Column 154commitment to protect the minimum wage--or were they so embarrassed when they found themselves out of step with world opinion on women's equality that they agreed to commitments which they had no intention of honouring?
My view, and the view of the Labour party, is that the Government's failure to implement the undertakings which they gave in Nairobi in 1985-- particularly on the question of low pay and the minimum wage--is wasting the talent and diminishing the life opportunities of women in the United Kingdom, and is seriously damaging the performance of the British economy.
Despite their commitments in Nairobi, the Government have adopted a strategy of encouraging competition by wage cutting. Thus, they have stripped away all the protections which previously existed for low-paid workers. That is why they are so strongly opposed to the European social chapter and to the national minimum wage. Women have borne the brunt of the Government's strategy, but it has also been deeply damaging to the position of men in the labour market and to the overall performance of the British economy.
Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West): Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a fairly old-fashioned distinction in attitudes between both sides of the House? The Opposition are arguing for equality for women, while the theme among my hon. Friends is equality of opportunity for women. If, as the hon. Lady wishes, equality for women is to be mandatory in this House in terms of the imposition of quotas for Members, does she take her logic further into any other sectors of public or industrial endeavour? Is she arguing for a quasi-quota system in other types of activity?
Ms Short: The Labour party has proudly decided that we will put forward women candidates in half the seats which we intend to win to form a Government after the next election. We believe that British democracy is gravely incomplete when women are so under-represented in the House. We also believe that the quality of debate in the Chamber will increase enormously when more women are represented here.
I take the view that the measures which are appropriate to ensure that we have proper and democratic representation here are not necessarily the same measures as should be used to promote women in employment, but the principle of promoting women's equality should inform all our social policy.
Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East): Is it not rich for a Conservative Member to criticise the Labour party for ensuring that half our electoral representation will be women, when the vice-chairman of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold), spends half her life trying to persuade Conservative associations around the country to select women candidates, because there is a 50 per cent. target in the Conservative party for candidates at the next election?
Column 155House of Commons, and I am sure that the Conservative party will introduce stern measures to catch up with us after we have made that enormous breakthrough.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): Is the hon. Lady not aware that her party's campaign to bring more women into Parliament is patronising and insulting to women, because it is trying to introduce positive discrimination rather than allowing women to get to Westminster on merit, which is how I prefer to be here?
Ms Short: The hon. Lady must be aware that the view of the people of Britain is that the people who are in the House of Commons at the moment could not possibly have been selected on merit. The selection of a lot more women to come to the House will massively increase the average standard overnight.
The central argument that I shall put before the House is that women's demand for equality is not a zero-sum game; it is not a question of advancing women at the expense of men. Indeed, the present Government strategy of encouraging low-paid employment damages all interests. Labour's strategy, based on the need for a minimum wage, full-time rights for part- time workers and family-friendly employment policies, will benefit the performance of the British economy and the quality of life for all.
If we look at some of the facts, we see a devastating picture. In recent years, there has been a massive growth in part-time, low-paid and insecure employment, from 4.6 million part-time jobs in 1979 to 6 million in 1994; 87 per cent. of part-time workers are women, and nearly half of all women work in part-time jobs.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with part-time work in itself, but in Britain part-time work goes with low pay, poor employment rights, little pension entitlement and little access to training or promotion. We have the biggest gender pay gap in the European Union. Women part-timers earn only 59 per cent. of the hourly rate of male full-timers, and even women full- timers earn only 72 per cent. of the male rate.
The average mother of two loses half her total lifetime earnings as a consequence of having children; mothers in the United Kingdom have the largest such earnings loss in Europe. There is, of course, no income loss for men as a result of the birth of their children. The Government's encouragement of low-paid work and the lack of a national child care strategy--we have another record here: Britain has the lowest level of publicly funded child care in the EU--traps many women in badly paid part- time work, and permanently blights their life opportunities.
