on the Work programme. Some women and their families are now experiencing real hardship because of the changes.

Members of Women Against State Pension Inequality shared with me their experiences, which include partners being unable to retire together due to the changes. Others discussed how they have struggled financially because they have given up work to care but have no income with which to support themselves. It is also a struggle for women in their 60s who have been self-employed, as that is often work that comes and goes. In one case, a woman caring for her husband, who has a terminal cancer diagnosis, will not be entitled to his pension after his death, and will not receive her state pension for a further four years. She said:

“It’s disgraceful to get to this time of life with loads of worries ahead.”

It is unjust that so many women have had their retirement income altered significantly with such little notice, meaning there is not enough time to plan for the changes.

The date at which the changes take effect is also unfair. Those born on or after 6 April 1951 will now have to wait until a later age to claim their pension, whereas friends born just before that date are not affected, which can mean that there will be a number of years’ difference between when women who are born a few months apart—probably people who were in the same class at school—begin to receive their state pension.

It is worth making it clear that the campaign group WASPI is against not the equalisation of the pension age but how the changes have been enacted. Many of those women have already spent their working lives being disadvantaged in pay compared with their male counterparts. The way the changes to the state pension have been enacted is a major injustice for these women, who have already lived with and overcome significant barriers in the workplace and now face even more barriers in their 60s.

It is time we looked again at low pay, but it is also time we looked at the other barriers faced by women of all age groups, particularly the additional hardship faced by women born in the 1950s. That is almost entirely due to the Government making changes to the state pension age without offering transitional protections, which were promised by the Work and Pensions Secretary in the debate on the Pensions Act 2011 but have not materialised.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing such an important debate.

Gender equality is not a dream, or at least it should not be. Often when we debate gender inequality in the workplace, we hear the usual apologist grumbles from Members. We are told that, in many ways, it is a fact of life; it is the way the world works and we cannot continue to complain because it will not change—“Life is unfair. Men are men and women are women. That’s it. Accept it and get on with it.” Well, I will not accept it. That response, which I have come to expect, is not only lazy but wrong, and it does not address the real issues women face. If we think along those lines, of course nothing will change. Inequality will continue. Women will continue to be discriminated against for having children. They will continue to be refused access to justice and will always be paid considerably less than men. We cannot, should not and must not allow that attitude to go unchallenged, because it is that attitude that put us in the position we are in today and it is that attitude that will keep us here.

On 9 November, we marked equal pay day, when women across the United Kingdom started working for free, while men continued earning—a day that we should be talking about in history lessons, not in the 21st century. Forty-five years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act, men still earn two months’ more wages than women every year. The gap between men and women stands at a staggering 19% in the UK, with women earning 81p for every £1 that a man earns. Even in professions dominated by women—hairdressing, catering and cleaning—the pay gap still exists, while women in skilled trades, including plumbing and mechanics, suffer the biggest pay gap, earning close to 30% less than their male counterparts. That is a damaging indictment of successive UK Governments, employers and industry, and it is something we should be collectively ashamed of.

In Scotland, the gender pay gap is substantially lower than across the UK, which is welcome, but it still exists and it should not. More work must be done across these islands. In my constituency, gender inequality has been at the heart of the political debate for years. In my own local authority, South Lanarkshire Council, hundreds of women have fought for equal pay for equal work, and many of them have now received a payout, totalling the massive amount of £70 million. However, just a few months ago, figures published for South Lanarkshire Council showed that the gender pay gap was a staggering 16%, and many more women continue to fight for equal pay, so we are not there yet. I say that not to play politics but to show that the gender pay gap still exists, particularly in the public sector.

Scotland is one of the leading countries in Europe for reducing female unemployment, and we have done it through practical policies such as expanding childcare for two, three and four-year-olds and paying all Government employees the real living wage. We continue to move closer to the goal of equality. Scotland’s First Minister has made the business of redressing inequality a priority for her Government. Labour market figures show that female employment in Scotland has reached a record high, while youth unemployment is at its lowest level in six years and the number of people in work continues to grow. That is a testament to the strong actions taken by the Scottish National party in government, with the economic powers it currently holds, but women should not have to wait another 45 years—or 70 years, as the UN has estimated—for equal pay in Britain.

