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Mr. Bercow: It must be the Liberals' fault!

Ms Hewitt: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the two groups are working hand in glove and the responsibility is equally shared. I hope hon. Ladies on the Opposition Benches will urge the council, which has received a very

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generous above-inflation settlement, even at this late stage to rethink funding cuts that will devastate some of our most vulnerable communities.

All of us know the wonderful women and organisations in our own constituencies. Today is a day to honour and celebrate the contribution of women and to dedicate ourselves anew to spreading prosperity and opportunity, justice and security to women all over our country and all over the world.

2.46 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): We welcome the opportunity to discuss the position of women, close as the debate is to the date of international women's day on Monday and the women's world day of prayer tomorrow. There has been some role reversal today between the Minister and myself. In previous years, when I was responsible for the international development brief, I focused primarily on international aspects, whereas the Minister focused on domestic aspects. Because we had a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday on the international role of women, I shall focus on the domestic aspects today. I am well supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who will no doubt draw on his experience of handling the international development brief, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), the Chairman of the International Development Committee, who will provide an international perspective.

Fairness and equality are surely two of the most fundamental human rights, yet the very fact that we are having the debate underlines the fact that there is still some way to go in delivering those rights. There are so many sections of society where it could be said that equality has yet to take full effect. Although the issues that I shall raise today concern discrimination experienced by women in the workplace, it is important to acknowledge that the pursuit of equality applies to a broad spectrum of people disadvantaged in society, from those with physical disabilities through to those discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion or gender.

Discrimination in all those guises is a symptom of a society that is ill at ease with itself. The example given by the Minister of only one Asian woman in local government representation is one indication that, as a society, we are not yet at ease with ourselves in this area. The continuation of gender discrimination when over half the UK population is female should trouble all of us in the House, men and women.

One of the totem issues is the gender pay gap, which literally short-changes so many women. Speaking of the gender pay gap often brings to mind examples of women in senior professional roles being paid significantly less than their male counterparts. That is an enduring problem that provides stark examples. In the financial services industry there is a pay gap of more than 40 per cent. between men and women. There are industries where, even at the top of their professions, women have not succeeded in closing the gap, as we would hope. It is an enduring problem that has still to be satisfactorily addressed. It is right to focus on it today. One need only look at the statistics from the Equal Opportunities Commission, which found that example of the pay gap in the City.

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Women have struggled for decades successfully to enter professions that have been traditionally male dominated, yet have often found that once they have done so they face a battle to be paid the same as men. Similarly, as regards women at the start of their careers, it should be a source of shame to us all that in the world's fourth largest economy a gender pay gap develops within just four years of an evenly matched male and female graduate joining the work force.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Is my hon. Friend concerned about the propensity of women graduates automatically to go into secretarial and clerical jobs straight from university, which they do in much higher proportions than do men? Does she agree that more effort could be made to help women when they consider career options as they approach graduation?

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure that she will recall that when were considering our career options at university we had the famous careers advisory service. It is not so much legislation that is required as giving women advice to encourage them to aim high with the qualifications that they have. I am afraid that that problem has not been solved since she and I graduated.

Mrs. Browning: I have to tell my hon. Friend that I have the advantage of not having had a university education. I went into further education, which stood me in good stead through the years.

Mrs. Spelman: There may be a lesson in that for us all.

Before I entered the House, I spent many years in business, notably in a sector that is definitely regarded as male dominated—agriculture. I was particularly lucky, because I had a good education and what my husband described as an in-built determination, both of which helped me to hold my own in a male dominated working environment. That proved a particularly useful grounding in view of my later transition into politics. Although I was fortunate enough not to experience real discrimination, I always knew what my rights were and the avenues that were open to me to secure them if they were not being afforded to me.