The effects continue into old age, because low-paid workers have poor pension entitlements. In 1992, one in six women retired on a full state pension, compared with two in three men, and 87 per cent. of single pensioners on income support are women. The Government's pensions policy, which has eroded the value of the state pension and cut the value of the state earnings-related pension scheme, will disproportionately damage women pensioners and ensure that, in future, an even higher proportion of them will have to survive in poverty. Under the Government's strategy, all parties lose. The consequences of the strategy that promotes part-time low- paid work for women also damages the interests of
Column 156men. The restructuring of work since the 1970s has led to a massive increase in the number of men excluded from the labour market. According to the family expenditure survey, in 1971, 93 per cent. of men were in full-time employment, 1 per cent. were working part time and 7 per cent. were not working. The deterioration has been devastating. By 1992, only 75 per cent. of men were working full time, 5 per cent. were working part time, and 20 per cent. were not working. The shortfall has been only partly made up by the growth in women's employment, as the number of hours worked in the economy has dropped; fewer hours are worked in the British economy now than were worked in 1979.
When we Members of Parliament sit in our advice bureaux, many of us find that older men who have been made redundant come to see us and talk about the fact that they are no longer employed and have exhausted their right to unemployment benefit. They say how useless and marginalised they feel having to live in a household that relies on their wives' earnings. I am very conscious that many families in that situation find that their marriages break up. That is one of the cruel consequences of the Government's employment strategy that affects men.
Thus, using women as cheap labour does not benefit men, but leads to their being displaced in the labour market. Women and men have a shared interest in achieving decent employment rights and pay for part-timers, to bring to an end the pricing down of secure jobs. The effect of the changes between women and men in the labour market also increases the polarisation and divisions in British society. While part-time work and unemployment has grown, British full-time workers work the longest hours in Europe. We are witnessing a growth in the number of pressurised, work-rich, two-earner families, and impoverished, marginalised work-poor families. That is a result of the fact that traditional male jobs are declining, while the new jobs are low-paid women's jobs, with wages insufficient to support a family. The consequences are that only women living with an earning partner can afford to take them.
Eighty per cent. of women part-timers are married or cohabiting, and 91 per cent. of them have earning partners. An Equal Opportunities Commission study projects that such labour market changes will continue for the next 10 years. The consequences are socially and economically unsustainable. Growing male unemployment and a rising divorce rate will lead to a continuing growth in the number of families trapped outside the labour market.
The changes in the labour market are generating a massive benefits bill. Unemployment costs £10.1 billion in direct benefits to the unemployed. In addition, a portion of the £18.7 billion spent on the sick and disabled goes to people seeking work, especially older discouraged male workers. More than 500,000 low-paid families are dependent on family credit to bring them up to the subsistence level.
For example, the average payment to lone mothers is £48.69 a week. This subsidy to low pay is costing the taxpayer more than £1 billion in family credit alone. We have to ask whether it is right that the taxpayer should subsidise the wage levels paid by some of the meanest employers in the land.
Column 157It is clear that the Government's failure to promote women's equality at work and family-friendly employment policies that enable men and women to work and care for their families is costing us enormous sums in benefit expenditure. It is also damaging the performance of the British economy. Competition by wage cutting leads to high labour turnover and poor investment in training. In both respects, Britain is very backward.
Britain is one place below Turkey at the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's skills league for the proportion of 18-year-olds in education. Only one third of the United Kingdom work force has a vocational qualification; apprenticeships have virtually disappeared; and fewer people participate in higher education than in any of our major competitor countries. Investment as a percentage of gross domestic product in Britain was only 17.5 per cent. between 1979 and 1992, compared to 29.8 per cent. in Japan.
It is clear that there is no turning back from the changes that flow from women's demands for an equal chance in society. The days when women ran the home and men ran the rest are long gone. It is absolutely clear that women have made many advances. The struggle for the vote, for education and for the right to own property after marriage, access to contraception and the right to escape from a violent partner have transformed our lives compared to those of our mothers' and grandmothers' generations, but there is still a very long way to go before women have full equality.
Women are still absent from senior positions in all our major institutions. As has already been said, there are not many women Members of Parliament, nor are there many female judges, managers, senior police officers, professors and so on. As I said, the fate of nearly half British women is to be trapped in part-time, low-paid work, which damages their life opportunities permanently, right through to retirement.
The Labour party believes strongly that a modern and successful economy must promote equal opportunities for women. Thus, our commitment to the social chapter, the national minimum wage, full-time rights for part-time workers, a national child care strategy and family-friendly employment policies will improve the quality of life for women and men, so that both can enjoy a satisfying career and share in the care of their children, and their parents as they become more elderly, without being forced to depend on state benefits. However, we also believe that we must encourage investment in training and infrastructure to secure a healthy economic future.