We have heard from Members about the campaign group Women Against State Pension Inequality and the impact of this issue on the entire generation of women born in the 1950s. What do the Government intend to do to address the issue of those women’s pensions? How will they rectify that, to ensure that women do not continue to experience inequality?

I am glad to hear the hon. Lady raise the same point I did. Is she aware how much it rankles with and angers the women affected that they have not received the transitional protection the Government promised them? It is very harsh to impose the change on people without the protection the Secretary of State promised.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady and thank her for that point. I hope the Minister will address that in his remarks.

This fight is not reserved to half of the population. We do not fight against injustice for one sex; we fight for everyone. No man wants his wife, daughter, sister or mother to earn less simply because they are women. We need to send a strong message to employers, Governments, local authorities and industry that there is simply no excuse for discrimination. As things stand, we are damaging families, diluting gender equality and doing no favours to the economy that is so important to this Government. Now is not the time for excuses; we have heard them all before. Let us take strong, decisive action and put gender inequality where it belongs: in the history books.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this important debate on a subject that affects women in every constituency the length and breadth of the country, my own included. I intend to keep my contribution brief, focusing on low pay in Coventry and the impact on women locally.

Nearly one fifth of all jobs in Coventry, equivalent to 26,000 roles across the city, paid less than the living wage last year. The majority of those low-paid jobs are concentrated in sectors and roles within the labour market that are overwhelmingly dominated by women, such as care assistants, cleaners, caterers and those working in the leisure and service industry. Although we know those types of job are crucial and help to hold the fabric of society together, they are all too often part time and low skilled, with few progression opportunities.

My hon. Friend will be as aware as I am that Coventry was one of the leading authorities in implementing the living wage. More importantly, she mentioned that carers are among the lowest paid. If a carer wants to go to a tribunal without trade union support—I have seen cases of this—on average it costs £1,200, and most carers cannot afford that. That is a direct result of this Government’s policies.

I agree with my hon. Friend on that point, which was also raised by our hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth.

As I was saying, although the types of job I describe are crucial and help to hold the fabric of society together, they are all too often part-time, low-skilled jobs with few progression opportunities, and are viewed and derogatively dismissed as “women’s work”. Consequently, they are undervalued and underpaid relative to comparable jobs in male-dominated sectors. As a result, low, unequal pay for work of equal value is the bleak reality for many of Coventry’s working women in this divided and divisive labour market.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that women in their 50s earn 18% less than men not only is an injustice for those women, but really reflects a failure of our society to harness all the expertise and knowledge of those women? That shortcoming as a society has an impact on our economy.

I absolutely agree with my hon Friend. I have had experience of that, and constituents have written to me about those very things.

One of the clearest examples of this inequity is the widening gender pay gap in the city, which last year increased to 16.2%, up from 15% the previous year. It reached an astonishing 20.6% in my constituency. That means that on average, women in my local area took home just 79p for every £1 earned by a man. That rising inequality and resultant deterioration in the financial position of women across Coventry is extremely worrying and wholly unacceptable in equal measure, but of course the most fundamental and obvious problem facing women in these less valued and less well paid jobs is their inability to earn enough to provide themselves and their family with a decent standard of living, and in some circumstances even to keep their heads above water.

We know that low income as a result of reliance on low-paid work and in-work benefits limits access to adequate housing, education and other services or facilities, as well as to essentials such as food, fuel and clothing. That socio-economic disadvantage is inextricably linked to the significant health and social inequalities seen in Coventry and in my constituency, which impact upon some of the poorest and most vulnerable of my constituents. That is why we simply cannot continue to allow less valued and less well paid work to be the fate of generation after generation of women. We need fundamentally to tackle the undervaluation of so-called “women’s work”, while simultaneously challenging gender stereotyping within the labour market, expanding opportunities for quality flexible and part-time working, increasing affordable childcare provision, and raising pay across the board, particularly within traditionally feminised work sectors.

Coventry City Council has taken a lead on the issue locally by becoming a living wage employer—like my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth, I was directly involved in that as a councillor some time ago. Such a move ensures improved income levels for a substantial number of low-paid individuals, the majority of whom are women. In addition, the council has also implemented a social value policy, which includes payment of a living wage as one of the criteria that the council will consider in its procurement process. That will benefit all workers on low pay, but particularly women, as they make up the majority of those on low pay in my city.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this important Westminster Hall debate. I welcome her noteworthy and impressive contribution, as well as the contributions from other Members who have spoken.

