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It is important to look at ways of increasing access to existing child care, and we also need to increase the amount of it. I am pleased that in my constituency we have been able to put together a project involving the city and county councils, the local employment agency office, the training and enterprise councils from Cambridge and Greater Peterborough, the Cambridge Training and Development Organisation, which is a private training body, and the Benefits Agency.
We have formed a working party to look at ways to make child care and work more accessible to those who wish to return to work after a period of being at home and
Column 274looking after children. We have decided to have points around the city to give information through the form of a one- stop shop so that people can find out where child care and training opportunities are to be found, where they are likely to find a job and what difference that will make to their benefits. That is to say, they can discover what their income will be at the end of the day.
We plan to make that service accessible through a computer-based system which will, of course, be linked to the information super-highway. I am pleased that the project has attracted all-party support in Cambridge. Of course, we cannot pursue it without money, and I am pleased that all the major banks, plus Philips Telecom, some of the Cambridge colleges and two training and enterprise councils, have contributed substantial sums to get the scheme off the ground. That shows how important people think it is to have good quality child care and to give people proper access to it to enable them to get back to work.
Labour party policy on the minimum wage has been mentioned. The statistics show that it is essential to have a minimum wage to help the 3 million British workers who earn less than £3.50 an hour. Four out of five low -paid people are women. We have only to look at the stories of people on very high salaries to realise that there are not many women among them. Mr. Cedric Brown springs to mind immediately, and the National Grid chairman recently managed to effect a pay deal worth £2 million. There is no chance of that person being a woman. A 28-year-old man on £200,000 a year managed to break a bank but did not contribute much to the economy in the process.
The Low Pay Unit has come up with examples of people being offered extremely low pay, not in a covert way but by advertisement in Government job centres. There are examples of shop workers being offered £1.66 an hour and hairdressers being offered £1.43 an hour. How could anyone survive on such wages? They are totally disgraceful.
Despite the rhetoric of Conservative Members, economists in Britain and America who have studied low pay have concluded that a statutory minimum wage does not cost jobs and may even increase employment. That is what the research is showing. Time and again, we hear Conservative Members say that we must not let workers price themselves out of jobs. Let us consider, however, what happened in 1990 when the United States Government raised the national minimum wage to the equivalent of approximately £2.70 an hour. Despite everyone's efforts, study after study found that that was effective in raising the income of some of the poorest people in America, and that it had done so without jobs being lost.
A further example is the east coast state of New Jersey, where local legislators raised the minimum wage to $5.05 an hour, compared with the state of Pennsylvania where the minimum wage was only $4.25 an hour. If what the Conservative party is saying is correct, one would have expected jobs to increase in Pennsylvania and to decrease in New Jersey, but that did not happen. Economists examined one sector of the industry--fast food restaurants, where wages are traditionally low--in both states. They found that employment had fallen in cheap-rate Pennsylvania but risen in higher- rate New
Column 275Jersey--the reverse of what the Conservatives claim would happen. The research simply does not bear out the points that they make.
Mr. Spring: Is the hon. Lady aware that in the United States the rate of female participation in the labour market is significantly lower than in the United Kingdom and that the percentage of earnings gained by females in the United States does not compare favourably with that in the UK?
Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood): Does my hon. Friend agree that Conservative Members are not interested in the research, that they do not consider it and that they do not care? They believe ideologically in low pay. They cannot stand the idea of a minimum wage. They attack it constantly because they crudely and ideologically believe in market forces. They cannot believe that paying people a decent rate is a proper social policy, and therefore they are not listening to the research that my hon. Friend has outlined.
Low pay tends to increase staff turnover and to make it much more difficult to recruit staff, so firms often lose business because they are unable to meet orders. They also face much higher training costs, because a constant turnover of staff means that they will have to train people more frequently. Firms which pay low wages do not do well. Some of the squeals that we have heard from employers in the past few weeks should be taken with a pinch of salt, because the evidence does not bear out what they are saying.
