I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern the disproportionate impact of this Government’s policies on women; further notes that, according to the Library’s data, measures in the Summer Budget and Autumn Statement have hit women three times harder by tax and benefit changes than men; notes that proposals for infrastructure investment outlined in the Autumn Statement are predominantly focused in sectors that typically employ more men than women; notes with concern that the UK gender pay gap stands at 19.2 per cent, higher than the EU average, and that the Government’s introduction of tribunal fees means that women have to pay £1,200 in order to bring forward an equal pay claim, preventing many from pursuing legitimate claims; notes concerns raised by the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Scottish Older Women’s Commission regarding the proliferation of low-paid part-time work among women; notes that levels of maternity discrimination have almost doubled in recent years; notes the alarming rate of closures of services supporting victims of domestic violence, particularly services for BME women; and calls on the Government to affirm its commitment to ensuring that women and protected groups do not bear the brunt of Government measures, to conduct an urgent cumulative assessment of the impact of its policies on women since 2010, to take the necessary remedial steps to mitigate any disproportionate burden on women and to develop and publish a gender equality strategy to improve the position of women over the remainder of this Parliament.
At his party’s annual conference this year, the Prime Minister nailed his colours to the mast of gender equality. He said:
“I’m a dad of two daughters…you can’t have true opportunity without real equality.”
That is right. That is why Labour has called this debate to put his party’s record under the microscope, and to assess the extent to which his words are matched by the actions of his Government and his Chancellor. It is a record that is found wanting.
Whether we are talking about fiscal measures such as taxes and benefits; the labour market and women’s employment rights and chances; public spending on services and infrastructure; women’s safety; or women’s voice and influence, women of all ages and backgrounds face an insecure and worrying future as a result of Government policy. That is far from the security that the Chancellor promised would be at the heart of his spending decisions.
I suppose that we should not be surprised. After all, this is the Prime Minister who regards equality impact assessments as “tick-box stuff” and “bureaucratic nonsense”. We all know, all too well, what happens when the Government do not carry out full and proper equality impact assessments. Just two weeks ago, the Chancellor rose to deliver his autumn statement. His track record in power has been shameful. Since 2010, more than 80% of tax and benefit savings have been taken from the purses of women.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, according to the United Nations, on the current rate of progress, it will take Britain another 70 years to close the gender pay gap? Sadly, the Prime Minister’s daughters may be disappointed. Does she agree that that is totally unacceptable?
We did an awful lot better than the coalition Government and this Government. [Interruption.] Yes, we did! The speed of reduction under the Labour Government in the past decade meant that the gender pay gap came down by around a third, but that progress has sadly not been maintained under Conservative-led Governments.
I will give way to the hon. and learned Lady later, if she will forgive me. I want to make a little progress.
We knew that the Chancellor had been forced to listen, and that he would have to back down on the tax credit cuts he announced in the summer, which would have hit women disproportionately hard. We have to wonder why on earth he thought they were a good idea in the first place, knowing that 70% of the savings to the Treasury from that policy would have come from women.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that my party opposed it; we did not. We did say that it would not be sufficient to compensate for the cuts to tax credits and benefits. He might also like to know that analysis has shown that the people who will benefit from the national living wage are not the same ones who will lose out from the cuts to tax credits and benefits. This nonsense, this sleight of hand, about the figures does Conservative Members no credit. They should be prepared to come clean about who will benefit from their policies and who will not.
In the autumn statement, under pressure from Opposition Members, the Chancellor was forced to make changes to his plans. The cuts to tax credits have not been abandoned, however; they have merely been delayed. The same savings will still be made elsewhere in the system, and women will still lose out. According to a Library analysis commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), women will be hit three times as hard as men by the cuts in this year’s summer Budget and in the autumn statement. That is three times as hard in six short months, and in just two spending announcements. Many of the Chancellor’s policies that are inimical to the interests of women remain firmly in place.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that the Government’s proposal to force companies to publish details of salaries and bonuses is a welcome step towards reducing the gender pay gap? Does she also acknowledge that it is a measure that this Government are introducing and that hers did not?
I must correct the hon. Gentleman: it was a Labour Government who left that measure on the statute book. It took Conservative-led Governments another five and a half years to put that into action. Even now, what is being put into action is insufficient. It does not, for example, provide for a full breakdown of grades and job roles, so there is more to do. Of course it is a welcome measure, and we are proud to have brought it forward, but I hope the Government will not rest on their laurels and will be prepared to go further.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of the impact on women of the Government’s policies. She will be aware that there have been huge reductions in public services, and that women constitute 75% of the local government workforce, 77% of the NHS workforce and 80% of the workforce in social care. Does she agree that these reductions are having a huge impact on the employment prospects of women in the public services?
My hon. Friend is right about that. Of course the public services, too, traditionally have had a better record in many respects on promotion for women and other groups with protected characteristics, such as black and minority ethnic workers. There is certainly a concern that cuts to public sector spending will have an impact on women’s employment, and on their employment prospects, and that those cuts are part of the reason why unemployment has remained higher among women than men.
As I say, many of the Chancellor’s policies that are harmful to the interests of women are still, sadly, in place: the freeze and cuts to child benefit, universal credit, local housing allowance and tax credits; the cuts to the family element of tax credits; the changes to disregards, tapers and thresholds; the disincentive for second earners, often women, in universal credit; the benefit cap; the two-child policy in child tax credits; increased parent conditionality; and an alarming rise in lone parent sanctions. Even the free childcare offer is shrouded in complexity and uncertainty, is delayed and is apparently more limited in scope than had previously been planned for.
As ever, my hon. Friend is making a persuasive case; very few people know about family incomes like she does. May I draw her back to local government—not just the local government workforce, but those who work in services commissioned by local government? I am referring to care, where women work and are low paid.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that care is one of the sectors in which low-paid women’s jobs are concentrated, whether we are talking about direct employment through our public services, or commissioned services for local government. It will of course be helpful over time to see the national minimum wage—the so-called living wage—increased for those workers, but if local authorities are not funded to meet the costs of that welcome pay increase, we can expect to see pressures elsewhere in the system and, most likely, on the quality of care provided. That, too, will have an impact on women, because they typically provide that family care.
Was my hon. Friend as concerned as I was to hear the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions state on the BBC on Sunday that people on universal credit would not lose a penny, given that we know that a lone parent with one child, working 20 hours per week on the lowest pay, will lose about £2,800 a year from next April?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right about that, and I believe that even the Work and Pensions Secretary has now acknowledged that what he said at the weekend was not entirely correct.
As we have been discussing lone parents, the House will be interested to know that the Library says that a lone parent with two children, working 20 hours per week on the so-called national living wage, will lose £2,800 by the end of this Parliament. That is a substantial amount for a family who, by definition, can have only one earner—and often a part-time earner, working part time to enable care to be combined with employment responsibilities. The introduction of the so-called national living wage and free childcare places simply cannot compensate wholly for these benefit cuts; the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that that is arithmetically impossible. In any event, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr Mak), the people who gain from the increased minimum wage are not the same people who are losing out.
I will return to that point in my speech. The hon. and learned Lady is right in what she says, but we will be looking shortly—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) may wish to wait for this part of my speech, as I know he is looking forward to it: we will look at how those apprenticeships are distributed between women and men; the sectors in which they work; how their employment destinations are not equal; and, sadly, at how those apprenticeships contribute, in both the short term and the long run, to the inequality that women still experience in the labour market. I think the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) is acknowledging that point. It is a concern, and I hope that the Minister can say something about the Government strategy for addressing it.
It is not just women of working age who are losing out as a result of Government policies; older women face a situation that is equally serious. Single female pensioners lose most, according to the Women’s Budget Group, while the Fawcett Society points out that in 2017, the full £155-a-week state pension will be paid to only 22% of older women. The difficulty that women face because of working part-time, or because of not being able to fulfil the requirement for an increased 35 years of contributions, puts them at further disadvantage. Women are also less likely to have access to a good occupational pension.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Just a short time ago, in Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister declared himself a feminist, but that does not seem to correspond with his party’s policies. Just as he once forgot his daughter in a pub, his party seems to have forgotten about equality for women.
Certainly, I am unable to describe the policies of the Government as pro-female, or indeed feminist. Perhaps the Minister will seek to defend the Prime Minister’s record.
Those women who saw their pension age increase as a result of the Pensions Act 2011, particularly those born between April 1951 and April 1953, have been hit especially hard. Not only do they have to wait longer for their pension, but unlike a man of exactly the same age, they are not eligible for a single-tier pension.
My hon. Friend will know the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and I have done in raising this issue. On Saturday, I was at Denton Morrison’s with the Women Against State Pension Inequality—WASPI—campaign group. It made that point to many of my constituents who were completely unaware of the changes and the acceleration in the state pension age, so those women who were expecting to get their state pension will be sorely disappointed. They said that the Government’s communications on this have been absolutely abysmal.
My hon. Friend is right. I, too, have met the WASPI women. Just the other day, my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) held a Westminster Hall debate on this very subject in which she pointed out the lack of notice to these women. That point was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and others when the legislation was passed by this House in 2011.
Since that debate, the former Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, has admitted that the Government made a bad decision over these increases in state pension age equalisation. He made the excuse that his Department had not been properly briefed, and he went into crisis talks with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to try to claw back billions. Those women are suffering because of that mistake and that departmental failure.
We heard the then Pensions Minister, and other Ministers, assure us that there would be transitional protection for those women. We have seen no sign of that protection, and women are suffering as a result.
We already know that women are twice as likely as men to live in poverty, yet this Chancellor has a blind spot when it comes to gender. He is either unaware or disinterested in the gendered nature of poverty. It is not just the short-term injustice of this policy that is of real concern, but the long-term impact on our country’s future.
Women are more likely to manage household budgets. They are more likely to be the main carers of children, and poor mothers have poor children. Women’s continued economic disadvantage means more children growing up in poverty, which means long-term damaging effects on those children and on our future economic potential.
Does the hon. Lady accept that debt does not discriminate, and that it is in the interests of every member of society, whether male or female, that we run sound public finances, which is the reason behind many of the measures that she was describing earlier? Unless we reduce our deficit and get back into the black, we will leave every member of this society in massive debt.
We on the Opposition side of the House of course agree about the importance of prudent management of the public finances. I would just point out that the Chancellor promised to eliminate the deficit by the end of the last Parliament. What he actually achieved was to halve it, which is exactly what the previous Labour Chancellor, Alistair Darling, had suggested. This Chancellor has presided over a rise in public debt, and he is substituting once again—one might have thought that he was learning—private debt for public debt. The Office for Budget Responsibility is now forecasting that by the end of this Parliament private household debt will be back at recession levels, which should alarm all of us.
I will remind the hon. Gentleman of two things. First, the 2008 crash was a global crash that began in the United States of America; it was not caused by the spending plans and policies of the then Labour Government. Secondly, it was the action taken by the then Prime Minister and Chancellor that rescued the economy when we could have seen the entire financial system crash, which would have left families with no salaries, no incomes, no ability to pay their mortgages—
I have not finished giving the hon. Gentleman his history lesson, since he says his memory is faulty. It was the Labour Government who steered the economy through a desperately dangerous period. At the time the current Prime Minister and Chancellor said that the best thing was to do nothing and not to rescue the banks, which would have caused absolute financial disaster for families across this country. While I am reminding the hon. Gentleman about the track records of the previous Labour Government and the previous Conservative Opposition, of course I regret that we did not regulate the banking system more tightly, as I think everybody accepts, but let me remind Government Members once again that it was the current Prime Minister and the current Chancellor of the Exchequer who said that Labour was being too restrictive in our regulation of the financial services sector. The history lesson does not entirely favour the hon. Gentleman’s party, but I will give way to him again.
Hearing the hon. Lady talk about the Labour party and financial regulation is like hearing that Herod should have been a bit kinder to the first-born. Perhaps I will give her another go. Does she not accept that her right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) failed back at the election? Did not the Labour party borrow too much and spend too much, and as a result Britain, when faced with that international financial difficulty, was in a very precarious place?