The hon. Lady said that there has been a focus on high-paid jobs. It is important that women are given equal representation in high-paid jobs—and in boardrooms, political parties and Government Cabinets—so I can understand why she makes the point, but I think it is important that we focus on both high-paid and low-paid jobs. She highlighted the fact that three out of five jobs in minimum wage work are held by women. I have to admit that I was not aware of that startling figure, but I am glad that she raised it. That is why sorting equal pay claims from councils across the country is so important.

The hon. Lady highlighted the issue of the damaging branding of the Chancellor’s minimum wage premium as a national living wage. It is not national—it is only available to over-25s—and it is not a living wage; it falls way short of the Living Wage Foundation’s independently set living wage, which is calculated based on the cost of living. She mentioned that having a gender pay gap is bad for business. The statistic that she used to highlight that is absolutely correct and it is worth sharing it again: if we were to equalise the gender pay gap, we would boost productivity by an estimated £600 billion in this country. Frankly, that is astonishing. I thank her again for securing the debate.

The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) raised a number of very important points about problems with pensions, particularly for women born in the 1950s. Those issues were discussed just yesterday in a Westminster Hall debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) made very important points during that debate, as well as during this one. The hon. Lady, on behalf of the WASPI campaign group, made some very important points, which I welcome and which are supported by SNP Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) made a typically powerful speech. She made the point that gender equality is not a dream and should not be a dream. It needs to be a reality. She also said that women get paid two months short compared with their male counterparts.

Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a job teaching on a “women back to work” programme. The vast majority of the women were divorced. It was a really fantastic experience for me to see how quickly they improved their skills and educational base in a very short space of time. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is very important to provide training and educational opportunities for women—not just women in employment, but those who are unemployed, so that they can get back to work and generate the kind of economic activity that will boost their life chances?

Absolutely. There is nothing that I can disagree with in that intervention, and I will come to some of those issues later in my speech.

Returning to the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East, the gender pay gap still exists even in what would be traditionally or stereotypically described as “female jobs”. That is still wrong and needs to be addressed. No man wants to see his daughter suffering a gender pay gap—that is absolutely right. I speak as a the father of a one-year-old daughter who I hope will go on to employment where she will earn the same as her male counterparts, so I stand here today on that basis.

The hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) effectively highlighted the issues of gender inequality in her city of Coventry. Again, I highlight the contribution made by the hon. Member for Coventry South, who, as I said, also made noteworthy contributions to the debate on pensions yesterday.

It is disappointing that in 2015 we are still discussing matters of gender equality. Nevertheless, it is important to take cognisance of the fact that a real pay gap between men and women remains. Low pay affects women disproportionately. In 1999, the gender pay gap for full-time employees in Scotland stood at 16.7%, but by 2014 it had been reduced to 9%, and it is 9.4% in the rest of the UK. This year, the Scottish Government launched the Partnership for Change programme, wherein public, private and third-sector organisations make a voluntary commitment to work toward a 50:50 gender balance on their boards by 2020. As of 9 November, 160 organisations and businesses have signed up, which I am delighted to see, although more work is clearly needed. On this year’s equal pay day, 9 November, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged to do everything she can to advance equal pay and gender equality in Scotland as part of the Fawcett Society’s pay gap pledge campaign. The First Minister has been leading the way on the issues, starting clearly and publicly with her 50:50 gender balanced Cabinet.

Many women shoulder a disproportionate amount of childcare or family responsibilities, and they are unable to take up promotion and other opportunities because they do not have alternative care arrangements. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 provides further assistance to women and young families by providing that all three and four-year-olds and the most disadvantaged two year-olds are entitled to 600 hours of early learning and childcare. By the end of the next Parliament, the Scottish Government will have doubled the hours from 16 to 30 per week. Increasing childcare will not only improve outcomes for children, but support more women into work.

The Scottish Government have also provided Skills Development Scotland with additional funding as part of a wider £3 million allocation in 2014-15 to develop a range of equality activities, including tackling gender segregation. The Scottish Government are doing all they can with the tools on offer to provide tangible improvements.

