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Unemployment: Older Women

Volume 739: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2012

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address unemployment among older women.

My Lords, the Government, through universal credit, the Work Programme and Jobcentre Plus flexibilities, are reforming the welfare system to improve incentives and provide more effective support to those without work. Advisers now have the flexibility to offer all claimants, including older women, a comprehensive menu of help which includes skills provision and job search support. All claimants who are long-term unemployed can access the tailored, back-to-work support on offer from the Work Programme.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Indeed, this Question is by way of my 60th birthday present to myself—

—asking the Government what they intend to do about the fact that older women are losing their jobs at a much faster rate than men. Indeed, unemployment rocketed by 27% last year. This is further evidence that this Government really do not understand the issues which are important to women. Does the Minister acknowledge the disproportionate and negative impact that the austerity agenda is having on the lives and employment of all women, but particularly older women?

My Lords, I must congratulate the noble Baroness on her birthday. However, I must also commiserate with her as she has been completely bamboozled by her colleagues in another place. I have never seen a more misleading use of data for years, not since the 1970s when Denis Healey discussed inflation. If you take a very small figure and add 27% to it, you will find that it is still a very small figure. The actual level of unemployment of women in the 50 to 64 age group is 3.9%. That is the lowest rate of unemployment of any group of women. It is the lowest rate of unemployment of any group of women or men. Therefore, I do not think that the noble Baroness has pinpointed a particular point of concern in terms of unemployment.

My Lords, one of the major challenges facing many older women in preparing for their retirement is the current complexity of the pension and pension credit system, which puts women at a disadvantage. Figures suggest that some women on average receive £40 a week less state pension than men as a result of changes. What is the department doing to simplify the system and give clarity to women as to what level of state pension they will receive?

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, we are making big strides on pension provision. We have introduced the triple lock and we are talking about introducing a single tier of pensions, which will massively simplify the overcomplex pension provision in this country.

My Lords, have Her Majesty’s Government looked at not just the salaries of those older women who are in work but at the terms and conditions of their employment—for example, the use of zero-hour contracts? Is there full recognition among government inspectors and so on that for many this is the primary, not secondary, source of income in the family?

My Lords, the crude facts of the matter are that more older women are employed than ever before—3.5 million—and the rate of employment is also at an all-time high of 60.6%. Older women are doing extraordinarily well in the workforce and the reason for that is that they are very valuable employees. Even the BBC seems to have got round to recognising that.

My Lords, does the Minister not appreciate that many older women have not only the job of going out and trying to build up the family income but a valuable role as carers in many families? What can be done to assist women who have this double responsibility, both of working to boost the family income and providing much-needed carers in the family?

My Lords, this is clearly of great concern to this Government and all Governments. We are taking significant steps to help carers. About one in six of older women who are inactive are inactive because they have caring responsibilities. Creating a far more flexible carer’s allowance and a universal credit element is one of the ways in which we are looking at that issue. We are also introducing flexibility in our conditionality regime at Jobcentre Plus.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a large number of minority older women do not register as unemployed but get employed in the black market and so do not have a pension from the jobs they have done? They are the people who are most unlikely to be employed in the formal labour market because, although they have extensive experience, they do not have the necessary paper qualifications. They are submerged in the data that are being presented.

Noble Lords will all be aware of our concern to reduce the level of inactivity in the economy and the level of unemployment is only one way of looking at the figures. The most important thing is how many people are employed and what is happening to the level of inactivity. I am pleased to say that the level of inactivity for this group is going down quite sharply. Since the election, 110,000 fewer people are inactive, and that is something we are continuing to drive.

My Lords, is there not a danger of being a little complacent in this matter? Does the Minister accept that between August 2011 and August 2012, there was, over the UK as a whole, an increase of 7% in the unemployment rate for women over 50, but in Wales the increase was 14%, which is quite worrying? Does he accept that there is cause for concern and that we should take steps to minimise those figures?

My Lords, when you have scarce resources, you must direct them efficiently. When you look at other groups with high rates of unemployment—the rate is 16% for women in the 18 to 24 age group while in this group the rate is 3.9%—you have to consider where you can most efficiently direct support. Do not forget that in the time we are talking about pension age has been increasing. The element of the impact of the increase is very small on a figure of unemployment that across the economy as a whole is probably below the rate of frictional unemployment.