Order. Before the hon. Lady answers, I remind Members of the topic of the debate, because we seem to be wandering a million miles from it. The shadow Minister might wish to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, but she is perfectly entitled to choose not to do so.
I am certainly not frit, Madam Deputy Speaker, because what I know from my constituency, as I think hon. Members across the House know from theirs, is that the investment we made in housing, hospitals, policing and schools benefited families and women. It grew the economy, created jobs and lifted 1 million children out of poverty, and I am proud of that record.
The Chancellor’s gender blindness is not confined to his fiscal decisions. The investment in infrastructure announced in the summer Budget and the autumn statement is of course welcome, but the investment in the social infrastructure that supports women to work, learn and care is sadly lacking. Where was the labour market strategy to help women prosper and progress in the workplace? I recognise—before hon. Members jump up to tell me—that there are more women in work, not least because the increase in the state pension age and inward migration means that there are more women of working age who must work, but women’s unemployment remains higher than pre-recession levels. For women over the age of 50 unemployment is 7% above the 2008 rate, and the Young Women’s Trust says that twice as many young women as young men are considered to be economically inactive.
My hon. Friend is making the case—this is ironic when we hear the contributions from Conservative Members—that inequality is hitting our economy, and that far from Britain not being able to afford gender equality, we cannot afford not to get this right.
That is absolutely right. Our economy is losing out through women’s under-participation in the labour market. They are underperforming in earnings and therefore in their ability to provide the financial means to support themselves and their families and to contribute to the local economy. That leads to a drain on our public spending.
For women in work, low pay remains a significant issue. Since 2010, over half the jobs growth for women has been in low-paid sectors. In Scotland, six out of 10 jobs have been created in low-paid, more insecure sectors over the period of the majority Scottish National party Government. Seventy-eight per cent. of women work in low-paid social care, but 86% of workers in the STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—industries, which pay much better, are men. According to the Young Women’s Trust, 20% of young women have been offered jobs paying less than the minimum wage. Meanwhile, as has been noted, the overall gender pay gap stands at 19.2 %—considerably higher than the European Union average—and has been falling more slowly than under the previous Labour Governments. That reflects a downward convergence between women’s and men’s wages, not women’s earnings rising to close the gap.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need to invest in our young women going through school so that they study STEM subjects, and that is exactly what the Chancellor is doing. Through investment in STEM, a record number of girls are taking A-levels in science and maths, with 10,000 more STEM A-level entries for girls. We must be ambitious and aspirational for our next generation.
The hon. and learned Lady is right. Perhaps we can open up some of that when we look at what is happening to young people’s career destinations.
Part-time and temporary work is exacerbating the gender pay gap. Seventy-four per cent. of those working part-time are women. One in five young women have been offered zero-hours contracts. The disproportionately high number of women in low-paid, part-time work means that in-work poverty remains a real issue. Cutting in-work benefits makes life worse, not better, for those women. I can discern no Government strategy to address areas of the economy such as cleaning, retail, care and hospitality where there is chronic and persistent low pay and where women typically work.
In 2013, to follow the point made by the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), the Government published their action plan on women and the economy. Indeed, I think that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) was responsible for it. That action plan set out Ministers’ ambitions for women’s increased participation. It contained welcome words about increasing girls’ participation in STEM subjects, as noted by the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire; encouraging women into higher-paid careers; and supporting women as entrepreneurs. In practice, however, we have fallen very far short of those ambitions. The CBI reports that 93% of young people are not getting access to adequate careers advice, and girls are still too often pigeonholed into traditionally female career routes.
In 2013, the percentage of women in senior management roles in the private sector was 19%, ranking the UK in the bottom 10 countries globally, behind Botswana, Lithuania and the Philippines. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is completely unacceptable?
It is certainly not a record to be proud of.
Worryingly, the Young Women’s Trust says that young women are considerably more likely than women over the age of 31 to think that many traditionally male roles are out of their reach. Just 15% of university places for computer science and engineering are taken by women students. Although, as the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire noted, the majority of apprenticeships are taken up by women, two thirds of women apprentices are in the five lowest paid industry sectors, and after completing an apprenticeship, 16% of women are out of work, compared with only 6% of male apprentices.
Does the hon. Lady agree that those ladies who are today starting apprenticeships and completing university are the women who were educated or who started their education when her party was in government, and that it is actually Labour’s lack of careers advice and lack of engendering ambition and aspiration that has resulted in some of the statistics she has cited?
No, I do not accept that at all. The CBI did not ask about the careers advice offered under the Labour Government, who had a proper careers system in schools. The CBI asked about the careers advice that is on offer now, at a time when the Government have scrapped a decent careers service and are leaving it to the discretion of schools and asking people to go online to get it.
Exactly. I hope the Minister will take a little more time in her speech to explain which part of the present Government’s apprenticeship strategy addresses gender inequality.
In 2013, the Government also said that they wanted to encourage more women to become business owners or entrepreneurs. There has been a significant increase in the number of self-employed women—between 2008 and 2011, more than 80% of the newly self-employed were women—but that may not always be by choice. Increased conditionality and lack of suitable employment mean that self-employment is an economic necessity for some, and yet the average income of a self-employed woman is just £9,800 per annum, according to the Women’s Budget Group, compared with £17,000 for a self-employed man. Self-employment is not a route out of poverty for those women.
I will make some progress, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, but I hope that she will speak in the debate, because her contributions are always useful.
Overall, the Government’s strategy for women at work is simply insufficient. That is not just bad for women; as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) noted, it is bad for our economy. The Government’s own consultation report, “Closing the Gender Pay Gap”, which was published this year, states that equalising the level of women’s productivity and employment with men’s could add almost £600 billion to our economy, while equalising participation rates could add 10% to the size of the economy by 2030. Action is urgently needed.
Meanwhile, women are also seeing their rights in the workplace attacked and eroded. The introduction of tribunal fees means that few can now afford the £1,200 to pursue an equal pay claim. The number of maternity discrimination cases has nearly doubled, while the number of cases going to tribunal has fallen by 80%. So much for the Government’s commitment to economic equality.
Cuts to spending on public services also hit women hardest. There are 763 fewer Sure Start centres than in 2010. The care sector has been affected badly by the 31% cut in local council budgets. The additional £3.5 billion earmarked in the autumn statement fails to compensate for the drastic cuts that have already taken place, let alone adequately meeting future need.
I will make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
It is women who will lose out from the lack of paid-for care, as they so often have to step in to fill the gap.
Terrifyingly for women at risk of or fleeing sexual or domestic violence and abuse, there have also been substantial cuts to services and access to justice that protect women’s safety. Research for Women’s Aid in 2014 showed that a third of women were being turned away from refuges because there was no room for them. Thirty-two specialist services closed between 2010 and 2014 due to lack of funds. The Chancellor’s short-term proposal to fund domestic violence services from the unfair tampon tax makes their funding symbolically and literally the responsibility only of women. Two women a week are killed as a result of domestic violence, and that must be the responsibility of everyone in society.
Why does all this happen? Why are women hit the hardest? It happens because we are not present where decisions are taken. Our voices are not heard. The Fawcett Society has shown that 80% of stories in the media about the economy are about men or quote men. Although there has been a welcome improvement in the number of women on company boards following the Davies report, the proportion of women in executive positions on FTSE 100 boards remains lamentably low.
I will make some progress, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.
As for the Government’s own track record, the Women and Equalities Minister’s own Department for Education’s management board contains just two women out of 12 members. It is clear from such circumstances and recent announcements that the Government have a blind spot when it comes to gender. Ministers are ignorant, indifferent, or deliberately targeting women for the worst effects of their cuts. That makes a mockery of the Prime Minister’s words about his commitment to gender equality.
In conclusion, let me make a few suggestions about what Ministers could start to do to address the inherent gender inequality that runs right through this Government’s agenda: carry out a full cumulative impact assessment of all Government policy since 2010 to analyse the impact on women; act now to address any disproportionately damaging effects; commit to introducing—and publishing immediately—cumulative equality impact assessments across Government and remedial action wherever policy is found to be inimical to equality, as the Labour Government in Wales are already committed to doing; and ensure that women are at the heart of decision making at every level. And is it not time the Government published a full, comprehensive, cross-Government gender equality strategy that addresses the economic and social discrimination and disadvantage that have become the hallmark of this Government? That is what the Opposition are calling for this afternoon and I commend our motion to the House.
It is an enormous pleasure to respond to this debate on an incredibly important subject. I start with a note of sadness, which I direct to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). Nothing that she said this afternoon, not a word that came out of her mouth, championed or celebrated the achievements of women every day throughout the country. Even those who start their own businesses, create jobs and generate the economic recovery that we are seeing, she could not celebrate. She sees that as a negative, which underlines how Labour sees small businesses up and down the country.
I will make progress, if I may.
A vibrant economy, where everyone can fulfil their potential and play their part, is at the heart of this Government’s mission to govern as one nation. As the Prime Minister said,
“you can’t have true opportunity without equality”.
That message goes to the heart of what the Government want to achieve for women.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act and I am very pleased to say that we have seen significant economic progress for women during those 40 years. Over the past five years in particular, we have made huge strides. We have more women in work than ever before. Female employment has increased, with 14.6 million women now working. There are over a million small businesses with women at the helm. We have helped to achieve the lowest ever gender pay gap on record, and we have more than doubled women’s representation on FTSE 100 boards since 2011.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early. She mentioned women running their own businesses. Does she consider it a success that women are likely to have an average income of £9,800, compared with self-employed men, who earn an average of £17,000?
I like to champion everyone who goes out there and starts her own business, pursues her passion and creates employment. There are many obstacles that prevent women from starting and growing their own businesses, and as a Government we are seeking to overcome those obstacles. I shall come to that later in my comments. [Interruption.] We do have a long way to go. We are by no means complacent. There is so much more we can do to make sure women can play their full part in this economy, and the Government want to make sure that all women can fulfil their potential.
Over 1.5 million women already in work say that they would like to do more hours if they could. If they each worked just one extra hour each week, that would contribute 80 million more hours a year in productivity. As a country, we cannot afford to waste the talents of a single person, let alone those of half of our population. Although such economic arguments are of course very important and very powerful, frankly, gender equality is also just the right thing to do.
In the previous Government, I—along with the Minister’s predecessor as Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Jo Swinson—commissioned a report on womenomics, which was produced by Professor Lesley Sawers of Glasgow Caledonian University. What are the Government doing about that report?
I will come on to that a little later in my speech, but I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Jo Swinson, my predecessor in this role, who did an excellent job.
This commitment to gender equality informs the difficult decisions that we have had to make to return the country to surplus and ensure that we no longer depend on debt. We must not forget, despite the mass amnesia that seems to have broken out on the Opposition side of the House, that we are in this position because of Labour’s financial mismanagement, which meant that we have had to take very difficult and unpleasant decisions to balance the books and live within our means. We know that women still earn less, own less and retire with less than their male counterparts.
Is the Minister appalled, as I am, by the fact that the number of women claimants for jobseeker’s allowance went up by 740,000 during the last two years of the Labour Government, between 2008 and 2010? That nearly doubled the previous number of claimants, but the number has now been reduced by 746,000 under our Government.
In our house, when I was growing up, if it rained, we used to say, “We blame the Tories”, so I am no stranger to the Minister’s political strategy. She commenced her speech with remarks about celebrating the contribution of women. Does she think that it pays tribute to the hard work of women in our economy to bang on in the way she is about what happened under the previous Labour Government?
Give me a couple of minutes to make a little progress.
I want to talk about the motion. Where do I start? The evidence is deeply flawed. Unfortunately—I am sad about this—it is the typical back-of-a-fag-packet stuff we have come to expect from Labour Members. Frankly, they have made bizarre and outdated assumptions about how households divide their money. There is even an implication that lower fuel prices somehow do not help women. The pink battle bus may have run on something other than petrol, but the rest of us fill up in the normal way.
I will make a little more progress. [Interruption.] I will give way in a moment.
Labour Members assume that any savings will immediately mean a poorer service, which we know is not true. They have made bizarre and outdated assumptions about how households divide their money, and we know it is not true that savings will immediately mean a poorer service. What they do not understand is that the British public know that too.