Does my hon. Friend agree that providing Scotland with powers over the minimum wage and welfare, which still sit with this House, would allow Scotland to address needs and ensure that inequality is abolished in Scotland?

Absolutely—I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend.

In Scotland, councils are now responsible for meeting legal obligations to their employees, including on equal pay, but clearly more work needs to be done. My hon. Friend highlighted the issues in South Lanarkshire. My constituency falls under North Lanarkshire Council’s jurisdiction. The council has been embroiled in a long-running and legally very costly equal pay dispute in which the council has dragged equal pay claims through the courts for several years. That is utterly shameful and needs to be addressed urgently. All equal pay cases need to be resolved with urgency and commitment, so that those affected receive their legal entitlement. Again, I am making the point not on a party political basis, but on the basis of doing what is right by our workers.

To conclude, despite the passage of the Equal Pay Act 45 years ago, more work needs to be done to address low pay. Although it is important to recognise that female employment in Scotland is at record levels, that the gap between male and female employment is at its smallest ever, and that the gender pay gap is smaller than in the rest of the UK, a great deal of work remains to be done to ensure women receive parity with their male colleagues. Low pay for women is both a symptom and a cause of gender inequality. We must do all we can to eradicate the gap between men and women to create a fairer and more prosperous society.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to the many people on Twitter who are tweeting this morning on #WomenandLowPay, and are contributing to this debate as part of the digital opening up of Parliament.

We have heard this morning that the gender pay gap in the UK remains, and that women earn 81p for every pound that men earn. Many reasons have been given for that, including a system of occupational segregation in the UK; all too often, women find themselves in low-paid sectors such as retail, hospitality and care, and work part time because they have caring responsibilities. Women face barriers in going to employment tribunals because of maternity discrimination. They face barriers to training and development, including apprenticeships. Sadly, this Government have failed to build on Labour’s achievements, and their cuts are hitting women hardest.

My hon. Friend gave a good example of women’s work being valued less than men’s. She referred to a Father Christmas earning £12 an hour and a Mrs Claus earning the national minimum wage—half the hourly wage of Father Christmas. That got me thinking about a few things, including the message that sends to the children who visit that Father Christmas—that we value his work more than Mrs Claus’s. Frankly, I doubt whether Father Christmas could get round the world in one night without the support of a wife like Mrs Claus.

The majority of low-paid workers in this country are women. Three in five national minimum wage jobs are held by women, and over a quarter earn less than the living wage; the figure for men is one in six. Women are pushed into clerical, caring, catering, cashiering and cleaning occupations, as we have heard, and I will add another “C” to the list: classroom assistant. That brings me to my mother, who was born in the 1950s and works as a classroom assistant. With her union, she challenged her employer on equal pay legislation and on why classroom assistants were earning far less than men who were working for the council in similar jobs of equal worth.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) referred to pensions discrimination. I call on the Minister to outline what transitional protection he will introduce for women who have been caught in that trap.

The Resolution Foundation estimates that care workers, 78% of whom are women, are collectively paid £130 million below the national minimum wage, because employers fail to pay for travel time between appointments, and make deductions for items necessary for their job, such as uniforms, mobile phones and petrol. Women are forced into work in which they are undervalued and low paid. For example, 63% of those in retail and customer service are women.

What are the Government doing to end gender segregation and undervaluation of women’s work? Will the Minister give a commitment to take action to encourage women to consider traditionally male-dominated jobs, especially in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM careers—as well as encouraging men to consider, for example, the caring professions, to ensure that these careers are properly valued and paid at the rate they deserve? We should ask ourselves as a society why we do not value the work that women do to the same extent as that done by men. Some 42% of women are employed part time, but the average part-time hourly rate is less than a third of the full-time hourly wage.

Does the hon. Lady agree that zero-hours contracts only exacerbate inequality? Will she join me in calling on the Government to ban exploitative zero-hours contracts, particularly as we are coming up to Christmas, when the retail industry in particular exploits such contracts?

