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The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Gender and Poverty

17. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding gender and poverty in the United Kingdom. [156271]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I have had a number of recent discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer about issues that impact on gender and poverty, including child poverty and pensions.

Tom Brake : I am grateful for that response. What progress has been made in the pilot project described in an article in the Financial Times on 27 November entitled "Brown to Focus Spending on Sex Appeal"? Will the project's findings be made public? Will any feedback from the pilot in respect of spending by gender be included in discussions of the comprehensive spending review?

Ms Hewitt: I am delighted to say that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for many years has undertaken gender analysis of, for example, the impact of Budget measures. I am not aware of the details of the pilot project to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall write to him about it. However, I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will make further provision in the forthcoming Budget to ensure that we reduce the poverty of women in our country, and to improve their well-being.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon) (Lab): One reason why women are poor is that they do the bulk of caring, for young people, the elderly and people with disabilities. I appreciate that the Government have acted to give carers better support, but when does my right hon. Friend expect that carers—and in the main they are women—will get all the support that they deserve? When will they know that they will get a decent income, in their working lives and when they retire?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has taken steps already to improve the home responsibilities credit, for example, and to ensure that women in the lower-paid, part-time jobs which those with caring responsibilities often undertake can get access to the full coverage of the national insurance scheme. Those and similar measures are already making a real difference to carers. I agree with my hon. Friend that more needs to be done, although it is a question of priorities. However, she is

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right: to ensure that women in the future do not suffer the poverty in retirement suffered by women today, we must continue to pay attention to the needs of younger women with caring responsibilities.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I am glad that the Minister for Women has acknowledged that women in retirement suffer particularly from poverty. I am sure that she is aware of the research by Age Concern and the Fawcett Society, which shows that one in four single women pensioners live in poverty, that twice as many women as men rely on means-tested benefits in retirement, and that for every pound that a man receives from a pension, a women receives 32p. That is a shocking state of affairs. The same research shows that up to 380,000 of the poorest women pensioners do not claim the pension credit to which the right hon. Lady referred. Three quarters of women near retirement age say that they are unhappy with the Government's handling of the pension situation. Does she accept that the Government are not doing enough to reach the poorest elderly women?

Ms Hewitt: I have great respect for the hon. Lady, but I am astonished by her ability to ignore her party's polices and the impact that they would have on women pensioners in particular. We are, of course, aware of the greater poverty that women suffer in old age, and we are, of course, doing something about it. I know from my constituency that the pension credit has already made an enormous difference to women who, in the past, were sometimes left living on even less than the basic state pension. By guaranteeing an income of at least £102 a week for single pensioners, we have done a great deal already to support elderly women in retirement. The introduction of the state second pension and its extension to women who care for young children or disabled adults will make a great difference to the next generation of retired women, about whom I am also concerned.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): The Conservative party says that it will abolish the second state pension, which is one of the most progressive—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady should try again. The Minister is not responsible for Opposition policy and cannot answer.

Angela Eagle: I stand corrected—I thought that the point was relevant. Even as we speak, recipients of the second state pension are building up extra entitlements that will enable them to live properly in retirement. Just in case the second state pension is under threat, will my right hon. Friend undertake to campaign about the enormous benefits that it provides?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right—in all her comments. Perhaps not enough people know about the state second pension. It will benefit nearly 2.5 million carers who care for young children and older or disabled relatives. It will make an enormous difference to the problem of poverty in old age. I happily assure her that our Government at least will maintain the state second pension and will not abolish it.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Is the Minister aware that the UK has a comparatively high level of low-birth-

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weight births? One quarter of such births are to mothers who are dependent on income support, which can be as little as £39.90 for 16 to 17-year-olds. It has been established that £39.90 is insufficient to provide a healthy diet and ensure the health of the next generation. Has the Minister made plans to improve the situation?

Ms Hewitt: I have discussed that issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children. Part of the problem is the issue of teenage girls on little or no income and from poor family backgrounds having children at very early ages. I am sure that the hon. Lady will welcome the increasing success of our programme to reduce teenage pregnancies. Where young mothers have babies, the programme to help them stay in education and improve their prospects and those of their children is also beginning to show good results.

Commission for Equality and Human Rights

18. Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): If she will make a statement on progress towards a commission for equality and human rights. [156272]

The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality (Jacqui Smith): The Government are committed to the creation of a commission for equality and human rights to champion equality and human rights, to give better support and advice to individuals, businesses and communities and to crack down on discrimination. We have created an expert taskforce to provide advice on the role and priorities of the commission. Its discussions have already been productive and its advice will inform the forthcoming White Paper.

Vera Baird : I am pleased by the progress that the taskforce is making. Will my right hon. Friend address concerns that gender may be sidelined by bringing it together with disability and race? The public sector has a duty to promote race equality and will soon have a duty to promote disability rights. Although a duty to promote gender equality was announced, the public sector is not currently subject to it. Will it be imposed and, if so, when?

Jacqui Smith: As my hon. and learned Friend points out, we made a public commitment on that duty. The commission will contribute to all the strands that it will cover, not least of which is gender. One of our priorities in designing the new commission is to ensure that no one strand will trump another. In fact, a single champion for equality and diversity across all strands will be more powerful and influential, and better able to deliver results than each strand working separately.

The other key issue is that women do not exist in isolation. It is sometimes the case that women who are disabled, who are older, who come from certain ethnic or religious backgrounds, or who are lesbians are likely to face additional discrimination. The commission will be uniquely placed to enable all parts of an individual's identity to be taken into account, benefiting women across the board.

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Business of the House

12.30 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 1 March—Remaining stages of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc) Bill.

Tuesday 2 March—Second Reading of the Pensions Bill.

Wednesday 3 March—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on trade justice for the developing world followed by a debate entitled "Crisis in the Protection of Vulnerable Children". Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 4 March—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Bill followed by a debate on women, equality and human rights on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 5 March—Private Members Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 8 March—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill.

Tuesday 9 March—Opposition Day [Unallotted Day]. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the SNP/Plaid Cymru, subject to be announced.

Wednesday 10 March—Second Reading of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

Thursday 11 March—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day]. Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee.

Friday 12 March—Private Members' Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for March will be:

Thursday 4 March—Debate on the Report from the Transport Committee on ports.

Thursday 11 March—Debate on the Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on privacy and media intrusion.

Thursday 18 March—Debate on the Report from the Science and Technology Committee on the scientific response to terrorism.

Thursday 25 March—Debate on China.

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