Previous Section Home Page

Column 1096

sticks in my throat when the Government say that women should be treated like first-class citizens when they do not take the legislative action that would enable them to be so.

Let us take the Government at their word and see what remedies they propose. The White Paper suggests broadening company training policies, flexibility of work and hours, and job sharing. This is specifically

"to facilitate the employment of women with families."

In that case, why is there nothing about child care, possibly the single most important facility for women wanting to start work or return to work, and why does that not apply to married women? I shall recap the argument briefly because I want it to be clear in my mind and the minds of my hon. Friends. When a decision of the European Court goes against the Government, they always say that they are bound by British law and do not want to take any notice of European law--at least, that is the general impression that they give. When British law does not suit them, as it apparently does not in this case, they change the law, as the amendments do.

The Government appear to be awaiting a decision on ET. Assuming that they lose their appeal, and Mrs. Jackson wins, will they honour that decision, or will they use the provisions in these amendments to overcome what Mrs. Jackson has so rightly won in her long case? What will happen to the other six or seven cases that are continuing? I strongly disapprove of the Government introducing changes on the basis of a negative order. Such important changes should be subject to the affirmative vote of both Houses of Parliament. I should like an answer from the Minister, but I have a strong feeling that he will resist extending the provision to married women. Therefore, I shall invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the amendments.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West) : The amendments raise certain issues which I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider. We talk about the family, and we all have a concept of the family. Many of us think of happy children being brought up in a household which gives them the support, love and care that they need all the time. Yet the reality is that many children are brought up by lone parents. They are the children of divorced parents, parents who have never married or widowed parents. Such children have a much tougher life, perhaps, than those who are brought up in the sort of family that I described initially.

The Government have been scorned for some time for supposedly failing to recognise that the pattern of the family has changed dramatically from the old-style paterfamilias family with a head of household who works, who is undoubtedly a man, with a non-working wife and with children at home growing up extremely nicely. The truth is that the Government have recognised that the pattern has changed. They are not behind in reading social trends. They have noticed that a significant classification of the new poor is the single parent bringing up young children.

The majority of single parents are female, and they are the women who have such immense difficulty in getting out of the so-called poverty trap--in other words, being able to find a job--because they may not have been very well trained. Many of the bed-and-breakfast cases with which I am aware, even in my constituency, consist of women

Column 1097

who have failed to cope with life in that they have not taken advantage of their education and training opportunities. There are others who have had children at an early age. For example, one of my constituents who is 17 years of age has twins and is apart from the father of her children. She is living with her mother. These girls--by and large they are no more than girls--find it extremely tough to make a start and become self-reliant, and they end up in bed-and-breakfast accommodation of the sort that we are all well aware of and concerned about.

I cannot do other than welcome the Minister's departmental commitment to support for what we are calling lone parents. It is a most laudable thing to be doing. I am delighted to know that the Department is providing lone parents with a £50 child care allowance when they embark on training schemes. That is exceptionally good news. I am more pleased than I can say. These are the very people who are in the greatest need. Are we not committed as a nation and a Government to helping the poorest of the poor, whether that involves overseas aid or aid within the United Kingdom? It must be our objective to help those who are in the greatest need.

Here we have the horns of a dilemma. If we are to help those who are in the greatest need, we must first identify them. We have to make a judgment, and lone parents have been recognised generally as being an extremely needy group. The Child Poverty Action Group--a most eminent group--supports this stance. Once we have identified such a group we have enormous pangs of conscience because there is the rest of the world to consider. There are many others who have needs and they must be treated equally and given the same sort of treatment as we afford to those who are in the greatest need. That is the dilemma, and perhaps that is the illogicality on which the Opposition find themselves resting this evening.

Although I wish to help all members of my sex, I find a little difficulty in solidly identifying someone who is not a lone parent as necessarily a married woman. There must be others who are bringing up children. There must be married men who are doing so, for a start. There must be parted women who are not married. There must be parted men who are not married. In all these groups there must be some who have children. However, I wish always to help my own sex. I recognise the great difficulty that some married women find in returning to the job market. In the information technology industry, for example, there are equal opportunities and equal pay. Why are married women supposedly seeking work not entering that industry? Clearly, carrots must be offered there. Again, we are making a judgment on a particular group and saying that they need some form of special treatment. Yet if we were supporting a women-in-technology campaign, we would not also be supporting a men-in-technology campaign because there would not be that need. Therefore, I am forced by logic to accept that, however difficult it is, we must identify some groups as more disadvantaged than others at any particular point in time and channel assistance to them.