The hon. Lady predicts where I am going. I agree that zero-hours contracts make it very difficult—for women, predominantly—to plan, especially at this time of year. Reference has been made to Father Christmas; this is an important time of year for families to come together. It can be an expensive time of year. Budgeting when on low pay is essential, but if someone does not know what wage they will take home at the end of the month, it is very difficult to budget at all.

What are the Government doing to create more well-paid jobs with reduced hours or flexibility? The TUC has researched the issue of single-parent families, who are twice as likely as couple-parent families to live in poverty, and 90% of single parents are women. Women’s low pay arises hugely from the fact that they are often a single parent in a household. Single mothers are more likely than mothers in couples to be in low-skilled work, reflecting the difficulties in finding well-paid work that fits around caring responsibilities.

Research from 2005 showed that 30,000 women were forced out of work through pregnancy discrimination, but 10 years later, that figure has almost doubled to 54,000. What are the Government doing to tackle maternity discrimination, and to ensure that women who are victims of such discrimination have access to justice?

As part of my research for the debate, I contacted the National Union of Students and asked it for the information that it has about apprenticeships as part of the work that it is doing. I pay tribute to Shelly Asquith, its vice-president, welfare, who provided me with the information. On average, young men earn 21% more than young women while doing an apprenticeship. According to the poll, female apprentices earn just £4.82 an hour, compared with £5.85 an hour for male apprentices. What steps are the Government taking to improve training opportunities for women, and to ensure that apprenticeships do not discriminate by gender?

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth set out Labour’s record on equality issues. The Equal Pay Act 1970, the minimum wage, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010 were all introduced by a Labour Government. In government, we have also strengthened maternity and paternity rights. What we have seen from the current Government is a lot of job losses in the public sector. Of the local government job losses since 2010, 96,000 have fallen on men, while 141,000 have fallen on women. With the pay for low-paid work being 8% higher in the public sector than in the private sector, how many of these women are being forced out of their public sector jobs into equivalent private sector jobs and in effect receiving a pay cut?

Will the Minister commit to developing all tax and spending in a way that takes on board the likely impact on women’s equality? I ask that because 85% of the tax credit and benefit changes have fallen on women, and 70% of the savings made by cuts to tax credits have fallen on women. Will the Minister include in the new gender pay gap reporting regulations a requirement for employers to publish information on the earnings distribution of men and women in their workforce? I ask that because unless women know that they are receiving less pay for an equal-value job, it is very difficult for them ever to take any action to challenge that.

The full-time gender pay gap is 9.4%, but that masks the adverse experience of those working part time, where pay is typically lower, resulting in an overall gender pay gap of 19.1%. Indeed, the UK’s gender pay gap is above the EU average, and at the current rate of progress, it will take 50 years to close it. Although I am a young MP, I plan to be retired in 50 years’ time. I am not prepared to wait that long, and I am sure that the Minister is not, either. I therefore hope that he will have positive answers to my questions. I leave him with this thought: why do we value women’s work so much less than we value the work that men do?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this important debate on an issue that concerns us all. I come from a family where the only thing controversial about gender equality was the suggestion that us men were anything other than inferior, so it has always been a mystery to me why the prejudices and discrimination against women, and indeed any other groups in society, persist, but sadly persist they do.

I suspect that the hon. Lady was not in the hall, but I am sure that she was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in one of the most effective and powerful passages in his party conference speech in October, say:

“I’m a dad of two daughters—opportunity won’t mean anything to them if they grow up in a country where they get paid less because of their gender rather than how good they are at their work.

The point is this: you can’t have true opportunity without real equality.”

As well as paying tribute to the Prime Minister’s leadership on this issue, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who, throughout her career in Parliament, in government and on repeated occasions as acting leader of the Labour party, has led the way on equality, including on women’s pay. All of us should salute her persistence and leadership on this issue.

The fact is that the pay gap, although smaller than it was, is too big, is unacceptable and must not be allowed to survive into the next generation. We can acknowledge that some progress has been made without in any way undermining the assertion that the gap as it remains is unacceptable. There has been some progress. The pay gap has decreased for full-time earners, but it is still too high at, I think, 6 and a bit per cent for full-time earners, and much less progress is being made for part-time workers and those in low-paid jobs. We can all agree that that position is not one that we should tolerate, so the question is what we can do to ensure not only that progress continues to be made, but that it is made more rapidly and made across the board, for part-time as well as full-time work.