Since the Government abolished wages councils, which set minimum rates for workers in the retail, hotel, hairdressing and other trades, hourly wage rates have decreased. According to Government theories, when wage rates go down we should naturally expect an increase in vacancies, but that has not happened. The Low Pay Unit found that, after wages councils were abolished, employment in the hotel trade decreased. [Interruption.]
Ms Eagle: Did my hon. Friend pick up the little sedentary comment from the Conservative Benches--that jobs fell in the hotel trade because of the recession? Conservative Members seem to think that it is acceptable to have lower wages and fewer jobs.
Mrs. Campbell: For the past two years, the Government have been telling us that we are coming out of recession, that we are in a boom period, that we should all expect to be feeling much better and that there should be a feel-good factor, but if they are now saying that we are in recession, that directly contradicts what they said previously.
Column 276No other country is considering abandoning the minimum wage and the constraints that we had under the wages councils. Not even Newt Gingrich is proposing the abolition of the minimum wage in the United States. We should recognise that minimum wages encourage people to work instead of staying at home on benefit. We want to encourage that, and we thought that the Conservative party was in favour of it. We have one of the worst records in Europe on women's wage levels, and poverty at work leads to poverty in old age. We need to improve conditions and pay for part -timers, and we should not block European directives intended to help them. We desperately need to ensure access to good quality publicly funded child care, so that women can work without worrying about their children. Because the Government have so resolutely turned their face against a minimum wage, which has been widely adopted in other Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development countries, we need to ensure electoral victory for a Labour Government, who will introduce a minimum wage and increase opportunities for all women.
Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds): I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to say a few words. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), my near neighbour, on securing an Adjournment debate on this important subject.
I remember the hon. Lady's maiden speech some three years ago, as I was in the Chamber at the time. Although it was a good maiden speech, I recall her painting a gloomy picture of life in her constituency. I hope that she will acknowledge that all over East Anglia, and most notably in Cambridge, dramatic falls in unemployment have begun to take place. That is to be welcomed. Male and female workers alike have benefited from that. East Anglia is enjoying the fastest rate of economic recovery of any region in the United Kingdom. I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that, in the past three years, job opportunities for females and female participation in the labour market have expanded markedly, both in her constituency and in East Anglia.
The hon. Lady is right to refer to the gap between male and female earnings. In many respects, that is not acceptable. Members of Parliament are paid the same amount, whether they are male or female, and it would be preposterous if it were otherwise. That principle should be extended across many other spheres of employment. The Labour party's policies, however, are destined to destroy the very job opportunities which have caused so many women to make such tremendous and remarkable strides in employment since 1979. Of all the European Union countries, only the UK has a lower unemployment rate for women--currently 4.6 per cent.--than for men. Compared with the larger countries in the European Union, the participation rate by women in the UK labour market is at the highest level.
Ms Eagle: Will the hon. Gentleman admit that the number of hours that women work in Britain is the lowest in the European Union? That means that many women are working fewer hours than they would prefer because of the constraints of lack of child care and non-availability of decently paid employment.
Column 277Mr. Spring: The hon. Lady misses the point entirely. The purpose of a dynamic and flexible economy is to create job opportunities. The policies that she espouses would destroy job opportunities and the enormous progress that women have made in the labour market in the past 15 years. It cannot be denied that there is a gap, but it has been closing partly because of legislation and partly because cultural attitudes to female employment have rightly moved on. I welcome that, but what is needed is a competitive, efficient and flexible labour market and a Government committed to widening choice and opportunity for everyone. The surge in flexible working has been greatly welcomed by women employees and we are seeing the fruits of that flexibility.
Let us examine whether that supposition is backed by the facts. In 1970, average gross weekly earnings for women were 54.3 per cent. of men's earnings. By 1994, the figure had risen to 72.2 per cent., and the figure for full-time hourly earnings is now 79 per cent. That is due to an expansion--both relative and absolute--of female earnings.
