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Women and the Economy debate

9th December 2015

Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on women and the economy.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): 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.

Barbara Keeley: 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?

Harriett Baldwin: 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?

Kate Green: 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.

Harriett Baldwin: 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.

Seema Malhotra rose—

Ruth Cadbury rose—

Harriett Baldwin: I will make some progress. We want to make sure that the pay gap narrows further and faster. From next year, we will require large companies to publish differences in pay.

Ian Blackford rose—

Harriett Baldwin: 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 shared parental responsibilities to be shared more equally.

Seema Malhotra rose—

Harriett Baldwin: 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 available in these refuges has increased from 3,216 in 2013 to 3,472 in 2015. [Interruption.]

Seema Malhotra: Would the Minister like to comment on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) has just made from a sedentary position on those refuge figures, which was that the Minister was making them up?

Harriett Baldwin: 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—

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