I shall explain what the Government have long believed to be one of the most powerful tools in this respect. The laws were passed, as many hon. Members pointed out, by previous Labour Governments a long time ago, but once the necessary laws are passed, progress is often most rapidly achieved as a result of transparency—as a result of making it absolutely clear to everyone, not just the people who work for an employer but customers, partners or neighbours of the employer, what their record is on paying people equally. That is why we have decided to require employers of more than 250 people to publish information about the pay of men and women in their employ, so that they can demonstrate whether they are properly paying people equally. Driving through that transparency and adding to it, as we do with the enforcement of the national minimum wage, and a certain element of naming and shaming, whether formal or informal, both as MPs in respect of employers in our constituencies and as a Government in respect of larger employers nationally, will have a powerful impact on progress.

The second most powerful way to achieve change is to ensure a change in leadership. The Government’s focus on the representation of women on boards is not so much a result or a reflection of our interest in equality being greater in relation to high earnings than low earnings, although equality should be in place across the spectrum. It is more the fact that we are convinced that the more women there are on boards, the more voices there will be insisting that equality be achieved and not putting up with any persistence of inequality, however well disguised.

That is why we are delighted that we have more than met the original target set by Lord Davies of Abersoch to achieve 25% female representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. The figure is now at 26%. We now have more women on FTSE boards than ever before. I believe that there is not a single FTSE 100 company left that has no women on its board, but again, although that is welcome progress, it is not nearly enough, because many of the women who have been brought on to FTSE 100 and 250 boards are in non-executive roles. Our next challenge is to ensure that there is an equal increase in the representation of women in senior executive positions, because it is through the leadership roles in every employer that we will drive the change in employment practices down through all the employers in the country.

After leadership, the third most important step is to make it easier for women to get work, to stay in work and to return to work as soon as they choose to do so—it should always be their choice—after having children. That is why, at a time of very difficult decisions on the public finances, we have nevertheless made it a priority to invest in the provision of 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds for all families who work, because only when there is that significant number of hours of free childcare will we make it possible for more mothers of young children to go to work as soon as it is right for them to do so.

The final and most important measure is more broadly to increase the rate of pay, particularly in low-paid jobs. We have heard from many hon. Members that women unfortunately occupy more low-paid positions than men do. If we can increase pay in low-paid jobs, we will disproportionately help women. I understand the unwillingness of Opposition Members to acknowledge the substantial and significant step that the Government have taken by introducing the national living wage for people over the age of 25, and I accept that the Opposition want to continue to preserve the concept of a living wage as something distinct from our new national living wage. Leaving aside the nomenclature for a moment, the minimum wage that will be paid to every 25-year-old in the country, including in the great kingdom of Scotland, will go up by an amount far greater than any Opposition party suggested in the general election campaign.

I will not give way right now, but I will do so in a second. We have plenty of time, so the hon. Lady need not worry. The minimum wage will go up by an amount far greater than was recommended by the Low Pay Commission. We have strong evidence not only from internal Government estimates but from the Resolution Foundation that women over the age of 25 will disproportionately benefit from the increase in the minimum wage. For all that Opposition Members want to retain some scepticism about the brand that we are putting on the new, higher minimum wage, I hope that they will welcome that significant step in improving the pay of many women in this country.

I do not think that the Minister needs to lecture the Opposition on the national minimum wage. Labour Members brought in the national minimum wage in the teeth of a fight from the Conservative party. I know that he was not in the House at the time, but he must know that. None of us needs to be lectured on that. Will he say whether he will address the issue that several Opposition Members have raised about transitional arrangements for the state pension age inequality for women born in the 1950s?

I say gently to the hon. Lady that I was not lecturing her at all. I was resisting the suggestion that the national living wage—I accept that Opposition Members do not like its brand—is anything other than a dramatically positive step for low-paid workers, especially women, in this country. I did not hear a single member of any Opposition party welcome the increase that will happen in April for every worker over the age of 25 who is in a national minimum wage job. If the Opposition want the Government—for better or for worse, we are likely to be in government for the next four and a half years—to take on board some of their excellent suggestions for further progress, they should give us a little acknowledgement for that real achievement. It absolutely builds on the national minimum wage, which the Labour party introduced, and I am always happy to acknowledge, as I did earlier, the Labour party’s role in the Equal Pay Act 1970, but acknowledgement of each other’s achievements is a two-way street. It would be good for Opposition Members to acknowledge our achievement.