I firmly support the Government in their child care concept for lone parents. I have great concern for lone parents and I have employed many of them during my time as an employer. However, I make the plea that my hon. Friend the Minister should not ignore the readily identifiable needs of married women wanting to return to the job market. I am not suggesting that because lone

Column 1098

parents are being helped other sectors of human society must also be helped ; I am simply identifying them as a group which also has special needs.

On the understanding that the amendments are good and must be accepted by the House, I ask my hon. Friend to give a commitment that he will listen again to the Equal Opportunities Commission, which has voiced its concerns to me, and consider whether there are further ways in which his Department can help another disadvantaged group--the married women at home who have not been earning because they have been bringing up their children and supporting whatever concept of the family we happen to fancy at any given moment. I hope that my hon. Friend will think of their needs and consider ways to help them back into the job market, because the job market certainly needs them.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : Many people would share the view of the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), not only in stressing the importance of giving help to lone parents who wish to undertake training but in suggesting that there must also be ways of encouraging the many married women who want to re-enter the job market to do so, and not least those who have been out of work for family or other reasons and have not qualified for unemployment benefit.

One of the weaknesses of the employment training scheme is that insufficient attention has been given to encouraging women to return to work. That is to be regretted for a number of reasons, including a woman's right to choose whether she wishes to re-enter the job market and the fact that not only one parents but also many married parents suffer hardship and face the necessity of having to go to work to try to make ends meet. This matter is important to employers and to the community because job structures will change over the next decade and into the next century.

The Government recognise that it will be necessary to encourage more women to return to work. The Secretary of State said recently that a survey of 2,000 companies showed that only one in three was trying to adapt employment and training practices to try to tap alternative sources, and that very few were far down the road towards providing child care facilities.

I have been corresponding with the Minister about cases in my constituency. The fishermen are away from home for much of the week and their wives want to work, but they do not qualify for the £50 per week child care allowance because they are married. In most instances, that prevents them seeking the training that they undoubtedly want. There is a clear need to extend the allowance.

The House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) for highlighting the case of Mrs. Jackson. The question of resources is important, but from what the hon. Lady said it appears that there might be sufficient resources--a point with which the Minister must deal in his reply.

We are discussing ways in which to encourage women and lone parents, male and female, to come back into the job market through training. There is not much point in getting them trained, however, if they cannot take up jobs because of a lack of child care facilities as a result of the current tax regime affecting workplace nurseries. We must go much further than reforming that tax regime, however.

Column 1099

The problem is especially acute for women who want to take jobs where there are no workplace nurseries. We must expand the state nursery sector.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, on an interpretation of social security law, a woman could be told to take a job, having gone through a training scheme, not get any child care benefits, be on a low wage and therefore be unable to take the job because she cannot get anyone to look after her child--she would not be able to afford it--and end up out of work, having been trained?

Mr. Wallace : That sounds a plausible set of circumstances. There is a barrier to returning to work, and much more must be done about it.

It is regrettable that the Government have not responded more positively to the modest extension that the hon. Member for Barking has suggested. The Lords amendments are good as far as they go, but they do not go far enough.

11 pm

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : I believe that lack of child care is one of the main reasons why women do not enter the labour market, why they do not get on once they get a job and why they do not go on training courses. Lone parents struggle more than other people, but married women in low-income families experience great difficulty in taking up employment and training opportunities.

It seems that the Government accept that training is necessary but also ensure that it cannot be taken up. The Equal Opportunities Commission believes that the Government discriminate. If, as we sincerely hope, the appeal that has been mentioned is upheld, the Government will once again be seen to be going backwards when the rest of Europe is going forwards.

We need universally available child care. The Government should be just a little daring and accept our amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) made some sensible and telling points.

Mr. Nicholls : With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.