The women whom I want to spend most of my time discussing are not so well placed. The Minister singled out the example of women in low-paid, part-time employment. Those women tend to fall into the category not of high fliers in the City or in the legal profession, which is now attracting more women than men—an interesting transition—but of employment in what are sometimes regarded as low-skill jobs where there is a high degree of occupational segregation. In other words, high concentrations of women are employed in the same professions. The Minister identified that as one of the main contributory factors in the gender pay gap—I am glad that we agree on that.

Occupational segregation has been singled out by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fawcett Society. I pay tribute to them for their work on trying to expose and overcome the issue, with which hon. Members on both sides of the House will be familiar. It has come to represent one of the major obstacles to

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eradicating low levels of pay for women because the absence of men from a particular profession makes the comparison of salaries between genders impracticable. That creates a type of professional inertia, whereby shortfalls in women's wages are masked because they are not apparent in the context of a female dominated payroll.

A case in point is the social care sector. Last month, I had the privilege of addressing the annual Topss conference in Nottingham, where I heard many people discussing the problems facing women employed in social care. More than 92 per cent. of the social care work force are women, and 50 per cent. work on a part-time basis. The average salary for women employed in social care is £5 an hour. That offers an interesting comparison with a woman working in a bar in a town centre, who could be expected to earn approximately twice that amount. That leads me to ask what value we as a society attach to the roles carried out by women. The social care sector is in crisis, and the additional costs imposed on the profession through regulation have not helped the situation. Striking a balance between closing the pay gap and carrying out an impact assessment of the sector's capacity to afford it will be difficult, but not insurmountable.

At the conference, I was given to understand that many women who are employed in social care are required by the provisions of the Care Standards Act 2000 to undergo checks with the Criminal Records Bureau. That is understandable because they are dealing with vulnerable people, but in many cases they are required to pay for their own checks—I learned that that can cost them as much as a day and half's salary. That is a significant cost for a group of women who are not well paid as it is.

Twenty years after my party introduced the equal pay for equal work amendment to the Equal Pay Act 1970, there are still appalling examples of women being underpaid for the work that they do because occupational segregation by gender has led to a failure in the benchmarking process.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady agree that the advent of the minimum wage dramatically improved the lot of women working in the care sector? Prior to its introduction, they earned approximately half their current income, so it has made an enormous difference to them.

Mrs. Spelman: Of course I acknowledge the help that the minimum wage has brought to low-paid women, and I shall talk about its impact later. In the social care sector it has had a ratchet effect, so the lot of the lower paid may not have improved in relation to others further up the career ladder because the salary base has been raised across the sector. However, I acknowledge that in absolute terms their pay has increased.

It is an uncomfortable irony that in professions that remain male dominated, and which women have to overcome great odds to penetrate, it is far easier to identify and resolve gender pay inequalities than it is in professions that have traditionally been the natural territory for female employment.

Occupational segregation is particularly acute in the field of part-time employment. As 44 per cent. of the female population are employed in a part-time capacity,

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the number of people affected by the phenomenon could hardly be described as small. The current differential in hourly pay between men working full-time and women working part-time is an astonishing 40 per cent. In practical terms, that means that for every £1 that a man earns each hour when he is working full-time, a woman working part-time can expect to earn 60p. According to figures produced by the Equal Opportunities Commission, the divergence between men and women working full-time stands at £559 per month. That is not only a dispiriting statistic, but the model by which progress towards equality of pay is judged. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House agree that we have to do much more to address that.

I share the concerns of Incomes Data Services, which stated in its report of December last year:

I accept that this year there has been an improvement on last year in terms of the overall gender pay gap, but we cannot afford to be complacent about that group of part-time workers. I am glad that the Minister raised that issue.

There are various reasons why women choose to enter part-time work. It is often because they have to balance work with the needs of raising a family and are best able to do so by working part-time rather than full-time. Another reason is that for many families, the woman's income is the secondary household income and consequently the reduced salary is more readily accepted as the dividend for a greater work-life balance. That acceptance is a terrible betrayal of all those families in which, for whatever reason—bereavement, separation or injury—the mother's job is the sole or primary household income.