The Minister is making assertions, but I am sorry to tell her that the academic research belies what she is saying. It is true that women manage the household budget in many households, but increasingly, it is not their income to manage. With the married couple’s tax break, more money is being put into the wallets of men, and women are dependent on men to fund them. Moreover—this point relates to what she said about fuel—the number of women who own and drive cars is significantly lower than the number of men. That is why it matters that benefits and tax policies should address what actually happens and the way in which families live their lives.
The hon. Lady makes a number of sweeping assumptions. The fact is that child tax credits and child benefit all go into the pockets of women. Her assumptions are very outdated. Families work as a unit: they work together and pool their income. Frankly, it is quite a sexist allegation.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Inheriting an economy that was riddled with debt did nothing for women in this country, and not tackling the deficit would have been the real crime and created an unacceptable risk for our economy and people’s lives and futures. Not tackling the deficit would have put at risk the very jobs and services that women depend on. It would have risked their children’s education and security, and for those of us who want to ensure that everyone is able to fulfil their potential, such risks are unacceptable.
The Minister is talking about competence, and I have already quoted from a former Pensions Minister who admitted to a bad decision that cost millions of women who were born in this country in the 1950s £30 billion. That was a mistake. The Pensions Minister now admits that he was not properly briefed, and he added two years to the pension age of millions of women without even realising what he was doing. Does the Minister really claim competence for a Government who do things like that?
The hon. Lady fails to recognise that in the new pension changes, women who have taken time out to raise children will now not be penalised by the system. She is being a little unfair. Thanks to the Government, we are able to increase support for childcare costs, and protect key Government services.
The commitment to supporting women in work is a priority for the Government, which is why the Prime Minister pledged earlier this year to end the gender pay gap within a generation. Let me be clear: there is no place for a pay gap in today’s society. That is why we committed to requiring employers to publish information on the difference between men and women’s pay and bonuses. We will shortly be consulting on the regulations needed for gender pay reporting, and I urge all employers to consider those carefully.
We have had that conversation many times in recent months, and I say gently that the Labour Government had 13 years to introduce such a measure. We are not asking employers to do this on their own; we are trying to bring them with us because that is the right thing to do. We will provide extensive guidance, case studies and toolkits. By working in partnership with businesses and employees, we will see results. We will also extend those reporting requirements to the public sector. Labour had 13 years to do that, and it failed.
I have been following the debate, and I am sure the Minister knows that the gender pay gap has almost been eliminated for women under 40. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) mentioned audits and public procurement, but we want more small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for public contracts, and they do not have the scale to do such things. We would therefore be eliminating such businesses from bidding for any Government contracts.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and record numbers of small and medium-sized enterprises are gaining public contracts. We cannot have our young women growing up in a country where they get paid less because of their gender, rather than how good they are at their job. One of the most important ways to ensure long-term economic security is to break down the barriers that still hold too many women back, which is why we have given working parents greater choice by enabling more than 20 million employees to request flexible working; why we have introduced shared parental leave; and why we will extend shared parental leave and pay to working grandparents. This will support parents with the cost of childcare and help the 2 million grandparents—unsung heroes such as my mum—who give up work, reduce their hours or take time off to help with childcare.
At the same time, nearly one quarter of women between the ages of 50 and 64 provide unpaid care for a relative or friend. We have invested £1.6 million to help carers who wish to stay in work to balance their different roles. We are doing this using flexible working and innovative technology, and there are now nine pilots around the country exploring ways to help carers manage their paid work while looking after their loved ones.
One of the most important issues affecting parents—both men and women—is childcare, which is why we are investing more than £1 billion more each year in free childcare places, including by doubling the free childcare entitlement from 15 hours to 30 hours a week for working families with three and four-year-olds in 2017. In addition, from early 2017, we will offer tax-free childcare to provide up to £2,000 of childcare support per child per year for working families with children up to 12 years old. This will take the total Government spend on childcare from £5 billion in 2015 to more than £6 billion by 2020.
Is the Minister aware that the Government’s funding offer for the additional 15 hours is inadequate and at best confusing, and that there is a risk that most childcare places will be underfunded and that many might be lost as a result, thus reducing the availability of suitable childcare?
Of course, we are raising the funding, but I will not take any lessons from Labour. I might be slightly older than many here, but I was a mum putting two children through childcare under the Labour Government, and I watched childcare prices become the most expensive in Europe. I was one of those women working to pay my childcare bill.
The Government have a fine record on supporting women at work. Will the Minister welcome meetings I have had with the Department for Work and Pensions and other Departments about supporting carers with responsibilities beyond children? Will the Government ensure that people can stay in work by working more flexibly and continue to support local communities and local government with the work they do alongside their employment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. These people make an incredible contribution to our economy and need to be supported in everything they do.
Not only are more women in work than ever before, but we are taking steps to ensure that work always pays. The national living wage, beginning next April and reaching more than £9 by 2020, will disproportionately benefit women. We expect that 65% of the beneficiaries made financially better off will be women. Further increases in the personal allowance will lift 660,000 people out of income tax by 2018, and 60% of them will be women. This reform, too, will make women financially better off.
We also have more women than ever right at the top of business. These fantastic role models are inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. Thanks to the business-led, Government-backed approach and the passion of business leaders such as Lord Davies, we have doubled the number of women on FTSE 100 boards since 2011.
The Minister trumpets the fact that women will disproportionately benefit from the higher so-called living wage that the Government are bringing in. Does she not recognise that the reason more women will benefit from an increase in the minimum wage is that there are more low-paid women?
The hon. Gentleman could not have put it better. These are the women who, as I have said, were educated under the last Labour Government. Under our education reforms, these are the women who will be aspiring to higher paid work in the future. When Labour left power, there were more than 20 all-male boards in our FTSE 100 companies. Now, there are none.
The women are not all in non-executive director roles. Again, we are criticising women, which is negative. The hon. Lady is right that we would like to see more women coming up through the executive pipeline. We would like to see women who have worked their way up without quotas or token gestures, which is why we are making the changes we are making.
Women are playing their part and businesses are benefiting from their immense skills. Every single woman on those boards knows she is there on merit as the best person for the job, regardless of gender, and the men know it too. We want to go further, however. We are building on this through a new target of 33% female representation on FTSE 350 boards by 2020 and a review supporting more women into executive positions so that we develop that pipeline of female talent. We have also called for an end to all-male boards in the FTSE 350.
We want to inspire women everywhere, from the classroom to the boardroom and every stage in between. We know that education is one of the most fundamental ways of driving lasting change and raising aspirations. If we are to ensure women’s economic equality, we must start with the youngest generation. This is an area where having a Secretary of State for Education who is also Minister for Women and Equalities is especially valuable. No child should ever feel that a career is off limits because of their gender, race or background. There is no place in our society for stereotypes about some jobs being suitable for girls and some for boys. In this, we have made important strides. There are now more girls than ever taking physics and maths A-level, with 12,000 more entries in maths and science in England since 2010.
The Opposition spokesman asked me about the difference between men and women entering apprenticeships in different sectors. Since 2009, the number of women starting engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships has increased threefold. This is not a new problem, of course, and I would be very keen to know, in a different conversation, what Labour did about it. The Government will go further. The science, technology, engineering and maths workforce is vital to the growth of the economy. The UK needs to recruit 83,000 engineers a year and they cannot all be blokes. That is why the Government have set up the new Careers & Enterprise Company. We have heard Members complaining about careers advice. The company will inspire and inform young people about the opportunities available to them, in parallel with business.
I welcome the one-year anniversary of the independent Your Life campaign, which aims to ensure that young people have the maths and science skills the economy needs. It was great for me to visit the Ford motor company in Dagenham, the spiritual home of the fight for gender pay equality, to see Your Life in action. A group of local schoolgirls had been invited to race cars around the car test track, and to experience how varied and exciting STEM careers can be.
A strong economy, where women are encouraged to fulfil their potential, also means that we are able to deliver the services society needs. We must make sure that everyone is given the support they need. In this year’s spending review, the Chancellor announced that the Government would provide £40 million for domestic abuse services, including refuges, between 2016 and 2020. Prosecutions and convictions for domestic violence have also risen to their highest levels ever. Last weekend, we launched a consultation on new measures to better protect victims of “stranger stalking” and to help to deter perpetrators. We also announced an additional £3.85 million to develop a new phase of the campaign to tackle teenage abuse within relationships. Since 2010, the “This is Abuse” campaign has encouraged teenagers to rethink their views of violence, controlling behaviour and what consent means within their relationships. This is helping to change attitudes that can underpin violence against women and girls. Our updated violence against women and girls strategy will be published shortly, and will set out how we will continue to support all victims of this abhorrent abuse.
If we are talking about the autumn statement, the Chancellor pledged even more money for refuges and charities that support victims of domestic violence. Ukrefugesonline data show that bed spaces rose from 3,216 in 2013 to 3,472 in 2015. All these things are important.
The Government are committed to making sure that everyone, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age or background, is able to fulfil their potential, and this approach to equality spans right across Government. In helping women to fulfil their potential, we must thank and acknowledge the efforts of stakeholders, charities and businesses who are leading the charge and working with the Government to finish the fight for equality in our country.
The facts speak for themselves. Since 2010, there are more women in work; more women-led businesses; more women on boards; and our reforms to support the lowest paid will disproportionately benefit women. A commitment to equality runs right through this Government, as the Prime Minister has made clear. Plans are being made across every Department to continue the excellent progress already made. As I say, the facts speak for themselves. We will continue to drive this agenda forward, so that we finish the fight for equality.
At the same time, it is important to take a moment to recognise the great things women have achieved. Every day in my job I meet amazing women from every walk of life: scientists, teachers, chief executive officers, mums, writers—all great role models. These women are our mothers, our daughters, our friends and our colleagues. It is they who have made this huge progress to date; it is they who are breaking down the barriers and achieving greater heights all the time and every day.
My message today is this: can we stop depicting women as victims, as people who are “done to” rather than “doing”? For Government and Opposition alike, it is our job to support them and it is our job to encourage them. Above all, today and every day, we should also celebrate them.
Equal pay day was marked this year on 9 November. On that day, women across the United Kingdom started working for free, while men continued earning. It should be a day talked about in the history books, not a 21st-century reality. Forty-five years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, men still earn two months more wages a year than women.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments and his ambition to end the gender pay gap in a generation, but that must be followed by action. The reality is that unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination is more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever before, with 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers forced out of their job each year. Hundreds of thousands of women are employed on zero-hours contracts and in other precarious forms of employment that offer little in the way of guaranteed hours or job security. The introduction of employment tribunal fees is acting as nothing more than a barrier to female justice and a charter for rogue employers. I welcome the Government’s review of this measure and hope that they will take serious action on employment tribunal fees.
It was curious that the Minister did not mention tribunal fees in her contribution, even though they are clearly mentioned in the motion. Does my hon. Friend agree that asking women to pay £1,200 for a discrimination case is an outrage, and it explains why there has been a 91% drop in sex discrimination cases in this country?
On the review of employment tribunal fees that is under way—I understand that the report is with the Minister at the moment—nothing in the terms of reference allows for consideration of the abolition of those fees. I questioned the Minister on that in a Westminster Hall debate last week. Does the hon. Lady agree that this is a gaping hole in the review’s terms of reference?
I agree, and I hope that the Government will take serious action and seriously consider the impact that tribunal fees have on women in the workplace. It is important for the House to acknowledge that, given the state of the economy. According to the Women’s Budget Group, women stand to lose more and gain less, especially women in low-paid work, women with children and other caring responsibilities, and women who access services that have been successively eroded in the name of austerity.
In considering the effects of the economy on women, the Scottish National party—the effective Opposition in the House—calls on the Government to recognise that their spending cuts adversely affect women more deeply than men; to understand that measures to remove services can and will drive women into a poverty trap; and to accept that the signs of economic recovery hailed by the Chancellor have in fact disproportionately benefited male workers.