Ms Corston: The hon. Gentleman talks about the desirability of flexibility in the labour market. Will he explain the desirability of zero- hours employment contracts, which are increasing especially in the shop and hotel sector, whereby employers do not contract to provide any hours of work for employees but employees have to be available for work at all times? Whose opportunities are increased by such contracts?
Mr. Spring: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. In my constituency, where employment has increased substantially and where the tourism and hotel sectors are expanding, unemployment has dropped to 4.6 per cent. precisely because of such flexibility. If we had the regulated labour market and total lack of flexibility advocated by the Labour party, there would be no such employment opportunities and unemployment in my constituency would double.
In the four or five years since 1990, female earnings have risen by 30 per cent., compared with a rise of 23 per cent. in men's earnings. Again, Labour's policies would destroy that growth because of the ossification of opportunities that would certainly arise. The female activity rate continues to rise while the male activity rate continues to fall.
An article in The Guardian --so it must be true--written by Edward Balls in September last year stated :
"Since the early seventies female employment has risen by a fifth, while male employment has fallen by the same percentage." He is the same Mr. Edward Balls who, significantly, contributed to the intellectual thrust of the Labour party's economic policy--namely, the introduction of a neo- classical endogenous growth theory and symbiotic relationships--so what he says must be of great interest to the Labour party.
Column 278which recognises that labour markets and the supply and demand curve which so obsesses free-market Conservatives simply do not represent the real world.
Mr. Spring: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's attempt to clarify Labour's economic policy. During the years that I spent at university learning about economics and hearing a catholic spread of ideas, at no time did I hear a theory along those lines. It has nothing to do with the real world and made the Labour party a laughing stock. It is most impressive that female self-employment has risen by 80 per cent. since 1981. The hon. Member for Cambridge will know that the small business sector in East Anglia is one of the most important elements of growth in our part of Britain. Our economy is very much based on small business. In the late 1980s, a considerable part of the expansion in employment during the boom period was in the small business sector. The fact that so many more women are deciding to become self-employed in that sector is greatly to be welcomed.
Lady Olga Maitland: Is my hon. Friend aware that one in four small businesses are now started by women, who are making a considerable success of them? Indeed, banks tell me that they would rather give a loan to a woman because they know that she will be successful.
Mr. Spring: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. I am sure that she is correct. I hope that in future there will be many more women entrepreneurs who will start and build seedcorn businesses like the Body Shop and many others that have been so commercially successful.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Cambridge agrees that the key to employment success and higher wages for women lies in education. There is a clear relationship between professional success and education. When the Labour party was in office, one in eight young people went on to higher education, a figure that was regarded as a scandal in the 1970s. It is now one in three, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Cambridge welcomes that.
Below university level, we find that, in 1979, under a Labour Government, 44 per cent. of A-level entrants were female, but the figure has risen to 52 per cent. under the Conservatives. In 1979, 40 per cent. of full-time students in higher education were female; today, 48 per cent. are female and their number is growing. If one adds the figure for those in further education, more than half the students are female. In the same period, three fifths of those involved in further education are female compared to two fifths when Labour were in power.
I am sure that the hon. Lady welcomes the tremendous progress that has been made and is anxious to share the following information. At Cambridge university in the 1970s, one in four undergraduates were female, but the figure is now 43 per cent. and rising. All this shows what a dynamic, open and growing economy is doing to create opportunities for women.
Column 279There is clear evidence of increasing and very welcome professional success among women. An article in the Financial Times of 22 August 1994 carried the headline "Women `beating men for top jobs'". It stated:
"Women prove more successful than men when they are competing for senior management positions, statistics released by an executive recruitment consultancy show.
The survey, which focused on 85 posts in the £30,000 to £75,000 salary range handled by the London office of NB Selection, found that from the shortlisted candidates for the posts one in four women, compared with one in six men, secured management positions. The company also examined the sample of 31 vacancies covering 3, 000 applicants and found that, proportionately, women again fared better. Some 22 per cent. of women applicants secured interviews compared with 10 per cent. of male applicants."
