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Women: Economic Freedom

Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of women’s economic freedom; and what steps they are taking to promote equal pay.

My Lords, we are making good progress. Currently 15.12 million women are in work—more than ever before—and the Government continue to support women’s participation in the labour market. Equal pay is a legal requirement and this law was strengthened in 2014. Additionally, new legislation requires large employers to publish their gender pay gap, shining a light on the differences between the average hourly earnings of men and women.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Today is the 100th anniversary of the legislation receiving Royal Assent. Last night’s debate was a chance to celebrate and to reflect but it was generally accepted that we still had a long way to go on a whole range of issues. We have the same structural problems in the labour market as 50 years ago, and women lose out on pay, pensions and job security. What specific steps will her department take to make measurable improvements in closing the gender pay gap?

I join the noble Baroness in saying that last night’s debate was very enjoyable. It was very upbeat and in many ways very humorous but at the heart of it was the fact that we still have a lot further to go in this area. On childcare, the Government are now doing more than ever to support women into work; over 3 million people have been taken out of tax altogether; and the Government have introduced a number of initiatives to allow people to return to work after taking time out for caring duties.

My Lords, on this important anniversary and with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, I note with interest that computer science will be key. However, it is important to be aware that only 20% of girls undertaking GCSEs take this subject and only 10% do so at A-level, so this will have a dramatic effect in the future. What are the Government doing to address this issue so that, 100 years from now, women do not have another problem with being left behind in terms of both pay and status in work and in the economy?

My noble friend is absolutely right to point out that what girls do today at GCSE and A-level will determine what the women’s workforce of the future looks like. She is also right to point out that only 20% of girls do computer science at GCSE and 10% at A-level. One thing that I know my children are absolute wizards at—far better than me—is computer science. If girls are very conversant with computer science and STEM subjects generally, that will make them really equipped for the workforce of the next generation.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found recently that by the time a couple’s first child reaches the age of 20, the mother’s earnings are almost a third less than the father’s. Take-up of shared parental leave is disappointingly low; I have crossed swords with the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in discussing the reasons why. However, we cannot just put this problem in the “too difficult” box. Too much is being lost to the economy and to families.

Will the Minister please agree to meet me to discuss some out-of-the-box ideas that I do not have time to outline here?

I am sorry; I missed the last part of the noble Baroness’s question but I shall certainly be happy to meet her.

My Lords, will the Government address the ways in which universal credit reduces the economic freedom of many poorer women, partly because it is paid into a single account so we cannot be sure that the money goes to them, for themselves or any children, and partly because it creates a work disincentive for second earners, many of whom are still women? It does not support those women into paid work.

My Lords, I think the thing here is to get women into work and undo their reliance on credit, and some of the initiatives that the Government have put into play help women in that regard. We have more people and therefore more women than ever in employment.

Have the Government had recent communication with the BBC about its differential pay rates for men and women?

Well, we have not had conversations with the BBC, but the EHRC is certainly interested in talking to it. I suspect that the BBC issue is an equal pay issue rather than a gender pay gap issue, but I am sure that that will all come out in the conversation that the EHRC has. Of course, the penalties for not complying with this are that the company or organisation involved has to do an equal pay audit, which is quite onerous.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Institute for Fiscal Studies published research yesterday showing that, by the time their first child is grown up, mothers earn 30% less per hour than fathers? A quarter of that gap can be explained by the fact that mothers are the ones who generally work part-time while their children are growing up, so they miss out on earnings growth and opportunities. While it is good to see the pay gap closing when women first get on the career ladder, when women and men decide to become parents it is usually the women who miss out. What are the Government doing to close this gap for women who are or have been working part-time?

I think that the noble Baroness has asked a very similar question to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. As I said to her, we are doing a number of things to help women back into work after a break in their career. Supporting men and women with caring responsibilities takes the burden of responsibility off the woman. Shared parental leave is very important, along with working with businesses to support and increase women’s progression to senior positions. In addition, a large number of organisations now allow for flexible working when a woman returns to work.

My Lords, it is a pity that my noble friend was drowned out, because her question was very important—so important that it was repeated, of course. Does the department keep information and statistics on the number of women who, when they become pregnant, lose their jobs or are sacked? Is that being monitored, and what is being done to mitigate it?

I am not sure that we keep those specific statistics, but what I can say to the noble Baroness, which I am sure she will know, is that if a woman who gets pregnant is then sacked she most definitely has a claim under the Equality Act.