The present Government's policy of encouraging low-paid employment is deeply damaging to the women of the United Kingdom and to the performance of the British economy. Labour's strategy will promote the interests of women, stop men being pushed out of the work force, and lead to a high- training, high-investment economy. We have a backward Government, taking us continually further backwards. 4.20 pm
"notes with approval the progress made in the United Kingdom towards equality and increasing opportunities for women, as described in the United Kingdom National Report for the Fourth
Column 158United Nations World Conference on Women; and calls on the Government to continue the policies which have made this possible.". Last year, it was a pleasure for me to respond to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) in a wide-ranging debate about women in Britain. As Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on women's issues, I am proud once again to have the chance to respond to her opening speech, and to remind the House of what the Government are doing to promote equality of opportunity for women.
I am glad that the newly appointed Government co-chair of the Women's National Commission, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), is here to reply to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that important appointment. I know that the House will join me in wishing her well, and also in thanking her predecessor, Lady Denton, for the great contribution that she made during her three years in that post.
Mr. Hunt: I hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment echoing my views. When I was Secretary of State for Employment, I came greatly to value and respect the work of Lady Denton and the work of the Women's National Commission.
I am interested to note that, last Thursday, the debate was originally entitled, "The Position of Women in Britain", but the title on the Order Paper has now altered to, "Lives of Women in the United Kingdom". I welcome that, because it recognises the fact that we are discussing women in the United Kingdom as a whole.
Ms Short: The right hon. Gentleman is probably aware that, rightly, one of the Ulster Unionist Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland objected to the fact that the debate was entitled, "The Position of Women in Britain". That was a slip and a snub that was in no way intended, and we immediately adjusted the title to, "Lives of Women in the United Kingdom".
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton): The Minister referred to the Cabinet Committee that he chairs. I have asked questions of that Committee, and it appears to meet very infrequently to consider women's issues. I have asked about the issue of women suffering from domestic violence. When will the Government formulate a programme for safe hostels in every part of the country, so that women can be safe from domestic violence? I cannot obtain an answer as to what that Cabinet Committee has been doing about the issue. Perhaps the Minister will tell me.
Mr. Hunt: Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman. The way in which those Committees are referred to has been established by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for the first time ever. The present Prime Minister has recognised publicly the existence of Cabinet Committees, whereas under previous Administrations that was not even made public. He has not only published the identity of Cabinet Committees, but published the membership and the terms of reference. However, he and I follow time- honoured tradition in not revealing to the House the
Column 159nature of the subjects being discussed or the dates of the meetings of the Committees. I believe that it is right to follow that tradition, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman that the work of the Committee continues apace. The correspondence and meetings take place, and indeed we shall meet this month. Let me simply say--
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): Does my right hon. Friend recall that, when the Labour party tried to oblige Labour Members of Parliament to elect more women to the shadow Cabinet, one fewer was elected and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) lost her seat, but the Leader of the Opposition ignored the vote and simply appointed her regardless?
Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The artificiality of positive discrimination can often have the opposite effect. I take this opportunity to welcome the Labour party's change of policy, which is illustrated by the motion. It has at last dropped its idea of having a Ministry dedicated to women's issues. For some time, the Opposition have demanded a separate Ministry for women, but their current proposals look remarkably like the arrangements that the Prime Minister introduced in 1992. It has taken the Opposition some time to catch up, but I am very glad to see that they are getting there. I welcome their change of policy and I am glad that Opposition Members do not deny it.
I therefore invite the Opposition to take another giant step forward and explain to the House why, of 68 general secretaries of trade unions affiliated with the Trades Union Congress, only four are women. In telling almost everyone under the sun what he or she should be doing to improve equality of opportunity, the hon. Member for Ladywood unaccountably omitted to proffer advice to the trade unions on that point. I hope that some of the later Opposition speakers in the debate will make good that omission.