The SNP welcomes the Chancellor’s decision to reverse the tax credit cuts. It must have been a tough decision for him, but it means that the constituents of Members on both sides of the House will not have to make even tougher decisions, choosing between the basic necessities of life. That is especially important to those in low-paid employment and on zero-hours contracts, who, more often than not, are women. The immediate result of the Chancellor’s reversal of his tax credit plans is that working families have far less to worry about, but there are still £12 billion of cuts in the spending review, and, ultimately, they will disproportionately affect women. The tax credit reversal means that women can worry less, but they will continue to worry as they struggle with rent and bills and are unable to keep up payments. Single mothers, raising children on their own, should not have to worry about such matters. However, I applaud the Chancellor for listening to his opponents here and in the other place, and reversing the tax credits decision.
In analysing the effects of the economy on women, we must consider the differences in employment trends according to gender. We must bear in mind that in the UK, 69% of women are employed, compared with 78.5% of men. While that difference is not overwhelming, there is a gender-related difference. Of those women in work, 8.4 million are in full-time employment and 6.2 million are in part-time work. The comparable figures for men show that the vast majority are in full-time employment. That means that 42% of the female workforce are in part-time employment, compared with 13% of men. Those figures expose massive gender inequality in the workplace. If we look more closely at the composition of women’s employment, we see that women are more likely than men to work as employees rather than employers, and are less likely to be self-employed. In fact, only 32% of all self-employed people are women.
Research carried out recently by the International Monetary Fund found that when women work, economies grow, and that economic growth is even more dramatic when the gap between women’s and men’s participation in the labour force is reduced. Given the current figures and in the absence of any increased effort to close the gender gap, we are putting our economy at a disadvantage. In 2014, figures showed that 1.1 million small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK were led by women—only 20% of the total. In October this year, it was reported that only 26% of FTSE 100 directors were female. That simply is not good enough. Women’s participation in the workforce should be safeguarded and encouraged. In short, the gender pay gap must be addressed.
The autumn statement confirmed the Chancellor’s acknowledgement that removing tax credits would not automatically correct the problem. I urge the Government to change tack and recognise that the right way to bring about economic recovery is to stimulate our workforce. In particular, they should ensure that our female workforce are protected, rather than forcing people into deeper poverty and decimating social welfare.
The £12 billion that will be cut from the welfare budget includes cuts in carer’s allowance, disability benefits and employment and support allowance. Given that child benefit is to apply only to a woman’s first two children, that will mean hardship for families, not to mention the absolutely abhorrent rape clause, which the Government have repeatedly failed to justify. The benefits to which I have referred are most frequently accessed by women. For example, 58% of carers in the UK are women; the figure rises to 60% when those who care for more than 50 hours per week are taken into account. Women make up 73% of those who receive carer’s allowance for caring for more than 35 hours per week.
In Scotland alone, there are an estimated 759,000 unpaid carers: a huge section of society. The work done by carers—people prepared to put aside their own needs to look after an ill or disabled loved one—must be recognised by all Governments. It is vital to our society, and can take up the time most people commit to full-time employment, which carers could otherwise be in.
Carers UK has found that, on top of caring for loved ones, carers are twice as likely to suffer ill health. These are certainly not the people who should be punished by the cuts to the welfare budget. In fact, we should be championing the efforts of carers in this country. When we consider the billions of pounds the NHS saves, year on year, due to the contribution and diligence of unpaid carers, it is time that the Government stood up and recognised the hard-working carers across our society. They contribute massively to our economy, a contribution that amounts to a net saving in the healthcare budget. Is this not exactly the sort of practice promoted by the Prime Minister under the concept of the big society? If so, it is unjust for the Government even to consider the removal of the carer’s allowance lifeline.
The Chancellor has again made a great deal of the economic recovery. However, the benefits of the recovery have been exclusively for men. I have spoken repeatedly in the House against the gender pay gap. At present, a woman takes home 85p for every pound earned by a man. That has a serious economic impact on working women and on our economy. Perhaps we are supposed to be pacified by the introduction of the new living wage, but it is by no means a living wage at all. As I have said, women are more often on zero-hours contracts and in part-time work, so a slight increase to the hourly wage will not help women who cannot work as many hours as men, perhaps due to caring or childcare responsibilities.
If we look at the people the Government are aiming to help, they are almost exclusively those on higher incomes. The Conservatives have cut income tax for all workers, most of whom are men, and increased the individual savings account allowance benefit for those with high savings, who, incidentally, tend to be men. The beneficiaries of the transferable tax allowance are 84% male. We have allowances for tax cuts largely for men. Where have such allowances come from? The welfare budget—in other words, services accessed mostly by women. These neo-liberal policies consistently deliver more for men than women. As the International Monetary Fund suggests, an increased gender gap restricts economic growth.
I want to highlight the fact that women are most harmed by the welfare cuts, and that the impact of austerity can be measured mostly in the loss of money in women’s purses and family budgets, and in their decreased spending power relative to men’s. I will leave the House with this thought: the report by the Women’s Budget Group stated that by equalising men’s and women’s participation rates, we could add more than 10% to the size of the economy. Let us not simply pay lip service. Let us deliver on that promise.
It is a great pleasure to follow a fellow member of the Women and Equalities Committee, and I commend the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for her measured tone, but I should point out that the recovery cannot be said to have exclusively benefited men, as there can be nothing worse for women than the situation that the Conservative-led Government faced five short years ago, when our country faced economic crisis. Spending more money than we could afford does no one any good. Women do not benefit from that and nor do men. First and foremost, we need that strong economy so that we can have a strong system of education, welfare and all the services that she talked about and that women disproportionately rely on.
It is regrettable that the debate started in a tone that I do not usually associate with the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who I have always found to be an incredibly collaborative player in this place. On issues related to women and equality, it is important that we look for long-term change, which, by definition, can be developed only over the lifetimes of many different Governments, of many different complexions. The economic turnaround will clearly benefit women, and the continued measures in the autumn statement are as important to women as they are to men. Without that strong economy the autumn statement could not have put in place some of the biggest real-terms rises in the basic state pension for 15 years, the largest ever investment in free childcare and an extra £6 billion for the NHS—the very service that many Members have already mentioned. The biggest house-building programme since the 1970s will benefit all of us, too. All those measures are put in place because we have a stronger economy, enabling us to invest for our long-term future. The national living wage, cuts in income tax and increases in childcare have clearly benefited women, but I want to focus on two issues on which where we might find common ground across the Chamber.
First, women in Britain are still disproportionately dependent on benefits to supplement their income. The prevalence of low-wage, part-time jobs among women results in their receiving more of their income through state benefit and support than men do. They are more likely to be in low-income jobs, to be reliant on state-funded housing, and to be in receipt of income-related benefits.
I hope Members will agree that it is good that the economy is strong enough that the Government can put in place measures to start to alleviate the problems that women face. More childcare means more women can get more work. New options around parental leave and the right for all to request flexible working for the first time can give more women access to higher-quality jobs, and the economic opportunities that might give them for the first time an equal right to economic independence—a right that men have had for many, many years.
I agree with the tone of the right hon. Lady’s contribution. We respect the massive role that she played in developing policies for women in the last Government, but does she not worry about women who are lone parents and the significant drop in income that they face without much protection?
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. What I am saying is that we must give opportunities to women in this country to forge their own economic independence. What I was hearing from the Opposition Front Bench was how we could continue state dependence, which is not something that I will ever endorse. Many of the single parents I meet, not only in my constituency but around the country, have embraced the voluntary programmes the Department for Work and Pensions has put in place to help them get back into work, because they understand the importance of financial independence not only for themselves, but also for them as role models for their children.
The second area on which I hope there might be some consensus across the House is the importance of addressing the educational performance of girls and young women. It is an issue that the Equality and Human Rights Commission brought up in its “Is Britain Fairer?” report. It said:
“The strong educational performance of girls and young women did not translate into rewards in the workplace.”
To put it simply, more girls get good GCSEs and good degrees than boys, yet women only make up 34% of managers, as has already been said. In construction the figure is as low as 12%. I applaud Ministers for their focus on some STEM subjects, as it is important that more women are involved in maths and science, but a lack of progress into more senior positions runs deeper than that and deeper than the choices they make at 14.
Let us consider the law. Studying STEM subjects may benefit in some way, but not directly, yet 60% of undergraduate law students are women, as are more than 50% of trainee lawyers. However, just one in four partners in City firms are women. Those leading one of the most important services in our country are leaving out some of the most highly qualified individuals to do the job. It cannot be in the best interests of the country to let that continue.
There are more women in work than ever before, but what more can we do to turn that presence in the workplace into an opportunity for their long-term economic independence, not only by reducing dependence on welfare, but by making sure that the school qualifications that they clearly have are recognised and acted on?
I welcome this debate because I believe that women have a huge amount to contribute to our society. The public sector equality duty requires every Minister to advance equality of opportunity for women not only in the development of policy, but in the work that they do. I therefore have five brief closing points that I ask the Minister to respond to.
First, changing the law is simply not enough if we are to force a culture change in society. If we are to get more women to contribute to the workplace, we have to ensure that more men take up parental leave and flexible working practices, to ensure that women can stay closer to the labour market for longer. At the moment, only 19% of women are able to vary their hours in the workplace. I know that the Minister has looked at that point closely. I look forward to hearing a few words in the response on what more is being done to ensure that businesses change their practices. At the moment, 40% of men choose not to take any time off at the birth of a child. That needs to change.
Secondly, on increasing female representation in management, we are not seeing sufficient women coming through into the most senior management positions in the country. Just 9% of FTSE 100 executive directors are women and there are just five female CEOs out of 100. Perhaps we should adopt the approach of Lord Davies of Abersoch for executive positions and double the number in three years—purely on a voluntary basis, of course.
My third point relates to childcare and elder care. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) spoke of the importance of elder care. One in four women over 50 cares for an older or disabled relative. Surely it is time for the Government to give as much support to those who care for older relatives as they give to those who support younger members of the family.
Fourthly, on access to training, women who return to the workplace after extended career breaks can face a skills crisis. We need to make sure that we are reskilling the over-40s. Programmes need to be put in place to do that.
Finally, the Government are rightly proud of the work they have done. We are undergoing something of a silent revolution in the participation of women in the workplace, but the work is far from complete. There has been a somewhat piecemeal approach to the programmes that have been undertaken. They are good programmes, but do they all fit together? Is there room for a systemic review of how the policies are working to effect change in the workplace? If we need one or two more sticks, rather than carrots, they ought to be brought out of the cupboard and used sooner rather than later.
Why is this debate necessary? Why, in 2015, is it relevant to be discussing women and the economy, rather than simply the economy? What is it about the interaction between women, the economy and the labour market that is worthy of exploration? This debate is necessary because of the gender pay gap, which has been widely talked about; because of the proportion of women who are in low-paid and part-time work, and the proportion who are underemployed; because of workplace discrimination; because more women are reliant on childcare; and because of the greater number of women who work in the public sector.
Issues across the economy and the labour market affect women in different ways to men, and that is why this debate is so important. If it takes 70 years to equalise the gender pay gap, as is estimated on the current rate of progress, my four-year-old granddaughters will be pensioners by the time this issue is resolved. Our aim is to resolve these issues so that debates like this no longer appear on the Order Paper.
Given that we know there are issues that affect women more than men, we must move on to the yawning gap between what must be done and what the Government are doing. The gender pay gap, which fell by one third under the last Labour Government, stubbornly remains under this Government. Last year, the UK fell out of the top 20 in the global gender gap index for the first time, with the higher gender pay gap cited as the significant reason.
We know that, for a variety of reasons, women are more affected than men by changes in taxation and changes to social security spending, yet despite that knowledge, 81% of the £82 billion of tax increases and benefit cuts since 2010 have fallen on women. We also know that women are three times more likely to be in part-time work and therefore more exposed to changes in social security. I welcome the Government’s partial U-turn on tax credits, but women will still face cuts to universal credit. Knowing that women are disproportionately affected by changes to tax credits, and knowing that 80% of the savings would have come from women, the Government still pushed ahead.
