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Supporting Women back into Work

Volume 631: debated on Thursday 23 November 2017

3. What steps the Government are taking to support women back into work when they have had time out of the workplace to look after children or other relatives. (902526)

The 2017 spring Budget made £5 million available for returners in both the public sector and the private sector. We have already announced a number of programmes to help people return to work, including ones for allied health professionals, civil servants and social workers.

Order. That is all very interesting, but I thought the Minister was grouping this question with the one from the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood).

My apologies, Mr Speaker. I will, with your permission, group this question with question 4.

4. What steps the Government are taking to support women back into work when they have had time out of the workplace to look after children or other relatives. (902527)

The gender pay gap can be explained in part by professional and other women returning to the workplace in lesser roles than the ones they left to take time off to raise families or look after loved ones. Will my right hon. Friend highlight what the Government are doing to address that particular shortfall?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising what is actually a very important point. It should be remembered that 89% of people who take time off work for caring responsibilities are women. Closing the gender pay gap is extremely important. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that women earn 2% less on average for every year spent out of paid work, and the figure is even higher for highly paid women. We are talking to employers, evaluating all the programmes and gathering evidence of what works, and we hope to publish guidance on best practice for small and medium-sized employers next spring.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what measures the Government are taking to help employers to support women who have taken career breaks to care for children or other relatives?

The £5 million available for returns programmes will also be aimed at employers. We must understand that a complex set of reasons put people off returning to work, and the evidence that will be gathered will be important in ensuring that the best practice guidance published in spring gives a clear direction to employers, to ensure that they can harness the skills of those who take time off work.

Will the Minister explain what steps are being taken to ensure that older workers, including women born in the 1950s, who wish to return to work are given access to adequate training programmes in their local communities?

The hon. Lady makes an important point—I declare an interest as I consider myself an older worker. She is right to say that people choose to return to work at various times, and we must ensure that facilities and retraining schemes are available. We must also dig deeper to find out what the obstacles are. Confidence building with women is a significant issue when they have taken time off, and the longer that someone is out of the workplace, the more difficult that becomes.

According to the Government’s own data, 54,000 women are discriminated against and forced out of work when they are pregnant. The £5 million announced for return to work schemes is, of course, enormously welcome, but will the Minister set out in more detail how many women will benefit from the scheme? What specific projects—she mentioned the civil service—will be introduced to try to get more women back into work after having a child?

It is not just the civil service; we are looking at allied health professionals, civil servants and social workers. The social work programmes are in London, the west midlands, and the east of England. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: encouraging women to get back into the workplace is critical, and employers should be aware that there are very clear laws about what they can and cannot do when their employees take time off work for maternity leave.

As the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) said, despite some of the best laws in the world, women in this country who are in work face more discrimination when they are pregnant than they did 10 years ago, and that can also stop them getting back into work. Will the Government consider making it clearer that employment tribunals have discretion in allowing individuals to bring discrimination cases in special circumstances outside the general three-month limit? Surely pregnancy must be a very special circumstance indeed.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—pregnancy is a very special circumstance, and women and employers are not always aware of their legal obligations. Some of the work that we are doing on gender pay gap reporting will be an important part of that, because it will highlight some of those issues and enable us to dig deeper into the reasons behind that pay gap. I have no doubt that some of it will be due to discrimination against women in the workplace.

Further to the response that the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), will she say what concrete action the Government are taking to address the fact that 54,000 women are forced out of work in this country every year due to maternity discrimination? Women want action, not just warm words.

I point out to the hon. Lady that it is illegal and unlawful to discriminate in such a way, and employers are breaking the law in doing it. As constituency MPs, we can highlight to the women we meet or who come to our surgeries—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady says that she wants action from the Government, but action has been taken—it is against the law.