Ms Short: I listed a series of our major institutions that have that deficiency, and the trade union movement was included in that list. It has been taking major steps to increase the representation of women--perhaps the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) will contain herself --on trade union executives and among senior officials. My union, Unison, has committed itself to the principle of proportionality. It believes that the officers and representatives at every level should reflect the number of women members. Clearly, a generation of trade union general secretaries are male and a generation of women are waiting to take over when the present secretaries reach retirement age.
Mr. Hunt: I am glad that the hon. Lady took the opportunity to set out her policy on that point. I hope that there will be some progress in the very important area of representation by general secretaries. I hope that the Opposition are not confusing gender politics with gesture politics. Let us not forget that what really counts, in this as in any other area of policy, is practical action all year round, which leads to measurable progress. The Government have taken action and we are making good progress.
We have the figures to prove that. In the past 10 years, the number of women in employment has increased by 1,369,000. There has been a 14 per cent. increase in the
Column 160number of women working full time and a 19 per cent. increase in the number of women working part time. The proportion of women in the labour force has been increasing and that trend is set to continue. As the hon. Member for Dagenham (Ms Church)--who is not in the Chamber at present--said when she introduced her ten-minute Bill, women will account for 1.2 million of the projected total rise of 1.5 million in the labour force over the next decade.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I would like the right hon. Gentleman to take credit for the fact that, because his Government have done away with so many of the heavy manufacturing jobs in society, almost inevitably more women are entering the work force in low-paid part- time jobs, because that is the only alternative form of employment that his Government intend to encourage.
Mr. Hunt: Although, for decades, there has been a progressive decline in manufacturing employment, particularly at the heavy end, in the past three months, manufacturing employment has increased by more than 30,000. I believe that that very welcome development is largely due to the Government's policies.
The proportion of women in the labour force has been increasing and that trend is set to continue. Women are also getting better pay. In 1970, before the Equal Pay Act, women's full-time average earnings were 63 per cent. of men's. By April last year, they had reached almost 80 per cent. of men's and the gap has closed in each of the past six years. Men's real terms earnings have gone up over the past 10 years. The figures show simply that women's earnings have been rising faster.
Together with the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equal Pay Act provides a full legislative framework second to none in the European Union to combat and deter sex discrimination and to provide protection against sexual harassment.
Of course, legislation is not the answer to everything and the Government are taking many practical steps to promote the advancement of women. I have seen that at first hand, as Secretary of State for Wales and then as Secretary of State for Employment, before taking on my current responsibilities.
As the hon. Member for Ladywood will know, while at the Welsh Office I introduced a programme called "Chwarae Teg", which is Welsh for fair play. "Chwarae Teg" is the model for "Fair Play for Women", the joint initiative between the Government and the Equal Opportunities Commission that I had the pleasure to launch almost a year ago with Kamlesh Bahl, the chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission.
The Equal Opportunities Commission continues to play a vital role in ensuring progress on women's issues. The Government do not always agree with the views and actions of the Equal Opportunities Commission, which properly and keenly guards its independence. I have no hesitation, however, in paying tribute to the work of the commission and its many lasting achievements.
"Chwarae Teg" has demonstrated that a consortium approach to tackling the barriers facing women really can work well. Under "Fair Play for Women", a consortium has been set up in each of 10 English regions. I wish those consortiums well and they have already got off to a very good start.
Column 161There is a huge amount of activity taking place all over the country this week to mark International Women's Day. The London "Fair Play" consortium is hosting a meeting to get across the good business reasons for improving labour market opportunities for women. The west midlands consortium is supporting pilot workshops for personal and career development and the Yorkshire and Humberside consortium is providing financial and promotional support to the university of Huddersfield and its "Women into Technology and Science" course. As Cabinet Minister with responsibility for science, I attach great importance to promoting the participation of women in science, engineering and technology. That is why, at the end of last year, I set up a women's development unit in the Office of Science and Technology, which is already working on a number of imaginative new projects with partners in the field.
I listened carefully to what hon. Member for Dagenham said earlier in introducing her ten-minute Bill and to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher), warning about changing attitudes, but there are a number of important initiatives. For example, the unit is funding a special high-profile event at the science museum on the relationship of women to information technology, which will be linked to a planned exhibition on the information super-highway. Later this month, I shall be speaking at a reception to mark the National Council for Educational Technology's new project on attracting girls to information technology.