We know that women make up around two thirds of the public sector workforce, and that cuts to the public sector and pay freezes disproportionately hit women, yet there seems to have been no acknowledgement of this by the Government, and no coherent plan to support women to find new jobs in the private sector. It should be a prerequisite for any change to tax and spending to have an assessment of the impact it will have on women. It is simply not good enough for this Government to make these changes and not even consider, let alone have a strategy to combat, the disproportionate effects they have on women in the workforce.
I am proud of Labour’s record on equality, from the Equal Pay Act 1970 to the Equality Act 2010, with many great strides in between. There is no silver bullet to combat discrimination against women in the workforce, but we know that there are specific things we could do now. We need to fully implement the pay transparency rules in the 2010 Equality Act, which required employers of more than 250 people to publish details of the average pay of men and women. This Government have made that voluntary. That small change would have a big impact, and we would be joining world leaders in pay equality such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland, which all score above the UK in the global gender equality index.
We need to get more young women into the science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—sectors, either through university education or apprenticeships. Currently, just 15% of university places for computer science and engineering degrees are filled by women, and 88% of the STEM workforce is male. Yet, according to the attainment of A* to C grades at GCSE, girls continue to outperform boys in all but three of the 16 STEM subjects. This is a cultural problem, not an academic one.
The CBI suggests that 93% of young people are not getting the careers information they need, and what advice they do get tends to be pigeonholed. We need compulsory face-to-face careers advice from the age of 11, in partnership with business, to encourage young women to consider those crucial STEM subjects and science and engineering careers. It should come as no surprise that greater gender equality in the economy is good not just for women but for the economy itself. The Royal Bank of Scotland has calculated that boosting female entrepreneurship could deliver approximately £60 billion extra to the UK economy. If the gender pay gap were abolished tomorrow, women would earn more and spend more, and the Treasury would receive more in taxation. There is a long way to go on a lot of these issues, but until this subject is consigned to the history books and no longer debated in Parliament, we need to act. The Government need to act now.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott). I have listened carefully to the contributions to the debate, and particularly to that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). The motion is very wide and covers a lot of matters, but I shall focus on a couple of them. The first relates to infrastructure investment. Labour Members have spent a lot of time in this Parliament and the previous one talking about productivity, and they often use examples such as France. We could have a debate about whether the productivity figures they cite reflect the fact that we now have record numbers of people in work and those other countries have more unemployed people, but productivity is a challenge of our time, and I am glad that the Government and my right hon. Friends the Business Secretary and the Chancellor have recognised that in their productivity agenda. Labour Members talk about the proposals for infrastructure investment, saying that they are predominantly focused on sectors that typically employ more men than women.
If we look at the autumn statement, we see that we are talking about building roads, railways and flood defences. We are investing in the arteries of the country, but unfortunately at the moment these areas are still dominated by men—roads still tend to be built predominantly by men. I have met more and more women apprentices. I have employed them, in my former life, in the building trade and we want to see more of them. We are setting off down a wrong track if we say that investing in infrastructure will not benefit the whole country. Surely the whole premise of this debate, and of what the Government and all of us here are doing, is that we should be building a stronger country for not only our daughters, but our sons—unfortunately, I do not have any daughters but I do have sons. That should be for all of us.
I was slightly puzzled that the Labour party spent a long time attacking us on productivity, because when we try to do something about it, Labour Members say we are discriminating against—
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads the productivity agenda that was written in July, as he will see some good activity there. Productivity is the challenge, and if we want to compete in the global economy, we have got to be investing in this area. For his benefit, I should say that the report was called “Fixing the foundations”.
Another part of the same bit of the autumn statement deals with investing in education and in childcare, sectors where a lot of women are employed; childcare does not just benefit those women who can go out to work. We have got more childcare promised in the autumn statement. Those industries predominantly employ women, but again we need to be thinking about men working in them as well. We need to stop this divisive conversation that says, “Only men can be builders and women can look after children.” All of us, particularly those of us who are mothers, know how much we rely on our husbands and partners.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about de-gendering some of these stereotypical role models that we tend to have in British society today. I rather welcomed the international men’s day debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), because it gave us an opportunity to recognise that these gender stereotypes can be as divisive for men as they can be for women.
As always, my right hon. Friend makes an excellent point.
There are historical reasons for the gender pay gap, but some of the statistics can lead us down the wrong track. The motion says that our pay gap is
“higher than the EU average”
That may be so, but in many of these countries fewer women are actually working. We want more women in work rather than on benefits. I want the gender pay gap to be eliminated not only for women under 40, where we know the gap is closing, but for women over 40. We cannot explain the gap by discrimination, because the Equal Pay Act 1970 has been in force for the whole of my lifetime. When there are instances of discrimination, they should be pounced on. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s responses as to how the Government are going to act on that and on maternity discrimination—
I am sorry but I am not going to give way again, as I do not have much time left.
Our manifesto promised a consultation on closing the gender pay gap: it is due to report shortly, and I look forward to seeing the results. I also welcome the proposal to require businesses with more than 250 employees to publish their salaries in order to eliminate that gap—transparency will work there.
The whole thrust of the Government’s productivity agenda is to make our economy more competitive globally. We need to get everybody—women and men—into more highly skilled, productive jobs. We can do that only through proper, long-term investment in jobs that make us competitive on a global level. Investing in education and infrastructure is absolutely key; it is what all of us should be aiming for. Yes, we need a stronger economy for our daughters—or, in my case, for my niece—but we also need it for our sons.
I endorse the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and the hon. Member for Sunderland Central. I do not want to see these motions on the Order Paper. I do not want to be seen as a passive recipient of the Government’s largesse. I am an autonomous person, and an economic actor in my own right. What I want is a stronger economy from which we can all benefit.
We have heard multiple times throughout this debate how the Government have achieved record high employment rates, especially for women. However, that assertion only scratches the surface, because hidden beneath it is the existence of entrenched gender inequality. It is a problem that exists throughout the whole of the UK. Although employment may have gone up, the quality of work has not. We know that women still take up the majority of low-wage, part-time, temporary work, which is why the welfare reforms and the cuts announced in the Budget are so concerning.
The Budget announced £12 billion of cuts to social security. One fifth of women’s average income includes social security payments. Quite rightly, the Chancellor did a U-turn on tax credits. He abandoned that particular cut once he realised how damaging it would be. However, he did not abandon his pledge to make £12 billion of cuts. Although those cuts might not be coming through tax credits, they are still coming, and they will be off the backs of single parents, unpaid carers and low-wage part-time workers, most of whom are women.
The Fawcett Society has raised particular concerns about sanctions on lone parents, 92% of whom are women. I am aware that safeguards are in place that supposedly allow some flexibility for lone parents who are looking for suitable jobs. Such safeguards used to be written into regulation, which made them very clear for advisers and claimants, but the Government have decided to replace that advice with guidance. There is a very important distinction there. Whereas advice is legally bound and someone can be held legally responsible if the wrong advice is given, guidance completely removes that safeguard as nobody is accountable for incorrect information being given to claimants and the subsequent false sanctions that may arise from that. The very fact that 40% of decisions to sanction lone parents are overturned suggests that women are being sanctioned incorrectly in the first place. Sanctions are meant to act as a deterrent, but that seems impossible to achieve if people are unaware or unclear about how they qualify for a sanction in the first place.
My final concern relates to the rhetoric that is being used and the direction in which the Government are travelling when they speak about issues relating specifically to women. The cuts to women’s services have been substantial, and the use of the revenue raised from the tampon tax to fund charities is
“a drop in the pan compared to the cuts these services have suffered since 2010.”
I know that I am not the only one who shares a deep discomfort and concern over the use of that money simply to fund women’s charities, especially charities that deal with domestic violence and rape. Although I will always welcome any money that goes to such charities, the discomfort comes from the fact that, symbolically, this proposal implies that tackling domestic violence and rape is the responsibility of women, and not the responsibility of all.
The lowest and most disturbing proposal of this Government is the demeaning idea that they will only pay for a third child so long as it is the product of rape. Is that really where we are now? How dare we ask a woman who has been through such an horrific ordeal to stand in front of some cold ministerial body to discuss that rape and prove that crime?
The other point is that we have still not heard how that policy will be implemented. Will there have to be a conviction for rape, or just a claim? Will a medical certificate be needed? Nothing has been made clear on that. It is even more worrying given that only on Monday my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how the policy would be implemented and received a vague and concerning reply. I am sure that nothing untoward was intended, but the fact remains that the use of the word “choice” in a vague answer to a question specifically about rape could raise concern. I genuinely urge the Secretary of State to clarify exactly the point he was making and prevent anything untoward from being suggested.
My final point is that although the Government will argue that these savings and reforms are necessary and that the cuts will play a massive role in cutting the £1.5 trillion of public debt, they have completely ignored the incredible rise in personal household debt, which, at £1.5 trillion, is almost exactly the same amount. It is not that people have more money in their pockets or that their quality of life is dramatically improving. The problem of the debt is still there; it has just been shifted from the public purse to the private purses of individuals. People are being forced to turn to loans and private debt companies because this Government are failing them. The Government are being deliberately and strategically quiet on the looming catastrophe of personal and household debt, which will come crashing down at some point, and it will crash on the backs of the most vulnerable people in society and the people who are already struggling most, most of whom are women.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this important debate. The representation of women and women’s issues in this House has not been very good historically. It is appalling that I am only the 380th woman ever to be elected to this House. I am very proud to have been elected, of course, but there is clearly a lot of work to do to improve women’s representation and bring these issues to the House. I am delighted to be a member of the brand-new Women and Equalities Committee, which will strain every sinew to ensure that we have fair representation in this House and across the work we do here.
It is seven months since the general election, and I believe that this Government recognise the importance of women in the economy and that they are focused on the issues we all share, as families and members of the community, such as childcare, flexible working, better schools, opportunities for apprenticeships and a focus on science, technology, engineering and maths.
Progress on women’s issues has too often been seen as niche, or the concern of local or representative bodies. If we want real and clear change and equality of opportunity for all, women’s campaigns must not continue to be seen as niche. Progress is needed urgently on many fronts. Full equality is needed in the areas of taxation, better action on domestic violence, fairness for all carers, whether they are looking after young people or older people, and a firm understanding that the gender pay gap is wrong and must be ended, and in a much shorter timescale than the one we are seeing.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the things that limit pay in the care sector, particularly for women, is that in old people’s care, in homes and other places, there is no structure to allow people to move up? More thought needs to be given to having a proper career in caring, which would allow people to be paid more as they gain more qualifications.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, and I am standing beside a nurse—my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield)—who is nodding her head. We absolutely need to value carers, from mothers to people who look after older members of our society. We need to make that a proper career structure and to value the people who look after vulnerable people day in, day out.
Over the past few months I have been contacted several times about the perverse taxation arrangements for sanitary items. Let me make something extremely clear: anyone who believes that tampons are a luxury is ignorant and wrong. I am delighted that the Government will give this revenue to women’s charities while they negotiate with the European Union to sort out these outdated rules. Women’s charities tell me that they see this Government as a great reforming force standing alongside women. They are delighted to see Conservative women taking every opportunity to tackle, get involved in and highlight matters that have long been ignored by Labour.
An example of inequality that I have found and that we, as a Government, have seen being corrected, is domestic violence. Too often, our family courts system is outdated and does not take into account the unique requirements in domestic violence cases. For instance, it is far too rare for judges to impose protection orders to stop perpetrators following victims out of court. This Government are putting £40 million into services for victims of domestic abuse. I welcome that. I hope that the Government will continue to take on the challenge of supporting women through the courts system so that perpetrators cannot continue to pursue their victims. Negatively affecting their confidence because that takes place can mean that those women continue to be trapped in a system where they cannot play their part in the community or the economy.
Does my hon. Friend and neighbour from Hampshire join me in applauding the work of the Government in starting to outlaw the violence that women experience online as well? A case in point is the new law on revenge pornography that I was delighted to be involved in putting in place. There is also a helpline associated with it to make sure that help is there for women who need it.
I thank my right hon. Friend. I am delighted that this Government are working to make sure that there is confidence and support for women in every arena where they find themselves again struggling against the odds.