I will answer the other point made by the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) before I give way again. She asked an important question on a subject that was also raised by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). As I have said, I come from a family that is entirely dominated by women, and two of my sisters are in the age bracket that the hon. Ladies referred to. I have also had some pretty difficult conversations in my constituency surgery with many women who are affected.

The equal pension age is being introduced at the same time as the new state pension, which, compared with the current two-tier state pension, improves the amount of state pension for many women whose national insurance records are incomplete as a result of career breaks or a great deal of part-time work. I am not implying that it makes up all the loss, but there is a countervailing improvement. I am advised by the Department for Work and Pensions that there will be a review of the state pension age. The Pensions Act 2014 provides for a six-yearly review to take into account up-to-date life expectancy data and the findings of an independently led review. The first review will conclude by May 2017 and will consider, among a number of other factors, the impact of the state pension age change on women. That will be an opportunity to consider the issues that the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South raises.

I would like to repeat what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said in 2011 on Second Reading of the Pensions Bill:

“Let me simply repeat what I said earlier…we have no plans to change equalisation in 2018, or the age of 66 for both men and women in 2020, but we will consider transitional arrangements.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 52.]

There were no transitional arrangements. Women who now do not get their pensions until 66 get nothing—no pensioner benefits or bus passes—and, as I have said, many of them are on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. Some are even being forced, at the age of 62, on to the Work programme. That injustice will keep coming back. The Secretary of State in that debate promised transitional arrangements.

I do not want to get into a discussion about what another Minister said in a debate that I was not part of, but the quote that the hon. Lady read out indicated that the Secretary of State would consider transitional arrangements. It did not sound to me like a clear pledge to bring in any particular transitional arrangement. I have described the position and the fact that there will be a further review in 2017, which will allow those issues to be revisited.

What analysis has the Minister made of the impact of the cuts to local authorities that the Government are considering on low-paid women working in councils up and down the country?

As the hon. Lady is aware, all decisions, legislation and regulations are subject to equality impact assessments, in which all those things are considered. Her intervention leads me neatly to my conclusion. For all that the steps that I described—transparency, leadership, childcare provision and increasing the national minimum wage through the introduction of the national living wage—are powerful, the most important source of opportunity to improve the pay of women and close the pay gap is a strong economy that creates lots of new jobs. Those new jobs and employment opportunities give women the opportunity to go out and command better wages.

Although I understand that the hon. Lady opposes public spending cuts, it is nevertheless the case that as a result of the consistent policy of slow but steady deficit reduction, this economy has created more jobs than any other country in Europe, and more women are in work than ever before. It might have been possible for Opposition Members, while properly opposing the Government on specifics, to give some acknowledgement of the fundamental achievement of creating jobs, which create opportunities, including the opportunity for women to improve the wages that they earn.

Thank you, Mr Howarth, for chairing the debate and for your understanding. This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have secured, and my speech was the first I have made in which I have not been severely time-constrained. Like many new Members, I am still getting used to the procedures and practices in this place, so I thank you for your generosity and your support. I have been particularly pleased to serve under your chairmanship.

In concluding the debate, I thank those who helped me in the preparation of my speech, in particular the TUC, the staff of the Women and Equalities Committee, Oxfam and Age UK. They all provided useful, informative material. I thank fellow Members who have contributed to the debate. I notice that there has been only one contributor from the Conservative party—the Minister. I regret that there have not been more contributions from Members of the governing party, as I know that they all represent large numbers of women in their constituencies, many of whom will be affected by the issue of low pay.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) eloquently described the impact of a working life on low pay, and what that means for then being a pensioner on low pay. She specifically mentioned the women, born only a few years earlier than me, who had planned for retirement at a particular age but have now had their plans ruined and cannot properly budget for their retirement because of the change in their pension arrangements. Transitional protection is vital for them. Those women will have to work for low pay for longer, and they will be very vulnerable in the workplace over the next few years.