Of course, this is not exclusively Government business. The private sector initiative, "Women in Technology", encourages women to enter or return to careers in information technology. Over the past three or four years, it has organised 3,500 workshops for employers and a pretty well-established database for women returners.
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend is moving from Government intervention to other forms of intervention, but may I draw to his attention one discrepancy that his Committee may like to consider? It may relate to the change in the title of the debate as it concerns the discrepancy between abortion laws in Northern Ireland and Britain.
As my right hon. Friend is probably well aware, abortion is governed by the Abortion Act 1967. That Act does not apply to Northern Ireland. As a result, there are underground and back-street abortions in Northern Ireland and women have to come to Great Britain to get abortions. Will my right hon. Friend consider the difference between the two jurisdictions?
Mr. Hunt: And right across the United Kingdom, of course. I shall bring my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and we shall respond.
My unit is working with Opportunity 2000 to produce a joint brochure targeted at employers of scientists and engineers in universities, Government and industry. It will use case studies to highlight the benefits to employers of family-friendly working practices.
Column 162The Government have supported the employer- led Opportunity 2000 from day one, and four years later, 28 Government Departments and agencies are involved. As a large employer, the Government recognise the need to take a lead in promoting opportunities for women. For more than 10 years, we have had a programme of action for women in the civil service. I shall shortly launch a report that sets out the progress made over that period.
There is plenty of good news. The proportion of women at executive level has risen from 29 per cent. to 47 per cent. The proportion at higher executive level has risen from 14 per cent. to more than 22 per cent. At senior executive level, the proportion has more than doubled, from 6.4 per cent. to 15 per cent. The proportion of women at assistant secretary level, or grade 5--a senior management and policy grade--has doubled, from 6.6 per cent. to 13.3 per cent. In the top three grades, nearly 10 per cent. are women, and a formal benchmark figure has been published, that by the year 2000, 15 per cent. of people in the top three grades are expected to be women. There is still a long way to go, but we have made steady and clear progress, and I see no reason for not meeting our future targets. I am pleased to say that the Cabinet Office has a particularly good record on women's issues. A career break system allows individuals to take up to five years' unpaid special leave. At grade 5, the Cabinet Office tops the table of Government Departments, with women at grade 5 comprising 35 per cent. of staff.
The Government are committed to increasing the number of public appointments held by women. They hold 30 per cent. of
Government-appointed posts, compared with 23 per cent. in 1991. Nearly half last year's appointments were of women. That shows what can be achieved by a positive approach--not falling back on some system of artificial quotas, which we all know to be unsatisfactory and which risks devaluing women's achievements.
That is being realised in the United States and--who knows--Labour may realise it one day, instead of undermining the status of some of its women electoral candidates in selection contests that are a million miles away from providing equality of opportunity for the sexes.
Opportunity 2000 is about not quotas but individual employers developing and rewarding their employees according to their merits, and addressing the factors that may prevent women achieving their full potential. There are 275 members of Opportunity 2000, employing 25 per cent. of the country's work force. Opportunity 2000's third-year report highlighted the range of measures being taken by employers to address directly factors that are holding women back. Opportunity 2000 found that 58 per cent. of member organisations offer job share arrangements, 60 per cent. offer flexible hours, 23 per cent. offer the option of working from home, 25 per cent. offer contracts linked to school terms, 71 per cent. offer maternity arrangements above the statutory minimum and 67 per cent. offer paternity leave.
Column 163series of problems such as the absence of a proper representation of women at board level. Opportunity 2000 is also directly addressing that problem.
The figures that I have quoted show the extent to which employers are setting their own priorities for action. I do not believe for a moment that new legislation or more interference from Government would help. In fact, since 1979 we have removed many unnecessary restrictions and burdens on employers, which hampered the flexibility of the labour market. As a result, there has been a clear growth in the number of opportunities for flexible working, enabling individuals to balance their professional and domestic
responsibilities to the benefit of everyone concerned.