There is much concern among women about state pensions for people born after 1953. I congratulate the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—women and recently supported them in the Westminster Hall debate. These women have done the right thing. They have planned for their future and discovered that perhaps their trust has not been repaid. The communication has not been fairly done. I continue to support those people in my community.
The continuing gender pay gap is unacceptable. It is not right that women are paid less than men. We must continue to point out that paying a man more than a woman is unlawful and unacceptable. In the society that we want to continue to build, someone’s gender must not hold them back from achievement. I am pleased that the pay gap is coming down for full-time employees and almost eradicated for the under-40s.
The next step will be a revolution in flexible working. Carers need flexible working as well as people looking after youngsters. I am delighted about the 30 hours of childcare, which will really take care of this. We should be supporting mothers in whatever choice they make, whether they stay at home, work 15 hours a week, or work in the community. Many of these mothers help in parent-teacher associations—they are part of our local communities—and we should be supporting them. They often become “mumpreneurs” who create new jobs locally and help the community to thrive and innovate.
I am a member of the all-party group on women in Parliament, which gives us another vehicle to raise issues of women and inequality. I am delighted to see women across the spectrum coming to meetings and taking soundings from across all industries. We need more women in public life, as councillors and in local government, so that female-focused issues are discussed at that level as well.
Parliament must focus on mentoring, supporting and helping women into work and into better-paid jobs. Full equality will mean fair play, with men on the school run and at the nativity plays, women on boards, and of course a 50:50 Parliament. Let us, women and men, work together for a stronger and better economy.
A few weeks ago, the Chancellor claimed to be putting security first in his spending review, but it is obvious that he was not talking about women’s security. At the heart of this debate is the fact that the Government simply do not see women as a priority. It is assumed that women’s interests, health and security will naturally rise along with a flourishing economy, but the truth is that the Government’s economic decisions are gendered. Time and again, they benefit men more than women, and that is the result of the Government’s fundamental disregard of the importance of addressing the needs and problems of half the population.
By contrast, the Labour Government placed equality at the heart of all they did. That is why the gender pay gap reduced by a third under our watch, while maternity leave was extended and paternity leave introduced. However, since entering government in 2010, the Conservatives have undone our work. They have downgraded the importance of the Treasury’s gender impact assessment, which had been used to evaluate the impact of tax and benefit changes on both men and women. Their aim was clear—to play down the importance of women, and the importance of equality as an aim in itself in society.
The Government risk an unstable economic future if they continue to ignore us. They market apprenticeships as a way of building a high-skilled economy, but women are being short-changed. Striking gender occupational segregation means that women are under-represented in some of the better-paid sectors of technology and construction, and over-represented in the typical “female” roles of health and social care. The outcome is a gender pay gap in apprenticeships that is actually higher than the national average.
The Government have also celebrated their apparent success in getting more women into work. In truth, however, this employment does not offer many women routes out of poverty and towards financial security. For instance, women make up three quarters of those in part-time work and dominate some of the lowest-paid sectors: 62% of workers paid below the living wage are women.
Take nursing, for example. Women make up more than 90% of those studying for nursing degrees, but they will earn a relatively low wage. Cuts to student nurses’ grants will sharply reduce the incentive to study nursing, particularly as Unison has reported that 90% of nurses, including my constituent, Gemma Morris—I promised her that I would bring this up—have said that they would not have studied nursing without the grant. The Government have issued yet another blow to low-paid women in undervalued and underpaid employment.
The very worst consequences of the Government’s gendered economic choices are fatal. It is distressing to have to report in this day and age that two women each week die at the hands of domestic violence in this country. Yet instead of protecting funding for women’s refuges and domestic violence charities, the Government have allowed those services to wither away via cuts to local government. Cuts to local councils from central Government have already resulted in the closure of 30 refuges across the country, and a staggering 42% of rape crisis services do not have funding beyond March 2016. What does that all amount to? More women turned away; more women returning to their dangerous homes; more women facing a death sentence at the hands of a violent partner.
Using the revenue of the tampon tax to fund the upkeep of women’s voluntary services is not good enough. The policy is totally inadequate. It will do little to redress the terrible cuts those services have faced, and it is patronising to suggest that women’s taxes should fund women’s services. Central Government should be ensuring that the safety of women who are victims of domestic, physical and emotional violence is non-negotiable.
I suggest that the Government take a lead from this Opposition day debate and present an alternative plan of large-scale investment in social infrastructure, secure employment for women and generous provision for crucial services. Women should not be trapped in cycles of poverty and low-paid work on account of their gender. Our so-called economic recovery cannot and should not determine the success of only half our country. It must provide opportunities for all, equally.
On behalf of all those women who are cared for and cared by women, I say that next year’s cuts to local authority care services will be devastating. As the carer of a 92-year-old woman who came here in 1947 to train as a nurse, I think that is disgraceful, and we need to do something about it.
I am father to two beautiful children: my seven-year-old daughter Rebecca, and my four-year-old son Ben. To them, there is no such thing as a boy’s job or a girl’s job; maths and science are not off the radar for either of them. I want them to grow up in a society where girls of all ages have choices and opportunities every bit as much as boys. That is why I am so pleased that the Government are committed to eliminating inequality at every stage of life. For women in work, this must mean earning an equal wage. I welcome the progress that has been made so far in addressing the gender pay gap. The gap for full-time workers in my constituency has fallen from 30% in 2009 to 18% last year. I am proud of that progress, but there clearly remains far, far more to do if we are to eliminate the gender pay gap altogether and build the equal society that we all want.
As has been said, we now have zero all-male boards, and the number of female directors has doubled since 2011. The national living wage will mean higher wages for employees in the lowest-paid jobs—jobs that are disproportionately done by women. From April, 3.5 million women will benefit; that is almost a third of Britain’s female workforce. There are now nearly 30% fewer women unemployed in Dudley South than there were at the end of the Labour Government.
When looking at costs, we cannot ignore one of the biggest strains on working families’ budgets—the cost of childcare. That is why I welcome the increase in free childcare. Not only can families save up to £5,000 a year, but it means that we are finally returning choice to more families. More than 500,000 families will benefit, with many more parents and primary carers being able to afford the childcare that allows them to return to work and resume their career. This measure will finally give parents peace of mind when it comes to supporting their family, at the point of transition between being full-time parents and going to work.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about childcare. He is right about choice, but does he agree that for many women, staying out of the labour market can be detrimental to their future career, so the availability of childcare allows them not only choice, but the right balance between being able to look after their children and continuing with their work to ensure that they maximise their future earnings for the benefit of their family?
My right hon. Friend is right. One of the major contributors to the gender pay gap has been the impact on a career when a mother—it is almost always mothers—take a prolonged break from it. That break has an impact on mothers’ earnings when they resume their careers.
On the reduction in the gender pay gap for people under 40, in a large number of firms a greater proportion of fathers are now taking on a greater burden of the childcare, which will hopefully begin to ameliorate any differences in pay in the long term, leading to a much more balanced approach to both gender pay and family care.
I could not agree more. The work that the Government have done on flexible parental leave will be of enormous value to many families not only in my constituency, but around the country.
If there is one thing by which we measure society, it is surely how it treats those who have contributed all their lives—those who have worked hard and paid into the system. That includes those who, as has been said, have spent many years raising children. We recognise that contribution in society, and it is right that we should do the same through the state pension system. It is fair that the years that parents—again, disproportionately mothers—spend outside the full-time workforce raising children will go towards their pension pot. Sixty-one per cent. of our women will see their pension rise as a result of this reform. That is equality in action.
Women in Dudley South and throughout the country will certainly be better off as the economy continues to grow, as wages continue to rise, and as more and more people continue to find work. It does not matter where they are on their journey in life—this Government are working hard to transform our country so that whether people are starting their first job, bringing up their first child or enjoying their retirement, there is no longer any disparity between the genders. Sadly, it is not a transformation that will happen overnight. It is not a simple task, but it is a vital moral mission, and one that I am proud to support.
Before I start my speech, I want to mention two fantastic women from the Wirral. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) made us all proud deputising for the leader of the Labour party at Prime Minister’s questions. She, more than most, has done great things for women’s role in the economy. I am absolutely proud to be a Wirral woman today, not least in speaking in this debate on my daughter’s birthday—I hope she will be a future fantastic woman from the Wirral.
I want to say three things: about younger women, mums and older women. First, one of the most important measures for the future of younger women has been the apprenticeship levy. Although it is good that there is support for apprenticeships across the House, unfortunately, the reality of life for young women going into apprenticeships is that they will have less chance than their male counterparts of getting one that will pay them well. As has been said on several occasions, young women work in sectors that pay less. That is just a fact.
The hon. Lady is making a very important speech about apprenticeships. Will she join me in welcoming the fact that more than half of apprenticeships in this country are now being taken by women?
I would welcome that wholeheartedly if those apprenticeships paid women equally to men, but the fact is that they do not. We ought not to rest until they do, because women face a dual problem: the work they have traditionally done is valued less; and they are barred from better-paid sectors. We need both to get women into highly paid parts of our industry and to ask ourselves why highly skilled women end up with low pay in areas such as social care. Over the past week or so, I have had quite a bit of grief on social media. Lots of people are campaigning about this sort of thing, which is fine, but I would argue that the primary feminist cause in Britain today is the position of women working in social care. They are paid far too little for the important work they do, including younger women who want to make their career in social care.
Secondly, I want to turn to the place of mums. In interventions, I have already raised the problem that lone parents will face with universal credit. I am afraid I take issue with the Tory view of the world which says that any state support for the cost of children is somehow undignified, that it is somehow welfare and that people cannot feel proud of themselves and their ability to look after their family if they in any way receive a cash transfer from the state.
Beveridge himself recognised that the cost of having children increases the amount people have to pay out. Our social security system should smooth people’s income across the period of their lives when they have children and their costs are higher, and they will pay into the system when they are in work without children and their costs are lower. That is how our system has always worked. It is an absolute myth to think that we have ever had a perfect situation when there was no poverty, people could just earn their wages and that was enough to pay for the cost of bringing up children. Basically, the Beveridge system was introduced precisely because people get poor at two points in their lives—with the cost of their kids, and with the cost of old age. We must accept that tax credits are an important part of the system and settlement we have had in our country for a long time. As I have already said, wages have an important role to play in the financial fortunes of women, but they will never fully resolve such problems.
I have said that I will not.
Thirdly, women who were born in the 1950s fought for everything in our country, and they built the political platform that I and many Labour Members have stood on. They fought not just for the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the reforms of the 1970s, but for all-women shortlists in the Labour party that meant that people like me had a much greater chance. Today, women in their 50s, and others, are having to fight yet again through the WASPI campaign for what they should have had. That is not fair, and for young women in my constituency, and those later in life, I do not feel that the picture described by Conservative Members is right. Those women are deeply unsatisfied with the measures that the Chancellor has handed out in recent months, and they would not expect me to stop asking him to do more.
As a female MP I welcome this debate, but I struggle with the sentiments and the way it is being brought forward, and I agree with the Minister’s opening remarks. I am a strong supporter of women’s issues, and a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, but I am frustrated that the motives behind this debate are political rather than dealing with key and important issues faced by women. [Laughter.] Labour Members are reinforcing my point as I speak.
The Women and Equalities Committee, which is excellently chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), is currently at the start of an inquiry into the gender pay gap. It will tackle that important issue in a cross-party way, and I am sure that its findings will make a real difference. Over this Parliament the Committee will investigate a number of issues, and its members will have no hesitation in holding Ministers’ feet to the fire regarding how the Government support and promote women in this country. However, to say that the spending review has not supported women in this country is plain wrong. Women make up 50% of the population, and any benefit that affects the general population will improve the lot of women.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point on an important issue. Did she share my confusion about the remarks of the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who seemed to be suggesting that the best way to help women in the workplace was to subsidise their salary through tax credits and let men get on with it? What incentive would that be for an equal pay balance and for low subsidies, which is certainly what Conservative Members want?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have worked in the care sector all my life, and I am frustrated with the lack of campaigning for better wages, as that would mean that women would not need to rely on tax credits.