For others, part-time employment is not always a result of lifestyle choice, but of necessity and limited alternatives. That applies especially to lower-skilled part-time jobs, which enable women with a limited educational background to enter the workplace without always requiring specialist skills and experience. Women with limited employment opportunities and education are often badly disadvantaged in a predominantly single-sex working environment. Some women are prepared to take jobs with skills demands that are significantly below their professional abilities solely because it is the only way in which to secure the flexibility in working patterns that their family life demands.

The impact of occupational segregation in the part-time sphere would be significantly reduced by an expansion in the range of part-time jobs. That would not only give women workers more options to choose employment best suited to their abilities, but help to dilute the female concentration in part-time work and enable greater scrutiny of the part-time gender pay gap. A greater range might lead to an increase in male part-time employment.

Occupational segregation in full-time and part-time employment does not only present problems with pay scales in the immediate term but fosters longer-term

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difficulties in training and professional development, which create barriers to salary advancement. Eighty per cent. of care staff in England have no qualification for their work and only one fifth of those who embark on modern apprenticeships in social care complete the course. Last month, research by the Learning and Skills Council found that of unfilled positions, 20 per cent. were due to lack of applicants with the requisite skills. That is not uniquely applicable to women, but it is worth being aware that the current occupational segregation of men and women perpetuates the skills shortage.

Let us consider two examples. The construction industry has a 99 per cent. male work force. In engineering, only 8 per cent. of the work force are women. In both industries, more than 30 per cent. of the vacancies are due to a lack of available candidates with the relevant skills. Clearly, the continuing gender domination in those professions means that more than half the population is excluded from such opportunities.

Society has not progressed a great deal from 20 years ago, when Kylie Minogue's debut character Charlene in "Neighbours" caused widespread consternation by wanting to pursue a career as a mechanic. Sadly, the concept of women entering those professions remains something of an anathema, to the detriment of our work force as a whole.

Occupational segregation is a large factor, but not the only factor in denying many women the salary that they deserve. I should like to consider another important element. Many women are simply not aware of their statutory entitlements and even more do not know how to engage grievance procedures to rectify the position. Again, the problem is not exclusive to women in low-paid, less vocationally skilled professions, but it is more common among them. I am worried that we are still not doing enough to reach out to a section of working women who, for various reasons, cannot secure their rights in the workplace.

There has been much debate recently about the role of immigration in fulfilling the United Kingdom's work force needs. Let us try to consider the matter without digressing into the entirely different issues of asylum seekers and refugees. It is clear that there are many low-paid, low-skilled, often manual jobs in this country that our indigenous population is simply not prepared or is reluctant to do. Consequently, the incoming migrant populations fill the labour gap, but they are the least likely to be aware of their salary entitlements and are unlikely to comprehend the logistics of taking their position to a tribunal. Language is an obvious factor in perpetuating such disadvantages.

However, even among indigenous female employees, many women, such as those who joined the work force later in life, do not feel sufficiently empowered to challenge the position. Empowerment is important because it relates to the broader issue of women often being insufficiently assertive in the workplace. That applies across the board and is part of the explanation of the overall gender gap. It often stems from the different priorities that women attach to their working conditions and a more general reticence to discuss, let alone compare, wage packets and ask for more.

As I acknowledged earlier, the minimum wage has raised the most basic salary levels for many women. However, we must also acknowledge that the minimum

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wage for some women in some low-paid sectors is in danger of becoming a de facto standard industry wage. That is undesirable. It would be disappointing if the minimum wage became a device whereby employers could abrogate all responsibility for paying their staff anything more than £4.50 an hour.

It might be helpful to identify the sort of women who are most vulnerable to salary discrimination. Often, they include those with limited academic education and those who are returning to work after taking time out to bring up a family. I am sure that many women would identify with me when I say that often, when one takes time out of the workplace, there is a loss of self-confidence, which makes it difficult for a woman to assert herself early on to secure better terms of pay.

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