The number of women in work in the European Union increased by 8 million between 1983 and 1991, and 25 per cent., a quarter of that increase--2 million jobs for women--was here in the United Kingdom. We have created the sort of deregulated environment in which employers can create jobs. To reimpose the sort of burdens to which the hon. Member for Ladywood referred would destroy work, particularly the flexible job opportunities that women find most attractive. The Government are trying to maximise the options available to working parents by increasing child care. In 1993 we launched a £45 million initiative to help expand the provision of out-of-school and holiday child care by around 50,000 places. The funds are being channelled through the training and enterprise councils and the local enterprise councils. More than 13,000 places were created in the first 18 months and another 9,000 are already in the pipeline throughout the country.
Those new places build on what was already a much improved framework. Day nursery provision more than doubled between 1983 and 1993 to almost 134,000 places in all. There are two and a half times more registered child minders than there were 10 years ago and the total is now almost 300,000. Nine out of every 10 three and four-year-olds attend some form of child care provision.
The hon. Lady mentioned that in October last year the Government introduced a new disregard for child care in family credit, worth up to £28 per family per week. That is set to help some 150,000 families, including 50,000 women who are expected to be able to take up work as a result of that change.
The Government do not believe that the taxpayer should subsidise child care costs across the board, regardless of need. We are targeting children who are most in need and taking action where we can have most impact, for instance in developing out-of-school child care. It is worth recalling that the 1990 British social attitudes survey found that only 6 per cent. of mothers who were not in employment gave the cost of child care as one of the main reasons.
Ms Short: The right hon. Gentleman has just referred to the disregard for the cost of child care introduced by the Government, which they expect to provide some 150,000 child care places. In answer to a recent parliamentary question I was told, speaking from memory, that about 7,800 child care places were being provided
Column 164under the scheme. Can the Minister explain why the result appears to be so much less than the promised figure that he has just quoted?
Mr. Hunt: I think that the hon. Lady is confused. The new disregard for child care in family credit, which is worth up to £28 per family per week, was set to help some 150,000 families, including 50,000 women who are expected to be able to take up work as a result of the change. Those are the correct figures, which I stand by. I take pride in that, because the Government want to create the right conditions for women to have access to work, and the right conditions for women to have access to education and training. We are committed to ensuring that there are training opportunities that address the specific needs of women. Training and enterprise councils are required to set out an equal opportunities strategy with a plan for implementation and a procedure for monitoring progress. The Department of Employment has also asked TECs to report on the anticipated numbers of female participants in training for work and youth training in 1994-95. About half the places in further and higher education are taken up by women and many courses have flexible attendance arrangements to fit in with individual needs. I greatly welcome that.
Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Perhaps the reason why many women are not benefiting from the disregard for child care is that £28 a week comes nowhere near the full cost of child care. That is why many women still have to rely on informal carers, particularly when they are taking up employment. If the Government really want to help, they should look realistically at child care opportunities and help for women who want to go back to work. The present arrangements are not realistic for most women.
Mr. Hunt: I am glad that the hon. Lady did not challenge my figure of 50,000 women who are expected to be able to take up work as a result of the change. That endorses the reaction to the move of the Chancellor of Exchequer, which was widely to welcome his announcement, which a number of organisations said would have a real impact. The figures show that.
Ms Short: This may not be the best way of getting to the bottom of the matter, but the Minister has just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) that he was glad that she did not challenge his figures. I have here the figure given to me in answer to a parliamentary question, which states that only 7,180 families are in receipt of the disregard for child care in family credit and 35 per cent. of them receive less than £10 per week. Will the Minister explain the difference between the figure of 150,000 that he claimed today and that which the Government stated previously?
Mr. Hunt: It is simply that the new disregard was introduced only last year, in the way that I have said. I understand that the latest figure is that 10,500 families are currently receiving help. That is the figure at January 1995. I stand by the fact that the disregard will help some 150,000 families.
Column 165the disregard received a wide welcome. Already 10,500 families are receiving help and it is anticipated that 150,000 will do so in the longer term.
Where the Government see clear evidence of a problem, they take action. I give one example. Last month, I announced additional funding to the Royal Society for the new Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships. They will be targeted at top-class scientists who have just completed their PhD--a time when, as "The Rising Tide" report showed, many women are lost to science. That is a step in the right direction. There is no question but that in the past women who wanted or needed to work often got a raw deal. But during the past 10 to 15 years, the Government have taken action on a broad front to change that. The future looks promising. In our schools, girls are responding to the challenges that they face. They are outperforming boys in science subjects at GCSE level, breaking down those old stereotypes. As the benefits of the national curriculum work through, I expect to see young women coming through ever more strongly at A-level and in our university system.