Key decisions in the spending review will benefit men and women alike. The increase in free childcare will help mums and dads, and the introduction of a national living wage will help men and women on low incomes. The funding that we discussed in the previous debate on mental health services will also benefit men and women.
I will not because many other Members still want to speak. I am thankful that women still outlive men, and therefore the increase in the basic state pension will benefit women more than men—long may that continue. On women-only issues in the spending review, it cannot be denied that the investment of £1 billion to provide 15 to 30 hours of free childcare a week will benefit women. The introduction of tax-free childcare by 2017—that is up to £2,000 of childcare support per child per year for working families—will benefit women. Female employment is at a record high, and the gender pay gap has fallen to 9.4%—the lowest level since records began. We should be celebrating that, not criticising Members for achieving it.
The tampon tax has been much debated today. I am pleased that while the Chancellor negotiates with EU member states for the ability to zero-rate sanitary products, as he has pledged to do, the £5 million generated by the tax will be ring-fenced for women. The national living wage will benefit women—as we have heard, women in the care sector are disproportionately affected by low incomes—while 60% of the 660,000 individuals taken out of tax by the increase in the personal tax allowance will be women. I also welcome the £1.1 million investment from the superfast broadband roll-out programme that is helping to deliver the Swift project. I have been to sessions in my constituency where women just starting out in business are benefiting from that investment.
I could go on, but I will not, which will please Labour Members. If they want to be political, I am quite happy to be as well. I will not take any lectures from the Labour party, whose leader suggested that violence against women on the railways can be resolved with women-only carriages; from a party whose leader condones the segregation of women at public meetings; from a party whose leader was shamed into appointing women to the shadow Cabinet, and even then was selective in the positions he handed out; and from a party that uses all-women shortlists to force women into Parliament.
Talk is cheap. Labour Members should be supporting women, but this has been a wasted opportunity. The effective Opposition, the SNP, have really shamed Labour Members by raising important issues that we could have debated properly today. Talk is cheap, and the actions of Labour Members speak louder than words.
The motion asks the Government to conduct an urgent cumulative assessment of the impact of their policies on women since 2010 and to take the necessary remedial steps to mitigate any disproportionate burden on women. Nowhere can this be seen as strongly as in the impact of state pension age equalisation on women born in the 1950s. In 1995, the then Conservative Government set out a timetable to equalise the pension age for men and women at 65 so that, from April 2020, women born in April 1955 or later would get their pension at 65.
In May 2010, the coalition agreement stated that a review of the default retirement age would take place
“to set the date at which the state pension age starts to rise to 66, although it will not be sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women”.
This pledge was broken when the coalition Government decided to accelerate the planned changes—a move that particularly hit women born in the 1950s. The changes brought about by the Pensions Act 2011 affect the lives of millions of women. It is not the niche issue that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) talked about. Women born in the 1950s are unfairly bearing the burden and the personal cost of the increase in the state pension age, and I feel unashamedly political about standing up for them.
Speaking to “Channel 4 News” in May 2011 about the unfair consequences of the legislation, the director general of Saga said:
“We accept that the pension age will have to rise but it is the timing and the broken promise that we feel is unfair.”
She said that women
“may have made careful plans for retirement, only to have the Government pull the rug from under their feet.”
Ironically, she is now the Conservative Minister for Pensions. Earlier this year, she told me:
“I tried hard in 2011 but there is nothing more I can do I’m afraid. It is not in my power.”
Well, it is. As Minister for Pensions, she must recognise the injustice in the state pension age changes, which she well understood as a campaigner in 2011, particularly now that the former Pensions Minister has admitted that the Government made a bad decision.
During Second Reading of the Pensions Bill in 2011, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions repeatedly referred to “transitional arrangements”, but he never put in place any fair transitional arrangements. The financial journalist Paul Lewis has looked into this and other issues, including the question of when the women were notified. He has said:
“Millions of women had their state pension age delayed—in some cases twice and by up to six years in total—without proper notice. The Government did not write to any woman affected by the rise in pension ages for nearly 14 years after the law was passed in 1995”.
The former Pensions Minister now admits it was not made clear to him that some people would have to wait an extra two years for their pension.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. My mother-in-law is in this category—she was not told. She left her job at what she expected to be a pensionable age, but has been left waiting a further three years before she can receive her pension. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have put nothing in place to support those older women back into work?
Indeed and I will come on to talk about their plight. It is amazing to me that the Pensions Minister realised what a bad decision he had made—he admitted that quite recently—but still more than 1.5 million women aged between 57 and 59 were not told until then that their state pension age would be rising. In the worst cases, women were told at 57 and a half that their pension age would rise from 60 to 66.
The Government have since said that anyone affected by a rising state pension age must have 10 years’ notice, while the Pensions Commission suggests 15 years’ notice. The journalist Paul Lewis concludes, however, that none of the 1950s-born women had even 10 years’ notice. Women who have planned for their retirement suddenly find, as my hon. Friend says, that they have to wait many more years—up to six years—before they can retire. They find themselves without a job, without a pension or pensioner benefits, and without money to live on.
Members have referred in the debate to the campaign group Women Against State Pension Inequality. They are not campaigning against equalisation, but they are opposed to the way the changes have been enacted and the lack of transitional protection for women born in the 1950s. My constituents have told me about how the changes are having a significant impact on their lives. Case after case that I have been told about shows how many women in their early 60s have health problems that stop them working, or that they need to give up work in order to care—we have talked a lot about care in this debate. I have a constituent forced to live off her savings after working and paying national insurance for 44 years; another is unemployed at age 61 and trying to live off £75 a week. I have spoken to women in their early 60s who have been forced on to the Work programme. They find this demeaning after 40 to 44 years of work. A WASPI campaigner called Marian contacted me. She told me she gave up work at age 62 to care for her mother and brother, both of whom have dementia. Her only source of income is a small private pension of £2,500. Her husband will now have to support her until she is 65.
The women I speak about today have worked hard and contributed to the system. Throughout their lives, this generation of women have been disadvantaged in the workplace in terms of pay because of their gender. Even now, women in their 60s earn 14% less than men. Now, they are once again being treated unfairly because of the way changes to the state pension have been enacted. Ministers must look at ways to provide adequate transitional protection. A number of Conservative Members have said that they support—I hope they do—the transitional protection that Ministers’ colleagues repeatedly mentioned in the debates on the Pensions Act in 2011.
As we near the end of the debate, I will be a bit more positive about the role of women. Last week, we celebrated Small Business Saturday and I met up with several women running businesses in Portsmouth. In Portsmouth, we have a really strong entrepreneurial culture and women are playing a full part in it. We know that nationally one of the areas where women are still catching up with men in the world of business is in self-employment and running our own businesses, so Portsmouth’s women are leading the way.
We know from figures supplied by Barclays bank that 40% of small businesses in Portsmouth South have been set up in the past three years. This is a reflection of a recovering and growing economy, and greater confidence. We also know from the same data that small businesses in Portsmouth are more likely to survive and grow beyond that crucial three-year start-up period.
Like my hon. Friend, I was out on Small Business Saturday and I met local business people in Basingstoke. I would just like to commend Mitch Lloyd at the Viables craft centre for the excellent business she runs, leading the way in that area for women in business.
I would love to mention all the great women in Portsmouth setting up businesses. I do not have the time, however, as I have to move on to quite a few subjects. I always support our business community, and if someone wants to start a business, that community will support them.
Nationally, we had a steady growth in self-employment among women even during the most difficult phases of recovery from the recession. Self-employment among women has grown by over 300,000 nationally since 2008. Overall, the level of women in employment has already overtaken the level it stood at pre-recession, with 69% of women of working age now in work—the highest level since records began.
Almost 12% of our families in Portsmouth are single-parent families—a higher than average figure—so the economic wellbeing of women is vitally important to the welfare of our families. I am pleased that we are committed to expanding free childcare for two, three, and four-year-olds with an extra £1 billion. It is important when we look at the figures for these services that we do not just assume that “more” of anything automatically means “better”. I am thus pleased to report that in Portsmouth we have a higher than average percentage—85%—of childcare providers deemed “good or better” by Ofsted. Improved childcare will play a big part in closing the productivity and earnings gap between men and women.
The wage gap for women under 40 is narrowing—something we would expect to see as inequality is wiped out through generational changes in attitudes and education. Women aged between 22 and 39 in full-time work actually enjoy a pay gap over men, while women over 40 still face a big gap in full-time earnings—typically over 10%. I am therefore delighted that the Committee on Women and Equalities will inquire into the problem of the wage gap for women over 40. I shall enjoy contributing to that Committee alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I hope to set up an all-party parliamentary group on women and work, and hope that some Opposition Members will play a big part in it, too.
The motion mentions violence against women, which is naturally a topic that is important to all of us. The Government are committed to reviewing safeguards against stalking and harassment, and to bringing in a unified strategy on fighting violence against women and girls. It is an area in which local authorities play a major role, too, and I am pleased to learn from Portsmouth City Council that it is protecting domestic violence services in next year’s city budget. The council is doing more than that—it is looking at how to move on local authority involvement from being just a funder of services to being a facilitator and an educator. I welcome that initiative, led by councillors across the parties, which is going out into the community and aims to help victims and witnesses of domestic violence to challenge this behaviour. The processes of social change that fight racism, sexism and other behavioural problems are never driven purely by spending Government money.
The situation of women in prison is relevant to domestic violence. We know that a huge contributory factor to the number of women in prison is abuse and violence earlier in their lives. Often the misery and disruption brought on by violence is a factor that drives women directly into the criminal justice process. Just as it is important that we prevent violence in the home, so it is important that we do not perpetuate the cycle in our prisons or condemn women and their families to a life scarred by their involvement with the criminal justice system. The plans to close Holloway prison, which were announced as part of the comprehensive spending review, are very welcome, and I am sure that the future shape of women’s prisons will be informed by the reformist and positive language we heard from the Prime Minister at the Conservative party conference and from the Secretary of State for Justice. If more can be done through the use of non-custodial sentences, it will have a big effect on the welfare of families and children.
We know that the strongest positive agent of change in social policy is the growing affluence that a strong economy supports. It drives greater cohesion in our communities, improves public health outcomes, reduces crime and does much to level out inequalities and challenge discriminatory attitudes in our society. There will always be more that the Government can do to encourage businesses and individuals towards positive attitudes and outcomes, but it is clear that the best thing they can do—for men and women—is enable the strong economic growth outlined in the comprehensive spending review.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for opening today’s debate. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond),as I hope to work with her on the new all-party parliamentary group on women and work.
Women form over half the UK population, yet their contribution to the economy is sadly not equal, and I fear that, thanks to the decisions of this Government, they will form an even smaller contribution to the economy. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), under whom I have the honour to serve on the Women and Equalities Select Committee, said that we cannot address many of the issues raised in this debate without a stronger economy. My question is, how will the Government ensure that women benefit equally from the economic growth that they predict? Far too many women feel that they are not benefiting from whatever growth may be taking place now.
According to the Women’s Budget Group, pursuing deficit reduction on the back of women—particularly lone mothers and single female pensioners, who are the most affected—is just plain wrong. If the Government had the slightest interest in fairness, they would conduct a detailed impact assessment and a review, and, if they were prepared to do so, they would revise some of their decisions as a consequence.
Why does there need to be a women’s perspective on the economy? Let us look at pay. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston once told us about a meeting that she had had with a group of women in Camden who had recently been granted the living wage—the true living wage. One of the women had said that those extra few pounds an hour enabled her to save a bit of money each month, and that she hoped eventually to save enough to go on holiday with her family. Those extra few pounds meant a great deal to her, because she had never had a holiday before.
Moreover, the little impact of the payment of a living wage by that woman’s employer was not only good for her and for her colleagues, but good for the company for which they worked, because the resulting increase in staff satisfaction led to higher retention rates. The company had generally found that 40 vacancies needed to be filled, but this year they needed to fill only two. Moreover, the change benefited not just that woman, her colleagues and their families, but the local economy where she lived, and the economy of whatever area she visited when she went on holiday, which may have been a part of the United Kingdom that depends on the pounds that are spent by holidaymakers.