I am sure that everyone welcomes the considerable professional success at management level that is now manifesting itself and which will certainly continue to boost female earnings.
Ms Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is painting an extremely rosy picture, but is he aware that the recent trend towards more women in management has gone into reverse? A recent survey shows that 9.5 per cent. of managers in 1993 were women, compared with 10.3 per cent. in 1992. Only 2.8 per cent. of directors were women. Those figures are taken from the Institute of Management survey of 1994. The hon. Gentleman must admit that there are large problems.
Mr. Spring: From the figures that I have given, the hon. Lady will accept that progress for women in professional life is strong. I entirely welcome that, and I hope that it will go further. However, I do not especially want to bandy around endless surveys.
I come next to the employment forecast for women to the year 2000, put out by no less an organisation than the Equal Opportunities Commission, working together with the Institute for Employment Research. The report shows that the proportion of women in the labour force has increased steadily despite the last recession. Using a forecasting model which relates activity rates to various socio-economic variables, the author of the report finds that "women are likely to increase their share in almost all occupations, particularly in the managerial, professional and associated professional areas where they are currently
For example, the proportion of female corporate managers is predicted to grow from 30.5 per cent. in 1991 to 39.6 per cent. by 2000. Over the same period the female proportion of science- and engineering-associated professionals is expected to increase from 22.5 per cent. to 29.9 per cent. and in other associated professional occupations from 38.9 per cent. to 44 per cent."
I hope that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) agrees that such a report, produced by an impartial body, is especially welcome.
Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): What was markedly lacking in the list of figures that the hon. Gentleman shared with the House was any mention of wages. Can he furnish us with those figures and perhaps with details of the differentials between men's and women's wages which still exist in every area of working life?
Column 280between education, professional accomplishment and wage levels. The point that I am trying to make is that, as more women rightly occupy senior positions, the gap will close. It is now closing rapidly as a result of a mixture of legislation and a dynamic economy which produces growth opportunities for everyone in the labour market.
Ms Jackson: The hon. Gentleman agrees, I presume, with his Government's view that low wages create more jobs. On the point to which he has devoted so many figures, does he therefore believe that the way to close the gap between male and female employment in managerial positions is to lower wages in those positions?
Mr. Spring: I believe that, in a growing and dynamic economy which provides job opportunities, we shall see general standards of living rising. Those living standards will be based on an increase in average earnings in a non-inflationary economy. That is to be wholly welcomed.
Since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched in 1991 his well- known initiative to increase the proportion of women appointed by Government to public bodies, the proportion of women holding public appointments has risen from 5 per cent. to 28 per cent. The Government are committed to equality and to a comprehensive legal framework. We have a legislative foundation. We have seen clear evidence that women are advancing, rightly, at all levels. We have seen clear evidence that the gap in earnings is closing and will continue to close, and I wholly welcome that.
At the heart of this remains one point that is crystal clear. All that I have described can happen only if we have an open, free and dynamic marketplace economy providing the opportunity. What we do not need is the imposition of a social chapter, which will destroy jobs, and a minimum wage which has had catastrophic employment consequences for both men and women across the European Union. The way that I have described is the way in which women can advance, and that is the way in which, under a Conservative Government, that is now happening. 12.14 pm
There are some areas in which there is a common awareness of the difficulties women face. We all recognise that women have made great strides over the past 20 years and that more women are now in paid employment than at any other time. The gap between male and female wages has narrowed. As the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring) said, women now take up more than half of all further and higher education places. We can say that for some women, especially young, childless women from white, well-educated middle-income backgrounds, equality of opportunity has become a reality, but for many others, the old injustices and inequalities remain and new problems limiting their choice have arisen.
Column 281On average, women who work full time are still paid only 79 per cent. of the pay of their male counterparts. A large majority of those who earn less than half the national average wage are women. The large majority of pensioners on income support are women. Some 90 per cent. of all lone parents are women. The vast majority of employees with the primary responsibility for caring for children, caring for the elderly and caring for the sick are women. Women make up 44 per cent. of the United Kingdom work force, but only 20 per cent. of our managers and a mere 2 per cent. of senior executives.