I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), with whom I serve on the Women and Equalities Committee. She outlined the public sector challenges and some of the issues for women in Scotland, particularly in her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) eloquently described what low pay means in the city of Coventry, particularly in her constituency, where the gap between men’s and women’s pay is even higher than the national average. That just shows how dependent the women of that city are on low-paid work. She and other Members also mentioned how zero-hours contracts affect low pay.

I do not have daughters. I have two sons. All the work that they have done to date has been on the minimum wage and on zero-hours contracts. It is all right for them, because they live with us. We always have food in the fridge and there is always a washing machine for them to use—occasionally, admittedly. They would like to earn more. However, the women they work with are trying to pay rent, feed children and run a family, and they cannot do so on the minimum wage, particularly where we live in outer west London.

The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) pointed out that the new national minimum wage applies only to people who are 25 and over. That might not affect as much young people who still live in the family home where a number of people are bringing in money, but many young people under 25 live on their own and have to pay rent and household bills. Why should they be left out of the new national minimum wage, which is effectively a rebadged minimum wage?

Is my hon. Friend aware of any shops that will sell a loaf of bread or a pint of milk for less money to someone under the age of 25 than to someone over the age of 25? Should not a living wage be enough to live off? When living costs are equal, we should have equality in the living wage as well.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the Living Wage Foundation carefully researches what a living wage should be. A living wage should be enough to live on, which is why the living wage is fully researched and accredited, and why it is higher in London than in the rest of the country.

The Minister said that the Opposition have not welcomed the changes to the national minimum wage, so I would like to say something about it. Before the spending review next week, there is a real fear that the £1.7 billion cost could bring down the care sector. If the Minister still has a chance to lobby the Chancellor before next week, he might like to make that point to him. There are real fears about that. In fact, when I asked the Community and Social Care Minister about it yesterday in Health questions, he actually asked me where the funding was coming from. In response to the Minister, the reason people have concerns is because of things like that.

Order. The hon. Lady is making a very tenuous link. I hope that Ruth Cadbury will not be led down that particular primrose path.

If that is your wish, Mr Howarth, I will not.

I return to the contribution of the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts, who spoke of his hopes for his baby daughter and her working future. Let us all hope that when she joins the workplace, she will be able to earn the same as the young men of her age, whatever sector she goes into and at whatever level. We all hope for that for our children and grandchildren, and those of our constituents.

The hon. Gentleman outlined the work done in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and by local authorities. That is to be commended. As he said, low pay is a symptom and a cause of inequality, and Labour Members all have sympathy with that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) said much that was absolutely appropriate and added much to the debate. She particularly captured the issue of discrimination by picking up on my true anecdote about the recruitment for the position of Santa Claus at a Christmas grotto in a local store in Wales, where Mrs Claus was to be paid half the amount that Santa Claus would receive. She pointed out that Santa would not be Santa without Mrs Claus supporting him and working with him. She is absolutely right. That might be a funny story but it happens day in, day out in workplaces across the country.

I do apologise, Mr Howarth.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood also pointed out that we should be talking not about five C’s, but about six. Her mother’s experience as a classroom assistant is absolutely true, and I would say that well over 90% of classroom assistants are women and are on low pay. It is right that they are paid adequately and are recognised for the valuable work that they do supporting our children.

The Minister comes from a women-dominated family, as many people would say I do, but we are not here to speak for ourselves and our immediate families. We are speaking for the women we represent, which is why we are in this place and why we believe that this debate is vital. As I said, I am sorry that there are not more Members from the Minister’s party here. He was right to pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for the contribution that she has made in this place over many years.

I commend the Government for the efforts that they have made so far in recognising that there is a wage gap and an issue of low pay, and that childcare is a major issue, particularly for women.

Although the Minister initially concentrated on board pay and high-level executive pay, he finally got on to the issue of low pay. As many colleagues have said, there is an awful lot more that the Government could and should be doing. As I said in my opening speech, and as others also said, it will take time to implement the new national minimum wage. We will not even have a review for two years, and it will not be fully implemented until the end of this Parliament, which is too long for women in this country to wait. It is worth repeating that 85% of the Government’s benefit and tax credit cuts will hit women. The Government are giving with one hand and taking with the other.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered women and low pay.

Sitting suspended.