Sometimes, when we have short debates, the quality of speeches shows that the debate could have gone on fruitfully for a good deal longer. With her usual perspicacity, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) anticipated that I cannot tonight give her everything that she wants. She was perhaps most worried that, if Mrs. Jackson wins her case, what is proposed here might retrospectively take away from her what she might obtain in the court. If Mrs. Jackson wins her case, she and anyone else who has a case in the pipeline will find that the judgment is honoured and that there is no question of retrospection.

The hon. Member for Barking, my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) and the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) have all put their finger on the Government's dilemma. We are being accused not of not having done anything helpful, but of having come up with a good idea and not going far enough. The easy way to avoid laying oneself open to that criticism is to do nothing to help. The Government's

Column 1100

detractors would say that that is no more than can be expected of the Government and that no great harm has been done.

The difficulty is that experience has shown that women who wanted to return to the labour market and used the community programme as a vehicle were at a distinct--if unintended--disadvantage : if they had not been unemployed for six months, they could not go on to the programme. When employment training was being devised, we were anxious to do all that we could to ensure that women did not suffer from that disadvantage, and drew up a number of measures to try to help. One was the provision that those who had not been available for work but had been on the order book for more than six months should be eligible to come back ; still more significant was the proposal that those who had been out of the labour market for at least two years should be entitled to take part in employment training. All those steps were warmly welcomed, and there can be no doubt on either side of the House that the variations in the criteria for eligibility for ET have been of significant advantage to women. The problem is knowing where to draw the line when resources are inevitably limited. The line taken by the Government is that it is right to target the resources available for child care on lone parents, who--to an overwhelming degree--are at the greatest disadvantage. The hon. Member for Barking advanced the beguiling argument that if there was an underspend on the programme because fewer people were going on to it owing to the rate of decline in unemployment, there might be some spare cash around. Ultimately, however, that argument does not hold water : it is impossible to plan the principle of a programme by simply trying to cash in on a temporary or notional underspend. There is no question of retrospective legislation. All that we are doing is restoring the balance to its previous state, which at the time was greatly welcomed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West is entirely right to remind us that the family has a wider context than that of the lone parent, and that married women also suffer disadvantages. We have tried to help them in the ways that I have suggested, but it would be going too far to say that, irrespective of whether a person is married or a sole parent, that person should automatically receive help.

In answer to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), let me say that I entirely understand the argument that there is not much point in receiving help with child care during training if, once the training is over, people cannot obtain jobs because they cannot afford child care. The logical consequence of that understandable argument is that we should do nothing to help, but, given demographic pressures, it must be a good idea to provide quality training to help women back into the labour market.

Ms. Richardson : I am afraid that I cannot accept what the Minister has said. He sounds awfully pleasant all of a sudden--almost beguiling, as he said that I had been--but he tossed aside my suggestion that the Government have resources to spare within the scheme because of an underspend, and said that the Government could not spend those resources. I honestly do not know how the Government will cope with the demographic changes that the 1990s will bring unless much more is done to encourage

Column 1101

and support the married women--and, in some instances, married men--who want to join the work force, or return to it.

It is all very well for the Government to say, "They will just have to manage. We will target only lone parents"--deserving though they may be. The fact is that employers will not be able to cope unless married women are allowed, encouraged and helped to return to work. The Government have a golden opportunity to spend money that they have not spent so far, but they will not take it. I cannot think what to call such behaviour, but there are all sorts of words for it : stupidity is one.

I intend to divide the House simply to show that Opposition Members believe that the Government are not going nearly far enough in their efforts to return women to work and to support training and retraining for them.

I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). It has been a useful debate.

The Minister suggested that I wanted a debate simply because I wished to be reassured that the Bill will not override whatever Mrs. Jackson may win. That was not the principal reason. However, I am distressed to find that the Government skated over that very important industrial tribunal case instead of welcoming it and applying the principle to other married women who have not had the opportunity to state their case.

Mrs. Mahon : Will my hon. Friend confirm that if Mrs. Jackson wins the ruling will apply only to her and that, as with equal pay, women will have to make individual applications? That is very unsatisfactory. It does not work like that in other countries.