Combine the Government's education policies--a crucial fact is that we are getting the macro-economic conditions right for growth and job creation-- with our initiatives in child care, training, regional equal opportunities consortiums and Opportunity 2000, and we have a coherent package of practical measures to help ensure that women in Britain have the chance to realise their potential.
The Conservative party believes in equality of opportunity, not crude attempts to ignore the problem and to try to fix the outcome. Today's Labour party, however, is a prisoner to political correctness, blowing along willingly with every fad and whim. In its PC mania, Labour will compromise even the principle of equality before the law. It even plans a network of PC thought police throughout central Government and, no doubt, its proposed new regional governments, too.
When I came to the House 19 years ago, the Labour party may have been pretty incompetent, but it still stood not too far away from the mainstream of British--
Mrs. Dunwoody: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a convention of the House that Ministers of the Crown and members of the Opposition refer to themselves as Her Majesty's Government or Her Majesty's Opposition. There is a developing habit among Ministers of addressing Her Majesty's Opposition as the Labour party. Unless it is now our intention to refer to the Government only as the Conservative party, I hope that we might explain one or two of the conventions of the House to the Minister, as although he may have been here for 19 years, it is obviously not long enough.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): I have stated repeatedly in recent times that I am becoming greatly concerned about the lack of the common courtesies--on both sides--with which I have grown up in the House. Those courtesies seem to be going out the door. I hope that they will rapidly return.
Mr. Hunt: I listened obediently to the hon. Member for Ladywood, and she referred to the Labour party on several occasions during her opening speech. I am not too sure about the point, but, of course, I respect what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Column 166I was merely saying that, when I came to the House 19 years ago, the Labour party was pretty incompetent, but it was not far away from the mainstream of British common sense. But ever since then, I have watched the Labour party move inexorably into an ideological cul-de- sac of trendy posturing and political correctness, while the Government-- not the Opposition--make steady progress in improving opportunities for women, indeed for everyone. Labour's fixation with window dressing on the outskirts of town just grows more embarrassing and I urge the House to reject the Opposition's sham motion and approve the Government's amendment.
Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I find debates on gender inequality worrying, particularly in this place with its 91 per cent. masculinity. There seems to be a consensus on both sides of the House in that everyone agrees that gender inequality is something that they do not like and that it should not exist in society. Everyone says that they have never practised discrimination and that they are working very hard to achieve gender equality.
Complacency is added to hypocrisy by the insistence that the situation is getting better all the time. There is an assumption that the liberating effect of the combination of washing machines, contraception and Sunday shopping will lead inevitably to the greater involvement of women in positions of power, influence and wealth. That makes me feel profoundly uneasy, and I feel considerable disquiet about the analysis of what the future holds.
There was extreme complacency again today, writ large in the Government's submission to the United Nations conference on women, to be held in Peking. The number of women in the judiciary has increased from 4.8 per cent. to 7.8 per cent.--marvellous. The number of women police officers is up from 9 per cent. to 13 per cent.--marvellous. We heard today that in the top three grades of the civil service 10 per cent. of the posts are held by women-- which means that 90 per cent. are still held by men.
Those figures increasingly give me cause to worry, for three reasons. First, the facts spelt out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short)--and, indeed, the facts spelt out by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster about improvements--serve only to highlight the imbalance which still exists. It is true that only 2.8 per cent. of senior managers and only 3.7 per cent. of members of company boards are women. There is an incredible imbalance in the positions of power and influence.
Secondly, every suggestion that is made in the House to build on the progress that we are told is being made is met with implacable political hostility from Conservative Members. A major measure such as the introduction of a minimum wage would clearly affect women employees in this country for the good, because three out of four people affected by the Government's abolition of the wages councils were women. A vast majority of women would be affected by the implementation of a minimum wage; they are the people who would mainly feel the benefit of that change. Yet that is one of the causes of discord between Conservative and Labour Members.
Even a minor measure is met with implacable hostility--for example, the Bill that I presented this afternoon to extend to adoptive mothers the same