The fact that a large section of our workforce are on low incomes that the Chancellor’s changes will not address is not only bad for women, but bad for children, bad for business and bad for the economy, both local and national. As the economy is the underpinning element of the debate, I shall now quote from an important document. It states:
“Ensuring that women achieve their full potential will have a significant impact on our economy:
Equalising women’s productivity and employment to the same levels as men’s could add almost £600 billion to our economy. This could clear a third of our national debt.”
Who said that? In fact, it was in the foreword to the Government’s consultation paper on the gender pay gap, which was written by the Minister for Women and Equalities, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan).
I am pleased to note that the Government have taken some lessons from the last Labour Government, including the lesson that, for most women—especially women on low pay—childcare is a barrier to labour market participation. However, if Members want to hark back to the awful days of previous Governments—as some did earlier—I am happy to oblige. My children were under-fives under the last Conservative Government, in the mid-1990s, and we had to pay our childminder out of our after-tax income. At that time, many women, especially lone parents, were effectively excluded from the job market. The Labour Government introduced tax credit, childcare vouchers and the Sure Start initiative.
We welcome the spirit of the current Government’s Childcare Bill, which offers five hours a week more childcare than the Labour manifesto, but, unlike the Labour offer, the Conservative offer was initially underfunded, and there are still a great many questions to which the Government must respond if they are to persuade us that that childcare will be flexible and affordable.
(Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP): I want to raise, very briefly, the issue of unfairness to women and pensioners. Today, at the Institute for Government, the former Pensions Minister said,
“we made a bad decision”,
referring to state pension age rises. I think that many of us would agree with that statement, especially in the light of previous pension age changes which allowed a transition period of 15 years. Women are being penalised by the fact that the period is only five years for the current changes. Will the Government urgently recognise that this is a wrong that must be righted? Women must be protected. The Government must act now.
I thank all hon. Members who have made thoughtful contributions in this important debate. They include the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) my hon. Friend Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), the hon. Members for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy), for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), and for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern)—we extend happy birthday wishes to her daughter—the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), and the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). I acknowledge the important issues that they have raised: equal pay, the impact of the tribunal fees, the cost to the economy of women’s unequal participation, degendering, stereotyping and the impact of the unequal changes to the state pension age. We are having this debate because the Chancellor’s economic choices are hurting, not helping, women. It is a small step in the historic fight for women’s progress. Yes, we have made great progress over the years and we are proud of what women in previous generations and today have achieved, but the Government now threaten that progress, particularly for the women in our society who have the least.
We still face huge inequalities. Women participate in the labour market on an unequal basis. Forty-two per cent. of women in employment work part time compared with 13% of men. Almost 800,000 women are unemployed and in all UK nations and regions the women’s employment rate is lower than that for men. Although we know that overall employment has risen, over half that growth has been in jobs where there is low pay.
In STEM subjects, the inequalities are stark. According to the latest labour force survey quoted by the WISE campaign, women make up only 14% of people working in STEM occupations. Things are getting worse, not better, under this Government, with women paying the price for the Chancellor’s failure. Eighty-one per cent. of the burden of his tax and benefit changes have been borne by women. Women have seen cuts to their personal and household income, impacting their ability to make ends meet and to save. The gender pay gap is over 19%, well above the EU average, and we now know that the gap is closing more slowly than in the last decade. Over 1.5 million women already in part-time work would like to work more hours but cannot get them.
Instead of women being supported in work, under the Government maternity discrimination has doubled and one in nine pregnant women and new mothers are forced out of work. The Government’s helping hand in the form of employment tribunal fees means that those mums need to pay £1,200 to bring a claim.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission “Is Britain Fairer” report shows that women are far more likely to have no qualifications than men. We know that women are far less likely to be in senior positions in our professions. That is bad for business. As new research shows this week, companies with more women on their board have shown a 36% better return on equity since 2010. What about the entrepreneurship gender gap? It is two and a half times bigger than that of France or Germany. That is a huge price that we all pay for this inequality.
The Government’s own research states that equalising women’s productivity and employment could add almost £600 billion to our economy, providing the growth and tax receipts that we need to get the deficit down. The “Closing the Gender Pay Gap” report states that our economy is losing out because women’s academic achievements, experience and talents are not being fully utilised, and all this when we have the lowest productivity in the G7. Last year saw the productivity gap with our G7 competitors widen to 20 points, the worst on record.
Hitting women three times as hard as men is yet another false economy. When we should be seeing a Government on the side of women in our national economic interest, we see the opposite. The Women’s Budget Group has shown that lone mothers and single female pensioners are set to lose most from the spending review decisions over this Parliament. Rather than wanting to know the impact of their policies on women, the Tories have scrapped Labour’s equality impact assessments, calling them pointless. The autumn statement did not come with the impact assessment we would expect, showing the impact of the Chancellor’s changes on women.
We should also mention how much impact the Government’s Trade Union Bill will have on working women. Unionised workplaces have better flexible working and support for women returning to work after maternity leave. I am pleased, but surprised, that the Minister mentioned Dagenham given what the Government have chosen to do to trade unions. The Trade Union Bill puts these hard-won rights at risk and we on this side stand shoulder to shoulder with the first female TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, and other trade unions in fighting this pernicious bill.
This is a Government who do not want to know the truth, or want people to know the truth, about their choices. Just as with tax credits, the Government tried to hide the impact of their changes. Over 3.2 million working families were set to lose an average of £1,300 from next April. We now see history repeating itself. These cuts to working tax credits are merely being delayed and disguised.
Here is the assessment from the House of Commons Library: a lone parent with two children on the enhanced minimum wage for over-25-year-olds will lose £2,800 as a result of the Chancellor’s changes to universal credit, and we know that 92% of lone parents are women. So let us be clear: this Government’s economic policies are hurting, not helping, women.
The uncertainties around funding for the social care sector and the social infrastructure are also set to hit women harder than men. This will result in women bearing an unfair burden for ever-increasing unpaid or underpaid care work. To quote the United Nations:
“When more women work, economies grow.”
And when women do well, children do well. Evidence from a range of countries quoted by UN Women shows that increasing the share of household income controlled by women, either through their own earnings or cash transfers, changes spending in ways that benefit children. This is even more poignant at a time when we know that as a result of this Government’s choices over 500,000 more children are growing up in absolute poverty.
So what do we need? We need to see an economy with far more equal opportunities for women and support for them to progress in the job market. We need women to have access to the jobs of the future and the support they need to help them stay there. To balance the books, we need to balance the economy, and to balance the economy, we need to see a renewed focus on women’s economic equality.
We need a Government who are on the side of women. Instead, we have a Government who are turning the clock back. The Chancellor may not care, but he should care, as he is managing the country’s economy. If he wants to make a start in addressing his failures, he should take up Labour’s call that he carry out a full cumulative assessment of all Government policy since 2010 to analyse the impact on women, and he should commit to publishing a full, comprehensive, meaningful gender equality strategy that addresses the economic and social discrimination and disadvantage experienced by women. Women need it, and our country needs it. That is why I hope all Members of this House will join us in the Aye Lobby tonight.
This has been an historic debate, because it has been a debate with women at the Dispatch Box, by women in the Chamber, chaired for most of the time by a woman—and we also had some contributions from men.
The first duty of a Government is certainty to protect economic and national security, extending opportunity and aspiration to every girl and boy, allowing every woman and man to fulfil their potential, and giving older people dignity in retirement. The Government are managing the economy and the public finances properly, and as a result, we are enabling job creation, increasing wages, increasing job security, cutting income tax and helping parents with more free childcare in an economy that is 12% larger than when we took office in 2010.
Do women have economic equality yet? They do not. Women in our country still earn less, own less and retire with less than men. We can agree that all political parties seek to make progress on those issues.
The Minister recognises that women retire with less. That really affects the women we have heard about in this debate who were born in the 1950s, who had to wait six more years to retire and are now living on very little. Has she heard what has been said in this debate? Will she take it away and talk to colleagues about it?
I will, of course, come on to address some of the points raised in the debate. Although there is political consensus that we must make progress on women’s economic issues, our parties will approach that progress differently. My party will stress more equal opportunity, more aspiration, higher skills and higher standards in education, while the Labour party will seek to tax women more, borrow more debt on behalf of women, their children and their grandchildren, and create more welfare poverty traps for women.
Today’s Opposition motion shows why the Labour party can never again be trusted to run our economy. In their motion on the Order Paper, the Opposition assume that mixed-gender households do not share incomes. That is quite an assumption. They assume that spending less on public services invariably leads to poorer services—something that we have comprehensively disproved over the past five years. They even imply that the billions and billions of pounds of tax cuts that have led to lower petrol prices at the pump do not help women. I have heard it said before that Labour wants to take us back to the 1970s, but this is more like the Harry Enfield sketch about the 1930s. I will try to imitate him: “Women, know your limits and, for pity’s sake, don’t drive!”
At best, the motion shows unconscious bias. At worst, it shows the latent sexism of a sexist Labour leadership. The motion says, “Don’t invest in infrastructure, because it’s not women who build things.” Where do I start with that?
Of course women drive cars and of course income is shared in many households, but we know that when income is in the hands of women, they make different choices in the interests of their families and their children. The Minister must recognise that fact. It is asserted by the United Nations and has been understood by social policy research going back many decades. I wish she would acknowledge it.
I wish the hon. Lady would acknowledge a few of the facts that I am about to share about women in the economy. The calculations that she has been citing all afternoon do not include these basic facts. There are more women in work than ever before in this country. We have the highest female employment rate ever. We also have the lowest gender pay gap since records began.
I do not have much time, so I will make a bit of progress. Some 56% of the people who have been taken out of income tax altogether—in other words, who have had a 100% reduction in their income tax—through our increases to the personal allowance are women. Some 58% of those who receive the state pension are women—I will address the point made by the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) in a moment—and we have protected that under the triple lock. Almost two thirds of the people who will benefit from our introduction of the national living wage are women. Since 2010, women’s employment has increased faster than in the three previous Parliaments combined.
Let us compare and contrast that with the record of the previous Labour Government, under which the number of unemployed women rose by more than 200,000, or 25%. The fastest way to damage the livelihoods of hard-working women and families is to lose control of the public finances. That is the damage that we have had to fix, and we are making sure that that catastrophic situation does not happen again.
I want to address some of the important points raised today in a range of speeches—speeches from the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy), the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford).
A number of people have mentioned part-time work. It is worth remembering that 80% of the people who work part time do so because they want to. However, I agree wholeheartedly with the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, who said that she wanted greater equality in the form of more men working part time. There is evidence that that is beginning to happen, enabling parental leave opportunities to be shared more equally.
I want to address the points raised in the debate. A number of people mentioned the importance of women choosing STEM subjects at school. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will welcome the sharp increase in the number of young women taking physics and chemistry at A-level. Careers advice was also mentioned, and it is certainly important to explain to women that a range of opportunities exist for them, and that everything should be open to them.
The women’s state pension age was mentioned a number of times, but no one pointed out that all the women affected by the change in the state pension age will benefit from the new higher state pension, or that the simplified state pension will enable women to take into account many more years that they may have spent engaged in caring responsibilities.
I would not want the Members who talked about the incredibly important issue of domestic violence to create the perception that there has not been an increase in domestic violence refuge provision, because there has. There are 13 new domestic violence refuges in this country, and the number of beds that refuges have available has increased from 3,216 in 2013 to 3,472 in 2015. [Interruption.]
I can give the hon. Lady the source, which is the online system, and I will write to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) about this.
I am proud to serve in a Government who have done so much to help women of working age, and who have improved the state pension for women in retirement. The foundations of this improvement are, of course, our sound management of the economy, which is delivering growth, jobs, security and a higher standard of living. The previous Labour Government failed to provide women with greater financial security, and Labour Members have opposed our economic reforms at every stage. They failed to support giving girls the best possible education. They failed to support women in work. They failed to address the lack of women at the top in business, just as they have failed to address the lack of women in top jobs in their party today.
The Labour party is determined to fight the 1983 general election all over again. A woman won that election, and thanks to the result of that election we are once again winning economic security, economic opportunity and real economic aspiration for women. I urge my colleagues—