The Low Pay Unit recently reported that half of all full-time women workers and three quarters of all part-time women workers earned less than 68 per cent. of the average wage. We heard earlier that some 4 million women earn low wages. The latest figures from the Low Pay Unit tell us that 6.5 million women are earning low wages. Two thirds of low-paid workers are women. More than 70 per cent. of those earning less than £3 an hour are women. Women are the primary victims of low-wage exploitation. I am sorry about the continual recounting of figures, but I believe that they illustrate the fact that women are the victims in this respect.
Lady Olga Maitland: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that women would far rather have a job than not? Does he also accept that Britain has the second-highest proportion of working women in Europe? We are second only to Denmark. Does he agree that a woman with a job, even a part-time job, is better off than a woman who has no money at all?
Mr. Chidgey: The hon. Lady repeats points made earlier, which is a waste of the time of the House. I do not believe that we should expect anybody, woman or man, to work for wages that are akin to slavery. I do not believe that this country should move towards a third-world economy. It is women who are exploited, because they have fewer choices.
We need to have a flexible, but firm, approach to low wages. We need to establish a regionally based minimum hourly rate in determining wages. We need a minimum hourly rate which is agreed by employers and by representatives of trade and commerce, working closely with a low pay commission. We need to protect the vulnerable from the unscrupulous; women are usually at the sharp end of that. Low wages are not the only problem. Our tax and benefits system discriminates against women. We need reforms to present going to work as a genuine option. We need to remove the mechanisms in the tax and benefits systems that reduce economic independence for women and stifle opportunity. We should remove the lower rate of national insurance contribution on earnings of less than £3,445. We could take 50,000 low-paid workers out of the tax system altogether by that simple move. That would help mainly women.
Column 282threshold? Something like 3 million people, mostly women, are trapped beneath it with no entitlement to pensions or anything else. It becomes an incentive to employers to pay their workers wages that are just below that threshold and to keep them low so that those workers never receive any national insurance benefits or other entitlements, which is a real problem.
On that very point, many women's employment is severely disrupted, usually because they have taken on the responsibility of bringing up children at some stage during their lives. They therefore have incomplete contributory records, which, of course, lead to all the disadvantages of the future loss of entitlements. We need to move towards phasing in a system of benefits and pensions which are paid on the basis of residence and to merge the national insurance contributions into the same tax base as income tax. That may begin to overcome some of the problems mentioned.
We need to examine how carers are treated. Changes in the contributory principle would help to remove some of the benefit system's built-in disadvantages to carers. We also need to consider training provision. Training for work and increasing employability are vital, and improvements in education, training and skill levels would bring the greatest benefit to the low-paid, who, again, are mainly women.
I shall sum up briefly, because I know that there is little time.
Ms Eagle: The hon. Gentleman mentioned training. Does he agree that the representation of women on training and enterprise council boards is lamentable and that there are very few women throughout the entire TEC system? Does he agree that it would be much better to have better representation of women on TEC boards?
Mr. Chidgey: TEC boards need to be reviewed because there is widespread under-representation, not only of women. I am particularly concerned that small firms are inadequately represented on TEC boards, yet they often need the most help, liaison and dialogue about training needs. Many small firms have never engaged in training, and their under- representation is a great flaw in the system. Most importantly, we need to improve anti-discrimination policies. Better child care provision, improvements to the tax and benefits system, minimum hourly rates, improvements in training, and so on are all peripheral if the central issue of discrimination is not tackled. Replacement of the Sex Discrimination Acts and the Equal Pay Act 1970 by an equal treatment Act would help to counter all discrimination, unintentional as well as intentional. Employers should take responsibility for ensuring that the inequalities in pay and conditions are not the result of discrimination.