Ms. Richardson : If Mrs. Jackson wins, I understand that she will win only for herself. What is called class action does not apply to all married women. I wish to goodness that it did. I think that six or seven other cases are in the pipeline. Married women who have not gone through the procedure will not be entitled to the award that Mrs. Jackson may win for herself in a very brave and dedicated way. I invite my hon. Friends to vote against the Lords amendment. We are not opposed to lone parents receiving help, but we want it to be extended now to married women.

Question put, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment :--

The House divided : Ayes 120, Noes 55.

Division No. 383] [11.11 pm


Alexander, Richard

Alison, Rt Hon Michael

Amess, David

Amos, Alan

Arbuthnot, James

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)

Ashby, David

Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)

Batiste, Spencer

Brazier, Julian

Bright, Graham

Browne, John (Winchester)

Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)

Burns, Simon

Butcher, John

Butler, Chris

Carrington, Matthew

Carttiss, Michael

Chapman, Sydney

Chope, Christopher

Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Cran, James

Davis, David (Boothferry)

Day, Stephen

Devlin, Tim

Dorrell, Stephen

Column 1102

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Dover, Den

Durant, Tony

Dykes, Hugh

Eggar, Tim

Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas

Fallon, Michael

Favell, Tony

Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey

Forman, Nigel

Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)

Fowler, Rt Hon Norman

Franks, Cecil

Freeman, Roger

French, Douglas

Gale, Roger

Garel-Jones, Tristan

Gill, Christopher

Glyn, Dr Alan

Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles

Gow, Ian

Greenway, John (Ryedale)

Gregory, Conal

Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)

Hague, William

Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')

Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)

Harris, David

Haselhurst, Alan

Hawkins, Christopher

Heathcoat-Amory, David

Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)

Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey

Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)

Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)

Hunter, Andrew

Irvine, Michael

Jack, Michael

Jackson, Robert

Janman, Tim

Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey

Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)

Jones, Robert B (Herts W)

King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)

Knapman, Roger

Lawrence, Ivan

Lightbown, David

Lilley, Peter

McLoughlin, Patrick

Malins, Humfrey

Mans, Keith

Martin, David (Portsmouth S)

Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin

Meyer, Sir Anthony

Miller, Sir Hal

Mills, Iain

Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)

Mitchell, Sir David

Moss, Malcolm

Moynihan, Hon Colin

Neubert, Michael

Nicholls, Patrick

Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)

Oppenheim, Phillip

Paice, James

Patten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath)

Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth

Porter, David (Waveney)

Portillo, Michael

Redwood, John

Renton, Tim

Sackville, Hon Tom

Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)

Stevens, Lewis

Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)

Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)

Taylor, John M (Solihull)

Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)

Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman

Thornton, Malcolm

Thurnham, Peter

Townend, John (Bridlington)

Trotter, Neville

Twinn, Dr Ian

Waller, Gary

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Warren, Kenneth

Wheeler, John

Widdecombe, Ann

Wilkinson, John

Winterton, Mrs Ann

Wood, Timothy

Tellers for the Ayes :

Mr. Greg Knight and

Mr. Irvine Patnick.


Alton, David

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)

Beith, A. J.

Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)

Bermingham, Gerald

Blair, Tony

Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)

Buckley, George J.

Caborn, Richard

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)

Canavan, Dennis

Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)

Cryer, Bob

Cummings, John

Cunliffe, Lawrence

Dixon, Don

Doran, Frank

Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)

Foster, Derek

Fyfe, Maria

Golding, Mrs Llin

Gordon, Mildred

Haynes, Frank

Illsley, Eric

Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)

Livsey, Richard

Lofthouse, Geoffrey

McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)

McNamara, Kevin

Mahon, Mrs Alice

Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)

Meale, Alan

Michael, Alun

Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)

Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)

Patchett, Terry

Pike, Peter L.

Powell, Ray (Ogmore)

Prescott, John

Randall, Stuart

Redmond, Martin

Richardson, Jo

Ruddock, Joan

Short, Clare

Skinner, Dennis

Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)

Spearing, Nigel

Taylor, Matthew (Truro)

Vaz, Keith

Wallace, James

Wareing, Robert N.

Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)

Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Harry Barnes and

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn.

Next Section

  Home Page