The approach to policies that I have tried to outline in my short speech would ensure that, in future, all employees were paid according to the quality of their work, not according to their gender. We need to help ensure that the structural imbalances which prevent women from getting and retaining the sort of work that they want are removed. Women should have the same
Column 283opportunities as men. The aim of the Liberal Democrats is not equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity. We do not propose special treatment for women, but equal treatment.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): I particularly warmly welcome the fact that this debate is taking place at all. I say that because I have worked all my adult life and I have never felt in any way discriminated against by wage levels because of my sex. I have worked as a secretary and I have never felt discriminated against. The Labour party asks why there are not more male secretaries. I have not had a single male apply to be my secretary.
Ms Glenda Jackson: Discrimination is not left to the individual to feel or to recognise. We are arguing that the discrimination from which millions of women suffer is set in place by an employer who makes a distinction between a male and a female employee. Women are discriminated against quite deliberately. They earn less money. It is not a feeling or a sense; it is a fact.
Lady Olga Maitland: Women earn less money partly because of the kind of job that they do. From my experience in whatever area I worked, whether in Fleet street as a junior reporter or as a head of a department, I know that I always had the same salary as everybody else. The Government are concerned about the iniquities which may arise, which is why they set up the Equal Opportunities Commission and, indeed, pour £5 million--
This is a very artificial debate. It is the result of the spin doctors in the Labour party trying hard to get the women's vote. They say to themselves, "Ah, the women's issue." It is all meticulously planned, the ball is set rolling down the road and the Labour women, if I may say so, just do as they are bid.
More than that, the Labour party is saying, "Let's attract the women's vote by offering baubles." It is looking, for instance, at different forms of tax relief. Indeed, I read with the greatest interest an article in She magazine, which featured the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who said that he would look at tax relief for child care--in other words, a nannies charter. I am sure that the poor working woman would not be very happy to find that her increased taxes are paying for nannies for wealthy women. I regard this debate as the product of a rather cynical ploy that will not work. The Labour party totally underestimates the intelligence of the British woman. We are not that easily fooled. The women who come to see
Column 284me in my surgery do not talk about the issues that the women in the Labour party raise or about sexist issues. They say that they want a stable, sustainable economy, which is dynamic and which will give them jobs for themselves and their husbands, which we all want. They welcome the fact that unemployment has fallen by 500,000 over the past two years and they welcome the fact that in Sutton the number of unemployed people is barely 300 above the peak unemployment level of 1986. We should be looking at the real issues of how we are helping women.
Dr. Jones: What does the hon. Lady say to the 80 per cent. of women who earn less than half the median rate paid to male workers about her Government's policies of removing the protection which was provided by wages councils, which has led to those low levels of pay being further reduced? Is she not concerned about the low levels of pay that so many women have to put up with?
Lady Olga Maitland: I am always concerned about wage levels for all people. This cant of positive discrimination totally overlooks the main issue, which is ensuring that our economy is dynamic and determined to help all women.
Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South) rose --
Lady Olga Maitland: I shall not give way any more. The hon. Gentleman has only just arrived, and tokenism is not acceptable today. Time is tight and precious and I want to address a very important issue which was raised by the Labour party yesterday and has been raised again today, about the lack of a national child care strategy.
If the House wants a national care strategy, it should look to the Conservative Government, because we are doing just that. They have an excellent record on child care. Does anybody give us any praise? No. Why does not the Labour party acknowledge that 90 per cent. of all three to four-year-old children are in some form of education or organised day care? Why does the Labour party not thank us for that? Why does it not accept it? It certainly takes advantage of it. Why does the Labour party not praise our Prime Minister, who has set the target that over time he will provide a pre-school place for every four-year-old whose parents wish to take it up.
Why does the Labour party not welcome the fact that in 1992 there were 133,600 places in registered day nurseries and nursery places--more than double the number in 1983? Why do Labour Members stay silent on that? In 1993, there were 296,000 places with registered childminders, and childminding increased by 40 per cent. between 1988 and 1991. What a fantastic track record.
We know that we have a record of helping women--a record of which we are proud. The Conservative party will carry far more credibility in the cause of women than the Labour party will.